‘Tribal” has become this era’s ubiquitous sociopolitical descriptor. In the 1992 presidential election, fewer than 40 percent of Americans lived in a “landslide county,” where the more popular candidate had a margin of victory exceeding 20 percent of the county’s votes. Nationwide, the 2016 election was much closer, and yet it saw more than 60 percent of Americans residing in landslide counties. The share of voters living in “extreme landslide counties,” where the victory margin exceeded 50 percent, increased from 4 percent in 1992 to 21 percent in 2016. As Americans continue to self-segregate, our partisan affiliations and political opinions become coextensive with distinct, increasingly irreconcilable lifestyles and worldviews.
Us and Them is indeed the oldest, most fundamental political reality. A central component of the American experiment was the hope that our republic would be sustained by “reflection and choice,” as Alexander Hamilton said in the Federalist Papers, rather than “accident and force.” Choices made after reflection can overcome tribal loyalties, however, only if there are standards of reason and evidence that all tribes accept as valid, instead of being rejected by some tribes as devices deployed by others to take advantage.
Two new books support the depressing conclusion that red and blue America not only shun discourse with each other but reject as well the standards necessary to render that discourse intelligible. The former chief book reviewer for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, offers a polemic in The Death of Truth that makes Donald J. Trump the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong in a nation and world where “people are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.” The result, she says, is President Trump, an “avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses.”
And so on. And on. It’s remarkable that the woman who was America’s most powerful arbiter of literary quality for a quarter century submitted this manuscript, turgid and repetitious despite its brevity, in the belief she had written a good book. Three years after Trump announced his presidential candidacy, there can be no task harder than coming up with a criticism of him that, by virtue of being original, is genuinely damaging. Kakutani doesn’t even try, instead stringing together stale denunciations that read like clickbait from Salon.
Her larger context for expounding on Trump’s dishonesty includes postmodernism, literature’s unreliable narrators, and a popular culture that depends on shifting perspectives. At no point, however, do these allusions cohere to form an explanatory thesis.
Kakutani never takes up a more plausible interpretation of Trump’s forensic indiscipline, one that doesn’t require dragging Derrida or Rashomon into the argument. Moving to politics after a career in real estate and show business, Trump finds “booster talk,” in historian Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, as natural as breathing. “Statements which foreigners took for lies or braggadocio,” Boorstin wrote of the 19th century, “American speakers intended to be vaguely clairvoyant.” There is a long, pre-Trump tradition of taking seriously but not literally boosters who describe events that, as Boorstin says, have not yet “gone through the formality of taking place.”
Ultimately, Kakutani writes not against tribalism but against those tribes with the temerity to challenge her tribe’s epistemological prerogatives. What The Death of Truth communicates most vividly, according to philosopher John Gray, is “the anguish of liberals such as Kakutani, who feel they have been robbed of their historically appointed role as the moral and intellectual leaders of society.”
That role would have been more secure if liberals had wielded their authority more scrupulously. One has only to look at Kakutani’s former employer to see the peril of trying to have things both ways, claiming empirical rigor and integrity while also advancing a political project. The most prominent New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, blamed the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords on conservatives’ toxic “eliminationist rhetoric,” despite overwhelming evidence that the shooter was too unhinged to have coherent political views, much less act on them violently. In 2013 the Times’ editorial page dismissed the “overblown controversy” about President Obama’s repeated promise that Obamacare would allow people who liked their doctors and health-insurance policies to keep them. Obama simply “misspoke,” the Times declared. In 2016 the paper editorialized that Republican politicians exploiting bigotry were the primary cause of a massacre in a gay nightclub, carried out by a shooter who proclaimed his devotion to ISIS throughout the attack.
It’s howlers such as these that inspire derision, not respect, when the New York Times launches a “Truth” ad campaign — the truth “has no agenda,” “doesn’t take sides,” “isn’t red or blue” — or when one of its most famous alumnae writes a book titled “The Death of Truth.” In it, to quote Gray again, Kakutani “passes over the metamorphosis of liberalism” from a “philosophy of tolerance” into a “persecutory orthodoxy.”
That story is told in a much better, fairer book, The Coddling of the American Mind, written by Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches at New York University and is the chairman of Heterodox Academy, which promotes “viewpoint diversity” in higher education. The authors’ professional activities prepare us for a book on the university, and its title signals their intent to update the most famous critique of academic relativism, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), by Allan Bloom.
Bloom resigned his faculty position at Cornell University in 1970 after it took no disciplinary action against student radicals who had shut down the campus and made death threats against specific professors and administrators. The militants at Cornell and other universities in the 1960s, Bloom wrote in his book, had made a shrewd determination: The “pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom” did not “really believe that freedom of thought was necessarily a good and useful thing.” The scholars’ cowardice in the face of physical threats was predictable, but their lack of moral courage in defense of the university was a grim surprise. It turned out, Bloom wrote, that “to be isolated in the university, to be called foul names by their students or their colleagues, all for the sake of an abstract idea, was too much for them.”
New Leftists stormed the university 50 years ago, only to find it barely defended. They and their protégés, who now run academia, bear the greatest share of the blame for today’s persecutory orthodoxy. The problem, according to Lukianoff and Haidt, is that the university’s commitment to truth is steadily yielding to a commitment to social justice. When some assertion about the way the world works conflicts with the reigning political beliefs, Coddling shows, it is increasingly, dangerously common for the offending views to be censored or shouted down rather than refuted with better evidence and sturdier logic.
This perversion of the university’s purpose is an especially acute problem because of modern students’ unprecedented psychological frailty. Lukianoff and Haidt demonstrate that part of the explanation is that parents and school administrators intervene too often, too early, to keep children from facing adversity. Their excessive concerns delay or prevent kids from learning how to soldier through on their own — and realizing that they can. Coddling also argues persuasively that the first generation of human children immersed in social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) has been left anxious, depressed, vulnerable, and immature by the experience. Growing up has never been easy, of course, but the ability to turn on a glowing rectangle, at any hour of the day or night, and experience peers’ acceptance or rejection, affirmation or disdain, inclusion or exclusion, sets today’s adolescents apart.
Academia’s death of truth takes place when universities promote social justice by encouraging students’ belief that exposure to ideas they oppose threatens their safety rather than disabusing them of this false, debilitating canard. Coddling quotes one student who availed herself of the “safe space” Brown University provided when a guest speaker criticized the “rape culture” construct: “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
Rather than encourage unsettling encounters to strengthen critical thinking, and even to understand one’s own viewpoint more intelligently, Social Justice U instructs students to trust rather than question their feelings. Furthermore, it teaches them to ascribe thoughts they dislike to the thinker’s mental or moral defects — racism, sexism, and homophobia being the go-to indictments. In a world where one is either a victim or an oppressor, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, politics necessarily becomes “a battle between good people and evil people,” the most clearly and reliably evil being straight white males.
In an adage that Henry Kissinger was fond of quoting, campus politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Like Allan Bloom, however, Lukianoff and Haidt contend that the questions raised by academic politics have become central to modern American politics in general. Coddling closes by quoting historian Alice Dreger. Evidence is “the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy,” she wrote. “If you want justice, you must work for truth.” We cannot overcome tribalism without rigorous standards of evidence, logic, and intellectual honesty. If, instead, we subordinate the pursuit of truth to our opinions about justice, our tribe’s premises and interests, we make republican governance by reflection and choice impossible. This duty to choose responsibly falls on students and professors, but also on presidents and editorialists.