There is nothing new about the factionalism and splintering inside the conservative movement. In fact, most conservatives take pride in a healthy exchange of ideas. However, before we even get to the discussion of substantive issues, there are matters of form and company that must not be left unattended – or so it seems. The past several discussions have barely touched on conservatives “issues” – because so much of our time seems to be taken up by the endless pre-discussions about who is “good enough” to partake in the discourse.
Quite simply, before we even get to the point of building reasonable political alliances, we first must succeed at not killing each other, or at least, each other’s reputations. Political polarization does not merely drive the progressives and the conservatives farther apart; it makes different groups within the party, as well as people who are all over the map, less likely to compromise or even tolerate differences. Social media increases polarization by driving content that is more likely to inspire debate and extensive engagement. However, with no possibility of face-to-face interaction or reading emotional content, online discussions are likely to escalate to flame wars, with even people who largely agree on core principles,ending up defriending or blocking each other. The same social media that can connect activists from all over the country drives people further and further apart.
Moreover, people who surround themselves in a bubble are more likely to take increasingly extreme and entrenched positions over time, and eventually become intolerant and intolerable to anyone outside those bubbles. The bubbles then, grow ever smaller, until there is no possibility of a reasoned respectful discussion unlike the like-minded agree with you on everything and for precisely the right reasons. Groupthink thinks and percolates, with no one the wiser. Indeed, the bubble dwellers, no matter what faction they are in, believe themselves to be the only truly independent thinkers, with everyone else being deluded and not worth talking to. It’s not mere cowardice, however, that pushes passionate polemicists into such deeply entrenched positions. Nor is it mere arrogance, or defensiveness.
The tunnel vision propagated by a combination of habitual defensiveness, reactionism, social media-inspired polarization, and peer pressure all contribute to this disturbing social phenomenon. Furthermore, politics increasingly tends to dominate discussions, where previously people would spend only a portion of their time in argument over elections or thorny issues. Bitter political rivals could pleasantly chat about culture and society in their free time away from the political scene. Noawadays, however, everything is politics, even food, even the names of items on the menu.
Furthermore, when supporting candidates or political causes, bubble dwellers will opt for increasingly extreme positions or individuals; any sign of compromise or imperfection will be seen as unacceptable weakness. The most shrill candidates will be seen as the strongest ones, no matter what positions they actually support. They may not actually be the most conservative, the most consistent, or frankly, even the best performing. But the definition of what “fighting” for a cause means has shifted due to the effects of the unrealistic and exaggerated expectations propagated as a result of social media effects and bubble dwelling.
There is an increased intolerance for human frailty, past failings, or minute imperfections. Because politics becomes a dominant theme of an increasing number of people’s lives, succeeding or winning in political battlefields appears to be of paramount importance; for that, reason, then, the possibility of a loss becomes intolerable. In sheer desperation, bubble dwellers of all stripes flock to “saviors” – political candidates who are almost mythological heroes endowed with unique qualities that make them the only possible individuals who can lead us all into a better world and save us from a fate worse than death.
Sounds hyperbolic? Not if you listen to an average every day discussion between regular people, not engaged in politics beyond conversational level. Among activists, campaigners, and donors, the tenor of the discussion is significantly more strident. Of course, unrealistic and stilted expectations set up these true believers for failure. Either the candidate will simply lose or his antics will be good enough to manipulate the masses during the race, not necessarily good enough to govern. What is interesting, however, even in the event the candidate does lose or upon winning, fails to keep election promises, there is no disillusionment
. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance increases and the bubble dwellers, rather than refocusing on winning the next battle, keep refighting the old ones ad infinitum. Rather than going after their actual political enemies, they create new ones inside the party or the movement – anyone who had cost their candidate the election, anyone who took a slightly different position on an issue, anyone who had appealed to a group of people the most “hardcore” faction found unacceptable.
That is exactly how you lose future elections, of course. And that is exactly how you wind up with increasingly worse candidates running off against each other.
Already the signs of future failures are on the horizon, with assorted Republican factions finger pointing over the fallout with Roy Moore’s loss. Rather than uniting to find suitable candidates to run against Doug Jones in 2020, they have their sights on primarying Richard Shelby, the alleged traitor who vocally supported Jones against Moore, in 2022. Priorities are clearly not in order. Internal witchhunts may drive a few people out of office, but will likely cost more than they win. Indeed, there is a slew of Republican House members retiring. Already the talk of “betrayal of the party” is heard in drafts and whispers.
