The Age of Reflexive Antagonism

When the obituary is written on American democracy, Jonathan Haidt will merit a mention.

No thinker has done a better job documenting the dizzying deterioration of our national fabric than this social psychologist.  Through his many books, lectures, and popular articles, Haidt has diagnosed our condition, and his verdict isn't good.  In fact, at our current trajectory, it's fatal.

Haidt first earned his fame with his moral foundations theory, which explains how our ethical beliefs, and thus our political voting habits, are shaped by particular values we hold.  For example, conservatives rank feelings of loyalty and respect for authority high on their personal scale.  Liberals, on the other hand, laud fairness and care for others.

It was from this formulation that Haidt branched out to how political strife is threatening what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the "vital center."  His first target: American universities and the vapid ideology thrust upon hapless students.  In Haidt's estimation, our institutions of higher learning are mollycoddle factories churning out aggrieved graduates who've never had their beliefs challenged.  This incubated sanctimony renders civil discourse impossible, as contrary views are seen as inherently malicious and thus illegitimate.

Anyone who's had a five-minute conversation with a recent college graduate knows exactly what Haidt is talking about.  Despite a freshly minted degree, most are dilettantes in everything other than reciting late-night comedy show monologues about Donald Trump.

In a recent speech before the Manhattan Institute, Haidt identified a new corrupter of comity: the Republican Party.  Haidt's conservative fans may take issue with this, but it would be to their detriment.  The man has a point: Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" in the mid-'90s ushered in a new era of gamesmanship that has only worsened the divide between the two major parties.

Gingrich, Haidt writes, deliberately shortened the legislative calendar to ensure that members would not move to Washington and "develop personal friendships with Democrats."  The chummy backroom dealing that previously defined politics was lost.  The bipartisan consensus that saw America through two world wars and a decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union vanished.

These two centrifugal forces – Republican brinkmanship tactics and university-sanctioned fealty to identity politics – have made us an enraged and unhappy people.  They pull us apart, testing the relational bonds that form a society.  Haidt doesn't limit his critique to just these two phenomena, though.  He also names the biased media, increased diversity through immigration, and the lack of a great enemy as other elements that tug at the sticky substance that keeps our national identity together.

Is it any surprise, then, that each new policy battle brings outrage followed by irrational retaliation?  The Republicans' big tax cuts package was protested vigorously by leftists, who claimed that allowing working people to keep more of their pay is the equivalent of genocide.  When the House of Representatives was voting on the final package, a woman in the gallery took her top off in hopes of jamming the process.

In a similar vexed fashion, when the FCC voted to end net neutrality regulations, which prevented big internet companies from providing faster access to certain content, Chairman Ajit Pai received hundreds of death threats.  Some people were so enraged at the idea of slower Netflix speeds that fantasizing about murder became OK.

Much of this senseless dissent is driven by news media that have, for all intents and purposes, dropped the veil of impartiality.  Trump's win shattered reality for many journalists; the America they thought they understood was made a mystery.  They react by adopting the rage of their readers.  Their language belies an immense hatred of the president and his supporters.

Following the passage of the GOP tax reform plan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and speaker of the House Paul Ryan were snapped in a picture, thumbs up and jubilant smiles on their faces, with President Trump and Vice President Pence.  Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser, joked that the picture would be on the front page of the New York Times "the day Trump is indicted."  Ben Rhodes, another former Obama staffer, chimed in with "alongside the obits for Ryan, McConnell, and Pence."

Had these been former George W. Bush staffers, our ears would be assaulted by the screeches of a thousand pundits decrying violence-filled, death-wishing rhetoric.  Instead, House whip Steve Scalise, who nearly died last April after a Bernie Sanders-supporting madman pretended he was on a fox hunt in a baseball field with defenseless congressmen, was left to chastise them.  That was unacceptable.  Since liberals hold the monopoly on victims shaming oppressors, it was left for Jonathan Chait of New York magazine to blithely dismiss his concern.

This isn't thinking; it is the reflexive antagonism Alasdair MacIntyre called "emotivism."  Partisan allegiance has clouded our ability to empathize and think clearly about problems that require collective action.  Pressing issues are no longer viewed through the lens of happy disagreement; rather, bitter rivalry sets the sights.

Anger is an easy drug.  It feels good being sanctimonious.  When we're pissed, we're invested in something.  That easy satisfaction has bled too deeply into our politics.  We, in the words of Iago, no longer have "reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts."

All's not lost, however.  Washington may be damned, but the wellsprings of talent may be improving.  As Haidt points out, more and more professors and students are pushing back against the stifled academic atmosphere on campus.  Haidt's own organization, Heterodox Academy, has exploded in size as liberal academics join with conservatives to stand up against intolerant suppression of ideas.

Just as Washington doesn't have to be a swamp where civil discourse goes to die, college doesn't have to be a bog of stagnant groupthink.  Change is possible.  But it starts most effectively at the personal level.  We must ask ourselves: how do we have disagreements that don't devolve into screaming matches?  How do we debate issues without letting hot emotion take control?

Next time you're knee-deep in all-caps arguments over Facebook with someone you know personally, here's a mild suggestion: quit griping.  Offer to grab him a drink.  Your heart, and your blood pressure, will be better off.

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