“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” – Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose
We have become inured to the ways in which grievance politics subverts America’s unique competitive advantage in the world: our ability to solve problems and to adapt to change. While other regions of the world stagnate under inflexible systems of government, under the oppression of autocrats and the stifling of independent thought by orthodox religions – the US has thrived for 243 years.
The architecture of our Constitution was a product of Enlightenment thinking, and our founders were, themselves, men of the Enlightenment. Our founding documents were also a declaration that the notion of pluralism can act as a feedback loop to maintain the system’s stability. James Madison in The Federalist No. 10 describes the idea of pluralism as the keystone of our Constitution; it locks all other ideals into place and is the linchpin that permits assimilation into a society characterized by its racial, cultural and religious variations. Pluralism sustains us and adds vitality to our society because with new voices come new solutions and a renewed commitment to the ideas embodied in the American experiment.
But in the last three years our country has been beset by the ravages of grievance politics, a pernicious political tactic that cultivates disunity and fragmented thought, while suppressing the critical thinking skills necessary to preserve democratic governance. It’s as if the very molecules of our society have come out of solution to impede the functions of our collective interests. And because of the intense use of grievance politics in the last 50 years, we have lost our ability to prioritize ideas. We’re afloat in a sea of specious syllogisms. Whether it’s Ilhan Omar’s dropping of anti-Semitic breadcrumbs in the name of whipping up opposition to Israeli politics; or Donald Trump’s casual use of Nazi tropes and racist dog-whistles, this practice nurtures identity politics while cleaving off voters from a coherent set of political principles.
Grievance politics is a tactical use of misdirection. And 2016 was its banner year. It’s easier to wear a red hat sporting an inane political slogan than it is to come up with your own ideas, your own solutions. Grievance politics feeds off this kind of sloth when it soothes the pain of disenfranchisement by encouraging the venting of uninhibited rage and resentment. It validates one’s sense of personal virtue by finding an emotional cause to champion or a scapegoat to murder. It offers magnificent straw-men to burn to the ground in a blaze of indignant self-righteous frenzy. It is the positive feedback loop that arises from sloppy thinking, and we’ve been drowning in it for two years.
Ilhan Omar is a Jenga politician. So is Donald Trump. They both stoke the fires of grievance politics with natural skill. They speak to the uninformed and to those who reject nuanced thinking in favor of sloganeering. They occupy a world of false equivalencies and false choices. They will stoke resentments and subtract values until our Democracy inevitably collapses. I would bet that most Americans have little to no actual knowledge of the history of the frenzied politics of the Middle East, much less the nuanced debates that surround the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Omar’s tweet, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”, should be a non-sequitur in American politics because of our lack of sophisticated expertise with respect to this subject. But her words, like Trump’s, are doused in the Jenga of grievance politics and act as an accelerant in the growing phenomenon of anti-Semitism both domestically and throughout Europe. Her words are deeply evocative of the kind of incitement that’s common in a region of the world where slogans like, “Death to America” and “the Zionist Entity” ensure backwardness and endless conflict for the very people who espouse this kind of divisive language. And importantly for the Democratic Party, her words are piggy-backing on the same vulnerability on the Left that Trump’s base is noted for: know-nothingism.
Trump and Omar are taking us off the cliff – they’re going all Thelma and Louise on a country that is struggling to live up to its founding principles, struggling to reclaim its founding ideals. They are the antithesis of democracy. They are grievance machines.
image: Sheila Sund/Creative Commons
Deborah Long is a Principal at Development Management Group, Inc. and founder of several non-profit charitable organizations. If you find her perspectives interesting, controversial, or provocative, follow her at: https://www.facebook.com/debby.long.98499?ref=br_rs