Complaints about the intensity of political debate are widespread in the United States—and in that vast portion of global media that mirrors and magnifies American culture. The diagnoses are familiar. We split into rival partisan teams, between which there can be no rational exchange of ideas that might lead to compromise or conversion. New problems, as soon as they appear, get subsumed into this rivalry. Even a crisis like the war in Ukraine does not silence culture warriors and political activists.
Yet, this pitch of polemical intensity, far from offering citizens alternatives to the status quo, distracts us from taking real action. Excessively informed about contemporary crises, we are, to an unprecedented degree, disconnected from the structures and institutions through which mass political power has historically been built. We are both intensely “politicized” and incapable of what once was considered the stuff of real politics: the organization of grievances and desires into a rational strategy for reorienting government policy and reshaping our common life.
A tempting solution to this dilemma would be to retreat into private life. Voltaire told us to “cultivate our gardens,” and today we hear that we should “log off,” “touch grass,” and “take the grill pill.” That we often encounter this advice online from people who are themselves deep in the partisan slough might give us pause. More importantly, such quietism presupposes that hyper-partisanship is a personal moral failing rather than an understandable response to our material circumstances.
But the truth is the opposite: those material conditions create the warped political subjectivities characteristic of our age. Understanding this is crucial to avoiding moralizing injunctions and, perhaps, to discovering a means of restoring both the sanctity of private life and the efficacy of politics.
One feature of our intensive politicization is that it disconnects the expression of attitudes, preferences, and identities, on the one hand, from collective projects to influence policy and reshape society on the other. Being “political” means airing one’s views and publicly taking sides. Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her “Tax the Rich” Met Gala dress or Madison Cawthorn punching a tree, political action means producing attention-getting images. Our elected officials’ distorted sense of politics reflects that of ordinary people, who seem increasingly to imagine politics as a mode of self-expression rather than as coordination toward shared goals. Coordination, of course, would require individuals to discipline themselves, to moderate their insistence on their own uniqueness, and to subordinate their own desires to a greater good.
Such restraint is the essence of politics as traditionally understood. In his 1919 lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” the sociologist Max Weber insisted that politics has nothing to do with self-expression. Political activity, he argued, is a domain of human life with its own rules. In the ethical or aesthetic domains, we try to express our relationship to values like goodness or beauty, cultivating ourselves as spiritually pure or creative individuals. In politics, however, we are responsible for articulating and achieving common goals, which requires us to appeal to—and coerce—others. Effective political action requires, according to Weber, setting aside our individual standards of right and wrong when necessary. Though we might personally abhor violence, for example, governing means using an implicit threat of force to compel citizens to act in certain ways. And while we may think that lying is a sin, politicians can never be entirely honest.
Anyone who wants to get involved in politics, for Weber, must know that they will not be able to maintain entirely a personal ethical code. They will have to accept the rules of the political domain in order to acquire power to fulfill their goals. The fundamental error of political actors, he warns, is “vanity,” or an investment in their own image, which “begins where this striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication.” The vain politician is “constantly in danger of becoming an actor as well as taking lightly the responsibility for the outcome of his actions. . . . His lack of objectivity tempts him to strive for the glamorous semblance of power rather than for actual power.”
Our leaders today seem stricken with vanity, combining attention-seeking with practical impotence. One has only to compare the zest with which figures such as Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi seek the spotlight to their inability to steer the American ship of state effectively. But ordinary people, too, are caught up in this desire for the “glamorous semblance” of power disconnected from any common goals and responsibilities. Indeed, many of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers have described this condition as “narcissism” and have diagnosed it as the characteristic pathology of our age.
In his Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud defined narcissism as a perverse over-investment in one’s own image. He associated it with depression, arguing that as individuals withdraw their interest from the external world, often in the aftermath of some disappointing experience, they frequently reorient their attention to themselves. Unable to create a satisfying reality, they try to maintain a pristine self-image.
Such efforts are doomed to fail, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in her account of narcissism in The Second Sex. Arguing that women are particularly vulnerable to narcissism in a sexist society that limits their ambition, Beauvoir noted that narcissists only seem to turn inward. In fact, they desperately need external validation to maintain their precarious sense of themselves. People who cannot find satisfaction and a sense of identity through their activity in the real world, she warned, will not be able to find them in the cultivation of a positive self-image. Women who seek validation from men, for instance, however fascinating they may be to men in the short-term, will inevitably spoil their own efforts with their unsatisfiable demands, making their partners and themselves miserable.
Beauvoir hoped that, as opportunities for women in the workforce grew, narcissism would cease to be a problem. Instead, as Christopher Lasch observed in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, narcissism became the general condition of late-twentieth-century life. Lasch argued that in the face of growing economic and cultural precarity (evidenced by the stagnation of wages, decline of unions, and more general erosion of institutions for civic association such as clubs and churches), individuals could no longer count on their professional roles or identities within their families and communities to sustain their sense of self. What looked to some optimistic observers as a blossoming of self-expression and alternative lifestyles—gay liberation, feminism, and the more general vogue for therapeutic self-exploration—was, from Lasch’s perspective, a desperate attempt by lonely, vulnerable people to replace material and psychic security with the illusory security of a self that, amid the uncertainties of a world in flux, could at least be known and declared to others.
The “vanity” denounced by Weber, in other words, is not an individual shortcoming but an understandable psychological response to a disordered society. Mass hyper-politicization, in this sense, would appear as only one manifestation of a more general obsession with self-image, through which unhappy individuals try to differentiate themselves from one another while competing for attention.
The collapse of politics as a distinct domain and its replacement by attention-seeking hyper-politicization is, from this perspective, a consequence of the spread of a neurotic personality type that is itself the product of economic precarity, social isolation, and cultural dislocation. Some argue that just as the cultural transformations of the 1960s seemed to arise out of that era’s material abundance for the growing middle class, today’s culture-war partisanship is a “post-material” politics reflecting Americans’ relative well-being. But in fact, the economic precarity and social isolation that Lasch saw in the 1970s has worsened. Extreme demands from the Right and Left are not expressions of the decadence of a society that has solved its fundamental economic problems, but a kind of escapism in which individuals who feel powerless to control their own economic destinies vicariously participate in shared fantasies that confer meaning on their lives.
The only way that narcissists—and today we are all, to some degree, narcissists—can be rescued from our obsession with pseudo-politics is by chipping away at the material conditions that have warped our psychologies. This means that we must work to transform our conditions and thus ourselves. It will be, as Weber says politics always is, “a slow boring of hard boards,” but only such an effort can restore the ground on which it might, at last, be possible to cultivate our gardens.
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