Arlie Hochschild writes: I had begun my five-year journey to the heart of the American right carrying with me, as if it were a backpack, a great paradox. Back in 2004, there was a paradox underlying the right–left split. Since then the split has become a gulf.
Across the country, conservative “red states” are poorer and have more teenage mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrolment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in liberal “blue states”. Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between Nicaragua and the United States. Red states suffer more in another important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.
The right now calls for cuts in entire segments of the federal government – the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Interior, for example. In January 2015, 58 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, which is responsible for the collection of taxes. Some Republican congressional candidates call for abolishing all state schools. In March 2015, the Republican-dominated Senate voted 51 to 49 in support of an amendment to a budget resolution to sell or give away all non-military federal lands other than national monuments and national parks. This would include forests, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. Joined by 95 Republican congressmen, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, one of the most polluted states in the union, has called for the end of the EPA.
The Tea Party’s turn away from government may signal a broader trend. During the depression of the 1930s, Americans turned to the federal government for aid in their economic recovery. But in response to the great recession of 2008, the majority turned away from it. As the political divide widens and opinions harden, the stakes have grown vastly higher. Neither ordinary citizens nor leaders are talking much “across the aisle”, damaging the surprisingly delicate process of governance itself. The United States has been divided before, of course. During the civil war, a difference in belief led to some 750,000 deaths. During the stormy 1960s, too, clashes arose over the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s rights. But in the end, a healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out. And to get there, we need to figure out what’s going on – especially on the rapidly shifting and ever-stronger right. [Continue reading…]