In response to the Arizona shootings, congressperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on the PBS News Hour Thursday that we’ve got to “stop treating our opponents as enemies”. President Obama eulogizing nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green said, “I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations”. The issue of civility in political and legislative discourse, which I attempted to address in my last two blog pieces, is now front and center in public discussion in the media.
Ron Brownstein in his piece “Apocalypse Always” for the National Journal does a good job calling out the problem…
The apocalyptic strain in modern politics means, as Wilentz notes, “you no longer disagree with the person; the person is a threat to the very existence of the country and its values.” In modern American politics, it’s always apocalypse now. During George W. Bush’s presidency, opponents said that his national-security agenda amounted to “war crimes.” The liberal group MoveOn.org (in)famously labeled Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”… All of this was merely the overture for a more raw and relentless conservative attack on President Obama and the Democratic Congress. Glenn Beck has said that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people.” Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia described former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as one of the “domestic enemies of the Constitution.” Newt Gingrich declared: “The secular socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”
Brownstein goes on to give a brief history of civil political discourse (or lack there of) in the United States relative to today, concluding that…
The apocalyptic strain in modern politics means, as Wilentz notes, “you no longer disagree with the person; the person is a threat to the very existence of the country and its values.”
So essentially arguments are being presented on controversial issues in the political debate and the legislative process not in the sense that my position is better than my opponents, but that my opponent’s position is a disaster waiting to happen, and that my opponent’s motivations are at best naïve, but more likely disingenuous, self-serving or outright evil.
I frame what Brownstein, Obama and Wasserman-Schultz are addressing in terms of human society’s transition over the past three millennia. That’s a pretty grand scope, I know, but it really gives me such a strong historical context or flow to understand the dynamics of why we are the way we are. That transition is what I often describe as from “patriarchy to partnership”, or alternatively from “hierarchy to a circle of equals”. If those terms don’t resonate with much meaning for you, maybe our human societal evolution could be described at its most basic as moving from “us and them” thinking towards thinking instead that there is no “them” and there is only “us”.
Looking at “us and them” thinking in our human history, it was all about how we divided people up by age or gender, clan or tribe, and later by more abstract concepts such as race or nation. However the dividing was done, there was an in-group within which there was at least a degree of mutual respect and care surrounded by outsiders that generally engendered fear. To mitigate that fear, often the in-group would define itself as somehow privileged or otherwise superior to the outsiders and justified in exercising a degree of separation from and control over (including violence against) those outsiders. I’m talking here about the classic conquest and subjugation that we read about in ancient history or the more modern versions of colonialism and imperialism. Sometimes even framing the subjugation paternalistically as being for the subjugated group’s own good.
This “us and them” thinking would even permeate and stratify the in-group. A subset of people would be defined (or define themselves) in positions of authority as rulers, lords, or priests, and later as aristocrats or bosses, responsible for and exercising control over their fellow in-group members. This subset exercised a degree of privilege among their own maintained (again as with outsiders) by separation, control and even violence; and justified paternalistically.
We have remnants of this “us and them” thinking even today in various aspects of our everyday lives, between managers and the people they manage, between adult school staff (teachers and principals) and the students they manage, and generationally between parents and the children that they “manage”. The same dynamics of privilege, separation, control and paternalism apply, including a degree of violence where necessary justified as “discipline” or “consequences”.
As these areas of our lives are affected by “us and them” thinking, so is our political and legislative process. As Brownstein calls out in his piece…
Throughout American history there has always been a portion of the opposition that views the president and the governing party as not only misguided or ineffective but also fundamentally un-American… The mid-19th-century Whigs considered Andrew Jackson an executive tyrant who would shred the Constitution; many white Southerners viewed John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as tyrannical for dismantling segregation.
These are arguments tied up with the maintenance of privilege based on fear of out-groups (white men of the unpropertied class in the case of the Whigs and black people for the segregationists), a fear which was often framed paternalistically in terms of “managing” people who could not properly manage themselves. This fear and resulting paternalism was often “spun” into (and perhaps obscured within) a larger ideological context to gain support based on idealistic constructs beyond mere fear and maintenance of privilege.
In this way, the challenge to white privilege embodied by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was reframed by defenders of that privilege in terms of states rights and religious values in order to gain allies. These allies included conservative Christians, who based on their Christian principles of “love thy fellow man”, etc. would not necessarily be supporters of white privilege. Supporters of Civil Rights were painted as part of a larger movement dedicated to undermining Christianity and promoting in its place a godless secularism, socialism or worse. To this end, a profound ideological divide between the political parties was framed and repeatedly reinforced. Even progressive at times used this hyperbolic construct to their political advantage, including portraying Barry Goldwater as a danger to world peace rather than just a danger to Democratic control of the White House.
The reality of that artificially widened ideological divide is something quite different according to Brownstein…
In fact, the stakes in our political debates, though substantial, are rarely so large. The parties’ visions are distinct but not so disparate that they risk a rupture with American tradition. Each side operates along the continuum of debate over the proper balance between government and the private sector that has shaped American politics since Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This isn’t arm-wrestling between Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek.
Given all the above, people in the United States and throughout the world still strive for a more egalitarian society based on friendship and cooperation and moving beyond “us and them” thinking. This effort is supported by the best of our ethical and faith traditions, based as they are on the Golden Rule and the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. It is to the detriment of the effective governance of our country that we fail to practice it in our political and legislative debates.
But like any ceasefire between combatants, it generally has to be mutual to be effective. Given my bias as a progressive myself, it looks to me like the occasional cease fires in the last forty years have more often been violated by those of “us” who are conservatives.
And given that conservatism in principle involves conserving the best of the past, I acknowledge more of an inclination towards a traditional hierarchical view of the world. But in the experiment in egalitarianism that the United States represents, I challenge my fellow citizens on both the left and right of our political spectrum to surrender the idolatrous allure of “us and them” thinking in favor of only “us”, and the best of human-kind.