Editor’s note: Today’s essay is the first in a Public Discourse series, “A Coalition of The Sensible.” These essays explore what a principled and sober approach to politics might look like in our current climate of escalating discord. David Corey’s essay introduces the conversation, making a case for sensible politics amid claims of politics as war. Responses will follow this week.
A New Right has arisen in America. Its adherents are anti-liberal, at war with the woke Left, opposed to pluralism, enamored of state power and nationalism, and ready to abandon such niceties as civility and toleration. What accounts for the allure of this movement? Put differently, what changes in American political conditions have brought the reactionary fringe into the mainstream?
My hunch is that the New Right is primarily responding to acts of aggression by the American Left in the form of “politicization.” I’ll explain what I mean, but I also want to say something about the viability of the New Right’s strategy for addressing this problem. Their chief method—indeed one of their defining characteristics—is a tendency to approach politics in a more warlike manner. Some of their leading lights (whom I will not name so as to avoid drawing even more attention to them) go so far as to adopt the outlook of the German theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who defined politics in terms of “friends and enemies” and recommended dictatorship as a way of unifying the regime.
But imitating Carl Schmitt in contemporary America will not solve our problems. What we need instead is a less utopian kind of politics, one that is not a species of war, but rather a species of competition and bounded cooperation where that is still possible, given our many differences. Such a “limited” form of politics should animate what we might call a “coalition of the sensible” against the excesses of the New Right.
Liberalism and Its Reactionary Discontents
Liberalism has been described as “in crisis” and “failing” since its beginnings in the 1820s. This is nothing new and cannot explain the rise of the New Right. Nor have the past two hundred years been a complete failure. Indeed, liberalism has experienced extraordinary successes. Why, then, do we see a growing rejection of liberalism on the American right?
The most likely answer has to do with the extreme leftward “politicization” of our social institutions over the past fifty years. In a thriving liberal regime (or, rather, in any regime that promotes human flourishing), social institutions exist that are more or less insulated from political pressures: the family, the church and synagogue, the university, the arts, much of the economy, and the myriad “voluntary associations” that reflect people’s particular loves and concerns. “Politicization” refers to the deliberate infiltration of these spheres of human flourishing in order to advance a political agenda. It is a form of mobilization. It searches out people in their non-political spaces and conscripts them into activism. In the process, it also politicizes the spaces themselves.
A watershed moment for politicization in the United States came in 1962 when the left-radical “Students for a Democratic Society” (an offshoot of the “Intercollegiate Socialist Society”) coopted the university as its future “base” of operations for revolutionary social change. In their famous Port Huron Statement, the SDS complained that American university education, with its “search for truth,” had become sterile and alienating, while a more politicized university might spawn revolutionary leaders and meaningful social reform. Thence began the steady march of activists into American PhD programs and, eventually, the professoriate.
This strategy of “institutional capture” has continued apace. Today, there is scarcely a social institution remaining that has not been affected, from K–12 schools to the medical profession and legal institutions. Try visiting a museum or concert hall and note the obligatory political messaging. Ideological conformity is now so stifling that our social institutions seem to be broken beyond repair.
Today’s New Right is best understood in this context. It is a response to the successes of a relentlessly warring Left. But how does the New Right plan to save our culture? How do its adherents propose to restore some modicum of peace, order, and healthy practices of human flourishing?
Many young (and not-so-young) people on the Right today believe they know the answer to such questions. Their answer is to take the idea of culture “war” much more seriously: to treat politics like actual war, a winner-take-all contest where “friends” and “enemies” vie over the right to exist. It is time to stop being so agreeable, they say. Civility is counterproductive; toleration is “giving quarter to the enemy”; and neutrality is tantamount to apostasy: you are either for us or against us. There is no neutral ground.
Interestingly, though, the New Right’s heightened warlike approach to politics is neither new nor distinctive. It is, rather, what the Left has been doing all along. Thus, the New Right is “reactionary” not only in the sense of wanting to roll back the political clock to a status quo ante (before liberalism), but also in the sense of reacting to, even borrowing from, the methods of its opponents.
