After the deadly shooting in Tucson that wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, many people erroneously and instantaneously blamed Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and others on the right for their violent or “eliminationist” rhetoric.
In the wake of that tragedy, President Obama called for civility. “At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do,” Obama said a few days after the shooting, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Those seem like happier, saner times now. When a man opened fire on a congressional baseball practice a year ago, House majority whip Steve Scalise became the first representative to be shot since Giffords. This time, there were fewer calls for civility, fewer warnings about how violent rhetoric was to blame.
One reason for the disparity was obvious. In 2011, the victim was a Democrat. In 2017, the victim was a Republican. The outcry was fainter even though the baseball shooter was clearly motivated by murderous partisan rage, whereas the Tucson shooter was motivated by voices in his head.
Four days before the baseball shooting, Senator Bernie Sanders had said: “You should be angry. Take your anger out on the right people.” Sanders was blameless for the shooting, of course. But so were Palin and Bachmann in 2011. Nevertheless, Palin and Bachmann were blamed — repeatedly.
Such double standards take up an enormous amount of headspace on the right. “Obama put kids in cages, too!” was the go-to defense of Trump’s family-separation policy for many right-wingers, which ironically made Obama’s policy the new rationalization for Obama haters.
These days the Right has its own double standards, which haunt the minds of many on the left. The list is too long to dwell on, but nearly all stem from the perceived need to defend presidential rhetoric and behavior that violate the standards of the pre-Trump GOP.
Such double standards are toxic, because they lead people to conclude that norms of decency and decorum are just tools of a rigged system. But all the banshee shrieks of whataboutism are downstream of a larger problem: the loss of collective identity.
All the banshee shrieks of whataboutism are downstream of a larger problem: the loss of collective identity.
Humans crave what philosopher-anthropologist Ernest Gellner called “re-enchantment creeds.” According to Gellner, modernity — i.e., the trinity of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the market economy — dissolved the old creeds that gave people a sense of meaning and belonging. When traditional religion gets chased out, we adopt other causes, movements, and ideas to fill the holes in our souls. Nationalism, socialism, psychoanalysis, neo-paganism, racism: These are all forms of re-enchantment creeds.
Partisan politics has become a kind of re-enchantment creed. A majority of Americans say that belief in God isn’t necessary to be a good person, which is fine by itself. But in 2016, nearly half of Republicans and more than a third of Democrats said that members of the other party were immoral. No doubt those numbers have gone up since then.
Partisan identity is now stronger and more meaningful for many Americans than race, ethnicity, or religious denomination — and is viewed as a more legitimate justification for discrimination.
When liberals cheer the mob to harass government officials and are encouraged by hacks such as Representative Maxine Waters, when businesses shun not just members of the Trump entourage but anyone who voted for him, when conservatives rationalize any wickedness on the grounds that it will “own the libs,” I don’t see something new so much as the revival of something very old.
It is the return of “No Irish Need Apply,” but with Republicans or Democrats replacing the Irish. It’s the tribalism that split Protestants and Catholics, each believing the victory of the other would spell doom for their ways of life.
It’s not merely that lifestyles are being politicized, but that politics is becoming a lifestyle.
Partisans are convinced that the answer to our woes lies in total victory over the other. This is disastrous, because the embrace of partisan identity exacerbates the problem, and because our government was never designed to fill the holes in our souls.
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