As we head into the final days before the election, the parties flog their messages, trying to attract undecided voters (if there are any). People align themselves with the candidates who reflect their beliefs — or at least seem to offer the best hope that we will all not end up all living in Hoovervilles and eating Ramen noodles.
The rhetoric seems numbingly familiar from past elections, the so-called debate and choices before us dictated by the media to avoid anything off-script or controversial (i.e., meaningful). The discourse has devolved into catch-phrases and sound-bites on both sides.
21st-century America politics, like 21st-century American religion, work and education, seems more about promoting right-thinking and dogma than working mindfully toward solving the myriad problems that confront us. We identify with the correct party or candidate as a way of defining ourselves and feeling that we belong. This is human, but more than a little ironic in a country founded on the principles of individual liberty and choice. There is a religious aspect to all the political proselytizing. The Internet and social networking have only exacerbated the trend. People gravitate toward groups and causes both virtual and personal that reinforce the doctrine they already believe, or prefer to believe.
It’s easy to acquire our identity on the cheap in the marketplace of ideas nowadays. We can avoid the critical work of examining our assumptions and choosing our own path, perhaps marching to a different drummer. Once we’re invested in that tribal identify that gives us a sense of belonging, we filter out facts that don’t conform to the status quo or which challenge our sense of comfort. Kurt Vonnegut wrote humorously about this when he coined the term granfalloon. The darker side occurs when we define ourselves exclusively in opposition to others, dismissing them as human beings and invalidating their opinions and existence often on the basis of minute differences. It happens in the workplace, in church and, as we have seen, in the political process. I have worked in bureaucratic institutions where I was privileged to observe this sort of behavior, which is more about consolidating power and authority than working together to achieve goals.
Bureaucracies have existed as long as civilization. Sometimes they may even serve a purpose. The problem arises when business, governmental and religious institutions become self-perpetuating entities more important than the human beings whom they presumably exist to serve. Politics is no exception. Then the phrases and slogans become empty recitations reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 or Maoist re-education camps. Instead of facilitating discourse, they indoctrinate right-thinking, whether about free-market economics, intelligent design or some vaporous New Age belief.
The danger of living in the most free consumer society on earth is less that Orwell’s totalitarian state will control our thoughts and actions, than that we will build (or buy) our own prison of thought and belief. We will brainwash ourselves with the soothing nostrums (or Prozac) that promise certainty about world rather than questioning them and being accountable for our decisions and their implications. As Thoreau put it in Civil Disobedience:
“… the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he himself is available for any purposes of the demagogue…. The American has dwindled into an Odd Fellow – one who may be known by the development of his organ or gregariousness, and manifest lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance…”