14 January 2024

In the United States, politics fills a "moral vacuum"

In a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic, David Brooks postulates that in this country politics has expanded to fill a "moral vacuum."  Herewith some extened excerpts:
Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive...

The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.

For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions. Its Founding Fathers had a low view of human nature, and designed the Constitution to mitigate it (even while validating that low view of human nature by producing a document rife with racism and sexism). “Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more dispos’d to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, and much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d.”

If such flawed, self-centered creatures were going to govern themselves and be decent neighbors to one another, they were going to need some training. For roughly 150 years after the founding, Americans were obsessed with moral education...

These various approaches to moral formation shared two premises. The first was that training the heart and body is more important than training the reasoning brain. Some moral skills can be taught the way academic subjects are imparted, through books and lectures... The other guiding premise was that concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste...

And then it mostly went away...

If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.

According to research by Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lonely young people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics than young people who aren’t lonely. For people who feel disrespected, unseen, and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them a comprehensible moral landscape: The line between good and evil runs not down the middle of every human heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil.

The Manichaean tribalism of politics appears to give people a sense of belonging. For many years, America seemed to be awash in a culture of hyper-individualism. But these days, people are quick to identify themselves by their group: Republican, Democrat, evangelical, person of color, LGBTQ, southerner, patriot, progressive, conservative. People who feel isolated and under threat flee to totalizing identities.

Politics appears to give people a sense of righteousness: A person’s moral stature is based not on their conduct, but on their location on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be good; you just have to be liberal—or you just have to be conservative. The stronger a group’s claim to victim status, the more virtuous it is assumed to be, and the more secure its members can feel about their own innocence.

Politics also provides an easy way to feel a sense of purpose. You don’t have to feed the hungry or sit with the widow to be moral; you just have to experience the right emotion. You delude yourself that you are participating in civic life by feeling properly enraged at the other side. That righteous fury rising in your gut lets you know that you are engaged in caring about this country. The culture war is a struggle that gives life meaning.

Politics overwhelms everything. Churches, universities, sports, pop culture, health care are swept up in a succession of battles that are really just one big war—red versus blue. Evangelicalism used to be a faith; today it’s primarily a political identity. College humanities departments used to study literature and history to plumb the human heart and mind; now they sometimes seem exclusively preoccupied with politics, and with the oppressive systems built around race, class, and gender. Late-night comedy shows have become political pep rallies. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily during the pandemic because people saw a virus through the lens of a political struggle.
If The Atlantic is behind a paywall for you, the September 2023 issue will be at your library.


  1. Brooks (who is beneath anyone's notice) is almost onto something here; but, as usual, he has it all upside-down. Humans are born insane; the purpose of education is to heal them. If they are not educated, they internalize the birth trauma by becoming obsessed with universal destruction. To such, morality, or anything else, can only be a pretext for violence. "Moral" instruction, in Brooks's sense, is not healing but a palliative, without any therapeutic effect. Politics is not a substitute for morality, but an allegory for morality. We do not have a moral vacuum; we are saturated with morality, as we are saturated with weapons, the question being, how are they to be used?

  2. Please expand on how humans are born insane.

    1. Yeah, I glossed over that one because I just didn't want to engage with that.

  3. I, too, think that David Brooks is kind of a dope. I feel like the issue that he ignores is that people became aware enough of their rights that they could complain that they weren't being allowed to exercise them in the same way that rich white guys could.

    1. at the very very least, he misses the difference and conflates two very different things: what you mentioned, that people have become more aware and less tolerant of ongoing injustices on one hand. and on the other, the victim culture of the right, where grievances are spun from thin air and taken as justification to inflict misery upon whoever is the current target of choice.

      when these are both seen as the same thing, and one is unhappy with the general level of confrontation and hostility, it’s easy to imagine ‘politics’ as the problem, and if only we could leave them at home more so we didn’t have all this unpleasant shouting. very rich white guy energy, as you said.

      worst case, though, he is conflating on purpose.

