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The Darkening Mind

Positive-sum thinking is a hallmark of classical liberalism. Let’s hope we can hold onto it.

Adam Garfinkle

Deeper than polarization, tribalism, populism, or other faddish appellations that are said to define American political dysfunction today is a portentous tectonic shift in mentality. It is an attitudinal shift from the positive-sum, Enlightenment-infused approach to social order and institutions to an older, zero-sum premise. Dividing these two different mentalities are incompatible assumptions about human nature, particularly human social nature.

In the Enlightenment conception, which underlies the Lockean social-contract political enterprise that is the United States, human nature consists of both competitive and cooperative instincts. The latter instincts reside in the individual’s capacity for reason, and issue in partnerships that form the organic, voluntary social order beneath and necessary for good—thus limited and self-limiting—government. A great deal flows from this core positive-sum premise, which is the unified field theory, so to speak, of the Enlightenment itself.

The positive-sum realization is integral to modern capitalism, and certainly to its broad moral legitimation. Through the idea that institutions, law mainly but not exclusively, can be set up to protect and encourage cooperative, positive-sum relationships, market economics acquires a utilitarian justification. This is of course what Adam Smith got at through the concept of the invisible hand. A person could become wealthier without some other person becoming poorer as a direct result. Between nations, commerce could benefit all, according to David Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage; looting, plunder, and outright conquering and enslavement of other peoples was not necessary.

Richard Cobden’s concept of free trade, central to the thinking of many of the American Founders, took on its revolutionary political aspect precisely for that reason: Because of the newly recognized reality of win-win relationships, free trade could destroy the mercantilist war system of the European empires, and everyone could still prosper as a result. Further, a major conceptual justification for the abolition of slavery, successful in the British Empire in 1833, depended on precisely this rationale. In this example, too, we see the joining of pro-modernist Protestant evangelism with the science-infused optimism of the time. No wonder the Whig idea of progress became so popular.

The same realization is integral to classical liberalism, and certainly to the broad moral legitimation of politics as a vocation. Disagreements, even when based on different material interests, could still be rendered into positive compromises in which oppositions were loyal within a constitutional order. Toleration, humility, dissent, open debate, and the possibility of true forgiveness instead of mere forbearance all became virtues embedded in a law-enabled political context. As with markets, these expressly political virtues both echoed and reinforced pro-modernist Protestant theology, and the emphasis on the rational and the deliberative marching hand in hand with the still-spreading scientific ethos as well.

Indeed, scientific discoveries, particularly in astronomy, also put paid to old Church-reified ideas of hierarchy and stasis. The celestial spheres did not fight one another as the old Greek and Roman gods might have; they moved in harmony, and balanced each other in beauty and parsimony in a dynamic equilibrium that was more than the sum, the positive sum, of its parts.

The impact of this package that we still call “Enlightenment modernity” on institutional design and legitimacy in the Protestant West was obviously enormous.

In the positive-sum mindset, law—particularly common law—is critical to the erection of institutions that enable, stabilize, and protect positive-sum partnerships, because it builds trust and predictability among people through these institutions. Owing to the importance of social trust as the underpinning of government, the positive-sum conception also assumes that leaders’ education, character, and moral integrity are relevant to their fitness for office, since good leaders must consider others’ interests as well as their own. Since elected leaders gain legitimacy from the consent of the governed, it is better for them to be respected than feared, so it is better if leaders meet political challenges with persuasion rather than threats.

The positive-sum perspective credits the possibility over time of qualitative social progress—moral as well as material. In the American context, it affirms the possibility of American exceptionalism, as well as general human progress. Societies as well as individuals can learn.

The Enlightenment view is, on balance, an optimistic one, friendly to idealism and hope, but it is also prone to performative meliorism and utopian temptations. This is true not despite but because of classical liberalism’s nature as a bloodless, secular procedural framework for adjudicating conflicting interests. It is thus unfriendly to the heroic personality, but is unable totally to squelch it. Liberalism is a shield to protect the conscience and spiritual lives of individuals, families, and communities, where the true substance of life dwells.

