Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (and potential new owner of Twitter), set the Twitterverse ablaze recently by tweeting the cartoon below, which describes how he believes the U.S. political landscape has shifted.
The cartoon was created last year by Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist and managing editor of Quillette, who described his own reasons for creating it in this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. But when Musk tweeted it, it set off a fierce debate over the cartoon’s accuracy to explain the increased political polarization we see all around us. Is it that liberals have lurched leftward or is it that conservatives have gone crazy?
I won’t wade into that debate here. But I will say what is indisputably accurate in the cartoon, which is that the “woke progressive” yelling “Bigot!” and the sneering conservative laughing out loud do not know each other well, if at all. If they did, they would each be less likely to be isolated or politically extreme.
That’s the conclusion of recent surveys by the American Enterprise Institute. A large AEI survey of more than 5,000 Americans showed that Americans who feel close to people in their local neighborhood are much more likely to engage with familiar faces when out and about in the neighborhood. They’re also more likely to join a local sports league or volunteer at a local charity.
What they’re less likely to do is volunteer politically, say their political ideology gives them a sense of community or derive a sense of community from social media.
My friend Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, described the survey results this month in the City Journal. He broke the respondents into four categories: Communitarians (feel close to their neighbors and trust people in general); Localists (feel close to their neighbors but distrust people in general); Humanists (trust people in general but don’t feel close to their neighbors); and Isolationists (distrust people in general and disconnected from their neighbors). There are hardly any demographic or political differences between these groups—they roughly mirror one another and can be found in all types of communities, urban, suburban and rural. The key difference among these groups is between those who feel close to others in their neighborhoods and those who don’t.
Consider these takeaways from the Ryan’s summary of the AEI survey:
· Communitarians and localists are much more likely than humanists and isolationists to be members of a religious congregation and to believe religious congregations contribute positively to their communities.
· Communitarians are much more likely to have friends or family over at least once a week, to spend more time walking around their community or to attend local events or meetings.
· Communitarians are three times more likely than humanists to say that people in their neighborhood are “very willing” to help others.
“Engagement in one’s community affects one’s perception of it and instills a sense of empowerment,” Ryan wrote, citing other research that shows these types of engagement “boost happiness and tend to reduce ideological extremism by focusing people’s attention on what is going on around them rather than on the abstract worries of the world.”
Before I read these surveys, I wrote a recent article for RP Witness magazine, in which I made a biblical and theological case for Christians to change their focus—from their screens to the scriptures, from national controversies to our neighbors’ needs.
The AEI surveys show there are also practical and political reasons for a similar shift in focus. If Christians, especially conservative Christians, become communitarians (and many already are), they’ll likely meet many other people who disagree with them politically—and yet make connections and find common cause for improving their communities.
Will that solve all our nation’s problems? Will it by itself end the polarization depicted by the cartoon? Of course not. But it might begin to heal the sharp divisions in our society. It might reduce the hatred and fear of the other side that drives so much of our politics. It might open up more opportunities to share the gospel and invite someone to church. It might turn our hearts from despairing about the larger-than-life forces we can't control and instead give us hope that we can improve things where we are.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus commanded Christians to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s still good advice today—both theologically and politically.