New Divisions–Or Just Old Ones Renewed?


David Brooks writes in today’s The New York Times of “the fact that we’ve regressed from a sophisticated moral ethos to a primitive one.” This has always been a favorite conservative trope, that we should yearn for the beliefs and coherences of yesteryear. Yet it has no truth behind it, as any student of history knows.

Richard Hofstadter, in an article for Harper’s in 1964, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” argues that the primitive strain has always been with us, that apparent change is really “the same frame of mind, but [with] a different villain.” That is, there is always a current crisis threatening a fading Eden and it is always the same except in name:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.

This is where Brooks is living today, in a tradition that runs back through Robert Welch, as Hofstadter shows, to the earliest days of the nation. Brooks argues that we have simplified things, today, into a simplistic us-versus-them, but it was always so, as Hofstadter also points out. Since time immemorial:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.

The paranoid style, for that’s what it really is, isn’t even purely American, but can be found in almost any nation or culture on earth. As Hofstadter claims:

Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.

It is this last that has been happening today, to a level above what we’ve seen before. The right felt shut out under Obama; the left feels shut out today.

I do understand the political intent of Brooks, who wants to effect some sort of political reconciliation, but he is arguing from a romanticized and un-schooled vision of the United States and its history. He cannot succeed on the basis of his unwarranted assumptions, though he tries to frame his column today with the work of a couple of academics.

Using the individual to stand for the universal (a logical fallacy), Brooks goes from a vision of Martin Luther King to claiming it is a vision once held by all Americans, then arguing that from “an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity, we’ve gone to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy.” Clearly (and not simply from a reading of Hofstadter), this is not true. It follows that we cannot trust this argument as a support for Brooks’ conclusion that the “problem is that tribal common-enemy thinking tears a diverse nation apart.” We’ve had that type of thinking since the nation was founded and have managed to survive, anyhow. Whether we will continue to or not is an open question, but our problem is not the simplistic one that Brooks posits. The reality is much more complex.

It is not true that “King was operating when there was high social trust.” The sixties killed him, which should be a strong enough argument, if one is needed at all, countering that statement. In fact, there has never been ‘high social trust’ in America. Just ask an African-American—or ask my great-grandfather, an Ohio sheriff who failed to stop a lynching, in part because he could not even trust his few deputies facing a crowd of thousands—who themselves had no trust in the laws and norms of society.

If Brooks really wants to be part of any movement to overcome the divides within American culture, he is first going to have to recognize that the divides today have roots going back hundreds of years—going back even further than that. The genius of the American political system, if there is one, has been that is has allowed people to compromise without retreating from their beliefs—for those are not going to change. Our challenge today is not so much to reduce the paranoid factors in American politics but to bridge them. The problem of the past years is that we have rarely been able to do that effectively. We face the same problem today.

It’s a problem we have frequently failed to solve, even through compromise. It happened in the 1950s, when attempts at compromise helped lead us to Civil War. Brooks, with his naïve views, would have us try the same sort of compromises today that failed then.

I don’t know what can save the United States, but it is never simply going to be fighting “injustice on the basis of our common humanity” as Brooks would have us do–commonality having only a mythical place in American culture. Perhaps the string had again run out on the possibility of compromise, as it has done before. Perhaps we do need to find an alternative–and Brooks (I’ll say this much for him) does seem to be seeking one.

We won’t find it, however, by wringing our hands and bemoaning the loss of a past we never had in the first place.

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