Classical Enlightenment liberalism is thus sensitive to accusations of hypocrisy, because it knows shame and credits the possibility of atonement. (Religious language is appropriate here because the Enlightenment could not have set roots without the pro-modernist reforms in Christendom that accompanied the aborning Age of Reason.) While cooperation applies more readily within civil societies than it does in international relations, even there positive-sum partnerships are possible, from deep alliance ties to multilateral functional concerts.

The zero-sum conception, by contrast, admits only competition and conflict, among both individuals and groups. A great deal flows from this premise, too.

It denies the possibility of true partnerships where interests differ, seeing instead only the potential for transient transactional relationships. It is blind to organic community built on social trust, seeing instead social order as a continuous act of implicit coercion of the powerless by the powerful in the service of wealth, prestige accumulation, and protection. It sees both the law and police power merely as the means that the strong use to control the weak.

Since the zero-sum connection sees morality as a hoax or a cover for selfishness, it grants no necessary connection between the education, character, or integrity of leaders and their fitness to hold office; it cares only about efficacy, as defined by one’s own side. Others’ interests are relevant only to the extent that they harm or hinder one’s own self-interest.

Zero-sum thinking ridicules the consent of the governed as an empty piety. Legitimacy ultimately rests on strength or the appearance of strength; consent is easily manufactured or faked. Elections are merely contests to see who can better manufacture the symbols and tokens of consent. Good government, at least in the liberal dispensation, is by nature neither limited nor self-limiting; it is about crowning the most successful predator group and individuals within that group, and tends strongly to authoritarian styles. Thus in the zero-sum mentality, it is far better for leaders to be feared than respected, which is why every challenge to leadership must be met with reciprocal vigor.

The zero-sum attitude mocks the ideal of American exceptionalism. Its view of history is cyclical, if not dystopian. The glass is not half empty, but shattered, if indeed it ever existed. Its austere realism is prone to pessimism and fatalism, and to a dearth of empathy. It is vulnerable to self-fulfilling demobilization in the face of civilizational challenges. It is invulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy, because it knows only self-regard and bottom lines.

To those of the zero-sum perspective, positive-sum relationships are strictly limited in civil societies to select kinship networks, but are wholly illusory in international relationships. “The strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.” One likes to think Thucydides wrote that famous line in sorrow, but contemporary zero-sum proponents utter it with aplomb, as a preemptive excuse for their own contemplated program of exclusionary self-advancement.

In short, then, the positive-sum perspective rues the existence of adversaries but is resigned to their existence; the zero-sum perspective needs adversaries for its world to make internal sense, and so finds them. The positive-sum perspective seeks maximum feasible unity; the zero-sum perspective seeks to stoke and then harvest division.


Everywhere we look in American culture today, especially the farther we look left or right, we see the erosion of the core Enlightenment premise of seeking to institutionalize positive-sum relationships, and the rise of dog-eat-dog, “Darwinian” survivalist, zero-sum metaphors.

Evidence? Let’s keep it obvious and direct: There is no way even to begin to imagine how Donald Trump could ever have been elected President, and nearly elected twice, were this not so. Go down the list of zero-sum characteristics just laid out and you will have little trouble matching Donald Trump’s behavior these past four years to each and every one of these themes, and, increasingly, the behavior of what has become the Republican Party. But consider a few specific examples.

Without understanding the zero-sum mentality there is no way to explain the Trump White House’s wholly instrumental attitude toward facticity, the President’s “perfect” absence of empathy, or his failure to understand that some facets of government, like the military and intelligence community, not to speak of an independent judiciary, are supposed to be free from politicization pressures. Trump has not recognized any distinction between his personal interests and predilections and those of the state. That even extends, as far as he could push it, to property and money.

The reason is that in the zero-sum mentality, no neutral space can exist in what is by definition a totally conflictual environment. Everything is potentially weaponizable, with the result that for any given engagement there can only be winners and losers. That is why the combination of law and traditional norms concerning election conduct, concession gestures, and so on has no meaning for Trump or, it would seem, his party. Law as a neutral space or instrument is as devoid of sense in his zero-sum brain as the notion of a “loyal” opposition. There is no law, only lawfare.

