Yesterday I heard on NPR a story about how some Republicans, dissatisfied with the election results, were protesting at the homes of civil servants in the Midwest somewhere. The bracing thing in the story was that they were basically threatening the officials’ children – beating on the door and making aggressive noises, and so forth. One of the people interviewed theorized that this kind of behavior was – in part – a product the president’s encouragement. The theory is that Trump is, in this way, undermining democratic norms.
Call this the norm erosion hypothesis. I’ll get back to it in a minute, but first I’m going to talk about beliefs, pretentious waiters, and football.
First, beliefs. It’s a common thought on this blog that politics is mostly not about beliefs. Partisans are ideologues without ideologies. As Jason Brennan said last month, “Very few people start with an ideology and then select a political party on the basis of that…Instead, the overwhelming majority of people join political parties for non-ideological reasons.” Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense to attribute beliefs to political partisans at all. Sure, they have cognitive, representational mental states. They can think about the inferential relations between these attitudes, and even feel a kind of coherentist pressure in monitoring them. But their attitudes lack the modal stability of beliefs. Instead, partisans’ “commitments” are tossed to and fro with every change in the wind from political elites. When the letter to the Ephesians used language like that to admonish the faithless, it was because their apparent beliefs were fragile. While beliefs tend to resist reconsideration, their attitudes more resembled those of small children – who are just in process of learning to think about how representations might be true or false.
If partisan attitudes are belief-like in some ways but not others, how should we understand them? Long ago, in the simpler age of 2005, Simon Keller wrote about how patriotism demonstrated a kind of bad faith. “Bad faith” is the idea from Sartre that sometimes we act like we are not acting. Picture the waiter who does everything in his power to present himself as if his performance as waiter was not an act at all, but instead an expression of who he really was. He bows a little too deeply, supposing that is how the perfect waiter would bow, etc. etc. Keller admits he is kind of like the waiter when it comes to his support of the Geelong Football Club:
My project is to form and defend Geelong-centric beliefs about the world of football; for these to be the sorts of beliefs that I can defend in conversation, I must take them to be supported by an interpretation of the evidence that is not influenced by the desire to reach one conclusion rather than the another, but for them to be the beliefs that I want them to be I must actively interpret them in a biased manner. I want to have certain beliefs, but to ensure that I have those beliefs I must deceive myself about my motivations, without acknowledging the deceit.
Keller’s thought, way back then, was that patriotism approximates his own bad faith football fandom. The patriot wants to maintain beliefs in a biased way without admitting it – when that is not how <belief> works.
Times have changed. In 2005, it seemed philosophically controversial to say political beliefs could be crazy like football beliefs. Today, it seems bonkers to imagine how (American) football beliefs could be as unhinged as Americans’ political beliefs.
Something else is different as well. In 2005, political bad faith was centrally about patriotism. People gerrymandered some “beliefs” to say their country was best. But now bad faith is within, rather than between, countries. Compare:
Bad Faith Patriot: Someone who takes shared national membership to confer higher moral status (or, anyway, a stronger claim to distributive justice, or something), when this is obviously false. (At least, on this blog we pretty much take its falsity to be obvious.)
Bad Faith Partisan: Someone who takes shared partisan affiliation to confer higher moral status (or, anyway, a stronger claim to our normatively charged allegiance, or something), when this is obviously false.
So what about the norm erosion hypothesis? My own guess is we’re right to worry if one side in America won’t accept election results. Also -- lest this not be obvious -- it is wrong to scare other people’s children. Likewise, it is a big mistake to think that we should care less about humans outside our country than inside our country. (This podcast from the fall on the topic is really worth a listen.) The fact that the within-our-country problems are more salient on the news shouldn’t make us care less about those problems, but it should help us realize that harming children from other countries matters way more than we might have been attending to. (As Lant Pritchett explains, this isn’t just an American problem.)
The letter to the Ephesians says that faith is not something we make ourselves. Political psychology tells us that political attitudes are also not something we make ourselves. They’re a product of our tribal loyalties and leaders. If it make sense to ask about how faith could be a gift from God, it may also be worth thinking more about where bad faith comes from.