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Politics and Certitude
The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau, 1801

Politics and Certitude

In a political culture obsessed with who’s right and who’s wrong, a few fundamentals on thinking things through are in order.

Katherine C. Epstein

The best scholars are defined by their ability not to answer questions but to ask good ones. Answering questions is a second-order intellectual act; asking them is the fundamental one, because the question you ask substantially informs the answer you get, by determining what information is relevant. If you can answer questions, you can live contentedly in the world that has been structured for you; if you can ask questions, you can change that world.

Because the question you ask so profoundly shapes the answer you get, questions—even when they are unconscious and implicit—can be reverse engineered from answers. As a history professor, I work on this reverse engineering a lot with my students in the context of helping them write better topic sentences. If the question implicit in a student’s topic sentence isn’t the right question—i.e., the question I asked in the essay prompt—the student is sending the reader off on a wild goose chase.
For instance, the “right” question might be, “What were the reasons why post-Civil War Reconstruction ended?” A good answering topic sentence might be, “The Panic of 1873 was one reason why Reconstruction ended.” In contrast, a weak topic sentence might state, “The Panic of 1873 began with the collapse of Jay Cooke’s bank”—which is a great way to begin a paragraph explaining how the Panic of 1873 began, but not a good way to begin a paragraph explaining why Reconstruction ended.

If I had to reverse engineer the implicit question underlying so much political and media discourse today, it would be, “Which side is more to blame for our current predicament, and why?”

This is a bad question. It would be like me asking my students, “Which side was more to blame for the end of Reconstruction, and why?” A question like that is designed not to encourage honest, open inquiry but to predetermine the answer, by channeling intellectual and emotional energy into a binary, moralistic framework.

Such a bad question serves the interests of partisans very well, but it has a corrosive effect on our national discourse. When the exhausted majority of Americans listen to each side blame the other, they hear the squabbling of children: “It’s his fault!” “But she started it!” Their response is to tune out in disgust, leaving the noisy minority at the extremes in control of the floor.

It is actually possible to have a mature conversation about our past. The best proof of this comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

If ever a speaker had good reason to ask a bad question—“Which side is more to blame for the present war, and why?”—it was Lincoln in March 1865. But Lincoln did not do that. Instead, after a brief opening paragraph, he asked and answered a better series of implicit questions, given in italics below, about the history and meaning of the Civil War.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war.
What was happening on this occasion four years ago?
All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.
How did people feel about the prospect of war?
While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation.
What was each side doing?
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.
What was each side willing to do?
And the war came.
What happened next?

In these sentences, Lincoln asked open-ended questions but delivered hard-hitting answers. He wasn’t painting both sides as equivalent; he was describing a clear asymmetry in their attitudes toward the Union and war. In the next sentences, he widened his chronological gaze and dealt with the longer-term causation of the war:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.
What caused the war?
To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
What was each side fighting for?
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
How did the reality of the war match up to expectations?

Here, Lincoln initially continued to emphasize the asymmetry between the two sides: Slavery was concentrated in the South, and the two sides were fighting for different goals with respect to it. But in the last sentence, a transition between the secular and religious sections of the paragraph, he began to shift from asymmetry to symmetry. Next, Lincoln asked the “bad” questions that he knew were on his Northern audience’s mind—but only to subvert them with his answers.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.
How does each side justify its actions?
It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.
But isn’t the South’s justification morally wrong?
The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
Whose side is God really on?

Thus, with a boxer’s quickness, Lincoln completed his shift to an emphasis on North-South symmetry, landed a jab at the immorality of the Southern cause, but then skipped away to survey the war from a higher plane. That skip set up the remainder of paragraph three, in which Lincoln made his own question explicit with a reference to the Gospel of Matthew, then answered it with a reference to Psalm 19:

Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
What if God sees both sides as sinful and punishes both with the war—would he still be a just God?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

These sentences are among the most remarkable ever uttered by an American President, at once beautiful and chilling. Lincoln was speaking in a religious idiom, not the idiom of secular historical scholarship; he believed in God and meant his references to the divine literally. But his words can also be read metaphorically. He was saying that the North, not just the South, bore responsibility for the war. The offense being punished by the war came from both of them: both were implicated in American slavery. Slaves were the victims of both the North and the South. Hence it was not unjust for both sides to suffer hundreds of thousands of deaths. This logic of shared historical and moral responsibility justified the transition to Lincoln’s famous closing lines: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.

