Uncivil Wars

Uncivil Wars

How Contempt Is Corroding Democracy

Scott Stephens, Waleed Aly


So what do we owe those with whom we might profoundly, even radically, disagree? In our time, the answer increasingly seems to be: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We’ve come to regard our opponents as not much more than obstructions in the road, impediments standing between us and our desired end. They are there to be overcome, and whatever future we might envisage will be achieved either through their grudging acquiescence, or simply through their quiescence. We have therefore grown disinclined to consider what it might mean to go on together meaningfully as partners in a shared democratic project. To put it bluntly, we see no future with our political opponents because we feel we have nothing to learn from them.

This is reflected most starkly in the way we characterise one another: it’s not that our opponents are partial, uninformed, mistaken, unwise, naive, that they are either overly cautious or needlessly impatient, or perhaps that they are simply animated by a different hierarchy of values that yields a moral intensity distinct from, but nonetheless commensurate with, our own. Instead, we tell ourselves, and anyone else who will listen, that our opponents are sub-rational, bigoted, toxic, dangerous, malignant, wilfully ignorant, cynically self-interested, fundamentally dishonest – in a word, inferior in every way that matters – and hence incapable of good-faith disagreement. They become reduced to tribal avatars: symbols to be appropriated for the prosecution of our politics. What matters, then, is not what these people actually say or do, but rather what we have decided they stand for, what their real agenda is. To borrow Agnes Callard’s classification, we replace “literal speech” – where we “read [people’s] words purely as vehicles for the contents of [their] beliefs” – with “messaging culture” – where we ignore the words and instead find the “evil intent or ulterior motive” behind them. As Callard explains:

What makes speech truly free is the possibility of disagreement without enmity, and this is less a matter of what we can say, than how we can say it. “Cancel culture” is merely the logical extension of what we might call “messaging culture,” in which every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated, and in which very little faith exists as to the rational faculties of those being spoken to. In such a context, even the cry for “free speech” invites a nonliteral interpretation, as being nothing but the most efficient way for its advocates to acquire or consolidate power.

Once we take that approach towards our opponents, there is no longer any possibility of reasoning with them, because their stated reasons for why they believe what they believe cannot be taken at face value. And because rational debate is not possible, there is no point even taking part in the pretence of deliberation.

Is that how a democracy is meant to be? It would take a minimalist account of democracy to say so. And since we intend to argue that democracy cannot survive contempt, we must first acknowledge that minimalist accounts of democracy do exist, in which democracy connotes very little indeed: regular free and fair elections, the rule of law, tolerance of opposition political parties, and a set of rules that determine how publicly binding decisions get made. Other norms are implied in this, such as free speech, freedom of association, the availability of multiple sources of information, universal suffrage, and probably also some system of checks and balances.

A slightly more augmented version proceeds from the observation that society is not homogenous but is rather a collection of people with a diverse range of interests. It would be arbitrary to predetermine which of these interests is legitimate and should prevail, so democracy solves this through representation, in which each interest can find its reflection in government decisions. This model assumes a somewhat static vision of society, where people with fixed, already-formed interests gather to be represented. It requires nothing more of people than that. This is frequently called a “thin” conception of democracy.

But these “thin” versions of democracy cannot work in the abstract. People’s interests cannot be represented without a citizenry educated enough to represent them; they cannot be balanced without in some way deliberating; they cannot deliberate without first respecting the right of the opposing side to be there as interlocutors, as equals. Indeed, these norms of respect and democratic equality are not an adjunct: they are the whole reason democracy exists, since, as Robert Talisse writes, “democracy is the proposition that a stable and decent society can be maintained in the absence of lords, masters, sovereigns, superiors, and kings. Democracy is the rejection of political hierarchy.” That is to say, even thin democracy requires something to undergird it. Democracy requires a democratic culture. Without that, it becomes dysfunctional – destined to devolve into a mere ornament.

This insight yields the notion of “thick” democracy, which imagines society as a more dynamic organism where people can have their preferences and interests changed by their interactions with others. Democratic deliberation isn’t merely a process of assertion and grudging compromise, but one of being mutually influenced. This is most fully exemplified in the soaring vision of Alexis de Tocqueville, who hoped the lived experience of cooperating together, despite political differences and partisan allegiances, as equal participants in a common effort, might cultivate the moral dispositions of sympathy, generosity, forbearance and mutual trust on which democratic life depend. For “feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart expands, and the human spirit develops only through the reciprocal action of human beings on one another.” He does not describe this as a given, however. De Tocqueville is well aware that the very democratic desire to form associations, to find others of like mind, can readily be put to nefarious, anti-democratic ends by the skilled demagogue or the unprincipled press baron – by, say, purging the social body of political dissenters and racial minorities, or stoking the flames of populist resentment, or imposing an unassailable conformity by means of brute intimidation, or inciting a mob to lay waste to a chamber of representative government. Such dangers are ineradicable because nothing can guarantee the persistence and moral health of a democratic society other than the daily recommitment on the part of its members to go on together, to converse together, to learn from each other, to place themselves in one another’s hands, to bear one another’s burdens, to share one another’s fate.

