April 1st, 2008 - 7:29pm ET
The old joke goes that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't.
Funny thing is: it's not a joke. In fact, it turns out that this one oddly recursive fact can tell us a whole lot about any country's prospects for social order, political stability, and propensity for violence.
The premise is preposterously obvious and simple -- but all the more powerful for being so. Where people -- from families to nations -- see themselves as one unified group, where everyone's in the same boat together rowing toward a more-or-less agreed-upon future shore, and where there's enough mutual trust and respect to allow people to cooperate in achieving their common goals, the group tends to survive and thrive. The social contract holds. The economy grows. People are willing to invest in the common good. The group prospers.
However: the happy comity that allows us to function as social and political animals inevitably falls apart when one group pulls away from the collective whole and decides that there are in fact two kinds of people in the world -- a righteous Us, and a suspect Them -- and They aren't worthy of respect, cannot be trusted, and should rightly be purged from our midst for the good of the whole. Whenever the name of the political game becomes Us Versus Them, the resulting divisions can quickly shred any sense of shared identity or common future. Nobody wants to invest in anything. Infrastructure and economies fall apart. In short order, the escalating internal conflicts can tear apart families, communities, and nations far more effectively than any external enemy ever could.
Unfortunately, Us Versus Them thinking has become the political norm in America -- and it's gone on so long now that it's shattered our ability to deal effectively with any of the big challenges we're facing as a nation. If America is going to survive -- and especially, if we're going to bring about any kind of progressive order -- it's crucial that we understand how this split got so wide, the magnitude of the damage done, and what can be done to heal it.
This piece will address the first two questions: how it got started, and what it's cost us so far. Next week, we'll look at some of the ways we can begin to bridge the rift and restore America as a functioning whole.
Us Versus Them: A Short Tour
For a chilling example of how an all-out game of Us Versus Them can eventually end up, look no further than Iraq -- a nation that has never been a singly unified country at any point in its modern history. The colonial Brits had a nasty habit of throwing national boundary lines around mutually antagonistic groups wherever they could, knowing that this arrangement guaranteed a level of permanent internal instability that would allow them to stay in perpetual control. And that was the logic at work when they drew up the boundaries of modern Iraq in the early 1920s.
Iraq includes fragments of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish territories -- each of which has stronger attachments to other communities outside Iraq's borders than it does to the idea of a unified Iraq. The Sunnis look to the Saudis as much as they look to Baghdad; the Shia look to Iran; and the Kurds yearn to be reunited with their siblings in Turkey. The country was set up, from the get-go, to be divided and conquered by its own constant potential for internecine warfare: the British simply capitalized on a lively Us Versus Them game that had been going on since ancient times. Given that we're now trying to join together what earlier colonial powers very intentionally put asunder, why are we so surprised this unhappy trio can't seem to make it all work out now?
Us Versus Them is a noxious religious impulse, too. One of my professional mentors is fond of saying that fundamentalists don't need a God, but they absolutely can't survive without a Devil -- a despised Other that they can project their own inner demons onto, and then try to eliminate. You cross the bright line between mainstream belief systems and fundamentalist ones at the precise moment you realize that you have found the One True Right and Only Way -- a way that's not just True and Right for you personally, but is also the God-ordained rule that everyone else in the world should be forced to follow, too. All-or-nothing, black-or-white belief systems encourage believers to sort the world into Us (the Elect) and Them (the Fallen) -- and then set the two factions against each other in a cosmic battle for the soul of the world, with stakes so high that any atrocity can be justified to win it.
Fundamentalists don't come to the point of holy violence overnight. There's a very predictable cascade of conclusions that tumbles from "pray and preach to the unconverted" down to "God told us to kill them all." But leave them cooking for a while under enough social and economic pressure, and any fundamentalist group can end up here in time. And, looking back, we will realize that it all started the minute they decided there were two kinds of people in the world -- and that their conviction that They were separate from and holier than Us was the essential justification for horrific acts of terrorism and genocide.
But fundamentalists aren't the only ones who do this. You can find the Us Versus Them impulse at work anywhere you find authoritarian thinking. As Dr. Robert Altemeyer explains in his book, "The Authoritarians," Us Versus Them is a central theme of the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) worldview -- which is why RWA politicians are the ones who seem to lean most heavily on scapegoating, race-baiting, and warmongering (Us-versus-Them arguments all) in order to gain political power. It's also why RWA voters, whose knee-jerk tribalism helps them deal with their inbred hypervigilance, always fall for it.
Unfortunately, while conservatives know that divide-and-conquer is often a winner at the ballot box, progressives need to start pointing out that Us Versus Them politics are a loser when it comes to the overall health of the nation. This kind of politics is nothing more than a form of right-wing self-indulgence that does massive damage to the health and future of the entire republic -- and may even, in the end, cost us the whole world.
How did we get here?
It all depends on how far back you want to go. The conservatives will petulantly point our direction and insist that the Dirty f*cking Hippies started it all, with help from the Negroes and the Mexicans and especially those Uppity Women. We were one unified happy White Protestant Male nation until Those People got a bug up their butts and decided to assert their "rights." In this telling of the story, 1960s identity politics was the first wedge that drove America apart -- and they've been gamely trying to hold the center together ever since.
Of course, this is a damned disingenuous recounting of the tale, given that it blithely sidesteps all the ways those White Protestant Males have been working the Us Versus Them wedge since long before the republic was founded. Not just blacks and women, but Native Americans, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Catholics -- the country's ruling elites have never been shy about Othering whoever was handy in order to maintain their privileges and assure the steady stream of cheap labor and resources that capitalism feeds on. It also ignores that the civil rights and women's movements were, at their best, a request to let people in -- to heal the breaches and expand the definition of full American citizenship in ways that would, ultimately, make us a far more unified and sturdy whole.