It would be hard to find a time in the 168-year shared history of the Democratic and Republican parties when their ideologies, policies, and even values have been so far apart. Putting aside the question of whether we are a democratic republic or a republican democracy, the success of representative democracy is predicated on elected representatives seeking to build consensus and finding areas where compromises can be reached. Yet the parties share so little with the other in terms of points of view that there is little overlap between Democrats and Republicans on much of anything. As a result, what used to be easy for lawmakers is now arduous. Calling the U.S. “ungovernable” may be a bit melodramatic, but when have we been less governable than we seem to be today?
Enter David French, the evangelical, Harvard Law-trained, Iraq War veteran who now writes at The Dispatch and The Atlantic. French, as you may remember, was urged by then-Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol to run as a third-party or independent candidate in 2016. He declined, but he’s developed into one of the most articulate voices among Trump-skeptical conservatives.
In a recent Dispatch article entitled “The Cult of Ideology vs. The Cult of Personality,” French argues that “the Democratic Party has moved quite decisively to the left, and the median Democrat has moved far more to the left than the median Republican has moved to the right.” He refers in part to a chart published in The Economist, based on data from Pew Research Center polling. The Pew data created quite a stir at the time because while it not unexpectedly showed that the ideological middle of the electorate was shrinking, it also showed that Democrats were moving farther left than Republicans were to the right. Cue teeth grinding among Democrats.
Meanwhile, over in the GOP, French writes that “the right’s cult is different.” Sure, it’s beholden to Trump, “it’s deeper. … It’s a cult of a certain type of personality, one that is relentlessly, personally, and often punitively aggressive. The aggression is mandatory. The ideology is malleable.”
To explain the phenomenon that “when like-minded people gather, they tend to grow more extreme,” French points to a 1999 paper, “The Law of Group Polarization” by Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar, political scientist, and former Obama White House aide. Sunstein argued that “deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own pre-deliberation judgments. For example, people who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to support gun control are likely, after discussion, to support gun control with considerable enthusiasm.”
French notes that Sunstein wrote this long before the rise of Facebook and other social media.
As for the cult of personality among many Republicans, French writes that in 2008, he and his wife formed a group to help persuade evangelicals that Mitt Romney “was the best man for the world’s most difficult job. In our conversations we emphasized his integrity, his decency, and his competence. Talk about missing your audience—turns out that each of those virtues turned out to be less important than pugilism or aggression. But even then, the message from much of the grassroots was clear. Hit harder. No, hit even harder. Lack of aggression was perceived as lack of effort, a lack of a will to win. Mitt’s primary competitors weren’t necessarily more conservative than him, but they were more aggressive.”
It’s a phenomenon that existed on the right before Trump (and will likely endure long past his era) but which Trump was able to supercharge. “If you pay little attention to talk radio,” French writes, “you’re likely missing the extent of devotion to the cult of aggression. The same thing goes for the top-rated television shows and websites. The same personality characteristics persist. It’s pugilists almost all the way down. Reasoned voices are hard to find.”
Though my background and experiences could not be much more different than French’s, he articulated thoughts that had been on my mind for a long time. Indeed, no matter the policy debate or political development, “Reasoned voices are hard to find” seems to be an apt conclusion.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on January 31, 2022.
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