The Plague of the Acolytes
We need some new verbiage for our changing political climate.
We have long used terminology to try and determine the intent and belief of groups of people. On some inherent level, many of us already know that the terminology of “Democrat” and “Republican” might denote the two major parties, but tells us little about the actual beliefs of those registered or identifying with those terms. As descriptors, terms like “liberal”, “conservative”, “libertarian”, and others are worth far more to the person who uses them to self-identify than to the pundit, pollster, or reporter that tries to use them. Some try to present the groups organized under those headings. The problem is there are few people that completely fit as a monolithic block of like-minded thought.
Those operating under “like faith and order” are far more cliquish than our common descriptors. They are very much protective of what they call themselves, and what others call them. Additionally, it is assumed that those who use a particular label adhere to every aspect of the connotated belief system. The savvy can co-op a term for their own purposes, either as deflection or as cover.
But now we have groups — not new, just louder and more visible — that we should not be labeling with the traditional terms at all. If we do, I propose re-purposing a very old term for this rising class of political beings: the acolytes.
Merriam-Webster breaks down the etymology of the word “Acolyte” thusly:
Follow the etymological path of acolyte back far enough and you’ll arrive at keleuthos, a Greek noun that means “path” and that is itself the parent of akolouthos, an adjective that means “following.” Akolouthos traveled from Greek, leaving offspring in Medieval Latin and Anglo-French, and its descendant, acolyte, emerged in English in the 14th century. Originally, it was exclusively a term for a person who assisted a priest at Mass, but by the 19th century acolyte had acquired additional meanings, among them “attendant body, satellite” (a meaning used in astronomy) and “attendant insect” (a zoological sense), as well as the general meaning assistant or sidekick.
We have ourselves a multitude of folks engaged in the political process right now that fit that mold. They are true believers in the traditional sense, but also are there first and foremost to serve as devoted followers. They did not come to their ideals and convictions by deep thought and study, but by other stimuli such as grievances, anger, victimhood, or injustice, both real and perceived. All these things are internalized, personalized, then radicalized into searching for something to do about it. Often, that something is to support and follow someone like a politician or pundit who can articulate what they are feeling better than they themselves can.
The most hard-core of President Trump’s supporters are an obvious example of the new political acolytes. Pew Research ran some numbers, and among verified Trump voters from the 2016 election, the “Enthusiasts” mostly have held steady while the “converts” have grown in warm feelings for the president. At the same time, the “skeptics” saw their support spike with the election and decline ever since. Now how many of those first two fall into the “5th avenue” level of support is unknown (5th avenue support meaning those that then-candidate Trump referred to as supporters who would still vote for him even if he shot someone in the middle of 5th avenue.) But whatever the number, they certainly fall under our concept of acolyte, serving and assisting in the worship and the cause, more than being their own individual. Attributing traditional labels, even those that prior to Trump would have been accurate descriptors, no longer apply as understood. Their loyalty, commitment, and allegiance to President Trump overrides all other consideration. Appropriately, the group with the rising number is deemed “converts” by Pew, another word like acolyte that finds its origins in describing religious devotion.
So, too, can be the opponents of the president. While many have strong, thought-out convictions about the president, there are the factions that would oppose him no matter what. Even if President Trump was a morally upstanding man with unimpeachable personal qualities there would still be some devoted to the #resist! who would march, protest, and decry with barely any discernible difference than now. The fact that he is not such a person only fuels this dissent, pouring gasoline onto an already burning fire, often with the President himself holding the can and gleefully enjoying the conflagration. Not that his opponents mind, since they can themselves then go to their followers and howl over the dastardly evils of stoking the fire. Keeping the acolytes on task is accomplished by utilizing engagement by enragement, and practitioners know the right buttons to push to engage the faithful.
But it is not just politicians. The rise of “new media” means a rise in the celebrity pundit. The most ardent of these pundits fans are nearly as cult-like as those of the politicians the pundits are covering. Much like the “stans” have infested the fandom of music, movie, and pop culture icons, pundit acolytes spread across social media and immediately ban together to shout down, attack, and defend their avatar’s latest hot take. The acolyte cares not for the substance of the argument, but only that their revered leader is making it, and thus it must be the infallible word of truth.
These types of folks endlessly demand to be debated, but they never really debate, just regurgitate; they are just proselytizing and evangelizing. The former is something that really excites the acolyte; the idea of turning a convert from the darkness of the other side being among their most salivated-over goals. This not only proves the wrongness of the convert’s old argument but the superior nature of the one that converted them. The latter is a function of necessity and vanity, as to the acolyte it is puzzling why anyone would think differently than they themselves do. And their movement and it’s leaders never have enough, always seeking more like-minded elected, more followers, more everything to accomplish their goals. If a political party had 99 Senate seats and 434 House seats, they would relentlessly campaign against those wicked holdouts that refused to bend the knee to the one true party.
The acolytes also tend to distort the overall picture. Because they are the loudest and most fervent of defenders, it leaves the impression that more people are like them than is reality. Political belief is a wide spectrum with endless points between to the hard extremes of left and right, with people increasingly falling at various points along that spectrum, depending on the world surrounding them. The old labels do not fit as neatly as they once did, as people focus on certain issues and ignore others, with each having influences on their lives and affected ideological outlook.
These nuances are not abnormal; they are the majority of people who hold complex viewpoints on many issues. The acolytes’ visibility gives the opposing side the false impression that all who are there are among the most die-hard of supporters. Like observing worshipers leaving a service, you mostly see those that conducted the service, the leaders being prominent, but the congregants are a mass of people blending together. In the exiting throng it is impossible to read the hearts and minds, so easier to assume the acolytes are indicative of the masses. With such blinders they do not see the skeptics, the well-reasoned believers, the well-intentioned, the honestly mistaken, the confused, the ones struggling to find truth; they lump all together with the mindless drones of the acolytes and assume the worse of the opposing side.
The honest among us should not get caught up in the comings and goings of the acolytes. They are not good faith adversaries that can be reasoned with, or an accurate representation of a side, and they certainly are not a majority. They are the smallest and most dedicated of partisan factions and should be treated as such. We should never confuse their keeping of dogma and ritual as reasoned positions. The noise and smoke of their devoted worship to their cause or leader should be kept in perspective. Their path, as the original meaning that we derive acolyte from, is a temporary one that will soon enough require a new object of their devotion. When that happens they will completely reinvent and mold themselves to this new, greater truth they have found. All the more reason for us to never adjust ourselves, our principles, and our pursuit of the truth to them in the first place.