Ever wonder why politics in America has become so nasty, so divisive and so polarizing in recent years?
More than that, the nasty politics seems to be invading more and more spaces it never did before, especially entertainment media and sports.
No, you can’t blame President Donald Trump’s election for all of this. This trend began long before he took office and actually played a role in getting him elected in the first place.
But now it’s coming at us in full force on a daily basis. Guests are being thrown off talk shows and spit at by the hosts. Political lecturing and tirades filled with four letter words dominate every award show. And worst of all, no one seems interested in listening to the other side anymore.
Well, I shouldn’t say “no one.” While the American conservative political wing and Republicans are far from innocent of this growing intolerance, the simple fact is the steep rise in angry and even violent political sentiment in America is mostly coming from the left.
Again, the question is why?
The answer may seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, but it digs down to the core of what’s making Americans who are interested in politics more intense, angrier, and more obsessive.
The reason is this: There’s no such thing as non-religious person.
Yes, we all know plenty of people who are born Jews who never attend shul, don’t keep kosher, and can’t read Hebrew. Many people born as Christians are similarly disconnected from their churches and are avowed Atheists. Even Islam has its non-believers and people who have left their religious communities.
In fact, the percentage of Americans who claim to be not religiously affiliated has steadily been on the rise. The landmark Pew Research Center survey confirmed this in 2015 and the data has been reaffirmed in similar surveys since then. It’s not just Jews.
But here’s the catch. No one lives in a religious vacuum. Even when people leave an established religion or choose never to join one, you can be sure there’s something else that’s capturing their devotions. And it often comes with Chassidic-level intensity.
Sometimes that new religion is the simple pursuit of wealth. Other times it’s just pure narcissism. Or have you spoken to the most devoted sports fan in your life recently? How about strict vegans and people who follow bands like Phish or the Grateful Dead across the country for years?
You get the idea.
But perhaps the most common substitute for religion in America is politics. And especially for the overwhelming majority of liberal Democrats who are not devout practicing Jews, Christians, or even Muslims, politics has replaced religion and serves as a substitute for all the basic human needs to show faith, devotion, and adherence to some kind of way of life.
Not that politics are a good substitute. The impersonal and phoniness of campaigns and elections leaves most people feeling even more disconnected and unhappy even when their “side” wins elections. We saw that in abundance when Barack Obama was president and still the daily narrative on most news programs was filled with doom and gloom and disparaging commentary about America. Perhaps that’s because win or lose, the left is always confronting “infidels” who align with another party or candidate who need to be shunned, argued with, and generally feared. Yes, the right does this too.
Meanwhile, candidates are often worshipped like idols, or at least given Messianic portrayals. Again, the right is not totally innocent on this score, especially when it comes to some Republican icons like Ronald Reagan. But Barack Obama was given that kind of divine treatment even before he officially joined the presidential race in 2007. Democrats tried to give the same aura to Hillary Clinton, with limited success. And yes, some supporters of President Trump seem to worship the man.
But for millions of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s victory was not nearly a political defeat that could perhaps be overturned in four to eight years. Instead, for many of America’s political followers the election result was tantamount to a hate crime. In other words, it wasn’t just a defeat, but it was as if Trump supporters had barged into their shul or church and defaced the building.
Because politics is their shul or church. Politics is their belief system.
While this seems like a new phenomenon, it’s actually a natural outgrowth of thousands of years’ worth of most cultures putting politics and religion together in an unbreakable bond. Think of the Crusades or even the wars between ancient city states that were seen not just as territorial battles but also wars between each city state’s idolatrous gods.
Today, some people have managed to separate established religion from politics, but in name only. They act like connected voters, but they are really worshippers. They worship specific candidates, worship certain ideologies, and most commonly, they shun any and all things from other political camps as if they were treif, disgusting, or even deadly.
This is why those on the left organized boycotts that ultimately sank Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. The official explanation was that the business would unfairly profit from her White House position. In truth, liberals treated her clothes like shatnez, and acted accordingly.
This is why the left’s political opponents are routinely labeled as racists, xenophobes, or even murderers. Yes, some of that tactic is to silence potential debate. But it really stems from a religious devotion and aversion to those who hold unacceptable beliefs.
And now with more and more Americans choosing to leave established religious life, the inevitable is happening. People are conflating religion with politics and giving up on political discourse in the same way that most observant Jews wouldn’t bother engaging with a Christian missionary trying to convert them. Plus, this attitude is magnified many times by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that is much more conducive to nastiness than valuable discussion.
It’s not a happy picture for those of us who do want to see a return to reasoned debate and more polite discourse in general. But at least we know why getting there requires such a difficult leap of faith.
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows at CNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny and watch out for future columns on 5TJT.com.