In his column earlier this week, David Brooks, citing a variety of studies, wrote that “people’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.”
According to Brooks, as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being “hyper-moralized” (meaning people are judgmental about policy labels); more people are building their communal and social identities around political labels; and politics is becoming a marker for basic decency. “Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country,” he writes. Political issues have become symbols of worth and dignity.
There are of course cases when politics does reveal a corrupted character (e.g., a person who is a member of a neo-Nazi movement). But as a general matter, the points Brooks is making are quite right and, given the state of our politics, quite important. To state the obvious: We all know there are people who hold very different political views than we do who are admirable and honorable individuals, just as there are people who share our philosophy and are disreputable. In the vast majority of cases, one’s political affiliation says nothing about one’s personal character.
Beyond that, politics should have a rather limited role in our lives. To be sure, politics is important; it can create (or destroy) the conditions that allow for human flourishing. Yet for most people, most of life is–and the most important things in life are–lived outside of the arena of politics. And we shouldn’t overinflate its significance or exaggerate what it tells us about each other. Should I think less of the character of the coach of my son’s soccer team, or my daughter’s piano teacher, or the couple in my Bible Study, or the person who volunteers at a homeless shelter because of their views on climate change or the Affordable Care Act? On whether or not they want to raise or lower corporate tax rates? On whether they think illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship?
The answer for some people is yes. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine argues that those who hold political views contrary to his “live in a different moral universe” than he does and he therefore believes “their political views reflect something unflattering about their character.” This attitude shapes how he and others like him approach political debate. Why should we treat those on the wrong side of, say, the minimum wage with anything except disdain and contempt? People who hold this view of politics eventually feel justified in declaring their hatred for those with whom they disagree.
It’s important to acknowledge that many of us wrestle with a less acrimonious version of this. I’ve experienced situations over the years in which political differences have caused tensions even with friends that have required repair work and resetting things. The more deeply you feel about a subject the more inclined you are to view those disagreements as rooted in differing views of justice and morality. That’s understandable. If you have strong pro-life convictions and you encounter someone who celebrates abortion as a social and moral good, it’s likely that you’ll draw conclusions about that person that reflect, at least initially and at least in part, on their character. But in terms of what we should aspire to–between trying to check the (natural) impulse to view our political opponents as enemies v. encouraging it–it’s worth considering the example of Lincoln, who governed a nation far more divided than we are today.
“This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South,” Lord Charnwood wrote in his marvelous biography of Lincoln. “It was not men but slavery he hated,” is how the essayist Joseph Epstein put it. “Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”
One final thought. Brooks writes, “Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity.”
This is among the harder things for us to come to grips with, which is that at best we see partial truths; that while we believe truth exists, our ability to fully perceive truth is limited. People who accept this tend to be relatively less dogmatic and abrasive, relatively more empirical, the ones most open to other points of view and corrections. “We need to make room for other perspectives,” a wise friend recently told me. “We need to make room for others at the table.”
That doesn’t mean that the perspectives of others are always right or even valuable. Not everyone’s opinion is worth hearing. And some personalities fit better at the table than do others. The point from the conversation, at least as I took it, is that one way to avoid “epistemic closure” is by considering, at least now and then, different angles of vision, different ways of seeing things. It means from time to time assuming the person you’re politically at odds with is a decent person and then trying to understand why he holds the views he does, even if you reject them. It requires taking into account the strongest (not the weakest) arguments against our assumptions and the self-confidence to change if needed. The goal, after all, isn’t to win a debate; it’s to more closely align our views to the truth of things.
Should Politics Be a Proxy for Character?
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Maybe it's not everyone else's problem.
For months, Democrats have resisted the notion that they were the problem. Despite a series of historic losses resulting in the party’s worst position in nearly a century, Democrats convinced themselves that their philosophy was shared by a majority of the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, after all. The left dominates popular culture. An electorate made up of minorities and single women and the Democratic dominance it will yield is just over the horizon. These myths sustained Democrats through the darkest early days of the Trump era, but they’ve since lost their luster. The party’s failure in Georgia on Tuesday has had a dramatic psychological effect. Democrats have been humbled. Now, finally, the party’s notables are starting to realize that it is them—not the country nor its voters—who have to change.