Will this more warlike approach to politics get us where we want to be?
Politics as War
People who approach politics as war typically hold one of three possible positions. Certain people (the “optimistic warriors”) believe that after a relatively short time the war will be over: victory lies just beyond the next election cycle or SCOTUS decision or march on Washington. The problem with these warriors is, of course, that they grossly underestimate what is required for lasting victory in war. Especially in the context of domestic battles, where no physical distance separates the sides, victories are rarely permanent. On the contrary, every success is reversible if one does not push the logic of war to its most ruthless conclusion. One must eliminate the enemy—and not only today’s enemy but tomorrow’s as well. As Machiavelli notoriously observed, one must “eliminate the bloodline,” or the enemy will rise again.
Others who approach politics as war take a more tragic view. They do not put hope in victory. They lament that war is even necessary, since they have better things to do. But they commit to it nonetheless, because they believe if they don’t, the other side will win everything, and life will become unbearable. These “tragic warriors” view the timber of humanity as so thoroughly crooked that politics must be perpetually warlike. Their recourse to war is tragic not only because war never ends, but also because it constantly diverts attention from goods and practices that make life meaningful, such as love, friendship, worship, play, philosophy, and aesthetic delight. In the midst of an all-consuming conflict, who can find time for such things?
Because the optimistic warrior and the tragic warrior both end up fighting indefinitely, despite their wishes to the contrary, they are both reducible in practice to a third type of warrior, what we might call the “essential warrior.” This group views politics as inherently, not accidentally, related to war. For the essential warrior, the social world consists of radically different, mutually exclusive ways of life (deep pluralism). The only way to protect one’s own “way” from the encroachment of others is to throw off all political idealism and constraint and to recognize that politics just is about existential conflict with an “other” who wishes to destroy us. Any politics not framed in these terms is not “politics” in the strict sense. Politics is, by definition, the identification of “friends” and “enemies” with an eye to violent conflict.
Readers familiar with the history of twentieth-century political thought will recognize this as the view of Carl Schmitt, the German legal and political theorist who wrote The Concept of the Political (1932). Because the optimistic and tragic warriors both reduce effectively to Schmitt, and because Schmitt remains one of the most trenchant and thoroughgoing theorists of what we might call the “politics of war” to this day, we would do well to engage with him directly.
What were Schmitt’s justifications for approaching politics in this manner, and what are the consequences of that approach?
Schmitt in Context and Today
In its historical context, Schmitt’s argument made sense. The Concept of the Political was published during the late years of the Weimar Constitution, which governed Germany between the world wars (1919–1933). Schmitt was a critic of that constitution because it took inadequate precautions against extremist parties that wished to form governments and act from within to subvert the constitution itself. This was, in fact, exactly what happened when Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933. The Nazi takeover of Germany was based on an “Enabling Act” that was perfectly legal, according to the Weimar Constitution.
In the years leading up to 1933, Schmitt warned repeatedly that the German state was in imminent danger of being co-opted by internal “enemies” who opposed it. He proposed an extreme solution for what he (rightly) regarded as an extreme situation. According to “Article 48” of the Weimar Constitution, “if public safety and order [were] seriously disturbed or endangered,” the president of the Reich could “take the necessary measures” to restore order, even by armed force.
Schmitt’s own political theorizing had already led him to embrace the necessity of dictatorial power in politics—not under normal conditions, but in case of emergency, or what he called a “state of exception.” When Schmitt published the Concept of the Political in 1932, he hoped it would help persuade the Reichspräsident, Paul von Hindenburg, to invoke such a power. In the words of Schmitt scholar George Schwab, “Schmitt saw little hope in the ability of the Weimar state to survive unless its leadership was immediately prepared to distinguish friend from enemy and to act accordingly.”
Thus, in historical context, “friend” for Schmitt meant supporters of the liberal Weimar state, while “enemy” referred to antiliberal extremists: the Nazis on the nationalist right and the socialists on the internationalist left.
