top of page

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 usurping racial, religious, sexual and cultural identities for partisan gain pours salt into our national wounds, provokes violence and threatens our democracy.


Ali Velshi

Screenshot 2023-09-29 at 5.40.39 PM.png

In a culture war that often aims to silence rather than to engage with different ideas, the veteran journalist and MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi has made himself a champion of free speech by publicly confronting censorship efforts in countless broadcasts. 


Disturbed by the uproar over Nikole Hannah-Jones’ best-selling book, The 1619 Project, Velshi in 2022 started a “Banned Book Club” segment on his eponymously named MSNBC show to equip his viewers to talk with peers who sought to restrict controversial texts. When the segment became a hit, he turned it into a podcast in which he discusses the books and authors some schools have banned.  


In the first episode of the podcast, Velshi contended that shielding youth from LGBTQ+ and racial minorities’ stories is motivated by a desire to isolate children outside the mainstream and to maintain control of a political system that discriminates against minorities. He argued that “reading as resistance” – contemplating the beliefs and attitudes that typically go unexamined in a text – can bypass the strictures of parents trying to limit what students read and paves the way for inclusion. 


Velshi also is outspoken about how a “weaponization of culture” endangers American democracy by prioritizing the destruction of the opposition over collaborating to form a stronger union. Noting that the exchange of ideas is essential to a healthy society, he said in a 2021 Velshi segment that “democracy relies expressly on the ability to form an opinion and

express it.”


In his 30 years in journalism, Velshi has worked at Al-Jazeera and CNN, and has covered economic and business stories as well as presidential elections, gun violence, and refugee crises. Foreshadowing his work as a free-speech champion, Velshi, who was born in Kenya and raised Muslim, has been an outspoken critic throughout his career of Islamophobia, which he says has victimized him and is far more common than widely acknowledged.

james davison hunter

JDH -Headshot.jpeg

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.

Dana Nessel


Bio coming soon...

bottom of page