Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Thucydides on Partisanship, Insurrection, and the Risks of Civil War

Our LARPing is training us in the vices that our political system is straining to keep at bay.
June 11, 2021
Thucydides on Partisanship, Insurrection, and the Risks of Civil War
Detail from a terracotta mixing bowl, ca. 430-400 B.C. (via the Met).

See if this sounds familiar: A cycle of polarization in which dueling charges of treason function as pretexts for abuse of power or insurrection. An escalating series of power grabs in which actors in and out of office attempt, threaten, and sometimes succeed in engineering a decisive systemic advantage for one party. The normal struggle for power within a system of coexistence and competition mutating into a battle to overturn the system itself. And lurking behind it all, the longing for liberating violence, so that we can finally be rid of them.

The end of this road is civil war, history’s most prolific slaughter bench. The United States, coddled in some ways into persistent childhood by good fortune, has not escaped it. Our Civil War swallowed more lives than the rest of our wars combined and yet here is a state representative of Texas, a Republican, speaking glibly of secession.

We are not about to fall into civil war. State governments are too enmeshed in federal funding and administration for state secession to be on the table. But mob violence or militia terrorism on a wider scale is a real possibility. That some politicians choose secession imposture is telling, rendering such violence more likely and more dangerous. More worrisome than Michael Flynn’s casual statement of support for a military coup (unconvincingly walked back) is the roar of approval it elicited. Fears (and hopes) of a military coup are not well founded but the sentiments of his audience were clear. Polarization is creating dry tinder. Even if nothing happens, the interests and habits that keep us together balance ever more precariously against growing mutual hatreds that threaten the cooperation upon which self-government depends. Our polity is sick, poisoned by our discourse.

For better and worse, our situation is not unique. Now is a moment for consulting history. The polarization described in the first paragraph above could come from any century but it comes from the ancient past—from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a work whose haunting prescience has influenced the study of war for twenty-four centuries and which continues to inspire penetrating analysis in political science and political theory. Its uncanny power to crystallize the dynamics of political entropy by analogy to events in such a distant past is not comforting. A permanent and murderous latency periodically awakens in us. Thucydides uses particular events to illustrate the dark heart of political breakdown. What can he teach us about our powder-keg moment, and can we learn?

At the core of Thucydides’ psychology of civil war we find the destabilizing fantasy of total victory, the thrill of transgression, and a theologizing dimension of righteous anger that remakes the cosmos in its image. These are features of the partisan mind, aspects of human nature that easily trap us in a process of polarization that destroys our ability to see or judge our own loss of perspective. Our capacity to learn from the past is therefore in doubt.

Liberalism was understood by its progenitors as the cure for this disease. Through Hobbes, Thucydides was an inspiration for much early liberal thought. As a system devoted above all to squaring diversity with peaceful coexistence, liberalism has as one of its roots Thucydides’ famous account of war and social fracture. Our political crisis is happening just as voices left and right have called liberalism into question, indeed this questioning is a symptom of this crisis. A defense against violent civil rupture will also have to be a defense of liberalism. The special relevance of Thucydides’ political psychology to early liberalism clarifies the special relevance of early liberal thought to the events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. In this regard what follows is both a preliminary defense of the dignity of liberal proceduralism and an explanation of its weakness. With that in mind, here are three basic elements of the psychology of polarization and extremism from the History, with special focus on one of its most famous passages, a description of civil war as it broke out in the city of Corcyra in 427 b.c. Let us hope we are far from civil war. But see if this sounds familiar.

