American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.
The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.
There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.
Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.
There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.
It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.
What are those behaviors?
According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.
If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)
Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.
The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”
The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?
“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….
In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)
America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”
We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.
We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government. That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.