Speaking of the law, there is no other way to explain Attorney General William Barr’s arguments on behalf of a unitary executive, clearly a Hobbesian notion, not a Lockean one, even though Trump more resembles a would-be mafia don than he does a pre-parliamentary sovereign of Hobbes’ imagination.

There is no way, other than zero-sum thinking, to explain the farcical Senate Republican impeachment trial, in which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell openly proclaimed that partisan interests took precedence over his oath of office. And the people of Kentucky re-elected him anyway.

There’s no other way to explain how one side in the recent election was devoted to playing by the rules, because it judged the rules to be in the public interest over the long haul, and the other side was not only willing to lie but even to admit it was lying. The Trump campaign was stunningly open about the fact that it expected to lose the election and so readied an outlandish litigation strategy to throw the outcome, if possible, to the Supreme Court, as Barton Gellman laid out in his much-read Atlantic essay.

On the other hand, there is also no other way to explain the rapid rise of “wokeness” and critical race theory. Like the zero-sum types on the right, the woke crowd shares the same base conception of human nature as a condition defined only by competition, conflict, and ultimately coercion and violence. The Black Lives Matter platform from 2016 claimed that America’s riches were and remain a consequence entirely of white people exploiting black and brown people from 1619 to date; it was all there, online, in much too stark black and white, before the platform was taken down recently for reasons still to be determined.

Or consult the Jacobin website, where you can find pristine zero-sum primitiveness unchanged from the days when Karl Marx drew breath as he uttered the surplus theory of value: “The working class … collectively make up a class of people who are exploited to create profits for the few. Understanding how class works and on what basis class positions are determined help to reveal the structures of power and exploitation in our society.”

Or consult any radical feminist rant about the patriarchy, about heterosexual marriage being, in effect, a cover for rape (for there cannot be true love or intimacy in relationships that are inherently dominant-submissive in nature). As with race, as with class, so with gender: It’s all about power, conflict, exploitation, and the production of victims never ending.

Whatever the issue or whatever group is engaged, the zero-sum conviction is that general circumstances never improve from learning, conciliation, or compromise among those with differing interests based in group identities. Only confrontation—by hurting one’s adversaries and forcing them to concede—ever brings progress, and in confrontation no shared rules or norms exist. Everything here, too, is politically weaponizable, not to exclude lies, gestures toward violence, and ultimately violence itself.

The main difference between right and left zero-sum frameworks is that the anti-Enlightenment Right think in terms of individuals and presume themselves to be the winners, the John Galts of the world; the neo-Marxian Left think in terms of groups and insist they’re the losers, the victims. It’s a perfect complementary match made anywhere but in heaven.

All of this raises two questions. The first is simple to state, but hard to answer. The second is more discursive, and perhaps impossible to answer.

First, why is this happening? Second, which little metaphorical “picture” of human nature, to paraphrase Aristotle, that we adopt for thinking about these subjects is really closest to social reality? In other words, are we now spoiling something fine, something both discovered about social reality and hard-won in the broad institutional establishment of that truth over time? This is the premise of what we may fairly call the American center. Or were Enlightenment premises just a transient idealism, parochial in origin and never universal as pretended—just a secularized version of Christian meliorism and eschatology, with reason switched in as the new godhead and science the new savior—and bound eventually to be unmasked for the flimsy ideology they always were?

Or consider a third possibility: If we accept phenomenological premises about the plasticity and free reign of human creativity, then perhaps the ontological status of the Enlightenment is for us to establish going forward, just as has been the case in the past.

That would align with the view once expressed by Katharine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in the 1951 film The African Queen. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” she says, implying that human nature is partly given and partly what we make of it. It also aligns, albeit a bit differently, with the view expressed by Samuel Huntington that “individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom make Western civilization unique, and Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.” These institutions, in other words, are what the West, and only the West originally, made from the raw social materials with which it was endowed.

An Array of Sources

A serious answer to the question about the apparent waxing of the zero-sum mentality would take a book. For the purposes of an essay, one must speak succinctly and let footnotes suggest what a more detailed discussion would sound like. To that end, I have grouped possible explanatory factors in seven buckets or categories, which are causally intermingled.