I. The Dream of Final Victory

A long-simmering conflict between oligarchs and democrats erupts in violence in Corcyra when some oligarchs seek to change the city’s foreign alliances from the mostly democratic Athenian empire to the oligarchic Spartan League. Doing so would have set the stage for regime change from democracy to oligarchy. What was advanced as policy within the normal rules of democratic deliberation was in fact an attempt to change those rules altogether. When the measure fails in the assembly, the oligarchs respond by accusing the leading democrat, Peithias, of being an agent on behalf of Athens, and bring him to trial on the charge of seeking to enslave Corcyra to a foreign power. Peithias’ popularity and influence assure the failure of the charge, and upon acquittal he has the assembly impose a confiscatory fine upon the five leading oligarchs. Where the oligarchs’ attempt to use state power to destroy their partisan opponents fails, that of Peithias succeeds. Peithias then makes plans to extend Corcyra’s alliance with Athens, a move that would have secured the democracy (and his power within it) and placed Corcyra firmly under Athenian control. With the oligarchs’ influence under grave threat, some of them band together, seize weapons, break into the council chamber, and murder Peithias and sixty others. Open civil war follows shortly thereafter, and when an Athenian fleet secures victory for the democrats, they proceed to the slaughter of the oligarchs in a spectacular display of bloody retribution.

Thucydides pauses to consider the causes of the breakdown. What at first seems circumstantial proves to have wider significance. The first factor he identifies is the availability of powerful external allies, which emboldens partisans to revolution. Local enemies use larger patrons to help achieve local supremacy. The oligarchs use Spartan aid while the democrats use Athenian aid, much as South Vietnam had the United States and North Vietnam had the Soviet Union. There is a more general salience here however, especially for democracies, for what powerful allies supply is the dream of final victory. No more endless competition with the other party. Antagonists are much more likely to moderate their behavior when they know that coexistence and power sharing are unavoidable. The prospect of being on the losing side of the election next time tends to restrain the winners this time, while the possibility of competing next time secures the cooperation of the losers this time, as Tocqueville suggests in his account of American democracy. A paradox of democratic politics emerges: Victory must be pursued, but the prospect of decisive, long-term victory turns out to be a grave threat to stability, offering dangerous license to the victors and removing from the losers their stake in the system. John Stuart Mill remarks in On Liberty that the only reason religious liberty could be established in the wake of the Reformation, to the extent that it had been, is because the religious wars had no clear victor. Toleration is the precious fruit of stalemate. If one cannot disenfranchise or expunge one’s enemies (and disenfranchisement only prepares the final battle) the alternative is peaceful coexistence with those we hate. The desperate violence of civil war is averted when the dream of final victory is set aside.

Thucydides shows us, unfortunately, that the dream of final victory need not be supported by external allies or indeed be well founded to cause violence; it has significant power as fantasy. The power of delusion is one of the great themes of the History. Final victory is the dream of every partisan. If we follow that dream to its source, what we find is the complex of desire for power and concern for justice that is partisan zeal. Fusing justice with power, partisan zeal licenses the dream of final victory by casting it as moral and political necessity.

Like contests for power, arguments about justice tend to be zero-sum, the rhetorical prefiguring the political. The partisan who demonizes the opposition seeks to redefine the community, projecting an imagined republic of the virtuous in which the opposition has no place. One doesn’t work with such people, one only fights to diminish their power and standing. Thucydides tells us that at a certain point of polarization there is no community beyond the party for the true partisan. The rhetorical expulsion of the opposition from the realm of legitimate competition precedes and prepares the ground for the attempt to do so politically. Its premise is the notion, usually a fantasy, that one has the power to get away with it, that deforming or changing the rules of the game for oneself won’t inspire a worse reaction in kind.

What follows from the dream of final victory is this process itself, in which the ordinary competition for systemic advantage threatens to issue a disenfranchising defeat to one side, displacing reciprocity, and is undertaken in a rhetorical atmosphere that denies the legitimacy of opposition. This process is self-accelerating. A’s dream of final victory implies B’s nightmare of final defeat, which is seized upon (or invented) by B as proof that A makes coexistence impossible. The rhetorical or political abuses of one are taken as justification for those of the other, as every pusher of the pendulum points to the previous opposite push. With each swing of the pendulum some allegiance to shared limits is lost, some piece of the system is suborned to partisan ends, and the capacity of either side to tolerate coexistence diminishes. The rhetoric of war, treason, and retribution, of the system as broken, of the system itself as enemy, builds toward self-fulfilling prophecy. At a certain point the winners convince the losers or the losers convince themselves that they have more to gain outside the system than within it. At this point the danger of violent insurrection becomes real.

