American Politics: The Two Great Movements

American political discourse today is dominated by two radically opposed movements.

One of these two movements is an aggresively anti-intellectual, anti-elite, passionately-populist, resentment-fueled, demagogue-led mob. It identifies its own with in-group language and special cultural symbols, quickly grouping anyone who fails to use the correct code-phrases as either politically out-of-touch or (more likely) as a representative of that other movement, The Enemy. This movement relies on social media echo-chambers to maintain a shared narrative placed on top of its underlying cultural obsessions.

This narrative always includes some core elements. One is the continual tone of extreme accusation against its opponents, who are accused of the most malicious possible intent. Opponents are regularly compared to history's most despotic governments, to mass murdering regimes, and frequently to apocalyptic religious figures and fictional dystopian archetypes. The narrative also reliably combines a strange pair of themes; the movement is both the perpetual political underdog, and also represents the True America. That is, regardless of changing historical details, this movement maintains the claim that it fundamentally represents the American majority, and fundamentally fights against the established powers of special interests that subvert the people's interests. The movement always claims to be both majority and underdog. The Enemy is usually condemned for subverting American interests in favor of secretive foreign entanglements.

Because of the gulf between the movement and its opposition, neither side feels compelled to make complex political-philosophical claims or to commit themselves to elaborate policy proposals. Little or no attempt is made to publicly argue the merits and demerits of abstract philosophy or policy at all. No attempt to recruit outsiders on the basis of extensive arguments is ever made. Rather, the spirit of hostility and the threat of danger is deliberately and continually cultivated in order to drive the movement's own members and sympathizers to commit more fully, simply because of the threat of The Enemy.

The other of these two movements is an aggresively anti-intellectual, anti-elite, passionately-populist, resentment-fueled, demagogue-led mob. It identifies its own with in-group language and special cultural symbols, quickly grouping anyone who fails to use the correct code-phrases as either politically out-of-touch or (more likely) as a representative of that other movement, The Enemy. This movement relies on social media echo-chambers to maintain a shared narrative placed on top of its underlying cultural obsessions.

This narrative always includes some core elements. One is the continual tone of extreme accusation against its opponents, who are accused of the most malicious possible intent. Opponents are regularly compared to history's most despotic governments, to mass murdering regimes, and frequently to apocalyptic religious figures and fictional dystopian archetypes. The narrative also reliably combines a strange pair of themes; the movement is both the perpetual political underdog, and also represents the True America. That is, regardless of changing historical details, this movement maintains the claim that it fundamentally represents the American majority, and fundamentally fights against the established powers of special interests that subvert the people's interests. The movement always claims to be both majority and underdog. The Enemy is usually condemned for subverting American interests in favor of secretive foreign entanglements.

Because of the gulf between the movement and its opposition, neither side feels compelled to make complex political-philosophical claims or to commit themselves to elaborate policy proposals. Little or no attempt is made to publicly argue the merits and demerits of abstract philosophy or policy at all. No attempt to recruit outsiders on the basis of extensive arguments is ever made. Rather, the spirit of hostility and the threat of danger is deliberately and continually cultivated in order to drive the movement's own members and sympathizers to commit more fully, simply because of the threat of The Enemy.


Of course, these two movements (taken together) do not include all Americans. They probably do not even include most Americans, if only because of the still-strong hold of political apathy on the American heart. Nonetheless, almost all Americans have some kind of distant connection to one or the other of these groups; they might not (meaningfully) participate in either movement, but they almost all mistrust one more than the other (though which one they most mistrust depends largely on where they live).

This is true even for those of us who sincerely try to stand outside and above the mob. Almost all of us have some kind of previous cultural-affinity with one mob or the other. This allows the mob to further label all of "the other side's" voices of reason as actually ultimately their secret malicious schemes. Once "the other side" are said to have no restraining voices of reason, the threat of The Enemy is even greater - and the voices of reason who are more culturally "near" can be threatened with the danger of The Enemy.

There is a further complication here, though. Each of the two political mobs includes a set of especially extreme rhetoricians who regularly propose the most outrageous and partisan political measures as if they were simple, common-sense, voice-of-reason ideas. These extreme proposals are typically framed as the sort of thing any politically-neutral citizen who wished to help the bipartisan hostility would want to support. With this method, yet another layer of restraining (relatively moderate) voices within each movement are silenced. The ordinary voices of simple "neutral" reason really function to question the loyalties of any insufficiently aggressive member of the mob.

This is a problem with layers.