by Michael Janofsky
The first book my middle school class was assigned to read one year was Alan Paton’s classic novel Cry, the Beloved Country, set against the racial tensions and inequalities of mid-century South Africa, a precursor to apartheid.
The title always resonated with me as it spoke to the sadness and despair in a place where one side of the racial divide suffers indignities and instabilities foisted on it by a minority white race holding power through economic might, politics and police.
In many ways, the themes remind me of 2021 America: race as well as other issues have split the country into warring factions – political, social and economic – that make major legislative achievement almost impossible.
It has reached a point where our opposing views feel irreconcilable, each side certain of its rightness, open to compromise only rhetorically. The political centre has all but vanished. And overlaying everything is disagreement on even the basics – what is a fact, what words mean, what’s best for the country. Big ticket items like climate legislation, infrastructure needs and tax policy upgrades remain unaddressed, victims of disparate visions.
I must confess here. With liberal leanings sharpened by the Trump years, I am as guilty as anyone. Even as a journalist, trained to consider all sides, I remain baffled by so many positions that either disregard common sense or smack of hypocrisy. Why, for example, did people desperate for post-pandemic normalcy refuse to wear a mask to hasten it, claiming a mask “violates my freedom”? (A man in Decatur, Georgia shot and killed a grocery store clerk who had asked him to wear a mask). Why argue that the government has no right to impose mask wearing but every right to control a woman’s body? In our democracy, why pass laws that suppress voting, rather than expand it?
Because America has been a two-party country for much of its history, governance has generally vacillated, with policy arising out of a centre-left or centre-right formulation. Lately though, power centres have shifted as progressives pull Democrats to the left and Donald Trump loyalists pull Republicans to the right.
It would be incorrect and unfair to blame the current political dysfunction entirely on Trump, whose animus toward many and antipathy toward truth saw him denied a second term. Divisive forces accelerated in the Obama years as America’s white majority narrowed, giving rise to heightened fears, anger and grievance of lost privilege that Trump expertly exploited. That anxiety remains. Much of it is reflected in racial conflict, which author Heather McGhee describes in her new book, The Sum of Us, as a “zero sum hierarchy” in which conservatives perceive that any societal gain by Blacks comes at the expense of whites.
And all that seeps into the fabric of the country.
In Wausau, Wisconsin, a mid-sized, majority white manufacturing city north of Milwaukee, a resolution came before county leaders to declare the region “a community for all” as a welcome sign to all demographics.
“We want to feel like a part of this community’’, said Supervisor William Harris, the only Black on the 38-member County Board of Supervisors.
White board members balked. Arnold Schlei, a white supervisor, put it this way: “You can’t come around and tell people that work their tails off from daylight to dark and tell them that they got white privilege and they’re racist and they’ve got to treat the Hmongs and the coloureds and the gays better because they’re racist. People are sick of it.”
A board executive committee voted against it, 6-2, and seven revisions failed to achieve consensus. The debate continues.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning Black journalist, was recently hired to teach investigative journalism at the institution where she got her masters degree, the University of North Carolina. A journalist so acclaimed could reasonably expect a job-securing tenured position. It was not offered.
Why? University officials would not say, but it was widely believed that conservative members of the Board of Trustees objected on the grounds of her work as creator of “The 1619 Project”, a New York Times magazine that posited the story of America beginning 157 years before 1776, when African slaves were first brought to our shores. It was her introductory essay that won the Pulitzer.
Among the Republican-led states passing more restrictive voting rights laws, Texas backed measures that Biden described as an attack on “Black and Brown Americans”. In an open “Statement of Concern”, more than one hundred scholars concluded “our entire democracy is now at risk”.
But it’s not just racial issues. Five rural and sparsely-populated counties in eastern Oregon, discouraged by losing all political power to the liberal western half of the state, want to leave Oregon to join Idaho, the largely white conservative state next-door.
Similar efforts are under discussion in northern counties of California, a region where conservative residents feel muted by the state’s liberalism headquartered in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
As the hallmark of his term so far, Biden proposed a mammoth spending plan — $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and $1.8 trillion on education and family support. Democrats favour the entire package to make America more competitive with China by addressing long neglected physical needs – roads, bridges, airports, broadband – and more secure domestically with programmes to underwrite education, expand the middle class and promote job growth.
“We’re in a race to see who wins the 21st century”, Biden said. “We must be No. 1 in the world to lead the world”.
