Dark times over America
Dark times over AmericaiStock

For a very long time I have been tortured by the very sad question, “What is happening to the upbeat, “Best country in the world” America that I grew up in before I made aliyah in 1978. What is happening to the America to which I am still so very much attached because all of my family, lifelong friends and the roots of cultural interests located there?

It seems that America is increasingly helpless, allowing itself to deteriorate into an ongoing ‘tribal’, political civil war. Just one example. In no other country in the world have the questions of wearing a mask during covid, or vaccination priorities, become such ‘polarizing, ‘tribal’ political issues.

Conservative commentators put the blame on the progressive left. And liberal commentators put the blame on Trump and the conservative media. But in reality the roots of this polarization go much deeper.

Post Modern social culture with its principle of the relativism of all definitions of ‘truth’ and its promotion of radical individual autonomy, has created a highly fragmented, disentangled society of disassociated, lonely individuals.
This paper argues that the cause of America’s polarization is neither the political mistakes or behavior of either side. America’s polarization is mainly the direct, inevitable result of a social reality created by Post Modern social culture-political philosophy.

Post Modern social culture with its principle of the relativism of all definitions of ‘truth’ and its promotion of radical individual autonomy, has created a highly fragmented, disentangled society of disassociated, lonely individuals. And political polarization occurs when each isolated individual blatantly competes and shouts in an ‘extreme’ manner trying to get attention and have his opinion heard in an ocean of other isolated individuals also trying to call attention to themselves.

I am pessimistic. I am afraid that the polarization of political dialogue and behavior are virtually inseparable.

How do I define our critical problem of political ‘polarization’?

the stalemating polarization of politics has two basic characteristics. One , it is characterized by a political “dialogue” where the interchange is conducted in language that is shallow, simplified, tinself, full of repetitive ‘black and white’, ‘good guy, bad guy’ terminology, and conducted in semi secretive intra group, sloganized Morse code. And these terms exactly describe the political dialogue on Face Book, Twitter, three minute (maximum) video clips, and reader participant responses on internet news-opinion sites.

Distinguishing between ‘facts’ and opinion’ was abandoned a long term ago, equally on the Right and Left. There is no attempt at mutual dialogue (not the current rabid exchange of opinions) or to building mutual understanding. Everybody is simply shouting in extreme terms, at the top of their lungs to get the greatest amount of ego supportive “Likes”.

The second main feature of polarization is actually the inevitable result of the first characteristic. Competing social cultural collectives, each with their own, particular definitions of what constitutes truth and the social welfare, seem no longer capable of understanding the other’s perspective and compromising on joint political actions. When each collective sees itself as the ‘sons of Light” and the Other collective as the ‘sons of Darkness’ polarization occurs. Today most conservative Republicans and liberal progressive Democrats see the Other as embodying Light or Darkness.

In order to understand the desperateness of our current situation, let us briefly recall periods when American politicians were able to compromise. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930’s was passed by a very disparate coalition of Southern racists, Blacks, Jews, lower class minority groups and the labor movement. Johnson got a critical number of Southern conservatives to help him pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act in 1964. And when Biden started in the Senate in the 1970’s the Senate was still able to compromise on key economic, infrastructure, and certain social service programs. What has happened in the last thirty years?

How does Post Modern social culture give birth to this epidemic of polarization?

The essence of Post Modernity: relativistic, subjective ‘truths’, combined with radical self fulfillment.

Post Modernism’s foremost principle is the absolute impossibility of defining and knowing a set of fundamental, Absolute Truths. All statements of Truths are simply an expression of, and relative to, the specific social structural position, and subjective narrative, of the individual. Post Modernity thus promotes the ideal of the radical autonomy of the individual. It holds that each individual should be freed from the collective bonds of the traditionally imposed, oppressive social structural position in which he finds himself. The individual should be absolutely free to pursue the self expression and fulfillment that he derives from his subjective, relativistic definition of Truth.

