DANIEL VAUGHAN: Moral relativity begets a hyper-polarized mind where anything goes

In the past, when people spoke of division in a country, saying things like “there are two nations at odds within one country,” they meant something physical and real. For instance, when Karl Marx spoke of class divisions, he referenced real economic divides in society. There are always varying degrees of poor and rich, and shifting notions of the middle class.

Divisions can come in other forms too. We can be divided by geographic differences. The demands of local climate and topography engender certain beliefs in politics and more. Of course, race and nationality have always provided a constant source of division in countries, often for the worse when it’s the animating factor in the societal division.

Future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Benjamin Disraeli novelized Victorian England and described it as, “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws . . . . THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

Disraeli lived in a world where the old aristocracy was being challenged by the new rising wealthy manufacturing class, causing upheaval among the poor. Disraeli talked of economic class divisions. Disraeli perceived a real set of divisions and a growing rift between people groups in the nation.

Agree or disagree with him; the cause of those divisions was real. The burgeoning era of capitalism was causing a revolution in society. If a division is real, you can interact with it. You can poke it, prod it, and, if fortunate enough, reform society to lessen the consequences of broad cultural divides.

But what happens when what divides us isn’t real? What happens when the divisions in a country are nothing more than mental constructs? If our divisions are based on a divide that’s not in reality, and is, instead, the wholly a construct of the political mind, our capacity to respond is different.

In his 2004 Democratic Convention Speech, which launched him to national prominence, then-Senator Barack Obama called this the “politics of cynicism.” He described that cynicism as divisional: “The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

His words aren’t that far off from Disraeli’s in describing the radically divergent world people inhabit. But the cause is different. The difference between a “red state” or a “blue state” mindset isn’t based on class, wealth, race, sex, or any other physical or real division. What divides these groups is wholly a mental construct that warps how both sides view and see the other. We might as be looking at each other through a window into another dimension.

We see it in the fight over packing the Supreme Court. That term has a definite meaning, both literally and historically. Packing the court is a strategy first championed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to add more justices to the Supreme Court for the express purpose of ensuring the presidential or legislative branch gets its way politically. It’s an expressly political move that seeks to force the Supreme Court to become a rubber stamp for the controlling party.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris continue to refuse to answer whether they support an extreme measure that would nullify the Supreme Court’s independence. This issue should be a big deal. But their defense has shifted from dodging questions on court-packing to accusing Republicans of court-packing. Their proof? Republicans have spent the last four years filling vacancies on the federal bench at a higher rate than previous administrations.

This counter-argument is, of course, utter nonsense. And only the latest example of people building a mental construct to vilify and accuse the other side of wrongdoing. They aren’t alone; you can find examples on the right too.

You could, of course, call this nothing more than meaningless political attacks. But that ignores the fact that the political center has evaporated, with partisans driving the divide more than ever. And worse than that, more Americans believe political violence is increasingly justified based on what the other side is doing. People are breaking with reality and choosing to replace it with a preferred “truth.”

The mental constructs we’ve built, which aren’t based in reality, are more at odds with each other than any other division. If our divides aren’t real but based on a fake constructed reality, this might be the end of history point for moral relativity. If nothing is real in absolute terms and everything relative, then everyone is free to construct whatever reality they want for themselves.

Eventually, this fever has to break. But whether it does and how it is still up in the air. Whoever wins the election won’t change that. We’ll enter another round of cultural wars where we descend deeper into the abyss.