some thoughts on Andrew Sullivan’s recent essay in New York Magazine

With reference to the previous post I thought I might highlight certain aspects of the recent Andrew Sullivan essay, especially as I feel it has been somewhat misunderstood in the liberal press.

First, Sullivan’s analysis of the social, economic, and cultural developments which have fostered the rise of Trump is I think finely expressed, and this kind of sympathetic understanding of where Trump’s supporters come from is too often lacking:

“The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet…

“For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome…

“Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well… These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in [Eric] Hoffer’s words, ‘disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.'”

Most of the negative commentary on the essay however seems to be directed at Sullivan’s use of the word “elite.” It is assumed that such an idea cannot coexist without a parallel denigration of “the masses” and a desire to somehow limit democratic participation in political and cultural life. This view has been no doubt helped along by an unfortunate caption at the very top of the article (“Democracies end when they are too democratic”) and by the introduction to his essay, which discusses a passage in Plato’s Republic on the same theme. Yet I think this is a misreading of what is a long and nuanced piece of writing. Nowhere does Sullivan bemoan the fact that vastly greater numbers of people now have a voice today. In fact he specifically applauds this development (as of course he ought), and in no place calls for any curtailment of democratic speech.

More to the point, his essay doesn’t pretend to have any precise answers to our current dilemma, except to point out that we are not examining the problem with as wide-angle a lens as is required. Far from endorsing Plato’s prediction that the particular variety of both political and cultural democracy we have evolved is unsustainable, he instead holds out the hope that the ingenious and resilient system America’s Founders put together may continue to flourish. However, he warns that something is being missed, something is seriously out of balance. And interestingly, the recent conversation between Jon Stewart and David Axelrod at the University of Chicago, just posted on YouTube (I will say more about this in a later post) complements Sullivan’s words in a perhaps unexpected way. There, Stewart focused largely on the catastrophic failure of our media to do its job in maintaining basic standards of intellectual and moral integrity, while Sullivan’s purview is larger. Yet Sullivan is at his best precisely when he discusses the media, as here:

“The distinction between politics and entertainment became fuzzier; election coverage became even more modeled on sportscasting; your Pornhub jostled right next to your mother’s Facebook page. The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking ‘Is this relevant?’ or ‘Do we really need to cover this live?’ in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

“And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin… We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts. And without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.”

When speaking about an “elite,” then, what Sullivan mostly is referencing is nothing more controversial than a recognition, indeed celebration, of the best of our Western values, and a willingness to defend them. But — and this is the point — those values don’t begin and end with simply: let everybody say (or spew) absolutely whatever they like, anywhere, anytime. Free expression is an utterly indispensable part of it all, but it’s not the whole of what needs defending.

It’s also not going to be easy finding a way out. What’s undeniable is that our attention spans have become noticeably shorter and shorter, and that in reaction to any kind of dissatisfaction, we robotically lurch to the opposite extreme, failing (as always) to take any notice of history, falling into the same trap over, and over, and over. With regard to the necessary virtues of patience and balance, our entire culture seems to have regressed to the level of a three-year-old. The urgency of Sullivan’s essay lies in its accurate view of how profoundly reasoned moderation, compromise, and empathy have broken down.

The mocking of Trump supporters advances nothing and in fact further solidifies their loyalty. If someone feels that their basic human intelligence and/or decency are being disrespected, they are not apt to move towards the source of such denigration. What’s clear is that the grievances highlighted in the first quotation above from the essay are all too real. It’s the conclusions drawn from them which need to be far more effectively challenged. (It must also be said that Trump supporters, in the midst of their valid fears and anxieties, are all the same being very easily suckered. The Trumps of the world never end up benefiting those they claim to care about. They end up causing catastrophe.)

Of course, as a central part of countering the message emanating from Trump, we must find a way of appealing to the larger empathy, to the hearts, of those who view him as a savior. As Sullivan rightly points out: “the most powerful engine for such a movement — the thing that gets it off the ground, shapes and solidifies and entrenches it — is always the evocation of hatred. It is, as Hoffer put it, ‘the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying elements.'” It can also be the most challenging negative emotion to expose and dispel.

I don’t feel I am explaining away lurking points of uncomfortableness in Sullivan’s essay. I see it as a well-calibrated defence of the values of Burkean, “small-c,” conservatism in an age where, ironically, those values are arguably being more protected by the so-called “left” than the “right,” as the latter continues its headlong and catastrophic plunge into extremism, nihilistic obstructionism, and now racist, fascistic demagoguery. Put another way, the US was founded as a “democratic republic,” and these two components, necessarily in tension, complement each other and restrain each other’s potential excesses. Nowadays relatively few people, I suspect, could even differentiate them, so thoroughly have the claims of “democracy” alone triumphed.

In the end, Sullivan’s point about “elites” is really quite a simple one: a viable political culture needs some basic intellectual standards, and some basic standards of decency. Someone needs to uphold these. If that’s “elitism,” then it’s of a gentle, flexible, non-coercive kind, not dissimilar perhaps to what we mean by the word “integrity.” We need to recover it — and desperately — in our media, and we need to maintain it in our universities. It goes with saying also that our political leaders need to be manifesting a far greater capacity for receptivity, empathy, balance, and compromise, if the deep cultural rifts which currently paralyze political discourse are to be made workable.

Apparently Sullivan spent a number of months recovering from fifteen years of a round-the-clock, 365-day-a-year immersion in the madness that is the political media today. How anyone could write so much on so many tangled, hyperbolic, and often viciously argued subjects, day after day after day, monitoring all the attacks on one’s own writing as well, and maintain basic sanity is a little beyond me. In a recent podcast he said he actually had to learn to read again, that is to read books for their own sake and not simply with an eye to what could be useful in the posts of the day. He also revealed that he’d recently done a 10-day silent meditation retreat and was incorporating that practice more fully into his daily routine.  I don’t agree with all of Sullivan’s piece (for example, I think his characterization of Bernie Sanders is quite misguided), but I welcome his voice in this discussion and am glad he’s back writing about these matters.

how we got here (according to Andrew Sullivan)

I’d like to recommend a finely written and urgently argued analysis of the current election cycle that appeared in New York Magazine yesterday. It is here: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html While I don’t ultimately agree with Sullivan’s dissection of the Democratic race — or only in part (it is in any event a small and secondary component of the article) — his comprehensive examination of the causes and conditions of Trump’s rise is I think superb.