The government shutdown has put a fine point on what everyone now recognizes. The struggle for control of the institutions of the United States government has turned into a full tribal war. Us vs. Them. Pick a side, rally for your team, never believe anything the other team says, declare everything an emergency, pose as the victim when you don’t get your way, fantasize about the final defeat of your enemies, and dream of the spoils that will come your way when history declares you the winner.
Polarization Worse Than You Think
You might say this is nothing new. Politics is always this way. It’s one side vs. the other. True, but it is getting worse. The two parties now vote as a block, almost without exception. You think you are voting for the man or woman. Actually, you are voting for a D or an R. The enforcement of party discipline these days compares to the totalitarian regimes of the interwar period. As candidates, they only pretend to have particularized opinions; as elected politicos, they comply or else.
But there is an even more vicious twist to the current struggles that go beyond politics as usual. What began as conventional politics has mutated into a culture war which took what now appears to be an inevitable turn to become a demographic war. It’s one group vs. another; at least this is what we are being told by the clerisy on a daily basis. We are being encouraged to think that there is no difference between politics and biology, same as with certain well-known nationalist movements in interwar Germany.
Diversity that Bites
An example comes from a mainstream podcast this morning that celebrates the new demographic composition of the House of Representatives. More women. More minorities. More religious diversity. More gender/sexual identities. Oh, how American is changing! Look at the glorious excitement this is generating! We are constantly lectured that this is the result of a mighty struggle. This breaks new ground. But it also raises the possibility of blowback from the old guard.
I want be happy about a move to more inclusionary politics. But the next scene cuts to the Senate where the bad old ways still persist. And how do we know? Just look at them. Old. White. Men. These are the bad guys, the ones to overthrow, the powers that be, the people to blame for all existing problems. It’s barely a subtext anymore. A Google trends analysis over the last 15 years reveals the point. The messaging is incessant and unrelenting: men possess toxicity by virtue of historical dominance; the patriarchy has ruled for too long and must be displaced; whites, well, you know the story.
Forget ideology. Forget philosophy. We are being told that all the core struggles of our time are basically biological. According to this theory, you are either born oppressed or oppressor. You can’t change who you are. Your political obligations are thus dictated by birth.
I don’t need to go into detail about this particular report because you have heard it all a thousand times already. The news media is so enraptured with this theory that they can barely see beyond it. Vox thinks nothing of writing analysis like the following: “The Democratic side of the chamber was filled with bright outfits — including some that offered their own underlying meanings [read: identity]. The Republican side had a lot of suits.”
How boring are the members of the oppressor class, and how colorful and awesome are the newly liberated.
Identity-based analysis has become a very safe reflex for the entire information machine. It allows reporters and commentators to occupy what seems to be the moral high ground while avoiding questions about political bias. Who is against more diversity? It’s the ultimate journalistic safe space but at what cost? The signaling is targeted and unmistakable, and hence fuels the next problem.
The Ferocity of the Other Side
On the other side of the aisle, we have the great struggle to make America great again but what does this mean? It means the wall. A wall on the southern border. To stop an invasion. It’s an emergency. We are being invaded by them. Let’s leave it to the imagination to fill in the rest with the biological component. Basically, the implications are the opposite of the above, a flipped narrative about who is oppressed and who is the oppressor.
And it doesn’t stop there. Look at what these foreign peoples are doing to us in trade. They owe us money. They’ve been robbing us for too long. They can take their economies and shove it. We are going our own way. This is especially true of that strange country called China, filled with oddballs who think differently from us and have been cleverly getting ever more powerful even as this great country is sinking into a pit of pathology. Someone is to blame. It’s them. They are hurting us.
We’ve got to stop the robbery taking place, we are being told. Our place in history is slipping and we can’t allow that. We must take back what is ours, with walls and barriers to both trade and migration, all led by a great man who embodies the heart of who we are.
All with this blowback, you find the cult of hyper-masclinity, again, embodied in the great leader. If the left thinks that the war on “patriarchy” is easily won, take a few moments to peruse a men’s rights forum online. You won’t believe what you see. And you can’t dismiss this as a handful of lunatics. This is ferocious.
Here again, identity politics is primary. It’s not just identity politics. It’s biological politics. The once-sane right wing – that group that celebrated civility, tradition, and the rule of law – has taken the bait of the Left and reconstituted itself as a mirror image. Or maybe you think the causation runs the other way, that the right’s excesses fueled those of the left. The left had to go biological in light of the existential threat posed by the weaponized biology of the right. The blame game can toggle between the two far back in history, and you can tell any story you want to tell. Whatever suits your interest, based on your biology.
Break It Up!
Here’s the thing. I don’t really care who started this war. It’s a war that no one can win. I don’t care whether the right is a response to the left or vice versa. This whole argument is starting to remind me of playground fights in the elementary school, before the teacher arrived to say: break it up and get back to doing what you should be doing.
The problem with American public life today is the dearth of people who are willing to play the role of the adult who happens upon a vicious playground fight. Someone needs to rise above this muck and model what it is like to be mature. This needs to happen because so many others are being caught up in tribal wars based on cockamamie theories of causation, spinning tales of victimization that are becoming so entrenched that they operate as a kind of brain cancer that eats away at the ability to be rational.
How can each of us do this? For the new year, I’ve made the following resolutions.
First, never play whataboutism. I’m sure it is true that there is someone worse than the existing president and there is someone who is worse than the person who seeks to depose the existing president. Because you can name someone worse doesn’t make your hero a good person in the great struggle to write the next chapter of the human narrative. Fear of the other is not a sound basis for picking the leaders of the present.
Second, I’m not listening to any argument on any topic that relies on self-declared identity as a precondition for the points being made. You can always recognize such arguments. They begin with “as a fill in the blank,” whereupon we are encouraged to believe the victim/authority based on identity alone. For now on, I will edit out that intro and respond only to rational points.
Third, I will no longer participate in the tired American habit of gathering demographic data about me or anyone. If I have the option, I will no longer voluntarily declare my gender, race, or religion. I will regard myself as a human being alone and expect others to do the same. I will not cough up answers that I know for sure will be used in someone’s war against someone else.
This is a start, a way we can contribute to social peace. We can, where possible, decline to make matters worse. We need to make a decision that we will not allow any cause to draft us as a member of an army by virtue of biology or any other conditions that are baked into who we believe ourselves to be.
We need to do all this now before things get worse. History shows where this viciousness of demographic struggles and wars ends up. It is extremely ugly. No one wins. The politics of conflict must be replaced by the realization that human cooperation among all people is possible. Not only possible: it is essential for the building of life. It is up to all of us, in our own way, to secede from the demographic wars, as a contribution we can all make to ending the struggles that are dragging us down to become less than we are and can be.