Politics in a Social Age

Jul. 2004

Extremist propaganda isn't the only place one can hear the prospect of 'civil war' uttered these days. It can be heard on national television by credible sources; it is mentioned somewhat casually in daily political conversation. It is as if something as horrible as civil war—perhaps the most horrible of wars—is a logical resort for the political condition we face.

Certainly, ours is a demanding condition, but can talk of civil war be justified? When one notes inflexible voting habits across the country and the map of clear-cut red and blue states, the argument that there is a divide becomes compelling. When one hears of politically-driven suicides and of cars being vandalized for their bumper stickers, one realizes the intense fervor at hand here. A president neglects rules of the union and instates judges without the requisite authorization by the senate; and meanwhile, judges around the country neglect rules and alter the law to suit their fancies. It would seem that the arrangements that have held America together for 230 years don't demand respect any more.

Whether war is possible or not, one would have to conclude that there is something amiss with our political state. There is no good reason that people living in the same country while apparently consuming the same culture and working toward the same end should be so bitterly divided. To thwart any further development of that divide, we must understand its source and reverse it. The investigation begins with the president.

Although some would claim that George W. Bush is the catalyst of the clash, "the great divider" as John Kerry would say, he is incontrovertibly at the center of the conflict. Those who agree with him in general are on one side and those who disagree with him in general are on the other. Of course, no one agrees completely with George W. and I doubt that anyone can honestly disagree with everything he has to say, but this divide works in general ways and most Americans can and do take sides one way or the other. It is only convenient that our political system works in exactly the same fashion—generally.

Since support for or dissent from Bush reflect the culture divide, one would think the 2004 election results were a sign that the chasm was lessening. The president lost the popular election in 2000, but he commanded it in 2004 with some 3.4 million more votes nationwide than his opponent. In these times of need, it seemed, support for Bush was growing. Democrats would begin to realize that this Bush guy might actually be acceptable. His mandate would make them consider that they might have been at least somewhat wrong.

To my surprise, though, the intense dislike I saw directed toward Bush before the election remained and often worsened after it. Liberals cried that the next four years would necessarily be hell—as if Bush wasn't president the last four. It couldn't be a mandate because 49% of the country voted against him. So, the divide persists with about half the country on one side basically adoring President Bush and the other side hating him.

And it is unquestionably hatred that liberals have displayed toward Bush, as illogical and motivated by emotion as any other brand of hatred out there. The animosity is commonly disguised as something else, something more relevant to politics, but hatred's symptoms are unmistakable—bitterness, rage, helplessness. It is when hatred becomes a driving force for a large contingent of people that talk of war truly gains credibility.

Haters forget that President Bush is a world leader who has made his way through the American system, built a healthy family, designed a political platform that combines the work of conservative thinkers and leaders from Goldwater to Gingrich, and gained respect from innumerable statesmen and citizens throughout America and abroad. They deny that he is even a human being with the same instincts and feelings as the rest of us. Indeed, to the average hater, George W. Bush has become an idea—an utterly disagreeable one.

What is most striking about the idea that Bush has become is that it is not a political idea. It is not an amalgamation of Bush's policies or his personal convictions as one might assume—as Ronald Reagan, the idea, would be, for instance. If the idea were political, even the most avid detractors of those policies and convictions would find something more civilized than all-out hatred to direct toward the president. Policies are rational things with bases and outcomes that can be argued logically—level-headedly. They are detached from the individual if only because of their abstract nature. Rather, what causes the intense hatred from the detractors of Bush is something much more personal and dear, something emotional.

That personal and emotional idea that George W. Bush has become has to do with social acceptability. To the average liberal, George W. just isn't cool, and that is what causes them to be so vehemently repulsed by the president. At first consideration, it may seem odd to think that nearly half a nation can be turned away from their leader for something that is as seemingly trivial as social acceptability. But with a quick analysis of the matter, one will find that to be socially accepted these days—to be cool—is the most important thing there is to the average American or Westerner. It is more important than food and shelter as those things are pretty much granted to all in the West. Social acceptance has even topped things like religion, the arts and career in importance for moderns Americans, all of which still thrive, but have been noticeably altered to accommodate a more social manner. Even at church, one witnesses emphasis placed on fashion, style and attitude, not substance, character and meaning.

