To understand how American politics got the wayit is today, it helps to rewind the tape to the presidential campaign of John McCain—specifically to his effort to win back a listless crowd at an otherwise forgettable campaign event in south-central Pennsylvania in the summer of 2008. The Republican nominee had opened by promising a country-over-party approach to politics, recalling his compromises with Democrats like Ted Kennedy: “We’ll have our disagreements, but we’ve got to be respectful.” The Republican crowd sat in silence. McCain then denounced Vladimir Putin’s incursion into independent Georgia, warning that “history is often made in remote, obscure places.” No one seemed interested in that particular remote and obscure place.
McCain just couldn’t connect with the crowd, until he unleashed a garbled riff about how Congress shouldn’t be on recess when gasoline prices were soaring. “My friends,” he said, “the message we want to send to Washington, D.C. is: ‘Come back off your vacation, go back to Washington, fix our energy problems, and drill and drill now, drill offshore and drill now!’” It lacked the poetic brevity of the “Drill, baby, drill” line his future running mate, Sarah Palin, would use to fire up crowds, but the York Expo Center suddenly erupted with raucous cheers. It felt visceral, almost violent, as if McCain had given his supporters permission to drill someone they hated. McCain flashed an uneasy grin, like a kid who had just set off his first firecracker, delighted but also a bit frightened by its power. He wasn’t really a drill-baby-drill politician, but he could sense his party drifting toward drill-baby-drill politics.
A decade later, McCain is dead, bipartisanship is just about dead—his funeral felt like the rare exception that proved the rule—and the leader of the Republican Party is a world-class polarizer who mocked McCain’s service while cozying up to Putin on his way to the White House. President Donald Trump has pioneered a new politics of perpetual culture war, relentlessly rallying his supporters against kneeling black athletes, undocumented Latino immigrants and soft-on-crime, weak-on-the-border Democrats. He reverses the traditional relationship between politics and governance, weaponizing policy to mobilize his base rather than mobilizing his base to change policy. And in the Trump era, just about every policy issue is a wedge issue, not only traditional us-against-them social litmus tests like abortion, guns, feminism and affirmative action, or even just the president’s pet issues of immigration and trade, which he has wielded as cultural cudgels to portray Americans as victims of foreign exploiters. These days, even climate change, infrastructure policy and other domestic issues normally associated with wonky panels at Washington think tanks have been repackaged into cultural-resentment fodder.
At a time when Blue and Red America have split into two warring tribes inhabiting two separate realities, and “debate” has been redefined to evoke split-screen cable-news screamfests, this ferocious politicization of everything might seem obvious and unavoidable. But it’s also dangerous. It’s as if the rowdy cultural slap-fight the kids were having in the back seat has moved into the front, threatening to swerve the national car off the road. Transforming difficult analytical questions into knee-jerk emotional battlegrounds will dramatically increase the danger that thoughtless short-term choices will throw off our long-term national trajectory. And even beyond the impact on the quality of our public policy decisions, the ferocious politicization of everything is not healthy for the American body politic, which is why a Russian troll farm used fake social media accountsto gin up protests and counterprotests about hot-button issues like police shootings and Trump’s border wall. Our foreign adversaries like it when we yell at one another.
Honestly, though, we don’t need much prodding. Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-segregated and mutually disdainful, each camp deploying the furious language of victimhood to justify its fear and loathing of the gullible deplorables in the other. One side boycotts Chick-fil-A (over gay rights), Walmart (over sweatshops) and companies that do business with the National Rifle Association, while the other boycotts Nike (over Colin Kaepernick), Starbucks (over refugees, gay marriage and non-Christmas-specific holiday cups) and companies that stop doing business with the NRA. We live in an era of performative umbrage. Every day is Festivus, a ritual airing of our grievances about Kathy Griffin, Roseanne Barr, fake news, toxic masculinity and those fancy coffee machines that Sean Hannity’s viewers decided to destroy for some reason. Every decision about where to shop or what to drive or what to watch is now an opportunity to express our political identities. The 24-hour news cycle has become a never-ending national referendum on Trump.
