15 June 2017
Patriotism, populism and partisanship
After the Alexandria VA shootings, in which a disgruntled leftist tried to assassinate Republican congressmen and seriously wounded the House Majority Whip, the political culture from the President to the punditocracy and the TV talking heads is sharing a "Can't we all get along?" moment. The President sounded the main theme for the occasion, striving to remind Americans that politicians on both sides of the partisan or ideological divide still love their country. I understand what he and others are saying, but I don't think they understand the state the country is in. To affirm that all politicians love the country is an almost meaningless statement in this populist moment of the country's history. For ideologues, it begs the question of what kind of country each party or person wants us to be, but for populists on both the left and the right, the real question, not so easily answered by presidential reassurances, is whether politicians love us. White populists on the right have come to hate the left because they're convinced that the Democratic party, academia and the nebulous "mainstream media" no longer love them as the true American people or care whether they have jobs, secure retirement, safe neighborhoods, etc. Populists on the left, including white people like the Alexandria shooter, have come to hate the right because they're convinced that the Republican party, the Trump/Tea Party movement and corporate America don't love all Americans equally and don't really care whether any American of any creed or color lives or dies. Populists may think of themselves as patriots but populism and patriotism are not the same thing. For a patriot is should be enough that all politicians love the country, so long as all abide by democratic, deliberated decisions determining its course. To love the country in this sense is to place its interests above your own, which obviously requires you to see your interest and the country's as at least potentially different things. Populists don't make that distinction as readily. To their minds, they are the state; America looks like them, whether as a matter of idealized heritage or as a mosaic of diversity from which no one is automatically or implicitly excluded. In a way, this is no more than saying, "What's in it for me?" though populism usually is more expansive than that, asking instead, "What's in it for my people?" -- whoever they are. Today's populism is a cycle of mutual disrespect, every faction feeling that the others don't give a damn about them, won't let them alone, won't let them be, or, in the worst case, won't even let them live. It's a decadent populism because it exposes how desperate most people are for recognition and validation from social media and popular culture. And it's an increasingly violent and potentially lethal populism as more people seem to demand respect, or deny it, by any means necessary. It may also be an inevitable populism as different groups scramble for bits of a shrinking pie or a dwindling number of musical chairs. We probably shouldn't hope for the next round of prosperity to make it go away, however. We need to see now whether anyone can transcend populism with patriotism, and, whether anyone who tries will be believed or trusted after passing the "Who are you to say?" test. If no one can pass that test, than the American people also will have failed their test.