American Political Culture, Part IV: The Struggle for Popularity
Messages of political unity have a particular magnetism. For certain, campaign rhetoric that appeals to the ability of a nation to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds if people put differences aside and pull together for the common good is like lodestone for would-be politicians.
“Come together” messaging might seem incongruous in the framework of inherently divisive elections, where competitors speak of hope and unity in one breath then deride the motives of their opponent in the next, but there is an undercurrent of utopianism in appeals to commonality.
National elections, in particular, promote the idea that the polity is a collective. The often bitter partisan divides that are inflamed by the frenetic heat of the campaign trail are ultimately assuaged come election day. Then, voters enter polling places, where overtly political speech is taboo and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women who, just as they, have taken a few minutes from their hectic day to express themselves civically. Perhaps, as the wait drags on, they fall into amiable conversation with those around them and see, not partisan rivals, but neighbors who share many of the same struggles.
It is in this moment, which is the end of campaigning, that the power of civic participation crystallizes. It is belief — belief in the intrinsic worth of the system, belief in a particular candidate or referendum issue — which unifies those who turnout to vote. That motives differ matters not; the individual’s underlying capacity for belief in virtue unifies the polity come election day.
There is an intensely potent efficacy, a kind of civic euphoria, which results in the realization that participation rallies citizens around a common purpose. It creates an identity and sense of belonging which cannot be achieved through individual action. The legitimacy of democratic processes rests in no small part upon a collective belief amongst members of the polity that the system is honest and aboveboard. This hyper-charged sense of efficacy, gained from a sense of oneness with those who exercise their civic duty, is therefore crucial if government is going to assert itself, albeit benevolently, as the supreme force to be obeyed in society.
This connotation of efficacy marries self-worth to participation. The individual is still autonomous, but they have the most value when they act in concert with others for the collective good of society. The body politic is not just an expression of the actions of the sum total of individuals; it is greater than the sum of its parts. It takes on a life and significance of its own because efficacy comes through unity.
Events, such as elections, therefore represent the apogee of civic identity. It is this that the increasingly popular “come together” rhetoric of the campaign trail seeks to exploit. It is the reason that participatory action and the power of an undivided polity are increasingly the emphasis of partisan agendas.
Unity through participation is the new emphasis of partisan strategizing. Under the guise of populism, Republicans have already been able to use this to their advantage. The quasi-mercantilist trade policies which are part of Donald Trump’s brand successfully appealed to the forgotten voters of industrial middle America. They capitalized on the power of unity by promising that the highest authorities in the land would take direct action to ensure that those who had been marginalized through the politicization of economic policies would cease to be treated as outcasts. Previous administrations believed heavy industry was a detriment to the environment and those engaged in the energy sector were treated as lepers, rhetorically cast out of society until they changed their ways — a powerful judgment if political participation is akin to efficacy. They used the emotional potency of collective civic participation as a cudgel to create a polity which held a certain set of values.
The Trump administration reversed this position and embraces heavy industry as the backbone of America. It exercised its powerful political muscles and used executive actions to broadcast a message of change. Initiatives such as “Buy American, Hire American” promoted unity by diktat: government would solicit purely American business-owners wherever possible. This was done not only for the benefit of those American industrial workers who would see their businesses grow as a result of this mercantilist logic, but because the country as a whole would be strengthened by the ensuing economic boom. Clearly, unity through participation is the guiding tenet of such civic actions.
Nor are Republicans the only ones to utilize such strategies. Devastated at state and national levels by right-wing victories in wave elections in 2010, 2014 and 2016 that capitalized on populist messaging, the Democrat party recently announced a fundamental shift in its approach to electoral politics.
Social justice and grievance politics, which emphasize divisiveness by holding up the injustice done to a specific identity group and pinning blame upon the actions of another group, came for many to define the left. It was an approach to politics that, under the presumption that efficacy comes from the rallying of the polity around specific socially-beneficial action, was extremely exclusionary. It demanded certain citizens cede their place in society for the gratification of others and threatened those who refused to go along with a diminished role in the polity.
To many observers, the harsh paternalism of this mindset was out of lockstep with the big tent thinking which is currently in vogue. The heavy-handedness of such messaging is, at least in the popular mind, responsible for the hemorrhaging of Congressional seats which occurred even under a leftist president.
All too aware of this setback, Democratic leadership recently announced it too will embrace the economic populism with which Republicans have recently had so much success. Not only will Democrats attempt to appeal more universally to the polity by empathizing with financial hardships, which are substantially more relatable than identity politics, but their policies will target actors who seek to exclude others by exploiting power differentials in society. Among the policies outlined by Chuck Schumer are minimum wage hikes and proposals for employer-mandated childcare support, which attempt to make the image of the Democrat party one of struggling working families. These echo Trump’s rhetoric, which appeals to the plight of workers struggling to survive in middle America.
But Democrats have also promised to go after powerful societal actors, like pharmaceutical companies, whose actions, such as raising drug prices, allegedly promote themselves at the expense of others. This is an attempt to unify the polity by pushing out those whose actions are exclusionary. It is a variation on the theme of Republicans’ economic protectionism, which uses executive action to create policy that ensures the services of marginalized groups are utilized more by those in power. The emphasis both parties place on economic, rather than social, problems is not coincidental. Economic gains come directly from participatory action and the degree of success hinges upon the participation of a collective. In reality, the polity is one enormous market.
But though both parties emphasize the ability of their actions to benefit all by coercing participation, there is still an element of social engineering to populism, no matter how benevolent its intent. The lines between political and social issues is blurred, to the detriment of personal rights. Populist rhetoric too often promotes a top-down vision of what constitutes “the good”; the individual is contributory to it only to the degree that they comply with what the dominant political power advocates. Once they step out of line, they are still marginalized.
There is nothing of intrinsic worth to the doctrine of unity of participation; it is malleable and standards of justice are ultimately determined by whichever party happens to have the majority share of power. Though the polity’s participation is conducive towards efficacy, this approach to unity ultimately divorces the individual from their own consciousness. It works toward the individual’s benefit but denies the individual the requisite autonomy to define and pursue their own welfare.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.