The end of impartiality

How the ideal of political neutrality was shattered

Have you noticed how often the most rancorous disputes in our public life involve one side positioning itself above the partisan fray and the other pointing to evidence that the effort failed?

That's what the president and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were debating last week. It's what is recapitulated every time someone on the right or the left gets banned by Twitter or Facebook, sparking indignation among allies and exultation on the other side. It's what inspires people on both sides of every debate to accuse critics of having done the exact same thing in the recent past (whataboutism). And it's what's behind fights about the treatment of migrants at the southern border and the Mueller investigation and media coverage of just about everything.

What's really going on in all of these conflicts is a re-enactment of age-old political habits at a moment when they no longer function as they once did — and when the re-enactment actually ends up exacerbating the very problem the habits were originally devised to address.

That problem is partisanship — deep political disagreement within the political community, and the tendency of different factions within the community to mistake its own good for the good of the whole.

The tendency of each political faction to believe itself right and make arguments to justify its rule over the whole community led Plato to suggest that the political problem could only be solved by the rule of philosopher kings — by members of the community who transcend partisanship taking power, enabling them to decide justly and wisely in the name of the common good. Where representatives of each faction only have a partial view, the philosopher can see the whole and view it dispassionately.

Thus was born the ideal of the philosophic View From Nowhere — the standard of impartial, objective judgment far above the partisan fray to which all genuinely public-spirited citizens ought to strive. The revealed traditions of the West have their own versions of the same idea. The Hebrew Bible gives an account of King Solomon ruling the ancient Israelites with wisdom and justice. Christianity goes much further in promising that Jesus Christ himself — the Son of God — will return as a king, ruling the world in power and glory.

The Enlightenment of the early modern era might have rejected notions of divine right, but from the beginning it was also bound up with hope for scientific progress advanced by an elite of natural philosophers and the dissemination of their rarified knowledge through education. Little by little the ideal of the philosopher king was replaced by the more democratic ideal of a universal aristocracy of educated citizens capable of exercising political power with prudence and an eye to the common good. One way of achieving that end would be for political philosophers to use their knowledge to devise (political as well as economic) institutions that would encourage individuals to set aside their narrow, self-interested views in favor of a more holistic, informed, and global perspective.

In this respect, the U.S. Constitution was a consummate document of the Enlightenment, providing an institutional framework that would nudge elected representatives toward the common good. In theory, the narrowly partisan views of various factional interests would be transformed by the machinery of government into outcomes approaching a trans-partisan View From Nowhere.

Modern liberalism amplifies these hopes, understandably responding to the rising complexity of the world by advocating for the creation of an administrative state made up of experts who can devise and implement complicated policies designed to keep citizens safe and healthy, to smooth the working of the economy, and to help allocate social goods fairly and efficiently. Modern America might not have the rule of philosopher kings, but (once again, in theory) it has the next best thing: institutions acting as impartially and justly as possible.

Through the middle decades of the 20th century, this is how most Americans viewed the country and its government. The considerable ideological overlap of the two parties together with high levels of social trust and strong deference to institutions of the establishment (very much including a consensus-reinforcing news media) bolstered the sense that the American government genuinely aimed to achieve the common good.

But not anymore. The Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the resulting ideological sorting of the two parties, Watergate, the rise of the conservative movement and a right-wing media counter-establishment, 9/11, the debacle of the Iraq War, the de-industrialization of the American economy, the financial crisis of 2008 — the consensus that marked American politics in the decades following the Second World War has absorbed blow after blow in recent decades and now it has finally crumbled.

We haven't stopped appealing to trans-political truths and ideals, but we've stopped believing that anyone who isn't on our own side could possibly mean it. Which is the same as saying that we no longer believe in the possibility of trans-political truths and ideals. There's our way and the wrong way, with no third or higher alternative. Once that outlook begins to spread, appeals to higher truths and ideals actually make things worse. Like the ancient sophists who delighted in mocking the noble-sounding pretenses of the high-minded, today's partisans increasingly view expressions of dispassionate neutrality as a uniquely dishonest form of partisanship — one that unconvincingly conceals its motives beneath a veneer of moral elevation.

Where do we go from here? It would appear as if we have two options. One is civil war by other means — endless conflict among people on differing sides of arguments, with no one capable of settling the debate in a way that commands consensus. There will be victories, but they will always be tentative and temporary, and always won by force, not reason — with moral and even factual truth becoming ever-more a function of which faction prevails at the ballot box or opinion poll. Might will make right, in other words, not some trans-political standard that both sides increasingly consider a fiction.

The other option is to seek out a new form of consensus — a new ground for trans-political agreement among the clashing partisans on both sides. What might it be? I have no idea. But we'll know it when we see and hear it — when someone speaks of the common good, and means it, and voters recognize themselves and their country in the words.

Until that uncertain outcome, we'll be left with the constant clamor of partisan clashing — with no end in sight.


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