After months of negotiations, Congressional leaders reached tentative agreement on a scaled down version of just the infrastructure plan, $1.2 trillion for roads, broadband and other physical upgrades. It left out major Biden priorities, including climate programmes and aid to families and children. Those would all be left to a subsequent Bill that Senate Democrats would try to pass without Republican support, through a rarely-used procedure called reconciliation.
Hurdles remain. The infrastructure plan needs support from at least ten Republican senators; reconciliation requires unanimity among the 50 Democrats and independents; and paying for any of it cannot rely on gas taxes and other user fees that Republicans wanted, or from raising income taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans, which Biden wanted.
Then there was the effort to appoint an independent bipartisan commission to produce a full accounting of the 6 January assault on the US Capitol to overturn Biden’s victory. Senate Republicans killed the idea, fearful that it would damage their brand, weaken their efforts to win back control of Congress next year and embarrass Trump, whose incitements to riot that day led to his second impeachment.
Occasionally, the parties agree: Biden signed into law a Bill to make Juneteenth – 19 June – a national holiday, commemorating the day slavery ended in 1865. But that’s a rarity. More often, disharmony reigns: police reform, abortion law, freedom of speech, gun legislation, voting rights. The list goes on.
So, are we beyond hope? Can divisions narrow? Can Americans find the lost paths back to a middle ground, compromise and racial harmony? Biden likes to say, “I believe that Americans have more in common than what divides us.” If not, I pray for the beloved country.
Burgers have slipped into the climate crisis conversation.
It mainly has to do with cows and how they burp tons of methane into the atmosphere, adding to the gases that warm the planet. Cows, of course, become hamburgers at some point so the wokier culinary set is encouraging reduced breeding by calling for more plant-based burgers. Daniel Humm, chief executive and chef of one of the world’s highest-rated restaurants, Eleven Madison Park in New York, has switched to an all vegan menu – and just try to get a reservation.
Methane from cows is hardly the largest contributor to climate change, although cattle grazing is the number one cause of tropical deforestation globally. And the reduction of planet-warming gases from all sources has become a big issue in the United States after four years in which Donald Trump even banned the words “climate change” from government documents.
After taking office, President Joe Biden immediately returned the country to the Paris climate accord and made climate policy a major priority. He has proposed spending billions on clean energy programmes with the goals of reaching a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions economy no later than 2050.
The challenge touches just about every industry, but mostly transportation, power and manufacturing, which together account for 77 per cent of US emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The most notable strides have come in the transportation sector, which accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions (29 per cent) from the cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes that burn fossil fuels. As manufacturers ramp up production of electric vehicles, Biden is pushing for American highways to be lined with charger stations, to ease consumer anxiety over running short of battery power.
Tesla has been the leading US electric vehicle manufacturer for several years, but other carmakers are racing to catch up. General Motors, the nation’s largest, announced plans early this year to phase out using internal combustion engines by 2035.
“We encourage others to follow suit and make a significant impact on our industry and on the economy as a whole,” GM’s Chairman and Chief Executive Mary Barra said at the announcement. Ford recently introduced an electric version of the nation’s most popular light truck, the F150 Lightning, and vowed to invest $30 billion in electric vehicles through 2025.
Electricity production accounts for 25 per cent of emissions, but driving that number down is tricky. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s electrical power comes from burning fossil fuels, principally coal and natural gas, two major industries that have resisted change, warning of widespread job losses.
Biden has always sold his infrastructure plan as a jobs programme, in that new, higher-paying opportunities in solar, wind and other clean energy sources would absorb displaced workers from the mines, oil fields and manufacturing sector after retraining. The Biden plan proposed $40 billion for dislocated workers.
Pushback looms, however. Congressional Republicans are resisting spending on climate change measures, unconvinced planet warming poses the dire threats scientists fear. And a handful of states are warning they will withdraw assets from financial institutions that have made investments based on environmental considerations.
Meanwhile, the market for cows may be softening. Despite America’s enduring love of all things meat, the retail market for plant-based foods has grown to $7 billion, according to the Good Food Institute, a trade group. At Eleven Madison Park, the price of a full-course vegan tasting menu, with gratuity, is $335 (£237) per person. The restaurant reopened after fifteen months on 10 June and sold out reservations through the end of the month. “It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a genuine connection to the community,” Chef Humm said on his website. “A restaurant experience is about more than what’s on the plate. We are thrilled to share the incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine while deepening our connection to our homes: both our city and our planet.”
Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times