The problem with Schmitt’s theory for us today is that he expressed it in universal rather than historically contingent terms, as if politics must always and everywhere be essentially about friends, enemies, and potentially lethal force. Indeed, what has attracted the American Left and New Right to Schmitt are four (apparently timeless) claims.
- Politics is its own autonomous domain (independent, e.g., from ethics). Just as ethics concerns the good and bad, and aesthetics concerns the beautiful and ugly, politics has its own essential concern: friends and enemies.
- All “politics” takes its bearings from “the extreme case,” not from ordinary life. The extreme case is existential conflict unto death. Thus, violent conflict determines “political” behavior, much the way an impending hurricane might determine behavior before a storm. “Politics” is what people do in light of the extreme case.
- True sovereign power should ensure that “enemies” have no foothold. Constitutionally, the “other” should be outlawed. Emergency provisions should also be in place to override legal constraints when the regime (or way of life) is threatened.
- Finally, dictatorship is preferable to liberalism, because it best facilitates true sovereignty, the ability to “decide the exception” and to curtail pluralism when it threatens the regime.
For Americans caught up in today’s culture wars, these claims are seductive. Isn’t politics basically about friends and enemies? Isn’t the conflict “existential” in the sense that rival ways of life are at stake? And don’t both sides crave dictatorial power to deal with their enemies, free from constitutional and moral constraints? Whether one is an activist on the Left or the Right, Schmitt’s theory seems perfectly descriptive. Should it not then be prescriptive as well?
Rejecting Schmitt Today
The answer is “no,” for reasons that ought to be obvious to sensible observers. Schmitt’s theory rests on indemonstrable dogmas that are half-truths at best, and his policy prescriptions—whatever their historical value may have been for the short-lived Weimar Republic—are grossly out of step with the social conditions of contemporary American life.
At the root of Schmitt’s political theory lies an undemonstrated and in fact indemonstrable assumption that “the world and man” are “evil.” Schmitt calls this an “anthropological profession of faith,” or a “fundamental theological dogma,” and it is profoundly consequential. Only on the basis of this dogma can Schmitt maintain his cynical teaching that all “politics” is about “the ever-present possibility of conflict.” In other words, despite all appearances of social cooperation, mutual benefit, conflict-resolution, prosperity, and ordered liberty—appearances that at least sometimes, if not often, characterize political life as we know it—conflict between irreconcilable ways of life is normative. Politics is ultimately a zero-sum game, and only those who understand this will survive.
Schmitt’s dogma that the world and man are evil underwrites his stark separation of politics from morality when considering “the enemy.” Schmitt does not define the enemy in moral terms, but rather in terms of existential threat: “The political enemy need not be morally evil,” he writes. He need only be “the other, the stranger.” “It is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.” For Schmitt, the world’s evil consists in the fact that certain groups naturally pose an existential threat to each other. This and this alone justifies violent exclusion without moral compunction.
In assuming the world and man are evil, Schmitt tacitly breaks with the majority of writers in the western philosophical tradition, who view politics as the domain in which communities wrestle sincerely with weighty moral questions. How ought we to live together? What should our way of life be? Who do we wish to become? Schmitt suppresses these questions because, if seriously considered, they would expose his own foundational dogmas as overly deterministic and reductive. The problem is that man is not uniformly or mechanically evil; he is also capable of good, and he is equipped with a faculty of reason that can resist the plunge into war. He can create institutions to temper conflict.
Perhaps one can forgive Schmitt for dogmatizing, since his Concept of the Political was in part a work of apologetics. He was trying to save a regime. But the theory he set out in such universal terms has had consequences, not only for Schmitt himself, but also for German politics in the 1930s.
We must confront the fact that Schmitt became a Nazi after Hitler passed the “Enabling Act” in 1933. He was, moreover, a real participant in that party, not merely a passive member. He defended Hitler’s killing of political enemies on grounds familiar from his “friend–enemy” dichotomy and his theory of dictatorship. He also took the lead in calling for the liquidation of Jewish influence from German legal scholarship. Scholars have sometimes downplayed these realities on the grounds that Schmitt had few good options and the Nazis themselves soon rejected him as untrustworthy. But the facts remain.
