Call it commentariat tourette syndrome

Eric J. Hutchinson

These days, one cannot escape an encounter with the punditocracy without hearing the word “polarization”: the political phenomenon in which the extremes (seem to) crowd out the middle while growing farther and farther apart from each other and becoming ever more rhetorically and practically shrill. There is a paradox here: “extremes” and “middle” are correlative terms whose meaning depends on the latter being much bigger than the former. This truism is often ignored or elided by journalists who think extremism is unidirectional—they gesture vaguely with their right hands—and want those, and only those, who disagree with them to be labeled “extremists,” as well as, in an ideal world, investigated by the FBI and Department of Justice. But let that pass.
Even if one attempts to avoid the punditocracy to every extent possible, one cannot avoid overhearing it, as it were by accident. Trust me. Call it Comme-ntariat Tourette Syndrome. They can’t help it.
We are given to believe that the poles, and the polls, have never been more, well, polarized.
Perhaps this belief is true. For all I know, it may be. But one thing is certain: “polarization” isn’t—despite the breathless sensationalism of the historically challenged—new, or unprecedented (another word on the laptop class’s very short list of favorite polysyllables), or surprising. Indeed, it is exactly what we should expect.
Why? Why is the spirit of fanatical factionalism so prevalent in these United States, and why should we have seen it coming?
Various explanations are possible. Eric Hoffer, for example, gave a penetrating account decades ago in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. A great number of people, full of dissatisfaction with themselves, of resentment toward others, and of boredom with life, find refuge and escape in a cause that is bigger than themselves. They hope that, through a commitment to something higher, they will be swallowed up in a surfeit of the meaning they so desperately both lack and crave. Call this the “argument from disorder.” It has a good deal of explanatory power.
But there is more to the story. And “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say, is a complement, not a contradiction, of Hoffer’s thesis. If Hoffer’s thesis boils down to a disordered pursuit of meaning, the thesis I discuss in what follows boils down to a disordered pursuit of affection. We find this thesis—a different and yet correlative “argument from disorder”—eloquently expressed in an essay by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, more commonly known as Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713).
The essay is called “Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour,” first published in 1709 and later included in the influential Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.
In it, Shaftesbury, an English philosopher of some significance (he was a pioneer in developing an affective account of morality), attempts to show the necessity of humor in both a philosophical life and a free society.
Expounding on the form a free society takes in a state of health, he has occasion to speak of politics more generally, and it is in this respect that Shaftesb-ury is of interest to me here.
Let me begin, though, with the rather idiosyncratic way in which Shaft-esbury uses the phrase “co-mmon sense” (sensus communis). While we generally use the phrase to mean “something a normally fun-ctioning person would kn-ow”—when, e.g., someone rides a motorcycle down I-94 with no helmet, we are tempted to say, “Has he no common sense?”—Shafte-sbury employs it quite differently. For him (he says he is drawing on ancient precedent), it means the
Sense of Publick Weal, and of the Common Interest; Love of the Community or Society, natural Affection, Humanity, Obligingness, or that sort of Civility which rises from a just Sense of the common Rights of Mankind, and the natural Equality there is among those of the same Species.
This feeling for the common or public good is based on man’s natural sociability, for Shaftesbury agrees with Aristotle and Cicero that man is by nature a political or social animal.
If that is so, man’s gravitation toward fellowship of some kind or another cannot be driven out of him by any means. It is constitutive of what he is in his very essence.
Man’s sociability, then, cannot be excised. It can, however, be perverted. To put it another way, it must find an outlet, whether that outlet is good or bad. And according to Shaftesbury, that perversion is inevitable in certain political circumstances, namely, the circumstances of “vast empires”—which is bad news for America.
“Love of Party” or “cantonizing…within the State” is, for Shaftesbury, a natural impulse in a fundamentally unnatural political arrangement. As he notes, “Vast Empires are in many respects unnatural.” This unnaturalness is primarily due to their mammoth size and the almost comical disproportion between the few who rule and the many who do not. Crucially, a constitution, however good, cannot eliminate this problem. “[B]e they ever so well constituted,” according to Shaftesbury, “the Affairs of many must, in such Governments, turn upon a very few; and the Relation be less sensible, and in a manner lost, between the Magistrate and People, in a Body so unwieldy in its Limbs, and whose Members lie so remote from one another, and distant from the Head.”
But because the natural order—that is, man’s innate impulse toward sociability—cannot be expunged but only corrupted, such a situation is perfect for the creation of factionalism, due to the fact that factionalism is a disordered expre-ssion of man’s frustrated desire for community in the context the megastate.
Or, as Shaftesbury says more eloquently:
’Tis in such Bodys as these that strong Factions are aptest to engender. The associating Spirits, for want of Exercise, form new Mo-vements, and seek a narrower Sphere of Activity, when they want Action in a greater. Thus we have Wheels within Wheels. And in some National Constitutions, notwithstanding the Absurdity in Politicks, we have one Empire within another.
Because “[n]othing is so delightful as to incorporate,” human beings will find either salutary or deleterious ways to do so—but they will find them. In this way, complaining about polarization without addressing its real root causes is akin to lamenting slip-and-fall accidents in old comedies without addressing the existence of bananas. For, to repeat, “the very Spirit of Faction, for the greatest part, seems to be no other than the Abuse or Irregularity of that social Love, and common Affection, which is natural to Mankind.”
What is to be done? Unfortunately, probably not a whole lot. In its original constitution (and Constitution), the United States was supposed to give us the benefits of both “big” (or the national) and “small” (or the local) through the system of federalism in a territory only a fraction of our current size. But that United States is no more: a country of—with apologies for geographical fat-shaming—continental girth, we now manage a domestic and global military-commercial empire that is a far cry from the early republic. Or, rather, “we” don’t—and that’s the problem. Curing the disease of factionalism, to the extent that it can be cured, would require an almost wholesale dismantling of the behemoth of the anonymous and degrading administrative-corporate state that runs our affairs both at home and abroad and a return to the old vision of a humane scale and a humane political art. The forecast for such an eventuality is not good.
Short of that, it seems essential to channel the desire for sociability into more concrete and local manifestations such as churches, civic organizations, and local government. Shaftesbury did not like such alternatives, which he saw as symptoms of a fragmented and disordered sociability rather than cures for it, but here I demur from him. The freedom for many loyalties is an antidote to slavery to any of them, including Washington, D.C.
However, given the ubiquity and intrusiveness of the octopoid federal state, whose tentacles reach everywhere through a bureaucratic apparatus expanding more quickly than the universe itself, as well as through our unremitting media that mostly serves as its mouthpiece, localization, too, is hampered. This, I suspect, is by design, for the national administrative state is parasitic on the body politic and thus has a vested interest in maintaining its disease. Strong local bonds and the free exchange of ideas, especially on moral matters, are against its self-interest.
As long as all this is the case, then, “polarization” is here to stay, and because of our particular circumstances with respect to technology, traditional media, and social media, it’s likely to get worse. That’s the bad news, and I’m not sure there’s any good news to follow it up with. Is it nevertheless useful to better understand why our political malaise seems so intractable, and to see how it is founded upon something that is essential to our very nature as human beings? Maybe. As so often happens, our demons are evidence of the existence of our better angels, and that existence perhaps brings some comfort.
But in this instance, one could be forgiven for finding that comfort cold.