The great liberal thinkers who devised our constitutional order were responding to a seventeenth-century problem, most sharply diagnosed by Thomas Hobbes. The English, Hobbes said, were “seeing double”—divided, both personally and politically, by conflicting allegiances to Christ and King. A generation later, John Locke offered what would become the classical liberal remedy to this disorder. He articulated a way to compartmentalize those loyalties, showing how we might be good Christians and good citizens at the same time.
The impatience with liberalism now observable across the political spectrum has arisen because we no longer are the bifurcated selves the liberal prescription was designed to treat. Twenty-first-century Americans are not earnest Englishmen, torn by powerful allegiances to holy church and sovereign liege. Liberalism today is neither the malady nor the cure.
We may still learn, though, from the great liberal thinkers. For they were good clinicians, prescribing remedies on the basis of careful observation of their patient. The people of their time were suffering from what one might call a “psycho-political problem”: a malaise at once public and personal. Today we have a parallel problem, as competing public demands pull us apart—making us distracted, restless, unable to get ourselves or anything else together. To treat our disorder, we must learn the art of diagnostic perception practiced by the early modern liberal thinkers. We must start by asking: What is the psycho-political problem of our time?
If the soul of the earnest Englishman was threatened with division, our souls are threatened with dispersion. His public square was dominated by two authorities who made conflicting claims on his allegiance rooted in law, Scripture, and tradition. Our public square resounds with a cacophony of rivals whose conflicts are not binary but chaotic, and whose claims on us are ever-shifting. If the earnest Englishman suffered from double vision, we suffer from something like the pixelated vision of the fly.
Americans are struggling to hold things together. Single moms, who must respond to teachers’ messages about their children’s behavior and fix glitches in the afternoon’s babysitting plans while concealing their distraction from the manager one cubicle over. Strung-out truck drivers with back problems, sleeping-aid problems, and creditor problems. Pampered yet harried college students, whose days are crowded with clubs and amusements and protests and classes, constantly on the move, in no particular direction. Hyper-scheduled professional couples with hyper-scheduled children, schlepping and stressing and rearranging the calendar in an impossible effort to prioritize everyone and everything equally. Pulled in a dozen different directions, we are unable to subject our days to any clear purpose. We move through time reactively, dispersing the self as we go.
The screen is the command center from which we navigate such days. It is also the twenty-first-century public square and weaves the public contest of authorities into our daily lives. Simply picking up our devices subjects our attention to dispersion. Email reminds us of professional obligations and opportunities. YouTube promises diverting relief from that press of demands. Twitter beckons us into the realm of political and reputational combat. Instagram pressures us to calibrate our movements against those of our friends. Toggling among these competing icons becomes the uneven yet incessant rhythm of our consciousness. Our vision pixelates, we forget what we’re after, we lose sight of ourselves.
Even when we try to resist the dispersal of our attention, we rarely can do it for long. The app we’re trying to ignore could—who knows?—become another Facebook, appearing out of nowhere to colonize our days, rule our imaginations, make or break our relationships. The trending memes and hashtags could become the next #MeToo, magnetizing the thought of millions and demanding that we take a side, instantly. The constant efforts to reform ourselves to align with the latest imperatives leave us exhausted—at a loss for what to say, how to dress, where to look, who we are. The contours of our selves have little chance to firm up through the workings of habit; instead, they shift and blur.
The most successful among us learn to surf the currents of the attentional seascape. They develop a feel for the flux, positioning themselves to ride the next wave. Their successes reinforce a culture dominated by shape-shifters—entrepreneurs, minor cultural revolutionaries, and those odd, protean figures we refer to as “famous for being famous.” Those seeking to lead have powerful incentives to become chaos agents, for breaking boundaries is the surest way to gain a foothold and a following. When power flows to people who disrupt steady patterns of life, whole societies are subjected to what Mark Lilla calls “the psychic equivalent of permanent revolution.”
If we lack the luck, talent, or desire to ride such currents, we may struggle just to avoid going under. Reaching for some saving plank of our shattered culture, we hope to stave off dissolution by clinging to trends that serve as personal identities and political banners. Labels proliferate as we scramble to find one we can affix to ourselves.
To live with pixelated vision is to experience what the sociologist Liah Greenfeld calls the “malfunction of the ‘acting self.’” As she demonstrates, the mental illnesses with which so many are now afflicted—depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—express, in different ways, the exhaustion of the choosing faculty. When the acting self atrophies, we may sink into depressive lassitude, uncertain what we should do, how we can think, why we are here. Or such doldrums might alternate with manic dreams of heroism, no more productive of genuine action. In the most severe, schizophrenic cases, powerful imaginative visions of reality, unchecked by the demands of practical life, overtake our consciousness until all sense of a private self evaporates.