None of the above or below should be taken to imply a moral equivalence between the actors in any given drama, and polarization need not be symmetrical to accelerate. But who is more right or less wrong does not matter to the process of fracture and violence. We are not in a court of law. What happens when violence does break out reveals just how compatible love of justice and lust for power are, and why their fusion is the spring on the trap of civil war.

II. Chasing the High of Transgression

The Corcyrean oligarchs, faced with political marginalization, lash out violently with a coup attempt, which they carry into open war upon receiving military aid. They lose a subsequent battle. The democrats, enjoying a victory made tenuous by the approach of a Spartan League fleet, negotiate a peace with the oligarchs. When an Athenian fleet saves the democrats and delivers final victory, the democrats unleash a storm of bloody retribution. In each case violence is prepared by an expectation of total defeat and a rush of newfound supremacy. Beware those who feel cornered and those riding high. For the seven days after the arrival of the Athenian fleet, “the Corcyreans went on slaughtering those they took to be their enemies. . . . Death came in every shape and form, and everything that is liable to happen in such a situation did take place—and worse besides.”

The intensity of the violence is not explained by the game-theory exercise of competition for systemic advantage. Something new emerges. At one point during the battle the oligarchs set the city on fire, preferring to destroy the city over which they are fighting rather than accept defeat. Later, the democrats in Corcyra, having locked down victory and political supremacy, continue murdering their enemies until none are left. It takes them a week of frenzied slaughter to dispatch all the ones they can find. Rwanda. Cambodia. The Terror. It would be comforting to quarantine such events by reference to ideologies of class or race. These certainly matter, as do technology and the apparatus of the modern state, but only as multipliers; the Corcyrean bloodbath needed no such mediation. The psychology of partisan rage jumps the tracks of political utility.

In one of the most famous passages in the History, Thucydides illustrates this psychology with an account of how language warps under the pressure of civil war. Language evinces the norms of a community. The communal fission releases an explosion of fanatic passion captured in linguistic-normative derangement. It is worth quoting at length.

Civil strife therefore became a fact of political life, and those cities affected later rather than sooner, hearing what had happened elsewhere, went to ever greater extremes in inventing ingenious forms of attack and outlandish reprisals. Men assumed the right to reverse the usual values in the application of words to actions. Reckless audacity came to be thought of as comradely courage, while far-sighted hesitation became well-disguised cowardice; moderation was a front for unmanliness; and to understand all sides was to accomplish nothing. Wild aggression was a mark of manhood, while careful planning for one’s future security was a glib excuse for evasion. The troublemaker was always to be trusted, the one who opposed him was to be suspected. The man who devised a successful plot was intelligent, the one who detected it still cleverer; but the man who thought ahead to try and find some different option was a threat to party loyalty and must have been intimidated by his opponents. In short, the way to be praised was to be first in planning an outrage and the cheerleader for others who had never considered it. [Note: Here and throughout the English translation used is that of Jeremy Mynott, in this case with a small alteration by the author.]

The first thing to note is that this is an account of what garnered praise. Competition for partisan validation is one of the engines of extremism as people seek to demonstrate the intensity of their commitment. Virtue signaling warps the virtues by measuring them against the standard of zeal. Thucydides says later that the civil war was driven by “desire for power, through greed and glory.” Unlike Hegel’s desire for recognition, which issues eventually in the peace and equality of mutual dignity, the drive for partisan glory demands maximal hostility toward the opposition, expressed in the dual imperatives of proving one’s own zeal and of policing that of others.

There are a number of themes here in the substance of what was praised—recklessness or irrationality, partisan loyalty over obedience to law, a desperate concern with manliness—but common to them all is an attraction to the extreme as such. Thucydides says that “ties of family became less close than those of party since party members had no inhibitions about any venture,” and “the strength of their pledges of loyalty to each other” was based on “partnership in crime.” The liberating joy of transgression comes to the surface as the driver of partisan fury and loyalty. Extremism is not a place on the end of a spectrum but a directedness beyond limits. Even or especially the boundaries of reason must be violated. Violations once committed then become the boundary that new violations must cross.

