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Quick Takes

The Bad News For Election Day? Someone Will Be Elected President (Carl Raschke)

Here’s some good news and bad news.  The good news is that Chicago Cubs last week won the world series after 108 years.

The bad news?  By the end of today either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is going to be elected President of the United States.

Of course, whether news is really good or bad turns out to be – well, shall we along with Nietzsche say? – “perspectival”.

Although virtually everyone in the Denver sports bar, where I watched the conclusion of World Series Game 7 last week, was cheering wildly as if they had been born and bred on Chicago’s North Side, I know at the same time there was no joy in Mudville a.k.a. Cleveland.

And it wasn’t if Cleveland also didn’t deserve to be World Champions.  It was only that The Curse weighed heavier over Lake Michigan than over Lake Erie.  Thus, unless you were old enough to remember the Cuyahoga River on fire because of pollution, you wouldn’t feel the pain of Clevelanders equally with than of Chicagoans.

Clevelanders will get over it, however.  When it comes to the upcoming Presidential election (which one of the two main candidates), the loser or their followers will most likely not get over it, at least for a long, long time.  And that’s why no matter who comes out on top, the only “baseball team” likely to gain notoriety is a less familiar one who wasn’t in the World Series, i.e., the Bad News Bears.

As Bill Scher writing in Real Clear Politics decidedly put it, “no matter what happens on Election Day, tens of millions of Americans are going feel like they got punched in the gut.”  He went on to say that “the two groups live in different worlds — if not geographically then online. But by Wednesday morning, someone’s worldview will be shattered beyond recognition.”

How did we arrive at this impasse?  Sports teams function as  “tribal totems” that foster imaginative structures of solidarity in schools or wider urban regions.  But regardless of what “totem animal” or mascot mobilizes our loyalties, these emblems of “togetherness” are merely contingent and only compelling in the heat of the moment.  We are not inclined to sacrifice our lives, or even what the American revolutionaries termed their “sacred honor”, to win the World Series, the Superbowl, or the NCAA basketball tournament.

Our deeper allegiances are not ultimately to collective entities, even to those which are politically “saturated” phenomena (as Jean-Luc Marion might say) such as a dynastic family or the nation-state.  Our “live-or-die” commitments are inevitably configured around the particular idea, along with those numinous symbols that express the idea, rather than the tangible entity itself.

That was the principle in accordance with which the famed nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim theorized the origin of religion itself in totemism, the most “elementary” form of social cohesion and the bedrock of all types group loyalty.  Durkheim’s epochal formula that religion=society was derived from a fundamental insight that all mechanisms of collective attachment, including politics itself, stem from some kind of primal “strong force” that is not so much material as transcendental in nature.

At the same time, Durkheim built his premises on the legacy of Immanuel Kant, who was the overarching, intellectual gris eminence in European thought throughout the same century.  For Kant, the transcendental “glue” that binds us all together is not religion, but morality.  A true child of the Enlightenment, Kant maintained that moral imperatives are not arbitrarily constructed, but the  product of “pure practical reason” which every “rational being” irrespective of their cultural circumstances should be able through clarity of thought be able to grasp firmly.

The universalism of Kant’s ethics has now been superseded for the most part by secular thinkers in favor of the recognition that moral world views and convictions have somewhat different, more historically conditioned types of antecedents.

But in recent years the new discipline of cognitive science has been more fruitful than other “relativistic” forms of inquiry such as sociology or anthropology in explaining why seemingly fortuitous cultural factors can become the context in which certain large groups of people can make unconditional, if not fanatical, moral claims on others and inject them fatefully into the political arena.

In his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Thinks, first written in 1997 but revised for a series of later editions that includes a section specifically aimed at the 2016 election, cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues masterfully how the much the much-bewailed “polarization” of American politics can be traced to two totally opposite, entrenched, and immovable world visions within the American electorate about the nature of right and wrong, moral truth and goodness.

Lakoff notes that “deep and persisting moral worldviews tend to be part of your brain circuitry and tend become part of your identity. In most cases, the neural wiring— and your identity— stay, and the facts are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked.” (Kindle, loc. 114-15)

Furthermore, Lakoff notes,

“our deepest moral worldviews are unconscious. That should not be surprising. After all, all thought is physical and works via neural circuitry. We do not, and cannot, have immediate direct access to our deepest modes of thought. It takes serious study in cognitive science to figure out the details of our moral worldviews. But once you see them, you see that they are real and that they explain a lot. They are also remarkably stable. Despite all that has changed since 1996, the basic worldviews and their logics are still very much present.” (loc. 6319-23)

Lakoff also makes the crucial point that these “unconscious” ways of framing information are linguistic as well as mental.  Whole structures and strategies of discourse, many of which pretend to be “neutral” but in fact are biased,  derives from these worldviews.  That realization, of course, amplifies the famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s oft-cited comment that “the unconscious is structured like a language.”

Depending on the point of view to which we are “unconsciously” habituated, we will without blinking follow certain threads inference and accept certain composites of data while completely ignoring others.   The common academic assumption that those who are better “educated” or have more available information will draw more “reasoned” conclusions, Lakoff suggests, is exactly that – a fallacy.

They will, like the less informed, follow their own unconscious moral roadmaps when it comes to social, cultural, or political controversies.   The only difference is that they will come up with more complicated justifications for drawing the very conclusions they were already without awareness inclined toward in the first place.  That process, of course, is what Freud termed “rationalization” as contrasted with rationality in its more idealized manifestations.

In a manner reminiscent of classical psychoanalysis Lakoff identifies the fault line between this “clash of moralities” as gender-configured.    In other words, half the population is drawn to those traditional moral postures centered around paternal authority, what he calls the “strict father” Weltanschauung.   The other half is shaped by a “nurturance” model with the mother as the main focus.  Unsurprisingly, Republicans, cultural conservatives, and men for the most part tend to favor the former, whereas Democrats, progressives, and women in the majority of cases lean toward the latter.

Although what Lakoff calls a “family-based” paradigm of political analysis seems in many ways old-fashioned, its method draw from cognitive psychology appear to bear with much of the polling evidence.  And it would seem to account for changes in the American political dynamic over the last few generations less in terms of demographic shifts than with respect to alterations in family composition and growing gender equality in the workplace.

The undeniable conclusion of Lakoff’s now rather seasoned and increasingly less controversial “political theology”, however, is that no matter who comes out victorious at the end of the day, they will have to deal with the other side on respectful and equal terms, despite the unprecedented campaign mudslinging and deep-reaching animosity to the other side.

As Europe discovered after over a century of the “wars of religion”, one is going to have to live not just for the short term, but for the long haul with some version of the formula of cuius regio cuius religio.   The difference is that religio has now become moralia, which as Kant underscored still will always be a “transcendental” perspective, even if it no longer has a “transcendent” reference point.

And one group’s conceptual container for such a transcendental perspective is often the other’s “basket of deplorables.”  To refuse to recognize this fact is a recipe for disaster of perhaps incalculable proportions.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is also managing editor of Political Theology Today. His latest books are Critical Theology: Introducing An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016) and Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) .  His book The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in Continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion” in general.  His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008)  and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) –  examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity. 

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