The return of honor politics
America is reverting to an older, more dangerous form of political life
When we talk about the many political problems of the present, we often revert to concepts bequeathed to us by political science: partisanship and polarization, norms and institutions, public opinion and populism.
These terms are often illuminating. But there is another, older way of talking about politics that may reveal even more. I'm thinking of words like honor and dishonor, glory and humiliation — ideas meant to evoke the vertical dimension of political life in which individuals and parties compete to demonstrate their superiority to their rivals and opponents, hurl insults, take umbrage, and promise to exact vengeance for wounded pride. They are the virtues and vices of the battlefield, collected and analyzed in the works of political philosophers and historians of the pre-modern world.
When we look out on the political landscape in the Trump era with these concepts in mind, we begin to see that we're living through the revival of honor politics after more than a century of its eclipse. That should trouble liberals and conservatives alike, because honor politics can be risky, dangerous, volatile, violent. A world in which honor politics returns to the center of our public life will be a world of much greater instability and unpredictability than we've grown used to over much of the past century in the United States. It will be a world in which clashing factions compete for more than the right to pursue clashing policy agendas. They will also, and perhaps primarily, compete for the sheer glory of winning and the unrivaled joy of humiliating their opponents.
The liberal political tradition was devised in part to displace the love of honor from the center of politics in the Western world. Just about everything Achilles does in the Iliad is motived by honor, which is one reason why the Platonic dialogues are filled with characters who implicitly treat it as the highest human good. It's there, treated as a primary motive of human action, in the writings of Machiavelli as well as the plays of Shakespeare, who often portrayed men and women motivated by a reverence for honor. That's because they knew their history. From Alexander the Great and the most ambitious of the Roman emperors to a long series of medieval kings and popes, the greatest (and often most vicious) rulers and conquerors in history had been motivated by a longing for immortal glory.
The early modern wars of religion were fueled at least as much by the princely and aristocratic craving for honor and glory as they were by genuine piety. That's why the first liberal theorists (men like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith) sought to dissipate the craving for honor by encouraging, as a substitute and alternative, commercial trade and capitalistic forms of exchange. Ordinary people would seek newly attainable wealth instead of the much more dangerous and elevated goods of honor and glory, while elites would be able to enjoy a modicum of regard and admiration from others in the less destructive private pursuit of great riches.
We'd have captains of industry instead of captains of battalions, corporate raiders instead of rebels and revolutionaries. Politics would be transformed from a pursuit marked by violence and oppression into a realm of prosaic, reasonable, pragmatic debate over what policies to pursue and how to enact incremental change for the sake of the public good.
The transformation took a while. Honor politics was still strong enough in the colonial era and early years of the republic that those who led the American Revolution pledged to one another their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. Alexander Hamilton, one of the leading constitutional framers, was still so concerned with his honor that he died in a duel with a political rival (Aaron Burr).
Before long, such vivid, life-risking displays of honor-seeking would become unthinkable for most. A few joined the military and sought honor in the more classical way. But many people behaved just as the first liberals expected them to: They traded the pursuit of military or political glory for the effort to earn and acquire great wealth and recognition in the private sphere of life. Others didn't become rich but contented themselves with a life of what Hobbes called "commodious living." They were lured by the promise of a life of peace and just enough prosperity to lull their longing for immortal glory to sleep.
But now the Lunesta is wearing off. Various technologies are reawakening the taste for glory, giving everyone — from the already rich and famous reality TV star inhabiting the White House on down to run-of-the-mill activists and ordinary citizens — enormous public platforms on which to seek honor and recognition, in part by lashing out at rivals and opponents, seeking to humiliate them, multiple times a day. It can be intoxicating to fling insults at rivals and opponents on Twitter, winning the adulation of thousands in the process. Media outfits, breaking from the high-minded, dispassionate liberalism that dominated journalism in the middle decades of the 20th century, earn enormous profits by whipping millions of viewers into a frenzy of furious anger at perceived slights and condescension. Political campaigns and even whole social movements are motivated by the perception of disrespect.
When people liken politics in the Trump era to pro-wrestling or gladiatorial contests, this is really what they mean: People are both spectators of and participants in competitions over honor — with wounded pride and the search to avenge it motivating each successive round of conflict. What I described as "gonzo politics" in a recent column, with Republican politicians play-acting indignation before television cameras in the defense of President Trump's damaged reputation, is honor politics all the way down — or at least a mass-media simulacrum of it. Politicians take fake umbrage on behalf of the president, and the intended audience (Republican voters) gets to enjoy the vicarious thrill of defending the honor of their hero and smiting his mortal enemies with hyperbolic insults meant to humiliate them.
So far, the return of honor politics has been mostly virtual — like a sporting match observed and enjoyed from the bleachers, with the glory savored by the fans secondhand. The danger is that, with Americans becoming addicted to and enamored with the warrior virtues, it could spill over into the real world and bring the full-blooded return of real honor-based politics in which factions and parties act on their anger, reacting to their aggrievement with actual violence.
Then we might have occasion once again to appreciate the original liberal case against the politics of honor — and the liberal tradition's sensible and wise prescriptions for displacing it from public life.