All is directed toward making as great an impression as possible—even if it is a superficial one—to the all-important crowd, anonymous and vocal. We live in a social age and, as such, the paramount aim for most of us is to gain the prized social acceptance. When liberals condemn the president, then, it is nothing more than translating this intense focus from the workaday up to the political realm. Actions and statements by Bush are no longer judged on whether they can progress America and the world politically, but rather on the likelihood that they will be accepted by the general masses, whether they are cool. Substance is necessarily abandoned for style and ultimately, it no longer matters what is said; it only matters who says it and how he says it.

In a social age, all institutions, even important ones like politics, fall into the jurisdiction of sociality. That is, they become mechanisms for aligning oneself with others who are socially acceptable and away from others who are socially unacceptable. Certainly, this demotes institutions like politics that were formerly significant on their own. But those institutions are made of the people and for the people, so they have no say in the matter—if it is what the people want, then it is what they will get even if it is inappropriate.

Among other drawbacks, inappropriateness brings disorder when it comes to discussing the institutions overrun by sociality. That is because the substance of the discussions has turned into sociality, but the old façade of politics is maintained in attempt to gain the significance that the institution used to command. It sounds like a political argument, but in reality it is a social one disguised. When rash jumps in logic lead the conversationalist to conclude that Bush is "obviously imperial and fascist," it becomes obvious that the substance of his argument is not political. No matter how unreasonable he must be to do so, his intent is to tie the president with known evils so that Bush will appear evil, himself. When the hated figure is vilified, the hater feels superior. Such is the mentality of the social age.

Consequently, politics can no longer be argued with civility. No matter what is discussed, the opponent of the argument is wrong and the argument's only use becomes proving that the opponent is so. Logic and creativity are discarded for they produce truth and unity, which no longer serve as the objectives. Indeed, unity is the enemy in an age where one must belittle another to gain importance. The result is arguments made of snide remarks and 'jabs' intended to be funny or show political savvy, though necessarily failing to do so. This kind of interaction is entertaining for the one distributing the jabs, but never the audience. Frustration is what they get, especially if they are actually seeking the political conversation advertised by the political front.

This is why conservatives find it so difficult to argue with liberals—they are arguing different things. The former will offer what he considers to be a logical argument based on policy while the latter will return something with all the markings of a just response, but one only successful in showing Bush's lack of coolness. The liberal changes the subject to sociality, possibly because it is the strongest argument against Bush, but also because sociality is what is most important to the liberal. He will point out the president's country accent, his ridiculous mismanipulation of the English language, and all that uncool talk about God and going to church and stuff. Those things are certainly uncool, and these indictments of low social acceptability are mentioned quite as if they are proof of Bush's incompetence as a world leader. The conservative knows his opponent has a point—conservatives care about being cool too—but can't understand why he brought it up in a political conversation. Frustration abounds.

When the liberal does manage to pull his argument back around to politics, he will attack Bush's effort in Iraq. But even here, it gets back to social acceptability. That is because on the world stage, Bush represents the most uncool thing there is to liberals—war. What can be less cool than going into a couple countries and hunting down the bad guys, with conviction and passion? Not only were we involved in a fight, which is uncool in itself, but we allegedly started it, offending our neighbors and friends in the process.

In a social age, one aspires to impress and attract others whether it is on an individual level or an international one, so with the second Gulf War, Bush did exactly the opposite of that in a very prominent and forceful way, thus sealing the deal for the left across the United States and the West as a whole. To them, Bush is seriously uncool. He is mischievously uncool—uncool in a very immoral, Machiavellian sort of way. Lack of coolness is tantamount to evil if coolness is one's greatest aim.

