In this Trumpian era of rampant tribalism, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the American discourse of political partisanship is still a sideshow.
Partisans as Collectivists
When the word is used today in democratic politics, “partisan” is often contrasted with “patriot.” So a partisan is someone who sides with a political party against the greater interests of the country, thus showing an unreasonable, villainous bias, whereas a patriot does the opposite, putting the greater good of the country above the alleged greater good of a mere party. Partisanship is thus understood to be a kind of tribalism.
An early modern political use of the term was Lenin’s, and he assumed Marx’s theory of historical evolution through class conflict. By “partiinost,” Lenin meant the class interest of the proletariat, or of the exploited working class, which Marxists were proud to fight for, whereas the wealthy bourgeoisie hid their class allegiance behind the guise of objectivity.
The Marxist criticism of bourgeois neutrality was similar to the postmodern repudiation of the journalist’s tactic of feigning neutrality by taking a centrist stance, covering both sides of every issue equally even when the truth is lopsided. On the contrary, says this sort of skeptic who reduces ideas to their material (psychological, social, or biological) causes, there’s no such thing as nonpartisan objectivity, since our interests are always shaped by class identity or by some other bias.
Curiously, when we apply the Soviet’s collectivist conception of partisanship to American politics, we reveal a conflict between the tribal identification with the Democratic or Republican parties and the American ideal of rugged individualism. We should expect nonpartisanship in the American political context to be informed by the mentality of the frontiersman or the reclusive Alaskan.
Europeans settled in the American colonies without the benefit of political parties — although rather than being pure individualists, they typically identified with theocratic Christian sects. Likewise, the antisocial loner who lives off the grid in Alaska or in some other untamed wilderness or slum has no concrete assistance from any collective, even if this outsider prefers to think of herself as a member of some community.
The so-called Founding Fathers enshrined individualism on the basis of deistic Enlightenment philosophy, arguing that a person’s worth depends on his capacity for independent, rational decision-making (a capacity which they presumed women and dark-skinned people lacked). Like the original colonists, the Founders predated the gravity of the two-party system, so they could still burnish their sovereignty as moderate, free-thinking individuals.
American partisanship is thus best distinguished not from classless objectivity or neutrality, as in the communist context, but from the lone wolf’s ethos. The American nonpartisan should be self-sufficient, and should eschew handouts and distrust any trace of mob mentality rather than relieving herself from the burdens of antisocial isolation, by indulging in a group identity.
Certainly, waging culture war zealously and exclusively on behalf of the Democrats or of the Republicans conflicts with the more deep-seated American mythos, the highest ideal of which is the pioneer’s or the cowboy’s austere individualism. Liberals and conservatives may resort to the hollow excuse that by seeking to destroy the opposing side, they’re defending the country as a whole, after all, because the opponents are so wrongheaded that their policies would devastate the nation.
Even if the foreign party were practically demonic, though, the point is that if you consider either Democrats or Republicans as the only true Americans, you escape narrow tribalism only by a semantic trick. Moreover, even if you were more patriotic than partisan in that sense, you’d still be a collectivist rather than an individualist, since you’d be identifying with the broader collective of America rather than standing just for yourself against the wilderness.
All of which has been brought to the fore by President Trump’s more flagrant tribalism than that of Ronald Reagan or Bush Junior. Earlier presidents were careful not to demonize the other political party but to pick enemies that could be contrasted with the American way of life, such as the Soviets or the militant Islamists. Trump, however, explicitly sides only with those who verbally submit to his alleged greatness, all other Americans being losers that deserve the wages of failure, according to the Darwinism impulses of his antisocial personality disorder.
Television and the Charade of American Partisanship
Another factor in American partisanship is the façade or fraud that’s associated with the rise of television. Before television, partisanship was measured by the politician’s votes, whereas after television and social media became pervasive, partisanship became a mere public performance. Just ask yourself whether a Democrat or a Republican can act as a partisan in private, behind closed doors when dealing only with fellow politicians, lobbyists, and public-relations experts. If you suspect the notion of private partisanship in the two parties is oxymoronic, you must be assuming that those politicians’ professed allegiance to their party is only for show.
