Why Reasonable People Are Crazy: On Evil, Optimism, and Hope

Catherine M Wallace

Watching politics has come to feel something like watching the projected track of a mid-Atlantic hurricane. Reports out of Washington feel like those flailing spaghetti models that say "Maybe this will all blow out to sea—but maybe we're in for an unbelievable disaster. Check back in twelve hours when the computer models update." Part of me thinks things can't really be as bad as they seem. Another part of me insists, "oh hey, babe, pay attention: it's probably worse than we know."

            For most of us, politics is in fact a lot like the weather: we can talk all we want but we can't change a blessed thing—at least not until the next election cycle, and maybe not even then. And politics, like climate, has become dangerously erratic, perhaps systemically unstable. Larger, more dangerous storms have become more frequent, a trend that is expected to continue as the atmosphere becomes more and more poisoned. Toxicity is in the air.

            That's news, and it's not news at all. I have some insight to offer for reasonable people disoriented by the maelstrom bearing down on us: we need to realize that what the Republicans are doing—and failing to do—makes perfectly rational sense if you grant their assumptions. Which we don't. And which they try to hide. That's the problem here. Second, we need to abandon our implicit optimism that all of this will blow out to sea and American democracy will survive. Such optimism is too easily washed away by the havoc they wreak. Instead of optimism we need hope, a dark, gritty, resilient hope that hangs in there no matter what.   

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            Here's the problem as I see it. Most of us are reasonable people. We're rationalists—that is, we believe that the world is, on the whole, rationally intelligible.

            Rationalism is innately optimistic. Our optimistic confidence in the rational intelligibility of reality explains why we trust science. It explains why our problem-solving methods emphasize rigorous data, careful logic, and strict intellectual integrity: we think people can figure most things out if they will just sit down together in good will, sharing perspectives, seeking consensus, remaining resolutely pragmatic. We also believe that the vast majority of people are ordinarily capable of similar integrity, logical problem-solving, and rationally pro-social behavior. That's why we support universal human rights. Above all, it's why we support democracy: we think we will all be better off if the nation is governed by honest, collaborative, rational problem-solvers, not oligarchs and their lackeys. In the words of the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, our complexly rationalist metaphysics seems to us supremely "self-evident." No reasonable person could possibly question any of it.

            And so we are flummoxed when people do. We are flummoxed because our entire world-view is threatened. (It is all the more threatened to whatever extent we have been unconscious of the safety and status provided by white skin, European heritage, and university-educated speech patterns: liberal educated white people are feeling newly vulnerable in ways that people of color have lived with for centuries.) Trump's remarkable mendacity, belligerence, and narcissism might unnerve the Buddha, of course. But Republicans in Congress are the bigger threat. Their dishonesty is calm, slick, and focus-grouped. Their lies are polished, consistent, and systematic, which is to say even more threatening both for the nation and for our implicit, often unconscious model of reality. Systematic dishonesty, like carbon emissions, poisons the atmosphere.

            Republican political strategy seeks to disguise their true intent: not serving the common good of the nation as a whole, but increasing the wealth of those who are already extraordinarily wealthy—especially the libertarian billionaire oligarchs who now control the Republican party. (If this feels to you like a wild-eyed claim, take a look at the evidence assembled by scholarly books like these, to be read in this order: Nancy McLean, Democracy in Chains; Jane Meyer, Dark Money; Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God; William Martin, God In God We Trust; and Nicole Hemmer, Messengers of the Right.)

            Republican behavior scrambles our brains. It disorients us. We are incredulous, outraged, and threatened. Their actions undermine the major assumption at the heart of both our moral commitments and our personal integrity. This key assumption is so central to Western ethical thought after roughly 1750 that for most of us it's barely conscious: we assume that morality is logically self-evident. We assume that anyone who is obviously smart and capable of logical reasoning will know—and hence care—about the difference between right and wrong.

            That's naïve. Many liberals are, in fact, fairly naïve. I admit—I admit—I too was shocked by what the books I just listed taught me. On the other hand, I recognized instantly that I'd come upon a far more accurate description of political realities that have surrounded me for decades. These books provide the kind of overview that weather satellites provide: suddenly I could see the systems at work. For an instinctive rationalist like me, that was crucial. It cleared my mind. It settled my nerves. It felt stabilizing. I finally understood what was going on.

            Alas, the scholars I cited above are all writing fine-grain political history: these are massively detailed books with dense, thoroughly professional documentation backing up their claims. In lieu of all that detail, here are two brief accounts that I hope will offer a similarly useful "weather satellite" overview. First, a quick sketch of some useful cultural history that I cover in more detail in Confronting Religious Judgmentalism; second, what I see as the essential moral position we need to adopt. We need to give up on optimism, especially optimism about the innate rational goodness of human nature. There's a better, more resilient alternative.