First, Americans never totally abandoned the pre-Enlightenment premise of a zero-sum world. Taking on classical liberalism as a worldview requires a facility for abstract thinking, courtesy of acquired deep literacy, that not everyone possessed in the past or possesses now. Americans have believed many simple-minded and even crazy things over the past three hundred or so years, some of them oozing their way into political life.1

Moreover, something about Anglo-American Protestantism, especially its Calvinist-Puritan shard, displays an affinity with a Manichean two-valued orientation.2 It showed in British “onward Christian soldiers” imperialism, and it has showed especially vividly in U.S. foreign policy, particularly when the nation is aroused. We’re good at either/or, “my way or the highway” thinking and martial metaphors for nearly everything. Getting to enlightened positive-sum self-interest from plain old pre-Darwin “social Darwinist” thinking does not come naturally to many of us.

What’s new, then? Politics used to be mainly an elite affair, our egalitarian pretensions notwithstanding. Gatekeepers kept the lava flows of mass arational and zero-sum thinking at bay, most of the time.3 But as “mass man” emerged in the 20th century, and then as one American elite niche after another revolted against its traditional responsibilities in the last two or three decades of that century, authority structures flattened and egalitarian impulses flooded into cultural zones where they had once been scarce.4

When these impulses flow into politics in America, they invariably adopt a para-religious syntax and tone. This is a very religious country, so much so that some people who act in religious ways don’t even realize it. One sees this not only among pro-Trump Evangelicals but also among the “woke” Left, which, despite its secular pretenses, is really a Christological religious cult in secular drag. As my Paris-based friend Claire Berlinski put it, its members swim “the waters of the Christian goldfish bowl.”

Consider: What is being “woke” but a de-churched, 21st-century version of grace? Only some have it, so are superior to the rest, enabling a pure form of priestly condescension that even has its own version of what used to be called shunning: “cancel culture.” (Tocqueville predicted this part, reasoning that, without the moderating force of traditional communal religion, Americans would translate those energies into politics, look for God in all the wrong places, and jeopardize the proper, smooth functioning of religion and politics alike.) What is feckless virtue-signaling except a de-churched version of a votive act? To say it is to do it, a link less than six degrees of separation back to primitive word magic.

Why are there chanting, singing, and feelings of communal elation at protest rallies? Because these resemble Methodist camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening, or the Chautauqua fests of later decades. This is not new as a secularized expression of religious fervor: Much of the radicalism of the Sixties was “a search for the sacred.” “Antiwar rallies, whatever else they were, were a form of communal worship” and were attractive to many “as a substitute for more conventional forms of communal prayer.” These events were joyful, exhilarating, spontaneous, community-knitting, upbeat, hopeful—in short, a religious experience, or at least a “spiritual” one. Most of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the great majority peaceful and racially integrated, have been similar (and then as now, some protests were hijacked and turned violent by tiny ideological groups or opportunistic neighborhood thugs).

What is the obsession with claiming and idolizing victimhood except a modernized form of the old Christian martyrology complex, the main difference being that it is now possible to experience group martyrology without actually having to die, or even coming close to death? To be blessed requires that one be meek, poor, persecuted, hated, excluded, or reviled—preferably as many of these as possible at the same time. This is very Christian.

What does this crypto-theology sound like coming out of the mouths of the newly “woke”? It sounds like a religious confession. Here’s a recent example from an American couple living abroad writing to friends and relatives this past June, the authors being privileged white Protestants in their thirties:

We both grew up in predominantly white communities. We never feared the police. We never worried that systemic racism could kill someone in our family. We believed that if we were kind to people of color, we were not racist. We were sure that white supremacy culture existed only among extreme, violent, white nationalists. We had the luxury of ignoring the perspectives of black activists and disregarding activist movements for racial justice.
We’re learning that simply being kind to people of color is not enough. We’re learning that, no matter how exceptional we are or how good our intentions, we have deeply embedded racist beliefs and behaviors. Every American does.
We’re learning that racism and white supremacy culture are like pollution in the air and poison in our water. It’s impossible to avoid inhaling or consuming them. Racist ideas are reinforced in classrooms, political speeches, movies, advertising, and social media. White supremacy culture shapes our legal and political systems. It seeps into the way we think, the way we act, and the way we live our lives. It’s so omnipresent, we’re blind to the fact it’s there.

