Americans aren’t angry, writes American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks (Love Your Enemies). When we’re angry, we try to fix what’s broken, and we think we can. These days, we’re past hoping for a fix, and are instead “addicted to political contempt.” Contempt doesn’t try to fix anything; it “seeks to exile . . . to mock, shame, and permanently exclude from relationships by belittling, humiliating, and ignoring.” Anger cares. Contempt says, “You disgust me. You are beneath caring about.”
Brooks’s diagnosis is on target. Presidential candidates dump fellow citizens into a “basket of deplorables.” Trump’s insults are as numerous as Shakespeare’s, though far less witty. Fox News pundits find nothing worthwhile in anything any liberal has ever thought or said.
How did we turn into a “culture of contempt”? While we’re each responsible for our own actions and addictions, Brooks thinks America’s contempt pushers have a lot to answer for—members of the “outrage industrial complex” in the media, social media gurus and trolls who encourage ideological siloing, political parties that don’t even try to appeal beyond their settled base.
Contempt isn’t good for the country. There’s a strong correlation between marital contempt and divorce. Contempt is, as one researcher put it, “sulfuric acid for love.” We’re headed for societal divorce court, and Brooks hopes we can reconcile before it’s too late. He wants to teach Americans to “practice warm-heartedness,” overcoming contempt through love.
How? By deciding to act in love. Love isn’t an attitude but an action; attitudes, Brooks rightly says, follow actions. By learning that love works in the real world. Contrary to myth, kindness wins. Authoritative (not authoritarian) leaders lead by love. By turning down or turning off the outlets of outrage, listening to voices we don’t agree with, putting ourselves in situations where we’re surrounded by ideological adversaries, treating everyone with respect instead of disgust.
Brooks’s is a lively book, with a promising premise. But I don’t think his program can solve the problem he wants to solve. One shortcoming becomes evident in Brooks’s discussion of moral disagreements. Drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt, he lists five innate moral values—fairness, compassion, respect for authority, group loyalty, and purity. Though innate, these values take various forms and mingle in various combinations. Liberals and conservatives both advocate fairness and compassion, but have different conceptions of what these values require. More important, liberals emphasize fairness and compassion, but place little weight on the other three. Conservatism insists on all five. The lesson? Liberals and conservatives are equally moral, but liberals have “fewer moral foundations.”
Despite their differences, Brooks thinks liberals and conservatives can get along because the values they share (fairness, compassion) have to do with “social morality,” while the things they disagree about (authority, loyalty, purity) are “personal moral values.” It’s a facile distinction, and an odd one: Don’t respect for authority and group loyalty belong to “social morality”? Many Christians, myself included, believe that our sexual wasteland is a product of a societal decision to shunt sexual morality off to a realm where individual choice is sovereign. He makes his distinction of social/personal morality sound like a procedural rule, but by placing sexual morality in the sphere of private morality, he takes a side in our central cultural battle. In my judgment, it’s the wrong side. To heal our sexual pathologies, Brooks prescribes more of the disease. I may be wrong, but I’m not inclined to sign on to a proposal that defines my convictions out of public debate.
This exemplifies a more fundamental weakness. Brooks wants to “save America from the culture of contempt” by reminding us that we’re all Americans. But, as John Milbank and Adrian Pabst argue, a politics of virtue is sustained by a “transpolitical community” that embodies ideals that transcend earthly politics. In ancient times, this role was filled by schools of philosophers, in Christendom by the church. Brooks is Catholic, but, in the interests of staking out common ground, he keeps his Catholicism at arm’s length. The church plays no discernible role in his vision of America’s future. But an immanent salvation won’t save. Paradoxically, national renewal won’t happen unless a nation pursues ends that transcend the nation. America can’t be saved by devotion to America.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.