There was that time Los Angeles went up in flames. On March 3, 1991, a group of LAPD officers beat the crap out of Rodney King, a kind of goofy black construction worker. It was just a traffic stop but somehow King ended up face down on the ground while the four officers clubbed and kicked him over and over. He wasn’t resisting. He was unconscious soon enough – but then things went all wrong. A guy was watching from a nearby balcony, and he got it all on tape – on VHS in the days before cell phones with great cameras. He sent the footage to the local news station. They aired it. They shared it. The four officers were tried on charges of use of excessive force, three were acquitted, the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth, and within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots started. Those lasted six days, 63 people were killed and 2,373 were injured. That ended only after the California Army National Guard, the United States Army, and the United States Marine Corps provided reinforcements to re-establish control, ordered in by the president at the time, George H. W. Bush. The city was going up in flames. This was not what he had meant by “a thousand points of light.”
But there was one point of light. In the middle of the riots, on May 1, 1992, one of the local television stations asked Rodney King to comment, and King said this:
I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? And I mean we’ve got enough smog in Los Angeles let alone to deal with setting these fires and things… it’s just not right – it’s not right. And it’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice; they’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll get our day in court and that’s all we want. And, just, uh, I love – I’m neutral, I love every – I love people of color. I’m not like they’re making me out to be. We’ve got to quit – we’ve got to quit; I mean after-all, I could understand the first – upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this and to see – we just gotta, we gotta. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while, let’s, you know let’s try to work it out, let’s try to beat it, you know, let’s try to work it out.
Rodney King wasn’t an articulate guy but everyone got the point, not that anyone did much about any of this. The Los Angeles Police Department was under a federal consent decree for years – they had to clean up their act – the feds were watching. The LAPD wasn’t going to change all on its own.
Can we all get along? Maybe we can, but maybe we can’t. One of the first things Jeff Sessions did as Trump’s new attorney general was to cancel all those consent decrees – to free the police to do what they must, and what they want. Never question the police – not in Ferguson – not in Baltimore — not anywhere. Can we all get along? Sure, if you’re not too uppity. Some people need to be taught a lesson. That’s where we are now. This is Trump’s America. The owners should fire those black football players who knelt when they should have stood, those sons of bitches. The Chinese, and Canada and Mexico and the EU and Japan, our allies, need to be taught a lesson – tariffs on everything until they submit and come begging for mercy. And the press will pay for what they say about this president, somehow. They’re the enemy of the people, like unions and Muslims and all the rest.
Rodney King asked his question. Can we all get along? The answer, now, is no.
No one likes hearing that word, no. Things may change. On one issue, Paul Waldman sees this:
The upcoming presidential election is starting to look as though it will feature something extraordinary, even revolutionary: a genuine debate about whether American capitalism needs an overhaul.
That used to be a forbidden topic, even if no one knew why, but now it’s not:
With everyone thinking about 2020, a proposal such as the Green New Deal immediately gets tossed into the presidential campaign, with candidates forced to take positions on it and their own proposals compared with it. And though not all of the Democratic candidates were prepared to get down to the fundamental question of what sort of capitalism we ought to have, they may have no choice.
You can call it a result of the Democratic Party “moving left,” but that may be too simplistic a way to think about it. It’s also about a new refusal among liberals to accept that the system as it exists now is how it has to be.
That refusal, however, will cause no end of trouble:
To those who think the status quo is just fine, the idea that the political debate might get down to that kind of foundational level is an extraordinary threat, and they’re reacting with horror.
To take just one example, child care is incredibly expensive, in ways that make working parents’ lives extraordinarily challenging and limit the opportunities available to families who aren’t wealthy. Republicans may think that’s unfortunate, but they don’t think it’s a political problem that requires government to come up with a solution. Democrats disagree, and when they set out proposals to address the problem, the reaction from Republicans is somewhere between panic and terror.
It seems we cannot get along:
The Green New Deal suggests that high-speed rail could be an efficient substitute for air travel in many places, and Republicans cry that Democrats want to outlaw airplanes and cars. What we see play out over and over again is some version of this kind of exchange:
Democrat: It would be good if every American could have access to health care and child care.
