How the Covington Catholic firestorm reinforced America's divisions

Analysis: If there is anything to be gleaned from the reaction to the viral video, it is that most Americans live in bubbles filled by people like them.
Students from Covington Catholic High School in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Students from Covington Catholic High School in front of the Lincoln Memorial. @ka_ya11 via YouTube

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By Janell Ross

When liberals looked at the videos shot near the Lincoln Memorial last Friday, they saw a smirking, entitled son of likely Donald Trump voters. Here was a Catholic school boy who seemed to enjoy a silent but disrespectful faceoff with an older Native American man and his drum, while the boy’s white classmates tomahawk chopped and jeered.

When conservatives looked at the same videos they saw a collection of kids waiting for a bus near the memorial after participating in the March for Life. The boys faced verbal goading by Black Israelites and were confronted by an unusual Native American man with a drum but stayed positive by doing spirit cheers. The Covington Catholic High School kids were the lambs, and the others were wolves circling them.

In the week since, it’s become clear that at least some of each of those perspectives is true, but virtually no one’s mind has been changed about what actually happened and what all of it means.

“It seems everyone wants a simple story,” said Matt Motyl, a political psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Motyl, who is also a research fellow at New York University, studies why people have a hard time talking about hot-button issues without conflict or are reticent to engage with those who contradict the views they already hold.

For all the unique and almost theatrical elements of the incident on the National Mall, it’s the reaction to the incident, and the reaction to that reaction, that seemed to compel many Americans to pick a side. If there is anything like a truth to be gleaned from the entire mess, it is that in this deeply divided America, most people live, work, learn, worship, protest and play inside of bubbles filled by people much like them. That dynamic contributes to clashes when the bubbles collide, resulting in viral moments of which no one should be proud and raising tensions around unstoppable demographic and social change.

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We all tend to like and hold in greater esteem people who are like us, people in our “group.” In his research, Motyl uses a long-standing social science tool that can best be described as the warmth and regard scale, a kind of social thermometer. It ranges from a cold 0 to a very warm 100. That research has shown that for much of the last century, people, on average, regarded hypothetical people who shared their political views somewhere around an 80 and those who did not somewhere around 60, a figure not far from a neutral 50. But since the 1990s, something dramatic has taken shape: People’s average esteem for those who share their views has grown to around 90, while mistrust and “coldness” toward those who do not have slipped to an average of 10.

Put another way, when the initial video emerged showing a group of white teenage boys, many of them clad in Make America Great Again hats and some of them executing tomahawk chops, appearing to face off with an older Native American — all while standing near a monument dedicated to Lincoln, the emancipator — America reacted. In some cases, people picked the details that affirmed and aligned with the conversations already happening inside their bubbles and discarded the rest. And, since those on the other side of the political spectrum are no longer regarded as simply different but potentially evil or disreputable, many attributed the worst possible motives to those offering differing interpretations.

To many people, those MAGA hats visible in the video clips identified at least some of those students as willing characters in an ongoing culture war, said Robert Jones, founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the book “The End of White Christian America.”

The culture war began long before the young men of Covington Catholic were born.

Starting in the 1960s, many white Christian conservatives left the Democratic Party for the Republican camp in opposition to expanding civil rights to African Americans. They rejected the race mingling and other social changes that would follow.

And by the 1990s, when opposition to abortion, gay rights and later gay marriage ranked among the chief political concerns of conservative white Christians, right-leaning Catholics began to join this fold.

At the time, white Christians represented a true majority. As recently as 2008, white Christians — Catholics and Protestants — made up 54 percent of the country. Today, that figure is 42 percent.

“Demographic change is something you usually talk about in terms of a generation or two,” Jones said. “Demographic change that rapid can set off intense reactions, intense emotions.” Jones likened these emotions to the stages of grieving described by psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her model includes five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. People do not always make linear or sustained progress.

“I’d say, right now, the conservative white Christian political movement moves back and forth between denial and anger,” Jones said. “In Trump and the decision to back a leader lacking in the very character the moral majority always put ahead of everything, they’ve entered into a kind of bargaining.”

That history has loomed in the backdrop as the parents of the Covington students have said that their children are the bias-free progeny of religious families trying to raise their sons with values. Over the course of the week, they’ve also become the subjects of intense national scrutiny, their churches, diocese and school subject to threats and shutdowns.

They’ve defended their children against accusations that they’re the type of entitled, aggressive young white American males free to operate with impunity, suggesting that they are the victims here.

“Everyone wants their side to be good, to be right, and the other to be clearly bad,” Motyl said. “But since we don’t watch the same news, we don’t read the same information and we don’t talk much to people with other perspectives, it’s as if we are actually living in different worlds where no one has really grasped the truth.”