It would be oversimplistic to argue that Schmitt’s theory of politics caused him to sympathize with the Nazis. But certain elements of his theory may well have predisposed him that way: his strict separation of politics from morality, his obsession with “the exception,” and his preference for dictatorship over liberal democracy. Since Schmitt understood “friends” and “enemies” in regime-relative terms, he may have lacked the moral resources to resist the conclusion that, after Hitler’s rise to power, new times called for new friends and enemies. This would not have been a unique problem for Schmitt. It is, in fact, a chronically embarrassing defect of approaching politics in terms of friends and enemies, as anyone familiar with Socrates’ refutation of Polemarchus in Plato’s Republic knows well.
But whatever the contingent value of Schmitt’s theory may have been in its own time and place, the kinds of policy prescriptions such a theory is apt to generate are certainly not what we need today. Concretely speaking, Schmitt wanted dictatorship because he feared that unchecked pluralism (Nazism and Socialism) would destroy the fledgling Weimar regime. But pluralism in America has much deeper historical roots, is less menacing than German Nazism and Socialism, and cannot be made to go away through dictatorship.
This third point needs stressing because it reveals the utter recklessness of the New Right’s embrace of the “politics of war.” No amount of friend–enemy Manichaeism or state-of-emergency governance will transform American pluralism into moral unity. The Progressive Left is far too numerous and powerful to be banished or legislated out of existence. To believe otherwise is delusional. But the opposite is also true: the American Right is far too numerous and powerful to be socially ostracized—which is why the Left’s decades-old strategy of “institutional capture” will ultimately fail.
If the politics of war won’t work, what will?
In real-world politics, there are few simple solutions. So what I want to offer instead is a handful of general principles to bear in mind as we move toward a more sensible, if less intoxicating, response to the problem of leftward politicization in our social institutions. (Again, I take politicization to be the real issue motivating the New Right.) I hope it will come as no surprise that the principles I put forward here are not new. Rather, they stem from a timeless insight into human nature that is most relevant for political life—the fact of our “limitedness.” Wisdom about this fact and its political implications is what the Greeks called sōphrosynē, which is translated as “moderation” or “soundness of mind.”
Principle 1: Moral Limits. Despite Schmitt’s counsel to the contrary, politics is an inescapably moral domain. It is so because most people regard it so, and politics is practiced by people. Readers interested in a fuller defense of this can consult the argument “Against Realism” in Michael Walzer’s seminal treatise, Just and Unjust Wars. But the basic principle that politics is a moral domain means we cannot treat innocents as if they were “enemies.” Coercive treatment is only justified in response to moral wrongs, not “existence.”
Principle 2: Further Limits of Coercion. It is wrong to coerce people into saying and doing things they vehemently object to on moral grounds. This is not an absolute principle (as few political principles are), but the exceptions prove the rule. Such coercion approaches tyranny or despotism.
Coercing people against their consciences is wrong for the obvious reason that it violates the golden rule, doing unto others what you would not have done to yourself. But it is not only a Judeo-Christian principle. It can also be found in Aristotle, who remarks of little despots in the Politics that “they are not ashamed to practice in relation to others what they deny is just or advantageous in relation for themselves.” Such coercion is also prudentially wrong, because people will not act against their consciences reliably or for long without resisting. And when a people is (as Americans are) “accustomed to living free,” then they will prove especially hard to master. The only surefire way to control them is, as Machiavelli once observed, “to destroy them.”
If Principle 1 applies to the New Right, Principle 2 applies to the Progressive Left (though actually they both apply to both). The Left’s practice of “institutional capture” is immoral and imprudent, because it compels people to kowtow to beliefs (e.g., about the meaning and requirements of “social justice”) that they emphatically do not share. In so doing, the warlike Left effectively treats its opponents as enemies. At the same time, the New Right’s practice of “politics as war” is immoral and imprudent because it treats as mortal enemies large numbers of people (the Left as a whole), few of whom actually commit acts of warlike political aggression. Principles 1 and 2 thus tell us what limits we need to impose on our own political conduct.