As mentioned above, conservatives and Bush-supporters in general care about being cool just like liberals do. Why they support Bush unlike liberals is therefore a valid question. It is possible that conservatives and other Bush-voters think Bush is cool and so their need of social acceptance aligns them with the president. After all, Bush does do some really cool things especially for a president. He flew a fighter onto an aircraft carrier; he visited troops in Iraq 6 months after occupation began; he wears a cowboy hat and lives on a ranch. To many, these things are cool, and compelled by social needs, those people will find Bush to be the right man for the job.

It is likely, then, that some of Bush's votes sprung from the sociality of the age. Still, it is not necessary that every citizen living in a social age be totally compelled by social needs. It isn't even necessary that a majority be socially minded—all that is required is a culture that aims for sociality. When a people's arts and sciences focus on social status and judgment of the masses, the atmosphere as a whole becomes saturated with sociality. Thus, it is possible that something other than coolness brought Bush a second term.

To begin, all people living in any age require social acceptance to lead healthy lives. It is a fact of human nature. It does not follow that the need must control the individual or serve as the most prominent ambition in one's life. Whereas the liberal anti-Bush crowd focuses heavily on sociality, it could be said that the conservative Bush-voters just focus on something else. That something else might be something simple like food or shelter, or as a result of 9/11 for instance, it might be something like security. Immediate threats to our safety have exposed sociality as a superficial and shallow need that might seem fun at some less critical time. Similarly, one's focus might be on something higher and more complex than social needs. Compulsion to do what's right commands the attention of many Americans. Such a need manifests into spirituality and religion among other high human endeavors. Those who find church more than a place to see and be seen most likely voted for Bush.

What makes a liberal Democrat focus on sociality and a conservative Republican focus on something else is nothing simple. A general pattern seen in the red and blue states will help understanding. That is because the color-coded states are really color-coded counties, where the red ones are America's rural areas and small towns and the blue ones are basically America's big cities. There is one very relevant distinction between the two kinds of regions—the level of social activity in each. In small towns, social activity is contained and altogether minimal while it is concentrated and unavoidably intense in big cities. Granting the consequences of this are manifold, one must be able to conclude that social needs are far more prominent in the city than they are outside of it. Thus, those in the city care more about social acceptability and are more likely to look for a socially acceptable president than those in rural areas.

Likewise, those in the country care less about social acceptability and are more likely to look for a president with some other qualities. No matter where one lives, the more absorbed by sociality one is, the more appealing the Democratic Party is; the less absorbed by sociality one is, the more appealing the Republican Party is.

This principle is reiterated when one regards the poll results throughout the 2004 presidential campaign. One will notice that Bush's popularity rose sharply after the Republican Convention and after the debates. While this is nothing out of the ordinary in itself, Kerry's popularity did not follow the same trend. In fact, his popularity rose slowly over time when there were no significant political events and actually fell somewhat after his own convention and the debates. One might chalk it up to a bad convention or debates, but the consensus was that they were successful. The problem for Kerry was that during a convention or debate, the message must be political, not social, especially in time of war. And so it countered Kerry's liberal Democrat appeal of sociality and his popularity fell. When politics were in the nation's consciousness, Bush gained popularity and when politics faded from the forefront, when people returned to their everyday lives of social interaction, Kerry gained popularity.

All general rules have exceptions. After all, Bush's popularity wasn't 100% after political events, it was just comparatively higher. There are plenty of liberals in small towns and there is a healthy contingent of conservatives in big cities. So, looking at the affect of sociality on people is not going to draw clear lines for this divide. But it is helpful in discovering how people look at politics, politicians and government these days. Knowing the roots of political preferences leads to making sounder decisions when one gets to the voting booth or when the office debate heats up—consequences that are always beneficial. It helps to clear up what is a foggy condition of social differences formerly seen as insurmountable. It does not build a unifying path away from war, but makes visible the ground on which we can build it.