Above all, as this text illustrates, there is an uncanny parallel between the Christian doctrine of original sin, the view that all humans are “fallen,” inherently stained and guilty, and the “woke” zero-sum premise of American foundational racism. Humans have always been guilty, so before, so now: That’s how we get to magical ideas like all white Americans have “deeply embedded racist beliefs and behaviors” of which they are unaware. It’s intrinsic, you see. It’s the 21st-century American way of being “fallen.”

This kind of mea culpa “white magic” confessional jeremiad dressed up as analysis better resembles “spectral evidence” of witches “researched” among 17th-century New England Puritans. Racism is like air and water pollution? That’s not sociology; it’s a modernized Cotton Mather sermon. Such confessionals increasingly populate mainstream venues. Thus the Washington Post’s art and architecture critic, Philip Kennicott, wrote recently:

Trumpism is embedded in America and can be fought only through rigorous self-discipline, through constant surveillance of the thoughts we think, the words we use, and the assumptions we make. There was white supremacy before we started thinking of it as Trumpism, but before Trump, there also was a tendency to think of it as “out there” rather than “in here.” Now we know it not as a perverse blemish on American culture but as foundational to American culture. That’s progress.

No, that’s not progress; that’s pseudo-religious crap characteristic of the now-galloping, de-churched fourth American Great Awakening. “Constant surveillance of the thoughts we think,” with everyone playing the role of his or her own Grand Inquisitor (and if you don’t, certainly some “woke” compatriot will)—what’s next? A new version of Black Death Flagellants beating themselves with chains through the streets of Portland, Oregon?

To seal the larger practical point: The percentage of Americans besotted with a zero-sum mentality may not have changed much, but, particularly in these unusually stressful times, its access into and impact on national politics has clearly increased at the margins, and has done so with particular alacrity on the far Left. Then again, it’s possible that the raw number of zero-sum thinkers has indeed grown in relation to positive-sum thinkers, as each of the next six conceptual buckets suggests.


A second explanatory factor is that, to many, the U.S. economy resembles a brutal, zero-sum world more than it does a positive-sum one. In nearly every labor-profile niche, there is less job security and more competition. With cost disease afflicting healthcare, higher education, housing, and more, what little wage growth there is gets wiped out before it can even settle into a bank account. The old trickle-down isn’t trickling so well as people thought it used to, and as it arguably did in the age of the post-World War II Iron Triangle of Big Business and Big Labor with government as convener and mediator.

Inequality has also increased, although not for the reasons—and not in the ways—most people think.5 The old model of lifetime employment has given up the ghost to the gig economy—again, that’s the popular perception, accompanied by at least a dollop of reality.

Moreover, institutional change, often propelled by the unanticipated side effects of technological change, has created massive insecurity for the non-elite. What most Americans experience in their day-to-day economic struggles seems ever more zero-sum-like, and increasingly alien to the positive-sum assumptions that are resplendent in American political institutions.

Third is the impact of mass-entertainment spectacle, and particularly what George Gerbner termed “the mean world syndrome,” which constitutes large volumes of digital entertainments of all kinds. Mass-market spectacle entertainment, increasingly vivid and fantasy-oriented, essentially works because it appeals to minds operating with a roughly teenage vocabulary and fictive imagination. To sell massively, including in export markets, the plots need to be simple. Us-versus-them, zero-sum kinds of stories obviously work better than positive-sum, more nuanced portrayals of human relationships.

Many think that most adult humans have no problem distinguishing reality from fiction, so that the kinds of fantasy entertainment they consume has no bearing on the nation’s larger social or political life. Solomon Asch’s famous conformity experiments from the 1950s debunked that conceit. Life really does imitate art, even bad art. There is no question that a major shadow effect on American politics now exists from our “amusing ourselves to death,” to quote the title of Neil Postman’s prophetic 1985 book. There is no doubt that the rising popularity of conspiracy theories in American politics owes much to the fact that increasingly large numbers of Americans cannot conceive of an explanation for any political phenomenon that is more complex or nuanced than a standard commercial-movie or television-show plot.

