Why Can’t People Just Be Rational? The Visceral Turn in American Culture and Politics

Bill Evans head shot

The persistence of the Trump phenomenon clearly has the intelligentsia on the Right flummoxed. Tom Sowell—a thoughtful guy if there ever was one—bemoans the “fervent support” for Trump as a “blind faith” motivated by the perception that these are “desperate times,” and he glumly hopes that the “common sense” of voters will eventually prevail before it is too late. Rod Dreher of the American Conservative demonstrates his conservative intelligentsia bona fides by assuring us that he e-mails New York Times columnist Ross Douthat regularly, before complaining about “a tribal conservatism, one that had very little to do with ideas, and everything to do with nationalism and a sense of us-versus-them.” That being said, Dreher also seeks to understand how “ideas and reason matter far less to most people than they do to people like us (this is true of the left as well), not because most people are stupid, but because their mode of experiencing life is not nearly as abstract as ours.” In other words, the distance between Trump supporters and the pundits is painfully apparent, especially to the pundits!

As a career academic, I suppose I should note that I have a dog in this fight. My goal in the classroom is to encourage students to look at issues from new angles, to develop the analytic skills necessary to understand the complex reality they experience, and to engage in civil discussion of these matters. Of course, irrationalism is nothing new in American culture and politics—that’s one reason why schools and universities to foster learning and right reason were founded. Here we think of the visceral anti-Catholicism of the so-called “Know Nothings” in the 1840s, or the Dionysian cultural turn in the 1960s, to name just two obvious examples.   Nevertheless, there does seem to be something new afoot.

Let’s take Evangelicals as a case in point. Pundits are puzzling (e.g., Russell Moore here and Jonathan Merritt here) over the high level of support for Trump among Evangelical voters. Particularly striking was the recent endorsement of Trump by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. Now most of us know that Evangelicalism is not a movement of thoughtful reflection; rather, it is an activist impulse driven by a certain understanding of religious experience. Not surprisingly, it has produced far more Billy Grahams than Carl Henrys. But twenty years ago it would be difficult to conceive of Evangelical voters flocking to Donald Trump, a candidate whose manner, personal behavior, and previously advocated policies don’t match up well with Evangelical sensibilities at all. This is visceral politics, the politics of the vented spleen, in action!

So what’s new?

First, circumstances have conspired to make this an era of what the French call ressentiment. Sociologist of religion James Davison Hunter writes,

Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. . . . In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable (Hunter, To Change the World, 107-8).

Visceral politics needs an opponent, a perceived threat, in order to thrive. Within the Republican context, there is the general sense that things are not going well for the nation—militarily, economically, or culturally. Barack Obama’s “hope and change” presidency has brought a whole lot of cultural change but rather little hope. Furthermore, the Republican party and its leadership are widely seen by rank-and-file Republicans as powerless to reverse the tide of national decline.

Second, the party establishment appears to be discredited, or at very least way out of touch. Rightly or wrongly, the perception of many is that party leaders are tools of financial interests who are looking out for themselves rather than the interests of the country and the average American. Furthermore, a significant wing of the Republican establishment is discredited in the eyes of many on foreign policy issues because of an Iraq war that dragged on and on, and which has by all appearances made the Middle East much more unstable. After all, as Dreher notes it was the smart guys in the Republican Party, rather than the populists, who championed the Iraq incursion. And let’s not forget that it was the foreign-policy brain trust of the Democratic Party that got us into Vietnam, and that distressingly similar debacle fueled a likewise similar revolt against Democratic elites in the late 1960s.

Third, rational argumentation itself seems to be increasingly out of style. This is a complicated issue but it has to do at very least with both the post-modern pessimism regarding reason itself and with related developments within the humanities. While the harder sciences retain their cultural respect and allure because of their connection to technology, the humanities (which at one time were a bastion of thoughtful reflection and civil discourse supportive of democratic institutions) have descended into the power analysis of “critical theory” and the resulting nasty and self-serving identity politics. Truth with a capital T is in eclipse, and everything is seen as relative to social location and power relationships.  Even if Republicans are rightly critical of such developments, these ways of thinking are still part of the cultural air we breathe.

Finally, in the absence of concepts of Truth and lasting touchstones, moral argumentation about what the common good may be has degenerated into emotivism. In an earlier essay I wrote that

the prevailing approach now is what Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory terms “emotivism”—the belief that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (After Virtue, 12). But when moral judgments are no more than expressions of individual sentiment at least two things take place. Because the locus of moral authority is the self rather than larger principle, disagreements are often personalized, and there is less room for agreements to disagree regarding matters over which good people may differ. In addition, because on emotivist grounds there is little room for rational discourse, moral issues ultimately reduce to power—either the informal power of public opinion or the iron fist of the state.

And so the stage is well set for the sort of visceral politics we see today. Not so clear, however, is the solution. It may be that Sowell’s common sense will prevail for Republicans this year, though it’s getting late in the day.