I am a Masters in Public Administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I am constantly thinking about politics in terms of how systems operate and what forces shape the decisions being made. I am interested in the decisions themselves, but I find the forces and factors that shape how we arrive at those decisions interesting and equally important. Being able to take a deeper look beyond the headlines and beyond the reactions to policy helps us see something important about how we as a society have come together as a group to attempt to solve complex and challenging problems.
In their book, Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which racial attitudes and biases impacted the decisions our country made during the 2008 election and in the first few years following President Obama’s election. Their argument throughout their book is that the election split the nation along racial lines, with forces that operated below the surface and beyond many people’s conscious thought, driving behaviors. In the time following the election, Tesler and Sears write, “any issue Obama takes a public stance on might soon become polarized according to racial predispositions.” What the authors found from the data they reviewed is that the issues that President Obama openly endorsed or opposed became split along party lines in public opinion across the country. What we were split over however, was not the policy or the particular approach that the President took, but rather who the President was. During the eight years that President Obama served, one of the key drivers of this split was his race, operating in a way that had not been seen in our politics for quite some time.
When people openly embraced a strategy of non-cooperation and a public image of fighting against President Obama at every step, an atmosphere developed that was toxic and dangerous for our country. Policy and analysis fell behind tribalism, and our country’s problem with political polarization worsened, becoming a problem not just between conservative and liberal, but a problem between races. Until the 2016 election the racial dynamics were shrouded behind phrases and ideas that appeared race neutral. Tesler and Sears do a great job cutting behind the veil to see the influence of race on public opinion by studying changes in public opinion with demographic date following the election of President Obama.
What worries me today is that we elected President Trump after he openly embraced racist stances and created an atmosphere that fostered racial divisions. He embodied a reaction more than a policy or party. What many have said, I think very correctly, is that President Trump is more of a backlash against a black president than anything else. In this sense, the polarization over race that began under President Obama has been heightened and maintained after his term. We have continued to see a split where anything publicly stated by President Trump is vehemently opposed by the Democrats who have come to stand for racial equality and the Republicans who have come to embrace ideas of whiteness. To move beyond this stage in politics requires a recognition of how our innate senses of tribalism have split us in our thoughts of otherness. We must recognize when we are acting on tribalism and when we are truly thinking more deeply about our policy stances.
Most people do not think deeply about a specific policy, but fall back on a few generalizations that I believe are easily opened to hidden motives that allow for tribal influence. Personal responsibility, work ethic, and deservingness are vague and hard to pin down, which allows for tribalism and implicit bias to shape our opinions. Understanding how those factors can be hijacked and controlled by racial predispositions is key if we want to think more deeply and move beyond our current polarization.