How American Politics Became So Exhausting

In a new book, the writer Alan Jacobs looks at why it’s impossible for people who disagree to hold a civilized conversation.  

A protester carries an anti-Trump sign
Jon Herskovitz / Reuters

Alan Jacobs is something of an internet enigma. The Baylor University professor describes himself as a conservative Christian with some “very liberal” political views. In his prolific blogging, he often takes surprising and counterintuitive positions; his recent feature for Harper’s Magazine on the decline of Christian intellectuals won praise and criticism from unusual bands of allies. Maybe it’s inevitable that today’s hyper-partisanship and lightening-fast news cycles have left the open-minded Jacobs frustrated with America’s low tolerance for disagreement—a political order characterized by “willful incomprehension [and] toxic suspicion,” as he calls it.

Jacobs’s new book, How to Think, backs into this description of American politics, claiming to offer a rejoinder to scholars like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt who focus too much on the “science of thinking and not enough about the art.” Perhaps Jacobs’s work should have been framed as a eulogy for pluralism in the age of Twitter: how people’s snap judgments, generalizations, and feelings of repulsion toward certain ideas create a lot of noise and little understanding of people unlike themselves. This may not be the most uncivil political era of all time, Jacobs argues, but there’s something about it that is distinctively terrible.

How to Think is part essay, part lament, part how-to guide for processing the world more generously. My conversation with Jacobs has been edited for clarity and length.

Emma Green: Your book isn’t really about how to think. It’s about how to deal with the challenges of pluralism. Right?

Alan Jacobs: Well, I don’t think those are necessarily exclusive. In a pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with difference. One of the ways in which we typically deal with difference is by drawing really clear lines of belonging and not-belonging. To be able to signal “who is with me” and “who is not with me”—in-groups and out-groups—is extremely significant for human beings.

My view is that is the number-one impediment to thinking.

Green: You bring up conflicts across groups that have lasted for centuries. For example: Thomas More, the Roman Catholic humanist, wrote to Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, about his “shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up.” For his part, Luther referred to the “‘dear little ass-pope’ who licks the Devil’s anus.”

Even so, one could make an argument that discourse in our time is even more toxic. Is it?

“Holy cow, are people internally messed up.”

Jacobs: I’m sure there are times where it has been as bad or worse. But I do think that we’re in this really weird place where the media through which we engage one another keep us in a permanent state of agitation and hostility.

The external consequences have not been overwhelmingly tragic yet—we’re not slaughtering one another in the streets. But, holy cow, are people internally messed up. People are going through day after day in a state of profound agitation, having to mark their place on the ideological landscape through social media.

Green: This seems connected to the death of objective fact in America. Ideologically speaking, people are often stuck in their own “truths”—they’re like circles in Venn diagrams that don’t necessarily overlap. Your proposal of generous listening and consideration is almost impossible to imagine.

Jacobs: You’re right that it is hard to envision. What I’m trying to do is slow people down. One of the most important passages in the book is where the software developer Jason Fried is wanting to argue with a guy who is giving a talk, and the guy says, “Just give it five minutes.” If we could just give it five minutes—even five minutes—we might be able to cool down enough to say, “Maybe this is different than what I first thought,” or “Maybe there’s a point here. Maybe this isn’t completely insane.”

“I worry about the consequences of wrath more than ... contemptuous smugness.”

Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?

Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now.

I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.

Green: Some people look at our fractured media environment—where groups don’t even share facts to argue over—and see nefarious forces at work, like the Russians manipulating Facebook or consistent left-wing media bias.

You argue something different: that individual behavior makes it impossible to have a conversation across ideological divides. How do you reconcile your view with these kinds of structural analyses of the vast forces that pull America apart?

Jacobs: Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.

But sometimes we get things wrong, because politics is hard. Knowing the right policy in any case is difficult, because you’re having to predict the future and the variables are astronomically complex. But we want to believe that it’s obvious what to do to fix our social problems.

“When a position is really widely held, it’s not really a safe option to deem it out of bounds.”

Green: So what’s the boundary? How do you decide which ideas, people, and ideologies should be considered morally unacceptable?

Jacobs: I’m probably going to regret this later on, but I’ll give you an example from the Christian world. A group of conservative evangelicals recently posted this Nashville statement about sexuality and transgenderism, as they call it. That was like a line in the sand. The idea is that now it’s time for you to decide: Are you with us, or are you against us?

Almost at the same time, I read something by a young lesbian woman who had recently been married, who was essentially saying to her friends, “If you attend churches where gay and lesbian Christians are not completely welcomed and affirmed, you’re not really an ally. So you need to decide: Are you on our side, or not on our side?”

I’m looking at that and thinking, “So, where is the space where Christians who find this complicated or difficult can talk?”

When people are drawing lines, saying, “I have settled this issue, and I want to be with other people who have settled this issue,” I think there can be really, really bad consequences. That’s saying, “I’m not interested in having that conversation anymore.” Sometimes, being a grown-up is realizing that there are issues you’d rather not talk about that you’re going to have to talk about.

Green: Do you think people are obligated to engage with an opposing viewpoint if enough people hold that view?

Jacobs: I do think that’s true. When a position is really widely held, it’s not really a safe option to deem it out of bounds. Practically speaking, refusing to deal with it can be a way of yielding the floor to people whose views you find repulsive.

“A plea for civility can be a way of consolidating power.”

Green: You seem to be yearning for something I hear a lot these days—a kind of return of civility, where politics is brokered through polite discourse and carried on the strength of ideas. Why is that calling to you? Don’t you think that’s basically impossible in the environment you’ve been describing?

Jacobs: It’s hard to be super hopeful about it.

There was a passage that turns up in The Lord of the Rings, and also in [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s letters, where he refers to history as the long defeat. That’s a good reminder—I want to be generous, and I want to be civil, and I want to be kind. I want to listen to people who are very different from me. I want to keep doing that, even if I don’t make things better.

I also want to be aware of the ways in which a plea for civility can be a way of consolidating power. It’s pretty easy to be me in America. I grew up in pretty poor circumstances, and in a mess of a family. My background looks like the background of a lot of African American men, but I’m not African American. Once I learned how to talk a little better—once I didn’t sound like so much of a redneck—and dressed up a little bit, it was easy for me to overcome that. There really is a tremendous benefit to being white when you’re trying to rise in the social order.

I want to remember that and not chastise people for being uncivil when they have what Martin Luther King Jr. called “legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” I do want to promote civility, but I want to promote it more by example than by lecturing people on how they can be more civil.