Politically, it makes sense that debates over highly technical challenges like energy and climate change have been transformed into shirts-and-skins identity issues. Ron DeSantis, the Trump-loving Republican former congressman running for governor of Florida, recently proclaimed that he’s “not in the pews of the Church of Global Warming Leftists,” a very 2018 way of expressing opposition to carbon regulations, renewable energy subsidies and other forms of climate action. He wasn’t disputing that the planet is getting hotter, or questioning the scientific data on the dangers of fossil fuels. He was clarifying which team he’s on, and more specifically which team he isn’t on, the team of tree-hugging scolds who look down on ordinary Americans for eating bacon and using plastic straws. You can see that sentiment expressed in less genteel ways if you search YouTube for “rolling coal,” where pollution-porn videos flaunt diesel trucks (sometimes dubbed “Prius repellents”) retrofitted to spew thick clouds of black smoke into the air, the transportation version of a middle finger to the opposing tribe. And there’s no denying that the opposing tribe of conspicuous composters and recyclers and Tesla drivers have their own identitarian rituals that pointedly broadcast their wokeness.
As long as America keeps sorting itself into two factions divided by geography, ethnicity and ideology, pitting a multiracial team of progressives who live in cities and inner-ring suburbs against a white team of conservatives who live in exurbs and rural areas, this is what debates about public policy—or for that matter about the FBI, the dictator of North Korea and the credibility of various sexual assault allegations—will look like. We will twist the facts into our partisan narratives. The self-inflicted wounds will infect more and more of our lives. And if you want something else to worry about, consider where it might be spreading next.
Politics has always been adversarial. Traditionally, though, we’ve had a fairly robust national consensus about a fairly broad set of goals—a strong defense, a decent safety net, freedom from excessive government interference—even though we’ve squabbled over how to achieve them. What’s different about drill-baby-drill politics is the transformation of even nonpartisan issues into mad-as-hell battles of the bases, which makes it virtually impossible for politicians to solve problems in a two-party system. Cooperation and compromise start to look like capitulation, or even treasonous collusion with the enemy.
Take infrastructure spending, which was once reasonably uncontroversial, at least in principle. Today, many conservatives portray it as a liberal plot to siphon rural tax dollars into urban bike paths, subways, and high-speed rail boondoggles that unions will build and Democratic city slickers will use. The Trump administration actually changed the rules of the most prominent grant program for local transportation projects so that it explicitly favors rural projects, infuriating liberals who now see it as a slush fund for sprawl roads to nowhere serving out-in-the-boonies Trump voters. The war over Obamacare has a similar mine-versus-yours feel; many Republicans see it as a scheme to redistribute tax dollars (and the hard-earned Medicare benefits of older Americans) to lazy and entitled Barack Obama voters, while Democrats see the intense opposition to universal health care as generational warfare on behalf of the aging white GOP base.
There’s no denying that the opposing tribe of conspicuous composters and recyclers and Tesla drivers have their own identitarian rituals that pointedly broadcast their wokeness.
Trump has never shown much interest in the details of policy, but he does understand how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies. He froze the pay of federal employees, a key Democratic constituency, while approving a $12 billion bailout for farmers, who, like other industries, have taken a hit from his trade wars, but, unlike other industries, tend to vote as a Republican bloc. Trump’s tax bill hammered blue states by reining in deductions for state and local taxes, while his energy policies have provided relief to red states that rely heavily on fossil fuels. His administration has picked fights with California, the epicenter of coastal-elite Blue America, over fuel-efficiency standards, net neutrality and water policy.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this shift is happening at a time when college-educated voters are trending Democratic and noncollege whites have been Trump’s most reliable constituency. Policies that hurt colleges, like policies that hurt cities, are policies that hurt Democrats. To listen to pols talk about college these days is to watch a wedge issue in its embryonic stage, as substantive questions about the cost and relevance of higher ed, the burdens of student debt, the adequacy of worker training and the power of political correctness on campus start to morph into red-meat attacks on pointy-headed elitists who look down on ironworkers and brainwash America’s youth. Republicans are starting to fit the Democratic push for universal free college into their larger critique of the Democratic urge to hand out free stuff to Democratic voters. And they’re portraying a liberal arts education as a culturally liberal thing, like kale or Kwanzaa or reusable shopping bags.
I saw a soft-edged version of this anti-college theme at a manufacturing roundtable that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican candidate for governor, held in September in Youngstown. DeWine listened for an hour as a group of executives complained how teenagers are constantly told they need college degrees to get ahead in life, how students who might flourish in programs to prepare them for factory jobs are steered into mainstream classes they hate. DeWine perked up when the director of a local career center said that only 12 percent of students who pursue four-year degrees end up earning enough to pay off their loans and that many never learn about other options. “The goal should be exposing kids to more things, not forcing them into anything,” DeWine interjected.