Several times a week, I pass a bus in my neighborhood that is emblazoned with the words, “Take Our Country Back.” It never fails to give me a chill, for its subtle suggestion of civil war, and its implicit message that there are groups in our country who are entitled to political voice and the full benefits of citizenship, and groups who are not. Sometimes I wonder to which group the drivers of the bus would assign me; then I drive a little faster.
Yesterday’s article by David Frum, entitled “Why GOP Leaders Don’t Trust Gingrich,” reminded me of the bus, and of the processes and consequences of group conflict. In the article, Frum discusses how Newt Gingrich uses a strategy of creating group division:
“…to Gingrich, such substantive issues were not the stuff of campaign politics. Campaign politics was about finding ways to define your opponent as alien, hostile and dangerous. The definition need not correspond to any actual real-world problem.”
What is described is a cynical strategy of creating in-groups and out-groups in the quest for power. From my standpoint as a scholar in communication and conflict, I have long been troubled by the hardening of group identity boundaries that is pervasive in our national discourse, and now I am even more troubled that it is being strategically engineered for political gain.
Group identity boundaries include categories like race, religion, class, gender, age, and sexual orientation. Group identity boundaries serve an important function in generating and maintaining social conflict. In conflict, group members not only define themselves within their own group’s identity boundaries, they also define themselves “against” other groups. That is, the more group members succeed in demonizing the “other,” the stronger the identity within the group becomes.
This process is not just about who gets to wear the team tee-shirt. It is about power: groups define themselves in ways that maximize their own claims to resources and minimize the claims of other groups to those same resources. In other words, underlying any move to harden group identity boundaries by demonizing other groups can be found claims of entitlement to power and resources. If successful, the strategy results in situations where one group has control of significant resources while another group is marginalized. But the conflict does not end there. The inequities become part of the social structure. As power resources get more concentrated in the hands of certain people and groups, these inequities become a source of competition between the groups, and therefore, of continuing conflict between groups.
Maybe this strategy wins campaigns, and secures power for certain groups, at least for a time. But this strategy also has serious social consequences. History offers countless examples of cynical leaders who pitted group against group in order to secure their own political power. For the groups involved, the conflict does not end on the day the election results are determined. The divisiveness permeates society, often with tragic results. If “one nation, indivisible” is our ideal and our goal, we should be skeptical of any leader who seeks to win the privilege of leading us by dividing us.