The psychologist Abraham Maslow identified the feeling of belonging as a central human need, ranked only behind physical safety and sustenance in his eponymous “Hierarchy of Needs.” Humans need to be accepted, to feel part of a group, even from a very young age. This is, perhaps, a primal response based on the safety of groups, or an evolutionary instinct that drove humans to become more effective at hunting or basic survival.
But once we gather, that’s when all kinds of hell breaks loose. Tribes, clans, nations, religions, sects, gangs, cadres and cabals have all provided the baseline rationale for cruelty and war. We gather into groups to feel safe, and, once safe, we become beasts.
This manifests itself in all sorts of ways — wars over borders, gang violence, even fights at hockey games. And one of the most unfortunate manifestations of this group dynamic is occurring right now in American politics.
Politics has always been a tribal artform. But the sanctity of our constitutional government and our innate sense of American community has kept the beast lurking in the shadows for most of our history. Our general sense of decorum and decency has traditionally left the hatred and malice to the fringe elements.
But now the beastliness is mainstream. I don’t think this requires elaboration; a cursory exposure to the internet provides unlimited examples. Republicans and Democrats exist in a gelatinous aspic of malice, almost without substance, frozen in the yellowed visage of hate.
Humanity has been saved from its base animal self throughout history by the elevation of the individual. This is the miracle of the American experiment in democracy. While much of the world rebelled against totalitarian monarchies by subjugating individuals to the inhuman credo of Marxism, America was born with provisions specifically meant to guard against the horrors of soulless group loyalty. A mob cannot usurp our constitutional republic in one heated wave of populism, because our nation was built to guard against it.
But something has changed in recent years, perhaps alongside the rise of the internet as our new town square. Mobs have grown stronger, more organized, and more effective politically. The basic human instinct to find acceptance in a group has been lubricated by the ease of ideological organization on the internet. So our worst primal tendencies pull us into a tunnel of likeminded reinforcement, making us safe in our own echo chambers. Then we’re recruited as pawns in an ideological war.
This change threatens the structural underpinnings of our American society because, in many cases, the mob has become more important than the rule of law. Take President Donald Trump’s recent executive order to reallocate federal funding toward his border wall. This move is, by most accounts, wildly unconstitutional. Yet many so-called conservatives, who for so many years have touted absolute fealty to the Constitution, are perfectly fine with allowing Trump to act autocratically in order to advance a shared ideological goal.
This is an unsustainable situation. If political party loyalty is more important than social order or the sanctity of our constitutional government, we are headed inevitably for the collapse of the American democratic system.
There’s only one way to fix this problem. Individuals need to stop being inculcated in the foolishness of partisan groupthink. We need to stop seeing young people in MAGA hats and thinking they’re just part of a harmless interest in politics. We need to stop marching our elementary school kids around with signs claiming the world will end in 12 years if we don’t stop driving automobiles. Indoctrination into an all-or-nothing partisan mindset is not a healthy thing for anyone to do anymore, and it’s especially unhealthy for our nation overall.
The way forward is for individuals to change their behavior. Think for yourselves. Don’t blindly follow leaders. Don’t seek safety in echo chambers. Stop feeding the beast. And understand that your participation in politics is not inherently good if you’re contributing to the collapse of a free society.