Democracy cannot therefore be merely antagonistic. Antagonism becomes democratic when it is orientated towards a common goal in which the antagonists are partners. Democratic hope is the expression of interdependence, a commitment to the discovery of a shared horizon of interests and aspirations. It stands in a tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle, which sees politics as not primarily about power (as it was for Machiavelli) or responsibility (for Max Weber) or even necessarily about order (for Hobbes), but rather as a kind of pastoral activity that emerges from a people’s concern to care for the conditions of their common life – politics as “a cultivating, a tending, a taking care of beings and things,” as Sheldon Wolin puts it. Democratic citizens are therefore bound together, and those bonds must be continually cultivated if they are to hold amid the strains of democratic deliberation. And that cultivation means nurturing practices which are themselves inseparable from the democratic aspiration: communal gathering, truthful speech, self-questioning, moral hesitation, silence, compromise, patience, frankness, forbearance, self-deprecating humour, play, and principled accommodation. As John Dewey recognised, it is precisely the “day by day adoption” of such practices and their “contagious diffusion in every phase of our common life” which enables democracy to become a moral reality. In short, democracy lives by and through such incidental acknowledgments of the moral reality of other persons. And as John Rawls argued, no democratic society, no matter the quality of its political institutions and traditions, can long withstand the corrosive effect of widespread envy, disdain, disgust, resentment, grudgingness, spitefulness and contemptuousness. Before long, Rawls feared, such sentiments will eat away at the affective bonds between citizens, to the point that it becomes impossible for them to see each other as equals.

This commitment – dare we call it Baldwinian – to a common life with a common future is the essence of democracy. Democracy’s great virtue is that it offers a perpetually deliberative politics. It undulates with the regular changing of governments, the relatively short-term and conditional nature of both victory and defeat. It therefore allows us to avoid a “winner-takes-all” approach to politics in which a future with those on the other side of political debate need not be imagined. We might surmise, then, that the more “winner-takes-all” our politics grows, the less healthily democratic it becomes. And we can expect that, over time, each side keeps raising the stakes of disagreement to the point that any concession to the other is akin to a perfidious betrayal – a kind of appeasement when what is required is total resistance.

This is exactly what we’re seeing in America. As Jonathan Haidt observes in an essay recently published in The Atlantic:

the enhanced virality of social media … made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.

The logic of contempt is therefore not merely hatred of the other side, but the search for enemies within, for once contempt is routine, there is no reason to stop at mere party-political differences. The result, argues Haidt, is a deeply undemocratic stifling of dissent that plays out differently across the political spectrum. On the right, the traditional conservatism that might care for the integrity of the electoral system or the enduring institutions of government is cowed by a loud conspiratorial narrative of stolen elections and the “deep state.” On the left, liberal progressives who believe injustices can be, and are being, shed, are cowed by a critical postmodern narrative that holds almost every prevailing social structure – including even notions of free speech – to be a structure of power and oppression. Hence the rapid transition of a statement such as “I don’t see race” from being a salutary progressive epithet to evidence of an eye roll–inducing racism.

The right regards its dissenters as traitors and charges them with treason, for which the traditional punishment is death – “hence,” says Haidt, “Hang Mike Pence.” The left opts for charges of -isms and -phobias that constitute hatred and harm for a marginalised group. The punishment for that is public shaming. What’s notable for our purposes is that both are expressions of contempt; not of disagreement, but of being irredeemably beyond the pale. This is a remarkable sleight of hand, where contempt is founded on constantly changing, and highly contested, moral ground. These are not cases where people contemn others for falling short of a widely agreed moral standard. It is not the contempt for a thief, paedophile or murderer. It is not even Camille’s contempt for Paul in Le Mépris, in which both agree that bartering a spouse’s sexual favours for one’s own career advancement is an immoral thing to do, however much Paul denies the allegation. Contemporary political contempt forms before moral consensus is achieved and tries to set new norms through intimidation. It believes that if only we call enough people “cuckservatives” or “racists” loudly and publicly – if we repeat that our opponents are “selling out the country” or are “on the wrong side of history” – we can redefine society’s moral parameters by brute force. This is moralism without any of the hard work of moral persuasion. The result is that even in the university, an institution built on freedom of thought and truth-seeking, we see students reporting that they censor their views because they are afraid to speak their minds. We should be unsurprised that we see evidence of people being cowed into silence, but little evidence of consensus.

Over the last decade, we’ve watched this dynamic play itself out repeatedly within and between opposing sides around such matters as sexual harassment and abuse, racial injustice, police brutality, climate change, membership of the European Union, vaccine hesitancy, LGBTIQ discrimination, religious freedom, and abortion. On each count, worthy goals of mutual consideration and common pursuit have been either brought undone or had their broader appeal severely compromised by the “hashtag politics” of moral intransigence (#GetBrexitDone, #BlackLivesMatter, #DefundthePolice, #SilenceIsViolence, #StayWoke, #ThereIsNoPlanetB, #IGotVaccinated, #SaveRoe, et cetera). Declaration and posturing take the place of persuasion, claims of moral superiority undermine the hard work of gradual consensus-building, and the vigilante impulse for summary judgment rules out the possibility of complexity, ambiguity, degrees of complicity, or doubt.

As we’ve seen, there is an undeniable pleasure that accompanies this kind of moral clarity. We prize it in ourselves, and we demand it from the politicians, pundits and opinion-makers we follow. But the problem with “moral clarity,” as George Packer writes, “is how much of life and news gets lost in its glare. It overpowers subjects more than it illuminates them. Writers stop seeing the little flaws and contradictions of actual life, and stop wanting to – they and their readers have only to bask in the warmth of a blinding glow.” Consider, alternatively, philosopher Adam Piovarchy’s perceptive assessment of how this plays out in the politics of vaccination:

One of the best things we can do is make getting vaccinated seem normal, as simply part of a collective project, rather than yet another marker of tribal identity in a culture war. It’s much harder to frame being unvaccinated as a marker of independence, free-thought or suspicion of the government if no one is arguing with you. Instead of pushing harder, lower their resistance.

Whatever short-term gratification this culture of implacable stances may provide, however enjoyable the hot-takes and take-downs, it is catastrophic for our democratic culture. At the heart of what might be called the moral distinctiveness of democratic politics is an acute awareness of the inevitability of disagreement within the common life of a people whom, in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase, “chance or choice have brought together.” It governs people whose connections are strictly contingent and who cannot therefore appeal to any extrinsic principle or quasi-divine adjudicator to settle matters of contention once and for all.

The greatest danger to the stability of democratic life is therefore not when disagreements become interminable, but when they become incommensurable – which is to say, when both parties get caught in a state of mutual incomprehension. That certainly seems to be the case in the United States. Only about 2 per cent each of Trump and Biden voters think those who voted for the other candidate understand them “very well,” according to Pew research, and the other 98 per cent are probably correct. The United States is becoming a nation of aliens, unknown and unknowable to each other, with no common narrative to bind them. Probably the most commonly heard lament of progressives after the election of Donald Trump was that they woke up overnight to a country they no longer recognised. Four years earlier, those cheering for Mitt Romney were found by researchers to be twice as sad in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory than Bostonians were after the Boston Marathon bombings. Such a depth of incommensurability is new, as Chua observes: “at different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today.”

This, in essence, was the fault that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found with the US Supreme Court’s 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, which has turned so recently pyrotechnic. Her criticisms were several, including that it was decided on a questionable legal basis that left it vulnerable to challenge. But more relevantly for our purposes, she believed the court’s ruling effectively arrested the momentum that had been slowly building in state legislatures and district courts towards the decriminalisation of abortion:

The political process was moving in the early 1970s, not swiftly enough for advocates of quick, complete change, but majoritarian institutions were listening and acting. Heavy-handed judicial intervention was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict.

Her point is that by “settling” the matter too early and with too much brute force, the court created the circumstances in which the arguments on either side could harden into a culture war: irreconcilable claims of absolute value (pro-Life versus pro-Choice), rendering each side morally unintelligible to the other. History has proven her correct, and the politics of abortion has been tearing American democracy apart ever since.

For many, the prospect of what we might think of as this kind of democratic divorce is not just tolerable – it is eagerly anticipated. Along any number of our current political faultlines, each side has become convinced that their lives, and the life of the nation as a whole, would be a good deal better off if their opponents just went away. We have earlier noted the “Quexit” meme after the 2019 Australian federal election, and we saw a similar line of thought among American progressives who spruiked the benefits of certain states seceding from the union should Donald Trump be re-elected in 2020. Such incommensurability is what happens when “thin” democracy is all you have. Contempt thins out democracy until finally it reaches the point of dysfunction. America provides the signal case of this, probably because it is the environment most dominated by the media/social-media contempt machine we have earlier described. The result is a country that now barely has an agreed set of facts over which its citizens can deliberate; a place with democratic trappings, but few of the underlying preconditions of a democratic culture. That is what a thin democracy looks like. It would be more accurate to describe it as a post-democracy.


This is an extract from Waleed Aly's Quarterly Essay, Uncivil Wars: How Contempt Is Corroding Democracy. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Waleed Aly is a writer, academic, lawyer and broadcaster. He is a lecturer in politics at Monash University and a co-host of Network Ten’s The Project. He is the author of People Like Us and Quarterly Essay 37, What’s Right? With Scott Stephens, he co-hosts Radio National’s The Minefield program.


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