These illnesses are extreme versions of a struggle most of us know in less dramatic forms. The prosaic word “stress” is more-or-less functional people’s way of describing the difficulties we experience in resisting the pressure to dissolve.
Souls suffering from dispersion will live uneasily within our framework of liberal institutions. For liberal politics was designed to work for souls that might be divided but were nonetheless robustly formed.
As a glance at the documents of the American Founding will show, liberal governance presupposes citizens who bear the consolidating impress of formative institutions: families, towns, professions, churches. Such souls know from experience what works to make a decent human life.
As small-scale institutions lose their formative power, we lose the opportunity to develop what Joshua Mitchell calls “liberal competence.” Unprepared to be capable liberal citizens, some dispersing souls drop out of politics altogether. But an increasing number make forays into the political sphere, looking there for the self-definition they have not found elsewhere.
As dispersing souls strive to consolidate themselves in a political world formed by liberalism, they will employ traditional liberal instruments in new ways. Rights claims, for example, were designed as tools of practical negotiation to be used by people engaged in concrete social projects they wished to protect. Such people could be brought to see the wisdom of granting others the same latitude they sought for themselves. Dispersing souls, by contrast, do not come to the bargaining table with something to gain and something to give. Certain that they want something, but uncertain exactly what it is, they seek to secure their rights as a way of securing themselves.
Liberal instruments are increasingly used by people whose lives do not permit them to fathom liberal presuppositions. The most fundamental principle of liberal politics—that powers need to be separated and limited so as to protect the dignity of the self and the independence of society—makes no sense to souls who do not have the experience of orderly households, vigorous civic associations, or well-articulated religious lives. To the dispersing soul, formalities and boundaries seem not only bewildering but offensive, for they smack of the order it so painfully lacks. Such souls are drawn to disrupting boundaries in the confused hope that crossing one more line might bring them the consolidation they desire.
Our public life is permeated by acts of impudence and crudity because dispersing souls often see such acts as a therapeutic demonstration of how things, sadly, are. Unable to perceive fixed boundaries to their own selves, dispersing souls find it difficult to recognize anything definite in others that warrants their deference. Why should we respect persons? Why not interrupt them when they talk? Why not invade their personal space? Showing disrespect is simply revealing the sorry truth.
The characteristic public action of souls seeking consolidation is not practical but performative. Performative actions have a purpose: to make us recognize something we wished to ignore. The images of recent months—radically discontented people wreaking havoc in our cities, smashing windows, torching stores, pulling down statues, storming the Capitol—shove the pain of the dispersing soul into everyone’s consciousness. They also make evident the dispersing soul’s deepest desire: to become something definite. To be photographed, fist raised, backlit by a burning garbage truck, or flexing one’s muscles in Visigoth costume in the well of the U.S. Senate, is to crystallize the meaning of one’s life. By such actions, dispersing selves—whose whole existence seems to run through their fingers—succeed, for a moment, in becoming someone, in making themselves consequential and recognized. They achieve, for a moment, consolidation.
The people in those images are demanding something from politics that liberal politics is expressly designed not to offer. Crying out for consolidation and strengthening, they are answered only with “open-society therapies of weakening,” as R. R. Reno puts it. Finding no cure in the politics we have, souls that see themselves dissolving naturally self-medicate. The iconic selfie is the home remedy for the dispersing soul.
The political activity of dispersing souls is freighted with the desire for self-definition. Some of the problems to which dispersing souls draw our attention are quite real—racial injustice, economic inequities, social structures that unjustly favor some at the expense of others. But it is the search for consolidation that defines our psycho-political problem.
No prominent political figure has yet understood this problem or devised a prescription likely to restore our health. Many of those now advertising themselves as physicians to the dispersing soul are quacks. Others are relics who promise an impossible return to normalcy, to a liberal health the psychic preconditions for which are no longer present.
In recent years, arguments about liberalism, many of them rich and substantive, have preoccupied us. But the remedies suggested by the parties to this debate—from recommitment to the political principles of liberalism to Benedict Option–type strategies of withdrawal—can work only for people who already have their lives together. Such suggestions ignore the psycho-political malady of our time.
Liberalism is a prudent politics: an ingenious system of weakening and separating, well-chosen to treat the earnest Englishman’s bifurcated self and his double vision. We are no longer that Englishman. Our selves are dispersing, our vision pixelated. We must follow the example of the foremost thinkers and statesmen of our political tradition, rather than rehash their arguments.
Good doctors pay attention to the particular patient on the table. Those who wish to help their country now must find a political prescription that will help dispersing souls reimagine themselves. Only then will such souls be ready to take part in a renewed political life.
Jenna Silber Storey is assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University and executive director of Furman’s Tocqueville Program.
Benjamin Storey is Jane Gage Hipp Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University and the director of Furman’s Tocqueville Program.