I am in no way trying to minimize the disagreement. We often dismiss controversies or concerns by waving our hands and saying something like, "Oh, that's merely symbolic," as if the meaning we give to symbols is somehow irrelevant compared with more tangible things. But symbolism -- the way we reduce broad concerns, agendas and visions to images or rituals -- has played a defining role in human life since there have been humans.
Try burning a flag or a cross in front of the wrong audience and then tell me symbolism is nothing. The rifts between Shia and Sunni,
The defining feature of American politics for the last half-century has been our increasing reliance on symbolism. As my
It's a bit like
One the problems with symbolic politics is that it's hard to compromise, because symbolism enlists notions of honor and identity that leave little room for haggling. In a fight over bread, you can agree on half a loaf, because half is better than nothing. But with symbols, it's difficult to escape zero-sum thinking. It's like the famous line, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."
Trump's wall is now an entirely symbolic affair. His biggest supporters insist that he has a mandate for one, and that it was his central campaign promise. I don't think that's right analytically. Only two things unified all Trump voters: his promise to not be
But none of that matters now because the symbolism is more important than the reality. Indeed, the president has offered to compromise, saying that we don't have to call it a wall and it doesn't even have to really look like one. But that doesn't matter either, because for
Immigration policy itself is something of an afterthought. Serious restrictionists readily concede that a wall would be far less useful than mandatory E-Verify and other such efforts to make hiring illegal immigrants more difficult. I've yet to meet a serious advocate for curtailing immigration -- legal or illegal -- who wouldn't trade a wall for reform of the visa system. On the left, there are probably many who would trade a wall for reforms to their liking. But both sides understand that the base cares more about the symbolism of the wall fight.
There's an irony to this turn in American thinking. We treat the presidency like it's a symbolic monarchy, but real monarchs have the power to make compromises for the common good.
In the modern age, the people get to choose their own symbols, and they aren't in a mood to compromise.
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