Part two in a series on crisis rhetoric and its immoral use by political partisans. Read part one in the series, "When Partisans Cry Wolf."
To ask whether the Right or the Left, the Republicans or the Democrats pose the greater threat to liberal democracy is to miss the essence of the threat, which is that its sum is greater than its parts. That is, the threat is best understood as resulting from the dynamic interaction between the two sides, not from the actions of one in static isolation from the other. There is a fearful symmetry, so to speak, between both, which their loud insistence on their asymmetry seeks to obscure.
Both political parties are opting for the radical rather than conservative response to internal threats to liberal democracy. Both parties are willing to hold the country hostage to their extreme wings. Don’t let the noisy disagreements fool you—functionally, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene are each other’s best friends. The existence of the one justifies the existence of the other. You need me, says Ocasio-Cortez, because of people like Greene. You need me, says Greene, because of people like Ocasio-Cortez. In reality, no one needs them. AOC and MTG are both profoundly unserious people who sound like codes for airports that no one should want to connect through. By kowtowing to the likes of them, the parties are selling out the country and liberal democracy.
They’re also selling out themselves—and one important symmetry between them is their self-delusion as to this fact. Both Trump’s MAGA base and the Democrats’ woke base hate their own parties’ establishments at least as intensely as they hate the other party. They resemble religious believers who loathe apostates even more than heretics, on the logic that at least heretics have the excuse of never having known any better. Like German conservatives who thought they could control Hitler, both parties’ establishments are deceiving themselves that they can somehow control their activist bases. They can’t. It’s impossible to control fanatics. They’re like addicts: They are impervious to facts and reason.
Every investigation of the 2020 election that fails to turn up systematic problems with voting machines doesn’t convince Trump’s true believers that there were no systematic problems with voting machines; it convinces them that yet another investigation was rigged, and the next one will finally reveal the truth. No amount of effort to redress injustices against historically marginalized groups will ever satisfy woke true believers; there is no winning the “oppression Olympics.”
You can’t win by playing the fanatics’ game. The only way to deal with fanatics is to play your game. You have to stand up to them according to your own principles. This doesn’t mean hating them, or seeing them as evil, or not wanting to share a country with them; on the contrary, it should mean seeing them as fellow Americans worth trying to understand and, where appropriate, working to ameliorate the conditions that feed their fanaticism. But it also means refusing to endorse their violations of these principles.
Instead of refusing, each party establishment is trying to appease its respective fanatics. In the short term, the party establishments may win; in the long term, they’re going to lose with the rest of us. Because each activist base is at war with its party as an institution, wins for their activist bases means losses for the parties as institutions. They may survive in name, but they will survive in name only: Their substance will have shifted beyond all recognition.
Another profound symmetry between hard-right Republicans and hard-left Democrats, studiously ignored by their respective enablers, is the way they blame forces beyond their control for their defeats. Both have versions of the-system-is-rigged-against-us complaints, whether it’s how the Democrats stole the 2020 election, or how the Electoral College favors Republicans. In making these excuses, the parties resemble a chronically delinquent student whose grandmother has just died for the seventh time. At some point, you start to wonder if the problem might lie with the parties themselves. If only there were something the parties could control—like the words that come out of their mouths, say, or the positions they take. But no, they’d rather throw liberal democracy under the bus than take any responsibility for their failures.
In doing so, extremists on both the Left and the Right paint themselves as hard-headed realists and the defenders of liberal democracy as pie-in-the-sky idealists. In fact, however, the reverse is true.
In order to avoid admitting to themselves that they rely on force and fear rather than persuasion, far-left and far-right extremists delude themselves that their visions are broadly popular with Americans. The reality is that their visions are deeply unpopular. The large majority of Americans do not want to live in a Christian theocracy, a strongman autocracy, a progressive utopia, or any other type of nation that would be governed as extremists would govern it. They don’t want a Caesar to save them from Big Tech’s “Cathedral,” and they don’t want woke social justice warriors to save them from the Big Bad Right Wing. They want self-rule, not salvation. Contrary to extremists’ misguided belief that opposition to one utopia implies a desire to live in its opposite, most Americans want to live in the vast, diverse space between competing utopias—which is to say that they want to live in a liberal democracy.
I wish the activist bases understood how their intensity jars with people who just want a quiet life—which is most people. With their talk of WAR and EMERGENCY and CRISIS, the activists come in at DEFCON 1, while the rest of us are at DEFCON 4 or 5. If my choice is between listening to my kids tell me about their days at school and learning about the latest outrage activists want me to care about, I’m going to choose the lived experience that I have, not the lived experience they want me to have.