Republican: My god, are you insane? That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard. What’s next? You’ll say everyone should get a pony?
That’s what a defense of the status quo looks like: It presents the way things are now as the only possible way they could be and defines anything else as not even worth discussing because it’s so bizarre. So there must be only two alternatives: capitalism as it is currently constructed in the United States, or Venezuela-style crisis and misery.
There is Sweden. There is Norway. There is Denmark. Ah, but there is Venezuela, which ends the argument, except it doesn’t. Waldman notes that the United States isn’t any of those places:
The system we have is the product of choices we made in the past and are still making. It wasn’t handed down from above on a set of stone tablets. We can change it whenever we would like. And changing it doesn’t mean we no longer live in a capitalist system; it means we decided that we would like our version of capitalism to work differently.
But don’t get your hopes up:
Building that argument means defining certain things as problems; once we agree that something is a problem, we move on to debating which solution would be better. There are areas in which the left and right agree that a problem exists (such as crime) and disagree about whether something is a big problem or a manageable one (such as illegal immigration), but more so now than in a long time we’re arguing about what is and isn’t a problem at all.
And that’s the problem with all discussion of economic inequality:
Though there are countries with worse inequality than the United States, almost all of them are poor countries in Africa and Latin America. Our peer countries in Western Europe have far lower levels of inequality than we do, and it’s not because they don’t have any rich people. Instead, they developed a model that’s much like what Democrats are now proposing: a capitalist system, but with greater oversight of markets to make sure they’re not distorted and a more comprehensive structure of social supports.
But if you think inequality isn’t even something we should worry about – as Republicans do – then the ways we might go about addressing it aren’t even worth discussing.
And if others insist that we should discuss it, the response is often panic…
In short, we can’t get along, but Waldman suggests this:
I would recommend that while they’re considering what a better brand of capitalism might look like, liberals force conservatives to admit their real position. Ask them: Yes or No, are you saying that the status quo is right and inevitable? Do we have to accept the current distribution of wealth and power as the way things will always be? Are we not allowed to make changes if we’re not satisfied with the system?
If the answer to those questions is “no,” then we can start talking about solutions.
Most Americans do not live in a totalizing bubble. They regularly encounter people of different races, ideologies, and religions. For the most part, they view these interactions as positive, or at least neutral.
Yet according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic, a significant minority of Americans does not live this way. They seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference.
And one man made that acceptable, if not wonderful, at least to perhaps thirty percent of the nation:
One of the many questions the Trump era has raised is whether Americans actually want a pluralistic society, where people are free to be themselves and still live side by side with others who aren’t like them. U.S. political discourse is filled with nasty rhetoric that rejects the value of diversity outright. Yet, theoretically, pluralism is good for democracy: In a political era when the vast majority of Americans believe the country is divided over issues of race, politics, and religion, relationships across lines of difference could foster empathy and civility.
These survey results suggest that Americans are deeply ambivalent about the role of diversity in their families, friendships, and civic communities. Some people, it seems, prefer to stay in their bubble.
And there is a group locked into that:
In terms of both geography and culture, America is largely sorted by political identity. In a representative, random survey of slightly more than 1,000 people taken in December, PRRI and the Atlantic found that just under a quarter of Americans say they seldom or never interact with people who don’t share their partisan affiliation. Black and Hispanic people were more likely than whites to describe their lives this way, although education made a big difference among whites: 27 percent of non-college-educated whites said they seldom or never encounter people from a different political party, compared with just 6 percent of college-educated whites.
Those are the Trump folks, but with this caveat:
Even those Americans who regularly encounter political diversity don’t necessarily choose it, however. Democrats, independents, and Republicans seem to mingle most in spaces where people don’t have much of an option about being there. According to the survey, roughly three-quarters of Americans’ interactions with people from another political party happen at work.
