In my previous essay, I examined our current political crisis through the lens of civic virtue. At present one of our two major political parties is actively threatening the future of constitutional democracy, while the other party is unable to rally public opinion sufficiently to quash that threat. The conventional approach to understanding this predicament is through concepts taken from social science – in particular, polarization and negative partisanship. But there is an older way of framing the problem, one that dates back to ancient times and runs through the whole republican political tradition. A longstanding element of that tradition holds that self-government can remain functional and stable only as long as citizens and their leaders maintain a certain level of public-spirited civic virtue. And indeed, that thesis does much to illuminate the troubled state of our democracy today.
In particular, I argued in the prior essay that the deepening dysfunction of our politics in recent decades reflects the increasing abandonment of one cardinal virtue of a self-governing people: the commitment to see all our fellow citizens, regardless of their political views, as our civic and political equals. Practicing this virtue means that we should always treat our political opponents with respect. They are as American as we are. They have the same right to vote that we do. Which means, in turn, that we have to expect to sometimes lose elections and for our side to sometimes be out of power. We must understand that our opponents are not our enemies; they may be our rivals in deciding a particular question today, but they are also our potential allies in deciding a different question tomorrow.
The abandonment of this virtue has been far more egregious and dangerous on the right, with its embrace of politics as warfare and win-at-all-costs extremism. But the left is not without blemish, and the contempt that it regularly rains down on its opponents has contributed to the growing rancor and divisiveness – and, indeed, to the rise of the anti-democratic right.
As I pointed out in the prior essay, the moral guidance provided by what I’ve called the Prime Directive of civic virtue is negative in character. It sets limits on how we pursue our political ends: Don’t insult people you disagree with politically, don’t treat them as the enemy, don’t interfere with their right to vote or refuse to abide by elections when they win. In this essay, I will discuss two additional civic virtues – two rules that offer affirmative guidance on how to participate in political life in a healthy and constructive manner. Both rules, if practiced more widely, would do much to improve our politics overall – and, more specifically, would make it easier for all sides to obey the Prime Directive. To gain the respect of our political opponents, it helps to act respectably.
With those preliminaries out of the way, let me turn to my second proposed rule of civic virtue:
Rule Two: Emphasize doing good over feeling good.
Politics is serious business with high stakes: war or peace, measures that save lives or lose lives, laws that put people in prison or set them free, policies that enrich some industries while bankrupting others. Yet the connection between any one individual’s decisions and actions and those weighty political outcomes is generally remote and obscure, and the impact – even assuming it could be identified and measured – minuscule to the point of insignificance. In this yawning gap between collective ends and individual means lies no end of mischief.
Political scientist Eitan Hersh, author of the recent book Politics Is for Power, puts his finger on one aspect of the problem: the rise of “political hobbyism.” He’s referring to the large and growing number of Americans – mostly white and college-educated – who treat politics as a consumption good. They spend hours binge-watching Fox News or MSNBC, doomscrolling on Twitter, or arguing with friends on Facebook. “These people are political hobbyists,” Hersh writes in The Atlantic. “What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”
Politics, Hersh reminds us, isn’t a spectator sport: True engagement in politics involves “the methodical pursuit of power to influence how the government operates.” It’s about meeting, and organizing, and fundraising, and making your case, and getting your message out, and building coalitions. Political hobbyists may think of themselves as model citizens because politics bulks so large in their media consumption habits, but all those hours in front of screens contribute almost nothing to the common weal. Indeed, as Hersh argues, “political hobbyism is worse than just a waste of time.” It “incentivizes politicians to behave badly,” as “we reward them with attention and money for any red meat they throw at us.” And it “cultivates skills and attitudes that are counterproductive”; “rather than practicing patience and empathy” in face-to-face engagement, “hobbyists cultivate outrage and seek instant gratification.”
The problem with political hobbyism, then, is that it prizes feeling good about yourself (“I am a deeply informed observer of the national scene with all the right opinions,” plus “dunking on someone on Twitter and watching it go viral give me an incredible adrenaline rush”) over actually doing good in the world. But those misplaced priorities don’t simply misdirect how we spend our time; they also cloud our understanding and undermine our ability to recognize what effective political action even looks like.
