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Politics: From Church to City to Nation, a Beacon of Freedom – Wall Street Journal

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‘The Arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers’ (ca. 1864) by Antonio Gisbert.



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‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” So remarked

John Winthrop

in “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon given in 1630 aboard the Arbella as it sailed to the New World. Winthrop, the great Puritan leader and early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, understood from the start that America was to be a monumental experiment in freedom for the rest of the world to observe and follow.

That, in any case, is what political commentators, politicians and historians have led us to believe over the past half century. The words “city upon a hill” showed up most famously in

Ronald Reagan’s

1989 farewell address. “The phrase comes from John Winthrop,” Reagan said, “who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.” Wrong on two counts. The phrase comes from Jesus: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). And Winthrop had no notion of America as a nation.

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In his 2012 study “In Search of the City on a Hill,”

Richard M. Gamble

documented the curious life of this biblical phrase in American politics. It lay almost completely forgotten from the time Winthrop first used it until 1930, when a slightly fuller version of the quotation was carved on a monument in Boston Common to commemorate the city’s 300th anniversary. Three decades later, in January 1961, President-elect

John F. Kennedy,

perhaps having seen the engraved monument, used Winthrop’s sermon in a speech in Boston bidding farewell to his home state. Since then the phrase, usually attributed to Winthrop rather than Jesus, has become an easy rhetorical device for any American pundit or officeholder wishing to convey the notion that America has a transcendent mission to model and spread political freedom around the globe—the chief version of an idea commonly termed “American exceptionalism.”

In 2018,

Daniel T. Rodgers

expanded on Mr. Gamble’s analysis with “As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon” (Princeton, 355 pages, $29.95). Mr. Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, offers tantalizing but inconclusive evidence that Winthrop’s “sermon” was never preached, on or off the Arbella, and emphasizes the ways in which Winthrop’s words contributed to the “invented foundation” of American nationalism. Now

Abram C. Van Engen

has published “City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism” (Yale, 379 pages, $30). Mr. Van Engen’s study is a hefty work of scholarship, involving a close exegesis of Winthrop’s sermon and other related texts, an account of the antiquarians unwittingly responsible for preserving his sermon and the scholarly debate over the extent to which American culture is a product of New England Puritanism.

Mr. Van Engen, an associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, raises two main objections to the modern political use of Winthrop’s famous sermon. He insists, first, that Winthrop’s “city” was not a nation or any other kind of worldly polity, but the church, as he understood it. “For most of American history,” the author observes, “when people heard the words ‘city on a hill,’ they were discussing discipleship, not citizenship.” Winthrop meant to exhort his fellow dissenting Puritans to a life of love and solicitude, not to impress upon them a sense of their historical importance as founders of a new nation.

I take his point, but Mr. Van Engen judges political rhetoric too fastidiously. Political pronouncements are not elucidations of ancient texts but evocations of images and sentiments. Hermeneutic slapdashery is a part of the game. I wonder, in any case, if the interpretive jump from Winthrop’s “city” to American exceptionalism is really so great. Let’s assume for the moment, pace Mr. Rodgers’s argument, that Winthrop did in fact preach “A Model of Christian Charity,” or relayed some part of it, to his fellow emigrants. If so, he addressed it to some of the New World’s earliest inhabitants and warned them not to make a mess of things because if they did the world would scorn the whole enterprise. That strikes me as conceptually related to modern America’s self-appointed but noble mission in the world. If I were a politician, I’d use it.

Mr. Van Engen objects, second, to the assumptions, as he sees them, behind the misuse of Winthrop’s sermon. His book chronicles the ways in which intellectuals and historians—

Alexis de Tocqueville,

Max Weber, the historian

Perry Miller,

the literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch—have portrayed the United States as having begun with the Puritans of New England. I find Mr. Van Engen’s analysis of these figures and their works engaging and substantive. He is a careful scholar and does not offer facile summaries (his demolition of Bercovitch is deftly done).

Yet it’s never clear what all the fuss is about. Why are we mistaken to think of America as, in chief respects, an outgrowth of 17th-century Puritanism? Mr. Van Engen more than once raises the chronological objection: The Spanish in Florida, the settlers of Jamestown and of course Native Americans were all present in North America before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620. Well, OK. But surely it’s too obvious to argue that Plymouth was the first Anglophone colony to survive in the New World, and that New England went on to exercise an unrivaled cultural and economic influence over the rest of the nation.

I’m even more puzzled by the book’s penultimate chapter, an insightful essay on

Donald Trump’s

nonuse of Winthrop’s lines and concomitant rejection of American exceptionalism. Unlike other politicians, liberal and conservative, Mr. Trump almost never speaks of America’s Puritan origins or its unique role in the world. “He has offered no story or memory of the nation at all, apart from a vague notion of lost greatness.” The president speaks instead of American “sovereignty,” a word his presidential precursors almost never used about the United States. It’s an excellent point, but it is plain from Mr. Van Engen’s language that we are not to deduce from it that Mr. Trump’s vision of the world is the truer one. We’re left to conclude that all those politicians who badly misinterpreted John Winthrop’s sermon nonetheless had the better argument. The Gipper, though technically wrong, was basically right.

