Culture War as Imitation Game

The timeliness of René Girard’s case against idolizing politics
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The French social theorist René Girard, born in 1923, is not quite yet a household name, but his work does occasionally make it into popular culture. Take the second season of the hit HBO show The White Lotus, where one main character suggests that his friend and former romantic rival has “a bad case of mimetic desire.” This would have made Girard laugh, since his theory partly explains how ideas become fashionable.

Mimetic desire was Girard’s central idea. It is the notion that humans don’t generate their own desires but rather mimic the desires of others — and that this is at the root of human conflict. Mimetic desire formed the basis for a theory of history and culture that captivated his students and thousands of scholars across disciplines as diverse as literature, sociology, philosophy, theology, and history. One of his most famous students, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, has said, “I suspect that when the history of the twentieth century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Girard passed away in 2015, after a long career as a professor of French language, literature, and civilization at Stanford. In 2005, he was inducted into the Académie Française, at which point his fellow member and Stanford colleague Michel Serres called him the “new Darwin of the human sciences.” The year 2023 is the centennial of René Girard’s birth, and since interest in his work continues to grow due to its explanatory power — for everything from makeup trends to love triangles — you should expect to hear more about Girard in the coming months. (I am hosting an anniversary celebration for him in Washington, D.C. in November.)

Once you see mimetic desire in everyday life, it’s hard to unsee. It helps to explain competition in college admissions, stock market bubbles, and why romantic attraction is often attached to social cues that signal desirability. But I also believe that Girard’s work can help us make better sense of the dynamics gripping American politics today, and might even offer a way out of our crippling polarization.

Mimetic Rivalry

Many people today sense a dark, irrational force operating at a subconscious level — a tendency among many of us to do and say things that seem intended to inflict maximum damage on one’s enemies. A recent Pew survey shows that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats consider negative sentiments about the other political party to be a “major reason” for their own affiliation. New prophets of doom have arisen who specialize in provoking opposition and galvanizing political bases. Girard gave this kind of antagonism a name: “mimetic rivalry.” Imitative desire, he believed, was only the first step in a process that leads to imitative conflict. While we would be going much too far to say that all politics is merely mimetic rivalry — there are serious, material issues to attend to, policy decisions that affect people’s lives, and so forth — the degree to which rivalry seems to be overshading substantive issues is alarming.

It always starts small. Consider the following example. Ten toddlers turned loose in a room full of toys will often converge on just one of them after one child shows enough interest in it. That initial interest could be for a variety of reasons: maybe the little girl picked up the red fire truck because her dad is a firefighter. But her fixation with that toy will soon draw others in. The children will then reinforce one another’s desire until they begin fighting over it — even before most of them know what the toy does. Before long, the toy no longer matters; the game of who gets to play with it does.

This, Girard believed, is what adults do in a far more sophisticated way. Because we learn to want what other people want, “rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations.” Girard wrote those words in his most explicitly theological work, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999), in which he traces this phenomenon all the way back to the earliest pages of the Bible. The first woman, Eve, does not have the desire to eat the forbidden fruit on her own — it is suggested, or modeled, to her by the serpent. And the tenth commandment (“You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.”) seems to prohibit this negative form of mimetic desire altogether, with Girard placing particular importance on the final nor anything that belongs to him.

Humans like not only to imitate but to be imitated — just not too much. A colleague flatters me if he adopts one of my tactics; he threatens me when it earns him the attention of one of my clients. If he becomes too much like me, the two of us are drawn into a game of reciprocal imitation for not only new clients, but perhaps even new cars, houses, and other totems of success. If at any point in that game my rival sold everything and decided to become a Minimalist, I’d either be strongly tempted to do so myself or perhaps assuage my feelings about it with a vacation to a monastery in Tibet. As these mimetic games progress, the striving becomes more metaphysical and existential.

How rivalry grows out of our equality is something that Alexis de Tocqueville observed on his visit to America in the early nineteenth century. “The same equality which allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes,” he wrote, “renders all the citizens less able to realize them: it circumscribes their powers on every side, whilst it gives freer scope to their desires…. They have swept away the privilege of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition.”

