In recent decades, popular culture has treated politics as something that is inherently problematic. But politics is also essential to ensuring everything from national security to a social safety net. How did politics get its bad rap? And what can we do about it?
A new book, Embattled America: the Rise of Anti-Politics and America’s Obsession with Religion, not only outlines the idea of anti-politics, but outlines how (and why) the United States needs to revisit and revitalize the idea of political life – not just for politicians, but for everyone.
To learn more, we talked with author Jason Bivins, a professor of religious studies at NC State.
The Abstract: You’ve written two previous books on religion and politics in the United States. What was the impetus for this one?
Jason Bivins: The basic drive here was not only to understand the role of conservative religion in the rise of anti-democratic forces in America, but to make an argument that an obsession with said religion is preventing citizens of good will from focusing on the necessary areas of public life so desperately in need of reform.
TA: This may be a bit of an oversimplification, but I think it’s fair to say that your first two books focused on how religion has informed politics and political action. This book takes a different approach. It seems to be focused more on how political structures and systems in the United States have essentially created the conditions that have allowed a particular brand of conservative Christianity to become politically powerful. Is that right? And can you explain a little bit what sort of systems you’re talking about and the role they’ve played in the rise of the “Christian right”?
Bivins: My chief focus here is laying out what I call the rise of anti-politics. What I mean by this is the coordinated effort at not only fomenting a sense of conservative victimhood complexes but the broader (false) claims that the two major political parties are the same, one’s vote never matters, the system is inherently rigged and unfixable, and therefore one’s focus should not be the commons but the maximization of self-interest. Whether in action movies or public commentary, there’s been a steady abandonment of the idea that politics is worthwhile and meaningful for everyday citizens. I think that only by reclaiming the political can we save ourselves.
TA: How does all of this tie into President Trump’s rise and the changes we’ve seen in the Republican party since 2015?
Bivins: I actually think that, as significant as Trump is as a galvanizing force, one of the main takeaways is that this has been building since the 1970s. All of public life has been made subject to the claims of the market, social services have been hollowed out, and we’ve seen the triumph of a particular brand of morality in all kinds of social/political spheres. Trump just managed to capture the right kind of rage, to galvanize a bunch of apathetic voters, and to normalize xenophobia and authoritarianism in ways we haven’t seen since George Wallace. The key here is that the Republican Party let the fringe elements in, so as to hold onto power.
TA: Two of the fundamental concepts in your book are groups of people who you call “Martyrs” and “Whistleblowers.” Can you explain those two terms and why they’re important?
Bivins: This is the discourse analysis part of the book. One of the things that’s struck me over the years is how impotent left wing takes on religion are. They’re strident, often unproductively anticlerical, and actually conceded a lot of ground to right-wing victimology. In conceding a kind of dualism in my own analysis, I’m trying to show that this very antagonism is the “hamster wheel” that’s got Americans locked into what’s basically a distraction from structural change.
TA: The book includes a number of “case studies,” one might even call them non-fiction parables, aimed at helping readers grasp the book’s key concepts. Can you give me an example, why you chose it, and what you are hoping readers take away from it?
Bivins: In the most basic sense, they’re the product of my energetic documentation of political madness during the years when I was writing my book on jazz. While I had some hope, between 2010-2012 for example, that someone like Glenn Beck might sputter out into insignificance, I found that many of the key figures were reenergized by Trump. But instead of merely documenting every unsubstantiated conspiracy theory from right-wing talking heads, I wanted to challenge myself and readers to see foundational categories and arguments at work behind the sideshow. I like the idea of parables, since they represent learning opportunities for citizens rather than just occasions to flame people on social media.
TA: Many – maybe even most – academic books focus on helping readers understand how and why something happened. While you go into that here, this book also outlines a path forward: focused on political activity and skirting issues of faith completely. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
Bivins: I felt strongly that I did enough historical explanatory work in my first two books. Here I was in middle age, at a time of genuine peril in my country, and I thought I should go big with some focused engagement with key political categories that America needs to rethink. My training in political theory set me up to do that pretty well (I hope) and I do think this kind of effort is necessary, rather than succumbing to despair.
TA: There’s often a significant time lag between when an author finishes writing a book and when that book is published. Given that your book is focused on our current political climate, are there any political events that took place after you’d submitted the book that you wish you’d been able to include? Why?
Bivins: Well, it was actually through the review process right as quarantine hit in March 2020. As I waited out those months I just kept writing. My editor and I thought it best to hold on and see what fresh madness the election and its aftermath brought. Turned out to be a smart move.
TA: If you could get readers to take just one thing away from this book, what would it be?
Bivins: It’s going to take several generations, but we need fundamental change. I’m talking about the institutional stuff, not attitudinal change. The scale of American life, along with the corporatization of politics, freezes out tens if not hundreds of millions of citizens. The current situation is unsustainable, and without significant electoral, judicial, and economic reform, there are some pretty nasty decades ahead of us. That, and social media is the devil.