This suggests something important about the nature of power, for, like freedom, power has no content of its own. We experience it negatively, in overcoming hindrance. (“Positive freedom,” meaning subordination to a rational principle, such as moral duty or participation in the rational state, likewise has no content of its own—and lacks the thrill of liberating transgression.) Power for its own sake needs enemies to overcome, laws and norms to trample. Because it has no purpose beyond itself—a greater purpose would be a limiting principle—the power high of partisan rage is nihilistic in its infinite negation. Hence the mania of destruction in which it issues.

The thrill of transgression seeks a tyranny over the self as well as over others. The partisan condemns all passions or considerations in him- or herself that might compete with the desire for power. Stubborn heedlessness characterizes this rage, as partisans urge each other on to greater excess. The pride taken in reckless audacity (alogistos, irrational), wild aggression (emplêktos, frantic) says: Nothing in the world nor in myself can dissuade me. It is abandon as self-assertion. This is not far from dogmatism as self-assertion, which says: You cannot make me listen. The passage quoted above calls attention to the many-sidedness of human motivation and deliberation, the various sources of reflection and hesitation, by listing what the partisan silences. The awareness of complexity and precarity, the ambivalence of self-consciousness, is replaced by the assurance of the fanatic. In the likeminded crowd individuals feel magnified, transcending their limits. What begins as crossing lines outside the self ends by destroying resistance within the self.

That this self-assurance is artificial is indicated by the intensity with which it is policed. The fanatic must cheerlead, proselytize, shame, and punish, must marshal all forces internal and social against the great enemy, which is doubt. Like all intoxications there is an element of choice—an opportunity for reconsideration—that must be hidden from oneself. Awareness of limits becomes inflammatory. The battle over the meaning of words is the battle over how people see and wish not to see themselves.

Because the driver of violence is not rational advantage but rage and power addiction it is at a certain point unstoppable. Participants are unable to assess the extent of their own loss of judgment because occlusion of self-awareness is intrinsic to the frisson of power. The cycle accelerates until it reaches stalemate or one side has been destroyed.

Thucydides makes a special note of the fact that among the dead are the moderates, whose hesitation does not save them. Their existence becomes an affront to the lunacy. “And the citizens who were in the middle fell prey to both parties, either because they would not take sides or because their very survival was resented.”

III. The Moralism and Theology of Revenge

The shade of justice lurks on the scene. A hallmark of the partisan spiral is the uncanny compatibility of moral self-righteousness and cynicism. Thucydides makes clear that, however sincere the partisans may have been in the beginning, by the time violence breaks out their declarations about justice were mere “specious slogans” advanced to cover “all manner of atrocities” and “even worse acts of revenge.” Justice persists as a concern and interpretive lens, but only in vestigial form. Having become utterly cynical, these partisans were nevertheless especially serious about revenge. Consider this sentence: “To get revenge on someone mattered more than not being hurt in the first place oneself.” Partisans relished being the victims of some wrong so as to invest their counterattack with the moral pleasure of punishment. Revenge reveals precisely this moral pleasure. Revenge conflates self-assertion with justice. It combines the pleasure of power with the pleasure of righteousness. Victimization has its advantages. From Hitler to Che Guevara the pleasurable obsession with the perfidy of one’s enemies sets the stage for the circus of revenge. What is curious is how compatible this is with cynical disinterest in principle beyond revenge.

On the one hand, cynicism and moralism may be compatible because self-righteousness is a pleasure no cynic sees a reason to deny himself. In Corcyra cynicism seems to neutralize the awareness that one is lying, even to oneself, rendering indignation just another pleasure. It is possible to play both actor and audience in one’s own righteous drama. Likewise, the border between cynicism and moralism may be porous, for the righteous too give themselves a pass on the ground of their justice. At the extremes the cynic and the moralist overlap in their belief that they do no wrong. The extreme partisan embodies this overlap; in revenge cynicism and moralism are united.

