Sartre Could Have Predicted This Mess

Jean-Paul Sartre ( Photo image by Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr)




“I’ve stopped watching the news.” “Can’t think about it.” “It’s all too much.” “We need some good news!”

I have perhaps shared a few too many articles about the possibility of more violence, even a spattered, incoherent civil war. It felt cathartic to email my worries, but the recipients of all this ominous fodder—well, you read the responses. Denial might be marginally healthier than obsession?

Folly in mind, I glom onto a recent issue of The Conversation. Not the national conversation, which resembles the jabs of pumped-up boxers and the weary parries of their opponents, but The Conversation, whose editors promise a happy ending to yet another piece about the polarization of U.S. politics.

For me, the word “polarization” is more personal than political. Years ago, paying stealthy attention to my new in-laws’ marriage, I had an epiphany. “They polarize!” I told my husband. “They’re both stubborn, so when they have an opinion about where the air conditioning unit should go or which windows to open, they dig in, and soon they’re so entrenched in their opinion, it’s all or nothing. We’re going to compromise on that stuff, not go to opposite corners and duke it out.”

Of course, on a few big topics (the really serious ones, like whether a Christmas tree should have white lights or colored blinking ones), we fought just as fiercely—at least until I realized what was happening. Then I stayed up late painting white lights a soft red and gold—compromise! Andrew gave up his darkest humor and I grew more cynical so we could meet in the middle—compromise! And if all this sounds frivolous to you, you have never been married. Share your life that intimately, and the frivolous turns existential.

The nation’s arguments can seem frivolous, too. All this fuss over a little piece of cloth, insultingly called a diaper by its sworn enemies? Blind insistence that pedophiles run the country? But the fundamental disagreements run deep—is this a White nation that trusts in a Christian God or a deliberately diverse one that respects difference? Do we have a history of heroism or oppression? Our world views are now so different, they are shattering the hope and optimism that naturally reside in a democracy.

I click on the article, index finger trembling with hope.

Robert Talisse, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University, starts bleak: “For the first time, the United States has been classified as a ‘backsliding democracy’ by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.”

Though the institute acknowledges baseless insistence on a stolen election as one reason for the backslide, its secretary-general is even more concerned about what he calls “runaway polarization.” We are choosing up sides and letting our opinions harden.

But hey, that is what a democracy is about, right? Differences of opinion, lively public debate, a few boisterous fights in Congress? In Sustaining Democracy, Talisse points out that there are two kinds of polarization. The kind I felt back in the civilized years, when I loathed the other party’s priorities? That can grind progress to a standstill while the politicians wrangle and the rest of us curse or protest. But it is not necessarily dysfunctional. Sometimes it can even be healthy, clarifying the extremes so we can look for the truth someplace in the middle. As individuals in an argumentative democracy, we quickly learn where we stand.

The sort of U.S. polarization that has us backsliding, though, is what Talisse calls belief polarization. “Interaction with like-minded others transforms people into more extreme versions of themselves,” he explains. “These more extreme selves are also overly confident and therefore more prepared to engage in risky behavior.”

They are also more likely to hate. Washington University political science professor Betsy Sinclair co-authored a study that found angry partisans more likely than non-angry partisans to become so socially polarized, they would refuse to help an out-partisan neighbor or avoid a conversation with one. This kind of negativity spreads like a noxious gas, and it becomes easier to insult, vilify, wish the other dead. Polarized in this way, people let their stance become their entire identity and way of life. There is little room left to enjoy the company of someone who disagrees; little room for tolerating disagreement, period. “People grow more invested in policing the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Talisse writes. Suddenly, democracy only feels possible in a homogeneous society where their own opinion rules supreme.

And that is not a democracy.

A society with beliefs this polarized (and often irrational) tends toward fascism instead. Talisse did not say that; I do. We have been provoked, one way or another, into a rigidity that cannot relax into a looser, more balanced system, the sort that can be tugged first one way, then the other. Belief polarization, at least on the conservative side, begs for an authoritarian leader, a Trump. On the progressive side, it can tilt toward reckless chaos. And a polarized society can be easily played by politicians who gain power and money by throwing gasoline on the raging flames. Wonky, complicated debates over legislation and public policy are set aside. What matters is the hate itself.

Sartre once observed that what the anti-Semite loves is his hate. The rush of the emotion itself, the thrill of indulging it. Anti-Semitism is “something quite other than an idea,” he says. “It is first of all a passion.” Lazy-minded and swept up in feeling, the anti-Semite chooses to reason falsely.

In his introduction to Sartre’s 1948 “Anti-Semite and Jew,” Michael Walzer describes Sartre’s fictionalized anti-Semite as a social-psychological type: shaped by his narrow and vulnerable position, “threatened by social change, endlessly fearful and resentful. He ‘possesses nothing,’ but by identifying the Jew as alien, he lays claim to all of France. He is moved by a ‘nostalgia for . . . the primitive community,’ in which he can claim ascriptive membership.”

“Ascriptive”? I had to look it up: “Designating a society, group, etc. in which status is based on a predetermined factor, as age, sex, or race, and not on individual achievement.” White people who want to return to a golden era, for example. Also relevant: in Sartre’s drama, “each character creates the others.” One set of beliefs hardens the other set, pushing the extremes further apart.

If my in-laws were tussling over where to put the air conditioning unit and my father-in-law wrenched his back hoisting it, my mother-in-law would have instantly softened. “Put that down, Mal! Let me get you some ice and aspirin. For heaven’s sake, it doesn’t matter where the thing goes….”

But for a nation, the arguments do matter. And with the added stress of a pandemic keeping us nervous and annoyed, we are in no mood to fetch anybody an aspirin. I read on, eager for a solution.

“The task is to render people’s political differences more civil, to reestablish the ability to respectfully disagree,” Talisse writes. Yet “once people are polarized, exposure even to civil expressions of the other side’s viewpoint creates more polarization.”

A vicious spiral, then, in which discussing our differences only strengthens the opposition. How do we break free from that? The editor promised a hopeful ending. Well, here it is: “Yet Americans remain democratic citizens, partners in the shared project of self-government who cannot simply ignore one another.”

I stare at those flat words for a long time.

I cannot share this article, either.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.