In an effort to better acquaint you, the reader, with the VQR staff, members of our team will share excerpts from our personal reading—The Best 200 Words I Read All Week. From fact to fiction, from comedic to tragic, we hope you find as much to admire in these selections as we do.
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Although polarization in the United States shares some basic features with political divisions elsewhere, we found that it stood out in many crucial respects. American polarization has deep roots that have taken decades to grow and strengthen. The United States may look much like many other angry, divided countries, but its brand of polarization raises specific concerns about the future and functioning of its democracy.
In most highly polarized states, the fundamental divisions arose first among elite political actors. They then spread throughout society when politicians made calculated efforts to solidify or expand their bases. U.S. polarization has altogether different sources. Partisan sentiment bubbled up from the belly of American society, not the head.
The cultural transformations that swept the United States in the 1960s and 1970s first set the trend in motion. During this period, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement, and the sexual revolution all upended established traditions and hierarchies. Two contending visions of America emerged from the maelstrom: a progressive vision that embraced far-reaching sociopolitical change and a conservative vision that sought to block or limit it. Politicians and political parties were slow to use the emerging rift to their advantage. Instead, social activists, evangelists, and public intellectuals drove the rise of polarization within American society.
Associate Editor Alex Brock
Excerpt from “How Americans Were Driven to Extremes,” in Foreign Affairs
He was born in Brownsville, the oldest of four children raised by a single mother. He attended Gladys Porter Early College High School. According to one of his attorneys, he competed on the swim team and ran cross-country. He was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was active in the youth group at an Assembly of God church. “He had all the makings of the all-American boy,” the attorney said.
Juan David Ortiz—his friends called him J. D.—was also a patriot.
Executive Editor Allison Wright
Excerpt from “The Hunt for the Serial Killer of Laredo” in Texas Monthly
To use the well-worn metaphor of the Titanic, the ruling classes understand that the shipwreck is certain; they reserve the lifeboats for themselves and ask the orchestra to go on playing lullabies so they can take advantage of the darkness to beat their retreat before the ship’s increased listing alerts the other classes. For a clarifying episode that is not metaphoric in the least: ExxonMobil, in the early 1990s, knowing full well what it was doing, after publishing excellent scientific articles on the dangers of climate change, chose to invest massively in frenetic extraction of oil and at the same time in an equally frenetic campaign to proclaim the nonexistence of the threat.
These people—whom we can call the obscurantist elites from now on—understood that if they wanted to survive in comfort, they had to stop pretending, even in their dreams, to share the earth with the rest of the world.
Assistant Editor Heidi Siegrist
Excerpt from Down to Earth in Lapham’s Quarterly