Boyle has community solutions to national division

Published 6:27 am Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Contributing columnist

The cover of The Atlantic for October asks, “Is Democracy Dying?” Two of its articles make our “descent into tribalism” and racism the major threats to the American idea. They echo the column on this opinion page last Wednesday that located the peril to Americanism as a uniting identity in identity politics. They should give us pause.  The good news is that local efforts have developed to counteract this decline.  Stay tuned!

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The Wednesday column by Llewellyn King responds to Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, “The Denial of Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.” Fukuyama sees identity politics or “advanced tribalism” eroding democracy. Its baggage is racism and division. His exhibits are English nationalism’s move to leave the European Union and President Trump’s rousing of white working class voters against other portions of the nation. 

This loss of a uniting American identity grows out of white fear of losing control and hysteria over immigration. Our mixing bowl or melting pot has become unmixed and polarized. Our commonality is in peril.

King, executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, agrees with the fruit salad metaphor and the racist diagnosis. The fruit salad is not new and it need not be lamented, but it is being manipulated into a conflicted mix.  The racist element too is not new but it has been alarmingly emboldened of late. 

King’s addition to the conversation is his suggestion that the Trump backlash has been triggered less by resentment of “them” than by “a pervasive sense of irrelevance.” This is not just a political problem for our democracy; it is a sense of isolation experienced by many as they try to deal with monopoly businesses with market dominance. A range of businesses running from banks to online retailers has us in this bind.

In The Atlantic, two Yale Law School professors, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, offer their take on “the threat of tribalism.” The U.S. Constitution, they believe, aimed to forge a “tribe-transcending national identity” for a diverse populace. Our unity as a nation was to be founded not on race or ethnicity or religion, but on ideas in our Constitution and laws. Lincoln called this our “political religion.”

There was, however, a dark underside of racism from the start, even in the Constitution. Washington and Jefferson had a vision of the most inclusive form of government in world history, but they were also slaveholders. Jefferson first opposed slavery and then decided that the American economy couldn’t do without it. 

Washington had a different uppermost concern. In his farewell address, he named “the spirit of party” as democracy’s worst enemy. Chua and Rubenfeld follow his lead in naming partisan loyalty as tribalism in our current politics. In a nation “uniquely equipped to unite a diverse and divided society” by its amended Constitution and laws, we are dangerously divided. Political opponents have become enemies.  Every group feels under attack. The Constitution has become a cudgel instead of a guide to the common good.

Our authors see the left as more and more influenced by identity politics. They see a majority on the right beginning to reject core institutional principles. 56 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Trump supporters say that being a Christian is important to being an American. A 2017 Pew Research survey found that less than half of Republicans said that freedom of the press to “criticize politicians” was very important.

The second Atlantic article is by Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. Just as Lincoln said that our nation could not endure half-slave and half-free, Kendi contends: “This government cannot endure permanently half racist and half antiracist.”

“Trace the issues rending American politics to their root, and more often than not you’ll find soil poisoned by racism,” he writes. 

His review of wrongs takes his readers from Charleston and Dylann Roof to Charlottesville and white nationalism. He faults the Trump administration’s incarceration, deportation and exclusion of non-white people in “astonishing numbers.” He bemoans new voting restrictions inaugurated since the Supreme Court declared in 2013 that we no longer needed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Closed polling places where minorities are clustered, early voting restrictions, limits on absentee and mail-in ballots, felon disenfranchisement, voter I.D. requirements and gerrymandering are examples of systemic racism.    

Kendi finds in his litany of racist politics and policies the reasons why citizens get pitted against each other. Americans are encouraged to blame their struggles on neighbors who don’t look like them, allegedly take their jobs, use up their tax dollars on welfare programs and benefit from affirmative action (which is again under fire in any form). Our most pressing task is making the nation anti-racist.  “Only a renewed commitment to antiracism can save the American project.”

All of these authors see a perilously divided America splintered by tribalism. All of them also believe that America can get back on track, but not if we think neutrality between racism and antiracism is possible and leave our systems and institutions unchanged. Given what is at stake, it is indeed heartening that there are initiatives in the works to heal our divisions, transcend tribalism, and revive democracy at the local level.

On Tuesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., you could join Beloved Community Lunches on the second floor of the Campus Center at Centre College. For more info, call (859) 238-6235.

On Wednesdays from 5:45 to 7 p.m., you could join Racial Reconciliation Suppers at the First Christian Church, continuing until Oct. 10. For more info, call (859) 236-1614.

This very week — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday(today); 1-8 p.m. Thursday; and 3-5 p.m. Sunday — you can get a free copy of Martin Luther King’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” at the Boyle County Public Library and sign up for a discussion at a convenient time and place between Oct. 14 and 21. For more info, call (859) 236-5818.

You can also mark your calendar to attend a panel discussion of “The Human Face of Immigration” at Inter-County RECC on Oct. 23. For more info, email

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.