Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Politics of Fear

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) know that I am not a fan of partisan politics. While I may find myself agreeing with policy positions of one party more than another, the correlation is far from perfect. I know very thoughtful, intelligent people who identify as both Democrats and Republicans who have helped me view issues in new and different ways. In that sense, I think that many of the policy differences we have as a country are (or can be) reasonable discussions around which compromise can be built and progress can be made.

This is not, of course, most people's experience of American politics. As seen both in our mainstream media and on social media networks (broadly speaking, including blogs and websites shared among tribal groups), politics is about anything but compromise or a search for common ground. It is vitriolic, mean-spirited, nasty, petty, and generally soul-draining.

I have from time to time suggested different divisions which may matter more than our traditional Left/Right, Republican/Democratic divide. One of these is the approach to evidence and reason: do we look for answers to empirical questions in the rules of science and logic, or do we make appeals to authority and revealed answers that may fly in the face of facts? Do we view "facts" as primary or as constructed in the service of power? Karl Rove famously drew this line in an interview in 2004, in which he contrasted the "reality-based community" with one in which "when we act, we create our own reality." Personally, I've always tended to favor Richard Feynman's formulation: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

But as important as I think scientific empiricism is, it has its limits. Many of the challenges of the human condition are not solvable by science alone, and many of the important things in the world are built on meaning that is well outside the realm of facts and scientific inquiry. I pointed out recently that the STEM fields are great for solving all kinds of problems - but if you want to address issues like Dylann Roof and the Charleston shootings, you need to go beyond the lab. Meaning, emotion, and identity matter a lot, and these things are understood far better by poets, historians, and philosophers (professionally speaking) than by biochemists and engineers.

Which brings me back to my original thought: there are more important divides in American politics than the political parties. Facts & reality vs. naked power and tribal identity is one. Fear vs. human connection is another.

What do I mean by this? First, I use "fear" as a shorthand to refer to a cluster of negative emotions and experiences: fear, anger, hatred. Fans will know the most famous compilation of these:

There's a lot of politics driven by these things. Consider this meme, which I found on my FB feed yesterday:

That's a lot of hate and bile packed into one picture. Its added punch is that it's totally gratuitous - at this stage few people give Bernie Sanders any serious chance of winning the Democratic nomination, and most Republicans are spending their time bashing Hillary Clinton. This is a little like kicking the little kid on the playground just because he's wearing glasses.

I wrote recently on this blog: I don't get internet hate. Memes like this spread the hate by making it easy for people to participate in it - just hit "like" or "share" and you too can be part of the fun. What I found surprising about this meme was not that it exists, but that it was shared by a person who belongs to a faith community in which I also am a member. He and I have even served together in the past on church-related matters. In a word, he ought to know better.

I think this divide, between fear/anger/hatred on the one hand and human compassion and understanding on the other, is the most critical difference among us. What makes it vexing is that it is not just a divide between people - some embrace a politics of fear and hate, others don't. It's also a divide within people. All of us, even those most committed to compassion and understanding, struggle with this every day. The temptation to give in to the bile and the vitriol can be strong, and it is extremely persistent:

On my better days - which hopefully outnumber the worse ones - I am happy to stand with anyone in the political arena who is genuinely searching for the common good and who is open to working with others to get there. In this lens, Democrat and Republican disappear. There are only those who want to build a community together, and those who want to tear it apart so they can wall themselves off - or worse, "purify" the world by getting rid of the Others.

Fear, anger, and hatred sell well, which explains a lot of what we see both in the media and on the internet. Donald Trump has planted his flag firmly in that camp, for which he has been richly rewarded with lavish attention, airtime, and bandwidth. I expect this will only grow between now and November 2016, whether Trump persists or quits - there are more waiting to take his place. And I wonder, in the midst of all the screaming, yelling, anger, and hatred, whether there will be any room left for another party with a different view.

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