Political branding is a sideshow for American politicians. No Democrat or Republican would die for his or her political party. Similarly, a corporation’s brand has no sacred meaning to the executives who manage the company. The brand is for public consumption and to facilitate the company’s business operations by certain legal mechanisms. What matters to the managers is the wealth they can extract, thanks to their position in the company. Those who celebrate brands are the consumers who proudly wear the logos, having succumbed to the waves of associative advertisements and defined themselves according to the shallow myths and fallacies proliferated by big businesses.
What matters to American politicians isn’t their party’s brand, policy platform, or list of talking points, since those are means to some other end. The end most trumpeted is “the good of the country,” but neither party is genuinely interested in anything so nebulous. Theoretically, the Democrats represent a broader base of Americans than the Republicans, taking into account the parties’ policies, not their empty rhetoric.
But as Thomas Frank, Bernie Sanders, and other progressives point out, the Democrats lost that base and the meaning of their brand when Bill Clinton “triangulated” and sided with the globalists and “neoliberals,” that is, with the “conservative” apologists for plutocratic capitalism. American workers had to compete with drudges in countries that had much lower living-standards where the norm was to earn pennies a day. Naturally, thanks to Democratic centrism, the American middle class was hollowed out and the predominant manufacturing sector was replaced with the shenanigans of the banking industry and with the gig economy in which Americans will do anything for a fiver, from the safety of their parents’ basement.
Obama’s betrayal of the average American with his 2008 bailout of the big banks brought the disgust with Democrats to the boiling point, and Americans recoiled by electing Trump to troll the elites from both parties. This is one of the many unintended lessons of Trumpism, that the official, public squabbles between the two parties have been charades.
Since at least the 1980s, the United States has been governed by two parties that have had the same economic ideology, which was neoliberalism, a phony reconciliation between the Founders’ reverence for individual rights, and capitalism’s tendency to create plutocracies that swallow democratic and regulatory institutions and impoverish all the losers in the race, with debt and dead-end, pointless jobs.
The real dichotomy between American liberals and conservatives was cultural, but even the nominations of opposite judges would cancel themselves out in the long run, because each party got its turn in power as the electorate swung back and forth, and the parties elected young judges that had liberal or conservative values as the case may have been, to replace the old judges who retired or died off.
Conceivably, the catastrophe of Trumpism could mark the turning point when Americans learn that their political polarization is a sham. The difference in the US between the two parties is a joke compared to the gulf between its richest one percent and its bottom ninety-nine. Yet neither conventional Democrats nor progressives could find a winsome, non-elderly representative to embody their energy and resume the neoliberal status quo or speak truth to power in the 2020 election. This is because the Democratic Party is attempting to revivify itself after the death blow of Trumpism, and American liberals find they lack conviction, since their principles seem irrelevant and undermined by the scientific worldview they uphold, as Yuval Harari points out in Homo Deus.
Allegiance to political party in the US is for fools. Therefore, when those politicians seem to disagree publicly on everything, their frantic rhetoric can be a function only of television, to keep up the appearance that Americans have a meaningful political choice; to enthuse their voters and donors; and to mask their country’s real, operative internal conflicts between the rich and the poor, the sociopathic and the docile, and the lucky and the luckless.
The Real American Individualists
If partisanship entails collectivism, the opposite of a partisan is an individualist. What, then, is real individualism and is it still an American ideal? As I explained elsewhere, the COVID-19 quarantine and social-distancing policies are giving us all a taste of introversion, but we could just as easily say that we’re thereby learning about the true nature of individualism. If you’re feeling lonely because you’re stuck at home and are no longer receiving much group feedback, you have an inkling of the burdens of being a true individualist.
Properly speaking, an individualist is someone who’s alienated from all groups, because this person has been ostracized or suffers the consequences of philosophical or spiritual enlightenment, such as from the realization that group cohesion is sustained by myths or delusions.
