The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

Whenever I picture talking to my Republican parents about Trump, I always anticipate an “I know you are but what am I”-style response. Obama was narcissistic, too. Democrats have supported racism in the past. You only think that because you rely on biased liberal media. Etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting and almost impossible to break through, and it’s hardly limited to my parents — conservative media has cultivated those rhetorical habits for literally decades at this point.

It’s worth pausing to consider the sheer moral nihilism of this rhetorical stance. On the surface, it seems logically contradictory — if both sides are equally bad (to a stunningly consistent degree, on every single issue!), then what possible basis is there for choosing one over the other at all? How is such a view compatible with passionate, lockstep support of one of the equally bad sides? This common sense view misses the real dynamic at play, though. False equivalency turns partisan identification into a sheer act of will, inaccessible to reason. Both sides are equally bad, and yet we support different sides — so it must be that we support those sides simply because we support those sides.

And hence no one is in a position to judge, because everyone is an arbitrary ideologue nihilistically rooting for their team. If there is a shade of difference to be discerned, it’s that conservatives are “at least honest” about the nature of their identification. In other words, everyone’s political stance is structured exactly like conservatism, but liberals won’t admit it to themselves because they are seeking out some illusory social prestige through “virtue signalling.” After all, no one can really care about people outside their own group — once again, everyone is secretly a conservative underneath it all.

From the other side, liberals are addicted to hypocrisy attacks and other demonstrations that their opponents are stupid, uncouth, or otherwise disqualified from consideration. This may initially seem more intellectually promising, insofar as it makes use of something like logic, but even on its own terms, this strategy doesn’t make sense. Would more consistent racism be better?

As with the conservative version, the liberal rhetorical stance presupposes that everyone is a liberal, but the conservatives are just not as good at it or something. And it is every bit as much a defense mechanism. If we stay on the purely formal level of judging the structure of their discourse, then we don’t have to actually confront their ideas — which would open up the possibility of real, principled conflict. This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises, that the formal safeguards of logical consistency and public deliberation are not enough to guarantee automatically “good” results.

And this brings me to the title of this post: where did this dynamic come from? I think we can point the finger at neoliberalism. After the inital triumph of neoliberalism, the window for serious, principled political dispute rapidly closed — all the most important questions about how the economy and political order should be structured had been answered. At that point, politics really did become a question of arbitrary identification based on tribal loyalties, stylistic preferences, “virtue signalling,” etc. And now that the neoliberal order is breaking down and we really do need to find some way to hash out serious differences and make collective decisions about how our society is going to look, we find that a generation of neoliberal anti-politics has left those muscles completely atrophied.

This is why the younger generation is leading the way, because they are the only ones who haven’t yet had a chance to get worn down to the nub of “I know you are but what am I” or knee-jerk hypocrisy attacks. And it’s also why both the US and UK left have been led by members of an older generation — they remember a time before neoliberal zombification, and they heroically stood their ground against it. But in the vast middle swath that currently holds power and is in a position to maintain it for the foreseeable future, there has been a terminal brain drain that leaves them incapable of solving real problems.

7 thoughts on “The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

  1. “This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises.”

    I would ask Mr. Kotsko to expand on this quote. What specifc premises do you refer to?

  2. But I would have to amend the statement of premises: I think I would have to expand the premise for nearly a discursive argumentative position and say that their premise is their whole existence; of course this kind of totalizing shuts down discourse but then isn’t that the point of your post, or at least a kind of implicit point?. How are we to decide which position is best if it isn’t from some sort of innate intuition of what I believe is true. There’s a certain kind of vacillation that goes on that people of talked about here and there, but I think the category of “neoliberalism” is a kind of religion is a position in so much as we can identify it as such because there are people that actually behave that way. I’m not sure that I behaved in any particular way because I agreed with my particular people had to say; but indeed there are people who are just their behaviour because they agree with what people have to say, and then ironically find that they agree with what they have to say and thus alter their behaviour because that’s been there behaviour all along Albiet not so noticeably. Sounds very similar to Zizek and his ideas about the event of the past.

  3. Fantastic post! I am obsessed with this problem and often feel like I’m shouting into the wind about it. What is interesting and discouraging is that one doesn’t even need to identify with one of the parties to fall into this problem. I’ve seen people use “both sides-ism” as a tool to criticize both parties, but practically it leads to the same result you describe: the evasion of discussing actual problems. They use the “fact” that “no one is in a position to judge” to avoid judgement on actual issues (at least at times) while simultaneously judging people silly enough to identify with one of the parties precisely because no one is in a position to judge.

  4. I think the problem with both – sides -ism is that it leads to the conclusion that both sides are equally bad in all aspects. I, for one, believe that the leaders of both political parties are bereft of bold ideas, and that in some key respects, recent Democratic and Republican presidents have more similarities than differences. That does not mean, however, that you can’t point to specific areas in which one or the other party is more guilty than the other. Trump’ s racist positions have certainly be in sync with the practices and policies of the Republican party.

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