What Politics Is(n’t)

In defense of what politics is and is not.


in Blog


What is politics? The answer is not obvious. Most Americans on the left and the right either do not know or have forgotten what politics is. Conventional American progressives have pretty much abandoned any distinction between the political realm and society and culture in general, while conventional American conservatives treat politics as an exercise in doctrinal purity. Both sides, in different ways, undermine the idea of a limited public square in which different groups in society can agree on a few big things while agreeing to disagree with others — progressives, by including too much of society in the public square, and conservatives, by blocking compromise with too many ideological tests.

Politics is only possible in a society in which much, if not most, of social life is not politicized. In premodern communities in which every aspect of life was regulated by custom or religious law, there was no politics, in the modern sense. There was no public sphere because there was no private sphere. Tribal custom or divine law, as interpreted by tribal elders or religious authorities, governed every action, leaving no room for individual choice. There were power struggles, to be sure. But there was no political realm separate from the tribe or the religious congregation. And disagreement was heresy.

The separation of church and state — strictly speaking, the privatization of religious belief, beginning in early modern Europe and America — was the precondition for modern politics. The secularization of the population was not necessary, but the secularization of the public sphere was. You could no longer win political debates by appealing to a particular interpretation of divine Scripture. Under the rules of Enlightenment liberalism, you had to make a case for the policy you preferred that was capable of persuading citizens who did not share your religious beliefs. A mere numerical majority was not enough. If the politicians express the will of a majority of voters, and the majority are told how to vote by clerics, then the democracy is really an indirect theocracy.

Unfortunately, as Horace observed, “You can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back.” The same might be said of religion. While some forms of religion have been expelled from politics, new forms keep trying to creep in, to recreate something like the pre-Enlightenment world in which a single moral code governs all of society and disagreement is intolerable heresy.

Marxism can only be understood as a Christian, or Judeo-Christian, or Abrahamic spin-off — a faith militant, with its prophets, its holy scriptures, its providential theory of history, its evangelical universalism, its message of brotherhood and sisterhood transcending particular communities. Marxism was the fourth major Abrahamic religion. Nothing like Marxism could have evolved independently in traditional Confucian China or Hindu India, with their cyclical rather than progressive views of history.

As the Marxist substitute for Abrahamic religion has faded away, its place on the political left is being taken by the new secular political religions of environmentalism and identity politics. Each of these is strongest in post-Protestant Northern Europe and North America, and weakest in historically Catholic and Orthodox Christian societies. A case can be made that militant environmentalism and militant identity politics are both by-products of the decomposition of Protestantism in the Anglophone nations and Germanic Europe.

Mainstream environmentalism grows out of 19th-century German Romanticism, a secular creed which opposed the Enlightenment and filled the void left by declining Protestant belief. In 19th-century Germany, in particular, the idea of the ecosystem — a legitimate scientific concept, in the hands of Alexander von Humboldt — became transmuted into a mystical doctrine, by Ernst Haeckel and other proto-fascist thinkers who promoted the idea of harmony between particular races and particular environments.

Modern environmentalists tend to be anti-racist liberals, but the mystical idea of living in harmony with capital N-Nature continues to drive environmentalism. Of course, in reality, human beings cannot live in harmony with Nature because Nature will not permit it. Even without human intervention, the global ecosystem has constantly fluctuated. The human race has survived through ice ages and interglacials alike by adapting to a universe that is indifferent to humanity or any other species. The idea of human harmony with the physical environment and all living things is a mystical religious idea, not a scientific one.

Other elements of religion, expelled from the public sphere, have crept back in via the left, thanks to environmentalism. As the great environmental scientist James Lovelock has pointed out, anthropogenic global warming is affected by the sources of energy for large-scale power generation and transportation. But refusing to fly on airplanes or reducing your personal “carbon footprint” is a meaningless exercise, explicable only in the context of religion, with its traditions of ritual fasts and sacrifices in the service of personal moral purity.

The apocalyptic rhetoric of environmentalism is another borrowing from the Abrahamic religions (which themselves seem to have taken the idea of an End of the World and Last Judgment from ancient Zoroastrianism if some historians are to be believed). Green alarmism is based on a paradox — doomsday warnings for global warming often involve comparisons to earlier eras of earth history, in which some species went exist and some areas were flooded, but life on earth flourished overall.

Suppose the Green movement achieved all of its goals and humans ceased contributing to climate change by means of greenhouse gas emissions. The earth’s climate, without any help from humanity, but purely as a result of natural processes, will nonetheless continue to fluctuate, sometimes dramatically, in the half billion years or so that remain before the gradual and wholly natural warming of the sun boils off the oceans and turns the earth into a scorched, dead Venus-like world. Glaciers will advance and retreat, sea levels will rise and fall. In the future, as in the past, the human species will either adapt or become extinct. One thing is certain: The idea that human beings, if they will only repent of their collective or individual sins, can live in harmony with a naturally self-stabilizing ecosystem is pure religion.

