We have stopped believing in reason’s power to persuade. The right thinks the critical social theories espoused by many on the left are both wrong and pernicious, but it doesn’t expect to be able to convince the left of this view. Hence the move to use raw political or legal power to suppress it. The left, meanwhile, thinks many of those who don’t share its premises are motivated by racism and other forms of bigotry that are in most cases untouchable by argument. Hence the move to use moral condemnation to get resisters excluded from social circles and cultural institutions in which they enjoy various forms of power and status.
These examples are themselves expressions of a broader trend we see all around us in our public life: the tendency to skip the work of attempting to change minds in favor of grabbing the power to control what’s permitted. The clearest, and oldest example, of this move is the appeal to judges to resolve disputes that resist resolution through democratic deliberation and consensus-building. Instead of the right trying (and likely failing) to convince the rest of the country that the New Deal is a bad idea, it seeks to get the Supreme Court to declare the New Deal unconstitutional. Instead of the left trying (and likely failing) to convince the rest of the country that abortion should be legal, it seeks to get the Supreme Court to declare abortion a constitutionally protected right.
I don’t think this is quite right. The problem is not that many Americans have lost faith in the power to persuade; the problem is that they have lost the desire to persuade. An argument that would win over those people is not an argument worth making. Sweet it is to have enemies, and passing sweet to get them dragged on Twitter.
As I wrote a while back, this is the triumph of the Manichaean Party in American politics. The last thing that party wants is unity; unity is loathsome to them. So to them I can only say: You want it darker.
I’m not sorry that I wrote a book called How to Think. It was worth doing. But it now seems to me that a more urgent task – ideally for someone wiser than I – would be to write a book that answers this question: Why Think?
UPDATE: Kevin Williamson makes a decisive point: “I do not think the United States is headed toward a civil war — civil wars are too much work. But it does matter that the dominant American political fantasy of our time is a dream of civil war. The mass arrests dreamt up by Q and the massacres envisioned by its rivals may be exercises in wishful thinking, but what Americans are wishing for matters.”