Race, gender, and class are yesterday’s issues. America is moving on.

The Washington Post has a nice little piece by Dan Balz highlighting the receding significance of divisions over race, gender, and class in American society. What is pushing Americans apart today? Politics.

But wait, I thought race, gender, and class are the key issues that drive politics? I thought religious and cultural divides are merely covers for these deeper, more nasty instances of discrimination and marginalization? I thought the Tea Party was full of racists, that the Republican Party was launching a war on women, and that the great issue of our time is rising inequality?

Apparently not. Balz writes,

a report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center paints a particularly stark portrait of a nation in which the most significant divisions are no longer based on race, class or sex but on political identity.

“Overall, there has been much more stability than change across the 48 political values measures that the Pew Research Center has tracked since 1987,” the report states. “But the average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25-year period — from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent in the new study.”

Both parties have contributed to the trend.

The Pew report found that the changes began to accelerate during George W. Bush’s presidency. Barack Obama’s presidency, the report says, has received “the most extreme partisan reaction to government in the past 25 years. Republicans are far more negative toward government than at any previous point, while Democrats feel far more positive.”

Maybe the parties are out of touch. Maybe most Americans are increasingly in the middle of the spectrum, wanting nothing to do with either party. There is some truth to this thought, but it does not actually explain the phenomena.

The changes the report cites have taken place at a time when the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as politically independent has risen sharply. Citing data from the Gallup organization, the Pew study states that it is probably safe to say that there are more independents than at any time in the past 75 years.

But the increasing partisan divisions cannot be attributed to the fact that the two parties are smaller and more ideological. Many who call themselves independents actually lean toward one party or the other. The Pew study states: “Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012.”

There is a real divide in America right now, and in numerous respects the United States is at a fork in the road. In actual policy, the trend seems to be away from bigger government, the Obama administration notwithstanding. When Governor Walker took on the public unions of the Democratic state of Wisconsin liberals thought his political career was dead in the water. Not so. Wisconsin votes today and the odds are Walker will win. Romney is now looking at Wisconsin as a state that may turn Republican for the first time in many years.

Polarization is not necessarily a bad thing. Back in the 1960s many liberals criticized the parties for being too similar, and complained that the lack of any real distinction or difference between them meant that voters lacked meaningful choice. Well, things have changed. The challenge, of course, is not to let polarization cloud what we all have in common as Americans to the point that we can never get anything done. Big issues are going to be addressed in the next few years, and Americans will get their chance to choose the direction of their country. A lot is at stake. I hope they make the right choice.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 5, 2012, in Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Race, gender, and class are yesterday’s issues. America is moving on..

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