Donald Trump will be our president. Despite the looming dangers of a Trump presidency, I think we have learned a valuable lesson: Identity is central to politics. Trump garnered support by appealing to the sentiment that our country is being taken over by them. Sanders rallied his supporters by pointing out the fact that they —Wall Street, moneyed interests, etc. — have been taking over our country. Like I said, identity is central to politics.
On both sides, we wanted someone who did not compromise and fought for the values we actually believe in. Why? Because politics as usual has never delivered to us the policies that affirm our identity and values. Identity is not a good that we can compromise. For example, I can share a loaf of bread with others, but I cannot as easily compromise my religion or feminism. So what would be the solution to bridging such irreconcilable differences?
The philosopher Michael Sandel identified this same problem decades ago. He criticized liberalism for its pretension of neutrality by privileging the right over the good, because, he believed, it caused a dissonance with our actual moral temperament. In other words, we do not, as politicians often say, “disagree but respect the right to have a different opinion.” We want to change the other person or destroy them. His solution was communitarianism — the idea that politics needs to be organized based on small, self-governing communities. Such communities will share the same space, community, and, ultimately, values.
I find this idea appealing but ultimately insufficient. First, it is unlikely to see large behemoths like the US or China dissolving into tiny self-governing communities. Second, we are pluralistic. This might sound confusing, since Sandel is suggesting communitarianism as a remedy to the conflicts of plural values in a given society. Sandel is right. Our society is pluralistic. My point is that so are we. We are not simply tribal creatures who conform only to what is preached to us by our communities. We are also cosmopolitan. We recognize universal duties and values. Furthermore, we operate under multiple modes of ethics. We are sometimes utilitarian, sometimes Kantian, and sometimes virtue ethicists. The conflicts between such modes and, manifestly, between the cosmopolitan and the communitarian are often irreconcilable. This means that even small, self-governing communities need to deal with irreconcilable differences.
Sandel was aware of the first criticism that transitioning to small, self-governing communities is not happening anytime soon. So he proposed a temporary solution: we should recognize the art of a democratic debate as a good. A democratic debate, conducted in a virtuous manner, bids one to attentively listen and respond to the other person. This is different from respecting rights, since respecting rights often entails disengagement. One does not need to engage another person’s belief in a virtuous manner if all one is concerned with is respecting that person’s right to have such beliefs. On the contrary, engaging in a democratic debate entails engagement. The benefits of engagement would not only mean a healthier dialogue but also a development of camaraderie. There is a Korean television show called 썰전, where pundits discuss politics. There are two pundits from opposite sides of the political spectrum who discuss various topics. This sounds like an awful time, but the reality is quite the opposite. Despite irreconcilable differences, they have come to respect each other’s company. Through their debates, they have come to respect each other’s values, candor, and honesty.
However, I think there is a problem even with this approach. It takes a person of a particular disposition to engage in such a manner. There are multiple modes of ethics under which we operate and the preference of one over the other is determined by our personal dispositions. If someone is an absolutist Kantian about religious doctrines, then it is more difficult for that person to fruitfully engage another person who believes in everything they see as vile and sinister. The same is true of someone who absolutely hates everything about Trump because of his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Furthermore, people tend to favor debates with flowery rhetoric rather than the one espoused by Sandel. Encouraging people to favor one type of debate over the other might spell trouble, since it is obvious that not everyone has the appropriate personal disposition to engage in a democratic debate. I don’t subscribe to the optimistic view that humans are capable of being rational if they had a good education and so on. Take a look at debates between the most educated persons and there is always more rhetoric and spite than curiosity and temperance.
There seems to be no way out of this conflict. A few days ago, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek endorsed Donald Trump, arguing that his presidency will cause instability in the political establishment —which would carve up space for leftist reforms. I think it will be the exact opposite. Trump’s supporters are currently the most enthusiastic and angry group in American politics. The Supreme Court, the House, the Senate, and the White House are all Republican. They will use this instability to push their agenda forward. Progressives like Jill Stein won just 1% of the vote; however, Gary Johnson won 3%. This country, despite its politics having shifted more and more to the right throughout the 20th century, wants to go further to the right. This might have something to do with the fact that the average American feels like the country is liberal. Take a look at the sheer number of celebrities who endorsed Hillary Clinton. Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton. College professors are predominantly in the left. For many, entertainment, the news, and universities impact how they see their identity more than policies. They feel isolated. Their leaders tell them that minorities are taking away their jobs, and that Muslims are trying to install Sharia Law. They feel like the country is being taken over by others. Right-wing politics took away their savings and gave them to the wealthy. One can only imagine their anger.
Nonetheless, I cannot bring myself to compromise on immigration, abortion, wealth inequality, or healthcare. Such a move would be equivalent to supporting racism, misogyny, classism, neoliberalism, and bigotry. This, I believe, is how many liberals feel; this is also, I suspect, how many conservatives feel. Our differences are irreconcilable. We are angrier than ever. I can only envision a bloody clash between those with irreconcilable differences. There is no better figure to incite a civil war of culture than Donald Trump. If such a war is inevitable, then we must be prepared to fight and organize; to protect and safeguard immigrants and refugees; and, hopefully, discover a peaceful alternative.