America is very broken.
Language like "divided" does not even begin to adequately describe the feeling of wrongness that the Age of Trump and his fascist fever dream have unleashed. Social scientists and others have shown that Americans are self-segregating along lines of partisanship and other political values. These questions of political identity are increasingly not peaceful or civil.
On Jan. 6, America's domestic political cold war turned hot, as Donald Trump attempted a coup, and his followers launched a lethal terrorist attack on the Capitol. Jan. 6 was the crescendo — at least for now — of a much larger pattern of right-wing political violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives, women, black and brown people, Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, migrants, refugees, and others deemed to be "the enemy" and somehow "un-American."
Ultimately, the American people cannot have a healthy and functioning democracy if they cannot even talk to one another in a civil way or agree on what it means to be an American and a civically responsible member of society. So what, if anything, can be done to begin to heal these deep divides? And who gets to decide the rules of engagement?
In an attempt to work through these questions, I recently spoke with Justin Gest, an associate professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of several books including The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality and The White Working Class: What Everyone Needs to Know. His new book is Majority Minority.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Given the state of the world and all of these overlapping challenges and changes, how are you making sense of it all? How do you feel?
I think we're at a crossroads.
"That question of whether we are uniting or dividing society is critical to pretty much every question that we face."
There are countervailing forces. Right now, the proverbial winds are blowing in different directions and when that happens, they sometimes create tornadoes. Some of these countervailing forces are pointing towards cosmopolitanism and globalism; towards inclusion and a larger sense of belonging. And then there are other winds that point towards exclusion and nationalism.
We are at a crossroads in America and the world in terms of the liberal democratic project and its future.
Using that tornado analogy with all these countervailing forces, how are you orienting yourself?
I think we should all — individuals, governments, nonprofits, businesses — ask ourselves one simple question before we act civically: Are my actions going to be a bridge across divides that help to transcend social and political differences? Or am I about to do something that is going to reinforce these divisions and ossify the boundaries between people?
"We learn a lot from talking to people we disagree with."
That question of whether we are uniting or dividing society is critical to pretty much every question that we face. There are very strong incentives to fan the flames of division and to not reach out to one another. Those defensive impulses are an effort to stay safe but, in reality, they are endangering our civil society and democracy, our ability to compromise and self-govern.
On an almost daily basis, I receive emails from civil society groups that are trying to bring people together across the political divide – especially between the Trumpists and MAGAites and White Christian Right and those of us who support democracy and normal politics. These organizations claim that our problems can be solved if Democrats and Republicans somehow get over "polarization" and "partisanship" and find areas of shared concern.
I have no interest in talking to these people.
I have no interest in talking to Trumpists, MAGAites, Republican fascists and most "conservatives" and members of the larger white right. Black and brown folks, and others who are committed to democracy should not be tasked with expending our energy on these questions of "coming together" and "consensus" with people who want to do us harm and make us second or third class (or even worse) citizens in our own country. I don't think it should be our obligation as defenders of democracy to reach out to such people; It is the responsibility of the Republican fascists and others in that orbit to come back to normal society. I am not interested in rehabilitating them.
Our problem is not that we're not reaching out to neofascists and white nationalists. Our problem is that we are not reaching out to other conservatives who we broad-brush with the neofascists and white nationalists. The neofascists and white nationalists are, in general terms, a fringe element. When a society is making progress, there are always people who resist. I am personally less concerned about them. They're loud, they're distracting. What they say is salacious and gets lots of attention but in terms of numbers, they are ultimately much smaller than the large group of Americans who may (or may not) vote every two to four years, but are otherwise pretty apolitical and just trying to get on with their lives. Those Americans — including most conservatives — are really worth having a conversation with. We learn a lot from talking to people we disagree with. And if we just resist labeling people as fascists until we hear their full story, I think we'll find some shared sense of purpose and ways to identify with each other.
"Political divisions are now superseding our racial and ethnic and religious divisions in an unhealthy way. "
A few caveats: I'm not insisting on being friends. But we should be able to have a beer together, share a meal, learn about one another, and agree to disagree. However, I am also of the mind that these conversations need to be organic and sincere. We don't have to go to some awkward town hall meeting with a bunch of strangers or a training session. Despite residential segregation based on race and partisanship, we all already participate in institutions that bring us into touch with people who are different — a workplace, a store, a recreational facility, or a place of worship. You likely already have a coworker with whom you may have real political disagreements. They're your neighbors. They're probably fellow parents or people you know from church. They may even be your partner or spouse. You don't have to go out of your way to actually be someone who bridges differences in this country.
