Politics & Policy

Righteous and Wrong

Anti-Trump protesters in Times Square, February 19, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Too many political arguments today can be boiled down to the idea that ‘the real problem is those people.’

In the Wall Street Journal this weekend, psychologist and professor Jonathan Haidt used a jarring phrase to describe the angry mob of protesters that shut down a speech by social scientist Charles Murray at Vermont’s Middlebury College. “On each campus,” he wrote, “there are some true believers who have reoriented their lives around the fight against evil.”

Haidt is a one-time gun-control-backing liberal deeply troubled by the atmosphere of intimidation spreading on American campuses. So his word choice is revealing: In a world of human traffickers, the Taliban, ISIS, drug cartels, and oppressive regimes, a small but significant number of students are convinced that distinguished conservative academics are the true incarnation of evil. How did young people, traditionally thought to be full of sunny idealism and determination to make the world a better place, come to provide the most prominent example of intolerant cultural fundamentalism in American society?

Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, makes an unexpected but logical argument that illuminates a great deal about modern politics: A strong sense of right and wrong, he says, can get in the way of problem-solving, particularly when cooperation and collective action are required:

If you’re an environmentalist, and you believe that one of the biggest tragedies of the last 100 years is people despoiling the environment, the minute you hear about an issue that kind of abuts the environment, whether it’s honeybee collapse or something having to do with air quality, your immediate moral position is, “Well, I know exactly what the cause of this is. It’s caused by people being stupid and careless and greedy” and so on.

Now that may be true, but it may also not be true. Our point is, if you try to approach every problem with your moral compass, first and foremost, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You’re going to exclude a lot of possible good solutions. You’re going to assume you know a lot of things, when in fact you don’t. You’re not going to be a good partner in reaching a solution with other people who don’t happen to see the world the way you do.

This is a key lesson learned in relationship therapy, workplace team-building exercises, and the like: “It’s not you against me; it’s you and me against the problem.” Unfortunately, too many on both sides of the aisle can’t internalize it.

Today’s Republicans and Democrats see completely different worlds with completely different problems. When discussing the threat of Islamist terror, conservatives and liberals can often seem to describe completely separate realities. The conservative sees a religion with a billion followers who actively condone or tacitly accept the horrific violence of the most intolerant among them, hiding behind empty platitudes like “Islam means peace” when called on their inaction. The liberal sees a history of Western aggression against the Muslim world — the Crusades, the Iraq War, ongoing drone strikes — and Western societies that treat every Muslim as a second-class citizen and a born suspect. He believes that this Western atmosphere of contempt and seething resentment practically pushes young, impressionable Muslims into the arms of jihadist recruiters.

It is just about impossible to design an effective counterterrorism policy that incorporates both of these worldviews.

Today a lot of political arguments amount to “the real problem is those people.” The student mob at Middlebury didn’t hope Charles Murray could be persuaded by their arguments to renounce The Bell Curve; it wanted him banned from campus. Even entire groups of people are sometimes written off as hopeless in the same way, simply for electing the wrong leaders; a writer at The New Republic recently called for “blue states and cities to effectively abandon the American national enterprise,” dismissing the rest of the country as “crazy, deadbeat in-laws.”

Since January, some substantial number of Democrats have concluded that the single biggest problem facing the country is President Trump himself. They believe he is a Russian agent, a fool, ignorant, racist, prone to fanciful and bizarre beliefs, insane, selfish, and/or greedy — in other words, the Worst Person in the World. Many of them will never accept him as the legitimate president of the United States, because of Hillary Clinton’s win in the popular vote, the unanswered questions about Russian efforts to influence the election, and their sheer distaste for him.

This refusal to accept the result of the 2016 election manifests itself every day in Washington. If you’re a Trump nominee, there’s a good chance that Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer thinks you should be withdrawn. If you’re confirmed, Schumer probably thinks you should recuse yourself. If you won’t recuse yourself, in the not too distant future Schumer will probably begin to demand your resignation. There is no way the Trump administration could possibly please him, or the party base he hears so clearly. They’d sooner see Charles Murray warmly welcomed on a return visit to Middlebury College than work with the president, because the president is precisely the problem they want “solved.”

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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