Have Our Political Parties Turned Into Cults?

31 May 2021 · 10 min read

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Profiles of Republican and Democrat arguing in front of US map

I recently wrote a piece offering Some Hard-Won Wisdom Concerning Cults. And I've written a couple of pieces recently questioning the direction of the current Republican Party. (See “The Decline of the Republican Party — First Gradually and then Suddenly” and “Where, Exactly, Are the Republicans Headed?”.)

And so, today, I want to ask the question: should either, or both, of our political parties be considered cults? I'd like to treat this question seriously, rather than simply indulging in the ritualistic name-calling that such an inquiry usually provokes.

So let's go down my prior list of fourteen indicators of a cult, and try to fairly assess both parties on these criteria.

Before I begin, let me try to clarify the position from which I'm writing. I'm a fairly reliable progressive Democrat, and I occasionally write about politics, but neither my identity nor my writing are centered around politics or around progressive causes. I've written positive pieces about Trump (see “What Trump Gets Right”), and critical pieces about the Democrats (see “The Progressive Problem”). I write on aesthetic and cultural topics, I read and respect traditional conservative authors such as David Brooks, and I maintain contacts with friends who are solid Republicans and who voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

So feel free to agree or disagree with me, and to share your own perspective in the comments, but I would ask that you avoid any knee-jerk labeling of my thoughts in one way or the other.

So with that out of the way, let me start down my list of cult indicators.

1. Allegiance to a particular individual, or to the individuals belonging to a particular family, rather than to an institution, an office, or a set of principles.

Now that Trump has been fairly voted out of office, and yet most Republican legislators dare not even state openly that he lost the election, it has become pretty clear that the majority of Republican leaders are exhibiting, and advocating for, this particular trait.

There's no similarly charismatic and unifying leader among the Democrats.

So it's now: Republicans 1, Democrats 0.

2. A set of people and/or proclamations that are offered as infallible, indisputable, and not to be questioned.

The Big Lie, stating that Trump actually won the election, and was somehow cheated out of it, is the obvious example here. I don't believe there's anything comparable among the Democrats. (If anything, the Democrats seem to suffer because they have trouble agreeing on anything.)

So let's mark the score: Republicans 2, Democrats 0.

3. The primacy of this group over all others: members may also belong to other groups, but the group in question insists that it be the primary source of identity and meaning and guidance for its members.

For followers of Trump, this aspect of their identity seems to take precedence over all others. And Trump seems to expect and demand such allegiance. And I certainly know Democrats for whom their party, or progressive causes, are their primary source of identity. But I don't see any signs that Democrats in general insist on this degree of identification with the party.

So it's now: Republicans 3, Democrats 0.

4. A general insistence that the leaders of the group are the only reliable sources of truth: all other sources are routinely discredited.

Trump and his followers and the right-wing news sources generally seem to be the sole source of truth for Trump-following Republicans, and they all spend considerable time discrediting any other sources, generally lumping anyone who disagrees with them into the “mainstream media” bucket, so I think it's fair to say the Republicans qualify here. I don't see anything similar among Democrats. As a matter of fact, Democrats seem to value having multiple independent sources of the news and of opinions, and value having these two types of journalism clearly distinguished from one another. As a personal example, I regularly get news and opinions from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, Mother Jones, NPR, PBS and Apple News (which syndicates content from multiple sources, including Fox News). None of these news sources spend any time discrediting other news sources, nor do they offer a singular, monolithic view of the world's events.

So now it's: Republicans 4, Democrats 0.

5. Assertions of truth that the followers have no way to test, so that there can be no independent verification of the veracity of these statements.

Assertions of vast left-wing conspiracies, including the theft of our latest presidential election, fall into this category. I don't know of anything similar among Democrats.

So for those keeping score: Republicans 5, Democrats 0.

6. A bright line drawn between those who are members and those who are not.

All of the recent shenanigans around removing Liz Cheney from her leadership position seem to be examples here – those Republicans daring to challenge the Big Lie are clearly being identified and cut out of the herd. I haven't seen anything comparable among Democrats.

We're now at: Republicans 6, Democrats 0.

7. A particular label or set of terms used to refer to those who are not members.

It's interesting and revealing to see the comments about my recent writings coming from those who disagree. Here are a few examples:

You guys are hilarious. I am literally amazed on how the left can create false narratives….

Why is the left so confused…?

