Our everyday language has been taken hostage by politics.
The two leading American political parties have managed to completely co-opt certain words as dog-whistles for ideology rather than their original or intended meaning. Terms like “liberty,” “freedom,” “equity,” “science,” “the founding,” “love,” etc. have all been claimed by one side or the other.
If you aren’t paying close attention, you wouldn’t recognize that the original meaning of the words, along with their deeper context, is lost. A significant portion of the population bristles or feels uncomfortable when these seemingly innocuous words are used. This takeover hasn’t happened overnight and understanding how and why people react the way they do to certain words is a huge step in coming together as a nation.
Over the next several months, I will examine 3 such examples. The first, and perhaps most important, is the term “solidarity.”
According to Merriam-Webster, solidarity is a noun that means, “unity (as of a group or class) that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards.” Dictionary.com defines solidarity as, “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests as between members of a group or between classes, people, etc.” Theoretically, this is inherently nonpartisan. But the example given by Dictionary.com instantly alerts people that it is, in fact, very partisan: “To promote solidarity among union workers.” In America, unions are generally left of center organizations that disproportionately give to the Democratic Party. This fact will make a large portion of the country skeptical of any organization or movement that uses this term just because of its perceived affiliation with a specific side of the political spectrum.
Solidarity is used almost ubiquitously amongst the Progressive left as a call to collective action undertaken to achieve a brighter future or take a stand against injustice. If one simply googles Bernie Sanders solidarity, nearly 1 million results pop up, many from statements the Senator has made directly or of approving progressive outlets using solidarity as a description of his platform.
Jacobin magazine says in an article that the best way to beat COVID is through solidarity where it is understood that, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” This unity or belonging then isn’t necessarily formalized or negotiated; it just is. Union workers are working together in a formalized way, but marchers, organizers, protesters, and even Antifa aren’t necessarily part of formalized institutions. This is where the breakdown in language begins, and also where we can heal this divide.
Within conservative historiography, the 18th Century man of letters Edmund Burke is often held up as the founder of modern conservatism. His most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, contains not only a critique of the French Revolution, but also positive assertions of Burke’s own philosophy. In this work, when Burke writes about what we can understand as solidarity, he writes in terms of “unity from inheritance, from formal belonging. We are united by what we have inherited and what we shall transmit on to the future. The constitution of Britain, “preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage, and an House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.”
This sense of unity to the past also extends to the future through the use of the term “contract.” Burke asserts that, “society is indeed a contract…each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures each in their appointed place.” For modern day conservatives, this community understanding of solidarity can be understood through the lens of what Burke called the “little platoons” of society, and what we call social capital.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines social capital as, “the potential of individuals to secure benefits and invent solutions to problems through membership in social networks.” This participation in formalized organizations is why many conservatives are skeptical of the state and why they strive to shrink it. The organizations like churches and clubs create a sense of community and belonging with an integrated system of support. If someone gets sick or has an accident that leaves them unable to work or provide for their family, their church and neighborhood bands together to provide food, help with childcare, and make sure they can get back up on their feet.
In this view, it is not the place of the state to take care of us, but the duty and obligation of our fellow churchgoers, friends, and family. Social capital, then is the conservative understanding of solidarity. But the American right isn’t just made up of Burkean conservatives.
Much of the coalition of the Right in America is made up by the libertarian faction, which still holds to a understanding of unity though formalized institutions, but in terms of contract rather than social capital
In this, they are drawing upon the groundwork laid in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, where each man, “agree amongst themselves to submit to some Man, or Assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others. This later, may be called a Political Commonwealth, or Commonwealth by Institution.”
This understanding of mutual agreement came to be understood as social contract theory.
“In America, unions are generally left of center organizations that disproportionately give to the Democratic Party. This fact will make a large portion of the country skeptical of any organization or movement that uses this term just because of its perceived affiliation with a specific side of the political spectrum.”
John Locke, Hobbes’ contemporary and great critic also proposed a social contract theory but put it in this way, “Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner: which is, as I have before showed it, the perfect state of nature.”
This living in civil society is Locke’s version of a social contract where we give up some liberty to each other in order to live in peace. Both formalize a sense of solidarity through the use of contract.
The Constitution of the United States can be seen as a prime example of this type of contract. The people of the states came together to create and ratify a document which enumerates what this new government can and cannot do. In exchange, the states and all the people within the borders of the United States agree to abide by the system set out in the document. The contract can be amended through various mechanisms but once in place, it is the foundation of our system of governance.
This sense of unity has to be formalized in some way because of both Hobbes’ and Locke’s skepticism of humanity to rise above a perfect state of nature where individual autonomy is absolute but self-interest at the expense of others is the only path. For many libertarians, this is best expressed by the “do no harm” principle which posits that if no one except me is harmed by an action I am doing, then it must be perfectly okay.
Thus, Libertarians are typically supportive of decriminalizing drugs since the only victim in their eyes is the person using the drug. If I want to incorporate formally with others on a project or business, it is mutual and formal, thus raising us up out of the state of nature.
It is also why libertarians are so skeptical of the state’s ability to do genuine good. Because “the state” is normally defined as the political institution that has a monopoly on violence over the area it controls, many libertarians believe that a robust state will inevitably lead to more violence, and that therefore the government should be reined in as much as possible. They have a point: think about the War on Drugs that began under Nixon. Nearly half a century on, that war has left a path of destruction and death around the globe, and drug use is higher than ever.
All of this is to say: both the Conservative and Libertarian right believe in a formalized belonging that is very different from the definition of “solidarity” to which the Progressive left subscribes.
Thus far, I have been chronicling the breakdown of language between the Left and Right in America today. The Right (broadly speaking) is great at getting organized and the Left (generally) is great at organizing. This difference helps explain the disconnect in the sense of unity and belonging.
“Organizations like churches and clubs create a sense of community and belonging with an integrated system of support. If someone gets sick or has an accident that leaves them unable to work or provide for their family, their church and neighborhood bands together to provide food, help with childcare, and make sure they can get back up on their feet.”
For the political left, this belonging is spontaneous and mutual, expressed in the coming together for the service of a just cause. The marches and protests last year to highlight police brutality is a great example of the Left’s ability to organize and get on the streets.
For the political right, this unity is expressed through the formation and formalization of and participation in organizations. The think tank machine of the Libertarian and Conservative right in America cannot be matched by the Left, even after 35 years.
So how can we reclaim the word “solidarity” and build up an understanding of the phrase given its monopolization by one side of our political debate? The first step is to understand where different people get their sense of unity from. What unites us?
The second is to understand that for many Americans, participation in this unity is formalized. People who give to conservative or libertarian think tanks are participating in a movement to enact change. People who pay union dues are doing the exact same thing.
To create a movement based on common good, common sense, and common ground, we must strive to meet people where their understandings are and push past the thin partisanship that many of these words have come to mean. Perhaps we can start with “solidarity,” and thus begin to draw closer in truer unity towards a common purpose.
Josh Williams is a graduate of Colorado State University with a BA in Political Science and Economics and currently works in nonprofit development. He is also a contributor to Front Porch Republic. Josh loves Star Wars to the point of obsession, a fact you cannot escape if you ever visit his office. He is a Colorado native and can be found out hiking, fishing, reading, or napping when not on the job.