Manichaean uncivility in American politics

Manichaean uncivility in American politics

6 months 4 weeks ago
Manichaeism is a doctrine that teaches a dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Manichaeism views the world as divided into good or evil, light or dark, black or white. In Manichaeism, there are no shades of gray. When we introduce this good or evil doctrine to our political thinking, civility becomes near impossible.

It seems that the current incivility in American politics fits exactly this dualistic pattern: Democrats see themselves as defenders of an egalitarian world of light, and picture Republicans as the evil occupants of a material world of darkness. In American politics we have lost the perspective that we share ultimate goals, and that our differences are mostly over the best ways to achieve those goals. We no longer see shades of gray.

Remember, for example, when Alan Grayson, then Democratic Representative for Florida’s 9th congressional district, claimed that the health care plan offered by House Republicans meant they wanted Americans to “die quickly.” Also, President Trump’s frequent vilification of individuals and groups of people is certainly not the way we should interchange with people with whom we disagree.

Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that this incivility is new to American politics. At the beginning of the Republic, the Founders engaged in nasty and personal battles between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Later on we experienced the literal splitting of the country during the Civil War, and again during the civil rights movement, and during the Vietnam War. What is new, however, is the Manichaean-like public behavior of good vs evil and towards adversaries that deserve our respect.

Mani, who was born to a Persian family in the third century A.D., had a religious vision and felt compelled to become a prophet. According to Mani, God created the worlds of Light and Darkness and at creation these worlds were totally separated, but Darkness penetrated into the world of Light and produced evil.

Mani, who called his teachings the “Religion of Light”, conveniently claimed to be the reincarnation of Buddha, Lord Krishna, Zoroaster and Jesus depending on the context of his preaching at any given time. His teachings denied the omnipotence of God and postulated two conflicting powers.

Manichaeism, much like our Democratic-Republican politics, presented an elaborate description of the conflict between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. Manichaeism was quickly successful and, at its height, was one of the most widespread religions in the world. For a time, Manichaeism became the main rival to Christianity. Interestingly, Augustine of Hippo, later to become Saint Augustine, was a Manichaean for nine years before converting to Christianity.

The term civility derives from the Latin root civilis meaning “befitting as citizen.” Civility is the respect that we owe one another in public life. And yet, in most aspects of American culture our present day defining spirit is moving from cordial civility to vitriolic coarseness. Our politics are illustrative of this shift. But, what accounts for this unbefitting swing to uncivility?

Some scholars argue that social media has become our modern public square where millions of our citizens go to freely debate ideas. They claim that the anonymity inherent in social media is conducive to uncivil debate with no consequences or accountability. In addition, the instantaneous nature of social media inhibits reasoned deliberation in favor of typing speed.

An interesting thesis, specific to our politics, blames our political uncivility on partisan gerrymandering where the end result is that politicians choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives. Ultimately, the gerrymandering political mapping of demographic data contributes to an electoral situation where members of the other political party are viewed as enemies with whom it is unnecessary to work with to pass bipartisan legislation.

Democracy is an adversarial political system designed to promote the interchange and melting of ideas in a decision-making process that requires gray area compromises. Democracy is not a Manichaean good or evil, light or dark, black or white doctrine. To preserve our democracy civility must remain our defining political spirit.
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