Friday, February 26, 2016

Who Are We?

Marco Rubio started off his opening statement to Thursday's Republican debate by making an inadvertently profound point. The 2016 President Election, Rubio said, is fundamentally not about this policy or that talking point. It's about who we are as a country, as a society. In his words, it's about "the identity of America".

I don't share a lot in common with Senator Rubio, but on this one point he is absolutely right. One reason why we are so drawn to Presidential elections - despite their being less important than we think they are - is that they represent perhaps the only truly nationwide measure of who we are as a people.

This, I think, is what is currently sustaining attention for, and driving reactions to, Donald Trump's candidacy. (Yes, I know I said I didn't want to talk about Trump. I still don't. But it's impossible to talk about broader issues without bringing him in at some point.) A lot of people see the anger, the hatred, the demonizing, the stratospheric levels of incivility, and they wonder: is this who we really are as Americans?

Vox, rapidly becoming one of the better popular purveyors of actual political science research and expertise, ran this piece a few days ago suggesting that Trump's support isn't demographic, it's attitudinal. In particular, it's predicated on one attitude in particular: authoritarianism, or individuals' inclination to authoritarian behavior and worldviews. Borrowing from the article's author:
People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.
There is undoubtedly a correlation between authoritarianism and racism, but that can miss the point. In the authoritarian view, racism is simply a part of a broader worldview of people who are inclined to pull inside their tribal walls, circle the wagons, and make sure that absolutely nothing changes. Such people are quite willing to use violence when necessary to enforce the reality they cling to.

At the root of the authoritarian worldview, of course, is fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of perceived threats and slights. The Vox article above notes that the other statistically significant predictor of Trump support is fear of terrorism - specifically, fear that you or someone you love might be attacked by terrorists. I've written about fear as a driver too many times to count; here's the most recent.

The thing about fear is that it is a choice. We don't always experience it as such, but people who have grappled with fear understand that we have it within our power to choose whether or not to be afraid. Some fears, of course, are instinctive: if a bear breaks down my front door I'm going to experience fear. But most of the fears being discussed in public - fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, fear of blacks (or #blacklivesmatter), fear of impending disasters political or economic - are things we visit on ourselves. Like Jacob Marley, we forge our own chains in life, link by link, until in the end they crush us with their weight.

So this appears to be what our Presidential contest is really measuring. Do we, in the soaring rhetoric of all of our past Presidents (Democrat and Republican alike), really value freedom? Are we really the Americans whom Ronald Reagan invoked when he spoke of the compassion, patriotism, and heroism of everyday citizens? Are we the hopeful, interconnected, idealistic people that Bill Clinton addressed from that same podium? Are we who we want to be, who we know we should be when we are at our best?

Or are we frightened, scared, divided, turning against one another in spite and anger and hatred? Are we mean and petty, denying each other's dignity and humanity and focusing on differences that are largely inventions of the human mind? Do we delight in the pain and suffering of others, because it makes us feel safer and more powerful?

Every great faith tradition, every philosophy, every system of thought in human history points clearly towards one of these poles and away from the other. Pope Francis today reminded us that "Deus Caritas Est" - God is love. Native American traditions have long passed down the wisdom of the "two wolves" - the struggle inside everyone of us. Mohammed referred to the "major jihad", the struggle within for self-control and virtue, as far more important than the "minor jihad" involving outsiders.

In politics, people disagree, sometimes strongly. There are significant differences in how people think our country should be run and what policies our government should adopt - although these differences are often far less than what our "leaders" make them out to be. But those differences are simply the backdrop of our daily lives, a part of the environment we live in. The real question is: how do we respond to difference? Do we feed the wolf of virtue, follow the call of God that is love, struggle within ourselves to be the best we can be? Or do we give in to our fear, allowing it to twist us to anger, jealousy, hatred, and violence?

We don't talk about this as part of the Presidential campaign, because it's easier and sexier to talk about who "won" the latest debate or which candidate is ahead in the polls. But those questions aren't the most important ones. The real question is the same one that faces us very day:

Who are we? And because of what we do today, who will we be tomorrow?

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