Throughout modern history, the greatest threat to democracy has come from…the denial of political legitimacy to those who fail to share one’s own views on key issues. Historians have devoted intensive study to the long and painful process by which the notion of a ‘legitimate opposition’ gained acceptance in the United States and other democratic societies and the way in which it has frequently threatened to erode. Democratic politics, tending as it so often does towards hyperbole and demagoguery, all to easily generates claims about the wanton stupidity, immorality, or just plain evil of one’s political opponents.
But it is not casual hyperbole, insincerely employed and quickly forgotten, that most seriously threatens democratic societies. It is when the denial of legitimate difference congeals into a system of thought, into an ideology which admits only one permissible point of view on key issues, and judges all who fail to share this point of view as ipso facto beyond the pale. Such systems of thought, reinforced through constant repetition in media and by political party organizations, have led again and again not only to the erosion of democratic societies, but to their destruction.
If politics has reached such a dire state in America today, the reason is not simply “polarization,” but the toxic growth of several distinct and distinctly contemporary patterns of thought that all tend to undermine the idea that citizens with different political principles and moral values can collectively deliberate on the public good. They span the political spectrum, and can be labeled, in turn, technocracy, market fundamentalism, Trumpian populism, and wokeness. Each seeks to place key issues in American life beyond the bounds of political debate, subject to only one permissible point of view, and they can, for this reason, be called antipolitical. They represent not so much a contribution to politics as a contribution to its destruction. They all have historical roots but have all evolved into new and powerful forms in recent years. Partly this is because the contemporary media environment groups like-minded people into hermetic “silos” with such dreadful efficiency, making it far more difficult to submit to extreme and insistently repeated claims to even the most elementary forms of objective verification.
David Bell, “”The Triumph of Anti-Politics,” Liberties Vol. 3 (Winter 2023). 98-99.
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