Angus McGregor, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, considers a multi-tooled approach to defuse the explosive nature of the current political environment in the United States.
Politics in the United States that are built upon a false narrative of resentment and tribalism are further polarizing the nation and ushering in an era of weak governance that ultimately threatens the inherent attributes of a civil society. The growing divisions in American society are marked by a politics that encourages a “us vs. them” strategy in order to protect special interests, guarantee political power, and promote political agendas. Yet, politics in itself is not the root cause of the unraveling of this process, rather it is the management of politics and a way of governing that has ushered in this unempathetic era of uncivil political discourse. The managers of these modern politics have done this by catering to the agendas of special interest groups, the religious morality corps, and the political professionals who seem to be consolidating not only power and wealth, but also governing authority as they climb to the top of a political mountain built upon a polarized and dysfunctional citizenry. The political machinery dominated by those with agenda driven politics and concerned mainly with short-term gains over long-term development have methodically put in motion a strategy that plays off the fears and insecurities of the populace in order to advance the authority of their agenda resulting in a nation that is bitterly divided in an era marked by an increasing inequality gap and disenfranchised population. Moving through this divisive time of polarized politics towards a future more oriented towards a unified approach to systemic change will require not only a changing of how politics are strategized, employed, and utilized, but also a reaffirmation of the role of dignity and empathy in guiding American society through the process.
Human dignity ensures that each person has value and is worthy of respect. Through law, politics, education, and economic systems, many people experience conditions that ensure their human dignity remains intact and secure. It is a sense of community and belonging, supported by laws and systems, that reinforce the feelings of human dignity to allow individuals to grow, develop, and live dignified lives. In ideal communities reciprocal social and economic protections are enabled, ensuring all people a basic share of social resources and opportunities. Collective security is a product of such environments where an individual’s dignity is respected and empowered. However, when these systems are broken down and destroyed, the struggle for human dignity becomes a daily odyssey that requires individuals and communities to protest, demonstrate, and/or strike out for new places of security, belonging, and meaning.
Globalization as a Game Changer
Evelin Lindner writes in Honor, Humiliation, and Terror: An Explosive Mix – And How We Can Diffuse It with Dignity that the world’s history has been characterized by a “competition for domination” where “might became right”. The duty of a government was to destroy enemies, secure resources, and never suffer humiliation (Lindner, 2017). Dominance and humiliation have guided geo-politics for centuries as nation-states forwent inter-dependence for independence, acting in their own self-interest, and always being prepared for self-preservation. Out of this anarchical state came a global order that saw the United States rise to the top to lead a new world order structured around globalization. Lindner refers to this new stage of global interconnectedness as a “game changer” but goes on to say how globalization based on neoliberalism policies for unbridled and unregulated economic expansion has created nothing more than a “dangerous illusion” of social progress (Lindner, 2017).
While globalization was a game changer in transforming many communities around the world providing some with new tools to use to rise out of poverty, it also forced many communities, mainly those in manufacturing centers of developed nations, to watch as their traditional economic base migrated away in this new borderless economy. As more and more communities became economically marginalized due to an eroding of their economic base, distrust in government and institutions began to rise providing politicians and political movements with a population to organize and unite against the “so called” forces causing this downward spiral of the “American Dream”. Domestic industrial sectors in the traditional manufacturing belts of many Western nations were left economically shattered under this new reality and as a result, a rise in instability, stress, and humiliation began to take root, leading to a new wave of populism and identity politics. When groups and communities are threatened, tribalism can easily emerge as a way to give direction to marginalized individuals who feel cheated, oppressed, and abused. And, what emerged as a result of this neo-liberal globalization era was that a segment of “white” people began to claim their own form of identity politics further driving a wedge between an inclusive United States and a divided nation.