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            In the West, moral politics arises from "love your neighbor as yourself" as a moral norm derived from the imago dei, the indelible image of God in every person. This biblical morality was secularized in two different ways in the 1700s as Enlightenment moral philosophers sought philosophical grounds as a substitute for traditional religious authority. Broadly speaking, these moral philosophies fall into two large and messy groups: First, there's the Kantean categorical imperative: one should behave as one might wish all people would behave. According to Kant, morality is simply a logical deduction from this imperative. According to David Hume, on the other hand, morality is to be philosophically derived from our innately social nature: good people have good hearts and thus we instinctively seek the approbation of other good people.

            Choose whichever philosophical starting-point you prefer. Either way, American political culture, born in the Enlightenment and formulated by Thomas Jefferson, claims that a legitimate government serves two moral purposes: assuring universal human rights and promoting the common good (the "General Welfare"). Those "self-evident" truths have massive political and economic implications.

            Contemporary Republicans disagree. Unlike mid-twentieth-century Republicans, contemporary Republicans firmly reject classic Western morality both in its biblical and its philosophical formulations. Moral heirs of Nietzsche, they explicitly reject compassion and social responsibility as moral norms that should shape our politics. They believe that a society achieves the greatest good for the greatest number by freeing each of us to pursue our own narrow self-interest. Our only public and political moral obligation is to ourselves alone.

            That's not an irrational claim. It's foolish, perhaps. It is arguably at odds with the long-term best interest of even the most wealthy, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document at length in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. But the Republican position is not delusional. It is simply descended from a variety of thinkers who correctly observed that neither Immanuel Kant nor David Hume provided iron-clad irrefutable philosophic grounds for the ancient (and global) religious demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

            Because rational-minded liberals commonly fail to recognize the profound difference between classic Western moral norms and today's libertarian Republicans, we try to argue with them using facts. We counter their policy proposals with pie charts and data tables and comprehensive studies documenting the dangerous social and economic consequences of what they propose. They don't budge. Our most rigorously warranted arguments don't succeed. Our failures drive us crazy, and crazier, until at last we are beside ourselves with anger and frustration. It feels like gaslighting at the national scale.

            And that was before Trump took to denouncing any unfavorable fact as Fake News. To reclaim our equilibrium—and our resilience—we need to recognize that Republicans overall do not fail to understand our claims and our evidence and our rigorous logic. Unlike Trump himself, they probably do understand. But the harm they are doing to others doesn't matter to them. They don't care because they don't share our submerged and often unconscious American belief that all decent and rational people everywhere will of course seek to establish socio-economic justice, to protect the natural environment, and in all things to avoid harming or exploiting vulnerable people. For Republicans, the greatest good is not the common good but the individual accumulation of personal wealth and power. They may lament Trump's personality, but they are delighted by the agenda of his administration: as Gallup polls from September 2018 demonstrate, 87% of Republicans support Trump.

            Just as rationalists are willing to sacrifice (and to require sacrifice) for the common good, libertarians are willing to force sacrifices upon the middle class, and even the poor and the powerless, in order to protect and enhance the accumulation of individual private wealth by the economic elite. They believe in oligarchy, not democracy. Oligarchy is socially just, they say, because in America everyone has an equal opportunity to grow up to be a billionaire. If you are not rich as Jeff Bezos, they say, it's your own fault. The median-wage-earning middle class deserves its financial distress; the working poor and especially the unemployed or unemployable poor are moral failures who fully deserve their fate. It's not the role of government, they insist, to rescue the mediocre from their mediocrity nor to protect the lazy and irresponsible from themselves.

            We can assemble reams of evidence undermining their claims, their assumptions, their logic, and their evidence, citing books like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, or David Graeber, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, or Jacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America. We can argue like this until the cows come home. It won't make an iota of difference to contemporary Republicans legislators.

            To save our sanity, we need to accept that Republicans actually do understand what they are doing. They are neither crazy nor badly informed nor were they unloved by their parents—our usual liberal excuses for profoundly anti-social behavior. They are evil. What's evil is not the ends they seek: in a democracy, rich people have every right to advocate for themselves. What's evil is their remarkably sophisticated effort to deny and to disguise what they are seeking and the voter-suppression strategies and legislative sleight-of-hand they pursue to protect themselves from the democratic process. Nancy McLean lays these out in rigorous detail in Democracy in Chains.

            Evil is different from both stupidity and ignorance. In Western morality (secular and religious both) evil is deliberate indifference to the suffering of others. Evil is systematic dishonesty and self-seeking at the expense of others, especially those who are least able to defend themselves. In classic Western theological terms, evil is a free and knowing choice to turn our backs on the image of God in other people—and in ourselves as well.

