Santa Barbara County is a unique place where you can hike mountain trails in the morning and surf famous reef breaks by afternoon. Not so unique, however, is the county’s political geography. City folks, especially in South County, trend liberal, while northern rural areas lean conservative. No better metric tells this story than the historic split on the County Board of Supervisors, where battles over a swing vote on the five-member panel have shaped public policy for decades. In this way, our political profile mirrors much of the rest of the country, where elections hinge not on predictable red or blue blocks, but on turnout, mercurial independent voters, young voters, and participation among communities of color — the “edge” battlegrounds that define and redefine our country’s historical arc.
This natural political tension has always seemed to find a sort of fulcrum in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, some more off-center than others. The country now, however, is stretching further right and further left, in ways not seen for decades, possibly since the Civil War. Meanwhile, the ignored demographic — the moderate center — seems forgotten while left and right fight to swing the pendulum as far as possible in their respective directions. The consequences of this polar combat could spell disaster for the experiment we call American Democracy.
The shifts began before Donald Trump leaped into the political abyss, but he certainly accelerated the process by tossing lit matches into a smoldering heap of dissatisfaction among millions of Americans who believed their lot in life and the “evils of big government” might be best addressed by a corporate outsider furiously intent on shaking up the system.
Ignorant (“a f***ing moron,” claimed his own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), narcissistic, mean, conniving, racist, sexist, and decidedly inhumane, he eschewed government norms to “follow his gut,” stumbling through a chaotic four-year term marked by two impeachments, a disastrous COVID response, the “Big Lie” about his 2020 election defeat, and the infamous January 6 attack on our nation’s capitol. Finally, after four years of this edge-of-your-seat insanity, voters booted him out.
Yet his ghost remains. With Trump absent from power but still curiously influential, he somehow keeps right-wing politicians, sycophantic acolytes all, fearful of his revenge or the revenge of his “base” should they stray from the maxims of his idiocy. Senate Republicans, for example, having enjoyed an overnight epiphany of some sort, have suddenly turned into faux “deficit hawks” who won’t even vote to fix our nation’s aging, crippled infrastructure. All because Democrats support that agenda. Pure Trump — vengeance, spite, and obstruction, even to detriment of conservative constituents in states laced with crappy highways, creaking bridges, and malfunctioning airports.
Meanwhile, China is developing a 300mph bullet train.
Congressional Republicans have unabashedly prostrated themselves to please Trump’s affection for offending anyone breaking rank. Think Josh Hawley, Matt Gaetz, Mo Brooks, Tom Cotton, Kevin McCarthy, and the endlessly empathetic Marjorie Taylor Greene — all vicious, unapologetic, and wildly out of touch. Remember statesmanship? You know, the kindness and courtesy afforded those with whom you disagree in the political space? Adlai Stevenson or Jimmy Carter. Even Ronald Reagan has standing in that club, which has gone by the way of the dodo bird in the newly configured Republican Party. To label this change “disheartening” would be naïve. “Dangerous” is more like it.
Take your pick of the new right’s unforgiveable transgressions — attacks on voting rights, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, redistricting states to carve blacks and the urban poor out of the American political process, dismissing climate change (“it’s just the weather”), deregulating environmental protections, and passing pro-gun laws that could, with the help of an über-conservative Supreme Court, turn New York into a Wild West-style open-carry zone where you could walk down Broadway with an AR-15 in broad daylight. Like that’s not scary.
With all this abject craziness, how could Virginians elect a solid-right governor in a state that Joe Biden carried by 10 points? Simple. Voters were less afraid of right-wing policies than to the “woke” agenda of the progressive left.
When George Floyd died under the murderous knee of a Minneapolis cop, millions of Americans reacted with justified indignity and rage. For weeks, they filled the streets of nearly every major city in the land. Then they committed a catastrophic political blunder by adopting the slogan “Defund the Police.” Not reform policing, or hold cops accountable, or train up our first responders. Nope. Defund the police. An unforced error of inestimable magnitude, and political suicide by any other name. I mean, who among us doesn’t expect a response when we dial 9-1-1? “Defund the Police” was mistake number one, and a real doozy at that.