The individual ego, too, is supposed to be a delusion according to the Buddhist version of enlightenment, but Buddhism is well-countered by existentialism and by the palpable reality of the social outsider’s angst or depression. Buddhist discipline is meant to end suffering, but if suffering is real, so is the mental construct that causes it, which construct amounts to the emergent entity of the ego, the individual self.
True, no natural self is absolutely sovereign or self-sufficient, but neither is such a self wholly powerless to define itself against the pressures of groups or of relationships. The self is as porous as the head which takes in information through the sense organs, since the self is primarily the mind that’s sustained by the brain. The mind is influenced by its environment and can identify even with its delusory mental projections, but the brain’s relative isolation and independence (top-down control) aren’t just illusions.
What the Buddhist would prefer to say, perhaps, is that the self is bad, not that the self is unreal. The self would be bad because it’s a source of error and illusion and of the suffering brought on by egoism and selfishness. Fair enough, but the self is also the source of human creativity, of art, culture, civilization, science, and technology. The human mind-brain’s relative independence created those extensions of its ideas and models.
If the Buddhist repudiates not just egoism but civilization, Buddhism seems reducible to Daoism. Ironically, if the Buddhist were to seek just the tranquility of a selfless state of consciousness, Buddhism would be as antisocial as individualism. Of course, Buddhists have their half-measures, just as all organized religions must compromise and provide excuses for the shortcomings of their ideals. The bodhisattva leaves the bliss of nirvana and rejoins society to help others free themselves not from the existence of the self, but from the ideology of egoism.
In any case, the enlightened individualist would follow the existential philosophers in grappling with the implications of freewill and of intellectual integrity. The problem with collectivism is that the act of identifying with a group or with some higher power is that this counts as dishonourable submissiveness, a point which George Orwell dramatized in his anti-collectivist novels.
The true American individualist today, then, isn’t any rabid Democrat or Republican or even a self-professed “patriotic American.” Instead, the individualists are precisely the losers, the forgotten, marginalized victims of group-think and capitalist exploitation, who are anathema to popular American culture. Even if these victims identify with a political party, they know both parties ignore them, so their identification with the party could be half-hearted at best.
Likewise, even if these abandoned masses should think of themselves in abstract terms, say, of liberalism, humanism, Christianity, or Trumpism, those abstractions typically mask the more active social dynamic. For example, Christian theology doesn’t explain the universe’s inhuman reality, and Trumpism is based perhaps on the most colossal lie that’s ever been told on North American land, that Donald Trump is great at anything besides con artistry.
The reason individualism and the lessons of existentialism are forced on many Americans is that Americans prize liberty above all else, and freedom has benefits as well as dire consequences. We’d rather be free than to submit to a dictator, but do we want to be so free that we no longer feel we belong to anything whatsoever, not to our government, community, or family, nor to popular culture, religion, or our public image?
Alienation follows from freedom, if only because when everyone is free to go their way, they compete and most lose out as in any race, so the losers must fend for themselves. The winners suffer for their freedom too, as they’re more and more corrupted by their dominant position and they lose their humility, sense of humour, spiritual depth, and empathy for others.
The upshot is that while the United States was founded on principles of individualism and self-sufficiency, America evolved into a perverse society in which those who most resemble the pioneers are the have-nots who have been excreted by the plutocratic system and who alone effectively confront the wilderness, since they’re aided by no organization. In popular culture and political circles, these losers are nonentities or they’re demonized as “socialists” begging for hand-outs.
Just the opposite is the case, since the system’s winners tend to extract their wealth nonproductively, by financial cons, and they depend on the government’s dysfunctions which are maintained in part by the ruse of political partisanship, by the faux conflicts played up for the mass media. The top one percent of American kleptocrats — who have some thirty-five percent of the nation’s wealth — resemble the decadent European kings who were never supposed to exist in the United States, while the American outcasts are more closely aligned with the pioneers who forged the American ethos.