Highly illuminating here is the concept of “expressive rationality,” emphasized in the work of Yale Law professor Dan Kahan on “cultural cognition.” As Hersh shows how political engagement can go awry when it is seen as consumption rather than hard, necessary work, Kahan explores the perils of treating politics as a vehicle for self-expression rather than an instrumental activity for influencing government action. The jumping-off point for Kahan’s work is the failure of facts and logic to persuade partisans to alter their views: In one famous experiment, exposing subjects to mixed evidence about the effects of capital punishment led not to any convergence in views but to further entrenchment of previous positions.
Resistance to disconfirming evidence, however strong, and ready acceptance of confirming evidence, however shaky, are frequently chalked up to cognitive biases and the limits of human rationality. Kahan, however, sees the problem not as insufficient rationality but rather too much of the wrong sort. Specifically, expressive rationality, or “identity-protective cognition,” is “the style of reasoning for rationally engaging information that is relevant to identity-expressive beliefs, particularly when that information has no other real relevance to an individual’s life” (emphasis added). As Kahan explains:
Nothing an ordinary member of the public does as consumer, as voter, or participant in public discourse will have any effect on the risk that climate change poses to her or anyone else. Same for gun control, fracking, and nuclear waste disposal: her actions just don’t matter enough to influence collective behavior or policymaking. But given what positions on these issues signify about the sort of person she is, adopting a mistaken stance on one of these in her everyday interactions with other ordinary people could expose her to devastating consequences, both material and psychic. It is perfectly rational under these circumstances to process information in a manner that promotes formation of the beliefs on these issues that express her group allegiances, and to bring all her cognitive resources to bear in doing so.
Here again, as noted in the italicized portion of the first quotation from Kahan above, the source of the problem lies in the contrast between the enormous collaborative effort needed to effect political change and the puniness of any one individual’s contributions. Under those circumstances, it’s easy for more proximate goals within one’s own control – like being a good member of a political team and enjoying the rewards of in-group approval – to win out over disinterested truth-seeking.
We’ve just seen this dynamic play out with Trump supporters to disastrous effect. Despite seeing conspiracy theories about election fraud shot down repeatedly by Republican state election officials and Republican-appointed judges, the vast majority of Republican voters chose to believe a president who had previously charged Ted Cruz with stealing the Iowa caucuses and his dad with a role in JFK’s assassination. Some even believed him to the point that they were willing to kill and die to storm Congress and stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. All the rest, though, were merely spectators – and consequently, the deck was stacked as to where their rooting interests would lie. Since their beliefs one way or the other would have no influence over who got inaugurated on January 20, while refusing to side with Trump would alienate them from family and friends and open up uncomfortable questions about all the other lies they had readily swallowed over the past four years, Republican voters’ credulity may be shocking and depressing – but it’s no mystery.
Of course motivated reasoning is not restricted to the right. More than half of Democrats polled in 2006 said they believed that government officials were either involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or knew about them in advance and did nothing to stop them. And 66 percent of Democrats told pollsters in 2018 that Russia changed actual vote tallies in the 2016 election to swing the contest to Trump. Meanwhile, bending reality to fit your political priors isn’t something you only see among less informed, rank-and-file voters. Recall the spectacle last year of public health experts who condemned right-wing anti-lockdown rallies for helping to spread COVID-19 while giving a pass to Black Lives Matter protests.
Given its potency in distorting our thinking, it shouldn’t be surprising that expressive rationality is also highly effective in steering our actions down blind alleys. While ordinary instrumental rationality in politics focuses on achieving outcomes – influencing government action in this or that direction – expressive rationality focuses on taking stands. So long as you subscribe to the appropriate views and defend them with sufficient vigor, you can rest safe as a member in good standing of your chosen political tribe. Assuming any responsibility for actually moving public policy into closer accord with those appropriate views isn’t necessary; on the contrary, doing so can actually be hazardous to the effective maintenance of your tribal identity. After all, effecting real policy change requires sustained, constructive encounters with people who disagree with you – searching for common ground and building consensus around it, understanding and relating to where the other side is coming from and then making judicious compromises in pursuit of half a loaf. Do any of that long enough and you can be sure that true believers on your side will start calling you out as a turncoat.