Principle 3: Limits of Self-Knowledge. But we know from vast historical experience that human beings make poor judges in their own case. We are not reliable when it comes to evaluating our own motives or policing our own tyrannical tendencies. This principle needs no defense. We all see its relevance to our opponents; we only fail to see its applicability to ourselves.
Because we lack moral self-knowledge, we need a politics that is freely competitive. In this way, others can expose our deficiencies and check our excesses. This is not to be confused with a “politics of war.” In a competitive politics, different interests vie for advancement, but the citizens are all committed to each other’s freedom within a constitutional framework that is broadly acceptable to all. In the politics of war, by contrast, groups of citizens view each other as mortal enemies; the goal is to eliminate or incapacitate one another; and the potential destruction of the constitution is no impediment.
In a healthy (competitive) politics, the public “self” discovers itself by continuously checking its excesses. As conservative ways become too stifling and despotic, activism emerges from the Left. Activism is not evil; it is part of the dialectic of political self-knowledge. But when activism overreaches and becomes tyrannical itself, there must be resistance from the Right. A lazy and complacent conservatism does no service to itself or the Left. Perhaps the Left’s recent successes in capturing so many American civil institutions have to do with a lack of vigor on the Right. By vigor, I do not mean (again) declarations of all-out war. Rather, vigor refers to vigilance, jealous protection of non-political spaces, and a willingness to act in a thousand small and unseen ways to avert imbalances of power. Republican politics never sleeps. That is a lesson the overly complacent German citizens learned too late when Hitler’s band of thugs passed the Enabling Act in 1933.
Principle 4: Limits of Prudential Judgment. Prudence is the ability to interpret the present in light of the past, to weigh the likely consequences of various courses of action, and to think wisely about the way specific decisions might contribute to individual well-being and human flourishing. It is not a democratic virtue in the sense of being equally distributed across an entire population, but it is quasi-democratic insofar as it can be refined through reasoned argument and public deliberation. The enemy of prudence is the ideological echo chamber, where like-minded people amplify each other’s loves and hates to the point of gross exaggeration, and then act collectively on the basis of distorted realities.
Because we are all limited in prudential judgment, we need to seek the advice of others about our political plans. It will not do to hold private conferences. In fact, the more political deliberation can resemble what Immanuel Kant called “publicity,” the better. Here, the principle is roughly this: all political planning related to the rights of other people is imprudent if it is not compatible with being stated publicly.
I was once conversing with a young Catholic integralist at an academic conference about the problem of prudence. I complained that the integralists have no credible end-game for American politics. He replied that they do in fact have an end-game, but that he could not share it. Somehow, in the very act of saying those words, he saw the problem: if you cannot share it, it is not a credible end-game! It is almost certainly a plan to advantage some over others, to violate people’s political equality and freedom. For a people like us, “accustomed to living free,” this simply will not do.
One of the most common mistakes in American politics today is to suppose that rival groups pose an “existential threat” when they, in fact, do not. How can we know who is an existential threat? Schmitt, for his part, claims that no one can make this judgment except the people-groups themselves who feel (or do not feel) existentially threatened: there are no objective standards.
This just isn’t true. There are in fact standards—or, at least, procedures—for working out whether groups holding competing worldviews can manage to live together in peace. One of the takeaways from the European Wars of Religion, which lasted so long and accomplished so little, was that Catholics and Protestants discovered they could in fact live together in peace: their differences were not “existential” after all.
But it takes work to make ourselves non-existentially threatening. This is one of the fundamental challenges of liberalism: putting into practice the rough intuition that most differences can actually be accommodated—not necessarily easily or quickly, but nevertheless accommodated—if we are willing to make adjustments to how we present ourselves in the public square. In short, we must learn to share it, not try to own it. My advice to a “coalition of the sensible” is therefore the same whether I’m speaking to the Left or the Right: seek peace. Do not make yourself an existential threat when you do not have to. And do not suppose others are posing an existential threat to you, when all they are doing is asking you—perhaps even compelling you—to live “pluralistically.”