Political identities are redefining us and burying other identities we share

Richard Burr gave North Carolinians reason to be proud of its senior U.S. Senator when he voted to convict in the impeachment of Donald Trump because he chose to vote his conscience rather than toe the party line. By doing so, he represented the state with integrity. For his vote, the N.C. Republican Party, his party, chose to censure him. They censured him not for some moral or ethical transgression, but for doing what he believed was right despite enormous pressure to do otherwise.

Republican representatives and senators from other states who defied party orthodoxy suffered the same fate. Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who voted to impeach Trump, not only got censured by his state party, members of his family wrote a letter calling him a member of the “’devil’s army,’ (Democrats and the fake news media).”

The vitriol contained in the family letter Kinzinger received from cousins and other unnamed family members is an appalling display of the fracture in many families across the nation. Because he could not countenance an armed insurrection, incited by Trump, against a co-equal branch of government, his cousins, Greg and Karen Otto, accused him of betraying his Christian values.

“How do you call yourself a Christian when you join the ‘devil’s army’ believing in abortion!” they demand to know. 

And then there’s Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, one of several Republican members of Congress who objected to certifying the results of the 2020 election. Six of his nine siblings appeared in an ad for his opponent in the election and since the insurrection, they’ve called for his removal from Congress.

Countless books and commentaries by social scientists and pundits have attempted to explain how we got to this place with such passionate feelings and irreconcilable differences that members of families have turned against one another or simply no longer discuss politics for fear of creating unbridgeable estrangements.  

One of those books is Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized.” Klein is a columnist, editor, cofounder of Vox (an explanatory news organization) and a self-described liberal. He points out that both the Democratic and Republican parties were more ideologically diverse until the 1960s, and that acted as a moderating influence on polarization. But when the Democratic Party embraced Civil Rights, it alienated Southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats who had been part of the party since Reconstruction. 

“Still, at the moment of rupture, the parties remained blurred. It is remarkable, from our current vantage point where everything cuts red from blue, to see a debate that polarizes the country without splitting the parties. But that was the case with the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Klein writes. 

The Democrats held majorities in both houses and the presidency, but 80 percent of House Republicans supported the bill while only 60 percent of House Democrats did. In the Senate, rather than go through the normal committee process, where powerful Southern Democrats would have killed it, President Lyndon Johnson worked out the legislation with then Senate minority leader, Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican. Southern Democrats filibustered the bill, but Dirksen corralled 27 of the 33 Republicans to break the filibuster. 

The bill could never have passed without Republican support, but Democrats get the credit, in part because Barry Goldwater, who became their 1964 presidential nominee, voted against it and proceeded to run on a state’s rights platform.

The Democrats, who needed the Southerners to pass the New Deal and other national legislation, had accommodated their opposition to anti-lynching and other civil rights legislation. But the Civil Rights Act changed that. In 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond moved from the Democratic to the Republican Party. North Carolina’s Jesse Helms followed in 1970. Klein writes that Bill Moyers, who served as a special assistant to Johnson, recalls Johnson saying, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” the night he signed the Civil Rights Act.

The realignment resulted in parties where there are no longer Republicans who are more liberal than some Democrats or Democrats who are more conservative than some Republicans. Because that ideological diversity within parties no longer exists, party identification becomes stronger. Our political identities are polarizing our other identities and becoming mega-identities, Klein says. 

He quotes Lilliana Mason who, in her book “Uncivil Agreement,” wrote: “The American political parties are growing socially polarized. Religion and race, as well as class, geography, and culture are dividing the parties in such a way that the effect of party identity is magnified… A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store… Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies.”

Klein uses the title of Will Blythe’s 2006 book “To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever” about the rivalry between Duke and the University of North Carolina basketball teams to illustrate the power of the emotional rivalry between groups.

“Human beings evolved to exist in groups,” Klein writes. “To be part of a group, and to see that group thrive, meant survival. To be exiled from a group, or to see your group crushed by its enemies, could mean death…”

As Sen. Burr and other Republicans have learned, breaking with the group by undermining its message brings your loyalty into question and carries the risk of ostracism.

What’s most distressing about this is that the very thing about American life that should be one of our greatest strengths is becoming one of our greatest threats. We are not participating in politics to solve problems but to express who we are. And in expressing the mega-identities we’ve come to inhabit – conservative, gun rights, pro-life Republicans vs. liberal, gun-control, pro-choice Democrats – we’ve forgotten the many things we have in common and the ways in which we are part of overlapping groups – teachers, parents, volunteers, firefighters, musicians, football fans, neighbors, siblings. Most importantly, we’ve forgotten our most important mega-identity. We are all Americans.

If we could but overcome the threat we feel from our fellow citizens – in many cases our own friends and families – we might recognize the strength to be found in the differences we all bring to the table and learn to use that rich resource to solve problems.

Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville., N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.

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