Fourth is the simple fact, now accumulated over multiple generations, that few public schools teach civics as a political socialization exercise. America’s civic nationalism is more abstract and fragile than are the more numerous bloodline varieties, and understanding of America’s Enlightenment-based institutions does not come naturally. It must be taught. If it is not, into the vacuum will pour older, less refined forms of thinking about social and political life.

It’s probably worse than that. Having escaped high school with little to no civics background, graduates who attend college are usually lambasted with “woke” critical theory depicting American political institutions as predatory and evil. Most normal students are, wisely, too wary of academics to swallow such stuff whole, but some do, ending up as the vanguard of campus illiberalism, while the more skeptical are often intimidated into silence. Hence the sad irony of campuses espousing diversity while hosting the most intellectually conformist generation in American history. Neo-Marxist cant is fast becoming the default permissible language, and any positive-sum perspective is simply disallowed. Many administrators quietly love it; it’s so much better to have students shaming, harassing, calling out, and cancelling other students (and occasional errant faculty members) than it is to have them lock you in your office and threaten to hurl you from a fifth-floor window.

Fifth, we have seen, at least since September 11, 2001, a cultural militarization of sorts. We have certainly witnessed a massive militarization of policing, which is a big part of the problem that many observers think is only about racism.6 Military metaphors are by nature zero-sum. Fighting and dying do not dispose themselves to cooperative images among those with different interests and purposes.


Sixth, social trust has deeply eroded in American society over the past several decades. Many intertwined reasons may be adduced, some having to do with technology and its effects over time on a range of institutions, others with a decline in traditional religious mores, still others with higher rates of divorce, single parenting, and subsequent emotional instability in raising children. Unloved, or inadequately loved, children are the font of much sadness and trouble in the world.

Americans have been bowling alone for a long while, well before Robert Putnam put the problem on the front burner thirty-five years ago. The underlying sinews of organic community, the capillaries of broader partnerships themselves, have been harmed. Again it’s a matter of everyday zero-sum-feeling praxis stacked against the positive-sum ideals embedded in our political order.

Yet somehow our positive-sum-based political order has managed to generate a social reality that seems to increasingly incubate zero-sum thinking. This is the cultural contradiction, or dialectic, of the Enlightenment, at least as it has manifested in America. Read Yale political scientist James C. Scott on this point:

[T]he formal order of the liberal state depends fundamentally on a social capital of habits of mutuality and cooperation that antedate it, which it cannot create, and which in fact it undermines. The state, arguably, destroys the natural initiative and responsibility that arise from voluntary cooperation. Further, the neoliberal celebration of the individual maximizer over society … encourage[s] habits of social calculation that smack of social Darwinism…. [W]e are in danger now of becoming precisely the dangerous predators that Hobbes thought populated the state of nature. Leviathan may have given birth to its own justification.

Edmund Burke could not have said it better, even if neither he nor Scott specifically invoked the zero-sum/positive-sum dichotomy beneath it all. As I put it three years ago, Americans have deprecated their own positive-sum communal past in the name of an ideology of individualism manqué, which by its nature is friendlier to zero-sum thinking. Ironic, no? Reminiscent of dialectical arguments about the cultural contradictions of capitalism, yes? Of course yes; that’s the model behind this essay’s method.

Just to round off this sixth point: A politically significant aspect of the social trust bucket concerns the twin-star political solar system in which immigration and ethnicity rotate around one another. Put simply, mutual suspicions abound that each major party is essentially trying to steal the country’s identity for itself via immigration policy. Many Democrats believe that Trumpists oppose robust immigration to preserve “white” domination of the nation’s wealth and status structures. Many Republicans believe that the Democrats have been trying to render the GOP electorally extinct by changing America’s demography into that of a “majority minority” nation through immigration.

