Many people feel disoriented in this political environment. They tack back and forth between rage and hopelessness. The President and those who support him seem to offer an outrage to our sensibilities nearly every day, from equating white supremacists to those who oppose them to ending protection for children of undocumented immigrants to mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren for the greater wealth of the rich to calling all critique of their actions fake news to denying climate change to seeking to prosecute those who call attention to wrongdoing rather than those who commit it.
It can feel like a barrage, and it is. But I believe it is tempting to focus on the outrages themselves rather than on something just as important that underlies them. It is what underlies the outrages that makes them so disorienting to most of us. We might call that underlying element the abandonment of normative constraints by those who govern us. By that I mean that there are no limits—political, legal, but especially moral—nothing that cannot be transgressed, in order to maintain institutional power.
In a recent book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democracies require two extra-legal norms in order to survive, mutual toleration and forbearance or self-restraint. Without these, democracies often devolve into authoritarian regimes. There is, however, a more immediate impact of the transgression of these norms, especially when these transgressions are of basic moral norms against personal abuse, utter disregard for truth, overt displays of racism or xenophobia or misogyny, exemption of oneself from the moral order, and even refusal to respect the physical safety of those one opposes. When this happens, opposition is often blunted because people become disoriented. They no longer recognize the political space in which they find themselves. It becomes foreign to them, and they feel foreign within it.
In philosophy the most prominent theory of justice is the social contract theory. Roughly, it says that a just society ought to be created on the basis of rules that could be agreed to by those who live in the society, or at least by those reasonable members who live there. (There are all kinds of variations on this idea.) In modern philosophy the concept of the social contract is generally traced back to Thomas Hobbes, although in Western philosophy it can be found as far back as Plato’s Republic. It is usually thought of in what we might call positive terms: what rules would (reasonable) people agree to? But there is a way to think of it in negative terms, one that brings us closer to our current situation. We might put the negative formulation this way: what happens when there are no rules, no moral limits, by which the governing institutions are bound? What happens when there are no normative constraints on what can be done in order to maintain power?
We often think of this in terms of winning at all costs. This idea is right, but the cliché—because it is a cliché—can easily mislead us into underestimating how deeply disturbing it is. Winning at all costs, that is winning without normative limits, should not bring to mind the image of the old UCLA coach Red Sanders, who reportedly said that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It should not even bring to mind Gordon Gecko, the protagonist of the movie Wall Street. The more pertinent image is that of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Lecter was frightening in a way that those other figures are not precisely because he did not know any normative limits. There was nothing he was not willing to do.
Am I saying that those who currently govern us—that is, the President, his advisors, and the majority of the Republican party—are nothing more than a group of Hannibal Lecters? Not exactly yes, but not exactly no either. Perhaps they are not willing to commit murder, at least by their own hands. However, they think nothing of destroying the lives of others, either through personal attack or political policy, if it will maintain their power. And while they may not have the pure enjoyment of cruelty—nor perhaps the skills—of Hannibal Lecter, because of their governing position they enjoy a much greater ability for destruction than he could have dreamed of. Their policies can destroy the lives of immigrants, people of color, the poor, and even—given our precarious environmental situation—future generations.
We should be clear here. The abandonment of normative limits is not something that emerged without precedent on January 20, 2017. The current President did not create it out of whole cloth. What has happened over the past year has been emerging for several decades. Although it would take another essay to document it more fully, I would prefer to date it to the emergence of what has come to be called “neoliberalism” in many quarters, dating from the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States. The doctrine of neoliberalism is fundamentally one of individualism and competition without regard to community interests. Recall Thatcher’s famous quote that, “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Moreover, those individual men and women and their families exist as economic units in a struggle to survive (and for some to thrive) in a relation to others characterized by competition at the expense of all cooperation.
In the ideological environment we have inherited, every person is an entrepreneur of himself or herself, marketing his or her human capital in a context in which there are only winners and losers and nothing else. This environment remains unchanged—in fact it has been gaining strength—through the Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and even Obama administrations and the Congresses that accompanied them. None of our governing figures has seriously challenged it, although Obama periodically gave lip service to something more communal. It has reached its current apogee in the person of Donald Trump, and the readiness of Republicans to defend him at all costs is a not so much a momentary if revolting strategic move as it is a depressing reminder of the path our country has traced over these last decades.
It is this apogee, rather than just the daily outrages that stem from it, that is so disorienting to us. Having worked in the area of mental health, I can relate to what happens when someone confronts a sociopath. The reaction is, as it is in our current environment, one of tacking back and forth between rage and hopelessness, a sort of extreme version of fight-or-flight. It is difficult for most of us to know how to deal with a sociopath, because, as the social contract theorists understood in their way, one cannot conduct social interaction without a sense of normative limits, without a common recognition that there are just things one doesn’t do, boundaries one does not cross. This leads to anger at the sociopath and at the same time a desire simply not to deal with them, to run away.
In that precise sense, our governing institutions are dominated by a sort of collective sociopathy. We don’t know how to orient our protest or register our objections because it seems as though any ground on which we would do so is irrelevant to those for whom discussions of the better and the worse are utterly irrelevant. What leaves us feeling disoriented here is the absence of normative limits that must exist in order to social interaction to be anything more than, as Hobbes called the state of nature, the war of all against all.
If this is right, then there is an important lesson for those who would resist our current political situation, one that is as uncomfortable to hear as it is necessary to embrace. Whatever else it does, resistance must occur within normative limits. Those who seek to better our political environment cannot mirror the tactics of those who have brought us here. To mirror those tactics would simply be to replace one type of sociopathy with another. This is the one of the lessons we should draw from the history of the 20th Century, where regimes like those in the Soviet Union and Communist China allowed themselves to transgress basic moral limits on the justification of fighting a prior evil. Our message instead must be one of moral uplift rather than simply one of victory. One current example of this is the Reverend William Barber’s revival of the Poor People’s Campaign (https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/), which seeks to reinstall our political relationships on a moral grounding.
The discomfort in all this is that it may sound as though what we need to do is to fight with one arm tied behind our backs, to impose upon ourselves limits that are not recognized by those we struggle against. And in a sense I think this is exactly the situation. In a context where people are rewarded for winning at all costs we must refuse to pay certain costs in order to win. But that, I believe, is simply the way it is. We must see our situation for what it is and seek to improve it without recreating it on a different terrain.
But when, really, has the struggle for political change that challenges the odds in order to create justice (which, looking back, often just appears as minimal moral decency) ever been comfortable?