Obsession with ideological purity tests has long characterized groups with views well outside the current mainstream. I certainly saw plenty of it during my years in the libertarian movement. Put a bunch of libertarians in a room together and get them to talking, and the odds are good that you’ll end up with a “who’s the most libertarian?” contest in which participants are challenged to bite various bullets to demonstrate how hardcore they are. Frustrated by this kind of empty posturing, I recall coming up with the concept of a “futilitarian” – inspired, I believe, by then-Rep. Ron Paul’s opposition to all trade agreements while calling himself an uncompromising free trader. A futilitarian, I said, was someone who steadfastly supports individual liberty in all circumstances – except those in which it might actually gain ground in the real world.
The same kind of thing has long been a familiar feature of the far left. In a blog post from a few years ago, the leftist writer Freddie deBoer commented on the “Iron Law of Institutions” originated by progressive blogger Jon Schwartz: “The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself.” What Schwartz had primarily in mind was how political party bosses will protect their position and power against reformist insurgencies even at the cost of the party’s electoral prospects – recall, for example, how the Democratic Party establishment worked to undercut the McGovern candidacy. But deBoer argues that the law operates in the opposite direction as well: not cynical insiders subverting idealistic true believers, but true believers dragging down those focused on trying to get something done in the real world. “If you think of the radical left as an institution,” he writes, “made up of a set of social and discursive communities that are loosely affiliated with various left-wing organizations, you can see that the radical left is if anything even more captured by the Iron Law, and to even more destructive effect.” Specifically, deBoer notes the far left’s hostility to the rhetoric of freedom, its turn away from freedom of speech, its uncritical support for campus activism no matter how inane, and its embrace of antifa’s violent tactics – all of which allow ideologues to luxuriate in an endorphin bath of self-righteousness while their ideals move not an inch closer to realization.
The temptations of expressive rationality so regularly bedevil radical political movements precisely because of their distance from the political center. The more alienated you feel from your fellow citizens because of the great differences between their beliefs and values and your own, the more treacherous it feels to seek some accommodation with them – the more any move to split the difference with them feels like selling out and losing your soul.
Recent decades have witnessed the rise of political polarization – and, in particular, negative polarization, in which partisans’ strongest motivations are not love of their own side but hatred of the other. As a result, despite a great deal of overlap on substantive policy views, Americans of Team Red and Team Blue now see themselves increasingly far apart and irreconcilable – not as friendly rivals, but as bitter enemies and existential threats. This abandonment of the Prime Directive has brought the fractious dysfunction stoked by expressive rationality from the radical fringe to the heart of the American mainstream.
On the right, the triumph of the performative over the practical has been almost total. During the Trump years, Republicans forsook one long-held substantive commitment after another: the importance of character in leaders, the rule of law, American leadership of international alliances, strength in the face of autocratic adversaries, openness to trade, fiscal responsibility, and on and on. Besides cutting taxes for the rich, it would seem that conservatism at present stands for little more than “owning the libs” and reflexively opposing anything that Democrats favor. In 2020, the Republican Party couldn’t even be bothered to issue a party platform for the election.
The Democratic Party remains much more closely tethered to reality because of the strong interest of important constituencies in concrete government actions to uphold rights and deliver vital services. But extremism on one side of the political spectrum almost invariably encourages extremism on the other, and the contemporary United States is no exception. In recent years, ideological zeal on the left has been surging in energy, visibility, and influence – and dangerously fraying the Democrats’ tether in the process.
We saw during the 2020 Democratic primary how pressure from progressive activists led many candidates to associate themselves with a host of fashionable-on-Twitter-but-massively-unpopular left-wing causes: Medicare for All, reparations for slavery, decriminalization of undocumented immigration, health care coverage for undocumented immigrants, expansion of the Supreme Court, voting rights for prison inmates, and so on. Although it was a close-run affair, to the country’s great fortune the nomination went to Joe Biden, a candidate singularly uninterested in courting the loud but tiny constituency in the woke lane. But then over the summer, after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests generated enormous energy for taking on the serious problems of police violence, activists addicted to taking stands over making progress succeeded in diverting considerable amounts of that energy into pointless and alienating distractions – namely, “defund the police” and defending rioting and looting as valid forms of protest.
