This short essay about people who define themselves through opposition to others was prompted by an insightful Krugman column that contrasts climate denial and covid denial.I'm experimenting with dividing the world into people who need an enemy and those who see problems as the enemy and wish to work together to solve them. The anti-vax movement is an example of how artificial polarization increases as solutions become more clear. In other words, solutions to threats like climate change and the coronavirus are themselves seen as a threat, not only because they might make a Democratic president look good, but also because they strip people of the enemy--the "Other" they need in order to maintain a sense of identity. From McCarthy's communists and Reagan's welfare queen, to Gingrich's liberals and Trump's immigrants, the rightwing has needed to conjure an enemy in order to rationalize its existence, reduce scrutiny of its own failings, and rally its followers.
That the anti-government and anti-liberal fervor gained particular momentum in the 1990s suggests the rightwing, stripped of its traditional enemy by the collapse of the Soviet Union, shifted to viewing its own government as the enemy. The depth of that passion gained a raw clarity with the attack on the Capitol on January 6.
By this logic, liberals will continue to be stymied in their desire to "work together" to solve problems. Climate change and the pandemic are denied by many because they are collectively created and collectively solved. For someone who needs an "Other"--an enemy upon which to dump all that is negative--it is disenchanting to face a situation in which we, collectively and as individuals, are both the problem and the solution. Climate change and the pandemic are potentially powerful prompts for national and global unity, in which we all work together for mutual survival. But "working together" would strip many of a sense of identity and meaning deeply dependent upon opposition.
The need to maintain an enemy, even if it means sabotaging effective, collective solutions, does not eliminate collective action. Politically divided, we still continue to collectively, unintentionally create and exacerbate problems like the pandemic and climate change. The danger is not only that problems will fester and divisions deepen, but that any wisdom and insight generated by the "Other", the rejected half of the country, will be ignored or actively dismissed. Those who work so hard to stir up resentment of liberals are then trapped in their own rebellion, with no recourse but to actively shun the warnings and wisdom of liberal scientists. In this way, a divided nation becomes blinded to real threats.