An old band joke: How do trumpet players introduce themselves to each other? “Hi, I’m better than you.”
In the world of music, this sort of observation about the personalities drawn to different instruments is mildly funny. Less amusing is that American political discourse is increasingly dominated by the same assertion of superiority. For many, politics is a way of showing oneself to be smarter, more enlightened, more compassionate and more attuned to injustice than others. Political positions are taken and rhetoric is deployed not to persuade, but to declare one’s status.
The Internet is awash in this. Whether on Facebook, political Twitter, or (angels and ministers of grace defend us) in the comment section, traffic and content would drop precipitously without those hapless souls turning every issue into a way of screaming “I’m better than you” into the Internet void. Unfortunately, this has become one of the dominant motivations in our politics.
It is being exacerbated by increased secularism. One result of the decline of American Christianity is that political affiliation has become an easy substitute for the sense of spiritual rectitude that religious practice formerly offered—and this secular righteousness carries few of the humbling warnings about pride and sin that religion traditionally provided. For all the excesses and hypocrisy of the Religious Right and all the absurdities of the diminutive Religious Left, Christianity is still a salutary influence on each. Politics is a terrible replacement for religion.
The Sanctimony of Finding Deplorables
The definitive expression of cheap political morality may have been Hillary Clinton’s declaration that “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it…some of those folks — they are irredeemable.”
Nearly as telling were her comments about the other half of Trump supporters. Clinton described them as people, “who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.” Thus, the Democratic nominee described all those voting for her opponent as either bigoted, irredeemable deplorables, or desperate losers. And her half-hearted apology only admitted to misjudging the proportions between the two categories.
That Trump is a man of low character whose candidacy emboldened some on the ugly fringe of American politics is indisputable, but dismissing all Trump voters as either bigots or dumb losers was self-serving sanctimony meant only to flatter donors and supporters by assuring them of their moral superiority. From presidential candidates to Twitter trolls, this attitude is endemic on the Left. Politics becomes the measure of virtue in a scramble for moral positioning.
It’s the cheapest possible grace: express the right political opinions and vote the right way and be confirmed as a good person. Loathing the other side proves one’s hatred of sin and further secures status among the righteous. Of course, it also proved politically catastrophic to run on a campaign of “I’m better than you.”
The Right Is Not Immune, Either
Unfortunately, the Right has its own versions of this politics of moral posturing, one of which can be seen in the grievances of those who like to describe themselves as “Real Americans.” Trump’s gilded populism was the ironic culmination of years of right-wing fulmination that tied politics to lifestyle markers ranging from soccer, Priuses, and lattes on one side to pickup trucks and country music on the other.
Dismissing fellow citizens as not being “Real Americans” is a resentful way to assert one’s superiority, and an alluring temptation for those anxious about being left behind by the cultural vanguard and the modern economy. However, it is nonsense. Like it or not, Wall Street, K Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood are thoroughly American. Apple is as American as apple pie. Just as with the Left, it’s self-destructive for a political movement to ostracize people over irrelevant lifestyle markers.
The insistence by Trump and his core supporters on seeing opponents as inauthentic Americans does explain some of their peculiarities, such as their fascination with allegations of massive voter fraud (yes, there is voter fraud, but not on anything like that scale). Those on the Trump train fancied themselves the voice of the people, which implies a majority of “Real Americans.” So they can’t let go of the meaningless total vote count, even though Trump’s campaign managed the ultimate political moneyball win in the Electoral College. In this case, the compulsions of the right-wing narrative of superiority lead to embracing conspiracy theories.
Each Side’s Smugness Reinforces the Other’s
Each side’s narrative reinforces that of the other, with left-wing derision and smugness feeding and being fed by right-wing resentments, and with each faction reveling in its feelings of superiority over (and loathing for) the other. One of the consequences is that each side’s rhetoric and politics is increasingly focused on punishing the other.
For instance, when Trump fans defend him by declaring that “he fights” what they often mean is “he offends,” the two having become synonymous to them. While Trump’s administration has some policy accomplishments, they’re less than would be expected from a Republican president whose party controls Congress, unless Trump’s inexhaustible ability to offend is considered an accomplishment.
The previous administration had its own indulgences in gratuitous insult and policy-as-punishment, such as its attempt to force nuns to pay for and facilitate birth control. Despite political losses, the Left continues to pursue goals such as persecuting nonconformist wedding vendors. As policy, these aren’t worth the trouble, unless the policy is to punish the other side. A bit of Twitter gloating after an electoral win is fairly harmless; the political sadism of policies that are mostly about sticking it to the other side are corrosive to our nation.
Demonizing People Becomes an Outlet for Malice
The cheap grace of politically based morality also offers an excuse for indulging one’s worst impulses in both policy and rhetoric. If correct politics confers moral superiority, then the wrong political views confer wickedness, and the wicked deserve to be punished. This view allows people to find in politics a socially acceptable, even applauded, outlet for cruelty and malice, as well as absolution and indulgence for that cruelty.
This is exacerbated by media formats that often encourage half-baked hot takes and reward snark over substance. It produces a never-ending supply of folly that makes it easier for everyone to focus on the worst of their political opponents and ignore distinctions among them (e.g., most Democrats aren’t the sort of proto-fascists who stage campus riots). We judge our political opponents based on the stupidest thing they have ever tweeted or blogged, and allow trolls to inordinately influence our view of the other side, even though people who spend their days trolling are not representative of anything but the sort of people who spend their days trolling.
However, even when one is right about the moral degeneracy of someone on the other side, it is morally hazardous to dwell on it very much. There are times when it is necessary to take note of it, but politics as a moral marker leads to neglecting, even abandoning, genuine virtues, such as charity and humility. This poisons the possibility of dialogue, which cannot occur when we only try to prove our moral superiority instead of trying to understand each other.
The worst sins of my political opponents don’t make me any better, and holding the right political views is rarely much of a moral accomplishment. The cure for the cheap grace of political morality isn’t abandoning political conviction or moral standards for an easy relativism, but abandoning self-righteousness, which is much harder. It may even become recursive, as I feel self-righteous about the attempt to abandon self-righteousness. Humans are sinful and more than a bit ridiculous, which is why we need real, costly grace, not a cheap political knock-off.