The poisonous cocktail of social polarization - a culture war that infuses everything from how we educate our children to how we see our place in history - is ripping apart the shared American identity that made the country a ‘melting pot’ and fueled its post-war growth into a superpower. One after another, leaders inflame passions by drawing indelible identity lines in the cultural sands, provoking calls for ‘national divorce’ and turning even minor questions of how we live together into what amounts to a life and death blood sport.
In this episode of Common Ground with Jane Whitney, a diverse panel discusses how exploiting racial, religious, sexual and cultural identities for partisan gain pours salt into our national wounds, provokes violence and threatens our democracy.
randi weingarten (IN-PERSON)
“The most dangerous person in the world.”
At least that’s how former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Randi Weingarten, the longtime president of The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country.
Weingarten, the first openly gay president of the Federation and the first openly gay president of any major American labor union, has been something of a conservative bête noire almost since her barrier-breaking election as the AFT’s head in 2008.
Her strident criticism of efforts to open schools during the worst months of the pandemic and her embrace of curricula about race and sexuality have made her a primary foil for politicians seeking to ride the conservative culture war wave, the face of the enemy in the right wing effort to corral public schooling.
“Who’s Afraid of Randi Weingarten?” asked the Wall Street Journal in a 2022 op-ed. “Threat to America’s Children,” read a cardboard cutout of her at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “Conspiracy theorists are advising Biden’s CDC,” claimed a Republican National Committee post about Weingarten.
Despite the vitriolic attacks, Weingarten remains steadfast in the defense of teachers’ academic independence. In a March AFT op-ed titled “Culture Wars Harm Education,” Weingarten argued that state efforts to curtail classroom discussion put teachers on “eggshells” and create an unsafe learning environment. She has condemned Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills and national book bans, and, earlier this year, launched a “Freedom to Teach” hotline for parents to report instances of book banning and censorship.
Often considered an education reformer for her support of higher teaching standards and ongoing teacher evaluations, Weingarten’s manning of the social battlements is very much in character. Even before education became the point of the spear in the cultural war, Weingarten had been pushing the AFT to become more political by encouraging the union to support pro- teacher candidates, long-term political fundraising, and additional federal investment in higher education.
Dana Nessel (VIRTUAL)
While many politicians shy away from addressing issues of the American culture war, Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Attorney General, has made confronting them central to her agenda and her career.
In her two campaigns for the attorney general’s office, she spoke openly about her views on LGBTQ rights, abortion, and the MeToo movement. “Hangers are for clothes” not abortions, she said in one 2018 campaign ad. In another from 2022, Nessel promised to protect birth control, warning “you might have to cross state lines just to legally have safe sex.”
One of the preeminent litigators of LGBTQ issues, Nessel, who is married to a woman, has fought as both a prosecutor and attorney for same-sex couples who were denied marriage rights. In a precedent-setting 2012 lawsuit, DeBoer v. Snyder, she represented a lesbian couple who were banned from adopting children, a case that eventually became part of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationally, Obergefell v. Hodges.
In 2016, Nessel co-founded the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a non-profit organization and taskforce that works in cooperation with local prosecutors' offices to investigate and prosecute anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. The Justice Project has charged more than 20 capital offences — including homicides, sexual assaults, armed robberies, child abuse, attempted murder—with a 100 percent conviction rate.
SUZANNE NOSSEL (VIRTUAL)
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, is one of the country’s leading voices in the ongoing battle to protect human rights and free expression.
Her years-long dedication to the fight to protect human rights, including freedom of speech, has spanned stints in government, non-profit organizations and the private sector.
In an era of increased book bans, cancel culture and censorship, Nossel calls for continuing debate among allies and across the political aisle while promoting a more inclusive public culture. “Those who care about both free speech and equality find themselves pressed to take sides between vaulted principles that sometimes seem to conflict,” Nossel wrote in her 2020 book, Dare to Speak.
As the culture wars have intensified, she has continued to speak out fervently on the subject. In a 2022 interview with the New York Times, she noted a cultural shift towards restricting free expression and warned of a “crisis” around freedom of speech, which she argued is essential to social progress.
Outside her role at PEN, one of the most celebrated advocates for free-expression, Nossel is a member of Facebook’s oversight board, which is supposed to ensure that the social media giant respects freedom of expression. Previously, she was chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch, executive director of Amnesty International USA, deputy assistant, Secretary of State for International Organizations under President Barack Obama, and Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under the Clinton
james davison hunter (VIRTUAL)
James Davison Hunter is a sociologist and the author of Culture Wars, the 1991 book that injected America’s lexicon with the now-inescapable phrase describing the clash between the country’s conservatives and progressives.
The fourth of Davison Hunter’s nine books about American life and morality, Culture Wars argued that the heated cultural climate of the late 20th century had been brewing for 30 years, as religious Americans tried to stifle the sexual revolution, abortion, and LGBTQ+ freedoms. The expansions of civil rights and their attendant backlash created the charged environment that Davison Hunter argued was rivaled only by the years preceding the Civil War.
Since the publication of his seminal book, the environment has only gotten worse, Davison Hunter told Politico in 2021. In the post-recession era, growing wealth inequality and racial tensions are estranging lower-class conservatives from upper class progressives, creating existential fears of destruction on both sides of the economic divide and fueling the belief that violence is the only solution.
“The pluribus has expanded and it has polarized. The unum has all but evaporated,” he told PBS Newshour in 2021. “Fear seems to be our common culture right now.”
The Director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Davison Hunter conducts national surveys of American opinion on politics, institutions, and identity, which have supported his theories that the nation is growing more divided. He has served as a consultant for the National Commission on Civic Renewal and the Pew Charitable Trusts, and in 2004 was appointed by the Bush White House to serve on the National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities.