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The Rise of Gut Politics

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Columbia University pro-HAMAS camp on quadrangle

A very liberal friend recounted his daughter’s pushback after he gently questioned the tactics of anti-Israeli protestors on campus. “She didn’t disagree with me,” he said, “but said that my concerns were unhelpful because they undermined efforts to stop the war.”

Gut politics – an instructive example

I just nodded my head; it was, after all, his daughter. I guess I could have complimented her: Her brief response perfectly distilled the deeply illiberal impulse that has undermined our democracy: gut politics.

This pervasive mindset frames political questions as moral issues that only have two sides: good and evil. It replaces the never-ending task of sifting and sorting the complex mysteries of human behavior to arrive at a tentative understanding with the certainty of feeling – I know I’m right.

Once you decide you’re on the right side of a problem – or, better yet, of history itself – you don’t have to defend it. You dismiss critiques as ignorant moral blindness, you just don’t get it, and replace the exchange of ideas with the refrain, let’s just not talk about it.

Gut politics doesn’t stop there. It’s so dangerous because it wants its way. It rejects the notions of trade-offs and limits, compromise and discussion. These are our demands. It quashes dissent by framing the ends as beyond debate, casting honest questions as dangerous obstructions on the road to utopia. You’re undermining our efforts to stop war.

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Gut politics turns its practitioners into aggressive reactionaries. Once you know just know you’re right, there is little incentive to keep thinking and learning. Your goal is not to examine your beliefs but to impose them.

Contradictions

As a result, gut politics is rife with contradiction.

  • It holds that all people should be treated with dignity and respect – except for those we disagree with. Hence the espousal of antisemitism in opposition to the war against the butchers of Hamas.
  • It opposes all discrimination – except in the name of fighting discrimination. Hence the rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that distribute benefits based solely on race.
  • It celebrates free speech – except for those who pronounce ideas deemed dangerous. Hence the rise of cancel culture and state-sponsored censorship in the name of fighting “disinformation.”
  • It puts the pursuit of truth at the center of civic life – democracy, after all, dies in darkness – but accepts distortions and lies as integral to that quest. Hence the corruption of mainstream journalism, which has surrendered its historic role as an honest broker of the news to advance its favored policies and, of course, destroy Donald Trump.

In fairness, adherents of gut politics do have reasons for their beliefs. But their rejection of the liberal tradition that has been the cornerstone of American society – the embrace of open inquiry, the knowledge that progress hinges on the often-messy battles in the marketplace of ideas – leads to increasingly lazy thinking and growing authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism replaces open inquiry

During the COVID pandemic, for example, government officials and news outlets downplayed reports of negative responses to force everyone to get vaccinated. They ignored the predictably terrible impacts of “remote learning” on school children and lockdowns on business because they just knew everyone should remain isolated.

The belief that transgender equality is, as President Biden put it, “the civil rights issue of our time,” has led many medical authorities to ignore the serious drawbacks of allowing pre-adolescents to make life-altering decisions while condemning as bigots critics who raise fundamental questions about biology, sex, and women’s rights.

The belief that climate change is an “existential threat” to the planet has led experts who know better to claim that “science is settled” to impose their vision of a carbon-free future.

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As it shuts down honest debate in the name of truth, gut politics replaces the exchange of ideas with name-calling. Every critic becomes another Hitler – so there’s no point in trying to reason with them.

Gut politics bullies some into silence – why risk the wrath? – while, ironically, prodding determined resistors to embrace their own version of it. When official channels refuse to tell the truth, conspiracy theories often take flight. This, in turn, empowers the powers that be, turning their demonization of critics into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gut politics comes from authoritarian movements

Gut politics was not invented in America. It happens whenever rigid ideology strangles open inquiry. George Orwell famously described how it corrupts speech and thought in “1984,” a future in which the authorities assured a cowed populace, “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”

We are not yet living in Orwell’s dystopia. But, unlike traditional liberal democracy, gut politics – whose nutshell definition is the certainty of truths that need never be explained but which others must submit to – is not self-correcting. Instead of inspiring reflection, it prompts doubling down.

Our best hope for defanging this divisive and illiberal ideology is to resist the urge to fight fire with fire. Instead of deploying our own version of gut politics by seeking to silence and shut down its dangerous adherents, critics must have faith in America’s liberal tradition. It has the power to make our nation, and each of us, the best version of ourselves. As Jesus’ disciple Mark asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

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This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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J. Peder Zane is a columnist for RealClearPolitics and an editor at RealClearInvestigations. He was the book review editor and books columnist for the News & Observer of Raleigh for 13 years, where his writing won several national honors, including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He has also worked at the New York Times and taught writing at Duke University and Saint Augustine’s University. He has written two books, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture,” and “Design in Nature” (with Adrian Bejan). He edited two other books, “Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading” and “The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.”

Note: the profile image by Ellen Whyte is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-alike 4.0 International License.

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