The impact of Post Modernity’s radical social philosophy of individual autonomy has been abetted by sweeping, rapid scientific and technological developments that have created unthought of opportunities for individual choice and social mobility, among them the rapid globalization of media, information sharing, and transportation; advances in contraception that have expanded opportunities for sexual libertarianism; medical and biological advances that have expanded biological gender choice, and the times and modes of pregnancy; finally, technology has made homemaking less time consuming.

Post modernity : a Garden of Eden of self identity liberation, or a sure fire recipe for the disintegration of society ‘s most important social building blocks?

Progressive liberals understand these changes and the post modernism perspective to be a Garden of Eden of opportunities for social liberation on ‘all fronts’ of human society. Thus over the last thirty years they have devoted great social, political and academic energy to developing a ‘civil religious ‘ ideology of analyzing societal problems through the lens of ‘the politics of social cultural and self identity.’ Progressive liberals want to use this utopian ideology to revolutionize almost all normative roles and structures of society.

As a social conservative I consider the politics of self identity’ to be, in most cases, a recipe for disaster. First, I think it is always best to conduct social change in a cautious, incremental, ‘conservative’ manner. But more important,’ post modernism/politics of self identity ‘seriously challenge the legitimacy of the four basic, necessary building blocks of a healthy society.:

1) the stable two parent, multi generational family,

2) serious religious belief and commitment,

3) mutual participation and ‘give and take’ in stable communal/community frameworks

4) positive patriotism.

America’s crisis of ‘belief and belonging’ –the differing answers of liberal /Democrats and conservative/Republicans

Because of the challenge posed by post modern/self identity social culture, America finds itself in a serious crisis of ‘belief and belonging’.

Social conservatives believe that ‘healthy’ human nature demands that we believe in something that transcends our Being, and that we have commitments to social collectives that transcend our ego centered self identity. (such as the family, religion, community and country)

Post modern liberal progressives believe that man goal is his own, autonomous project of self fulfillment. Commitments of ‘believing and belonging’ are only psychologically helpful to the extent that they contribute to the advancement one’s subjective understandings of self identity fulfillment.

These, I believe, are the real differences between social conservatives/Republicans and progressive liberal Democrats. Conservative Republicans want to give priority to government furthering programs that promote the two parent family, religious beliefs, communal commitments and a positive patriotism. Liberal Democrats give priority to government furthering programs that bestows the liberties and resources that allow individuals to free themselves from the traditional social structural roles that they find to be oppressive and that hinder their opportunities for self identity fulfillment.

The ‘politics of self identity fulfillment ‘are creating a divisive political climate in America

Up till thirty years ago Americans still shared a wider consensus of agreement on America’s political agenda. Almost all American political issues were discussed in the shared, basic terms of how to provide effective access to economic resources and to equal civil rights and status to as many American citizens as possible. Martin Luther King spoke in terms of making the American constitution effectively available to all citizens . And an overwhelming majority of Americans agreed with him.

The Left focused on the federal government providing a wide range of social services in order to more fairly distribute economic and educational resources. The Right disputed the range and target of economic assistance but the basic argument was on economic issues about which numerical compromises could be, and were, reached.

Finally as late as 1990 there was broad bi partisan belief in the legitimacy and desirability of the two parent family, in the social efficacy of institutionalized Religion, and a real belief that “America is a great country. Period”.

The politics of ‘self identity fulfillment’, combined with the ideology of ‘structural oppression’, is inherently divisive

Thirty years later, this broad based, bi partisan understanding about the character and basic issues of American politics has unraveled, and seems to be irreperable. The sledge hammer of post modernism has shattered a broad American political consensus into fragments.

The progressive Left’s ‘politics’ include the caveat that “I will tolerate your differing self identity so long your self identity does not represent the class of oppressors of whom my self identity is trying to free itself.’
Self identity politics, by its very definition, has to be a cause of divisiveness. In the age of ‘subjective narratives’ the subjective narratives and questions of self identity fulfillment of a very diversified citizenry, have to come in an infinitely different set of sizes and shapes.

