The politics of bad faith
Those bemoaning our political polarization often fail to grasp that it is an inevitable consequence of the politicization of American life. That politicization is, in turn, an inevitable consequence of the dramatic expansion of government.
When government grows ever larger, it affects ever more things and leads to more disagreements among Americans regarding those things.
As the public crowds out the private, the private becomes the political and just about everything becomes in some way about politics. Politics becomes more crucial to our identities and we become estranged from those whose politics differ from ours.
The politicization of life that flows from constantly expanding state power consequently sorts us into warring tribes that see those in the other as inherently malevolent. Compromise and civil debate are lost because a sense of shared values and presumptions of good will are lost first.
Political discourse becomes not only nastier but dumber, as tribal loyalties take precedence over logic and facts and the truths they would otherwise reveal.
Politics comes to be more about winning (inherently ephemeral) victories over the other tribe and less about pursuit of the general welfare. We become “dug in” to dogmatic positions, resistant to logic and reason or facts and data that might challenge our worldviews or give the other side some kind of “win.”
Each side sticks to its official, cartoonish narrative, regardless of how at odds with truth it becomes; indeed, truth itself becomes a malleable concept dictated by the imperatives of tribal warfare.
Lies are accordingly spewed and bizarre claims made with straight faces and accepted because tribal loyalty demands it–a presidential election has to have been “stolen” because our side lost (even though the other side’s candidate received seven million more votes nationwide); the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a remarkable success (even though hundreds of Americans apparently were trapped there), a Republican was elected governor of Virginia because Virginia voters are racist (even though they also elected a Black lieutenant governor); voter-ID requirements constitute “Jim Crow on steroids” (even though a majority of African Americans support them), massive government spending will cost nothing and even reduce inflation (as if that has ever happened before, or is even economically possible).
Point out the obvious absurdities in all this and you are accused of working for the other tribe (rather than simply being appalled by the utterance of absurdities). Criticize Donald Trump and you are suddenly a woke leftist (no matter how often you have criticized the woke left); criticize the woke left and you become a Trumper (no matter how often you have criticized Trump).
The logic of tribal warfare requires that you jettison logic out of fear that it might lead you to stray from the herd.
In Glenn Greenwald’s words, “In a world in which ideology, partisan loyalty, tribal affiliations, in-group identity and personality-driven assessments predominate, there is no room for principles, universally applicable rights, or basic reason.”
Under such circumstances, efforts to understand the views of others are all too often replaced by deliberate distortions and mischaracterizations of those views and the motives behind them.
Express concern over woke indoctrination of third-graders and you are accused of wanting to prevent slavery from being taught in schools (rather than simply opposing indoctrination from whatever direction).
Question whether every tornado or hurricane is evidence of apocalyptic climate change and you instantly become a “climate denier” (as unsavory as a “Holocaust denier”).
Argue in favor of color-blindness and merit in college admissions and employment decisions and you are accused of racism (as if making such decisions based on pigmentation isn’t the very definition of the thing).
Criticize Anthony Fauci and you are accused of disdain for “expertise,” and even “science” (as if the good doctor is never wrong, and no other scientists ever disagree with his opinions).
Suggest that “the science” (as well as basic fairness) should prohibit biological men from competing in sports against biological women and you are called a “transphobe” (the latest unscientific use of the concept of “phobia” to smear dissent from orthodoxy).
Posit that the ugly events of Jan. 6 in our nation’s capital were more akin to a drunken riot than a vast, organized conspiracy to overthrow the government and you are called an “insurrectionist” (if not an outright “traitor”).
Point out that the Second Amendment might place limits on gun-control measures and you are accused of being a gun nut who wants to see a tank on every front lawn (even though you don’t own any guns).
Question the necessity or constitutionality of federal vaccination mandates and you are labeled a pro-Trump “anti-vaxxer” (even though you are fully vaccinated, booster shot included, have written columns criticizing vaccine resistance, and never voted for Trump).
When encountering such claims and accusations, the same question always arises–are those making them simply invincibly ignorant and therefore know not what they do, or do they know full well and, propelled by partisan zealotry, simply dishonest and mendacious?
Put differently, is there any longer an objective truth that can be found apart from ideological considerations?
Tribalism turns us into liars. Blithering idiots too.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.