A philosophical look at America's growing political polarization problem

America is polarized. The absurd furor coming from the right wing over a possible impeachment of president Obama (not to mention a pending lawsuit) and the left’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision both indicate that the problem lies not in the obvious variables, but in the subtle ones. To that end this article will examine the place of political nihilism and why the concept of re-valuation may be important.

The values attributed to “corporation” and “person” are projected onto objects by people. The discourse determines what truth is and what current definitions are. In reality, many of the perceived “abuses” of power in the United States are directly influenced by the poor valuation of terms like property, rights, law, person, corporation, discrimination.

I. Power and Value

Power is present at all levels of human experience. Society creates this power. A pertinent example would be advertising, which subtly works on the lower levels of our awareness. An institution like the Vatican is another example. It is obvious that it possesses a significant amount of power. Where does the church take this power from? Valuation.

The institution will always be subordinate to ideology. In the case of the church, scripture composes this ideology. This is where power comes from, the value that people around the world project onto their object, in this case, scripture (then, by extension, the institution).

The US Constitution is simply a piece of paper. Yes, it is undoubtedly a very powerful piece of paper, but why is this the case? Once again, the value vested in it by successive generations of American citizens has given the document “legitimacy”. With no positive valuation an object will almost never obtain legitimacy.

This piece of paper declares that all men are endowed with “inalienable” rights. What makes those rights inalienable? Absolutely nothing. Valuation has dictated the power of the document and citizens “tend to” act accordingly. This is how power works, subtly, and through language.

During the Cold War those on both sides of the aisle were more or less forced to agree on many different issues. This interesting fact also comes from artificial valuation. The “other” of the Soviet Union was given power through the assessment of American politicians. It was understood implicitly that no problem of partisan ideology could be allowed to immediately pose a threat to the American way of life.

This same phenomenon was evident after the events of September 11 where, all of a sudden, American streets were lined with flags. It could be argued that this was the result of the sudden birth of an other in global terrorism. Once again, value (and thus power) was given to the this object subjectively by Americans.

II. Political Nihilism

Nihilism is often defined as “a belief in nothing.” This definition is highly-misleading. Nihilism actually consists in a rejection of all value-judgements. When this is applied to the universe of politics it would mean removing the age-old (in fact one could argue that no type of government institution that exists today had not already been thought of in one form or another by states, like the Roman Empire, which have long since disappeared) dichotomies that remain in force in the modern era.

Political nihilism at first rejects those definitions of the past in favor of (generally) the imposition of new ones appropriate for the issues at hand. For instance the value placed on money has no basis in direct necessity, only individual and collective faith in the health of the ethereal “economy”.

Similarly one could argue that the recent “corporations aren’t people” flare-up stems solely from the value-attributive definition system itself. “Corporation” is a term that people invented (and given value and power to) as is “person.” These only have the meaning that we assign to them.

As society progresses, definitions must necessarily be changed, this is the goal of the life-affirming nihilist. It is also important to remember that nihilism can work against itself. Therefore one would first reject old valuations and then reject the notion that one must reject all judgements. After this the new framework of discourse can be formed.

III. Definitions, Truth, and False Dichotomies

There are many individuals who still retain the hope that somewhere out there an objective truth exists. A common cliche proceeds to argue that the statement “there is no objective truth” is itself an objective statement.

Politically-speaking Americans exist within a subjective spectrum that overwhelmingly consists of two poles: left and right. What do these terms actually mean, however? Once again, inherently they likely have absolutely no meaning. The American people have been told repeatedly to choose and to impose value onto one or the other. In looking for ways for society to grow in the future it will be necessary to do away with false dichotomies and possibly even to impose new ones.Political Nihilism

These types of dubious valuations are rampant in the mainstream media. In particular, the efforts of political analyst Frank Luntz represent the some of the greatest possible manipulations. His data analysis, which, by itself, is quite fascinating, goes down to the bare bones of conversation, noting small changes in the reactions of panel members by interchanging different terms.

It turns out that subtle change translates to much real world power (through the panel’s valuation this is clear). Republicans and Democrats alike utilize ambiguity of definition to achieve false value and power.

Furthermore, it is evident that the “truth standard” of one particular group of people at one particular time is defined by the discourse of that particular place and time. Because of this it is ludicrous to think that a literal interpretation of any political document from the past will have direct relevance to the pressing issues of today. This is what is known in philosophy as a “historical horizon” whose edges are defined by the content of the discourse.

America must be fixed. The change will come through the alteration of the discourse to allow for new and exciting changes in human development. A better future is possible, however those strong enough to reject the dogma of the past must do so.


  1. I am generally interested in your discussion of the Roman tradition in historical Christianity and particularly interested in your discussion, albeit brief, of that which is generative of the power of the Roman Church.

    I don’t disagree at all with the assertion that the headwaters of church power are to be found in the degree to which it is valued—i.e., given power—by a particular religious culture.

    However, I question the assertion that the institution of the church is subordinate to its ideology. Or, better, its theology.

    Historically, that issue was settled in the process of the church evolving from a movement to an institution. As a movement, the beliefs that constituted the theology of the Christian community were fluid and malleable, constantly expanding and contracting, both seeking consensus and defying consensus. As an institution, the beliefs that constituted the theology of the Christian community—which itself had become institutionalized into the church—were solidified into creedal, systematic and relatively institutional form by the institution itself. In other words, theology became subordinate to ecclesiology, not vice versa.

    While the sacred text of this particular iteration of the Christian community provides the linguistics and symbology of its theology, it is the church itself that is imbued with authority—in theological terms, it would claim it has the authority of God while, in cultural/actual terms, it has the authority ceded it by the people—to shape and form the theology itself. To wit, the sacred text provides the community with the symbol of a crucified man and a vague sense of whom he is and what he is about. The institution of the church, on the other hand, provides the community with centuries of exhaustive and exhausting systematics intended to properly interpret the identity of that man and his action.

    The eyes of the people might well be on the Bible. But the Church has their ears and their hearts. I would suggest that the church is less subordinate to its ideology—theology—than formative of it. And, indeed, that the valuation of the church by the people of its religious culture is rooted in precisely that.

    And then along came Luther, and…

  2. Roughly speaking, the “right” is conservative, and the “left” is liberal. Neuropsychology tell us that there are real differences in brain function between the two. And self-identified conservatives and liberals exhibit different behaviors and beliefs.
    Thus conservatives tend to think in terms of absolutes, black and white, good and evil, us and the totally alien “them”. They tend to demand simple answers.
    Liberals tend to see both sides of a controversy, they see shads of gray, and see we are all one species with many shared ideals, although we may have different strategies for attaining them. They would maintain that sometimes there are no simple answers.
    And the social psychologists tell us that you can make liberals more conservative by frightening them, or getting them drunk.

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