Rebuilding the Public Square after Charlottesville

People gather at the White House in response to the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA (Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
We must chart out an alternative approach to politics.

The riots and violence in Charlottesville accentuate, like the tired chorus of a far-too-long song, the dangerous effects of racism, bigotry, and misrule by mobs. Whatever “white nationalists” call themselves, no rebranding can wash the moral taint from doctrines of racial supremacy.

Yet Charlottesville also casts light on questions of national union. The rise of tribalized identity politics both is a response to, and exacerbates, a diminished sense of national fellowship. Addressing the challenges of repugnant identity politics, however, requires more than simply condemning it; it also demands that we chart out an alternative approach to politics. In political persuasion (and in much else), something is often far stronger than nothing.

First, a matter of terminology: Those who rampaged in Charlottesville under the swastika and the stars and bars make odd representatives of “nationalism.” One would assume those marchers were mostly American citizens, yet the swastika is the emblem of a foreign tyrant who declared war on the United States and whose defeat was one of the great triumphs of American history. Meanwhile, the Confederacy was premised on destroying the American union; the forces of national solidarity were marshaled against the Confederacy.

But the nation-state is involved here. As the civic compact has withered, we have seen a proliferation of extremist groups on both the left and the right. To note this is not to imply moral equivalency but instead to describe the fracturing of the American body politic. This splitting occurred long before the results of the 2016 election (as Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic suggests), but it has heightened in recent months.

In a time of escalating polarization and a resurgence in racially coded activism, the “Antifa” left and the “alt-right” have stepped into the spotlight. It would be a mistake to ignore the significant differences between those who don the black mask and those who wear the faux-Teutonic costumes of a fictitious and pernicious racial purity. However, there are certain commonalities. Both speak to motivations that are quite old: the willingness to inflict violence in the pursuit of perfection and the indulgence in atavistic bigotry, respectively. Moreover, both have grown in the vacuum created by diminished civic capital, and both pursue a “heighten the contradictions” strategy that threatens to damage the fabric of the nation even further.

The growth of violent factions involves more than a breakdown of public consensus; private moral degeneracy, technology, and other factors play a role, too. But the loss of consensus suggests a need to rethink what constitutes the bonds of our union.

Racial identity politics — whether “white nationalism” or any other variety — dissolves the body politic into warring tribes and ravages the public square in its craving for purity. Meanwhile, the conception of the nation as nothing more than a market with a mission statement and a military is probably a broth too thin for a vigorous civic culture. Reducing nationhood to a set of ideological propositions not only misses the fact that political belonging requires more than bullet points, but also can prove unable to resolve differences within the body politic about these propositions: If being American is just about holding certain ideas, what do we do with citizens who dissent? Both nationhood-as-race and nationhood-as-ideology seem unlikely to maintain the expansive culture that is crucial for a heterogeneous body politic.

The present unrest emphasizes how important it is to find a mode of politics that reconciles difference rather than radicalizing it.

The present unrest emphasizes how important it is to find a mode of politics that reconciles difference rather than radicalizing it. This alternative mode of politics emphasizes virtues that might have grown unfashionable but are nevertheless necessary, including modesty, tolerance, and moral imagination. Rather than stigmatizing a fellow American as somehow outside the body politic because of his beliefs, material success, or skin color, this politics would champion the importance of recognizing real disagreements and would use excommunication as the absolute last resort. It would recognize that there are a variety of intellectual traditions in the United States and that there is a grave danger in reducing national fellowship to simply a set of ideological litmus tests. Rather than casting the United States as a meritocratic battlefield, it would stress that all Americans are in a common civic boat.

From the works of Roger Williams onward, the culture of toleration in the United States has required accepting that others might believe in radically different narratives of human existence. Some of these viewpoints may be wildly wrong, and we should be free to argue against beliefs that we believe to be mistaken. But a culture of toleration insists upon the difference between arguing against flawed beliefs and seeking to inflict pain (whether physical, social, or economic) on a person because of his or her beliefs. While a battle of ideas can lead to sharper thinking, the effort to retaliate against a person for holding a set of beliefs can inflame social tensions and undermine civic comity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is never a legitimate use of retaliation (such as a boycott of a store because of some ethical objection), but, if we want to maintain a tolerant culture, we should be acknowledge the risks of such retaliation. We might also remember that calumny and punishment are not the only means of persuasion — friendship, empathy, and half-way meetings can also win hearts.

