March 22, 2023

The common good would benefit from more self-interest

The transition of executive and legislative power in the United States from the Republicans under Donald Trump to the Democrats under Joe Biden is more than an exchange of leadership. It is an exchange of one overriding theory with another.

Trump was elected on the back of the populist movement. There were other factors in his 2016 victory, of course, but this was the most consistent message. According to populists, a small class at the top of the economic and social hierarchy organizes everything in the country to its benefit. This group is the “elite,” and it has no concept of the common good, only its own.

Joe Biden, if his own assessment – and that of his advocates – is anything to go by, was elected for his opposition to bigotry, racism, sexism, and the rest. Again, there were many other reasons to vote for Biden, including Trump fatigue, but many of his public statements, proposed appointments, and executive orders point to “white supremacy” as the scourge of the country. For Democrats, it’s not the elites, it’s the whites.

For some Democrats, it is still always and everywhere the Russians, as Hillary Clinton reminded us by speculating that Trump was on the phone with Vladimir Putin as they enjoyed the riot at the U.S. Capitol together.

QAnon believes that a conspiracy of pedophiles can explain everything wrong with the world. Antifa, busy rioting again on the West Coast, blames fascism, which it sees everywhere, even as it adopts fascist practices and tactics, going so far as to adopt Mussolini’s taste in fashion.

The real uniting feature of these theories – call them all conspiracy theories, if you like – is that there is only one enemy. Just like the ads on the internet promising “one simple trick” to cure tinnitus, they offer a simple and simplistic solution.

We can blame social media or the enforced isolation from the lockdowns for the rise of these theories, but they long predate either. The American penchant for “one simple trick” solutions – a temptation of all democratic societies – was the entry point for snake oil salesmen in the 19th century, as it was for demagogues in ancient Greece and Rome. Democratic peoples like simple solutions.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French politician and commentator on American democracy, observed that one of the effects of an egalitarian society is belief in the equality of intellects: If we are equal, then we must be equally smart. But the world is complicated and difficult to understand – a truth that violates the principle of equality, so to the egalitarian mind it cannot be true. Instead, whatever is to be known must be easy to know. And so, in Tocqueville’s words, the human mind “aspires to be able to link a multitude of consequences to a single cause.”

Blaming elites or whites, pedophiles or fascists provides that simple, single explanation for all the problems of the country. The temptation to succumb to these explanations is built-in. The shame is that we have politicians willing to indulge it.

The country would be better off without any of the injustices that get picked out as the sole concern. A racist society or a democracy lacking legitimacy – let alone both – will collapse into civil war. We are not wrong to be afraid of what people who believe in these theories will do to their enemies. Monomaniacal theorists do not do politics.

Tocqueville thought that Americans kept their democracy from collapsing into chaos because, among other things, they followed the principle of “self-interest well understood.” He was impressed and even amused by the tendency of explaining actions, especially those directed to the common good, as merely self-interested: “They complacently show how the enlightened love of themselves constantly brings them to aid each other.”

Well-understood self-interest would go a long way right now. Storming the Capitol did no good for any Trump supporter. Likewise, the burning and looting at BLM protests will do nothing to improve policing practices in minority communities. Instead, maybe this is a good time for some old-fashioned self-interest.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib and other Democratic members of the House wrote a letter to congressional leaders objecting to moves that would expand federal powers to investigate “domestic terrorism.” They fear that these powers could be used against their own constituents tomorrow, even if they are directed against Trump supporters today. Enthusiastic support in this effort from Republicans might lead them to change their minds, but we need to take our allies where we find them.

Back away from single-cause theories and start trading horses. Do Democrats want to question police practices? Republicans should agree to do so – if Democrats also agree to investigate election practices. This is how politics is done, and everyone benefits from it.

The Senate is evenly split, and the House is close to it. So is the country as a whole. Maybe what the common good needs is a little more self-interest, well understood.

This article was originally published on The common good would benefit from more self-interest

Sydney Boles