But what if we don't want to build a bridge with these folks? Moreover, I don't want to build a bridge with anyone who voted for Trump – especially twice given that the world had confirmation of how horrible he was. The public opinion data also shows that a large percentage if not the majority of white Republicans do not believe in multiracial democracy or pluralism.
So, what is to be gained or lost by building a bridge with these people? Again, I don't want anything to do with them and the feeling is, no doubt, mutual.
I don't believe that all Trump voters reject multiracial democracy and the other values you are referencing. In America, we only have two choices on each ballot, the Democrat or the Republican, Biden or Trump. Not all Trump voters support his most despicable views. Some Trump voters may have been voting for perceived economic interests. They may be social conservatives or religious in some sort of way. They may be concerned about other matters, and they are just tolerating the white identity politics. Yes, that may seem damning. But the people you are building a bridge with have other identities outside of politics.
Similarly, not all Democrats are the woke social justice warriors or socialists that Republicans want to think they are. They may also be parents, or a fellow Christian. Politics does not have to be at the center of our identities. There is new research that I have worked on which shows that political divisions are now superseding our racial and ethnic and religious divisions in an unhealthy way. In many ways, politics in America has become our new religion and that is very counterproductive and dangerous because we have so much in common that we otherwise agree upon.
One of the issues that has become so vexing is that our partisanship has become racialized. The boundaries of our ethnic, religious and ideological divisions are now overlapping, and aligning with our partisan divisions to create these consolidated "mega-identities," which makes everything feel so much more existential. The result of that dynamic is that everybody is less willing to lose and more willing to break rules in order to win. We need to preserve our democratic institutions — and that means being willing to compromise or lose on issues that are not matters of human or civil rights.
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People may forget, but Barack Obama's 2008 candidacy represented a willingness to reach out and to find areas of compromise and communication with our political antagonists, to recognize the vulnerability and the sense of fear and threat they may have felt. I strongly believe that we do not make progress as a society unless we extend a hand towards such people who we have deep political disagreements with. It will then be on them to reach back out or not. But if we don't do our part, it is never going to be mutual. The challenge that is before us as a country is to be open to a conversation and listening, and perhaps even holding empathy for people whose views you disdain. You're not going to lose anything by doing that.
Channeling Samuel Huntington for a moment, what does it mean to be an American right now? Who are we?
I don't actually think we have to answer that question so definitively such that there is only one America. We are a country of 330 million people dispersed geographically, in all kinds of different settings with all different walks of life and backgrounds. There's always going to be diversity built into what it means to be an American. But having some idea, a civic purpose, something distinguishing among us is so important for the survival of a nation and for its solidarity.
"You don't have to go out of your way to actually be someone who bridges differences in this country."
To be clear, Huntington answered that question by talking about how it was the imposition of the Anglo-Protestant creed that he said has led to this country's success and endurance. I disagree. I think that what actually holds us together are two interrelated things: A shared understanding of struggle, and a common belief in dreams.
America is a country, a nation, with a real sense of possibility to it. It is part of our character. And in other Americans' stories, across social and political boundaries, we can hear echoes of our own family's struggles and relate to each other's dreams.
"America will soon be a majority minority country". What does that language mean? For many people, mostly black and brown folks and some white folks too, that is an exciting concept and moment to imagine. For many White Americans that same language and concept is terrifying.
"Majority minority" refers to the demographic milestone when non-Hispanic white people will no longer be the majority of the American population. It's just a milestone. It doesn't mean white people will disappear; quite the opposite they'll remain the largest group in the United States indefinitely and will likely hold disproportionate resources. It doesn't mean the power dynamics will change drastically either because we still do not see a lot of solidarity between "non-white" minorities. And in fact, the milestone is based on an understanding of whiteness that does not account for the possibility of race-based solidarity between "white-adjacent" people like mixed-race individuals or Latinos who self-identify as "white." Those factors and others could postpone that demographic milestone even further.
