Sometimes, small stories can tell us big things. Last week, I had a telling conversation with a young Evangelical mom of three. I was a customer at her workplace, and we were making all the normal small talk. She asked about my kids, where they went to school, and if I was sad to see my youngest go to college. Then she asked what I did. I told her that I write for a conservative political magazine.
She gave me the strangest look, then fell silent. After a moment she asked, “What do you write about?”
Before I could finish my answer, her eyes welled up with tears. “You feel okay criticizing Trump? The people I work with love him, and they’re so mean about it. No one can say one thing critical. Not one thing. They’ll get angry and yell. It’s terrible.”
Yes, it’s just one story — from one young mom who lives in the heart of Trump country. But it’s indicative of our age. Our political culture is losing any sense of proportion. Political rage is transcending basic human decency, any semblance of tolerance, and even faith itself. It’s a general truth in politics and culture that a nation is defined by those who care the most, and increasingly, those who care the most have lost their moorings. There is a malicious spirit loose in the land.
Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, a sharp thinker not prone to hyperbole, wrote yesterday decrying the rise of online mobs and Internet shaming. The goal of the mob isn’t to rebut bad arguments but to destroy careers and permanently ruin reputations. She said this:
I find myself in more and more conversations that sound as if we’re living in one of the later-stage Communist regimes. Not the ones that shot people, but the ones that discovered you didn’t need to shoot dissidents, as long as you could make them pariahs — no job, no apartment, no one willing to be seen talking to them in public.
Does this sound overwrought? Well, consider that a major American corporation just launched an investigation into a private conversation between two of its employees because a left-wing Hollywood star was offended by their opinions about transgenderism. Consider the fact that even the most innocuous expressions of dissent from hard-left identity politics have triggered violence and threats of violence on campus. There are reasons why conservative professors have called me from their office, closed the door, and shared their true opinions only in whispers. They knew their lives would be turned upside down if the wrong ears were listening.
But we on the right are wrong and smug to think that only the Left is losing its sense of proportion or perspective. From the Bully Pulpit of the White House to the tiny pulpits of personal social media, amoral angry populists lash out with a degree of fury and rage that I’ve never seen in my adult life. The goals are similar, to “destroy” careers or to wage “war” on opponents, and it’s not just pundits fighting pundits or politicians fighting politicians. It’s neighbors versus neighbors.
We on the right are wrong and smug to think that only the Left is losing its sense of proportion.
The young mom I met last week wasn’t a Never Trump pundit. She was a Christian who had concerns with Trump’s morality. Yet she didn’t feel free to share her opinion with her colleagues. I’ve seen shouting matches at social gatherings and social-media flame wars between old friends. And often the goal isn’t so much to win the argument as it is to hurt the other person, to deter them from ever speaking about politics again.
Our political system is remarkably stable. It’s built to last through incompetent presidents and rudderless Congresses. The Founders erected safeguard after safeguard to prevent any one election or any one movement from toppling our constitutional republic. But I fear that our culture is less durable than our Constitution.
Indeed, our culture has failed our Constitution before, most recently through the malice and groupthink of the Jim Crow South. An entire region built a system from the ground up that stood in direct defiance of not just our nation’s Founding documents but also of the Civil War–era constitutional amendments that were designed to remake the land.
Our contemporary culture hasn’t yet failed to that terrible extent, but malice leads a nation down dark paths, and our increasing geographic separation into warring ideological bubbles creates fertile ground for extremism. In other words, the law of group polarization applies. I’ve written about this concept before, but it can’t be emphasized enough. Essentially, the law holds that “in a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” Put more simply, when like-minded people gather, their views tend to grow more extreme. Absent moderating forces, they reinforce and amplify shared views.
There are those who will read the story that started this piece and sneer. They’ll call that mom a “snowflake” and say that it’s her own fault if she can’t withstand disagreement. In other words, get tough or shut up. But there’s a difference between debate and insults, between reason and malice. Our nation thrives in the midst of disagreement. It withers, however, in the face of unrelenting cruelty, and I fear that for now, cruelty is winning the day.
– David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.