The grand experiment of American Democracy is an exercise in institutional pluralism. That rather than viewing political opposition as a treasonous conspiracy, it’s viewed as an integral part of the democratic process. That two sides battle for the middle, not the domination of one over the other.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Populism: Support for the concerns of ordinary people. The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.
Pluralism: A condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist. In political theory, a system of power-sharing among a number of political parties.
Patriotism: Vigorous support for one’s own country. Not to be confused with nationalism, an extreme version of patriotism that posits that your country is superior to all others.
The Republican Party has long sought to position themselves as the party of ordinary Americans through the language and imagery of rural Americana and star-spangled Patriotism. Chevy trucks. Apple Pie. Farmers in corn fields and mothers in church. Good old boys and their families. Self-reliant Cowboys making their way through determination and hard work. This is why when politicians show up in Iowa, they ditch their tailored suits in favor of jeans and flannels and they roll up their sleeves so they can commune with real Americans.
The Republicans have striven to define the American ideal of Patriotism through the lens of their own ideology, and that anyone who doesn’t follow their particular brand of Patriotism, isn’t a real American in the first place.
Authoritarian populism is nothing new in the history of civilization, and using political partisanship as a litmus test to define patriotism and national identity has long been a tactic of despots everywhere, but the Trump Republican Party (TRP) and his supporters in the state media (Fox News) actively work to delegitimize pluralism as a democratic ideal and they do so by demonizing the Left.
The dictionary defines populism as support for the concerns of ordinary people. Trump’s version of populism is to claim to support the concerns of those he deems are real Americans. We’ll call this Populist Patriotism. The idea that one group or political party has an exclusive grasp on what it means to be a real, ordinary citizen; in essence, what it means to be an authentic member of that group. Anyone outside that group therefore, lacks legitimacy and is not acting in the best interest of the country. They are the others.
In the case of Trump’s Republican Party, the Authentic Citizen is a white, Christian from the heartland who supports authority in the form of the military and the police, but inherently distrusts the government and the intellectual elites. To question the military or the police is to question the very idea of their nationalistic narrative. Too much knowledge is considered a dangerous thing and faith and intuition are better indicators of truth, than experts and institutions. Intellectual ignorance isn’t seen as a failure, so much the product of practical, reasonable response to a world gone mad. Willful ignorance is a byproduct of the rejection of intellectual curiosity. Self reliance is one of the central principles of the TRP, therefore the welfare state only adds to the burden of the people and devalues the American Dream by giving away the profits of hard working Americans to people who don’t deserve it. All social programs are a drain on progress and the sooner we can get back to work, the better.
The people outside this group of Authentic Citizens, are not only suspect, because they don’t share the same values, but are to be feared as their entire aim is to destroy the fabric of white culture in America. The aim of the Democrats, in the narrative of the Right, is to counter white, Christian culture by recruiting immigrants, criminals, homosexuals and people of color into their midst, thereby undermining white dominance. Democrats can’t beat a white majority on the basis of their ideas, they are told, so they have to round up all the miscreants and ne’erdowells in order to topple the legitimate government of America.
Because that’s how the TRP sees the situation in America today. They are the true Americans. They are the legitimate government and the protectors of all that is good. Democrats on the other hand, are lawless, weak, deviants who only wish to destroy American culture in lieu of an immoral, cabal of globalists intent on diminishing America’s strength and power in the world.
It’s pretty heady ideology.
American democracy was founded on the concept of pluralism, that is a system of power-sharing among a number of political parties that afforded various states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., to coexist in institutional harmony. The balance of power swung like a pendulum back and forth with both sides momentarily obtaining power. It was designed to allow for the peaceful transition of power without bloodshed.
Diana L. Eck, in a 2006 Harvard study called The Pluralism Project, defined pluralism this way:
First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.
Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotypes, the half-truths, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.
Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.
Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments.”1
Pluralism as a concept is anathema to the TRP, as it inspires a fear of giving up individuality or exceptionalism for globalism, even though that’s a false comparison. The Trump Republican Party fears the loss of global American dominance and exceptionalism more than anything except maybe the loss of white, male dominance in America. Patriotism is how they defend what they see as the status quo. Patriotism is how you protect America from the outside world. Patriotism is Godly and who can possibly stand in the face of the Almighty?
Under the TRP, nothing is beyond the purview of American Patriotism. Environmentalists are just tree huggers bent on hindering American ingenuity and progress. Immigration reform is simply an effort to undermine white dominance. Gun control is a liberal elite response to American independence and will eventually lead to an authoritarian take over by the federal government. Even sports are not out of bounds as we learned when one backup quarterback decided to take a knee in protest of police violence.
The Colin Kaepernick saga is a perfect example of the TRP delegitimizing a member of the other as unAmerican, and unpatriotic. He isn’t a real American of course. Not only is he brown, he does not share the values of the Authentic Citizen. He is self centered and grandstanding. He is disrespecting the flag, and by extension the United States Military, and therefore the Authentic Citizens themselves. He might as well have called their mothers all whores.
The strange connection between the flag and the military is also a unique symptom of the TRP. The flag was never a symbol of any branch of the military. Rather the military carries the flag to represent the country. It’s a reversed correlation. How you get from kneeling in protest during the national anthem to disrespecting the military is a circuitous journey. Connecting that to patriotism is an example of the TRP viewing American Military might as central to America’s greatness. They don’t view diplomacy or charity as an American strength, rather our ability to kick ass is what stokes their pride.
If you don’t support military intervention, you’re simply a weak liberal without the fortitude to defend America from goat herders. If you question the fact that police shoot an inordinate number of unarmed black men in this country, you are soft on crime. Either way you don’t share the values of the Authentic Citizen and therefore don’t love America.
The latest retort from the TRP is that if you don’t share the values of the Authentic Citizen, you are not a true American, don’t love this country, and should leave. Where dissidents are supposed to go is unclear, but it’s been made clear, they are no longer welcome. Ironically course, all the Republican Party did was complain for eight years during the Obama Presidency. They didn’t advocate leaving then either, they wanted Obama to go back to where he came from.
Clearly much of the “send them back” rhetoric is blatantly racist in nature. If you’re not a white, Christian, you’re lucky to be here, so be quiet or leave. Only white, Christians have the authority to question our government, everyone else has no legitimate basis to complain.
American Patriotism has ebbed and flowed over the decades, along with political trends and global factors. As a warring nation that has only been at peace for 17 years of our existence, we have become accustomed to being at war. Since 1776, America has been at war 226 Out of 243 Years, or 93% of the time. Patriotism and America’s brand of Christianity has therefore encompassed military might as central to its narrative. God bless America is not just something we sing or say, it’s a concrete belief that God loves America more than other countries. This allows us to go into battle with the knowledge that the supreme being is on our side. If God be with us, who can defeat us?
The problem of course, is that everyone believes that.
The idea of America as a democratic, pluralistic society that values diversity of thought, culture and religious beliefs are what men and women have fought and died for since the beginning. We don’t know yet whether our current situation is a trend or one of the many turns this country has taken in its relative short existence. But I do know that pluralism is worth fighting for.
E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”), America’s unofficial motto until 1956, is still the great American ideal and one that up until recently made us a destination for those desiring a melting pot of ideas and the hope of a better tomorrow. Let us continue on that quest.