Yet the pleasure in indignation seems to require that we take something beyond ourselves seriously, even if only with one eye. In self-righteous indignation the pain of perceiving injustice is transformed into pleasure, an essentially public-spirited experience into an egoistic one. With this turn the passion for justice is deformed into a force for atrocity. How this transformation takes place reveals a profound lesson about what we want justice and community to be.

The secret lies in two human propensities. First, we moralize our self-interest. Second, we theologize our moral standing. It is this latter tendency that invests self-righteousness with the thrill of power.

Thucydides exposes this psychology by means of a speech intended to bring peace to the warring factions of Sicily (a separate conflict from the one at Corcyra). Urging an end to internal strife, Hermocrates, a Syracusan general, speaks against the lure of indignation that keeps parties at war beyond the point of diminishing returns. Human beings go to war out of self-interest, he says, but are reluctant to make peace, even when prudent, if the subsequent treaty fails to grant them what they feel is their due. That is to say, people regard their war aims as their due, thinking they have a right to them because they want them and have fought for them. We imagine that the moral order of the universe supports our claims to power. Whatever our different views of justice may be, we share a tendency to moralize our partisan interests. Such motivated reasoning is a formidable obstacle to forging a common good, painting compromise as injustice.

Most interestingly, however, partisans then imagine that the cosmos will reward their moralized self-interest accordingly. Two delusions rule human affairs, according to Hermocrates: the first is that the justice of a cause will assure its victory, the second is that force will. The first (at least) is an instinct for political theology. Human beings have a naïve faith that things will work out for them if their cause is just (and they tend to think that their cause is just because it’s their cause). They assume that justice will be enforced by the cosmic order.

History has seen this writ large and small. When this faith is elaborated in a doctrine it frames the dramas of the community in a historical or metaphysical scheme, such as divine right monarchy, manifest destiny, the dialectic of class exploitation, the destiny of the German Volk, and so on. The community becomes the mediator between the individual and the cosmic order, justified and supported by it. The citizen and the partisan feel themselves elevated and empowered by their participation as agents of this order. Whether articulated in doctrine or operating as an inchoate optimism this faith often leads to disaster, and not just when the doctrine targets victims. The point is not that the content of such doctrines is always bad—the American faith in historical progress is another such doctrine; the point is rather their delusive power in conjuring and depending upon mythical necessities. The arc of history does not bend toward justice, however defined, and victory does not tend to go to the deserving. Many are those who sought to punish a wrongdoer, Hermocrates tells his audience, and failed even to save themselves. Our moral certitude promises us victory, that same promise working its mischief. Those who presume on their justice are often destroyed. (On this point, see Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue.)

The second delusion, faith in power, is similar to the first in imagining a cosmos hospitable to human interpretation and control. Yet even strength cannot be relied upon for victory, for the dynamic of war is too unpredictable. The dream of final victory assumes that our foresight matches our ambitions. The law of unforeseen consequences demonstrates that our power is, to some necessarily unknowable extent, illusory.

Hermocrates makes this speech in order to get the Sicilians to accept stalemate and make peace (though he does not expect them to coexist for long). But what we learn is that all politics is religious. Even when politics is secular in doctrine it is religious in psychology. The universe turns around justice, which turns around us. Deep in our bones we feel that our efforts to punish those who have wronged us has the backing of the highest forces. This connection to a larger order seems to mark the difference, in our experience, between being harmed and being wronged. In anger we rise to the level of Zeus or Jahweh. (No wonder the Old Testament God has to remind humans that vengeance is his, one of the harder commands for us to follow.) Once again partisan rage liberates us from doubt, this time about our power and place in the cosmos. There is a direct line from this to the way that citizens invest their communities with meaning. In anger we feel the stars align within and behind us. Partisan rage is an existential pass, an escape from otherwise humbling self-awareness. (The ancients were familiar with this; in anger Achilles hides from himself.)

