Commentary: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has found time during his first term to author a book entitled “The Vanishing American Adult,” about a perceived loss of personal integrity and self-discipline in American civil discourse, and ways to develop a citizenry “fully formed, vivacious, appealing, resilient, self-reliant, problem-solving [and] called to love and serve their neighbors.”
In a review of the book, which is on my summer reading list, Emma Green of The Atlantic pointed out how strange an idea this has become in our alienated culture. She wrote, “America has largely responded to the challenges of diversity and pluralism by pushing moral language out of public life. Democratic deliberation is almost uniformly tainted with the assumption of bad faith. Platforms like Twitter, beloved by Sasse and Trump alike, thrive on outrage, reduction, and snark. The fact that Sasse still believes in a shared American cultural project is remarkable, given the extent of its unwinding and intensity of the factors working against it.”
Political discourse is uncharitable in the sense that we assume (too often for good reason) that the other party is not being truthful about their motivations; yet we have deteriorated further. How do we discuss solutions or negotiate compromise in an age without a mutual commitment to stand on factual ground? Long before we inaugurated a President who denies facts about climate change and whose spokespeople unabashedly present falsehoods as fact (referring to them as “alternative facts”) millions of Americans were buying self-help books like “The Secret” and indulging pseudo-scientific, magical beliefs about the universe. In a 2004 article about President George W. Bush, Ron Suskind quoted an aide to the President (later identified as his senior advisor Karl Rove) as distinguishing the powerful from “the reality-based community.” The latter, said Rove, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” As to those who hold power: “When we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
When you read some of our best-selling self-help books and survey the most popular motivational speakers, you notice that this line of thinking has a broad appeal. It is, however, corrosive to democratic discourse.
When you add positive-thinking dogma to the corruption of our elections via gerrymandered districts, voter suppression, and the dominance of high-level donors, you end up with a citizenry that has trouble reading, thinking, or talking to other people – all of which are essential democratic skills.
In a recent conversation with an enthusiastic Democrat who was lit up over investigations of Russian meddling with our elections, I pointed out that the United States has a lengthy rap sheet of its own: meddling in others’ elections, destabilizing regimes we don’t like, economic warfare, directly funding opposition parties, all the way up to coups d’état. Her response was to call me unpatriotic and “just like Trump.” The historical perspective here is factual, does not exonerate Russia, and is relevant if we believe in the idea of shared principles and integrity. If meddling is wrong, then it is wrong when our side does it, too. Otherwise the idea we are defending is not democracy, but hegemony. As Bush said in partial jest: “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier – as long as I’m the dictator.”
Many citizens (liberals and conservatives alike) disparaged Bush over that joke, yet many behave as if they believe it.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.