But life is more than work:
Other spheres of life are significantly more politically divided: Less than half of respondents said they encounter political differences among their friends. Only 39 percent said they see political diversity within their families, and vanishingly few people said they encounter ideological diversity at religious services or community meetings. Traditionally, researchers have seen these spaces as places where people can build strong relationships and practice the habits of democracy. The PRRI/Atlantic findings add to growing evidence that these institutions are becoming weaker – or, at the very least, more segregated by identity. “If you’re thinking from a participatory democracy model, you would hope to see these numbers much higher,” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI.
But some things can’t be forced:
Even Americans who are exposed to people from a different political party might not want to get too close. Almost one in five of the survey respondents said their interactions with people of a different political party are negative. This may be a reflection of deepening partisanship in America: Party affiliation influences not just how people vote, but cultural decisions such as what to buy or watch on television, said Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland.
“As these other social identities have moved into alignment with partisanship, we’re seeing more animosity across partisan lines – not necessarily because we’re disagreeing about things, but because we believe the [person from the] other party is an outsider, socially and culturally, from us,” she said.
“It also becomes really easy to dehumanize people who we don’t have identities in common with.” In recent decades, social scientists have seen increased use of the language of dehumanization, Mason said: people calling their political opponents monsters, animals, or demons, for example.
Donald Trump does that, which leads to this sort of thing:
When asked how they would feel about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party, 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy, compared with 35 percent of Republicans. This is a sharp increase from how Americans responded to similar surveys a half century ago, according to research by the Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar. While people who seldom or never interact with people of a different race, religion, or political party may live the most sharply segregated lives, a far greater number of Americans may have only cursory interactions with people unlike themselves. “Depth really matters,” said Jones. “A close friend or family member is different than somebody you brush shoulders with every day but never have an in-depth conversation with … What matters is whether that relationship is close enough that someone might feel safe enough to challenge a view.”
America has kissed that goodbye, given this too:
America is also divided along lines of religion and race. Roughly one out of five survey respondents reported that they seldom or never encounter people who don’t share their religion, and a similar proportion said the same for race. Certain subgroups were more cloistered than others: 21 percent of Republicans said they seldom or never interact with people who don’t share their race, versus 13 percent of Democrats. Similarly, more than a quarter of white evangelicals said they rarely encounter people of a different race, slightly more than any other major religious group included in the survey. Thirty percent of people over 65 said they seldom or never encounter someone of a different race, compared with 20 percent or less of people under 65.
And there’s this:
Geography, along with education among white people, seemed to be an important factor in determining how much diversity Americans encounter. People living in rural areas were significantly less likely than those in cities to encounter racial, religious, or political difference. And among white people, education level made a huge difference: Those without a college degree were more than twice as likely as their college-educated peers to say they rarely encounter people of a different race, and more than four times as likely to say they seldom or never encounter people from a different religion or political party.
So then there’s this:
Since the country’s founding, Americans have had to navigate conflicting impulses toward tolerance and a desire to build communities with thick, often homogeneous cultures. Some forms of this are indisputably ugly, such as racial segregation; others may be neutral or immensely enriching, such as tight-knit religious communities. Americans today are sharply divided over the value of multiculturalism: In the survey, 54 percent of Democrats said they prefer the United States to be made up of people from a wide variety of religions, compared with 12 percent of Republicans. By contrast, 40 percent of Republicans said they’d prefer a nation mostly made up of Christians, compared with 14 percent of Democrats.
And that’s where things stand in Trump’s America:
Perhaps more than any other, this was the fracture line that animated the 2016 election. Even the iconography, from the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” trucker hats to the Clinton campaign’s forward-pointing “H” and “Stronger Together” slogan reflected this divide, said Jones. “As certain groups reach a critical mass, I think it throws Americans as a whole back into a conversation about affirming these principles of pluralism or not,” he said. “If you think culture war today, it’s less about gay marriage and abortion than it is about American identity.”
To that, Emma Green adds this:
The choices Americans make every day – about where to live or go to church or send a kid to school, about whose book club to join or whom to invite over for dinner- influence the way they see the world, and especially how they see politics. When people largely surround themselves with sameness, they may find themselves left shouting across perceived divides, unable to see their reflection in anyone who stands on the other side.
And then there’s Rodney King’s question. Can we all get along? The answer, now, is no, now more than ever. And no nation can survive that.