Us versus Them

Kent_State_massacreAre there some positive lessons to be learned from the current populist wave? Once I thought that gains in governance, economy and society happened incrementally and cumulatively. But recent years have witnessed a sea change in the tenor of political discourse. While my instinctive reaction has been to recoil,  a combination of curiosity and recognition that the rancid tenor of contemporary discourse pointed to a blind spot in narrowly-pragmatic ways of engaging with the world has led me to explore further.  Indeed, I’ve also been struck by the arguments of some well-known scholars (see HERE and HERE)  that anti-populist rhetoric can serve as a smokescreen for broader attacks on inclusive, progressive proposals for reform.

I’ve come away from an effort to learn from populism  with some sobering lessons about the limitations of framing  policy discourse narrowly around a search for with-the-grain options, and focusing narrowly on material interests.  But I also have become convinced that demons lurk exceedingly close to populism’s surface – so close as to undercut any effort to distinguish ‘good’ populism from  ‘bad’.   This post (the first of a series of three which “wrestle with populism”) explores the ‘us-them’ demon.

Before getting into demons, here’s one big thing that populists get right: They frame political engagement in explicitly moral terms –  as “the people in a moral struggle against elites” (to use a definition suggested by Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge and Princeton’s Stephen Macedo). A ‘moral struggle’ turns out to be key to transform a  transform a hitherto passive set of individuals into a collective “we”, organized for action. As Berkeley professor of cognitive science George Lakoff put it:

“Neoliberals’….argue from interests… The argument is: It is in our political interest to help others achieve their material interests….[But] political thought begins with moral premises….”.

The trouble, though, is that populism’s  ‘moral struggle’ does not play out in a vacuum: populists target an opponent. Does this inevitably conjure an us-versus-them demon into existence?

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe  (who together with her husband, Ernesto Laclau, has, for many decades,  been at the forefront of efforts to rehabilitate populism as a mode of political discourse) makes the case that, even with an opponent in the picture,  a downward spiral of polarization and disaster  need not be inevitable.  Indeed, she argues that politics is necessarily oppositional:

The political is from the outset concerned with collective forms of identification… Every identity is relational; the affirmation of a difference is a precondition for the existence of any identity…. Politics is about the constitution of a ‘we’ which requires as its very condition of possibility the demarcation of a ‘they’…..

“The crucial issue  is how to establish an us/them distinction in a way that is compatible with the recognition of pluralism? What is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries)… An adversary is an opponent with whom one shares a common allegiance to the democratic principles of ‘liberty and equality for all’, while disagreeing about their interpretation.”

Mouffe’s framing does not, however, reckon with either the ways in which our brains are wired or with the ways in which populists can exploit this wiring.

Here’s the ‘wiring’ problem, as summarized by Stanford neuroscientist  Robert Sapolsky:

 “Our brains form us/them distinctions with stunning speed…. The core of us/them-ing is emotional and automatic…  Feelings about ‘us’ center on shared obligations, on willingness and expectation of mutuality… inflating the merits of ‘us’ concerning core values….. A consistent pattern is to view ‘them’ as threatening, angry and untrustworthy.”

The distance from ‘difference’ to demonization is uncomfortably narrow.

Populist politicians can all-too-readily exploit   our hard-wired propensity for ‘othering’. Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik model the mechanism (see HERE and HERE).  They distinguish between two channels of populists’ ideational politics  – a ‘worldview channel’ aimed at shaping citizens’ understanding of how the world works, and an ‘identity channel’  aimed at shaping citizens’ perceptions of who they are.  Toxic populism uses the two in tandem.

Take the example of an effort  by a subset of a society’s elite to  foster ethnic identification between itself and co-ethnic non-elites. With this ‘identity channel’ in place, populist-oriented elites can use the ‘worldview’ channel to persuade co-ethnics that non co-ethnics are the source of their difficult circumstances – with immigrants, Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups often featuring prominently in the purported conspiracy against the people.  Instances of this toxic combination are all-too-familiar, both in history and in the present. Here are some examples:

  • “Welfare parasites (minorities, recent immigrants, or whomever) who are undermining our economic system, and destroying your children’s future”;
  • “Globalists who are in league with foreigners to suck the lifeblood from our economy an society”;
  • “Immigrants are destroying our peoples’ moral fabric, with their alien culture”
  • “etc etc etc…..”

(Note that each of these can serve all-too-well as a mechanism for deflecting the attention of non-elites away from economic and social policies which, at some fiscal cost to elites, might support inclusion.)

At this point, another feature of our brains kicks in –  how we think politically and morally. New York University’s Jonathan Haidt summarizes, using the metaphor of the rider and the elephant:

“Intuition (the elephant) is the main cause of moral judgment; reasoning (the rider) typically follows that judgment……Reason is the servant of the intuitions……The rider is good at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has done, and is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.”

The identity channel primes intuition. The worldview channel offers a confirmatory explanation. The threat of accelerating polarization looms large.

The erosion of norms and institutions which follows all-too-frequently from accelerating polarization (see HERE and HERE) –  is, for most of us, something to be avoided. As Nobel Prize winners Douglass North and Oliver Williamson have taught, humans devise institutions precisely for the purpose of setting restraints on human behavior, with the intent of mitigating conflict and realizing mutual gains. But here, again, what might seem to most of us to be undesirable is, for some populist leaders, a feature.

Guardrails of restraint – for example, a norm which anchors discourse in evidence, in a search for truth –  get in the way of narratives of demonization. Better to ‘gaslight’ by redefining all facts as fake news, thereby locking-in confirmation bias.

There also are broader reasons why self-aggrandizing populist leaders might embrace the loosening of restraints  on arbitrary action.  Charismatic, demagogic populist leaders present themselves as embodiments of the ‘people’, with the concentration of power in their hands becoming a way to realize the peoples’ will. Governance becomes inseparable from a permanent political campaign. Compromise with the enemy establishment becomes betrayal. Institutions of restraint become obstacles to acting on behalf of the people. The downward spiral accelerates.


Two clear, stark conclusions follow:

  • First, the effort to extract positive lessons from populism is not wholly misconceived. Populism does not emerge out of nowhere. As I have explored elsewhere, it is in part a response to festering discontents for which narrowly pragmatic discourses had been inadequate. These discontents cannot be ignored; the response to them needs to be framed in ‘moral’ terms – and a moral framing introduces an oppositional element into political discourse.
  • Second, once an oppositional framing has been introduced, the demon of us-versus-them polarization lurks exceedingly close to the surface – and the consequences of its unleashing can all-too-readily become catastrophic.

How to reconcile these seemingly opposites – to engage politically via a moral struggle which addresses the underlying causes which give rise to populism, but to do so in a way which counters rather than fuels populism’s propensity for polarization? The second post in this series suggests what kind of vision and strategy might support democratic renewal; the final post explores what kind of tactics might foster hope rather than fuel rage.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Fight fire with fire? « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

  2. Pingback: Combat fire not with fire, but non-violent resistance « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

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