Like environmentalism, left-wing identity politics can be traced to the anti-Enlightenment thought of 19th-century German romanticism. The very term “culture” in its modern sense comes from the German Romantic concept of Kultur, the primal essence of an individual or ethnoracial Volk, which was counterposed to Zivilisation, or civilization — rational, impersonal, objective, and, for romantics, inhuman and soul-destroying.

Central to modern left-wing identity politics is “perspectivism,” the idea that objectivity is impossible and that each group — defined by race, ethnicity, gender, or some other ascriptive characteristic — has its own unique and valid viewpoint whose validity cannot be questioned by non-members. Although few of the practitioners of identity politics are aware of it, this relativist argument, by now a cliché, can be traced back to the cultural pluralism promoted by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803).

As a lapsed Methodist myself, I think there is also a strong undercurrent of Protestantism in American identity politics, particularly where questions of how to promote social justice in a post-racist society are concerned. Brazil and the United States are both former slave societies, with large black populations that have been frozen out of wealth and economic opportunity. In the United States, much of the discussion about how to repair the damage done by slavery and white supremacy involves calls on whites to examine themselves and confess their moral flaws — a very Protestant approach, which assumes that the way to establish a good society is to ensure that everybody has the right moral attitude. It is my impression that the left in Brazil, lacking the Protestant puritan tradition, is concerned more with practical programs, like the bolsa familia — a cash grant to poor families — than with attitudinal reforms among the privileged.

The newer left, like the older Marxist left, as I see it, endangers the historic achievement of liberalism by blurring the line between a limited political realm and the rest of society. Environmentalists and identitarians are reviving the preliberal, premodern religious approach to society, conceived of as a congregation of the virtuous and like-minded. Either you are a true believer or you are a heretic. There can be no compromise with wicked people, and the chief measure of wickedness is not action — dumping toxins in a river, engaging in overt discrimination on the basis of race — but expressing disapproved attitudes and refusing to use ritualized politically-correct language. No longer threatened by Marxist sectarians, the liberal left must now fight for its existence against the sublimated religious fervor of environmentalist and identitarian sectarians.

What about the right? In the United States, the cultural project of the post-World War II right — preserving an older version of Herrenvolk or master-race democracy, based on segregation, de facto white racial nationalism, quasi-official Christianity, and state-enforced sexual conservatism — has completely collapsed, to the great and lasting benefit of the American republic. The left has won the “culture war” and at present the right is disoriented and defensive, reacting to the crusading zeal of the sectarian left (which, as I have argued, is a threat to genuine liberalism as well).

While the left threatens American democracy by politicizing too much — turning politics into the insistence on uniformity of belief — the establishment right undermines democracy by politicizing too little — that is, by enlarging the number of issues on which no political compromise is permitted for conservatives.

The number of litmus tests that Republican candidates must pass has steadily grown since the late 20th century. First, thanks to the religious right, abortion came to be a litmus test. All Republicans had to support the re-criminalization of abortion. Then, beginning in the 1990s, conservatives had to sign the anti-tax pledge of Grover Norquist, for fear of being targeted by the rich donors of the Club for Growth and similar organizations. In addition, they must oppose all gun control measures, no matter how sensible.

It is commonplace for political parties to pick a few issues to unite around, and let all other issues be “free votes.” But by 2016, the Republican party was acting more like a sect than a party. It had more articles of dogma than the Anglican Church’s Thirty-Nine.

By winning the Republican nomination for the presidency, and then by winning over most though not all Republican voters, Donald Trump has proven that Republican voters don’t care about most of the issues considered important by the professional activists of the career conservative establishment. This opens up the possibility that a post-Trump GOP might be more of a political party and less of an ideological sect. That is, Republicans would rally around two or three major issues, and agree to disagree on other subjects. Among other things, this would allow Republicans to collaborate more with Democrats on lesser issues while sticking to their positions on major issues that divide the two parties.

Liberal democracy in the United States cannot flourish with a crusading, quasi-religious cultural left for which everything is politics and those who disagree with the campus left are morally depraved heretics who must be named and shamed into conformity. Likewise, liberal democracy in America cannot flourish with a right that equates ordinary political compromise with the betrayal of principle.

The idea of politics involves debate, and the possibility of compromise, on a few major issues among people who otherwise are free to disagree. Everything else is religion and should be exiled to the private realm. •

Images courtesy of Eric B. Walker via Flickr (Creative Commons)..