We are more likely to imitate and become rivals of those with whom we have more in common — including, perhaps, that Facebook “friend” we’ve never met, whose politics are antagonistic but only in the narrowest context: we are alike in every way, but he keeps posting about voting for a town ordinance that I think is stupid. It is revealing, Girard wrote, that nearly every culture has a myth of sibling rivalry. The book of Genesis contains five such stories, probably the best-known being that of Cain and Abel. Roman mythology has such a story in the account of Rome’s very origin: In some versions, Romulus kills his brother Remus when they can’t agree on the exact spot to found the city. In these stories Girard saw the human drive to differentiate ourselves even while imitating one another’s desires. Each involves siblings who, through mimetic desire, ended up wanting the same thing.

Allies, too, often converge because they desire the same ideas and objects and so imitate each other. In the days leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Facebook played an important role in spreading not just “information” or “misinformation” but also the desire for a protest in Washington, D.C., and perhaps even a violent one. The “Stop the Steal” Facebook group was one of the fastest growing groups in the site’s history, amassing 320,000 users in less than 22 hours after launching, before Facebook shut it down for “inciting violence.” That didn’t stop the movement from gaining momentum on other platforms like Parler.

People from different cities and towns across the country organized and mobilized due to a shared desire to overturn the results of the 2020 election — a desire suggested to them by President Trump himself. Once in Washington, D.C., many of these people “didn’t have a plan” and “didn’t even know where they were going,” according to one law enforcement official. Yet more than 2,000 would breach the U.S. Capitol that day.

As more and more of the protestors provided a model for breaching the Capitol, not only did it become easier to do so — it became easier to want to do so. This is the crux of Girard’s theory: In the final analysis, all action begins with a process of desire. Understanding that mysterious process was his life’s work. When he studied ancient stoning rituals, Girard was fascinated by the question of why the first stone thrown was so important — consider how ingrained in the Western mind is the phrase “casting the first stone.” His answer: because it is the only stone without a model. When you are able to notice the models of desire exerting force in a given situation, many things begin to make more sense.

Culture War as Imitation Game

Girard identified two kinds of mimetic models: external and internal. External models are those outside of our immediate world — for instance, celebrities (the Kardashians), historical figures (Rosa Parks), or fictional characters (Ted Lasso). Here, imitation can only go one way. A soccer coach can try to channel the “Ted Lasso Way,” but Ted Lasso will not be influenced by the coach. There is no possibility of reciprocal desires taking shape.

Internal models of desire are inside of our world, and so the imitation can become reciprocal. There is the possibility of escalation. This, in my view, is the most dangerous thing that social media has done to our collective psyche and the reason why mimetic rivalry is so widespread today. Nearly overnight, the Internet put us all inside one another’s heads as internal models of desire — whether positively or negatively.

The paradox of modern America is that as we achieve greater levels of equality, the plane of mimetic rivalry often shifts to things that become ever more abstract. Debating tangible economic or social inequities is healthy. But the mimetic landscape is shifting to what I call Freshmanistan, which is the world of predominantly internal models — think of a class of freshmen, who are all roughly alike and therefore try to find more abstract ways of differentiating themselves while at the same time imitating the models among them, the “mediators,” as Girard called them. For Girard, a mediator is a person or group of persons through whom our desires are generated, shaped, and filtered. The desirability of being part of a specific social club in high school is mediated by other kids who want to be in it, but can’t. If the right people were to lose interest in joining, or if the social club were to disband, they would follow the mediators of their desire to the Next Thing — or what venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has called, to the point of being a public nuisance, “The Current Thing.” “As the mediator comes nearer and the concrete differences between men grow smaller,” Girard wrote in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, “abstract opposition plays an ever larger part in individual and collective existence.” This may explain, better than anything else, the rise of identity politics.

Here, objects themselves do not matter. They become proxies, pawns, in abstract rivalries of identity. The pandemic brought to light the mimetic nature of politics. There were good reasons for and against wearing masks at various points and circumstances, but the extent to which a deeper battle of identity was being played out and covered up by elaborate discussions of epidemiology was, and still is, telling. Few people admit their own mimetic preoccupations.

Indeed, mimetic rivalry is hidden under what Girard calls “romantic lies.” These are the stories we tell ourselves about why we want what we want, which almost never include the models of desire that actually affect us. The best predictor of whether or not a person wore a mask during the pandemic was not the science; it was what a person’s political rivals were doing. Girard examines such negative partisanship not at the level of the ideologies we debate, but the desires we overlook.

Surveying American politics, Girard began to see a giant imitation machine. The arms race during the Cold War — two powers reflexively imitating each another in building nuclear weapons — unfolded outside the bounds of logic to the point of “mutually assured destruction,” with the countries signing occasional agreements to manage their rivalry and prevent further mimetic escalation.

