There is a hadith, or saying of the prophet, that goes: “Know that paradise lies under the shade of swords.” Increasingly, this saying makes me think of American party politics as much as an ISIS credo.
I have spent a good part of my professional life studying group conflict that is informed by ethnicity, religion, and ideology. And of all the ugly and murderous strands of conflict the world is subject to those where religion and fundamentalism prevail are the most troubling and recalcitrant. American political discourse, especially inside the conservative wing of the Republican Party, is beginning to sound more like arguing with those who believe they know the mind of God. The unseemly nature of the Republican campaign and the existence of core values that are not subject to adjustment or moderation by democratic discourse, is a communicative expression of these incommensurate conflicts.
There has been no shortage of criticism of the quality and temperament of the leading Republican candidates so I will not elaborate on that except to add my voice to the chorus of those who are dismayed at how vapid Donald Trump is, and how Cruz is a fear-provoking evangelical who believes in using the state to bring about an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. Rubio is a Roman Catholic but also attends a Southern Baptist Church in Florida probably for pure political expediency. They both have unforgiving religious boundaries and there isn’t much of a difference between them.
For a good and clear summary of evangelicals including their Protestant foundation and politics read an article in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead.
Turns out that candidates like Cruz and jihadist organizations like ISIS engage in the same rhetoric that is part of the logic of the discourse that characterizes incommensurable realities. (Those competing incommensurate realities are this group of Republican candidates and their liberal opposition). Cruz, who is immovable with respect to walls preventing immigration, the elimination of social safety nets, wiping out the IRS and making taxes unavailable for the public good, and wild and dangerous statements about carpet bombing ISIS, engages in the same rhetorical strategies as the Islamic state does with the West. Here are a few discursive patterns that underscore both groups.
Islam and the West tell different stories and have rival narratives. The language of the stories is constitutive of the meaning and embedded in the psychological, sociological, and political life of each group. Each group is trapped inside a story and there are no points of convergence between them. This is equally true of the Republican candidates exemplified mostly by Cruz. President Obama is not someone to disagree with but must be completely delegitimized; the Supreme Court becoming more liberal is so horrifying that it requires violating the Constitution and stopping the President from making an appointment; our country has been in decline and only the acceptance of Cruz’s God and family values will stay the decline.
Uncontrollable ingroup-outgroup mentalities that distort communication such that contrast effects create a reproducing cycle of perceived differences. Just as the West perceives differences that favor its own group history and culture, so too does the conservative-liberal intergroup mentality maintain a constant sense of differences with positive attributions made to the ingroup and negative attributions made to the outgroup. That’s why “name-calling” is so common and even effective because just labeling someone as a member of an outgroup is sufficiently damaging. There is no place for nuance. Calling someone “right-wing” or “liberal” categorizes them with all the implications.
The political parties (sorry, the Republicans more than the Democrats these days anyway) easily fall victim to the belief that language is dead – as exemplified by the Supreme Court and Scalia’s notion of strict constructionism – and any term or concept has a specifically decided upon meaning whose intent is clear and well understood and cannot be changed. This “dead” notion of language forces a contest between two or more groups for control of the meaning. It directs attention away from trying to find solutions or points of meaningful articulation and more toward self-justification. Meaning, while not completely free, is a living entity that is subject to new insights and discoveries. This mentality has escaped the current campaign as the candidates seem more intent on overwhelming their opponent then actually engaging the public.