An imagined community (a concept from Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book of the same name) is a community so large that it is impossible for members of this community to ever know or meet all of its other members. Since interpersonal connection cannot provide a basis for this kind of community it relies on other foundations to unite community members, things like media, and the idea of the “other” (a common enemy is often the most effective way to unite people). Imagined communities are often founded on true differences, but they can become dangerous when we, its members, follow blindly without questioning the community’s values and agendas.
I’ve been thinking a lot about imagined communities since the election. In part, I’ve been thinking about how the United States, as an imagined community, views itself in contrast with the rest of the world. But I’ve also been thinking about imagined communities within our country. The most notable: Democrats and Republicans.
The Democratic Party is the perfect example of an imagined community. It is too big for me to ever know all of its members. Its identity (my identity) is spread through the media—newspapers and TV shows—and solidified by a common enemy: you, a Republican. In fact, these days, I can’t help but think that the creation of an enemy is what our parties do best. I watch the Daily Show, which tells me that you are dumb and racist. You watch Fox News which tells you that I am lazy and arrogant. You are evil, they say. You will destroy everything, they say. I am evil, they say. I will destroy everything, they say. They pound it into our heads: we are different, we are different, we are different.
But I know we are on the same side. You know how I know? Because of Memorial Day Weekend 2014 when I sat at your kitchen table and you fed me. At the time I was planning a solo cross country bike trip. The plan was to leave in one month and the details of the trip consumed my life at the time, but I told your daughter, don’t tell them about the trip. I thought that you would think I was a weirdo. I thought that you would tell me don’t go it is dangerous. I thought you would be disappointed in me.
But of course, your daughter, the stubborn gal that she is, told you about the trip while we were all sitting at the table and I wanted to just slink underneath it but then I didn’t have to because you didn’t miss a beat. You smiled. You asked me questions. Your were worried, yes, and you voiced it. But mostly you were pleased. You were so excited for me. I realized that you wanted the same things that I wanted.
Three years later, I can’t help but think that there is someone somewhere up in his tall tower—not a Republican nor a Democrat—just a guy, looking down at all of us fighting with each other, smiling gleefully, fingers pressed against each other, raking in his cash, thinking, this is all going according to plan, in due time they will destroy each other.
And sometimes when I feel myself succumbing to the hate, I think about when I sat at your kitchen table and you filled my glass with wine and we laughed at the same jokes and I repeat it like a chant in my head: we are on the same side.
(P.S. Does anyone else want to trash the party system? Can’t we just, like, start over?)