By Dr. Joseph Chuman, Leader of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
It is as frightening as it is mysterious. Donald Trump did not create it, but he has catapulted it to new heights, though “depths” would be a more accurate metaphor. He also exemplifies its greatest danger. What I am referring to is our political culture, which has become so extremist, small-minded, nasty and grounded in such staggering irrationality and ignorance, that it is hard to wrap one’s mind around it.
Characteristic of current politics is a strident focus on narrow concerns, zealous commitment to single issues and political identities built around them, a savage division of the American people by class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, ideology, with an activism that allows for no compromise. Moreover, how is it that so many millions of Americans express political views, often with great anger, that have no basis in fact, lack any nuance, defy evidence, and in many cases, undermine their own self-interest?
Frightening it certainly is. Democracy requires an informed citizenry and an engaged public capable of weighing evidence and coming to reasoned decisions. Voltaire could have been addressing our current moment when he said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” What we experience today seems unworthy of and alien to an advanced society.
How We Got to This Point
How have we come to this point? How are we to understand the extremism and irrationality which characterizes so much of our political culture? The answers, of course, are many and complex, and as with so many social conundrums, one can only be speculative. I suggest a few.
We need to begin with economic factors. For many working Americans, the economy isn’t functioning anymore. The new economy, characterized by information technologies and increased automation, has left behind older workers. Their factories have moved abroad, their towns have been gutted, leaving them unemployed or underemployed. The doors to upward mobility, an engine of American productivity and personal fulfillment through work, have been slammed shut. They are without hope, and they despair for their children. Economic dislocation and despair give rise to powerlessness that fuels anger: anger against government, anger against the political class, which they feel, correctly, has abandoned them in the service of its own power and wealth; anger against immigrants, whom they are led to believe are taking jobs that should be theirs. And desperation and anger leave people prone to simplistic and extremist ideas, which they cling to as their salvation.
As an offshoot of the above, this cohort feels abandoned, exploited and taken for granted by the two major political parties. This has opened space for the emergence of authoritarian, demagogic and know-nothing leadership, which promotes itself as embodying directly the will of the people and which alone can put an end to their distress.
Making Ignorance into a Virtue
Going back further, the Republican Party can shoulder much of the blame for the extremism and unreason suffusing our politics. In the 80s, it launched an attack not only on liberals, but also more broadly on liberal values. Those tarred as intellectuals, or even educated, were depicted as not quite “real Americans.” It was an extraordinarily destructive strategy that transformed ignorance, anti-intellectualism and unreason into virtues.
Allied with the Republican Party, and even more erosive of reason, was the politicization and extraordinary power of fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalist religion, which places doctrine and faith before reason, is profoundly anti-intellectual and has spread its influence far beyond the confines of the church. Wedded to politics, the Christian Right in the 80s and 90s became a very potent force. Despite the constitutional prohibition of religious tests for public office, an aspiring political leader became expected to wear his religion on his or her sleeve and outdo his opponent in the depth of his religiosity. Religious identity became an important element fused to political life.
Another dynamic that has narrowed the scope of political discourse is the power of modern communications technology and, with it, how people are informed about the news. The Internet is an extraordinary tool. But it has its down sides. It silos information into narrow and often extreme positions, encouraging people of whatever political persuasion to reinforce their opinions without exposure to conflicting viewpoints. This channeling and narrowing of perspectives has come to characterize so much of the media, which have allowed themselves to become echo chambers for exclusive positions and ideologies, reinforcing political divisions with ever-thickening walls.
There is more I can summon, but the result is that reinforcing one’s identity within a politically defined group becomes more important than values such as dialogue, compromise, and concern for the common good, all of which are necessary for a healthy democracy to flourish.
Tribalism Fosters “In-group vs Out-group” Thinking
Where I am leading is to the conclusion that we can understand much of the irrationalism and extremism of current politics as resulting from something akin to tribal identity. Tribalism, loyalty to one’s group, is an extraordinarily powerful force. All people seek to feel at home in the world. And in great measure that entails reinforcing their personal identities by associating with others much like themselves—those who share with them their values, customs, social habits and ways of life. While this is true to varying degrees in all people, when tribalism becomes excessive, the stage is set for drawing lines between in the in-group and out-groups, us and them, we who are virtuous and they who are to be shunned and reviled.
So powerful can the dynamic of group loyalty become that it can drown out the voice of reason. The reinforcement of communal bonds can deafen one to the claims of evidence or the appeals of outsiders to fundamental recognition and respect. The desire to fit in and feel good and right about oneself trumps all other concerns. Hence the hatred, extremism and irrationalism of our political climate.