Politics and Mimetic Theory: Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, and the Search for a Common Enemy

Politics and Mimetic Theory: Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, and the Search for a Common Enemy October 21, 2013
(AP: Evan Vucci/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

This morning on the Today Show, co-host Savannah Guthrie interviewed Dick Cheney about his heart condition, the Tea Party, and the Republican Party role in the government shut down.

Cheney’s remarks on the government shutdown caught my attention, especially from the viewpoint of mimetic theory. Guthrie began the interview by stating that, “A lot of people see this current time as a moment when the Republican Party is almost in a civil war with itself. Do you think the government shutdown strategy was a smart strategy?” Here’s how the conversation ensued:

Cheney: I look at it with a different perspective, Savannah. I think we’ve had a lot of talk about the conflict inside the party. What intrigues me is, I think the most radical operator in Washington today is the President and I think he is trying to take the country in a direction that is fundamentally different than anything we’ve seen before.

Guthrie: And you’d think that might be a unifying moment for the party.

Cheney: I would hope so.

Whether you admire him or hate him, Dick Cheney’s years of experience has made him razor sharp politician. He knows what mimetic theory claims is the primary way humans form unity: find a common enemy to blame. In fact, Cheney’s hope for peacemaking within the Republican Party is to unite against the President.

This, of course, is the exact same strategy that President Obama has employed. There is no difference between Obama’s strategy and Cheney’s strategy: They both have found hope in uniting against a common enemy. The only difference between the President and his Republican counterparts is that, in this case, Obama has proven himself to be a much better politician. In his weekly address to the nation after the government re-opened, Obama went so far as to attempt to unite some “responsible” Republican with him against, apparently, those irresponsible Republicans. He began his address by stating, “Hi everybody. This week, because Democrats and responsible Republicans came together, the government was reopened, and the threat of default was removed from our economy.”

Why don’t we see anything like a “civil war” within the Democratic Party? Unlike their Republican counterparts, any internal squabbles have dissipated because the Democrats have a clear external enemy that they can unite against – those irresponsible Republicans. Wolfgang Palavar explains this mimetic phenomenon of uniting against a common enemy in his book René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. Under a section called “The Origin of Political Enmity in the Scapegoat Mechanism,” Palavar writes, “Girard argues that violence is always originally an internal problem. The rivalries within the group are channeled by means of the scapegoat mechanism into violence against an external enemy, which leads to friend/enemy relations between groups. From the perspective of the mimetic theory, all warfare and political enmity arises from the scapegoat mechanism.”

It will seem scandalous to people on either side of the political aisle, but the truth that mimetic theory brings to light is that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are run by the same scapegoating principle. The danger in pointing that out is that we can start blaming them, or blaming politicians in general, for scapegoating one another. But what mimetic theory also brings to light is that we all find ourselves getting caught up in scapegoating. If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we enjoy and benefit from political scapegoating. Personally, I gain a certain glee from all those pictures of Dick Cheney photoshopped as Darth Vader. I know those are my people because we can agree that Cheney is a Dark Lord of the Sith. And I roll my eyes whenever I hear someone attempt to belittle the Affordable Health Care by calling it “Obama Care.” I know they are not my people because, well, they are members of the Evil Galactic Empire.

Okay. That was tongue in cheek, but it gives you a sense of my political leanings and how easy I fall into the trap of scapegoating. And that’s the point. It’s easy to scapegoat. We gain a sense of moral righteousness by uniting with others over-and-against our political enemies. The trouble with Washington isn’t primarily because of politicians; it’s because humans have a tendency to scapegoat. We should demand better of our politicians, but we need to demand better of ourselves.

(For more on “scapegoating” join us on the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement live chat as we talk with David Dawson, author of Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea.)

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83 responses to “Politics and Mimetic Theory: Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, and the Search for a Common Enemy”

  1. Is it really “scapegoating” if you target the people who are actually the cause of the problem? When a pitcher beans a batter, he’s not the scapegoat, he’s the perpetrator of the act and will be identified as such. Obama pointing the finger at the Tea Party caucus for shutting the country down for two weeks is, I think, placing the blame exactly where it belongs.

  2. R-i-i-i-i-ght.

    Like Cheney & Bush 43 didn’t have a compliant, embedded, “support the pResident or you’re in bed with the terrorists” propaganda mill putting the wind in their sails.

    Quit substituting whining and excuses making for providing cogent arguments… Valid complaints will be engaged and debated: your response is the sour grapes of one who has nothing real to add to the conversation yet feels compelled to take a swipe anyway…

  3. “We should demand better of our politicians, but we need to demand better of ourselves.” Yes!

    We need to move forward from our animal (and ancient scriptural) instincts of forming tribes through fear of all outsiders and into what we are supposed to believe comprise “Christian” values: responsible, committed, accountable compassion for all physical manifestations of The Sacred Spirit on earth. Included in this maturation process should be a redefining of the purpose of “sacred” scripture.

    Why are we still taught to be “fearful” of “God” Isn’t it enough to be in awe of all the manifestations of The Sacred Spirit that we are gifted with on earth?

  4. For hipster Christians, Is being for Obama more about image/not being like ‘those’ christians than policies? He has droned more people than any president, widened the income gap, created more people on food stamps..etc.