The noble and needful philosophical tradition of bothsidesism (no, really)

A call for equanimity in a polarized time

Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Nothing will open a pundit to anger and abuse like pointing out that both sides in our politics have a point — or a specific blind spot. That's especially true now, in our era of political polarization, and when one of our two major parties remains in thrall to a demagogue who provoked an insurrectionary riot against the national legislature to keep himself in power after losing a presidential election.

If ever there was a moment when drawing hard distinctions and rendering severe moral judgments would seem to be necessary, it's now.

Yet the opposite may in fact be true. Maybe the present — more than other, less rancorous moments — cries out for greater efforts at understanding "both sides."

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This doesn't mean embracing moral equivalency. I've probably devoted more of my writing to denouncing former President Donald Trump and his intellectual apologists than to any other single subject in my eight years as a columnist. I also sometimes sharply criticize so-called "woke" trends in the culture along with other forms of progressive overreach. But as I do, I try to make clear that the criticism doesn't imply the danger posed by "cancel culture" rivals the political threat of right-wing antiliberalism.

Yet denunciation — the rhetorical equivalent of jumping up and down, pointing and shouting, "Oh my God, this is dangerous and evil!" — isn't the only worthwhile response to a grave threat. On the contrary, it's exceedingly important to do more than that, to seek understanding beyond moral rebuke. And, yes, also beyond partisanship.

It can be challenging to see the need for efforts at equanimity when the centrifugal forces in our politics are so powerful. These days, punditry and even more ostensibly measured forms of analysis, like scholarship, tend unapologetically to take sides in political disagreements and disputes. Some commentators do little more than write repeated variations on "Why Donald Trump is so dangerous" or "How the Democrats became the only party to favor democracy."

One column on such topics is essential. Several published over time, in response to a string of discrete events, can be useful. But more than that and punditry begins to resemble special pleading for one political faction: Saving democracy in America requires not only voting consistently for Democrats but also supporting their entire policy agenda and never criticizing the party or its leadership, including the president. To do otherwise is to will an authoritarian future.

Thankfully, there is another mode of analysis, though it may not win as much public approval. It's the more dispassionate approach taken by certain political philosophers down through the centuries.

Thucydides was an ancient Athenian general embroiled in fighting the Peloponnesian War against Sparta when he began writing his classic history and analysis of the conflict, not from the standpoint of his own city and its grievances against its opponent in the war, but from a loftier point of view. In the opening pages of his history, he declares that he aims not for the essay "to win the applause of the moment" but for it to be "a possession for all times." And, indeed, his work has been read and admired ever since for its even-handed and enduring insights into the motives and ill-fated decisions of the warring parties.

In a similar way, Aristotle described the distinctive outlook of the political philosopher as that of an umpire — a judge who aspires to stand outside of and somewhat above the political fray, judging the participants as fairly as possible, and ultimately striving to further the common good and achieve conciliation at the level of the polity as a whole. Such political philosophizing, as exemplified by Aristotle's own writing about politics, takes the form of listening to what all the parties or factions in the community say and highlighting what's reasonable and unreasonable in each — the assumption being that each expresses a partial truth and makes demands in the name of a partial understanding of justice that needs to be refined.

Alexis de Tocqueville aimed for something analogous in his classic Democracy in America, declaring at the end of his introduction: "I undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties; and while they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future." The major conflict in the book is between the aristocratic-hierarchical outlook on the world, which was dying out as Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, and egalitarian democracy, based on the presumption of human equality, which was on the rise.

Tocqueville was himself an aristocrat who recognized that worldview's nobility as well as its injustice. Democratic equality was bound to triumph, he claimed, and it deserved to. But it also needed to be tempered by remnants of the old aristocratic sensibility, which could serve to counterbalance to the worst excesses of equality and democracy.

Those are three of the greatest models for trying to give "both sides" their due in political disputes. I aspire in my own very modest way toward something similar in the most ambitious of my columns.

And so, I think, does Ross Douthat of The New York Times. That certainly includes his column from earlier this week, "Who Believes in Democracy?," which has provoked an avalanche of criticism from progressives and anti-Trump conservatives, united in accusing Douthat of whitewashing the authoritarian aims of the contemporary Republican Party and massively overstating the liberal left's skepticism of democracy.

It's definitely the case that the essay seeks to complicate the common trope that the contemporary Republican Party "no longer accepts democracy," leaving Democrats as its sole defender. (That quote from former Obama White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes opens Douthat's column). One way Douthat complexifies this view is by concluding his piece with several examples of the center-left's tendency to favor the rule of ostensibly neutral experts and bureaucratic agencies over majority opinion on a range of issues.

But more important is his effort to show both that skepticism of mass democracy is longstanding on the American right and that it has more recently mixed with other ideological strands that are far more affirming of majoritarianism. This leads to what, for me, is the column's high point: Douthat's take on the alarming events of Jan. 6 and Trump's words and deeds leading up to it.

Although it has become reflexive for journalists like myself to say things like, Trump is an authoritarian because he attempted to foment a coup to keep himself in power despite losing the election — I did so at the start of this very column — this is not how Trump himself and his most devoted supporters understand the situation. Never once did Trump say, I should remain president despite losing the election. He said, instead, I should remain president because, despite what corrupt Democratic officials and the media say, I actually won.

That is, Trump claimed democratic legitimacy. That doesn't mean he was anything other than delusional or deliberately lying in doing so. He did in fact lose the election. (Note that Douthat describes Trump's claims as a "deception" and a form of "toxic dreampolitik," so there can be no doubt about where he stands on the matter.) But it is nonetheless illuminating to be reminded that Trump's political rhetoric presumed the legitimacy of democracy (or at least the distinctive American blend of majoritarian elections with counter-majoritarian institutions like the Electoral College).

I also consider it indisputable that liberals, from the original progressive movement on down through Brown v. Board of Ed. (1954), Roe v. Wade (1973), and any number of other Supreme Court decisions and administrative regulations, have been quite willing and even eager to check the will of democratic majorities. Of course it's possible to define "democracy" in such a way that all of these moves appear democratic, but it's useful to be reminded that reality, at least in some respects, might not be quite so tidy.

And therein lies the value of Douthat's column in particular and the impulse toward "both sides" analysis of politics more generally — yes, even, and maybe especially, in an era of stark partisan polarization, when one side appears willing to question the legitimacy of core democratic institutions.

This week a New York Times columnist inspired me to reflect critically on my own assumptions. Instead of encouraging me to cheer on one side or spit venom at the other, he made me think. If I occasionally accomplish the same for a few of my own readers, I consider it a job well done.

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