Part of civilly reaffirming politics is recognizing the importance of the rule of law. For factional fanatics, the law may serve only as a vehicle for their interests; when the law is inconvenient, it should be ignored. But the law is a way of granting legitimacy to power because it is informed by broader constitutional principles and the consent of the governed. While the fact that something is legal certainly does not make it right, a political order that gleefully accepts the disregard of the rule of law is one that will not remain an order for very long. It’s also worth noting that the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and others continued to recognize the force of law: Those protesters openly accepted punishment in order to underline for their fellow Americans the tension between a law’s mandates and the demands of conscience.

In order to strengthen civic trust, politicians should reach outside their immediate constituencies. This is especially important for the president, who serves not just his faction but the nation as a whole. During the Obama years, the Democratic party played to a small base — and later found itself routed in many areas of the country. Republicans, too, risk shrinking their own coalition by catering only to a narrow bloc of support. But there are more than practical reasons for this outreach. As the Founders understood, one of the great threats to a republic is rampant factionalism, in which animosity toward other factions supersedes moral judgment, broader political commitments, and thoughtfulness. Faction is a constant and unavoidable tendency in democratic politics, so it is important for elected leaders to reach beyond the merely factional.

If members of the press are concerned about increasing civic unrest, they might reconsider signal-boosting the most disreputable elements of the Right in order to create a more riveting story. The press has lavished attention on some of the more vicious elements of the alt-right, giving them a media platform that far exceeds their original reach. This has led to giving these alt-right voices a bigger purchase in public debates, which in turn gives the press an excuse to cover these figures more — and so on and so on in a vicious cycle. This might be helpful if you’re interested in smearing all Republicans as racists, but it also polarizes public debates and exacerbates racial divisions. A similar point could be applied to the right: A minor Twitter figure or adjunct faculty member does not necessarily represent the Left as a whole.

We need to rescue public norms from partisan weaponization.

We also need to rescue public norms from partisan weaponization. After the attempted assassination of Republican members of Congress in June, the rush was on to distinguish the shooter from the broader anti-Trump “resistance.” Even though it was clear that the shooter had marinated in the “resistance” narrative that Donald Trump and his Republican “enablers” were an existential threat to the republic and the world as a whole, pundits drew a clear and bright line: Speech was speech, violence was violence, and moral responsibility for the shooting lay with the shooter — not the “resistance,” Antifas, or other elements of the anti-Trump constellation. Outside the right-wing echo chamber, there were relatively few calls on Democrats to denounce specific radical left-wing groups after the shooting.

Tellingly, there has been much less effort to maintain that bright line in the aftermath of the Charlottesville attack. Many have claimed that an automobile attack on innocent people increases the moral urgency of condemning the alt-right, and that less specific denunciations of political violence are insufficient.

This has nothing to do with whether radical alt-righters should be condemned or not. Neo-Nazism deserved censure both before and after this weekend, so it did not take a car attack to reveal the moral debauchery of that movement. At issue instead are the criteria for assigning collective responsibility, and these criteria should apply to both major political parties. Crying “whataboutism” in response to all attempts to have clear standards across political lines itself contributes to the deterioration of our public debates. If norms simply become factional weapons, they lose their force as norms, and without abiding norms, the republican experience becomes a fraught promise.

Part of this recovery will involve changing how we interact. Twitter is not the world; nor, even more shockingly, is Facebook. Ordinary interactions with our fellow Americans can have a richness of texture that encourages understanding, moderation, and sanity. By reaffirming our bonds beyond petty politics, we realize the complexity of the weave of our country’s social fabric. Recently, there has been an effort to view many aspects of American life — from movies to football to gun ownership — as partisan matters. It’s hard to have a sane national or personal life if factional narratives suck up every molecule of oxygen.

Ultimately, reinforcing our civic structure entails recovering a view of politics in which political life is not just about promoting our ideologies but is also about fulfilling our commitment to our fellow man. In our daily lives, we should strive to recognize our core humanity and essential dignity, which transcend the lines of faction, color, and other markers of identity. Maybe that sounds unduly sentimental, but at this turn it seems better to risk sentimentality than to adopt the veneer of cynicism often affected by the comfortable. We are alike in being children of God; we are alike in being expelled from the Garden. That is, we have great potential for good and for evil — we are simultaneously exalted and in peril. In turbulent times, we would do well to remember those core truths and more ennobling ideals.


The Alt-Right Is Bad — And So Is ‘Antifa’

Trump’s Disastrous Mishandling of Charlottesville Will Have Consequences

The Alt-Right’s Chickens Come Home to Roost

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.


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