But yes, some people eagerly anticipate the milestone, and expect changes in political power; or they may just feel invigorated by human diversity. But I think social scientists understand more about the fear and the sense of threat that this milestone concurrently causes among white Americans. There's a fear of subjugation, a fear of lost status, and a fear of lost power. There may also be a fear of retaliation. And all of that is unfounded.
The claim that the country will be "majority minority" is very ahistorical given that who is considered "white" has always expanded to maintain the group power of white people and Whiteness. Nonetheless, the language and concept are intoxicating for both the left and the right, albeit for different reasons and in different ways.
It motivates people. In a democracy, the altering of population distributions that we associate with political or social power gets people's attention. There is fearmongering on one side and hope and inspiration on the other. That gets people's energy and attention.
"The boundaries of our ethnic, religious and ideological divisions are now overlapping, and aligning with our partisan divisions to create these consolidated 'mega-identities, which makes everything feel so much more existential."
But here is a qualifier and caution for people on the left who are excited about majority minority America and that possibility. Ultimately, the assumption that demography is destiny can make people complacent. That logic has proven to be false. Obama's election and its aftermath proved that there are stronger forces at work. Democrats still need to work hard and adapt to the political environment. Demographics do not lock in their success. That logic is problematic on many levels. First, it presumes that people of color in particular are not going to change and are going to always be motivated by their self-perceived racial or ethnic identity. Second, it also takes Black and brown people's support for Democrats for granted. More Latinos shifted towards Donald Trump in 2020, than in 2016. And there is new evidence that the Republican Party more broadly is continuing to make marginal gains among people of minority backgrounds.
On "diversity", we have seen a mainstreaming and narrative laundering of white supremacist talking points throughout the Age of Trump and beyond. From "the great replacement" to "anti-racism is anti-white" and "diversity is weakness" to claims that teaching "critical race theory" and "diversity, equity and inclusion" programs is somehow "oppressing" white people. For example, there are things said on Fox News on a daily basis that not too long ago one would have to subscribe to KKK and neo-Nazi newsletters and zines to read such vileness.
Well, aside from the ongoing defamation suit, Tucker Carlson is getting way too much airtime. We are paying attention to the tallest blade of grass, the shiniest star, because it's so salacious. That fact that Tucker Carlson is so crass and politically incorrect gets him attention. He and others who say such controversial things are not actually a reflection of what most Americans think. The public opinion data does not support that conclusion. Yes, Tucker Carlson has a highly-rated TV show. But ultimately, far more people watch reality television or football than him. And reactionary news stories amplify his ideas much further than Fox News could ever reach.
There are right-wing ethnic violence entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and other malign actors in the Republican Party, "conservative" movement, and across the larger white right who are successfully using white racial resentment, white victimology, white supremacy, and other animus and fear to undermine the country's democracy. They are growing in power and are undeterred in their attacks.
How do we fight back against that?
First, I think law enforcement must target violent extremists domestically with the same urgency and force of law that they have previously targeted violent extremists internationally. Our domestic terrorism and intelligence officers are much less resourced, and prosecutors are much more cautious about charging white supremacist groups than they are about charging Al Qaeda cells.
Beyond law enforcement, much of the angst that fuels these groups and their ideology is the sense that the country is throwing itself into an uncertain future with uncontrollable demographic change. And in this narrow way, they are actually right. We do not have any plan for how we will navigate the demographic change ahead of us. There is no congressional subcommittee, no White House office, no special envoy tasked with ensuring national solidarity, cohesion, and simultaneously the preservation of cultural heritage and recognition.
For so long, we have assumed that national unity is a constant, but we have also not been this polarized in over a century, and we have previously benefitted from the way foreign threats like the Nazis, the Soviet Union, and Al Qaeda have made Americans circle the wagons. But national unity for the purposes of successful self-governance requires strategy in the face of a diversifying nation. Strategy by government, sure. But also strategy from civil society organizations, and businesses who do better in a socially stable marketplace that doesn't demand that they choose sides.
Demographic change is the greatest social challenge of our time in America. Yet, there is no institution devoted to actually preserving it. We need to make demographic change, and how to prepare for it, a national priority. We need a 20-year plan.