Today’s Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?
Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.
It’s notable that “liar” dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. “Liar” is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.
I personally like and admire President Obama very much, and while I don’t agree with him about everything, I strongly favor Obamacare, and I have been constantly mystified by the virulent opposition to this moderate, common-sense legislation. I’ve lived through a lot of American history, but I’ve never really seen a conservative outcry like I’m seeing today. I really don’t understand it.
Or do I? Analysts and philosophers like Jonathan Haidt have helped to map out the underlying societal and individual lifestyle tendencies that form the foundation for conservative or liberal political opinion, and this helps explain the division today. Psychological answers like Jonathan Haidt’s are also valuable because they get us beyond the unfair judgement among liberals that conservatives or Republicans or Tea Partiers hate Obama because they are racist, or because they are dumb, or because they only listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News.
I’m not sure if most of my liberal friends know this, but I know that many people who hate Obama are not racist, are not stupid, and get information from many sources other than Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. As a software developer currently working in the Washington DC area, I get a chance to talk to many other software developers about politics, and I’ve met many smart, principled, decent, well-read, mature adults who hate Barack Obama and oppose Obamacare as stridently as I support it. If I were to word-cloud their impressions of Barack Obama, I bet I’d see the same word cloud as in the image above.
When alienation occurs, it becomes a force in itself. Jonathan Haidt’s psychological answers help to explain how alienation may originate — but this approach doesn’t go far enough in helping to explain the toxic levels of hatred within American politics today, because it doesn’t explain the ways that alienation builds upon alienation, the way that political opposition increases and reinforces itself.
At its root, alienation is a thing in itself. It becomes its own foundation, its own justification. A few years ago I read Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker and learned about a real brain injury syndrome called Capgras delusion that causes people to suddenly fail to recognize their own loved ones as who they are. In this novel, a young man suffers a motorcycle accident with a bizarre effect: when he is visited in the hospital by his beloved sister, the person he trusts most in the world, he is gripped by the belief that she is an imposter, that she is not his sister. This person looks like his sister, but he knows that it is not his sister. No amount of evidence can equal this young man’s instinctual belief — tethered to some sadly incurable brain event — that this person who looks and talks exactly like his sister is not his sister.
This is alienation. Liar. Such feelings of cultural or societal alienation have probably been behind every war or atrocity in human history, and then the trauma of war or atrocity triggers more alienation. Today, some are predicting that the virulent break over Obamacare can only end in another American civil war, 150 years after the first.
I trust that we won’t take it that far, but the big question remains before us, and I’d love to hear what you think. What is the philosophical meaning of the political divide that is roiling the United States of America right now?