            Secular Enlightenment rationalism is wonderful stuff in many ways, but it has a profoundly deficient grasp of the human capacity to choose evil if evil offers power, wealth, status, or the gratification of appetite. As a result, the ordinary liberal rationalist has relatively few conceptual resources for coping with evil effectively. We keep thinking facts will fix things. We think that all we need to do is to assemble more facts and better facts and make them more widely known. That is not the case. Facts about the common good only count if your moral system (religious or secular) holds you responsible for the harm you cause to others. And secular rationalists are often unwilling to talk about "moral obligations" at all. As I've argued in an earlier blog-post, secular liberals have mostly ceded the language of "moral obligation" to the fundamentalist Religious Right. That was a politically disastrous decision.

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            Republican positions and Republican behavior become rationally intelligible if you grant their two key assumptions. First, political power should be limited to the wealthiest individuals. They alone deserve political power. That's the Divine Right of Dollars, offspring of the Divine Right of Kings. Second, government laws and policy should serve the interests of the wealthy, the profit margins of the companies they own, and the value of stock in those companies. Period. In this system, the only structural counter-weight to human lust and greed is the threat of retaliation by other, equally powerful individuals and the companies they own. The "free markets" that Republicans cherish far too often come down to license for the powerful to plunder and exploit the powerless. (Elizabeth Warren's "Accountable Capitalism" proposal seeks to change that reality.)

            Prior to 1776, only religious prophets would have questioned the assumption that government authority should above all else protect the power and the wealth of the powerful and wealthy. For thousands of years, all the way back to the first organized city-states, government had always been of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Republicans are simply trying to reclaim oligarchy from the clutches of universal-suffrage democracy and policies designed to protect the common good against the greed of powerful men. (Nancy McLean, Democracy in Chains, provides stunning documentation for the explicitly anti-democratic ambitions of the Koch network and the Republican party they have purchased for themselves; in Confronting Religious Absolutism I explain how the fundamentalist Religious Right traces its origins to reactionary anti-democratic trends toward the end of the nineteenth century.)

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            It seems to me that we have two choices here. We can continue waving our pie charts and databases in their faces. When Trump and the Republicans ignore us, we can withdraw into depression and despair. We can give into their gaslighting; we can begin to doubt the value of our own efforts. We can give in to cynicism, nihilism, and political disengagement, deciding that all people everywhere are despicable jerks and so there's nothing anyone can do about anything. That's one choice.

            There is another option here. We can replace our shattered optimism with hope. Optimism expects that data and logic will eventually prevail, or at least that having the facts will in the end make a measurable, inescapable difference in people's behavior. Hope, on the other hand, does what is morally right for its own sake, without any illusion about controlling outcomes. Hope understands that evil is both real and persistent in our world—but so is virtue, and so the virtuous must steadfastly continue the quest to lead virtuous and honorable lives. Optimism soars but hope simply hangs in there, both feet on the ground, courageously pursuing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in a world that is all too often evil, false, and ugly. Hope is not stopped by the evil, the false, and the ugly. Hope is resilient, because hope has a dark and gritty realism that liberal optimism lacks.

            Hope would not be shocked by what's going on in Washington. Disappointed, yes. Hope is incessantly disappointed. But shocked? Depressed? Disillusioned? No, because hope has no illusions. These shenanigans have been going on for thousands of years. Iron-Age biblical prophets berated the oligarchs of the day for their abuse and exploitation of workers, their injustice to immigrants, and their neglect of people unable to earn a living for themselves. Good people have been fighting this fight for as far back as written history goes. We know what's going on, and we have the conceptual resources to name it plainly. 'Write the vision,' the prophet Habakkuk is told. 'Write it large, that a man on horseback may read.'

            Those who hope do whatever good things it is possible for them to do. We seek, in ways large and small, to remedy the evil of our own day. Those who hope persist, remaining serene about outcomes, because attachment to outcomes is the great liability undermining optimists. The outcome that matters most is perfectly assured: we will have done what it is humanly possible for us to do no matter what storms come ashore in our lifetimes.

            Maybe we will make a critical difference that we can see immediately, as in, perhaps, the upcoming midterms, or the work of nonprofits suing to stop the more egregious abuses, or all the ways in which Indivisible chapters are revitalizing local politics. Maybe the difference we make will be small and it will feel ephemeral. Good people will persist in virtuous lives nonetheless. We do so because of who we are, not because we are metaphysically certain of our own success. Even if we fail, we will persist: we are who we are. We are part of an ancient and courageous tradition of morally responsible people.

            The paradox here is massive. If you ask, most people will easily acknowledge that evil is real, and it's pervasive, and it leads to immense human suffering. But we tend to doubt that virtue is equally real, equally pervasive, and in the end a powerful antidote both to evil and to suffering. We doubt the power of virtue because we confuse virtue with control over outcomes. Control over outcomes is the great idol worshipped by evil. Virtue is its own reward, its own end. The virtuous do what is morally right and good for its own sake, as an expression of the moral good within them. And that is all.

            It is enough. And it has made far more of a humane difference in human history than the cynics, the nihilists, and the passive bystanders will ever understand.