Although Biden won the popular vote handily, his margin of victory in the states decisive for the Electoral College was razor-thin – even smaller than Trump’s in 2016. Had Trump won, American constitutional democracy – and with it any hopes for an America more in line with progressive values and aspirations – may well have perished. Yet even faced with this existential imperative for an unrelenting instrumental focus on retaking the White House, significant elements of the Democratic Party found irresistible temptation in putting ideological purity tests over electoral considerations.
So how do we push back against empty hobbyism and performative self-indulgence? How do we resist the Iron Law of Institutions, so that we care more about the collective achievement of group goals than our individual status within the group? How, in other words, can we make sure we’re prioritizing doing good over feeling good?
To whatever extent you’re involved in politics, here are three questions you can ask yourself about what you’re doing and why.
1. Are your political views focused on concrete goals for influencing government action?
At issue here is whether you have a specific, affirmative vision for how political actions can influence government action in a positive way. It’s a flashing red warning sign if your most vivid and strongly held political beliefs are about how terrible something is – whether it’s socialism or identity politics if you’re on the right, or white supremacy or late capitalism if you’re on the left. If you don’t have clear ideas about how new government actions can improve things, or how preserving existing government actions can avoid harm, you don’t have real-world political goals that instrumental rationality can guide you toward. Consequently, your political involvement is necessarily performative: If there’s no tangible good out in the world that you’re in favor of doing, then it follows the only goods you’re actually pursuing are internal ones of identity and within-group status.
2. Do you have a plan of action – that is, a clear idea of what has to happen in order for those goals to be realized?
To be focused on doing good, it’s not enough to have clear goals in mind. In addition, you have to have some idea about how to accomplish them. Knowing your destination is a good start, but you also need a road map. If you haven’t worked out in your mind how to go about influencing government action to make the world a better place, or prevent it from becoming a worse place, you’re just spinning your wheels. That may give you the feel-good illusion of purposeful motion, but you’re not actually going anywhere.
It follows that your chances of actually doing good are a function of the distance between your goals and current political reality. That is, you are much more likely to stay focused on your goals if they are modest and proximate – if they relate to preserving the status quo or making incremental changes that already enjoy strong support from the policymaking elite and/or the general public. This isn’t to argue against having bold, sweeping goals based on currently unfamiliar and unpopular ideas: The world needs visionaries, not just tinkerers. But the fact remains that with bigger ambitions come bigger risks. First, the farther your destination is from the status quo, the less confident you should be that pursuing this destination is actually a good idea. Furthermore, when the destination lies well over the horizon and you have no sense of getting any closer to it over time, the temptation grows to stop thinking about how to get there and start concentrating on enjoying the friends (and enemies) you make along the way.
3. Are your actions aligned with your goals and your plans?
This question serves first of all to let you know if you’re a political hobbyist. Of course it’s a good thing for citizens to keep abreast of public affairs, but the overwhelming bulk of politics coverage on TV, radio, and the internet isn’t aimed at creating informed citizens. Rather, it’s aimed at making money by pandering to the audience’s preexisting biases and stoking outrage and self-righteous indignation. So if your main involvement with politics is consuming lots of media content and you’re not extremely discriminating about the sources you rely on, you’re not doing good in the world. On the contrary, you’re rotting your brain and funneling money and power to the brain rotters.
If you’re not just consuming politics but actually involved in real-world political activity, this question helps you judge the integrity of your actions – that is, the nexus between your chosen means and your stated goals. As a follow-up, ask yourself which is the more likely effect of your actions: persuading people who aren’t currently on your side to agree with you, or confirming with people who already agree with you how right they are and how benighted those on the other side are? Now, there is an important role in politics for mobilizing and energizing an existing coalition, so actions with the latter effect are sometimes genuinely productive. But if you’re spending virtually all your time on preaching to the choir, there’s a good chance you’ve succumbed to the performative temptation.
