Holy Wars, American Style

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There has been a great deal of discussion of social division and polarization in recent times, but those terms are inadequate. What besets the United States is much worse.

Both the right and the left are increasingly defined by a form of Manichaeism, in which the forces of light are taken to be in a death struggle with the forces of darkness. We are in a Manichaean moment.

Manichaeism was a religion founded in the third century by the prophet Mani, born in what is now Iraq. Seeking to synthesize all existing religions and offering its own elaborations, Manichaeism claimed that the principles of Good and Evil are in constant battle. 

Known as the Apostle of Light, Mani regarded himself as the final successor to the most important prophets, including Buddha and Jesus. Between the third and seventh centuries, Manichaeism had a great deal of influence. It lost its popularity in the 14th century, but in different forms, it has endured; it speaks to something in the human soul.

Political Manichaeism, as I am understanding it here, can be found whenever disagreements about political issues are seen not as reasonable disputes among fellow citizens, but instead as pitting decent people with decent character against horrible people with horrible character.

Here’s a quick way to identify those with a Manichaean sensibility: They hate what they hate more than they like what they like.

To be sure, Manichaeans have their preferred policies. They might be pro-life or supportive of tax cuts. They might favor gun control or increases in the minimum wage. But what most animates them -- what makes them feel energized and alive -- is what, or who, they despise.

George Orwell offered an unforgettable portrayal of Manichaeism in the form of the Two Minutes Hate, directed against Emmanuel Goldstein, opponent of the Party: “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”

That’s a caricature, of course. But Republicans have become able practitioners of their own Two Minutes Hate, frequently directed against Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up!”), and also against James Comey, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. President Donald Trump serves as the Manichaean-in-Chief. But within some parts of the Republican Party, Manichaeism has become the coin of the realm.

Left-wing Manichaeism can be found in efforts to demonize an economic class that is said to be responsible for the misfortunes and struggles of the rest of us. Senator Bernie Sanders, a committed Manichaean, calls for “a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders, on Wall Street and elsewhere, whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.” Those who focus on what they see as the villainy of the top 1 percent, rather than the needs of the bottom 10 percent, tend to be Manichaean.

The rise of “partyism” -- defined as strong, immediate revulsion toward people of an opposing political party -- is best understood as a reflection of political Manichaeism. Consider the fact that in polls, nearly half of Republicans, and about a third of Democrats, have said they would be “displeased” if their child married a member of the opposing party. Just a few decades ago, the corresponding percentages were close to zero.

On some university campuses, left-wing Manichaeism is running rampant. An example is the prohibition on “microaggressions” -- which are defined, absurdly, to include a commitment to meritocracy (“I believe the most qualified person should get the job” or “American is the land of opportunity”); a commitment to color blindness (“There is only one race, the human race”); or a denial, by a white person, that he is a racist.

Sure, the concept of microaggressions is useful, and some comments are worse than offensive (“you are a credit to your race”). But the sheer proliferation of microaggressions, and the constant search for more of them, is best understood in Manichaean terms: People with conservative political views are evil.

One of the most corrosive features of Manichaeism is that it breeds more of itself. If people accuse you of being aligned with the forces of darkness, you might well respond in kind. That makes self-government far more difficult. It leads people to focus not on substantive issues on which progress might be made, but instead to attribute terrible motivations to their fellow citizens, and to see themselves as engaged in holy wars against both individuals and abstractions (such as “liberalism”).

Aware of these risks, some of the nation’s greatest leaders refused to speak in Manichaean terms. With the Civil War near its end, Abraham Lincoln asked, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.” In the midst of the struggle for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”

In a similar spirit, Joe Biden frequently quotes Mike Mansfield, his late Senate colleague, as saying, “it’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives.”

These comments reflect a commitment to the best antidotes to the temptations of Manichaeism: charity and grace. In American political life, both of these are endangered species. They urgently need a recovery plan.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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