  4. For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions.

    What a bunch of hogwash.

    Morally formative institutions? The institutions that allowed for genocide on Native Americans? The institutions that allowed for slavery? The institutions that allowed for Native American children to be taken away from their parents to be educated? The institutions that allowed for Jim Crow? The institutions that keep the US pretty much permanently at war? the institutions what denied HIV/AIDS exited? The institutions that allowed TFG to become president?

    What institutions were those? Well, of course, the political parties. And never forget churches. And the press.

    In other words, exactly the same institutions that are now participating in all this mayhem.

    Come on man, this is exactly the same bullshit history nonsense that makes all these MAGA idiots think that the 50s were better than now.

    And then it mostly went away...

    He ain't talking about his own sanity here. He's written hogwash like this before.

    Look, the US is a pretty awesome country, but y'all gotta stop pretending the past was better than the future. That is y'alls problem. You used to live for the future because it would be better than now. That stuff got you to the moon. But now at least half of y'all are dreaming of a past that simply did not exist.

    1. This, right here. If this country is being destroyed by anything, it's misplaced nostalgia.

    2. Of course that past it existed. It exists right now in other high-trust societies. We tried to move back in that direction with DJT but prosperity and unity wasn't worth budging on your politics. So now you pretend like none of those things even exist, that this miserably state of affairs is somehow wonderful. But people have a sense for these things, even if they don't necessarily want to admit it out loud. We've lost something that used to exist, and we desperately need it back.

    3. Sure, such a past existed if one was a straight white Christian male, but anyone outside that subset of society had a worse time of it, being relegated to the status of second or third-class citizens. And that worse time for others is exactly what DJT and his cult actively want. Your Republican party has found its scapegoats and reassures its voter base that all will be better once THOSE people are dealt with. This tactic is in no small way part of why neo-Nazis and philosophically affiliated bigots vote Republican.

      In reality, DJT is the antithesis of prosperity and unity, and things are only made worse under the current wave of extreme conservatism.

    4. What are these supposed “high-trust societies”? Ones where women and minorities don’t have equal rights? The dictatorships that Trump says are what he wants here?
      The past seems great if you look at it from the very narrow perspective of how it was for a small slice of the population, but the idea that it needs to be brought back or even that doing so would create “unity” is ludicrous.

    5. We've lost something that used to exist

      What exactly have you lost?

    6. And please define "we".

    7. You're never going to get "unity" when your entire platform is built on making life harder for everyone. Taking away our health care, criminalizing our speech, limiting access to books, allowing discrimination in public services... And then making it harder to vote while shifting the map to guarantee you stay in power and firing anyone who tries to keep things fair? There's a word for this and it's not "unity".

  5. As a former card-carrying member of the Republican party, the descent into fascism has made me re-evaluate every aspect of the party I thought I knew. Turns out, while it is much more anti-human-being-and-citizen now, it was always on the side of bigotry and oppression. I am embarrassed to think I was fooled for so long.

  6. I'm a leftist in the sense that I do believe it is the legitimate role of government to play Robin Hood.

    In the 1950s, we had far higher taxes on the rich, massive investment in infrastructure, an expanding industrial base, unions, essentially free higher education for millions, etc. My neighborhood was 100% blue collar into the 60s: one income per household and home ownership within reach of every family on my street. Compare all of this with families of today--regardless of color, etc.

    Now, you may say this was a worse time for women, blacks and LBGTQ populations. Well, that's more complicated than it sounds. In any case, I do agree that social movements of the 60s and 70s--and with LGBTQ, into the 80s, were obviously important. But, it's actually the left that lives in the past, as it retreads movements that already occurred. This, while identity ideology mostly abandons swaths of the bottom 50, 60 or 70% of America, to include a whole lot of poor white people--along with the members of various identity tribes who remain stressed by poverty or near poverty, BEING MEMBERS OF THIS UNDERCLASS. On a class basis, this is the death of the left.