And worst of all, if self identity politics was truly pluralistically tolerant it would politically cumbersome, but still tolerable. But the progressive Left’s ‘politics’ include the caveat that “I will tolerate your differing self identity so long your self identity does not represent the class of oppressors of whom my self identity is trying to free itself.’ This caveat thus automatically makes political adversaries of all whose self identity fulfillment clashes with progressive liberal ideology. And the inevitable result of this adversarial conflict is political polarization.

Two personal examples of how progressive liberal ideology polarizes the self identity fulfillment of an Orthodox Jew

Social conservatives should have an equal right to self identity fulfillment as do progressive liberals

1, Regarding the economic and social status of America’s Black population: If you ask me to pay more taxes so that Blacks will have more economic and educational resources so as to better rebuild their communities, I will readily say yes. But if you ask me to pay the same amount of taxes because I unjustly benefit from Jewish White Privilege, I will angrily say NO, because I refuse to accept an ideology and terminology that falsely attacks and denigrates my historical self identity as an American, and as a Jew/

2.As a business employer I would not discriminate against a proclaimed LGBT person. I would readily hire the best person for the job.. But sitting on the board of my private Orthodox day school I would refuse to hire a self proclaimed LGBT person to teach science. And the Left self identity fulfillment politicians would angrily call me a homophobe, and probably try to take me to court, because I am defending my self identity as an Orthodox Jew. As an Orthodox Jew I strongly believe that the politics of sexual identity liberation seriously attack the legitimacy and stability of the two parent, two gender family which is the corner stone of Torah family and religious life.

Summary: Can social conservatives and progressive liberals learn to accept the legitimacy and understand the advantages/disadvantages of the Other’s social philosophy?

A critical reader will ask at this point, “After writing an essay blaming the self identity ideology of the progressive liberals for the crisis of polarization, how can you suddenly end the essay by calling for each side to accept the legitimacy of, (while not agreeing to), the social philosophy of the Other? This is not an easy dance to do, but I do believe it can work.

As a social conservative I readily, and happily, acknowledge that the ideology of self liberation and self identity fulfillment has improved the lives of significant segments of America’s populations, and provided them with resources and opportunities that were previously denied to them. I gladly acknowledge the improvements/ advantages created by the ideology of self identity fulfillment. Thus I do consider this ideology to be legitimate, but as a social conservative I strongly disagree about the price and disadvantages caused by these improvements. Never has there been in America so many alienated and isolated individuals, and never has the rate of emotional anxiety, emotional loneliness, depression and suicide been so high.

And now I hope to find progressive liberal thinkers who will be willingly to adopt a similar stand, and to consider the principles and concerns (detailed above) of a social conservative to be legitimate.

I suggest starting a dialogue of mutual legitimacy along the following ‘demilitarized/disengagement terms’. I pray that the progressive liberals are able to rise above the level of political ‘forces of Light and Darkness’ incriminations, and ascend to a dialogue level of competing, legitimate social philosophies .

Practically this means acknowledging that the vast majority of the seventy million people who voted for President Trump voted for him not because that they are ‘semi racists, semi white supremacists, basically less educated, science deniers, who are afraid of losing political dominance to a growing majority of minority groups ‘ but because that they give greater priority than liberals to protecting and promoting the two parent family, institutionalized religion, commitment to living in stable community frameworks, and a positive patriotism.

Social conservatives must acknowledge the correctness of progressive liberals analysis that important segments of America’s population have been denied in the past equal access to economic-social resources and opportunities, and this must change, but with true tolerance for socially conservative communities with a differing definition of what constitutes the welfare of American society.

In one sentence, we can only overcome polarization if we acknowledge the legitimacy of the other’s social philosophy, while disagreeing, and while promoting our programs in a pluralistic, tolerant manner.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.