January 4, 2021 |

Writers who will restore your faith in American civil society

Writers who will restore your faith in American civil society

Over the past several decades, Americans haven’t just become more divided along ideological lines – they’ve also become increasingly hostile toward fellow citizens who don’t share their political attitudes. 

According to Pew, partisan antipathy has been surging since the mid-1990s. The share of Democrats and Republicans who hold unfavorable or very unfavorable views toward members of the other party rocketed upward between 1994 and 2014, and the situation has only deteriorated since then.

But Americans don’t need these data to see what’s happening to their country – all they need to do is turn on a TV or check Facebook or Twitter. From rampant conspiracy mongering and partisan vitriol on social media to news outlets that have become padlocked partisan echo chambers, the Balkanization of civic life in the United States is never clearer than when Americans survey the blitzed and barricaded battlefield sometimes referred to as our “media landscape.”  

At a time when viral disinformation and hysterical political rhetoric are poisoning our national conversation, the value of calm, rational, fact-based discourse has never been clearer. Here are a few writers and intellectuals who offer just that: 

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most incisive and compelling advocates of ideological diversity and open dialogue in the country. His book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is an illuminating study of how our powerful moral impulses can create seemingly insuperable tribal conflicts, as well as a guide to navigating and preventing those conflicts. Haidt is also the co-author (along with Greg Lukianoff) of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, an argument for teaching young Americans to be more resilient, less censorious, and more willing to listen to (and engage with) points of view they may not share. Haidt is the co-founder of Heterodox Academy, which works to promote viewpoint diversity and open inquiry on campus. 

It’s difficult to think of a more valuable political project than Haidt’s as Americans dig themselves into ever-deeper ideological trenches instead of trying to learn from one another and embracing our common citizenship. If we recognize the psychological roots of our tribalism and mutual antipathy, we’ll be better equipped to resist the urge to think of those we disagree with as morally irredeemable and unreachable. Civil society begins where our blind prejudices and hatreds end. 

Anne Applebaum is a journalist and historian who has established herself as an essential voice in understanding – and resisting – the incipient authoritarianism in many Western countries. Perhaps best known as a historian of the Soviet Union (with books such as Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, and Gulag: A History), Applebaum has also emerged as an sharp critic of authoritarianism across today’s Eastern Europe and modern Russia. 

But after decades of thinking about authoritarianism in the East – in both historical and contemporary contexts – Applebaum has brought these analytical tools to bear on political developments in Western Europe and the United States as well. In Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Applebaum outlines the origins and mechanics of the democratic recession in Western countries in recent years – as well as how defenders of liberal democracy can fight back. 

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who studies language, cognition, and human nature (the apt title of a collection of his academic articles). While Pinker has a rich academic background (including contributions to linguistics, cognitive science, psychology, and many other fields), he is also capable of seamlessly blending his academic and popular work. Pinker has written eight books for a general audience, but the two that may have the most lasting impact are: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. At a time when we’re constantly bombarded with bad news – about polarization (ahem), democratic backsliding, inequality, and so on – The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now demonstrate the ways in which life really has been steadily improving for billions of people. 

What Pinker shows in both books is that the Enlightenment project has, in fact, worked: liberal democracy remains the most viable political system on the planet, scientific and moral progress are facts, and humanity’s prospects aren’t quite as dim as a glance at the headlines would suggest. However, as Pinker constantly reiterates, this is no warrant for complacency – instead, we should view human progress as a galvanizing force. We may have a long way to go as a civil society and a species, but our history demonstrates that progress on a vast scale is possible. 

Coleman Hughes is one of the most promising young writers and intellectuals in the United States today. He’s a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, and his list of bylines, interviews, etc. is remarkable for a writer in his early twenties. He has also testified before a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee on the subject of reparations. But Hughes’s resume isn’t the point – he’s among the most penetrating and rational commentators on race in America that you’re likely to find anywhere, and his work has the rare potential to bridge the political chasm that exists on the subject today. 

This is because Hughes writes in the liberal tradition of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin. Instead of urging Americans to become ever-more infatuated with identity politics as many commentators on race have done in recent years, Hughes views racial inequality (and our response to it) through the prism of universal principles, rights, and responsibilities. He believes the path toward sustainable progress on race in America is to emphasize our shared values over the tribal hatred that continues to divide us. This project isn’t just necessary for addressing racial equality in the United States – it’s also necessary to heal our civil society altogether. 

There are many other authors and public intellectuals who are well worth reading during this period of political upheaval: Francis Fukuyama on how to make our institutions more robust and navigate the politics of identity and dignity; Thomas Chatterton Williams on transcending race; Masha Gessen on the power of dissent; David Frum on how to rescue modern American conservatism; and George Packer on how to restore the best traditions of liberalism in the post-Trump era. 

All of these writers are indispensable for helping us understand the social and political forces that shape civil society.

Credits: Matt Johnson, writer; Klimkin via Pixabay, image

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