Identity Politics and Tribalism
Tribalism can cause groups to feel insecure, defeated, mistreated, and disrespected and as they unite under this specific identity, a defensive posture begins to take shape, further polarizing the debate as an individual’s feelings of insecurity and threats are met by another group’s willingness to negate those real feelings. As this viscous and uncivil cycle of blaming and humiliating continues, the standards for civil society are often ignored as certain groups and leaders capitalize on the fraying of society in order to maintain their own authority over those fighting it out. Lindner points to this as she draws a connection with present-day society and the sinking of the Titanic as she draws a connection of the global order with the Titanic and the stratification of the ship’s decks with upper deck passengers obliviously concerned with their luxuries and control, as the lower decks fight for more access and opportunity (Lindner, 2017). Lindner’s analogy can also be applied to America’s current state of political discourse where exclusivity and dominance will ultimately be the cause of the demise of the ship, while inclusivity and cooperation have the capacity to guide her to a safer port.
While the American public is divided on numerous social and political issues from abortion to gay marriage, immigration to voting rights, and regulated markets to free capitalism, many would probably agree that the current political and economic system is rigged against the common good of the common citizen. In a world where a small percentage of the world’s population controls the majority of the world’s wealth, voting publics have begun to embrace more populist movements in order to try and regain some sort of control over a system that seems to be unfairly stacked against their best interests. Populist demagogues have exploited these feelings of resentment, anger, and insecurity in an attempt to establish more authoritarian governing styles that feed off of division, instability, and unrest while discrediting facts, amplifying hatred, and legitimizing bigotry. Victimization, tribal allegiances, and identity politics are the products of a governing body that has failed to champion true progress over economic gains while fostering mistrust in governing institutions. As Francis Fukuyama writes in Identity, “Our present world is simultaneously moving toward the opposing dystopias of hyper centralization and endless fragmentation” (Fukuyama, 2018). While the general population continues to fragment into more and more separate groups entrenched in strong beliefs, the governing elite capitalizes on that polarization by gravitating towards a more centralized structure that guarantees both political and economic stability for a “members only” status quo.
The purpose of democratic institutions is to work for the public good, advance society, and progress towards an equality for all.
Fukuyama writes, “Modern liberal democracies promise and deliver a minimal degree of equal respect, embodied in individual rights, the rule of law, and the franchise. What this does not guarantee is that people in a democracy will be equally respected in practice, particularly members of groups with a history of marginalization” (Fukuyama, 2018). Economic inequality is at the center of the fragmentation and the marginalization of American society and this has led to the ideological divide as to the role of democratic governments and free markets in ensuring a more equitable and sustainable future for a modern society. As Fukuyama notes, the equality of all is not always guaranteed, yet the purpose of democratic institutions is to work for the public good, advance society, and progress towards an equality for all. Markets evaluate and divide their returns by responding to winners and losers, gains and losses, and profits and costs and this often runs contrary to the public government’s role in unifying and being held accountable to the needs of the citizenry, while being transparent in process and uniting in its approach to ensuring society’s needs. Wise and insightful political leaders are needed to guide these institutions with a perspective and an equilibrium necessary for true progress.
Geographical tribalism and identity politics are the results of a nation that has become more and more disenfranchised from its government and institutions. A growing economic inequality, a mistrust in government and leaders, and an eroding sense of security have manifested into two types of political discourse, both positive and negative. Identity politics based on positive discourse brings awareness to injustice and oppression, and calls for positive dissent and change. Conversely, identity politics based on a defensive negative discourse often is just a reinforcement of a status quo and its oppressive nature. Civil society is based on a positive discourse that enables societies to fluidly adapt and change as a result of a critical awareness of policies and beliefs that erode the dignity of all peoples. Once the line of civility has been crossed and discourse is used to incite oppression then civil members of that society do have the responsibility to practice a positive intolerance of that which is aimed at sexism, racism, xenophobic nationalism, exploitation, religious fanaticism, and political repression.