Of all the things that make this speech extraordinary, the most extraordinary is the way Lincoln balances clarity of judgment with epistemological and moral humility. He doesn’t make false equivalences, but he directs the intellectual and emotional energy of the speech toward understanding and explanation rather than praise and blame. On the one hand, he is unequivocal that slavery caused the war and that the South was the aggressor. Not for him the mythology of the Lost Cause. On the other, Lincoln refuses to let his own side off the hook. He doesn’t say, Great news, fellow Northerners, I know what God thinks, and he’s totally on our side! No: he says that God has His own purposes, and if He’s punishing “both North and South” [emphasis added] as those “by whom the offense [of slavery] came,” then His judgment is true and righteous. If God is on anyone’s side, Lincoln’s argument suggests, it is that of the slaves. Thus, while Lincoln notes slavery’s regional concentration in the South, he searches for the causation and meaning of the war in slavery as a national system, one in which the North also participated.

Imagine a politician today taking a similar approach to analyzing our current predicament. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for another Lincoln. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask for leaders to possess at least some of Lincoln’s maturity. Since we haven’t spent the past four years slaughtering hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans, it ought to be easier for them than it was for him not to simply blame the other side.

Process over Outcome

Good questions privilege process over outcome. That is, rather than trying to engineer their own answers, they hold open the possibility of multiple answers. In so doing, they focus judgment on the process by which the question is answered, not on the answer itself.

To some degree, of course, even good questions determine their answers. If we return to the essay question I ask my students—“Why did Reconstruction end?”—we can see that it actually presupposes at least two things that could be questions themselves: (a) that there was an event called Reconstruction with an agreed definition (why was Reconstruction called “Reconstruction,” and what exactly was it?), and (b) that it ended (did it, or was the 20th-century civil rights movement a continuation of Reconstruction?). So, even this relatively open-ended question—far more so than, say, “Which side was most to blame for Reconstruction’s end?”—isn’t completely open-ended. It does predetermine an answer that takes the definition and end of Reconstruction for granted. But it predetermines much less of the answer than certain alternative questions.

The best advice I’ve gotten about how to ask good questions came from a historian who said, “Before you can judge whether a decision was right or wrong, you need to understand why it was difficult.” There is a huge temptation for historians to use our knowledge of how decisions turned out to judge the decision-making process that led to the outcome. When we direct our intellectual energy to praise or blame in this way, we’re likely to miss information that would be relevant to understanding the decision. In contrast, focusing our energy on understanding why the decision was difficult pushes us to try to identify all the variables affecting decision-makers—which turns out to require far more work than you might expect. Instead of rushing to the outcome, we linger on the decision-making process itself.

This approach is an extension of the Golden Rule: Do any of us want future historians rushing to praise or blame our decisions according to hindsight that they will have but we don’t? No; we’d like them to try to understand us in our own historical context. So, we should do unto historical actors as we would like future historians to do unto us. This doesn’t mean we have to make excuses or feel sorry for the people we study; indeed, making excuses or feeling sorry for historical actors is, like praising or blaming them, different from trying to understand them. What goes across time also goes across space for our contemporary fellow Americans. Does one side want the other to go straight to blaming, or would it like to be understood first? If so, it could try doing the same for the other guys.

Where Emotions Come in

Asking good questions isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It also has an emotional component—a willingness to remain suspended in doubt and openness rather than seeking certainty and closure. Fear of belittlement or embarrassment is public enemy number one when it comes to asking good questions. That fear can express itself in patterns conforming to the prevailing politics of the day, but I think it runs much deeper; it’s something quite primal.

My single worst moment as a professor occurred when, early in my career, I remarked in the introductory meeting of a class that teachers sometimes said there was no such thing as a stupid question, but there was in my classroom. I meant it partly as a joke, hoping for a laugh, and partly as a warning shot, intending to convey that I expected students not to ask questions that revealed they hadn’t done the assigned reading. In reality, it was a terrible thing for someone in my position to say—an attempt, reflecting my immaturity and insecurity at the front of the classroom, to impose my authority rather than to demonstrate it. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, a chill fell over the classroom; you could actually feel the temperature drop, it was so sudden and powerful. If I had wanted to prevent my students from expressing honest intellectual curiosity, I could not have chosen my words better. How could they possibly feel comfortable asking questions when they feared I would think they were stupid if they did? It took me weeks to begin repairing the damage I had done, which only their generosity made possible.

