The Triumph of Anti-Politics

Nearly all observers today agree that politics in the United States is in a dire, poisoned state. For this they generally blame “polarization” — and the other political camp. In fact, the reasons are both more complicated and more distressing, and cannot be blamed on any single political grouping. In his pre-pandemic best-seller Enlightenment Now, the psychologist Steven Pinker hailed the worldwide spread of democracy, but not in the glowing terms one might have expected from such a zealous celebrant of modernity. Democracy, he allowed, was preferable to tyranny, and offered people “the freedom to complain.” But Pinker cautioned against what he called “a civics-class idealization of democracy in which an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preference.” And he continued: “By that standard, the number of democracies in the world is zero in the past, zero in the present, and almost certainly zero in the future.”          The statement was obviously true on one level, as even a glance at the “deliberation” in our media will show; but it is appallingly superficial on others. Of course, ideal democracy has never existed on the planet, and probably never will. If a key element of democracy is a universal adult right to vote, then the United States has approached democratic status only since the 1960’s. But recognizing the fact that reality always falls grievously short of the ideal hardly invalidates the ideal. Pinker, having dismissed the ideal as impossible to realize, and having taken a condescending swipe at “the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs,” argued instead for a “minimalist conception of democracy” that leaves public policy, as much as possible, in the hands of trained experts. “To make public discourse more rational,” he insisted, “issues should be depoliticized as much

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