Dignity for All as a Basis for Genuine Engagement
The pendulum in American politics swings between right and left extremes exhausting the general populace as the system continues to comfortably finance corporate accounts while leaving many communities in a state of insecurity and fear. With extremes in political shifts come extremes in personal feelings as these local communities are left to deal, many times on their own, with social issues of immigration, sexuality, racism, and economic depression. With only two main political choices the American political scene has come to resemble the school rivalries of high school sports, complete with pep rallies of team spirit, false promises of results, and spiritual requests for victory in order to win at all costs. However, the true costs of this juvenile approach to politics are the divisions within communities making it extremely difficult to move beyond politics in order to find the understanding that is needed to progress forwards. The message has been corrupted so that community unity is mistaken for looking alike, thinking alike, and acting alike. The message that diversity and differences weaken rather than strengthen allows for divisive politics to set in and control the narrative.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-Ghanaian philosopher, writes in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, “Americans share a willingness to be governed by the system set out in the U.S. Constitution. But that does not require anyone to agree to any particular claim of values” (Appiah, 2006). Certain elements in the Democratic and Republican machinery have been able to exploit these emerging rivalries focused on identity politics in order to ensure political victories every two and four years. But Appiah points to the belief that American communities are in fact much more complex than the simple surface rivalries and in secure and more humane political climates, most communities accept differences and diversity as a trait of being American. “There is no agreed-upon answer – and the point is, there doesn’t need to be. We can live together without agreeing on what the values are that make it good to live together: we can agree about what to do in most cases, without agreeing about why it is right” (Appiah, 2006). Shared values are not necessarily vital to creating strong and inclusive communities. Different patterns of daily life can coexist, as long as the patterns are not “seriously disrupted”.
Effective and civil institutions of government are necessary to regulate views of oppression, segregation, and discrimination so that civil society can continue to socially advance.
Identity politics based on dominance and humiliation need to be confronted and rejected. Yet, what is vital for a civil society is to know when to accept and when to reject. The skill of rejection, though, is not easily mastered and more often than not, what is left after the words have been exhausted are embattled souls further entrenched in their beliefs. Unskillful and uncivil discourse distracts from the more important issues as individuals dig in to not only promote a position, but also to protect their identity. Through an oversimplification of the real problems and a labeling of certain peoples as the reason for those problems, false leaders and prophets have further detracted the imperfect American nation from the continued need to re-evaluate its history, address its role in oppression, and forge new policies built on dignity for all. This is why effective and civil institutions of government are necessary to regulate views of oppression, segregation, and discrimination so that civil society can continue to socially advance. Citizens should never lose their voice of dissent and protest, and they should know when to practice positive intolerance in calling out those who wish to manipulate others through violence and oppression.
The road to re-establishing a sense of unity in society’s march towards progress requires a multi-tooled approach where civil political discourse is encouraged at the personal level, while confrontational protests and actions are supported at the institutional level. Neighbors and communities do not always have to agree on common values in order to accept each other. Economic and social progress can continue onwards and upwards even while individuals within a community adhere to a different value structure, as long as civility and dignity are respected as modus operandi for managing community. When empathy is not only practiced, but also expected, it encourages individuals to learn about each other’s situations and then as Appiah says, “…we then use our imaginations to walk a while in their moccasins” (Appiah, 2006). Appiah adds that conversations across boundaries of identity, national allegiances, religious beliefs, just to name a few, often require “imaginative engagement”, but don’t often lead towards consensus, especially when values are discussed. But these conversations do lead people towards getting used to one another. Conversations toward understanding are vital to the process of defusing the explosive nature of the current political environment. Empathy, dignity, and genuine engagement can lead disrupted communities back towards a commonality, while strengthening the relationships necessary to confront the systemic injustices that pollute those institutions of governance and social welfare.
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Appiah, K.A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. United States of America. W.W. Norton & Co. inc.
Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York, NY. Free Press.
Fukuyama, F. (2018). Identity. New York. Picador Press.
Lindner, E. (2017). Honor, Humiliation, and Terror: An Explosive Mix – And How We Can Defuse It with Dignity. Dignity Press.
Maalouf, A. (2012). In the Name of Identity, Violence and the Need to Belong. New York: Arcade Publishing.