Near the end of the 1998 edition of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (originally published in 1982), Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel eerily predicted our current political moment:
A politics that brackets morality and religion too thoroughly soon generates disenchantment. Where philosophical discourse lacks moral resonance, the yearning for a public life of larger meanings finds undesirable expressions. Groups like the “moral majority” and the Christian right seek to clothe the naked public square with narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread. The disenchantment also assumes more secular forms. Absent a political agenda that addresses the moral dimension of public questions, public attention becomes riveted on the private vices of public officials. Public discourse becomes increasingly preoccupied with the scandalous, the sensational, and the confessional as purveyed by tabloids, talk shows, and eventually the mainstream media as well.
Leaving aside Sandel’s swipe at “the Christian right,” this statement is a striking portrayal of our own tabloid-inflected politics. “The scandalous, the sensational, and the confessional” permeated the 2016 campaign, and 2017 has only ratcheted up those tendencies. We have a president embroiled in Twitter feuds against all comers, a defeated presidential candidate making a cross-country tour in which she denies “absolution” to those who didn’t vote for her, and a press that treats every real scandal and anodyne political controversy as auguring the dark night in which democracy dies. The tabloid soap opera has shining heroes and sinister villains, and it veers between toxic vituperation and thoughtless adulation.
The tabloidization of American politics predates President Trump. A report from Pew in early October found that, in recent years, the press has shifted from covering issues to covering the persona of the president. In the early months of the George W. Bush administration, only 35 percent of stories focused on the “leadership and character” of the president (65 percent focused on “ideology and agenda”). By 2009, the “leadership and character” coverage had jumped to 50 percent; by 2017, it had skyrocketed to 69 percent.
Other metrics reveal this, too. In the first few months of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, between 22 and 26 percent of stories focused on the president’s “management and political approach”; coverage of “management and political approach” constituted 44 percent of stories in the early days of the Obama administration and 40 percent at the outset of the Trump White House.
The character of a president, of course, matters a great deal, as does his management style. Still, this shift to covering the persona of the president is symptomatic of the way a morally desiccated politics fixates on leaders as totems of group belonging and of moralistic self-congratulation. For many in the media, President Obama was the personification of cosmopolitan cool; they’ve cast President Trump in the opposite role, as the embodiment of deplorable reaction.
There are many reasons for the current fixations of our public conversation. Some of them are the choices of particular political actors. (No one’s forcing President Trump to launch his Twitter volleys.) Secular changes in the media industry have made journalism more insular and more frenzied; the deterioration of local newspapers has led to the increased dominance of national news organizations headquartered in a few cities, and the quest for clicks rewards the sensational and the salacious. Escalating negative partisanship has encouraged politicians to dig in and refuse to work with members of the opposing party.
But contemporary political debates can also cast light on deeper intellectual issues about ethics and community. And this is where Sandel comes in. When first-principles arguments about the good life are entirely divorced from political discourse, he warned, politics becomes unmoored and disoriented. The attenuation of a powerful moral vision creates a breeding ground for movements that respond to and depend upon cultural alienation. In our own time, we can understand both the “alt-right” and the combative “intersectional” Left as responses to cultural disenchantment. The former tries to fill a cultural vacuum with appeals to the Vikings and the Confederacy, and the latter offers “wokeness” as a substitute for rigorous moral argument. Both reveal a crisis of community, and both contribute to this crisis by embracing a species of identity politics.
We can understand both the ‘alt-right’ and the combative ‘intersectional’ Left as responses to cultural disenchantment.
Today, our politics labors under the petty twin tyrannies of moralism and tribalism, the degenerate cousins of ethics and community. Moralism confuses talking points with serious ethical inquiry. Rigorous ethical thinking tries to address the complexity of experience, recognizes our limits as fallen human beings, and attempts to rigorously explore the consequences of principles. Moralism instead mouths the truism of the moment and would rather flatter the vanity of the moralizer than delve into the truth of his principles. Ethics is pondering Aristotle, Adam Smith, or Immanuel Kant. It’s cultivating virtue and seeking to understand our obligations to ourselves and others. Moralism is glibly invoking “the right side of history.”
Tribalism is a poor substitute for community. Whereas the tribalist seeks grounds for belonging to a purified group, a member of a community accepts both human difference and commonality. Sustaining a community involves a deliberate effort to nurture human bonds and recognize the complexity of abiding relationships among heterogeneous individuals. A politics premised upon radical atomization has no space for community; it views our communal bonds as mere hindrances to private desire.
Recent years have suggested that radical atomization is not sustainable as a political force. The weakening of old bonds of community has helped fuel a new tribalism influenced by social media.
Tribalism and moralism can reinforce each other, too. At times, preening self-righteousness can become a key tribal marker. “That’s not who we are” — often proclaimed in hectoring tone and with an upturned chin — embodies that alliance. “That’s not who we are” often serves to shut down political debate on a topic. Reform government spending on health care? That’s not who we are. Cut taxes? That’s not who we are. Revise immigration policies? That’s not who we are. We can dispute whether a given policy regime is a good one or not, but “that’s not who we are” immediately cuts off that discussion: To belong to the “we” requires fealty to a certain set of policies, and dissent leads to exile.
Like other tribalist impulses, “That’s not who we are” artificially purifies the body politic. The American people contain multitudes on almost every political question — that a person disagrees with a given ideological premise does not necessarily make him any less of an American. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence rest on certain core principles, but reducing all political debates to “who we are” hollows out those debates and makes them more cantankerous.
If we are to recover a more serious politics, we must cultivate a space for authentic moral persuasion and debate. Sustaining this space means recognizing that we are imperfect human beings who nonetheless have deep ethical cravings. It means an openness to first-principles arguments and a toleration of those with whom we disagree. It means, then, both pluralism and argumentative rigor. A more robust civic culture has less time for the lash of ideological retaliation and more time for positive modeling of virtues and thoughtful conversation — less shaming and more thinking.
When ethical seriousness and a concern for community fade, the carnival energies inherent in all democratic politics run wild.
We must also reinvigorate our sense of community. We can participate in our own local communities while sustaining a vision of the nation as a community of communities and individuals. Our elected representatives might feel a sense of obligation to the national community as a whole and not just to their constituents and their “base.”
When ethical seriousness and a concern for community fade, the carnival energies inherent in all democratic politics run wild. The neon flood of sentimentality, aggrievement, and aggression currently washing over American civic culture is in part a consequence of the longer-term neglect of deeper principles. Returning to those principles is a key step in restoring cultural and political sanity.