The US government and political system is so divided that the Federal government has literally been crippled by political dysfunction. Experiencing the longest government shutdown in American history, the United States has reached a new low in the assault on proper governance. It is not that the American People as a whole are divided along partisan lines on every issue. It is not that average American disagree on every issues nor is it that they lack the ability to compromise for the common good. It is that political leaders thrive on division. By rallying supporters to a cause and vilifying everyone who is not a supporter, political leaders are able to tap the undying passions of diehard supporters, which ensures their hold on political power. Politically affluent individuals are able to push their own special interests and political agendas using the same tactic. The strategy has the unfortunate consequence of dividing the politically active, while undermining government and the faith of the general population in the political system, but it serves those in power and those on the fringe well.
For those on the Right, the problem is ”identity politics.” For those on the Left, “nationalism” is the problem. For the Right, identity politics is an attempt to capitalize on the gender, poverty, ethnic, racial, and other minority identities of the disenfranchised in order to sow division and garner political support. For the Left, “nationalism” is an attempt to cultivate the bigotry and fears of traditionally dominant majorities by framing social shifts beneficial to minorities as an erosion of majority rights and influence. Both are characterized as attempts by opposing sides to simply divide people along their various social identities and use that division to inflame political tensions. In truth, neither identity politics nor nationalism is inherently divisive. People belong to various social groups that define their social identities and people with similar social identifies tend to adopt similar views on certain issues, so identity politics is an innate characteristic of diversity. Nationalism is a product of people belonging to thriving national communities. Cultivating a national identity is needed to help unify the people of a country for the common good. The problem is that partisans abuse identity politics to manipulate groups. Nationalism becomes toxic, because national supremacists refuse to address any interests beyond those of their nation and those they belief are represented by their nation.
To promote civil engagement and pro-social behavior, especially among apathetic populations, it is necessary to find common interests. When individuals have strong connections to various social groups, i.e. they have strong social identities, they tend to have a greater personal stake in the wellbeing of the entire group while they tend to have greater interest in activities that help the group thrive. Considering someone’s geographic social identity, a resident in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who considers himself a Pennsylvanian, for example, is more likely to make decisions and engage in pro-social activities that help strength the Commonwealth. It is the same on the local level as well as the national level. A patriotic American is more likely to do what he feels is in the interests of the American People and the United States as a national community. When individuals cannot recognize people with different political perspectives, religious beliefs, ethnic profiles, economic backgrounds, and alternative ways of life share the same American identity, nationalism becomes divisive. When individuals cannot recognize and consider the interests of non-Americans, nationalistic supremacists are able to suppress non-Americans and Americans they see as non-Americans.
To rally people to a cause, the easiest approach is to create a villain that can unite everyone in common hatred. It not enough for people to simply dislike someone or what they stand for. It is raw hatred that drives those who hold differing views and bigotry together. Only by cultivating strong emotions can political leaders reach those who would normally oppose them. When vilifying someone who is less than pure evil, however, it is very difficult to turn everyone against that person. Those who are part of sympathetic groups will tend to turn against the vilified while those who are part of unsympathetic groups will tend to resist the vilification or even feel compelled to support the vilified. As a consequence, the vilification strategy tends to exasperate existing social divisions. When attempting to vilify entire groups of people, the impact on divisions becomes even more apparent. Regrettably, US politics is predicated on vilifying the opposing candidate, the undesirable social element, and the perceived foreign threat, so there has been a tendency for the politically influential to vilify and divide people in order to gain support for their causes at all costs.
With that in mind, “identity politics” and “nationalism” offer a solution. People have multiple social identities based on their membership in various social circles. While membership in one social circle and a lack of membership in another creates division, common membership in a circle creates unity. People who share the same identity have a common interest and common unifying identity. National identity is the identity that all members of a nation share. In places like Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, where ethnic identities trump political identities, there is a historic struggle on behalf of conflicting groups to define their nationality as their own, but the Great Melting Pot that was the United States shows the world that national identity can transcend all other social identities. In other words, people can unite under their common national identity in support of their common interests and their commonwealth. The problem in the United States is that partisan leaders and groups are cultivating the divisive aspects of people’s social identities. There is, therefore, a need to find the common interests of all Americans and rebuild the American identity to represent those interests. In turn, the US political system and government need to be retooled by all Americans to serve the common good.
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