Our Pathological Politics and the Search for a Cure

The great predicament of our moment in history is the collapse of the public’s trust in democratic institutions. That collapse is long-running, well-established, and catastrophic. Every corner of our fractured political landscape feels compelled to express, vociferously, its anger and repudiation. The default rhetorical posture of the web has become the rant.

At the extremes, there has been real violence. Black Lives Matter militants rampaged in our urban centers because they claimed to feel oppressed by the systemic racism of American society. QAnon protesters violated the Capitol building in Washington because they believed the electoral process was a fraud. Lives were lost in these incidents. Today democratic institutions have hordes of hyper-motivated antagonists and few defenders.

In his essay “Classical Liberals in a Polarized Age,” Kevin Vallier suggests that the crisis of trust hasn’t received the attention it deserves. That is certainly true, but not for lack of scholars who have tried to make sense of it. Yuval Levin, for one, has found the hemorrhage of trust to be largely deserved. The institutions, Levin writes, were once “formative” – they molded the character and discipline of those who inhabited them – but are now “performative” – mere platforms for elite self-expression and the promotion of personal brands. The military, which still manages to imbue its members with a code of conduct as well as functional skills, has retained the highest levels of trust among the public.

I accept Levin’s description of the decadence of the institutions, and I have tried to explain it in terms of their maladaptation to a radically transformed information environment.

The great institutions of the twenty-first century – government, political parties, media – received their shape in the twentieth. That was the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity – and this model could be accepted as legitimate only so long as it enjoyed a semi-monopoly over information in every domain. The elites at the top of the pyramid talked, certain that nobody would talk back. They promised utopia and asked to be judged on their intentions, not their performance.

The digital tsunami has simply swept away the legitimacy of this model. The storm of information has reduced the institutions to theatrical stages, and the political class is utterly demoralized as the public, in their hundreds of millions, not only talks but screams back its opposition on every question. The public’s disenchantment with the institutions may be compared to modern science’s disenchantment of the world of fairies and goblins. The collapse in trust, at the deepest level, is the falling away of an old faith.

Vallier has a somewhat different take on the question. He calls himself repeatedly a “classical liberal.” What this means I want to take up later, but it’s clearly central to Vallier’s identity as a thinker: the high place from which he views the world. He believes that classical liberalism is “in decline” for the same reason that trust is in decline: the rise of a destructive polarization in our politics. Instead of thinking their way out of the predicament, classical liberals have yielded to the temptation to take sides. The essay reads, in part, like a search for a cure for polarization, but also like an attempt to discover a redemptive mission for classical liberals.

Vallier portrays the perils of distrust in a cool transactional manner. Distrust is said to be bad for personal freedom, business, and association. What makes this approach interesting is that trust is always a moral, not a transactional, decision. I may believe that joining an organization will offer me freedom, wealth, and popularity – yet I will withhold my trust, because I think the organization is unethical or abusive to others. Or I may join the Marines, and give away my freedom for little reward, yet fully trust my commanders because we are all in service to a noble calling. How much transactional thinking enters into these judgments is a fascinating question I am happy to leave open.

The metaphor of war recurs through Vallier’s depictions of polarization. Our politics are said to be “warlike,” “a ‘cold’ civil war,” and so on. The cause of this conflict is the increasing strength of “[i]lliberalisms, both left and right” – although, since wars are fought between people, I suppose Vallier means “illiberals.” These persons, he writes, “grow bold” and spur “one another with outrage, censorship, and tribalism.” But given the transactional “great goods” of a high-trust society, why should this be? Do illiberals engage in outrage and tribalism for its own sake, or do they imagine they are doing something quite different? Alas, we are not told. Since the theme of the essay is to “make peace” between political opponents, this lack of insight may prove to be a strategic obstacle to achieving that objective.