Liberal democracy is better calibrated to the lived experiences that most Americans want to have than what the activist bases are offering. Most Americans want to live their lives with meaning as they understand it. They want to think, speak, read, write, sing, move, worship, and educate themselves freely. They want to be friends with the people they like and marry the people they love. They want the same or better for their children. Liberal democracy embraces a pluralism and diversity of meanings in life, and it provides a system for resolving the clashes of meaning that inevitably arise.
Americans in the exhausted majority see and rightly recoil from the fact that activists in the MAGA base and the woke base are pushing for systems to eliminate meanings, not to manage disagreements between them. The activist bases want to “solve” the problems caused by pluralism and diversity by abolishing pluralism and diversity. Their “solutions” lead to the behavior that alienates the exhausted majority.
When you decide that certain meanings are too dangerous to permit public deliberation, you have to prevent the public from learning about them. You censor, you threaten, you bully. You politicize law enforcement, encourage friends and neighbors to inform on each other. You criminalize dissent, predicate employment on political conformity, and disappear the family members of people who refuse to go along. You imprison, torture, and kill. To survive in such systems, you don’t live your life with meaning as you understand it. You live your life with meaning as powerful institutions—government, media, schools, churches—understand it.
Forgive the members of the exhausted majority for not wanting that life.
The most unpopular factions in both parties are hell-bent on preventing Americans from asking questions that reveal the extremists’ delusions and threaten their power. Could it be that a large majority of American voters finds the noisiest and most powerful factions within both parties repellent? Could it be that if one party learned to control, rather than be controlled by, its most unpopular faction, it could assemble a large and durable governing coalition, rather than a narrow majority in danger of being lost every two or four years? Preventing these questions from being asked is why the hard-Right and the hard-Left are so determined to blame everyone but themselves for their defeats.
By contrast, defenders of liberal democracy accurately perceive that a majority of Americans want to live in a liberal democracy. On that realistic basis, they make a logical sequence of hard-headed calculations: That illiberal methods will lead to the destruction of the nation they love as they know it; that whatever nation the extremists make in its place will be worse rather than better than the one they have; that accordingly, any “victory” for their own side that is achieved by illiberal methods is actually a defeat. They commit to doing things the hard way—through persuasion and compromise—in order to achieve victories that are self-sustaining over the long term, even if their own party loses power.
Defenders of liberal democracy reject easy shortcuts that rely on extraordinary procedures as false economies, recognizing that victories won by such methods can be sustained only by more such methods. They have seen that story before, both in far-right nations and far-left ones, and they know how it ends. Extraordinary procedure, backed by power without legitimacy, feeds on itself, so quickly that the national rescue which once justified it fades into relative insignificance. Remaining in power becomes the only goal that is left—and if the nation itself must die, then so be it. The village must die to be saved.
A third symmetry between hard-right Republicans and hard-left Democrats is their habit of depicting people who stand up to their own sides as traitors—as though it’s impossible to be a Republican who dislikes Trump and Democratic policies, or to be a Democrat who dislikes wokeness and Republican policies. The notion that applying standards consistently, or refusing to give your own side a free pass, means giving aid and comfort to “the enemy” is exactly the sort of dishonest war talk that extremists rely on to maintain their own power. It’s a way of preventing leaders from saying things that members of the exhausted majority desperately want to hear.
What exhausts the members of the exhausted majority is the unrelenting assault on their sanity and common sense by both sides, each in its own special way. It’s the party of “family values” rallying around a serial philanderer. It’s the party of anti-racism rallying around racist Anti-Racism™. It’s the Right pretending that it’s indulging in something other than classic strongman fantasies. It’s the Left pretending that the mainstream media and educational system aren’t transparently biased against the Right. It’s listening to the Right fanatically oppose tax increases while the debt mushrooms. It’s listening to the Left fanatically oppose spending cuts while the debt mushrooms. It’s the investment, by both extremes, of more intellectual and emotional energy in the culture wars than in the question of U.S. policy towards China. It’s the insistence, by both extremes, that Every.Single.Issue must be assessed according to some over-arching ideological loyalty, and not according to the facts of particular cases. It’s seeing similarities between Hillary Clinton’s handling of her emails and Trump’s handling of documents at Mar-a-Lago, and listening to both sides insist that they’re completely different. It’s the absolutely rampant double standards coupled with the equally rampant denials that there are any double standards.
Acknowledging that reality is complex isn’t exhausting. Denying its complexity is exhausting. I am beyond tired of “leaders” on both sides who can’t find ways to disagree with large numbers of fellow Americans without trying to write them out of the legitimate political community. We are all Americans.
Precisely because members of the exhausted majority crave honest acknowledgments of complexity, candidates wishing to appeal to them need not feel obliged to disagree with everything the other party says. Candidates can be both/and; they don’t have to be either/or. One of the many stupidities of our age is what the political strategist Ruy Teixiera calls the “Fox News Fallacy,” the notion on the Left that if Fox News says something, then it can’t be true and must be opposed. The right has a version of this phenomenon too, which might be dubbed the MSNBC Fallacy. These twin fallacies go far towards generating the double standards that drive people from the poles into the center.