And yet, what incentive do many of the people have to stay and fight? The party is only an infrastructure for the application of values to real life. If there are no core principles in place, there is no sense to be staying loyal to a mechanism. To fight for the party, its members need to know they have a stake in it. If you don’t back the candidate of their choice, and are called a traitor and are essentially derided for any minor disagreement, unless your entire existence revolves around fighting to transform and take the party, what incentive do you have to stay involved, or even registered?
Those who do stay involved may soon find themselves abandoning their conservative principles in favor of compromises, peer pressure, and the agenda of the apparatchiks. By its nature, a party apparatus is perfect breeding ground for corruption. How do we reverse this destructive and invisible process? How do we stop the spread of baseless hatred, not merely distaste? How do we return from a tone of snarkiness, mockery, meanness, and insults to respect, civility, and dignity?
A few suggests:
First, spend more time in person. Disagreements are much easier to iron out over great food and in good company. People are more likely to be embarrassed to raise their voices or to engage in name calling. Of course, those who have nothing better to do, eventually reach extremes even in in-person encounters. Nevertheless, physical meetings bring about some level of bonding and a sense of investment into the relationship. What of old friends who severe ties over political differences? Well, perhaps they were not such good friends to begin with. Or, alternatively, eventually they will admit their mistake in life priorities and come around!
Second, use quality time for action. Rather than arguing poltiics on social media all day, do something useful for your community. Get together with people from other political backgrounds and engage in acts of kindness. Showing love to people in need is a surefire way to rediscover respect for people who are in it with you, and tone down some of the negative passions.
Third, take five minutes each day, consistently, to remember why you are in this. What has drawn you to a particular candidate, cause, issue, or political group? What is it that makes you proud to be involved? Do they still represent what is important to you? What kind of world do you want to build, not just see? And what kind of a person do you wish to be? I doubt anyone wants to be known as a hateful, rude, obnoxious, cowardly, and disingenuous hack. The issue is, no one really wants to be called out for that behavior, nor is in any hurry to admit to it. Rather than trying in vain to find evidence of ill manners and poor temperament on one’s own part, the better path is to ask oneself: what are the affirmatively positive things I have done with my time today, whether in the political realm or outside of it? What am I proud of accomplishing today? If the answer is nothing, (I doubt too many people will relish every flame war and every insult at the end of the day), perhaps it is time to reexamine one’s priorities and approach in life.
Fourth, assuming one enters the fray with a particular principle, it’s worth to reflect on what action one has taken on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to engage and to promote t hose principles through some action. If one is to keep track and write down or discuss these actions on a regular basis, one can create a much more comprehensive view of one’s involvement the conservative movement of politics, as well as what has actually been accomplished. Take some of the emotional excesses out of the equation, and focus on cold, hard facts. A reflective attitude will help us individually to keep track of our own success, as well as what needs to be done to get where we want to be – and we are less likely to be distracted by subliminal messaging from self-interested entities or annoying, hostile people.
Fifth, instead of looking for every reason why your (Formerly) favorite candidate, friend, mentor, thinker, or pundit is a disappointment and a failure, try to find each day something positive even about people who you think have let you down. I guarantee you, sooner or later you will find more ways to ally even with the people who are no longer “in your league” than if you keep looking for ways to eliminate people who once mattered out of your life. Of course, if the candidate is genuinely incompetent, if your friends are morally reprehensible and toxic, if your mentors or mentees have betrayed you, and the thinkers turned out to be shallow, unprincipled, and incapable of nuance or challenging ideas, there is no need to hold on to the debris of the past. However, more often than not, that will not be the case.
FInally – my favorite piece of advice – learn from every person and every situation. Then, your time will never be wasted, and you will continue to grow no matter who or what life throws your way.
There is a way to keep the light glowing even amidst the darkness and bitterness, as we wander seemingly alone through the wilderness of political mirrors. We may not know who was right and who was wrong for years to come, even if we are sure we know now. But no matter what happens, we can find a way to come out on top, and win something important – our dignity, self-respect, and relationships with good, interesting people – no matter what happens. And that is what it is ultimately all about.