Jim Geraghty provides an explanation for why our lives have become so politicized and the politics so dumb in a recent essay in the Washington Post.
For Geraghty, much of what is wrong stems from an effort to turn politics into consumable entertainment, a form of reality TV which has the effect of encouraging those with little actual knowledge of government and public policy to express the most vehement opinions about it.
Geraghty's prescription -- to find ways to make politics back into what it used to be, non-entertaining, even boring -- might resonate with those of us who see Calvin Coolidge as a presidential role model, but his analysis also misses some important explanatory variables.
The most obvious of these is the relationship between the expansion of government over time and excessive politicization -- again, the more areas of life government wades into, the more areas there are for people to argue about. Politics comes to both matter more and divide us more; hence the resulting polarization and tribalism and the kind of dumb partisanship that tribalism produces and requires.
The expansion of government (with consequent politicization of life and polarization of political loyalties) hasn't, however, occurred in a vacuum, as noted by Anthony Daniels, a contributing editor with City Journal. In a fascinating essay titled "A Popular Form of Monomania," Daniels argues the decline in religious belief in Western societies produced a vacuum that has been filled by secular belief systems (political ideology).
The more God fades from the picture, the more pronounced becomes Caesar, given the human "desire for transcendent meaning and purpose." As religious belief dies, societies thus become more vulnerable to political extremism and zealotry.
This in itself isn't a particularly original observation. Marx and Lenin, among others, expressed visceral hostility to organized religion because they saw it as an alternative value system and potential obstacle to their revolutionary beliefs and aspirations; if people believed in a heaven in the hereafter, they were less likely to seek it in the here and now on Earth in the form of the classless, property-less utopia communism promised.
On the other hand, what is genuinely insightful in Daniels' analysis, and particularly useful for explaining our current dismal politics, is his observation that, as politics displaces religion, political opinion displaces personal behavior as a basis for virtue and perceptions thereof.
In a society guided by religious belief, how we are assessed depends mostly on how we behave (in accord or not with prevailing religious tenets); in a society where politics matters more than religion, it is the political opinions we hold that matter most and define us.
In Daniels' words, as our society elevates politics over religion, "one's opinion on matters social and political has become for a considerable part of the population the measure of virtue. If you have the right opinions you are good; if you have the wrong ones you are bad. ... Where opinion is virtue, disagreement amounts to accusation of vice."
Possessing (or pretending to possess) the "correct" opinions now matters more than doing good works or demonstrating sound character in your daily life.
While Geraghty is almost certainly on to something with his complaint about the blurring of lines between politics and tacky entertainment, much of what he bemoans can therefore be better explained by the coinciding trends of expanding government and declining religion.
This displacement of religion/behavior by politics/opinion as a basis for meaning and virtue almost certainly also affects the political left to a greater extent than the right, given the degree to which the former favors perpetually expanding government and has largely discarded -- nay, become overtly hostile to -- traditional religious beliefs. (In the struggle between secular and non-secular forms of meaning and identity, it tends to be conservatives who remain, in Barack Obama's description, the clingers.)
That wokeness has come to so closely resemble a form of religion suggests that would-be sophisticates who view real religions with contempt only end up constructing and worshipping more primitive secular versions.
If politics and the holding of the appropriate political opinions have become increasingly important as a basis for virtue, the opportunities to engage in such performative virtue-signaling have, of course, also been dramatically expanded by technological change.
Because of social media, it is now vastly easier for everyone to express opinions, however ill-informed or vitriolic, and to make those opinions known to a vastly wider audience.
You no longer need to write letters to the editor or have a regular newspaper column or a perch on a TV talking-head program; with just a few keyboard strokes you can let everyone know that you think all of the proper things and properly despise all those who don't.
To go back to Daniels, "the overemphasis on opinion as the main or only determinant of a person's moral character thus has the effect of promoting irrationalism, and all argument becomes in effect ad hominem."
We increasingly demonstrate our virtue not by doing virtuous things, but by accusing those who disagree with us of lacking virtue.
We can even call them all kinds of nasty names without having to worry about getting punched in the nose.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, Arkansas, received his doctorate in political science from the University of Illinois.