“The measure of a man is what he does with power,” said Plato. The great desire for power is a constant in human history and it is currently ripping apart the social fabric of the United States. Leaders often utilize morality to mobilize supporters, and the partisan cold war in Washington D.C. is largely fueled by this aspiration for power.
There has been a long list of historical factors leading both parties to fight so strongly for control of the federal government, but of relevance is the moralizing tactics the parties use to obtain power. “The ends justify the means” describes this phenomenon. Throughout history, many leaders have claimed that morally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes. Even recently, Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that those who criticize her are more concerned about being factually correct than being morally right.
Moral language is not inherently wrong, but it becomes such when the goal is to utilize institutional weapons of power against the opposition. Barack Obama, at the time a presidential candidate, said of his opponents, “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who are not like them.”
For centuries, politicians have derided their opponents as immoral simply because their peers were unwilling to genuflect to others’ moral viewpoint. For example, the current wedge issue of “religious liberty” is frequently labeled by critics as religious discrimination. Religious communities believe that their lives should be dictated on their faith, free from government interference, while others view religious liberty as a tool of oppression utilized by religious zealots to justify discriminating against protected classes. At the core of this divide are widely diverging moral frameworks, on the one hand is the largely Abrahamic notion of morality and on the other hand is a socially conscious liberal approach.
“Intolerance of others’ views (no matter how ignorant or incoherent they may be) is not simply wrong; in a world where there is no right or wrong, it is worse; it is a sign you are embarrassingly unsophisticated or, possibly, dangerous,” writes Jordan Peterson in his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. In our everyday lives, we encounter this phenomenon, so it begs the question: If we understand that others view life differently then how can we force our moral framework on others? If history is any indicator, then it appears that brute force is the only mechanism for trying this. The large-scale failure of Fascism and Communism to dominate global geopolitics has proven that this means is unlikely to remain functional, in the long-term.
“Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were to ever acquire material power over others!”
In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes, “Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were to ever acquire material power over others!” Solzhenitsyn continues, “For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.” His words are a warning to the West about the perils of morality infused with power.
The failings of Soviet Russia can teach the rest of the world much about the necessity of individual freedom and liberty. Frequently throughout The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn cites instances where groups of religious individuals, scientists, and political opponents are jailed and tortured for their differing views on morality and the Communist Party. While this is not an issue in the 21st Century United States of America, there are signs of growing tribalism and the weaponization of power. At Merion West, I noted that “in recent years, however, there appears to be an uptick in political violence, efforts by journalists to dox or expose individuals personal information, and heightened rhetoric accusing opponents of exaggerated crimes. This toxic combination, along with the role of social media-created echo chambers, may lead America dangerously in the direction of the un-free.”
Equally as dangerous is the constant use of exaggerated rhetoric by politicians from both political parties. “The most radical claim yet is that the Republican tax rate cut bill will cause roughly 10,000 more Americans to die each year. Republicans, of course, do this too, such as when the President claims that countless terrorists are pouring across the Southern border,” I noted at Merion West. Both examples demonstrate our political leaders’ willingness to engage in fear-mongering, as politicians understand that fear drives us to act. Politicians, knowingly or unknowingly, are fueling a ticking time bomb, as “anger demands action, and violence provides a cathartic release or response to the adrenaline fueled demands of anger,” writes Scott A. Bonn PhD at Psychology Today.
Numerous politicians, including the President of the United States and former Vice President Joe Biden, have proclaimed that they alone can fix our problems. While this message may be soothing to the ears of some, this sounds like a profoundly troubling notion. In an interview with Merion West, Nicholas Christakis said that humans tend to be anti-authoritarian, as they don’t like overbearing societies but they also don’t work well when there is nobody in charge. Given that our moral frameworks vary so significantly, it appears that the best outcome would be to remove some level of power from our elected leaders; instead, we should focus our efforts on improving our own lives and the lives of those in our community. In order to understand the perils of deferring control to powerful leaders, we must begin by re-educating ourselves on the history of failed totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, and Maoist China.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.”
History indicates the infusion of centralized power and moralizing policies are likely to end up in mass violence and, ultimately, in a failed regime. In order to deter a similar fate, the United States must return to more limited government, and we must seek out to understand our individual moral differences. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” The United States must awake to the very old, potent threat that seeks to destroy it from within.