A Nation of Identity or an Idea?

Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park. 12 August 2017. Unite the Right Rally. Photo by Anthony Crider.

Sectarian conflicts are vicious and intractable. The parties to such conflicts define their rivalry as zero-sum in nature. Within such a framework, one side can only gain when the other loses. There is no mutual benefit. Notions of “win-win” solutions do not exist. Compromise is impractical. Compromise is dishonorable. Compromise is surrender.

The differences between the parties are also very basic in nature. They concern matters such as identity, ethnicity, religion, or birthplace. The sides are who they are. They cannot change. They cannot be changed. They must not be changed.

Such iron-clad rigidity, has fueled the combatants in sectarian conflicts and conflicts that involve a significant sectarian dimension to inflict tremendous cruelty and widespread atrocities. Examples of such conflicts include the 1915-17 Armenian genocide, World War II’s Nazi Holocaust, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the ongoing sectarian conflict in Syria.

Political rivalries can also assume sectarian or tribal characteristics when political affiliation becomes linked to identity, ethnicity, religion, or birthplace. In the United States, a gradual evolution toward political sectarianism is underway. In the July/August 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua observed:

Political tribalism is fracturing the United States, transforming the country into a place where people from one tribe see others not just as the opposition but also as immoral, evil, and un-American.

One can hear the unmistakable discourse of sectarianism on Talk Radio. Hosts regularly demonize the political opposition. They condemn their motivations. They slam dissent. They advance conspiracy theories to invent a “truth” that serves their goals and inflames their base.

During his victorious 2016 campaign, Donald Trump resorted to identity politics to an unprecedented extent. Since taking office, he has embraced elements of sectarianism in his policy making and rhetoric. His Administration has aimed to sharply reduce legal immigration. It has slashed the number of refugees who can seek shelter in the United States. It has separated children from undocumented immigrant families. The intense struggle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement also exhibited some characteristics of political sectarianism.

The end goal of the political sectarians is two-fold. First, prevail. Second, inflict pain and/or humiliation on the vanquished party.

Author and political pundit Charlie Sykes captured this dynamic in an op-ed that was published in the May 12, 2017 edition of The New York Times. Sykes wrote:

[T]e real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

Tribalism suffocates empathy. Professor Chua explained:

Neurological studies confirm that group identity can even produce physical sensations of satisfaction. Seeing group members prosper seems to activate our brains’ “reward centers” even if we receive no benefit ourselves. Under certain circumstances, our reward centers can also be activated when we see members of an out-group failing or suffering…

This is the dark side of the tribal instinct. Group bonding, the neuroscientist Ian Robertson has written, increases oxytocin levels, which spurs “a greater tendency to demonize and dehumanize the out-group” and which physiologically “anesthetizes” the empathy one might otherwise feel for a suffering person.

Empathy is a necessary element for a tolerant society. Tolerance is a basic requirement for sustaining a free republic. The American Declaration of Independence was, among other things, an affirmation of empathy and tolerance.

The American colonies declared their independence based on the idea “that all men are created equal” and that they enjoy “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (National Archives) That is universal. Identity, ethnicity, religion, or birthplace are wholly irrelevant.

Will the United States remain a nation founded on a universal idea? Or, is it destined to take the path of “blood and soil” that numerous other states have pursued to tragic ends?

The course that the nation will ultimately be taken remains to be seen. The right path, though, is anything but uncertain. The Republican Party’s past platforms offer guidance. The ideas articulated in those documents speak directly to the American founding. They remain relevant today.

The Republican Party’s first platform in 1856 (American Presidency Project) aimed to renew the nation’s republican character at a time when the nation was being torn apart over the issue of slavery. That platform proclaimed:

Resolved: That, with our Republican fathers, we hold it to be a self-evident truth, that all men are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the primary object and ulterior design of our Federal Government were to secure these rights to all persons under its exclusive jurisdiction; that, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished Slavery in all our National Territory, ordained that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, it becomes our duty to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it for the purpose of establishing Slavery in the Territories of the United States by positive legislation, prohibiting its existence or extension therein.

The 1864 Platform (American Presidency Project) that guided President Lincoln’s successful re-election campaign provided a powerful rebuttal to the shrill nativist arguments of that time. That platform declared:

Resolved, That foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.

The 1980 Republican Platform (American Presidency Project) espoused Ronald Reagan’s focus on the free individual. It also provided an unmistakably inclusive definition of the American people. That platform explained:

It has long been a fundamental conviction of the Republican Party that government should foster in our society a climate of maximum individual liberty and freedom of choice. Properly informed, our people as individuals or acting through instruments of popular consultation can make the right decisions affecting personal or general welfare, free of pervasive and heavy-handed intrusion by the central government into the decision-making process. This tenet is the genius of representative democracy.

Republicans also treasure the ethnic, cultural, and regional diversity of our people. This diversity fosters a dynamism in American society that is the envy of the world.

Should the American people remain true to the proposition of universal “unalienable rights,” they will enable the nation to overcome the destructive forces of sectarianism that are now vying for the soul of American politics and policy. American history favors just such an outcome, even if it may be difficult to envision.

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About Don Sutherland 71 Articles
Husband. Dad. American. Believes in America on account of its Constitution, ideals, and people. Character, principle, truth, and empirical evidence matter greatly everywhere, including politics and public policy.