Today we can see mimetic behavior playing out in the weaponization of words or phrases in which language is imitated negatively — “woke” versus “anti-woke,” or Black Lives Matter and its various counter-slogans. Sure, “Blue Lives Matter” is a winking troll. But it also reminds us once more of the original phrase, prompting us to recognize that it is actually true: black lives do matter. “Blue lives matter” isn’t really a successful reappropriation; it’s derivative, circular, and ultimately self-defeating.

In the days after the death of George Floyd, some people began posting black squares with no text or images all over social media, especially on Instagram. The trend spread via mimetic contagion to the point where people who rarely even used Instagram were posting a black square. Many of those posts were removed just as quickly as they were put up after being called out by others as cheaply imitative — many of the black influencers who initially posted those squares seemed to be saying: “You should want what we want, but don’t take the imitation that far — you don’t truly understand what it’s like to be me, you just took ten seconds to post a black square to signal your virtue.” No doubt many of these black squares were posted out of genuine concern, but there are many ways to express concern. Mimesis is the better explanation.

Political mimesis can also be seen in Donald Trump’s mannerisms spreading among the GOP after his rise, and perhaps now in Trump’s rivalry with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. They are in a classic strongman rivalry: they are models to one another and reacting in ways that must appear stronger regardless of what makes the most long-term sense.

The majority party uses its oversight power to investigate members of the other, then vice versa. One blames the other for a broken federal budget, the other responds in kind. Little else changes. That we have strong stances on these issues should not prevent us from noticing the repetition. Political dynamics like these have underlying patterns of mimetic rivalry, in which each side becomes more obsessed with defeating its rival than with serious solutions. We must choose our enemies wisely, Girard thought, because we ultimately become like them.

Girard used one of his most evocative phrases in referring to the mimetic dynamics at work in politics. In his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), he referred to the great writer Stendhal, who grew up in the turmoil following the French Revolution. Stendhal must have seen the mimetic mechanism at work in the politics of the time, and became what Girard called an “atheist in politics.” With this phrase, Girard did not mean politics founded on atheism but rather a stance that refuses to place one’s faith in — refuses to idolize — any one political actor, system, or party. Stendhal, Girard said, demythologized and desacralized the politics of his day, exposing the French nobility’s petty rivalries and ridiculous preoccupations, the mimetic logic that binds people to their enemies.

In his book, Girard analyzes Stendhal’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black, which takes place in post-revolutionary France. Running through the novel is the theme of a battle between monarchism and liberalism — but the flimsiness of that opposition, and the ballet of interchangeable political allies and turncoats, are striking. Girard believes that Stendhal is highlighting these dynamics to make a point about the mimesis that drives the plot. In a striking scene, the protagonist of the novel, Julien Sorel — a young man who has shrewdly risen through the political ranks — learns that his former employer has switched political parties. “Julien,” writes Girard, “savors the ‘conversion’ of M. de Rênal as a music lover who sees a melodic theme reappear under a new orchestral disguise. Most men are taken by the disguises. Stendhal places a smile on Julien’s lips so that his readers should not be deceived.”

Rênal calls himself a newly minted liberal because the man he is in a mimetic entanglement with has ingratiated himself with the ultras (conservatives) and become their candidate of choice. Stendhal is hinting to the reader that it would be a mistake to take his liberalism too seriously — we should not bother taking the time to analyze the “reasons” for this or that newly adopted political position. The reason is simple: Rênal must differentiate himself from his rival, Valenod, and he does it by placing himself opposite him politically. Stendhal is trying to turn our attention away from the superficial objects — in this case, changing political positions — and toward the mediators who are driving the plot. That, in Girard’s opinion, is what makes the book a work of genius. Stendhal is operating at a layer deeper.

The Scapegoat

The political atheism of Stendhal resulted in what we might call a kind of spiritual distance from the politics of his age. This doesn’t mean that he was aloof or disengaged — he wrote about these political movements extensively. But Girard detected a man who at least saw the mimetic entanglements around him for what they were, and who could then make a more intentional choice about which currents to swim in, rather than getting swept away by the riptide.

Those who appear to be outside of a mimetic system, though, are often the first ones to be blamed when there is a crisis. They are viewed as threats to the stability of the group. When someone present at a stoning drops his rock, turns his back, and starts to walk away, he is most at risk of becoming the next object of scorn for the angry mob — a “traitor.”

