THR Blog   /   October 30, 2014

Divided We (Barely) Stand

Jay Tolson

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

In a recent column, New York Times columnist David Brooks aptly names a troubling new feature of American civic life. Partyism, as he dubs it, is an overheated and "hyper-moralized" partisanship that turns political differences into a "Manichean struggle of light and darkness." Whether Democrats or Republicans, Tea Party enthusiasts or Wall Street Occupiers, Americans today increasingly display a holier-than-thou certitude in judging their political foes. Those who hold opposing political positions are not merely misguided or ill-informed but also lacking in fundamental moral decency and, therefore, beyond the pale. Brooks elaborates:

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

Brooks is persuasive about the pernicious consequences of partyism. It forecloses any possibility of compromise, he says, by making even the slightest concession seem like the betrayal of one's core identity. It also leads people to ignore or shut out what might be valid points in diverging views. Not only does this plague of partyism destroy the art of politics; it  casts a pall over human interactions, making us an even more divided unum. Is it surprising, as many studies have shown, that even residential neighorhoods are increasingly segregated according to the red or blue preferences?

Brooks's description of our tragicomic dividedness is spot-on and convincing, but  I find his explanation for it both baffling and incomplete. As he sees it,

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

First, I'm not entirely sure what Brooks mean when he says that personal life is being de-moralized. It would seem, rather, that personal life is being re-moralized—that is, shaped and guided by moral standards quite different from those that once guided most people's lives.   These new standards tend not to derive from transcendent beliefs or deep ontological commitments. Nor, for the most part, are they upheld by institutions or traditions. Instead, they come largely out of those various lifestyle preferences and choices that we make in constructing our individual versions of the modern consumerist identity. (And even those traditionalists among us have generally opted for their traditions, while those born within faith or other traditions increasingly either abandon or customize their birthright creeds.)

Yes, many Americans assemble their identikits around politics, though not quite so many beyond the Washington beltway as Brooks might imagine. Many other Americans construct their identities around other choices, from food or car preferences to exercise regimes to various spiritual disciplines, most of which entail an ethical orientation. To be sure, these other choices often align with a partisan affiliation. We think the Prius-driving vegan feminist must, ipso facto, vote Democratic, and she probably does. Yet I suspect the hyper-moralized mind-set of this person, or her gun-loving, SUV-driving Republican opposite, derives less from the depth of their political convicitions than from the fragility of their self-constructed identities. They both police the boundaries of their respective identities with such moralizing ferocity because those identities lack depth and traditional supports—and  because they are so much the product of individual will.

In some ways, we are simply witnessing the aestheticization of ethical life that philosophers  such as Nietzsche called for.  These Existenz philosophers hoped that the self-shaping choices we moderns would make would produce more creative, authentic, and heroic selves—and, consequently, a more vibrant and vital culture. But the longed-for heroism of the existential project could not compete with the pressures and seductions that produced the modern consumer and the consumer society. Rather than a vibrant culture united around heroic ideals (or our former transcendent ones), Americans seem to be producing a fragmented "unculture" divided into mutually demonizing groups and connected only by a prevailing spirit of distrust. That dismal prospect, while still far from full realization, might compel us to reconsider the sources and ends of our freedom.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.