November 16, 2016

Watch Out: American Politics may get even Uglier.

Sometimes it seems the foundations of American government are cracking from the sheer weight of contradictory opinion.

 The balance of powers, Congress and the Presidency, the Supreme Court and the major parties are like the flying buttresses of grand cathedrals whose opposing forces hold together the structure of government.

But the space between the opposing forces, where public opinion is debated and formed, has long been a place of communion. Americans come together through debate, and through debate we forge a more perfect union—or so the story goes.

Yet, it is beginning to look like too many cathedrals of Europe, whose widening fissures foretell a coming collapse.

Democratic societies have always been places of vigorous debate. Ancient Greece was an incubator of great philosophers and playwrights because they could express themselves freely. And this meant philosophers, like Socrates, and playwrights, like Euripides, often challenged the status quo.

Freedom of speech and assembly made the public sphere a marketplace of ideas, where philosophers debated and philosophical debate often resulted in political upheaval. Since free individuals will always arrive at their own idiosyncratic values, democracy may always be an incubator not only of good ideas but of discontent as well. Yet, for all their strife, democracies tend to arrive at an astonishing degree of consensus.

The social theorist, Herbert Marcuse, excoriated liberal societies for this conformity in a sixties classic, One Dimensional Man. He argued that advertising and the media of advanced industrial societies create false needs, resulting in one-dimensional personas, divorced from the things that matter, and entrained to a life of work and consumption. The idea became a philosophical underpinning of sixties protest and enriched thinking on consumer-capitalism, environmentalism, and personal-development.

But Marcuse ignored a deeper consensus arrived at through reason and debate. When everyone has access to the same information, and can talk about it freely, some ideas survive and others die, as reason moderates and society arbitrates. And the best ideas tend to be grounded in reality, for it is easier to form winning coalitions around a reality to which everyone has access than to a world of private fantasies.

The liberal center has long held around commonsense rationality, backed by science. Informed individuals reason through what they know and confirm it with science. We think through the need for a higher minimum wage and then listen to the economists, reason through the debate on genetic engineering with an eye toward the science. And since everyone has access to the same set of tools, they tend to arrive at a similar set of beliefs. As Walter Cronkite used say at the end his newscasts, “that’s the way it is.”

However, as scientific studies multiply and scientific disciplines become increasingly specialized, commonsense rationality parts ways with science, which tends to yield increasingly counter-intuitive results. Further, the sheer volume of information and perspectives makes it virtually impossible for any one person to canvass the facts that matter. And anyways, science has placed it all under dispute, so individuals trying to make sense of the world are left without reference points. The center no longer holds, and the political consensus implodes.

It is a curious thing to watch the fracturing of a republic. Perhaps the most palpable experience is one of mistrust. The epidemiologists, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkenson, demonstrate in an epic study on inequality that unequal societies are more mistrustful. As more and more people feel marginalized, mistrust for government, the media, and fellow citizens grows.

The sheer volume of information and the inability to get a handle on who is right and trustworthy also plays a part. And conspiracy theorists left-and-right are quick to fill the void, stringing together ever-more outlandish fabrications. The problem is not simply that everyone gets their information from different sources. The philosopher, Charles Taylor, points out in A Secular Age that the process of modernization involves an ever-growing proliferation of ways of knowing and being. Different groups derive their identities from different sources and gather together in their own communities, where they consume their own information and formulate their own perspectives.

Far from producing a “one-dimensional man,” in the words of Marcuse, post-industrial society produces a profusion of identities from which we can choose. And its consumerism becomes a trafficking in the books and music and clothing through which these identities are expressed. Evangelical Christians and Buddhists, hipsters and hippies, yuppies and bikers all traffic in their own goods and generate their own narratives about the way the world works.

But if everyone knows a different world through different means, then postmodern society is a Babel of competing voices. And if ever there were neutral arbiters of truth, we have lost the capacity to identify, much less agree, upon who they are. Yet, if we cannot know what is true, then there is no basis for common action and politics becomes a battlefield in which the winner is determined by who can yell the loudest, measured in terms of dollars raised.

It helps to listen closely, to feel into the worlds of others, to watch their movies and read their literature. But empathy is not enough when we are dealing with questions of what is right and true. It helps to parse the scientific studies, to stay well informed and think through the issues. But reason is not enough when dealing with competing facts. The answer may lie in the capacity to see into and reason over many rival goods. However, few possess this capacity, and until they do, politics may just get uglier.

If you liked this piece, please check out my book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind, and join the dialogue on Facebook.



Author: Theo Horesh

Image: Marcus Yam/Twitter

Editor: Travis May

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