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Study: Politics Outweighed COVID Severity in Reopening Decisions – Inside Higher Ed

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The political leaning of the county in which a college or university is located is the factor most closely associated with whether it offered in-person or remote instruction in fall 2020, research released Tuesday shows. The article, published in Springer’s Research in Higher Education, finds that the severity of the pandemic near a college and sociopolitical factors in its state were also associated with institutional decisions on how to offer instruction.

State political factors were a stronger factor for four-year public institutions than for four-year private or community colleges, while county political preferences had a stronger effect on four-year private and two-year public institutions.

“Given that in-person instruction was associated with increased COVID-19 incidence in the local area,” the authors write, “polarization, political identification, and institutions feeling compelled to operate as politicized entities (to stay close to the ‘in-group’) likely made the severity of the pandemic worse. These outcomes are aligned with the general findings [of previous research] that institutions seemed to give more weight to sociopolitical features over pandemic severity when choosing in-person instruction for Fall 2020.”

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Why American Politics Is So Stuck — and What New Research Shows About How to Fix It – POLITICO Magazine

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Why does American politics feel so stuck these days, with bipartisan bills vanishingly rare and solutions seemingly taking a back seat to constant attacks?

Our newly published research suggests an answer — and maybe a way to get un-stuck.

Most policies are rife with trade-offs. They have an intended outcome and some regrettable side-effects. Our recent studies suggest that political polarization in the United States runs so deep that it leads partisans to see the other side’s intended outcome as a ruse and the side effects as the real intention. In other words, Democrats and Republicans not only disagree about policy matters; they believe the other party’s agenda is intentionally designed to do harm.

We call this tendency the partisan trade-off bias, and it applies to both parties. To a Democrat, the purpose of an environmental policy that reduces carbon emissions, for example, is to preserve the environment, and a corresponding loss of coal mining jobs is an unfortunate side effect. But a Republican, our research finds, might look at that same policy and see a plot to eradicate jobs in the fossil fuels industry. Meanwhile, a Democrat might presume a Republican push to lower corporate tax rates is more about helping the wealthy and hurting the poor than fueling economic growth.

Of course, skepticism about motives is sometimes warranted. But, oftentimes, it is misguided, and the deeper it runs, the harder it is to get anything through the policymaking process. Unless politicians find a way to lessen the effects of the partisan trade-off bias, we’re likely to keep seeing stalemates on important policy issues.

We documented the partisan trade-off bias across five studies using online samples of a total of 1,236 participants, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. As an example, in one of our studies participants were randomly assigned to view a set of policy trade-offs, some proposed by Republicans and some proposed by Democrats. The policies dealt with taxes, environmental regulation, gun control and voting rights. Participants then rated how intentional they perceived the negative side effects of each policy to be. The more participants identified with the Republican Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of the Democratic-proposed policies to be, and the more participants identified with the Democratic Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of Republican-proposed policies to be.

In a nutshell, our studies showed that the negative side effects associated with different policy trade-offs are not interpreted by opponents as side effects at all, but as intended goals of the policy.

To date, the political science literature has shown that political polarization leads partisans not only to dislike each other, but to see the other side increasingly as a threat to the country. Our identification of the partisan trade-off bias reveals a psychological tendency that might help to explain this perception of threat. After all, how can you get along with someone who you perceive as intentionally trying to do harm?

The good news is that by identifying the partisan trade-off bias, our research points a path forward: Policymakers who pay more attention to this bias might be better equipped to achieve compromise. This means that rather than focusing only on the main goal of a policy, they need to communicate clearly to the public what is intentional and what is a regrettable side-effect of that goal.

Fortunately, our studies also suggest this might be achievable. The partisan trade-off bias happens not because people don’t understand a given policy, but because they don’t trust the policymakers who are pushing that policy. We found that the level of trust a person feels toward a policymaker proposing a policy is a crucial driver of the partisan trade-off bias. And when we were able to increase people’s trust in the policymaker in our studies, we saw the partisan tradeoff bias decrease substantially.

Existing research suggests there are many ways politicians can earn others’ trust, but one of the most powerful is also the simplest: making sure people feel their voices are heard and listened to before a policy is announced, including both those inclined to like and dislike a policy. When we told participants in our studies that a policymaker spoke with stakeholders from all sides of the political spectrum before rolling out a proposal, the partisan tradeoff bias subsided.