No doctrine need be formulated for this to be true. There is no cosmology at work in the mayhem at Corcyra, just rage and vengeance. There the religious character of politics is experienced viscerally. It is the feeling of divine power and license, not the thought. Hermocrates articulates the assumption implicit in the feeling. Much of our current rhetoric is religious accusation: wokeness and Trumpism as sects. The presumption behind the accusation, that religion and politics are separate dimensions, may be psychologically naïve. (As well as selectively applied. The substance of the accusation speaks of reason while the animus behind it speaks of heresy.)

The thrill of transgression and the thrill of divine righteousness are correlates, for it is in violating human boundaries that the partisan’s godlike supremacy is most vividly experienced. My wrath is justice—so speaks the will to power. If this requires inconsistency or improvisation or amnesia with regard to which principles are brandished and which broken, all the better.

However sincere the oligarchs’ and democrats’ professions of justice may have been before polarization tears Corcyra apart, by the end justice has been reduced to the thrill of revenge. As common good shrinks to party advantage so concern for justice shrinks to partisan zeal. The process of polarization is one in which the common as such disappears. The decisive step in the direction of violent faction was from participation in a system, implying consent to the authority of that system and the policies and laws it produces, to competition for power over that system, in which the system is subordinate to the party’s ends. The latter implies that the system is dispensable and that there is no legitimate opposition. Much party rhetoric in a process of polarization must be directed at disguising this step, perhaps even from the partisans themselves, who in the early stages may need to say and think that they are taking over the system to save it. As each side increasingly treats the other as deserving only of restriction and disempowerment the horizon of concern shrinks. When violence breaks out all pretense to community is abandoned. The party is the only community left, party victory all that’s left of justice.

Two lessons emerge. First, the horror of civil war underlines the fact that we benefit from being forced to coexist with our antagonists. We need our antagonists to draw our concern beyond the borders of party and to imagine justice as distinct from party rule. This means we need the competition with our antagonists, and we need that competition to be limited. We need reciprocity. Otherwise we turn into monsters.

The second is that polarization is a progressive addiction in which participants lose their ability to judge the change taking place within themselves. The cosmological delusion of rage clarifies its allure and danger, which is blindness to our limits. As long as we can only see the evil of our enemies, our indignation, indulged, invites the pendulum back in our faces. But it is precisely the attraction of seeing only the evil of our enemies that makes it unlikely that we will learn.

IV. Liberalism as Antidote

Liberalism is often understood to be anti-theocratic. This is both more and less true than is commonly meant. More, because liberalism’s secular formalism is aimed not just at theocrats but at the avenging god in ourselves. The rights doctrines that define liberalism operate as limits on our zeal. And by lowering the stakes of politics from salvation to peace and prosperity the progenitors of liberalism sought to temper the anger and moral vanity that characterize partisanship. But they did not try to do this by rendering politics secular, as is sometimes thought. Most early modern writers regarded the theologizing bent of our passions as too strong to make this possible or wise. Locke and his American followers, for example, sought to divinize the rights framework that allows different parties and religions to cooperate, moving the divine from the political ends to the structures that organize the means. From Locke’s Second Treatise to Lincoln’s Lyceum Address (which treats the threat of mob justice directly) liberal thinkers and statesmen sought to attach our reverence and righteous anger to a defense of the rules of the game rather than to the particular visions on behalf of which parties compete. The great danger is in viewing a party’s vision as more sacred than the law.

This commitment to constitutional forms is also an attempt to answer the limit-breaking character of the desire for power. The great feat of liberalism is to have identified freedom with law, an astounding accomplishment and inversion of political history unintelligible to authoritarians. By formulating freedom as constitutional self-government liberalism makes accepting limits the principle of liberation as well as the condition of power. To us, the inheritors and inhabitants of such liberalism, this may seem like a commonplace but it requires a shift in how people imagine their own status. Dignity has to become formal, the assertion of one’s equal place in a system rather than assertion over others or over that system. Dignity involves an embrace of limits in the form of pride in civic responsibility. (Dignity is already a decisive alteration of its unbounded predecessor, glory.) An accelerating loss of dignity has been one of the signal features of recent American politics. With its decline power detaches from responsibility, freedom from law, opening the field to the cynicism and moralism of partisan rage.

