As we close out 2018 with a partial government shutdown merely adding some extra spice to the monotonous stew of political rage served daily, it’s worth noting that the primary sticking point isn’t an ideological split over border security, nor is it the recalcitrance of the president or the Democrats. It’s about symbolism, for want of a better word.
I am in no way trying to minimize the disagreement. We often dismiss controversies or concerns by waving our hands and saying something like, “Oh, that’s merely symbolic,” as if the meaning we give to symbols is somehow irrelevant compared with more tangible things. But symbolism — the way we reduce broad concerns, agendas, and visions to images or rituals — has played a defining role in human life since there have been humans.
Try burning a flag or a cross in front of the wrong audience and then tell me symbolism is nothing. The rifts between Shia and Sunni, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic, Israelis and Palestinians, Tibetans and Chinese, obviously have real political, theological, or economic substance behind them, but they are often reduced to symbolism. If you study the history of nationalism, it is often a story of symbols. What flag shall we fly? What icon shall we mount? What books will we revere — or burn?
The defining feature of American politics for the last half-century has been our increasing reliance on symbolism. As my National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru noted almost 20 years ago, presidents are now symbols of the culture war.
It’s a bit like England’s battles over the monarchy. For Protestants, the idea of having a Catholic sit on the throne was seen as a rejection of English identity. For Catholics, having a Catholic on the throne felt like a restoration of English identity. In America, the need to have “one of us” in the Oval Office is a powerful driver of partisan passion.
George W. Bush represented “Red America,” and Barack Obama represented “Blue America” — at least in the eyes of many of their supporters and critics. President Trump makes much of that look quaint, given that Bush and Obama at least made the effort to sound as if they were looking out for the interests of all Americans.
One the problems with symbolic politics is that it’s hard to compromise, because symbolism enlists notions of honor and identity that leave little room for haggling. In a fight over bread, you can agree on half a loaf, because half is better than nothing. But with symbols, it’s difficult to escape zero-sum thinking. It’s like the famous line, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”
Trump’s wall is now an entirely symbolic affair. His biggest supporters insist that he has a mandate for one, and that it was his central campaign promise. I don’t think that’s right analytically. Only two things unified all Trump voters: his promise to not be Hillary Clinton, and his promise to appoint conservative judges.
But none of that matters now because the symbolism is more important than the reality. Indeed, the president has offered to compromise, saying that we don’t have to call it a wall and it doesn’t even have to really look like one. But that doesn’t matter either, because for Democrats, any structure that the president could claim victory over would be a defeat.
Immigration policy itself is something of an afterthought. Serious restrictionists readily concede that a wall would be far less useful than mandatory E-Verify and other such efforts to make hiring illegal immigrants more difficult. I’ve yet to meet a serious advocate for curtailing immigration — legal or illegal — who wouldn’t trade a wall for reform of the visa system. On the left, there are probably many who would trade a wall for reforms to their liking. But both sides understand that the base cares more about the symbolism of the wall fight.
There’s an irony to this turn in American thinking. We treat the presidency like it’s a symbolic monarchy, but real monarchs have the power to make compromises for the common good. Julien Benda observed in his 1927 classic “The Treason of the Intellectuals” that the rise in popular democracy, or populism, robbed rulers of the unilateral ability to decide what was consonant with the nation’s interests and, more importantly, the nation’s honor.
In the modern age, the people get to choose their own symbols, and they aren’t in a mood to compromise.
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