The Democrats have been been largely captured by the BLM Woke Left , Intersectional Grievance, Environmental Alarmist, Sexual Identity, Hate America Coalition.

What's interesting to me here is the labeling and grouping that seems to inevitably accompany and generally preface any disagreements with my thoughts – even though I've never used any of these terms, either to describe myself, or to describe any groups that I might feel myself to be representing. And I often hear the same sort of dismissive terminology from friends and family members who are Trump supporters. I don't hear any sort of similar consistent derisive labeling from Democrats.

So let's say: Republicans 7, Democrats 0.

8. Restrictions on mingling and fraternizing with non-members.

I can't honestly say I know how to judge this one. I don't see any signs of this among Democrats, but since my Republican friends and relatives aren't speaking to me these days, it's hard to tell how it is for them.

So I'll leave the score unchanged.

9. A tendency to preemptively attack the credibility of anyone who has left the fold.

Trump and his followers have done this so consistently since he took office that I'm not sure it's worth citing any specific examples. I can't think of any examples for Democrats.

So let's call it: Republicans 8, Democrats 0.

10. Open-ended expectations of members.

I think both parties exhibit this trait.

So now it's: Republicans 9, Democrats 1.

11. Vaguely defined benefits for members.

I suppose we should give them both the same score here.

So we're up to: Republicans 10, Democrats 2.

12. A lack of transparency about finances and operations of the organization.

I'm sure both parties exhibit some of this at times. But certainly Trump and his minions have doubled down on this trait, with Trump consistently refusing even to make his tax returns public.

So let's call it: Republicans 11, Democrats 2.

13. A lofty purpose towards which the organization makes little substantial progress.

This might have been in doubt before Trump left office, but can there be any question of this now? Trump and his followers are still raising money, claiming that they will prove that Trump rightfully won the 2020 election and restore him to office – even though the Republicans haven't been able to make a single court case stick, and displayed embarrassing incompetence when trying to recount the votes in Arizona's Maricopa county.

And yet Trump and his followers keep insisting that the election results will be overturned and Donald Trump restored to his rightful place in the White House.

So now it's: Republicans 12, Democrats 2.

14. A tendency to preemptively assign all of these same attributes listed above to the “other” (however they are labeled), thereby making it seem as if the group in question is the only way to avoid cult membership, rather than what it is: namely, a cult itself.

I'm often amazed at how often Trump and his band of Republicans claim that the Democrats are the ones who are guilty of something that the Republicans themselves have done. Trump's recent attempt to redefine the current meaning of The Big Lie is one recent example. But see a prior piece of mine, “The Shocking Truth About Us Liberals” for more of my thoughts on how we liberals fail to live up to all of the allegations that the right routinely levels at us.

And so the the final score is:

Republicans 13, Democrats 2.

Take-Aways

First of all, let me make it clear that, at least in this particular piece, I'm not trying to say that the policy recommendations of the Democrats are any better or worse than those of the Republicans: policy issues just don't come into play here.

So if you think the Democrats are mad spenders, but you like the Republicans because they want to limit the power of the federal government then, hey, more power to you. I'm not going to debate those points with you today. (I'll save that for another piece.)

No, my single-minded purpose today is to take a hard look at this thing that the Republican Party has become, in the age of Trump.

And while I'm sure that you and I might disagree on some of my scoring above, it seems hard to disagree with the overall conclusion: the Republican Party under Trump has now become a full-fledged cult.

And while the Democrats do some pretty stupid things at times, and no doubt betray a few of these same traits, the bottom line is that they are just not in the same league as the Republicans, when it comes to leading and forming a cult.

Unfortunately for conservatives and the Republican Party, they have now thrown their lot in with Trump so completely that they really have no viable alternative, when it comes to winning elections.

So I understand why so many Republican politicians are still sticking with Trump.

But it's not too late for the rest of us, for ordinary citizens like you and me, to back away slowly from the cult that the Republican Party has become.

None of this is meant to state or imply any lack of faith in our country's two-party system. As Heather Cox Richardson recently pointed out in her Letter from an American dated May 16, 2021, we need a second party to perform a vital oversight role on whichever party is now in office – but the Republicans are even failing at that.

So I think the time has come to turn away from Trump and his organization, and do whatever we think we can to form something new.

It's not a liberal thing, or a conservative thing: it's just a matter of remaining a member of a cult or walking away.

Take care.


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