The exhausted majority isn’t asking for the moon here. Given the modesty of its expectations, you can see why its members might not have a great deal of sympathy for politicians who fail to meet them, or who see the politicians who do as something less than Nelson Mandelas. I admire American politicians who stand up to their own side for doing so, but I don’t see them as heroes. Heroes are people who risk impoverishment, imprisonment, torture, and death for standing up for what they believe in. The fact that American politicians increasingly are risking death by standing up for what they believe in is alarming, and it means that acting on their conscience carries more risks than it should. But those risks are still low compared to what they are in, say, China or Russia, where your money, your liberty, and your life—and those of your family members—are very much at risk if you act on your conscience. Currently, the most likely negative outcome that politicians face for doing the right thing is losing their seat and having to resume their unusually wealthy private lives at home with their families and, most likely, a new and lucrative lobbying gig. The whole reason for American politicians to act on their consciences sooner rather than later is that the risks are growing. When you think prices will fall, you sell now; you don’t wait.
The activist bases of both parties are deeply invested in believing—and convincing others to believe—that candidates who appeal to the exhausted majority can’t win general elections. That’s the ostensible reason why they prevent serious liberal-democratic candidates from winning primary elections. What if the real reason was closer to the opposite: The fear that they could win general elections, and thereby reveal the unpopularity of the activist bases?
Not only do I think such candidates could win general elections, I think they’re the only candidates who could win big. Why? Math. It’s the exhausted majority, not the exhausted minority.
In 1906, the philosopher William James wrote approvingly of war’s power to “discipline a whole community.” He sought to harness that discipline to constructive rather than destructive purposes—to find what he called a “moral equivalent of war.”
Today’s activists also perceive war’s power to discipline, but they use the language of war, emergency, and crisis to promote an immoral equivalent of war. They seek to replace the civic discipline of liberal-democratic proceduralism—the discipline required to see one’s opponents as fellow citizens, to keep an open mind, to ask questions, to follow the rules even when following them does not produce the policy outcome one wants—with the martial discipline of an army: The discipline required to see one’s opponents as the enemy, to close one’s mind, to not ask questions, to follow the orders of party activists even when following them violates the rules of liberal democracy.
The great Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” For activists on the hard Right and the hard Left, however, the language of war, emergency, and crisis is not the continuation of politics, but the rejection of liberal-democratic politics—an anti-politics. It is an attempt to escape the moral and intellectual messiness of liberal-democratic politics, the difficult work of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, for a fantasy of easy answers and black-and-white truths, sustained by power and violence rather than a shared perception of legitimacy.
Words aren’t violence, but they do have power. They don’t simply reflect the world as it exists; they shape our perceptions of it. Maybe most people hearing the loaded terms war, emergency, and crisis know to take them seriously but not literally, but not everyone does. My fear is that the profligate use of these terms tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or not quite a prophecy, since they purport to describe the here and now. A self-fulfilling reality, then.
At present, and contrary to the language of war, emergency, and crisis, Americans still have extraordinary liberal-democratic freedom of choice compared to those who lived in the past and those who may live in the future. One of the choices we retain the freedom to make is the conservative one: that is, to protect our freedom by re-committing ourselves to the ordinary procedures of liberal democracy, even if they don’t produce the partisan outcomes we want in the short term, because liberal democracy offers the only hope of achieving secure partisan outcomes in the long term.
We should protect our freedom, which is precious, by continuing to exercise it, while the stakes of doing so remain relatively low. As reality moves closer to war, emergency, and crisis, choices narrow, and the stakes of choosing rise. If you feel pressure to impose ideological litmus tests on your friends now, imagine how you’d feel if you risked jail or death for being friends with the “wrong” people. That, and many such other losses of freedom to live our lives with meaning as we understand it, is what awaits if Americans succumb to the siren songs of the activist bases.
Elections matter, and there’s real value in having to make a binary choice every couple years that forces each of us to set priorities; the country would fly apart if we each got to vote for someone who represented our unique views in all their complexity. But most of life is lived between elections, and no act of binary choosing can capture a voter’s full set of views in all their complexity. The best antidote to the simplifying rhetoric of the activist bases, and to the moral cowardice of the parties that refuse to stand up to them, is to refuse to demonize one or the other, and instead to point the finger at both—and, as a free people, at ourselves.
Katherine C. Epstein is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden. See also her recent writings on the importance of intellectual curiosity in our political culture; society's most divisive cultural debates; and embracing the moral complexity of our political views. Read part one in this series, "When Partisans Cry Wolf."
Image: Unsplash: Stephen Harlan
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