“Rather than calm debates about policy and its implications, both good and bad, we now live in a political era defined by emotion, where political discussions mutate into threats to our personal and group safety.”
famous phrase, “It’s the economy stupid” and debating the nuances of presidential fellatio, feels antique. Now we live in a time of political upheaval, and while the “populist menace” of former President Donald Trump may have receded, there remain deep cultural and political battles over a variety of topics. From abortion rights to transgender rights, the Right and the Left are fighting over increasingly divisive wedge issues. Rather than calm debates about policy and its implications, both good and bad, we now live in a political era defined by emotion, where political discussions mutate into threats to our personal and group safety.one are the great “third-way” movements of the 1990s and the early 2000s. Indeed, the era of James Carville’s
As fears over our collective safety emanate from everywhere, the content of politics becomes diluted. Beyond the vacuous talk of rights, freedom, and liberty, there is little depth to our political movements. Instead, we have Twitter wars and continuous panics about the “future of democracy.” Some theorists such as Jonathan Haidt fear the mechanics of our politics and society endanger not just our democracy but also our general health. This theory has both salience and some value; after all, social media and virality have taken hold, leaving a vulnerable, hypersensitive population cocooned in their bubbles. Yet, does this really tell the whole story?
The danger of talking solely about the functionality of politics is that we miss what lies underneath (i.e., the essence of “the political”). It is not simply how political messages are delivered that drives polarization; rather, it is the kinds of politics we have that drive such tensions. Rather than macroeconomic policy or foreign policy as in the past, now it is questions of equality and recognition driving the political agenda. These questions let loose group dynamics that the bedrocks of liberal democratic regimes (institutions, rights, an open political culture) struggle to contain.
Authors such as Carl Schmitt and Francis Fukuyama, who at first appear far apart, may paradoxically hold the key to understanding our present political troubles. Schmitt, the infamous anti-liberal who joined the Nazi Party before ending his life in academic exile, and Fukuyama, the arch-liberal who for many defined the worst ideological excesses of the post-Cold War era, are not as far apart as they may at first seem. Schmitt is more sophisticated than many give him credit for, and Fukuyama is not the liberal triumphalist many crassly describe him as. Crucially, at the heart of both of their projects is a belief that it is not just the mechanics of politics that matter but, rather, the content of politics itself.
Schmitt, facing political anarchy in Germany under the Weimar Republic, found liberal democracy to be naturally filled with tension. Believing that politics itself was founded upon the “friend-enemy” dichotomy, i.e., the strength of enmity felt by different groups. Schmitt felt the liberal state could not adequately define these categories. Instead of pluralism, Schmitt believed democracy required homogeneity to function correctly. Otherwise, any state would naturally falter upon “the political,” unable or even unwilling to identify the “enemy” within that could destroy the democratic composition of the state. Politics for Schmitt was a fight that had to be recognized and not a question of mere technicalities that could be sagely discussed in parliaments or reined in with norms.
While Schmitt focused on enmity and homogeneity, Fukuyama drives in a different direction but addresses a deep foundational question of “the political.” For him, one of the key strengths of liberal democracy, equal recognition, can be seen as its Achilles heel. Fukuyama argues in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man that “The passion for equal recognition—isothymia—does not necessarily diminish with the achievement of greater de facto equality and material abundance but may actually be stimulated by it.”
The processes of liberal democracies generate an ever-greater desire for further equality that perhaps cannot be fulfilled. Ultimately, for Fukuyama, the:
“typical citizen of a liberal democracy was that individual who, schooled by Hobbes and Locke, gave up prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in favour of comfortable self- preservation. For Nietzsche, democratic man was composed entirely of desire and reason, clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long- term self-interest. But he was completely lacking in any megalothymia, content with his happiness and unable to feel any sense of shame in himself for being unable to rise above those wants.”
Therefore, liberal democracy for Fukuyama does not fully address the question of our desire for recognition. In more recent works such as Liberalism and Its Discontents, Fukuyama addresses liberalism’s own success as its very weakness. The relentless focus on individualism and recognition is also addressed by scholars such as Erich Fromm in his 1941 book The Fear of Freedom. Fromm argues that, when offered too much choice, the individual is destabilized. Our sense of self is dissolved, and we are debilitated rather than empowered. Like a recently graduated university student, we are overwhelmed by the world—or, in a more graphic illustration, we are like a child in a sweet shop gorging themselves until they vomit.
By bringing together the strength of enmity and the desire for recognition as foundations of politics, both Schmitt and Fukuyama help us to understand our current political troubles. While they differ in ideology, by asking foundational questions about liberal democracy, they avoid the pitfalls of blaming technical issues alone. Yet, neither truly holds the ultimate answer. Schmitt wants us to recognize and categorize enmity properly, while Fukuyama believes pushing recognition will help cement the collaboration of liberalism and democracy. Rather, we need to try and defang politics, push recognition as a secondary quality, and accept ideological disagreement. If we cannot, the question must be, can liberal institutions really handle this type of democratic upheaval?
One area where this can be witnessed is identity politics. Identity politics is a subset of relations, where increasing numbers of people are motivated by perceived failures to address historic injustices. Anyone who appears to be challenging the notion of systemic injustice, or would perhaps like a conservative vision of government, is treated as a mortal threat. This is not to say there have not been “culture wars” in the past, or that there are no legitimate dangers, but rather that any opposition to so-called progressive policies has been met with accusations of being physically threatening. Groups ratcheting up enmity this way close down pluralistic politics predicated upon an increasingly broad and unconstrained language of equity and human rights.
Increasingly, our political systems are unable to stem the enmity pervading our politics while simultaneously providing space (and open space at that) for equal recognition to be vaulted forward as a value in and of itself. As our politics flows further in the direction of liberty, freedom, and rights for the sake of them, with no duties or deeper ideology attached, this dynamic will become worse. Pitched as existential battles between the godly and the devilish, honest man and fraudster, life and death, the drive and fight for recognition has the potential to swallow up liberal democracy and its institutions. Understanding these are discussions, where a plethora of views are welcome, even necessary, to rein in unbridled calls for recognition at the expense of any discussion.
“Two hundred years after they first animated the French and American revolutions, the principles of liberty and equality have proven not just durable but resurgent.”
Until recently, this was a given fact, and people poured scorn on those who argued with such a claim. Yet, given the resurgence of autocracies and of dynamic tensions in liberal societies, the durability of such values must be questioned. If we want to see an end to our current political frailties, we need to become more open to arguments beyond mere banalities. Taking the heat out of the political discussion is necessary. This is not to deny there will be passionate open debate, but we need to step back from the “life vs. death” dichotomy that is too often posed today.
Samuel Mace holds a Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Leeds. He writes Theory Matters on Substack.