Right-wing politicians savvily seized on this idiotic slogan and never loosened their grip. The prog-left played right into the hands of the “be scared, be very scared” mantra that infects every political venue from school boards and city councils to the halls of Congress. Even in Minneapolis, ground zero for 2020’s “year of racial reckoning,” voters declined to recast its police department as a “Department of Public Safety,” which would have instituted “a comprehensive public health approach to safety,” allowing social workers, counselors, and experts in substance abuse and de-escalation to respond to situations that match their expertise. “Defund the Police” sloganeering doomed even that reasonable effort. Says CNN’s Don Lemon, “It was an activist slogan that never should have made it into the political sphere.” Good luck with that.
Still not aware of the forest, the woke-left then kept sawing down trees that fell right on their heads. Next was Critical Race Theory (CRT), which they used as a cudgel to harass school boards about adopting curricula that focus on the blight of structural and institutional racism as a primary prism through which our kids should learn American history. Another unforced error that pissed off parents enough to elect a Republican governor in Virginia, who, not surprisingly, successfully made parents’ choice in children’s’ education a cornerstone of his campaign. Critical Race Theory was mistake number two.
This didn’t need to happen. Devising a curriculum that includes pertinent “inputs” to our country’s complicated history can be accomplished without making race and racism the primary focus of that inquiry. You can explain slavery’s incomprehensible malevolence, the largely botched Reconstruction era, Jim Crow, and the migration of Blacks to the impoverished and marginalized ghettos of the industrial north without making it the sole lens through which to examine U.S. history.
So, where do we find school textbooks that pull off this magic trick? A good example is the middle-school textbook, Montana — Stories of the Land, by Krys Holmes. It details Montana’s history, from Ice Age living to railroads, silver strikes, the copper boom, and atrocities against Native Americans in an astonishingly palatable way that is neither shy of fact nor polemical in message — the precise opposite of Critical Race Theory, which over 20 states have already banned from their curricula.
Ironically, Critical Race Theory traces its roots to one of our country’s most prestigious educational institutions — Harvard University in the 1970s. If Defund the Police and Critical Race Theory weren’t politically self-damaging enough, Ivy League schools (and many others) have become breeding grounds for self-important, overly entitled left-wing students who see microaggressions and emotional “triggers” in everything from Abe Lincoln to the color of chess pieces, the use of “master” in “master’s degree,” and probably in their breakfast cereal.
This indulgent, self-centered behavior, which has firmly driven a taproot into the soil of American education, is, to say the least, not viewed kindly by most voters. They consider far-left students as obsessed wandering hammers, constantly looking for cultural nails that offend, while holding school administrators accountable for proposed changes to the “traumatic” environment on campus. Sadly, far too many administrators are on board with this thinking, or, facing censure or outright dismissal, acquiesce. And this trend isn’t going anywhere soon. It has wormed out a convenient hole in American education and beyond, and rooting it out won’t be easy. (Doubt it? When I used the word “crappy” earlier in this piece, a Microsoft alert popped up, saying, “This language may be offensive to your reader”. Same with “pissed,” used above. Proof positive, I guess.)
So, that’s mistake number three, and another key to Republicans’ massive wins on November 2. Here’s how James Carville, veteran savant of the political zeitgeist, assessed Democrats’ horrible showing across the country:
“[They’re] talking too much about issues that matter less to a broad swath of Americans than, say, the economy. Some of these people need to go to a ‘woke’ detox center or something. They’re expressing a language that people just don’t use, and there’s backlash and frustration to that.”
Worse than the nearsightedness of Critical Race Theory, the far-left student movement inflicts, in many cases, irrevocable harm on the very institutions we depend on to educate the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and policy makers. Sorry, but college is not a “safe space,” where feelings count more than facts, and emotional safety counts more than education. It’s not where students should seek shelter from the realities of adult life or disregard the primary purpose of higher education — the vigorous exchange of ideas and the intellectual synthesis emerging from it. Socrates, and his passion for “productive discomfort,” is likely spinning in his grave.
God only knows how and where honest critical thinking and a liberal arts education pry their way into this disturbing trend, one that will likely uproot (if not destroy) lives when young, undereducated, misguided adults hit the mean streets of the real world.