While considerable ink has been spilled describing how technology generally and applications such as Facebook and Twitter in particular reinforce tribalism, a curious related phenomenon has emerged recently, most clearly seen in social media. While less remarked upon, it is perhaps more revealing of the current state of the American political conversation.
When ideological “flame wars” erupt online, one can witness how well-informed people of goodwill frequently will set aside critical thinking and readily align with those with whom they share only the loosest of partisan affiliations. Typically, this arises in oppositional contexts, which didn’t start (nor have they ended) with Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE.
That said, this dynamic achieved near-ubiquity during the Trump presidency, to wit: “I oppose Trump (or President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE, or House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda MORE) and policy ‘X,’ and believe ‘Y,’ because of ‘Z,’ and moreover, if you disagree, you are ‘&%$#,’” and so on. Whatever the merits of the position offered, social media participants increasingly make common cause with strange philosophical bedfellows — the center-left happily lying down with anarchists and Marxists, and the center-right embracing ethno-nationalists and populists.
While a demonstration of tribalism activated in and by the virtual commons, it is more than that. How is it that the center-left and center-right — sitting far closer to one another along an ideological continuum than either do to extremists to their left and right, respectively — fail to note this oddity?
The answer can be found in the Age of Enlightenment, more specifically through consideration of the philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While each man’s intellectual progression and range defy caricature, they are often held out as totems of rationalism (in the case of Voltaire) and romanticism (Rousseau). These respective traditions have informed ideological movements, partisan fervor and policy debates ever since.
Until recently, the American political scene of the past 50 years has been an ideological joust between liberals and conservatives, but with each grouping broadly classically liberal in outlook and equally possessed of an empirical, rationalist bent — children of Voltaire. Though beliefs about the means best applied to achieve certain ends differed, or even the most desirable ends, a general agreement prevailed as to the meaning of language, understanding of history, and in objective truths that can be deduced from empirical evidence, as did a shared civic culture rooted in accountability, fair play and seeing “the other side” as opponents and not enemies.
Today, while the traditional notions of left and right still exist, under each of these tribal banners an increasing number of “Rousseaunard” anti-rationalists have emerged. On the right, this manifests as ethno-nationalism, populism and nativism. On the left, it takes the form of various shades of collectivism and adherence to pseudo-academic fads including critical theory/critical race theory and neo-Marxism. While often cast as “fringe” or “extreme” by partisans from the other camp, such ideological flags of convenience are notable less for extremity than for intrinsic anti-rationalism (by contrast, pure libertarianism, while extreme, is firmly planted in rationalism). These frameworks override or reject empirical lived experience and replace them with visceral, emotive mantras or laboratory constructs unsupported by logical deductions drawn from the world as it actually exists.
Tribal impulses cause otherwise Voltairean “conservatives” or “liberals” to sympathize with the anti-rational advocates of belief systems, which, in a more considered moment, they might adjudge unfavorably. As a relatively recent phenomenon, it remains to be seen how durable such alignments might prove, and whether the Rousseaunard wings on each end of the spectrum can tug formerly critical-thinking centrists more permanently to their side.
A separate consideration is why anti-rationalist voices are now in the ascendant. Is it that they have always existed and are merely amplified through the leveling, democratizing effects of distributed media, or have they multiplied and expanded their reach in reaction to the challenges and failures of globalism, some other explanation, or a combination of these?
Whatever the reason, good Voltaireans of any ideological stripe ought to stand against all forms of anti-rationalism, however attractively packaged to appeal to one’s tribal proclivities. History is replete with examples of romantic, anti-rational projects gone awry; that way lies the gas chamber and the killing fields. For the two reasons I note below, however, the Rousseaunard left would appear to present the greater current existential threat.
First, anti-rationalism only recently has gained — or regained — political currency on the American political stage. In a cultural and political edifice constructed on a classically liberal, rational foundation, anti-rational movements typically pose as “rational” to avoid being dismissed as unserious or dangerous. In a media era where a group such as antifa can term anything it opposes as “fascist” and call itself “anti-fascist,” despite its own use of fascist tactics, and have this paradox accepted credulously by the commentariat, gaslighting can be a useful tactical tool. Thus, “blood and soil” nativism is more easily rejected by critical thinkers as antithetical to the founding and American values more generally, and seen for the emotive appeal that it is, while critical theory can masquerade as rationalist, notwithstanding its artificial, Marxian heritage.
Second, and more critically, is the fundamental distinction between the types of anti-rationalism promoted by “right Rousseau” and “left Rousseau” movements. Right Rousseau is an expression, typically of some visceral resentment or aspiration. It can do enormous harm if it finds the levers of political power — Hitler being only one such example in history — but, misdirected dystopian fiction like “The Handmaid’s Tale” notwithstanding, it is hard to see how the conditions conducive to its success exist in modern American society (the ascension to the presidency of a bombastic narcissist who implemented conventional center-right policies, while only lightly taking command of the instrumentation of government, is hardly evidence of the descent of the dark night of fascism). Right Rousseau is a spasm, an outburst, consistent only in its incoherence.
Left Rousseau, on the other hand, isn’t an expression; it’s a project – or projects. One need only look to the parroting of its maximalist language by mainstream figures of the contemporary left — “fundamental transformation,” “Build Back Better,” “the Great Reset” — to see the more comprehensive objectives of such “projects.” These slogans are not tethered to straightforward retrograde desires for “things to be like they used to be” or “to live as we please,” but are, rather, a programmatic imperative to reshape systems and human relations more broadly to fit an ideologically-derived construct. Such designs offer no shade or respite. Moreover, anti-rationalist Marxian ideologues are adept at infiltrating the institutions of free societies, using Alinskyite tactics to exploit such societies’ freedoms and turn institutions against themselves. Whereas Rousseaunards of the right tend to be buffoonish and self-immolate in plain sight, those on the left are more covert — and thus of greater danger.
A key to avoiding the further polarization of American society is understanding the threat posed by these children of Rousseau, and seeing past superficial partisan alignment to the real threat such anti-rationalist philosophies and programs pose.
Richard J. Shinder is the founder of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy, and a frequent lecturer, speaker and panelist on business and financial topics. He has written extensively on economic, financial, geopolitical, cultural and corporate governance-related issues.