Both either err or exaggerate, meaning fortunately that reforming immigration policy has been, and remains, possible. The truth is that neither group identity markers (for Democrats) nor raw ethnic demography (for Republicans) is tantamount to political destiny. But one could hardly ask for a more starkly zero-sum disagreement to permeate the public policy agenda, and until the error beneath the disagreement is recognized and banished, there will be no reform.


The seventh factor in the ascendence of zero-sum thinking is the massive erosion of deep literacy that I have written about elsewhere in the face of the cybernetic onslaught, the suzerainty of the screens. The creator of the new Planet Word Museum in Washington, Ann B. Friedman, put it directly when she said that, “Literacy is at the heart of democracy.” Certainly, literacy is at the heart of liberalism, and one can argue as well that the very fact of representation at the core of democratic politics is abstract enough that some non-deep literate societies don’t seem to get the idea very well.

People who don’t read can’t think, at least as one normally uses the term. They cannot wrap their heads around complexity and come up with frameworks of understanding. They can only collect unorganized facts, the disorganization of which renders them vulnerable to being doubted as facts. Facticity is a network; facts make sense in relation to one another. Without a network, what is and isn’t real or true becomes tenuous and especially subject to disruption. Without a network, discrete facts add up to nothing coherent, which is another facet, or a reflection, of the zero-sum: 1+1+1+1 ... =0.

Non-readers also lose some capacity to develop a mature theory of mind, and so can’t readily empathize with those different from themselves. That accentuates perceptions of differences, not commonalities. They also have trouble with constructive imagination and planning, because the technology of screens destroys sequence sensitivity, plunging addicted users into a totalizing present.

In other words, those who aged naturally into their cyber-addictions, in which people see and hear more mediated images in a given day than direct ones, have trouble assembling a more or less accurate and detailed chronological account of their own lives. That characteristic is also true, cultural anthropologists tell us, for those living in pre-literate societies, where time has a tendency to fluctuate flexibly in memory. Literate societies, and the deeply literate amid them, can order linearity to practical purposes; illiterate, pre-literate, and post-literate societies, not so much.

To the extent that older people are also screen-saturated and do not, or cannot any longer, read books or long-form writing, the same present-oriented skimming habits and lack of cognitive patience produce the same result: They can’t think.7 Under those circumstances—little linear reading time, lots of image-saturated entertainment fare in the relentless present—a law of cognition is bound to intrude for many: Ignorance conflates, knowledge distinguishes. Conflation readily breaks down into either/or modes of thought, into lazy ideological thinking, and into the two-valued orientation and the zero-sum.

So, back to our quotidian example. Donald Trump tried secretly to get foreign governments to help him politically and was impeached for it. Typical conflational response of his supporters, this one caught on camera: “Well, they all do it, don’t they?” So Trump releases the transcript of his conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, and his supporters cannot understand why this is a basis for impeachment, since “everyone does it.” Must be partisan plotting by the deep state instead. This is how self-avowed realism slides imperceptibly into the cynicism of fools.

Am I arguing that everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a primitive-minded, zero-sum thinking dolt and a racist, and everyone who voted for Joe Biden is an Enlightenment-elevated, positive-sum-thinking cosmopolitan sophisticate? Of course not. Of the more than seventy million Americans who voted for Trump, plenty of college graduates among them, many did so because they are wedded to the Republican brand and favor policies like deregulation, lower taxes, being tough on illegal immigrants, and so on; or because they were more fearful of the “woke” illiberalism of the Left; or because they are single-issue culture war voters. A person need not be uneducated or a “deplorable” to vote based on such views.

Also yes: We must await a full analysis of the numbers, but at this rattled time of pandemic and national crisis (again) over race relations, larger than usual lava flows of irrationality are to be expected. For that reason alone, the simplistic ideological thinking characteristic of populist politics—on the left as well as the right—is bound to be more salient. It’s just that, for all the noise they make and all the inroads into American salon culture they have gained, non-deep-literate, anti-Enlightenment “woke” voters are far fewer than non-deep-literate, illiberal, anti-Enlightenment voters on the conservative side. Given Trump’s whacko performance in office, the recent election was the Democrats’ to lose. That the result was as close as it was, and that in Congress and state houses across the country Democrats did far poorer than predicted, must owe something to the fact that among rattled Americans voters, justifiably or not, those afraid of left-wing excesses-in-waiting outnumber those afraid of right-wing excesses-in-waiting.

