In today’s America the only acceptable bigotry is political. Far more than in the past people judge others by political affiliation. They have no problem excluding someone from their social circle or even refusing him or her a job for holding the wrong political views.
Cass Sunstein labelled the problem partyism. He defined its prevalence in a Bloomberg column:
If you are a Democrat, would you marry a Republican? Would you be upset if your sister did?
Researchers have long asked such questions about race, and have found that along important dimensions, racial prejudice is decreasing. At the same time, party prejudice in the U.S. has jumped, infecting not only politics but also decisions about dating, marriage and hiring. By some measures, "partyism" now exceeds racial prejudice -- which helps explain the intensity of some midterm election campaigns.
In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.
David Brooks has offered his own analysis:
The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.
The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.
Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.
Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.
Brooks’ point is important and, in my view, correct.
When people do not practice good behavior; when they believe that they are called upon to excuse all forms of bad behavior; when they do not believe that they have the right to judge anyone’s character… they end up judging people by their beliefs.
Brooks is arguing, as I would, that good character-- the ability to follow the basic principles of decorum, propriety, humility, modesty, respect and responsibility – produces social harmony.
But this requires that everyone follow the same rules. In a multicultural world there are no rules that apply to everyone, so we can only form groups by finding others who hold to the same beliefs.
People think of this as enlightened, but it resembles religious fanaticism. If a religion insists that everyone hold to the same beliefs it will quickly figure out that it is impossible to know precisely what anyone really believes.
Thus, it will feel the need to test believers to see if they are harboring heretical beliefs. It will run inquisitions and witch hunts to rid the populace of people who might be unbelievers.
And it fears any association with individuals who might be heretics or who might not be sufficiently fervent in their convictions.
How did our nation arrive at this impasse? How did it arrive at the point where we no longer consider that honorable people can hold different opinions, but insist that any difference of opinion is a sign of moral depravity?
Surely, the failure to practice the classical virtue of patriotism must play a part. If we are all Americans, all wanting what is best for the nation, all feeling pride in the nation… then our differences of opinion are about the means, not the goal.
As Brooks explains it:
Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity. When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can’t reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thought.
Keep in mind, many serious thinkers believe in the positive value of the “Manichean struggle of light and darkness.” Only, they call it a dialectical conflict between opposites.
If we do not believe that we have a monopoly on the truth, we will be willing to interact with those who offer different ideas. After all, we might be able to craft a negotiated compromise that satisfies both parties.
Why is this no longer possible? One reason must be an educational system that insists on emphasizing America’s fault, failings, crimes and derelictions.
If you teach children to criticize their country, you will be demoralizing them and making it impossible for them to identify first as Americans and second as Republicans or Democrats.
Brooks also believes that the nation is suffering from a lack of serious discussion of morality by public intellectuals. This is also true. There is no real discussion of the importance of classical ethical virtues and the need to develop good character.
The therapy culture would never allow it.
What passes for moral discussion in America today involves defaming and slandering people who do not hold correct beliefs. Citizens are routinely denounced for being racist, sexist, homophobic and whatever.
In such a context your moral being derives from your beliefs… and from any behavior that would betray a bigoted belief. Those who launch these accusations feel comfortable in their self-righteous moral superiority. The accused are immediately labeled as unfit for human community.