Today’s hyperpartisanship is the result of developments both long-running and recent. Disengagement from local politics deprives most people of the experience of direct political deliberation with others who disagree with them. Originally the site of a great deal of political participation in the United States was the village or town. In the early nineteenth century Tocqueville described a process, “individualism,” in which citizens retreat from local political and social involvement for the sake of material advancement, leaving civic associations and local politics to wither. For this and other reasons power shifts to the federal government, which further erodes local participation, creating a feedback loop. With the advent of radio and television, and the development of national political media strategies from fireside chats to election campaigns, the focus of our political attention has become almost entirely national. Local politics has fallen off the radar for most. Self-government has become something we watch other people do, at a great distance. For Tocqueville this is dangerous, for in his account local politics is the school of democracy; it is where citizens learn firsthand the habits of compromise necessary for practical deliberation. Citizens cultivate the virtue of reciprocity, for we experience the necessity of letting those with whom we disagree have their say as a condition of our having our own say. People are forced to moderate their demands in order to get concrete things done. Reciprocity in this context is a fact of life. But this depends on active participation on practical issues across the political spectrum.

The danger this disengagement poses has been amplified considerably by geographic polarization, in which ideological sorting over the last several decades has turned many of the big cities and rural counties into political monocultures. The cities turned blue, the rural counties turned red. Political monocultures tend to encourage movement toward the extremes. The combination of individualism and geographic sorting creates ripe ground for partisan extremism. Shrinking participation makes local politics more vulnerable to ideological capture. Local politics in many places resembles the presidential primaries in being dominated by the more active, participatory, and zealous. This seems to be more the case in cities with strong city halls and at-large council members, where politicians less tethered to the concrete interests and voices of ordinary constituents engage in more symbolic ideological position-taking. In some cities local politics looks more like a greenhouse for the radical than the workbench of compromise.

On this volatile mixture there now fall the sparks generated by social media. In this respect the greatest current threat to liberalism may be the consumerism whose success it fostered. While the old consumerism of material comforts led to individualism, social media has generated a new consumerism with the opposite danger. Much has been said here, but we have made partisan rage an entertainment commodity, facilitating its production and distribution with all the genius of capitalism. Social media operates as an indignation delivery system. The kind of thought control that totalitarian empires spilled oceans of blood to accomplish has been established on our shores with the ease of a mouse click by the unconquerable force of consumer choice. Orwell warned us of the horror of thought police, of political ideology embraced as religious doctrine, Huxley of the tyranny willingly chosen by desire for pleasure and ease. We have combined Orwell and Huxley in a regime of autopropaganda, as social media puts the frisson of the commando or apparatchik into everyone’s hands. Theocratic zeal, chased out of politics with a pitchfork, has come running back by means of a communications revolution that has replicated in places the mob politics of the ancient polis and the censoriousness of the Puritan colony. The problem is not the disinformation, or not simply. Supply meets demand. The problem is the appetite for the thrill of certainty, purity, supremacy, of which a dialectic of media bias has been both accelerant and effect. Our LARPing is training us in the vices that our political system is straining to keep at bay. Each side’s extreme has cultivated the pleasures of the jailor while mistaking which side of the bars they’re on.

The individualism Tocqueville described prepared the ground for the marketing of outrage. For many Americans who no longer participate in local politics, politics has become discursive. In becoming more discursive it has become more ideological. Social media connects us, but in the worst way, in speech severed from human connection or practical deliberation. A virtual nation of vituperative editorializers lacks the moderating concreteness of local collective problem-solving. It is much easier to be a fanatic from the couch, where the oxytocin hit of partisan validation comes stripped of the restraining complexities of immediate responsibility.