    Does anyone really believe that the American working class, to include all races, genders and sexual orientations is really economically better off than it was in the 60s? If you think so, you haven't been paying attention.

    Donald Trump went around the left and ate its lunch. The left still doesn't get it and that shows in the comments I'm reading here.

    Brooks and IronHorse are more right than wrong. Until the left can see what's right in what they're saying, it will continue to wallow in grievance cult impotence. Trump understands this better than the vast majority on the left. Especially affluent white liberals.

    1. Does anyone really believe that the American working class, to include all races, genders and sexual orientations is really economically better off than it was in the 60s?

      Do they have vastly improved health care? Do they all have cell phones? Do they live in houses of much higher quality than 60 years ago with widescreen tvs? Yes they do. So the quality of life for everyone has gone up massively. That's not the problem.

      The problem is increasing inequality. Musk, Bezos, Gates, Buffet. Their money is simply not trickling down. It's no accident that they're all straight white men.

      Who took away the high taxes? Who took away the union rights? Who keeps stoking discriminating hatred? Who keeps fantasizing about killing social security?

      Democrats can be absolutely incompetent gullible fools. But that does not make them responsible for the damage done by Republicans.

      Donald Trump went around the left and ate its lunch.

      TFG is a snake oil sales man who promises gold to everyone, while stealing their pockets empty. He is very, very good at that. Not enough people are willing to give him credit for his one quality. But it has again nothing to do with left or right. The man has no political beliefs. He just saw a hole on the right and used it to his advantage. Democrats could only fail to stop him after Republicans failed.

      BTW, Democrats only failed in 2016. They did just fine in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Looking at yesterday night, it's Republicans again failing to stop him again. They've had years to find some good people, and these are then lunatics is who they come up with? Holy Moly. Seriously, this is a country of 330+million people. This is quite some failure of developing and growing talent.

  7. There’s nothing right about saying that the left is wrong to be concerned about civil rights. If you think we live in a society that’s now so equal that we only need to focus on the economy and not worry about a blatantly racist former president who’s announced he wants to be a dictator or, for that matter, a party that’s intent on rolling back civil rights, you’re in a very privileged position.
    And I’d still like to know what these “high trust societies” are that match Brooks’s vision of a happy, orderly past.

  8. "If The Atlantic is behind a paywall for you" copy the (most any paywalled) article URL, go to archive.is or archive.ph, paste the URL, and read the paywalled article.

  9. another theory is that since the internet allows any one of us, from nearly all ages, to learn what they want, from where they want, instead of the old standby's pre internet (4 tv channels of only the main broadcast networks providing content, encyclopedias, the nationally distributed magazines (life, time, Readers Digest, etc) and few radio stations, mostly religious people) few people are religious now that they have access to information, the country as a whole isn't in group think anymore. We are individualized. We no longer rely on the state of the union speech to learn national policy. We think for ourselves, we have vastly different core beliefs, and the flood of illegal aliens has drastically changed the look of the population. There are a LOT of muslims in Michigan for example. There sure as hell weren't pre 1975. So, a LOT more people than ever before are certain they are informed about a variety of things, and, firm in their beliefs, will not be told they are wrong. Plus, the two party system now caters to their farther from central demographic, and the moderate middle just wants a logical, sane, honest president. Not a open border lefty, not a right wing elitist. So, we're seeing the result, of all that, in mass shootings, protests, outrageous behavior, etc. Just another theory of what's going on. Do with it as you will. Frankly, I loved hearing the news from Paul Harvey. Now, is anyone reporting NEWS? Or, are all outlets pandering to their tribe, using their pulpit to rabble rouse, isolate, and sell a lot of advertising with opinions... hence, bloggers (I'm a car blogger) and websites are getting readers, who are looking to just be entertained by a niche genre, and 2000 news papers have gone out of business in the past 20 years.


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