Recent years have been marked by policy failures on crime, homelessness, border control, family support, education, and health care. A major cause is progressives’ ability to transform questions about the best way to reform structures into emotional referendums on individuals. In a therapeutic, interconnected, and individualistic age that prizes feelings and “emotional safety,” making policy debates personal is a winning tactic. Progressives consistently resort to the fallacy of composition to shut down competing arguments.

The fallacy of composition arises when we mistakenly generalize from the part to the whole, or vice-versa. A phone book is hard to tear, but that doesn’t mean that an individual page is. Venezuela is an authoritarian nation, but that doesn’t mean that Venezuelans are. Brazilians tend to be good at soccer, but that doesn’t mean a particular Brazilian necessarily is.

Consider the examples below:

Collective LevelIndividual Level
Cancer is badIndividuals with cancer are bad
We need to help families stay together, which improves children’s outcomesJane, a single mother, is a worse parent than a married parent
Immigration should be controlled for the benefit of the countryRaul, an immigrant, should be prevented from entering the country because he will harm it
Health care needs to be reformedPamela, a nurse, is deficient and needs improvement
The American accent is different from an Indian accentIndira, a citizen with an Indian accent, is not an American
America’s ethnic majority should not decline too rapidly because it is part of the nation’s identityIndira, an ethnic minority, is not fully American
We should discourage drug addiction, a social illWe should discriminate against Ryan, a drug addict
The country needs to boost its birth rateThose who don’t have children are bad citizens
Transgenderism should not be encouraged because it is associated with worse life outcomesPat, a transgender-identifying woman, should be discriminated against and excluded

Apart from the first example, all the rest implicate progressive sensibilities, in that a progressive might engage in the fallacy and misconstrue the collective policy proposal as offensive to individuals. We often see this in our public debates, where a normative proposal (as are those in the left-hand column) is regarded, by progressives, as an attack on certain people (the right-hand column). Progressives thus collapse a complex discussion about collective entities into a debate about the treatment of individuals. This stems in part from the moral foundations of cultural progressives, who value equal outcomes and the minimization of harm. Those committing the fallacy of composition prioritize the therapeutic, privileging the psychological feelings of sensitive individuals at the margins above the collective dimensions of social problems to impede rational, democratic solutions. The political becomes the personal.

Public morality has evolved since the mid-1960s to the point where most taboos revolve around racism, sexism, homophobia, and other identitarian versions of the care/harm moral foundation. In short, our moral landscape has tilted in favor of the Left. This permits what the scholar Cass Sunstein terms “opprobrium entrepreneurs” to institutionalize the fallacy of composition on their cardinal issues.

The net result is to narrow the boundaries of acceptable debate, shutting down important policy conversations that could lead to socially optimal outcomes and bipartisan accommodation. Policy drifts leftward on crime, homelessness, immigration, education, the family, and other areas that impinge on progressive sensibilities.

Left-aligned meaning-making institutions cover for policy failures by pinning them on white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, insufficient spending, or other conservative bogeymen. The “progressive activist” slice of the population—white, liberal, educated, rich, urban—punches above its weight online, in committees, in lobbying, and in low-turnout elections. That outsize influence vitiates thermostatic electoral and media correction, institutionalizing a political disequilibrium. The result is endemic social disorder, notably in urban areas.

Before the apolitical silent majority is roused to action, such disorder must become too extreme to ignore (as it had become in San Francisco, resulting in the recall of district attorney Chesa Boudin). The muted popular backlash is also related to the decline of social connectedness in the working and middle class, owing to the dwindling of church, union, and fraternal membership. Growing ethnoreligious diversity also weakens social ties that connect communities.

In the past, face-to-face, chapter-based associations may have channeled popular discontent more effectively. Today, however, overt grassroots campaigns and referenda are needed to give the silent majority a voice. And even when they speak up, as with Boudin’s recall, they may swiftly demobilize, allowing mass apathy to return and activist forces to regain control.

The Left has the advantage in political communications. The progressive brand exudes a kind, caring aura that prevails in an emotive, therapeutic, low-attention mass culture. Progressive illiberalism successfully masks itself behind fuzzy-sounding slogans of convenience: from “gender-affirming care” and “black lives matter” to “inclusion” and “social justice.” Many who lack the time or inclination to peer under the hood fall for the packaging, extending goodwill to progressive activists. Only vivid cases can puncture the syrupy surface, as in Scotland, when a picture of tattooed transgender rapist Isla Bryson (real name Adam Graham) roused the electorate to punish the Scottish National Party for its Gender Recognition Act that allowed such people into women’s prisons.

Where these issues do make a difference is in national elections. Discontent with a fraying social fabric, growing disorder, or attacks on cherished traditional symbols and identities feeds a populist backlash that has, since Richard Nixon, tended to benefit Republicans. Much depends on how well GOP politicians can articulate these grievances and the policies needed to address them, and whether they can resist causes like wholesale abortion bans or Social Security cuts that remain unpopular with voters. The Right must lead with vivid images to cut through progressive euphemisms. But if the message is intemperate, it can aggravate the progressive response and entrench polarization.

In the long term, the West must reform its mass culture of therapeutic individualism, moving away from a harm-centered public morality. Only then can progressive and conservative interlocutors be released from the distortions of the fallacy of composition—and reach the bipartisan accommodation needed to advance rational policies for the common good.

Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images


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