American political culture right now feels as hostile to expressions of intellectual curiosity as my classroom did after I warned against stupid questions. Since 2016, I’ve often reflected on the way I made my students feel in that instance. There have been so many little moments when I’ve wanted to ask a question in order to understand something better, but I’ve stopped myself for fear of being judged unfavorably.

I remember being at a dinner with some left-leaning acquaintances who favored Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders for the 2020 Democratic nomination. When Joe Biden’s name came up, one of them said, “Ugh.” The others laughed. I wanted to ask why they opposed Biden so strongly, because I was curious, but the tone of the “ugh” seemed so viscerally disgusted, and those at the table seemed to regard the disgust as so self-evidently justified, that I was afraid everyone would think I was stupid if I asked my question, so I didn’t. Clearly this wasn’t a profile in courage on my part, and maybe I read the cues wrong. But I don’t think I did, and I mention the episode to illustrate how a chilling effect can be generated even without the sort of power differential that existed between my students and me.

I get the sense that a lot of Americans feel the way my students and I did: afraid to ask questions. They fear being cast into the outer darkness for revealing uncertainty about matters that everyone around them seems to regard as obvious. The most important such matter is the knowledge that the other side is more to blame, which is why the implicit question “Which side is more to blame?” dominates so much of our public discourse. It’s a disciplinary question—that is, a question meant to discipline people into not asking other questions—meant to close down space for curiosity and doubt. It does so by encouraging Americans to direct all their intellectual and emotional energy to the blame game, and to think that there’s something wrong with themselves if they don’t.

Internalizing this message prevents members of the exhausted majority from realizing their numbers and potential strength. Operating inside self-imposed cones of silence, they don’t know how many Americans want to ask the same questions they do. This is exactly what those in the minorities who benefit the most from polarization want: a majority whose members aren’t conscious of belonging to it.

One reason I have faith in the existence of the exhausted majority is my students. Overwhelmingly, they’re earnest, curious, and open-minded—some of the best qualities people can have, in my book. When I ask them some crazy question that no one’s asked them before, they don’t shut down or complain; instead, they give it the proverbial old college try. It’s great. They might be right, they might be wrong; what inspires me is their willingness to participate in collective intellectual inquiry. Obviously, the public square isn’t the same as a classroom. But I do believe that most Americans, however quiet they may be, possess the same qualities that make my students easy to like and respect.

I don’t think these qualities fall along a right/left, Republican/Democrat axis, despite the efforts of the noisiest partisans on both sides to claim that they do. Indeed, to me, one of the worst things about the past several years has been the pressure, from both left and right, to sever private, intimate relationships with people who ask the “wrong” questions or don’t hold the “correct” opinions—like we’re supposed to exile people from our lives because they don’t pass ideological litmus tests. I resent this pressure partly because I don’t like being told who I can be friends with, and partly because I think it’s sickening the country. Partisan politics are important, but lots of other things are, too. If you’re organizing your life around one important thing at the expense of all the others, it’s like an unbalanced diet—unhealthy.

My favorite conversation partners since 2016 have fallen across the political spectrum. One thing they have in common is that they let me ask them lots of questions—including, crucially, follow-up questions based on their answers, so that I can check and refine my understanding—and they don’t make me fear feeling ashamed over asking. In other words, they make me feel the opposite of how I felt at that dinner table, and the opposite of the way I made my students feel.

Another thing these conversation partners have in common is that my relationships with them aren’t founded on or restricted to politics. I got to like and respect them in other contexts, and we talk about lots of things, so my opinion of them and theirs of me is at most shaped, not determined, by our political views. For me, both those things create a feeling of security, which, paradoxically, encourages me to take intellectual risks by asking questions.

I don’t mean to suggest that asking better questions would fix everything that ails the United States. There’s no obvious direct connection between them and, say, our closed primary system, which incentivizes partisan extremism. But recognizing the power of questions, their gradations of quality, and the value of spaces and relationships that cultivate good ones is a prerequisite for improving our political culture.

The chicken-and-egg quality of better questions, on the one hand, and a culture that nurtures them, on the other, present a challenge, in that we won’t make progress unless we tackle both sides of the problem simultaneously. But the challenge also presents an opportunity, because progress on one will feed progress on the other. Right now, the feedback loop between them is vicious; we need to make it virtuous. To do so, we must understand the parameters of the problem. The only way to gain that understanding is to ask better questions with other curious people.

Katherine C. Epstein is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden and author of Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain (2014).

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