Girard, according to his former students, was known to say in private conversation that perhaps Christ, too, should be thought of as a political atheist — the first to reject the idea of a divinely ordained political order. The tension between the empire of Caesar and the kingdom of Christ runs through the entire narrative of the Gospels. And in Girard’s view, especially as he wrote it in The Scapegoat (1982), Christ’s death revealed the powerful forces that led to his death for what they truly were: mimetic contagion leading to mimetic violence.

The contagion that swept through the crowd in the praetorium of Pilate during the trial of Jesus involved people who would have had some serious disagreements with each other. But those were quickly forgotten, as the people became fused together to the point that they could shout with one voice, “Crucify him!”

Earlier in the story, the high priest Caiaphas had recommended during a council with the religious and political leaders of Israel that these mimetic powers be harnessed: “You know nothing at all!” he shouted, as they went back and forth discussing what to do about Jesus. “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Girard saw in the crucifixion a mechanism that he argued has been present throughout recorded history under different forms: the scapegoat mechanism, a mysterious rite first alluded to in the book of Leviticus when the high priest would draw lots to choose which of two goats to sacrifice in the temple. The other goat, the scapegoat, would have the sins of the people ritually transferred onto it, and it would then be driven out of the town and into the desert, carrying the sins of the people along with it.

Girard’s key insight was that the scapegoat mechanism brings temporary peace while ultimately perpetuating cycles of violence. Today’s victims will likely be tomorrow’s persecutors — because so long as we are merely transferring blame onto a new person or group, we are stuck in an infinite game of scapegoating.

There is no such a thing as “good violence” and “bad violence,” Girard emphasized. If we believe in the righteousness of our own violence — or of our side — it is always what we think of as the “good” kind. It is this belief, Girard said, that allowed scapegoating violence to perpetuate throughout history. And it is this belief that the political atheist must reject.

Political Atheism

The implication of political atheism is not that one should be unconcerned or uninvolved in the important political questions of our day. But we should step back and see the mimetic layer of behavior driving our divisions, real and imagined. This understanding might be the first step to transcending the logic of rivalry that our country is mired in.

Framing everything that happens in politics as apocalyptic — especially things that will one day surely be seen as insignificant — is bad for our psyche and our national discourse. Girard compares the writer Honoré de Balzac to two other writers he believes are political atheists, and points out the critical difference: “Balzac often treats very seriously the oppositions he sees around him; Stendhal and Flaubert, on the other hand, always point out their futility.”

This calls to mind the differences among writers and pundits in relation to the “culture wars.” Tucker Carlson, even if he were a political atheist behind the scenes, could never pretend to be one on the air. There is no way to generate interest today unless, like Balzac, one “treats very seriously the oppositions” one sees around us.

Girard remarks that the political atheists of early nineteenth-century France could have never foreseen the “at once cataclysmic yet insignificant conflicts” of our day. People deliberate, book by book, which works are racist or contain witchcraft, and which will corrupt the youth. Every election has become “the most important election in our lifetime” — a phrase that has become the most important political platitude of our lifetime. Every minor political victory is viewed by the opposition as evidence that we are hurtling toward the abyss.

Perhaps the reason contemporary society seems so easily torn apart is not because the stakes of our latest fixations are so high, but because they are so low. You don’t worry anymore about being excommunicated from the Church or getting martyred in the flesh; you can just stop shopping at Target, boycott Chick-fil-A, or move to a town where none of your neighbors are Republicans or Democrats. Meltdowns happen, but the pusillanimity of the actions seem more fit for a Seinfeld episode than a good period drama.

This does not mean that we should become more extreme Republicans or Democrats. Political atheism means that we should become more detached from the stalemate frameworks and salvific promises each party makes, and willing to combine the best ideas no matter who offers them. Perhaps the clearest sign that we’re making progress will be when more policy proposals sincerely surprise us. As it stands now, political positions are as predictable as the sunrise.

We may be a long way off from a serious, third political party rising to power, but that is not the goal — in fact, it may just lead to a mimetic political ménage à trois. The problem is not structural, but spiritual.

“More and more, it seems to me,” Girard wrote, “modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”

Imposing our will on another is war. Attempting to win over hearts and minds is, or at least should be, a democracy.

Luke Burgis, “Culture War as Imitation Game,” The New Atlantis, Number 73, Summer 2023, pp. 92–101.

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