Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 15 seconds.
It is bad for America to be divided into “two sides.”
It is bad for Democrats to be working without coming to grips with a painful reckoning of the party’s shortcomings—the narrowness of its coalition, the cloistered cluelessness of its elites, its intramural disagreements about the future of the nation.
It is bad for the Republicans to be capitalizing on the roiling discontent of the white working class, empowering an inept and allegedly traitorous President to preserve their seat of power, fanning the flames of nationalism, and ignoring the clear and present danger of climate change.
It is bad for both these parties to be operating strictly according to “partisan standards” without local affectation or community responsibility, much less any vision of a Constitutional order to which we all should be subordinate and under obligation.
It is even worse to be confronting not just “two sides,” but a whole mixed bag of ultra-right-wing militants and conspiracy theorists, left-wing extremists and those who denounce any compromise with capitalism, and increasing interference of our democracy by Russia. Each with its vernacular more or less unintelligible to grassroots people, and all saying of the rest of the world, “You are wrong.”
The badness of all of this is manifested first in the loss even of the pretense of intellectual or political dialogue. A loss increasingly chilling because intellectual engagement among the disciplines, across the lines of partisanship—that is to say genuine conversation—would enlarge the context of understanding; it would press through complex issues; it would function as a system of checks and balances, introducing dialogue that would transcend the political insularity.
Without such a lively conversation originating in the physical and digital town square and emanating from them, we now have politics that spreads its effects around the globe as if the world was no more than an experimental laboratory. Ideologists as unmindful of their influence as if the world did not exist, political parties whose main goal is to acquire funds and be lobbied by lobbyists, and governments whose principal goal is to demand complete and mindless obedience to its leader.
The ultimate manifestation of this radical discontinuity is a loss of trust—a loss, moreover, of the entire democratic process of giving and receiving trust. We now assume that everybody is working for personal interest and that they will do so until checked by someone whose self-interest is more dominant.
The loudest of the present facts is that very few people trust politicians or their governments. More quietly, individuals are pulling back their trust from the media, corporations, the education system, and religious institutions. Perhaps we have not yet assigned a quantitative value to trust; however, it is inevitable that when we have finished eliminating trust from all that we think we have achieved, not much will be left.
Moreover, it is imperative at this critical moment in American history—that the Democrats and Republicans should cease to be “two sides” and become fully communicating, if not always fully cooperating, parts of one commonwealth. To work to acknowledge that we are a mosaic of cultures, and to have each community recognize that all its members have a common ground and that this ground is the ground under our feet.
Tragically, Trump and his ilk are imposing the political methodology of reductionism upon issues of global consequence such as immigration, alliances, economics, and climate change—problems that are inherently complex, and that are often expressly resistant to a reduction of any kind.
A similar statement may be said of truth, justice, empathy, and love—which relativism would require us to understand as mere strategies of survival and power. However, we can sufficiently answer this kind of reduction by the fact that these issues and values, when thus explained, are no longer even conceptually what they were.
Trump’s reduction does not necessarily limit itself to compacting and organizing knowledge; it also has the power to change what is known. We now come face to face with a paradox, and we had better take notice—Trump’s materialism is theoretical and reductionistic, tending, in his idea of relativism, toward absolutism and autocracy.
People of democracy, on the other hand, have always believed in moral absolutism. We hold the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which we can judge moral questions, and that specific acts are right or wrong, regardless of the context.
Historically, we believe that actions are inherently moral or immoral, regardless of the beliefs and goals of a leader, society or culture that engages in relativistic efforts. It holds that values are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, the will of the gods or some fundamental source.
Moral absolutism is the opposite of relativism. Relativism is a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.
Acceptance of the mystery of existence in all its complexity leads to an acknowledgment that there are no easy answers to the difficult political and social issues that confront us. We must champion real conversation, restoration of trust, common ground, and moral absolutism. Also, we must refute reductionism, divisiveness, apathy, inequality, and autocracy with all our being.
*Please note: This post was profoundly influenced and guided by the essay "Reduction and Religion" by Wendell Berry and the extraordinary painting is by Fernando Vicente.