The Origins of Intolerance in America

In the last few weeks, the alarming rise of vitriolic anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric from the right wing has alarmed a large segment of the American people, but equally disturbing is how much support these noxious views are getting from the public. After the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, it was widely assumed that tolerance and diversity would win the day. Many studies show that growing familiarity with the "other" typically yields more tolerant attitudes. But this recent spasm of hatred is shocking in its intensity and in the apparent rejection of that decades-long progress toward social peace. Many even call it fascism. Why has this reversal suddenly appeared?

Current attitudes toward Muslim immigration and accepting Syrian refugees are revealing. A CBS poll taken December 9-10 shows rejection of Donald Trump's suggestion that Muslims be banned from entering the United States (58 percent opposing Trump's proposal, and 36 percent supporting). A far slimmer plurality, 46-44 percent, opposes keeping a database on Muslims in the country. Republicans in that survey supported the Muslim ban by 54-38 percent, and the database of Muslims by 60-31 percent.

On Syrian refugees, Republicans are opposed to allowing them into the country, 76-22 percent. (Democrats are 66-32 percent in favor of taking refugees.) On unauthorized immigrants -- mainly Mexicans and Central Americans -- a similar partisan divide appears: Democrats and independents favor legal residency by wide margins, while Republicans say they should be deported by a 63-34 percent. The polls are relatively consistent over the past several months.

The surveys basically tell us what we already sense from the Republican Party leadership and the presidential candidates in particular. But they don't answer the question of how tens of millions of Americans have adopted such harsh ideas. It's easy to conclude that these attitudes are being cultivated by Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere -- commentators like Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin, among many others, have been spewing anti-immigrant vitriol for more than a decade.

The right-wing entertainment complex has doubtlessly added fuel to the fire, but it didn't start it. There has long been anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, and it's been a staple of the extreme right wing. But the phenomenon, as I argue in Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash, is broader than mere xenophobia. Over the past forty years, incomes have stagnated for the middle class, while social dynamics have encroached upon residual "privilege" -- e.g., gay and lesbian activism resulting in same-sex marriage, women's empowerment, affirmative action for African-Americans, and sharp growth in illegal immigration.

Of the last, heated resistance from the right has increasingly relied on the false complaint that Hispanics aren't assimilating (rather than an older, also false argument about job stealing) and are demanding educational reforms that are fundamentally anti-American. These kinds of arguments reflect a cultural anxiety about the rapidly growing minority populations in the United States, which demographically is heading toward a majority of minority ethnicities. And these anxieties -- sometimes expressed violently, as with black church burnings, or through discriminatory laws and practice -- are targeting Christians among blacks and Hispanics. With the Syrian refugee crisis and the San Bernardino shootings, the volatile component of Islam is added to the mix.

Recently some explanations beyond the historical aversion to foreigners in our midst, or racism, have come to the fore. We have known about income stagnation for some years, and that stagnation for the middle class, broadly defined, has persisted for four decades. But a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that one-fifth of Americans are living in poverty or near poverty (defined as a family of three with an income of less than $31,402 annually), many have slipped economically since the Bush recession and have never found their footing in a country that off-shores many semi-skilled jobs and has steadily shrunk the social safety net since the Reagan era. One indicator is child poverty, affecting as much as two-fifths of all American kids, with devastating long-term consequences of persistent poverty through their lifetimes. And it's not just a problem of the inner city: one in seven white kids is poor.

The economic doldrums for the white middle class was powerfully set out in a shocking study led by Nobel Economics Laureate Angus Deaton and his colleague Anne Case, both at Princeton, and published this autumn. They found that after many years of a decline in mortality for all groups and ages in the United States, over the last two decades the mortality rate for middle aged whites had risen, even as it continued to fall for the elderly and non-whites, and indeed for all groups in all other industrialized countries. The rise in this death rate, moreover, was due to self-poisoning, in effect. "The change in all-cause mortality for white non-Hispanics 45-54 is largely accounted for by an increasing death rate from external causes, mostly increases in drug and alcohol poisonings and in suicide," the authors note.

The rise in white mortality is apparently gender neutral, but it is strongly correlated to education. "The turnaround in mortality for white non-Hispanics," Deaton and Case write, "was driven primarily by increasing death rates for those with a high school degree or less." It's also worth noting that self-poisoning rose for all age groups of whites, and morbidity (incidence of poor health) followed the same pattern as mortality, and a sharp rise in disability may follow for the same reasons, the authors conclude.

The results of the study are not entirely surprising. Nationally leading incidence of smoking, obesity, porn use, and divorce rates are found in the Old Confederacy. One explanation for this is a resistance to social authority -- especially what's perceived as political correctness -- in personal health, relations between the sexes, and the like.

It's difficult not to see the Case-Deaton study as a key to the accumulating white anger that drives right-wing extremism to ever uglier heights. The prospects for living as well as their parents, or fulfilling the dreams fostered by popular culture begin to unravel in one's forties, and the easy availability of alcohol, opiates, and other drugs is one release. So is fascistic political noise-making. Barbara Ehrenreich notes in a fine essay this month that lower- and middle-class whites had, for decades, a sense of superiority over blacks and Hispanics, and men over women, but these sturdy old pillars of privilege have eroded, even reversed -- especially in popular culture -- in about the same period of economic and physical decline. "It's not easy to maintain the usual sense of white superiority when parts of the media are squeezing laughs from the contrast between savvy blacks and rural white bumpkins," she writes. "White, presumably upper-middle class people generally conceive of these characters and plot lines, which, to a child of white working class parents like myself, sting with condescension."

This is not merely a reversal of recent, post-Jim Crow vintage in the neo-Confederate South and its Western outposts. The self-awareness of white men regarding masculinity has been transforming for generations, always in the shadow of the "Lost Cause." In a brilliant piece of analysis about the changing image of the "Southern Gentleman" in American literature, scholar Emmeline Gros traces an underlying "anxiety" even at the height of plantation culture, which became more enervated through the ensuing decades.

"The fears of critical questioning and disruption that were already expressed at the beginning of the [19th] century acquire full meaning in the postbellum South," she wrote in 2010, "as the gentleman's mistrust of the 'carpetbagger,' the 'northerner,' the 'non-genteel,' the 'foreigner,' the 'other' becomes an obsession, ... the indicator of a problematic 'de-masculinization' of the Southern character which reduced the possibilities for 'heroic' or 'chivalric' action." Stripped of what Southern white men considered their birthright, weakened by low educational achievement and self-poisoning, they have resorted to the South's traditional and emotionally avenging tactic of hatred -- now-psychotic hatred of foreigners, blacks, gays, and women.

The challenge to white privilege reached another transition point with the election of Barack Obama, which has prompted seven years of madness on the right. Obama is not only black (actually "worse": mixed race) and African (not from the once-subservient slave culture), he has earned a place among the elite, the Harvard Law wiz and hyper-achiever, popular throughout the world, the ultimate cool, street-smart dude made good. In important ways, however, his ascension -- not only to the White House, but to a pantheon of great presidents -- is mainly symbolic in this respect: he arrived at a time not merely of disruption, but rupture, the crackup of white, male privilege that has controlled, root and branch, American politics for nearly 400 years.

Because of this rupture of the fundaments of American political culture, it is a turbulent time and will remain so for many years to come. The vitriolic intolerance practiced by Trump and Cruz and the Republican Party (and too many Democrats and Northerners, too) is a septic symptom of decline, a bitter residue of the dark side of the American experience, but perhaps it is only the decline of white privilege, and not of the great democratic experiment that is the best of America.