The Washington Post recently ran a column listing the top ten reasons American politics are so broken. None of the listed reasons will surprise anyone who’s been following our increasingly uncivil, toxic political environment, and the whole column is worth a read.
That said, this struck me.
There’s a Bedouin proverb: Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger. From 1939 through 1989, the United States had a rogue’s gallery of heavily armed strangers to unite with in defense of democracy and the homeland. The Cold War began as a bipartisan affair with strong support from both parties. By the 1980s, the parties had clearly split into the hawk party and the dove party, and that split has only deepened. As the parties have purified and moved apart, foreign policy and the proper response to foreign threats has become more divisive.
I’ve often wondered whether the human animal is hard-wired to need an enemy– whether we evolved to inhabit an “us versus them” universe. It seems increasingly likely.
Sociologists argue that “membership” is a meaningless term unless there are also non-members–people we can point to who don’t belong. Many years ago, in a book focused upon the growing assimilation of Jews in the United States, the author–who was very concerned that Jews might die out altogether–posited that anti-Semitism might be necessary to Jewish identity. In other words, without an enemy, there was really no reason to remain in the “tribe.”
That appeal to tribal loyalties, that lack of a more capacious and inclusive definition of “we,” that view of a world divided into “teams” that allows us to experience the world as “us versus them” is what drives everything from religious extremism to Fox News.
All of which does raise an uncomfortable question: Do Americans–or earthlings–require an existential threat to our existence in order to see each other as fellow Americans, or fellow humans?