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"Us vs Them": A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming

Powerful interests want to keep us at one another’s throats rather than working together.

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We all know this. Those who have taken courses in sociology or political science have studied it in school. Others only need to watch TV for ten minutes or reflect thoughtfully upon their personal experiences.

We take “us and them” for granted and fail to reflect upon the terrible political implications for everybody when groups are not playing nice together. Throughout history, political elites have manipulated social groups to achieve and maintain power. Turning “us against them” has sadly been a primary tactic employed by rulers or would be rulers since the dawn of history. Near the start of Europe’s colonial age, colonizers constructed “us and them” categories called races that have become a terrible permanent part of human culture. Throughout the industrial era, factory owners have pitted “us against them” to divide workers so that they would not organize unions. And in the last two generations Republicans have masterfully used wedge politics-- pitting us against them -- to gain and keep power and to implement policies that a clear majority of the populace dislikes, but apparently cannot find any effective way to change.

We cannot reverse corrupt policies that benefit only a powerful few because our society is fragmented into rival competing groups of us and them. Too many of us care more about the beliefs and agendas of our particular group than the common threats to all groups. To be sure, we are likely to say (and probably even believe) that our primary loyalty is to humanity; that our group is not exclusive; that WE are trying to make the world better for everybody dammit but we cannot because of THEM. But the truth is, when we actually confront the difficult task of finding common ground between us and them, we tend to throw in the towel rather quickly. Sometimes it just seems easier to fight “them” than try to break through our differences in order to build a more democratic and humane political system for everybody. Perhaps some of us even fear that if we sit down at the table to make peace with “them,” the very reason for our group’s existence will dissolve and we would no longer know who we are.

That a mere 400 individuals in this constitutional republic could possess as much wealth as 150,000,000 fellow citizens, and that the government would protect their right to keep it, would be unimaginable in any other context. Our fragmentation is an almost insurmountable barrier to effective political action that would move us toward a significantly more democratic reality. There are so many different contending groups—so many different varieties of us and them—that forging a cohesive majority seems all but a hopeless pipe dream.

Although we live in an irreducibly pluralistic world, we have yet to learn how to function as a pluralistic democracy. Sadly, even those of us who belong to groups that are pledged to tolerance and inclusiveness can drop the ball as readily as those who are self-consciously exclusive. Many commentators of various ideological stripes have lately been sounding the alarm about the apparent erosion of civil discourse in our society, about the toxic negativity of our media and our elections. The level of social polarization -- and the shrillness of our rhetorical warfare -- seems to be escalating. We all feel it. Many of us worry about it. Most of us say that we want it to stop. But too often we ourselves contribute to it--including me.

To restore civil discourse and bring down the level of polarization, we need to learn new ways of relating together as us and them. If we want to preserve any vestige of democracy, we will need a fast learning curve.

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