Let me now turn to the final rule of civic virtue that I believe can help us to repair our broken politics:
Rule Three: Make peace with the world before trying to change it.
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine back in 1776. It’s a thrilling, inspirational line – and it’s completely wrong. Whenever we act, whenever we try to put our small imprint on the world, we are always coming to the story in medias res. The world is always in the process of both dying and being born; we are always caught between Faulkner’s “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” and Gibson’s “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Living in this historical flux brings with it a pair of perennial truths. The world is always a mix of light and dark. Life is full of beauty, wonder, and joy if you know where to look; it is likewise full of cruelty, injustice, and suffering that sooner or later will know where to look for you. And the world is always changing. The good of today is fragile and can be lost; the evil of today is passing and can be defeated or outlasted. There are no final victories, no final defeats.
The spirit in which we choose to confront and endure and find our place in history’s kaleidoscope is perhaps the most elemental choice we face. The stunning contradictions and incessant churn of life are not easy to assimilate and make sense of, and failure to come to grips with them comes in two different forms: denial and despair. As to the former, we can maintain a false optimism and complacency by averting our gaze from the world’s dark side, cocooning in relative comforts and shallow chauvinism for as long as we are able. As to the latter, we can stare too long into the abyss and lose heart. We can lose it all at once, and seethe in anger and resentment over a broken, unfair world. Or we can lose it bit by bit, imagining again and again that “I will be happy if” or “things will be better if” one particular obstacle is overcome, only to be continually frustrated as the next obstacle presents itself. To make peace with the world is to avoid these false paths: to face and accept life’s anguish and turbulence while remaining open to and grateful for its blessings and joys.
These meditations apply far beyond politics – but they certainly apply there as well. Our current political crisis, I believe, owes much to the dark surrender to despair. American politics today, on both the left and right, is disfigured by anger and resentment and hatred. People on the left and people on the right took different paths to get to this point, but both paths are well trodden. And the result is a deepening loss of faith in our country, in each other, in a common past, and in a shared future.
Once again, the problem is qualitatively more serious on the right. A large chunk of the Republican electorate is now consumed with apocalyptic fury. It is hard to identify anything affirmative in its worldview, a tangled mess of demonization narratives about the other side and victimization narratives about its own. In the events of January 6, we saw how these toxic beliefs can erupt in the violent abnegation of everything conservatives were once thought to stand for: members of the party that once rallied the country against terrorism now completing the attack on the Capitol that the 9/11 hijackers could not accomplish; members of the party of law and order now beating and killing police officers with fire extinguishers and flag poles. Yet even when confronted with the shock of this scene, an alarmingly high number of Republican voters remain unfazed: In one recent poll, 21 percent of Republicans surveyed approved of the attack on the Capitol, while 43 percent described the attack as “patriotism” and 50 percent described it as “defending freedom.” When rage burns out of control, it takes everything good and decent with it. The only coherent impulse left is to strike out and destroy.
This moral collapse results from the failure to accept the realities and inevitability of social change. The right’s despair is the flip side of its denial: a false idealization of the past (back when America was still “great”) that makes the inevitable move away from that past look like a catastrophe. A genuine conservatism, by contrast, accepts the inevitability of change and takes to heart Tancredi’s advice in The Leopard: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”
On the progressive side, meanwhile, despair comes from idealizing the future. Compared to a fantasy world of perfect equality and social solidarity, the present and especially the past can seem hopelessly sordid. Too many people on the left, awake to the very real horrors of American history, are as a result unable to make peace with their own country as it exists today. Thus alienated, they are unable to build on the good things about America; instead, they content themselves with lashing out against the evils of today and the ghosts of the past. But however admirable your ideals, you cannot hate and denounce and tear down your way to a better world.
American history has light and dark sides, like all the rest of the larger world. In our story, the contrast between the two is especially stark: the enormities of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and ruthless aggression against American Indians on the one hand; and on the other, the pioneering development of representative democracy and mass-production capitalism, the two most powerful engines of human liberation in the modern age. Many on the social justice left, however, cannot see past the dark side. Take the lead essay in the 1619 Project, for example: It responds to the previous whitewashing of America’s racial crimes by making those crimes the center around which all of the country’s history has revolved.
