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America and the Friend-Enemy Distinction
In politics (and on Twitter), all that matters is what side you're on.
Editor’s Note: No, this is not about the Eagles game today, even though that, too, elicits its own kind of friend-enemy distinction.
The German jurist-philosopher Carl Schmitt is a popular figure on Twitter, even if he died in 1985. He was, for a time, one of the Nazi Party’s most prominent intellectuals. This inconvenient fact doesn't seem to have reduced his influence. In this sense, Schmitt echoes Marx and Engels, the rare theorists-cum-visionaries who managed to outlive, in ideas, the destruction they helped sow in war and politics.
If you’ve heard someone talk about the “friend-enemy distinction” or, more simply, the idea of politics being about “us” and “them,” they are most likely channeling Schmitt without necessarily realizing it. I’ve been thinking more lately about how we decide who to take as friends or enemies, because to categorize fellow citizens in this way must be a conscious choice. There must be a feeling, even if it can’t be put into words, that other people have crossed a line—and that, in some sense, it is too late for them to return.
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I’ve long argued that the primary divide in American politics today is cultural, which sadly means that most of us will be living with this—whatever this is—more or less forever. Call it, if you must, the forever culture war. (The end of class politics has helped make this possible).
But nothing can just be about culture, the word “just” suggesting constraint and limitation, because culture is always claiming more territory. It can overwhelm everything, because it’s about the habits, norms, and attitudes that sustain a civilization. So cultural divides inevitably run the risk of becoming religious ones. Religion, after all, shapes culture. And culture shapes religion. It is more challenging to be outwardly religious in a culture that devalues outward displays of religiosity. And it is challenging to be outwardly non-religious in a culture that views non-observance as a mark of moral laxity and failure, or worse.
But you still need a couple other ingredients to graduate into full-spectrum culture war—which is characterized not just by cultural division (which is natural in any society) but by something more intensely tribal.
In the United States at least, sorting between friends and enemies has become easier and more tempting, because instead of cleavages being “cross-cutting,” they are now overlaid one on top of the other. If you are an evangelical, there’s a very good chance you’re a Republican. If you’re a Democrat, there’s a much better chance that you’re suspicious of, or outright opposed, to public displays religiosity or the very idea that religion should inform politics in the first place. It wasn’t always this way. Religiosity, and specifically Christian religiosity, used to be more evenly distributed among the two parties. And this was a good thing, because it meant that the different cleavages were tempering each other, even crossing themselves out. Now, though, you can look at the other side, and you see them as being on the opposite side in everything: culture, identity, religion, politics, and partisan affiliation.
And so culture becomes a catch-all for everything else. And in this the forever culture war, everything—even small, silly things—become focal points for anger, outrage, and outright enmity. This is the worst of both worlds: Politics manages to feel existential while somehow also remaining shallow and superficial, where one might expect existential divides to elicit depth. It is about being on the right side, even if the right side is wrong. There are friends. And there are are enemies.