“Our brand is worse than Trump,” Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan told the New York Times. This contrarian Democrat from a Trump district mounted a quixotic effort to remove Nancy Pelosi from leadership late last year, but his crusade is receiving new converts. “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” said Texas Democrat Rep. Filemon Vela, on the record, despite having supported Pelosi against Ryan. “Nancy Pelosi has been an effective bogeyman for Republicans for decades, and it just seems like it’s time for her to go,” an unnamed Hillary Clinton staffer told the New York Post. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics chief Larry Sabato told the Post he had heard from at least two “senior Democrats” telling him they want Pelosi out.
Democrats who cannot convince themselves to turn on the party’s House leader are, however, persuaded that they need to make some adjustments. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes both told the Times that Democrats need a comprehensive and specific agenda for creating jobs. After spending the last 18 months claiming, not inaccurately, that the American economy had finally recovered from the 2008 recession and with the national unemployment rate at just 4.3 percent, this will prove a discordant message. Still, it’s clear that Democrats are resolved now to do something, even if they’re not quite sure what that something is.
Even the liberal intelligentsia is coming around. Writing in The Atlantic, the liberal columnist Peter Beinart admirably conceded that a demonstrably false notion once seduced him and his fellow liberals: the idea Republicans grew more partisan over the Obama years while Democrats did not. Focusing specifically on immigration, he demonstrated how Democrats lost touch with the country on the issue, began to resent the pressures on immigrants to assimilate as a form of chauvinism, and lost touch with the American public.
Other liberals have criticized the modern left for elevating identity politics to almost religious significance. Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla called for a post-identity liberalism last November only to be attacked by the faithful for “whitesplaining” and “making white supremacy respectable again.” Republicans were genuinely nervous when the Democratic Party put former Tennessee Governor Steve Beshear—a white, Southern septuagenarian with a drawl—up against Donald Trump following the president’s February address to Congress. Talking communitarianism before a handful of virtually monochromatic Americans in a greasy spoon diner represented a real threat to the GOP in the age of Trump, but not more so than it did to the identity-obsessed left. Liberal elites on the coasts laughed Beshear out of the room, and the GOP dodged a bullet.
It is revealing that this process of reflection was inspired by a novice candidate’s loss in an overhyped special election in a GOP district. The commitment to self-delusion Democrats displayed over the eight months between the 2016 election and Georgia’s 6th District House race is a marvel that cannot be overstated. Normally, when a party loses a presidential race to a supremely unqualified and unpopular alternative, they’d engage in some soul searching. But they didn’t. Perhaps because to do so would be to examine how Barack Obama causally presided over the utter devastation of their party at almost every level.
Obama entered office with his party in control of 62 of 99 state legislative chambers. When he left office in January 2017, Republicans controlled over two-thirds of America’s legislative chambers. The GOP has veto-proof majorities in 17 states compared to the Democrats’ 3. In 2009, Democrats had 31 governorships. Today, the GOP has 33. In 25 states, Republicans have total control of every lever of government, and, in three more states, the GOP can override the Democratic governor’s veto. At the federal level, Democrats lost a net total of 61 seats in the House of Representatives over the course of eight years and ten seats in the Senate. The Obama years saw a generation of up and coming Democratic lawmakers wiped out.
These facts need restating because Democrats have been so loath to internalize them. Perhaps because Obama remained popular with the public or because he was such a towering cultural figure, Democrats perceived liberalism to be the nation’s governing ethos even standing amid the rubble of the president’s legacy.
Maybe the introspective left will turn a critical eye toward Obama amid this long-delayed display of humility. It is remarkable that it took a party as thoroughly routed as Democrats this long to even entertain the possibility that it isn’t everyone else’s problem. After all, that’s the first step toward recovery.
From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
When Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Hair immolation isn't a strategy.
The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.
Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.
The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.
Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”
Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?
Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.
Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.
Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.