But replacing one caricature with another is not the way forward. Progressives, whose commitment to the idea of social progress defines their worldview and political identity, must come to grips with what historical progress actually means. We all live in history, enmeshed in its inescapable web of genealogy and influence, with the strands of light and dark inseparably interwoven. Of necessity, all progress – all moves toward something lighter and higher – is an outgrowth of something darker and lower. If we are unable to recognize and celebrate progress that has already occurred because of its roots in a problematic past, we are effectively denying the possibility of progress in the future.
When we regard our complex, contradictory past, we must avoid the errors that the right and left, respectively, are prey to. Loving the past uncritically is wrong, but criticizing it unlovingly is no improvement. If we truly want to make a better America, we must first make peace with it as it is. We cannot hide from its ugliness, nor can we let that ugliness dim our gratitude for its blessings.
When we learn to accept that history is inescapable and change unstoppable, we will be able to see politics in a new light – one that is simultaneously more realistic and more hopeful. Specifically, we can reconceive our reasons for engaging in democratic politics. Instead of seeing ultimate success as final victory in a conflict where we’re right and they’re wrong, we can reimagine success as managing a relationship so that, on an ongoing basis, we and they are better off.
Shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, the columnist Megan McArdle wrote an insightful piece that compared America’s political divisions to a toxic marriage:
I ended up chatting with a divorce attorney, who observed that what we’re seeing in America right now bears a startling resemblance to what he sees happen with many of his clients. They’ve lost sight of what they ever liked about each other; in fact, they’ve even lost sight of their own self-interest. All they can see is their grievances, from annoying habits to serious wrongs. The other party, of course, generally has their own set of grievances. There is a sort of geometric progression of outrage, where whatever you do to the other side is justified by whatever they did last.
The metaphor is apt – and yet, as McArdle notes, there is one critical difference. “Unfortunately,” she observes, “there is no divorce court for nations, and our last trial separation ended in the deaths of about 2 percent of the population.”
As I noted toward the beginning of this pair of essays, all Americans share a special relationship with each other: the bonds of common citizenship. Unlike a marriage, but like family, this relationship is unchosen yet nonetheless real and important. We are stuck with each other, and if we fail to make this relationship work, we all lose. Indeed, maintaining relationships is the whole point of a liberal democracy. This side’s temporary victories and that side’s temporary victories are just zigs and zags in the larger project of people figuring out how to live with each other peacefully across their differences.
When a relationship is in trouble but you really want it to work, what do you do? You put aside the differences that are currently causing both of you pain, and you focus on the bonds you still share, the things that brought you together in the first place. If we want to repair our political relationships with our fellow citizens, we need to stress our common bonds – our love of country, our pride in the great achievements of Americans who have gone before us, and our hope for a future that is better for our children. And when we seek to change how government operates, we shouldn’t frame our agenda in terms of raising up the white hats and bringing low the black hats. Instead, we should explain how it’s a good idea by the lights of values we all share.
* * *
If the future of popular self-government hinged on universal observance of the rules of civic virtue I’ve set forth, then surely we’d all be doomed. Our political culture at present is a cesspool of vice, in no small part because our current media environment is doing everything in its power to summon the darker demons of our nature.
But it’s not all or nothing – in democracies, a majority can be good enough. We saw on November 3 that there is still a pro-democracy majority in America. And we saw on January 6 that the Constitution is still stronger than the mob. Furthermore, the current president of the United States is solidly committed to all three of the virtues I’ve discussed. He rejects completely the idea that his political opponents are the enemy. He is uninterested in ideological purity tests. And his message is one of unity and love of country. So now, in this dark hour, we have a leader who’s calling us back from the edge instead of urging us to leap.
The hour is late, but it’s not yet too late. I can’t say I’m truly optimistic about the future of American democracy, but there are solid grounds for hope. Each of us can do our part to heal our wounds and save our country, and every little bit helps. In the end, it’s up to us.