History shows us that humans are prone to grievance just as, not unrelatedly, human societies are prone to extreme inequality (privileges for the few at the top, hardships for everyone else).

For most of us at the bottom of the social pyramid, a feeling that life is unfair is both objectively true and subjectively irritating if not downright infuriating. Irritation and infuriation easily lead to dreams of and demands for vengeance. Vengeance, it turns out, is as human as our instinct for self-preservation.

Facing popular vengeance, the default option from the Powers That Be has always been repression. Most political systems in human history have been highly unequal and highly authoritarian. Given enough time, an official mythology or other cultural construct that justifies and legitimizes social and political inequality as either necessary, unavoidable, or somehow divinely inspired can allow highly unequal and repressive societies to thrive for generations.

A third option, one that often appears when the official justifications no longer hold back popular demands for vengeance, is to look for — or invent — sources of irritation and infuriation that will divert people’s attention from the inequalities of the social pyramid: scapegoats.

Demonizing scapegoats is a sure sign of a society’s loss of legitimacy. It’s also a dangerous sign of that society’s descent into violence. The only question becomes whether violence will be focused on external enemies (warfare, imperial expansion, etc.) or on internal enemies (selective repression, genocide, etc.).

We here in the United States should be paying very close attention to such dynamics, because we are living them in the here and now.

Societies like the U.S. were founded, in part, on racial and cultural intolerance (slavery and genocide), and then re-founded generation after generation upon waves of immigrants finding their place at the bottom of the social pyramid, at least initially; such societies are particularly susceptible to the social and political dynamics of inequality, irritation, infuriation, repression and scapegoating.

Two historical factors have kept us from descending into self-destructive violence.

First, the fact that our Founding Fathers did not trust each other (for a variety of reasons, including religious differences and concerns that some of the former colonies might attempt to lord over their neighbors), yet were forced to cooperate in a geopolitical context of weakness vis-à-vis far more powerful European nations, literally forced them to construct a set of political institutions that put checks and balances on all branches of government. It would be very difficult for one faction of the fledgling nation’s elite to take over such a fragmented government.

We may criticize the inefficiency of divided government. But checks and balances have helped protect us from the ambitions of authoritarians and demagogues throughout our history.

Second, our country’s evolution from a primarily agricultural backwater into the geopolitical and economic powerhouse that it is today quite literally absorbed generation after generation into the machinery of economic development. Inequality, irritation, infuriation, etc., combined, over time and not at all peacefully, into social and political movements that ended up pushing our elitist political institutions into becoming an increasingly inclusive democracy. Becoming democratic — building inclusive and authoritative rules around such a diverse society — is our nation’s greatest achievement.

And that brings us to look, head-on, at the socially and politically polarized country that we are today. Inequality, irritation, infuriation and demands for vengeance are all around us.

Fewer of us believe in today’s official mythologies. Some reach back to the mythologies of our pre-democratic past. More and more of us are falling to the siren song of looking for scapegoats, and there are only too many “leaders” out there pointing fingers at who “doesn’t belong.” Republicans attack the very checks and balances and inclusive democratic institutions that have kept us from each other’s throats.

An unchecked political system is an authoritarian political system. Repression soon follows. Vengeance begets vengeance.

Scientific theories of terrorism (extreme violence perpetrated “from below” by aggrieved extremists) and scientific theories of genocide (extreme violence perpetrated “from above” by governments) note that both are built upon a foundation of social and cultural polarization. Both can be part of our future once democracy has been stripped of its capacity to generate negotiated settlements.

We don’t have to play along! We don’t have to fall into the destructive lies of scapegoating. We don’t have to vote for authoritarians and demagogues who demonstrate hostility to our hard-fought institutions of democracy.

We don’t have to accept, against all evidence to the contrary, that economic policies that concentrate wealth and income into the hands of already obscenely wealthy individuals and corporations are the only means to build a prosperous nation.

We do have to pay attention. We do have to choose democracy and inclusion over authoritarianism and vengeance-fueled repression. If politics seems unpleasant now, and you’d just rather turn away from it all, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

— Nylen is professor of political science and director of international studies at Stetson University.


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