What, Then, Am I Doing?

Many years ago, I began to notice something peculiar about American politics that seemed to differentiate it from the politics of my parents’ generation (I suspect but cannot prove that this dates from the Seventies). Though partisanship involved commitment to beliefs and moral preferences to a degree, it was understood that partisanship was also about the furtherance of interests by alleging that those interests to some degree coincided with the interests of the community as a whole. It was also understood that partisanship was something of a spectator sport. If you wanted to feel like a member of your community, however, there was, for most of us, some community to feel a member of. Oftentimes, this community was based on religion. But in the meantime, something changed.

I began to notice that for many people, partisanship no longer seemed a matter of rooting for the home team, or furthering one’s economic or regional interests, but that the party had become a substitute for community itself. The party had become one’s church, one’s nation.

Consider the following quote: “Well, I don’t know if we’re checkmating. But we’re trying — we’re trying to score a victory for the Republican people, for — for the American — for the Republican people — trying to score a victory for the American people, not for the Republican Party,” – Mike Pence. One could make too much of this, of course, but whatever the cause of Mr. Pence’s linguistic confusion, it might illustrate one version of what I’m talking about. And please note: I am not criticizing Mr. Pence for apparently regarding Democrats as not Real Americans. That’s the treason canard, which has its own interesting history. Rather, I’m suggesting that it has become natural for Mr. Pence to think of the Republican Party as his nation.

The metaphor I prefer, however, is a church, because churches have doctrines. I think that people now participate in politics, whether actively or passively, because these are communities based on models of reality and moral narratives that make those within the fold saved, doing the Lord’s Work, and those without, the damned. Reassurance about the correctness of these commitments then flows from community participation. Now I would have no objection to any of this, were it not for the fact that these religious communities of Left and Right don’t simply want to gather weekly and sing songs, but want to control the State and dictate policy.

Since I do not know who is reading this, I cannot address your own experiences and assumptions head-on. All I can say is that the religious character of a community is quite obvious to its non-members, and that both sides have become quite adept at portraying the cult-like character of its partisan opponents. But the moment of epiphany in which one realizes that one is precisely the same as the Other, seems to have largely not occurred to anyone. This is because awareness of the cult-like character of the opponent arises most naturally out of one’s experience of the other as ludicrously remote from factual reality. Of course we are not simply in the Immediate Presence of a Revelation about the Nature of Factual Reality. We are in the presence of our beliefs about it, arrived at by following the epistemic norms and cognitive assumptions of the community in which we find ourselves.

I know what you’re thinking. This is some sort of postmodern relativism coming, right? Wrong. I assume that there is some sort of reality out there which we represent. Some of it we are extraordinarily good at representing. But very complex, uncontrollable systems are very difficult to understand, and human social life is perhaps the hardest thing to understand of all. This means that in this area our beliefs will always outstrip our evidence enough to prevent the truth from being obvious. And if the truth isn’t obvious, there will be a plurality of beliefs… just as there are a plurality of churches.

There was a time, I’m ashamed to say, when Western societies thought it was perfectly reasonable to kill or imprison people because they had the manifestly wrong religious beliefs. We no longer do this. I would like to think that the reason why is because the wise words of Locke and others have so penetrated our consciousness that they have become second nature to us. Yes, some of us may be in possession of the religious truth. All of us think that that is ourselves. We can’t all be right about that, and no one seems to have found a way to settle these disputes, so the sensible (and peaceful) course is to recognize our epistemic limitations and endure our misguided fellows despite disagreements on matters we care passionately about.

Yet precisely this attitude is almost completely lacking when we change the subject from religion to political philosophy. I assume that this is because political philosophy involves reasoning and argument, and so it is far more tempting to think that one’s conclusions come from the Voice of Reason Herself. We are less suspicious here, now, than we are about mere claims to infallible revelation. But speaking as a philosopher among philosophers myself, I can tell you that very little ever gets settled to the complete satisfaction of the philosophical community, despite the prolonged efforts of hundreds of highly trained minds working for decades. I’d be quite surprised if our political ideologues are better at solving these problems than Rawls or Nozick (though of course they have their own important communication and leadership skills, which are not to be sniffed at).

The tendency to think that one’s political philosophy is simply, obviously correct has many of the same causes as religious commitment. The dangers, for a democracy, of citizens animated by a near-religious fervor when pursuing political goals puts me in mind of the religious wars that ripped Europe apart during the 17th century. The cure is humility born of awareness of one’s probable ignorance of that which is exceedingly difficult to know, recognition of the possibility that one’s opponents may have stumbled on to the truth, and a willingness to regard all as acting and believing in good faith until proven otherwise. In a word, toleration.

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One comment on “What, Then, Am I Doing?

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    Perhaps the first hint actually showed up in the 1964 campaign when certain folks claimed that Sen. Goldwater was not merely hopelessly wrong but perhaps mentally ill. This shifts the debate rather dramatically (a la the old Soviet approach). The Nixon campaign in 1972 did not go quite as far, but it went pretty far.
    Moreover, and sadly, it is effective. Debating the details of VA benefits of Social Security taxes is complicated and detailed, but if I can convince folks, ex ante, that the other side is evil, the lizard part of their brain will kick in and guarantee that they cannot even understand the other side position, because it is no longer about issues, it is about whether fight, flight, or freeze is the appropriate response. None of those responses supports rational discourse, but I may not want that in any event.

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