Meanwhile, the cacophony of zero-sum shouting between right and left extremes, amplified gleefully by a greedy, clickbait-oriented commercial media competing for market share, has further reinforced and spread zero-sum thinking throughout the nation. It would not be possible for politicians to get away with behaving like unscrupulous lawyers who see truth and the law as mere transactional tools if a large enough part of the American body politic cared enough to stop them. The invasion of zero-sum attitudes and behaviors appears to have further normalized a mentality that, in the long run, is incompatible with a healthy liberal democracy. One therefore has to wonder what the future holds for American politics’ Enlightenment-based institutions.

That Second Question...

Are Enlightenment values in some sense real, validated by history, and in some non-mystical way universal? Or are they idealist malarkey foisted on Western societies by a group of ambitious 18th-century philosophes, with no real basis in human nature or social history? When I have criticized pure forms of liberal internationalism for being guilty of magical thinking, for supposing that enlightened norms can exist without the hard power of liberal nations’ standing behind and insisting upon them, have I been just as guilty for believing in the positive-sum-based norms of civil societies like that of the United States?

Or is the phenomenological frame, after all, the right way to think about the question? I cannot assemble a non-mystical narrative of Enlightenment predicates as a truth somehow discovered and universal in application, but I shudder to think that human nature is destined to repeat one Lord of the Flies moment after another. History does not bear out that description in any case; while less than purely Whiggish, history is not a nightmare from which James Joyce and so many others have said they are trying to awake, and it is not just, as Hegel claimed, “a butcher’s block.” History is, if not exactly “an angel falling backwards into the future,” as Laurie Anderson wrote, a capacious illustration of the glories, shortcomings, and, yes, episodic madness of a complex and endlessly fascinating human nature. Only by knowing how the story ends can anyone characterize the whole narrative’s historical arc, and no one knows that.

It seems to me that history is, and America is, what we collectively have made it, and it will be what we will make it. Within limits, we as a species have the capacity to make choices that matter and we thus bear the responsibilities that go with them. Not that I compare myself to Nietzsche, but when I look into the abyss I see a smiling satyr looking back at me, mouthing the phrase, “Your move.” Oddly enough, under the circumstances and given the alternatives, I find that a comfort.

Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, the founding editor of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

1Described, regrettably without a persuasive theory, by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire—A 500-Year History (Random House, 2017). Note also Richard J. Hofstadter’s classic 1964 Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The essay has since been much criticized, but it basically passes the test of time.

2The term “two-valued orientation” is from S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1949).

3We lack space to delve much into it, but when the Populists took control of the Democratic Party in 1896, after a convulsive age of change from a predominantly rural agriculture-based economy into a more urban industrial economy, the nation was awash in anxiety, alcoholism, pseudo-scientific racism, and Christian fundamentalist anti-science yahooism. Remember that the leader of the Populists, as they swelled into the Democratic Party, was of “cross of gold,” Scopes-trial fame, William Jennings Bryan. Remember, too, that the Democratic Party of 1896 was largely a Southern- and Midwestern-based party, just as the post-Nixonian “Southern Strategy” Republican Party is today a largely Southern- and Midwestern-based party. I’m sure this is what Bob Dylan meant in 1966 when he wrote of “having to pay not to go through all these things twice.” We surely paid, but not enough to escape the second coming of mass-national populism.

4Here the key texts are José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (1930) and Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1985), the latter having been best updated in recent years by Stephen Brill’s Tailspin (Knopf, 2018).

5See Tyler Cowen, “The Inequality That Matters,” The American Interest, January/February 2011, and especially Neil Gilbert, Never Enough: Capitalism and the Progressive Spirit (Oxford University Press, 2016).

6See Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs, 2013), and Richard Thompson Ford, “Criminal Injustice,” The American Interest, July 7, 2020. For some deeper history and useful complications see James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

7Note the haunting introduction to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, 2010).