Practically speaking, these findings suggest that announcing a big policy goal, and then doing press tours and campaigns to tout its benefits, likely does little to build trust. What happens before the policy is announced is crucial to building broad support for the policy. Politicians need to make it clear that they are speaking with and listening to those likely to be affected by a policy’s side effects. In the context of climate policy, a politician might visit coal miners in West Virginia or oil and gas workers in Texas while in the process of formulating a plan to reduce emissions, for example. The more widely the politician can advertise these efforts — across multiple types of media and across the ideological spectrum — the better.

Giving people a voice in the process does not mean they will change their minds about the value of the policy. But it does increase the chances that they will see the policy as a sincere attempt to solve problems rather than a form of hidden malice. That, in turn, can help lower the temperature and de-escalate the cycle of polarization. The same lesson holds for those of us who are not policymakers but ordinary citizens who want to have better conversations about politics. If you think you know what the other side’s real intentions are, think again. What you see as malice might be an unintended side effect. And if you want someone to give you the benefit of the doubt, put in the work of making them feel heard before you make yourself heard.

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A new reason to move: politics – Yahoo Canada Finance

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Blue states will get bluer, and red redder, in coming years, as more Americans factor political issues into their relocation decisions and head for places with like-minded tribes.

That’s the forecast from real-estate brokerage Redfin, which included “more migration for political reasons” in its outlook for the housing market in 2022. The deepening political polarization of the country includes new city- and statewide laws likely to attract adherents and repel detractors, driving political issues deeper into community life. Texas this year passed the nation’s strictest anti-abortion law, for instance. A Mississippi anti-abortion law could lead the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal everywhere. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, states will once again be free to set their own abortion statutes, creating a drastic dividing line between permissive and restrictive states.

Another Supreme Court case, involving gun rights, could make it easier to carry concealed weapons in New York and 7 other states, eroding gun-control efforts propagated largely by Democratic governors and mayors. On the other hand, marijuana is now legal in 19 mostly blue and purple states. Cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York are experimenting with police reform meant to cut down on lower-level arrests. Public-school curricula is a new flash point between parents who want racial and social justice taught in schools, and traditionalists who feel threatened by “wokeness.”

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer walks past its building as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer walks past its building as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Covid pandemic led to sharp disparities in masking rules, school opening policies and business restrictions among states and cities. That’s on top of longstanding differences in regulation and taxation between traditionally Democratic and Republican states. While there’s nothing new about regional differences in governing styles, policy polarization is making it easier for Americans to live in areas they find ideologically compatible. It’s also getting harder for liberals to find a comfortable enclave in conservative states, and vice versa.

[Click here to get Rick Newman’s stories by email.]

Moving patterns reflect politics

Americans seem increasingly likely to sort themselves into ideological groups by geography. “We know people are leaving blue counties and moving to red counties,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin. “I think this will start to happen at the state level and at the neighborhood level. After next year’s midterm elections, we’ll be able to see if neighborhoods become more polarized.”

Up till now, the migration from blue states to red states has largely been driven by affordability. Blue states along the coasts typically have higher living costs and taxation levels than, say southern red states such as Texas and Florida. More and more, however, moving patterns reflect overt political choices.

An October Redfin survey of people who recently moved, for instance, found that 40% said they would prefer or insist on living in a place where abortion is fully legal. The portion taking the opposite view—saying they would prefer or refuse to live in an area where abortion is fully legal—was 32%. It’s not unusual for survey respondents to express strong opinions on abortion, but it may be new for people to factor such views into moving decisions. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe and more states ban or severely restrict abortion, it could become a bigger factor in relocation.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 12: A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Home prices have climbed during the pandemic as low interest rates and working from home has become more abundant. Home prices around the country continue to surge in the second quarter as strong demand continues to overwhelm the supply of homes for sale. Nationwide, the median single-family existing-home sales price increased by 22.9% in the second quarter. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 12: A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Home prices have climbed during the pandemic as low interest rates and working from home has become more abundant. Home prices around the country continue to surge in the second quarter as strong demand continues to overwhelm the supply of homes for sale. Nationwide, the median single-family existing-home sales price increased by 22.9% in the second quarter. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Redfin survey of movers also gauged attitudes toward other touchy political topics. Larger percentages favored living in areas with liberal policies such as strong voter protections, gender anti-discrimination laws and legal weed. But 23% said they don’t want to live in places with strong anti-discrimination laws, 22% don’t want to live in a state with legal weed, and 16% don’t want to live where there are strong voter protections.

Americans consider many factors when deciding where to live, and some of those factors have political overtones. Many parents base home-buying decisions on the quality of schools, which drives up home prices in the best school districts and creates de facto segregation. The white-flight phenomenon has a similar effect, with whites who can afford to leaving urban areas for places where they consider quality of life better.

But those types of location decisions are based more on family-first attitudes than the liberal-conservative divide that’s taking root now. Americans choose a political tribe when they vote, donate money to political causes and decide which cable-news station to watch. Perhaps it’s only natural that Americans want to live among their political comrades, as well. Like much of America, real-estate listings are trending toward liberal or conservative.  

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.

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