Much as illiberals are the cause of political war, classical liberals, we are told, should be peacemakers. Vallier proposes a “new anti-war liberalism” to deconflict our politics. He hopes to build a “united anti-war movement” on the model of the agitation against the Iraq war, although the parallel is imperfect and seems to confuse metaphor with reality. Vallier maintains that the best way to separate the contending parties in the conflict is to remove from them the threat of the herding impulse of the state. That is undoubtedly correct. To this end, he advocates pushing authority from the federal government to the state and local levels. Given how ideology and geography overlap in our country, that would be a large step towards restoring social peace. Finally, he adds a few policy prescriptions, like housing deregulation, that appear less directly related to his theme, about which I have little useful to say.

After reading “Classical Liberals in a Polarized Age,” I am left with three wishes and one objection.

I once heard economic historian Deirdre McCloskey say that she didn’t know what “classical” added to the meaning of “liberal.” Yet, as I have said, the full label is foundational to Vallier’s identity – and I wish he had been more explicit about what he means by it. He describes classical liberalism as “the political movement to which I belong” but the only names he cites are scholars and thinkers, and I don’t imagine that a political movement led by university professors could ever go far. I suspect the concept is better defined in Vallier’s book, Trust in a Polarized Age, and I look forward to learning in what ways classical liberals are more than just, say, liberals who enjoy Mozart (or the Beatles).

I really wish Vallier hadn’t leaned on the war metaphor, for many reasons. First, it’s a false parallel. He speaks of our politics being “more warlike than at any time in living memory,” but I am older than him – though still, I insist, living – and I can remember four college students shot to death by American national guardsmen at Kent State, Ohio, and half a million young people (I was among them) being tear-gassed and trampled by mounted police on Constitution Avenue, Washington DC. We have been here before, and we survived as a society and a nation.

Most importantly, the metaphor of war argues against Vallier’s stated purpose. If we are truly in an incipient civil war, this is hardly the time to reduce the authority of the federal government. I note that, in the past, the metaphor has been wielded by presidents pretty promiscuously – for example, against poverty, drugs, and terrorism – always with the intent of increasing the reach of federal power. I agree with Vallier about the benefits of decentralization – but, as I gaze out the window at my placid neighbors practicing social distance as they stroll, I can do so because I don’t believe we are remotely in a civil war.

My objection concerns the character of our predicament. It’s systemic, undermining every institutional structure that helps sustain contemporary life, and it has developed in a specific historical and technological context. If the malady is structural, so must the cure be. If the environment was a precipitating factor, that must be addressed. I object to Vallier’s use of categories devoid of scale or context. Nothing is said about whether the institutions, as currently configured, deserve our trust. That’s a fundamental question. Nothing is said about the historical trajectory or the informational context. I don’t see how the search for a cure can avoid retracing that path.

So I will end with my third wish: I wish that Kevin Vallier’s very original arguments had made reference to the quarrel between the public and the elites, to the evident decadence of our institutions, and to the peculiar warping of politics in the digital age. I think they would be stronger for it.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kevin Vallier argues that politics should not be war, and that classical liberals should strive to be peacekeepers. He marshals evidence that high levels of social trust lead to many desirable social outcomes, and that social trust in the United States has been on the wane. At the same time, Vallier also laments the decline of classical liberalism as a force in American politics. He proposes that classical liberals can reinvigorate their movement by addressing the problem of trust—a development that will improve the political climate for everyone.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz points out that civil society is of great value regardless of the political beliefs of those within it. Our neighbors—whom we may hate for voting for Trump, or for Biden—are the same people whom we greet and exchange kindnesses with. They are also the same people who provide us goods and services in the market—meaning that the market and civil society both stand in conflict with our harsher political impulses.

  • Martin Gurri places the blame for declining instutional trust squarely on how internet-mediated social interactions have fatally undermined many of our old, elite-run institutions. The problem is structural, he insists, and not the result of partisanship alone. He is doubtful that classical liberalism, however defined, can offer a workable solution.

  • Americans are paradoxically both highly polarized—and not all that ideologically divided, writes Irina Soboleva. Voters are intensely attached to their parties and their leaders, and, she argues, it is these institutions and leaders that have encouraged polarization. Political ignorance has exacerbated this tendency; in response, Soboleva calls for “buffer zones” of relatively nonpolitical life including but also extending beyond the market.