Toleration, recalling Mill, is the precious fruit of stalemate. Liberalism, the politics of stalemate, confines political competition within a rights regime that limits the public goods we can seek in exchange for widening peaceful participation in that competition. It depends upon letting the loathed others play the game. This is too confining for true partisans left and right, who paint liberalism’s procedural limits as impediments in need of dismantling. The arguments are always the same: These opponents are beyond the pale, these are not fellow Americans but conspirators who need to be weakened, the rules only protect and reward them, the game needs to be changed to keep the (other) entrenched elites from winning. These arguments sometimes have merit. Certainly proceduralism slows the pace of change, good and bad. Yet those who would curtail or jettison liberalism even in a just cause court disaster. Let them imagine a system altered to their advantage, state power increased accordingly, and then imagine such a system controlled by their worst enemies. More to the present point, partisan opposition to reciprocity rests on the daydream that their push of the pendulum won’t elicit a worse response in kind. Anti-liberal arguments tend to treat rights as the dispensation of the victor, which they foolishly imagine to be themselves, rather than as limits on the victor. Each side takes these arguments of the other for what they are: attempts to secure a decisive and, to them, dangerous advantage.

It is not a mystery what we need to do: prosecute the insurrectionists and take up the business of rebuilding with the moderate goal of peaceful coexistence with those we abhor. We cannot expunge or disenfranchise them without inspiring violence. This will require actively engaging in a different fight, by moderates against their party’s extremes. Moderates are among the first targets in polarization; they cannot afford to sit back. The natural tendency is to see the ugly face of partisanship in those we already oppose, but this is the trap. The battle is closer to hand. To the extent our response to the desecration of the Capitol on January 6 revives our reverence for the Constitution we will have taken a step back from the brink. To the extent our response is to vilify half the country and seek to reduce their political influence, we will have weakened their stake in the system and taken another step down the fatal road. If Democrats pack the courts and admit new states to shut Republicans out of federal power—entirely constitutional yet undeniably radical undertakings—no amount of finger pointing or election-fraud fact checking will keep the polarization from accelerating. If news organizations continue to indulge their partisan affinities in their coverage they will continue to damage social trust and give unintended cover to disinformation. If Republican statehouses gerrymander districts to amplify geographic sorting, they will shrink the bubble over which they are strengthening their hold and disconnect it from the center. If Republican leaders and media continue to coddle fantasy as their mode of discourse, if their love and fear of Trump lead them to prefer the man to the system, they will guarantee permanent political and social marginalization for themselves and the explosion that that will generate.

A final note on populism and demagogues. In populism the dream of final victory over domestic opponents is promised by the charismatic qualities of the demagogue. This promise generates the cult of personality; the great leader is the winner who alone can win for us. All politicians make this claim to some extent but what distinguishes populism is, first, the magical power ascribed to the demagogue’s personality, and second, the demagogue’s campaign against both internal enemies and the ordinary rules and institutions that supposedly protect or have been co-opted by those enemies. The phenomena was well known to Thucydides. In Athens the demagogue Cleon argues against democratic debate on the grounds that it benefits traitors, a predicament whose only solution is his leadership. Similarly, the deep state, the bourgeoisie, the Jews—some persistent fifth column makes it necessary that the limits in place for coexistence be altered or violated for the sake of victory. Sometimes the demagogue puts himself above the law by posing as its only savior. The laws, violated by the internal enemy, are pointless without their redeemer. (Were the great leader shown to be a loser, the premise of his authority, the promise of victory, would be shown to be false. It should be clear by now why this would have to be regarded as an impossibility.) Populism viewed as strategy is always one of division, strengthening the commitment of opponents at least as much as of allies, and consequently a loser generally in a large diverse country such as ours. But it is a mistake to understand populism narrowly, as one kind of campaign strategy, just as it is a mistake to conflate it with “popularity.” Populism is a pathology that parasitizes and worsens social fracture. Populism is a politics of slow-motion civil war.

G. Borden Flanagan

Borden Flanagan is an assistant professor of government at American University and one of the core faculty of the Political Theory Institute.