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How to Know You’ve Lost Your Grip on Reason

Five warning signs that your political views no longer fulfill the most basic of democratic criteria.

Donald Trump shouts at members of the media as he returns to the White House on October 3, 2019 in Washington.
Donald Trump shouts at members of the media as he returns to the White House on October 3, 2019 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The shocking events last week in Washington underscore what we’ve known for a long time: The label “United” States is something of a misnomer. America remains a deeply divided society, and nowhere is that clearer than in how the population has responded to the sight of a deluded mob, incited by lame duck President Donald Trump, invading the House and Senate in a violent attempt to stop the certification of Trump’s decisive electoral defeat.

The signs of division are apparent. President-elect Joe Biden and others may cling to the notion that “this is not who we are,” but even after the mob was expelled, more than 120 Republican representatives opposed certifying the election results. Six Republican senators voted with them. They did so even though Trump’s attempts to challenge the election in the courts had been summarily rejected more than 60 times and refuted by Republican Party officials in several key states. Yet immediately after the assault on the Capitol, a YouGov poll showed that 45 percent of Republican voters supported the attack, with 29 percent saying they supported it “strongly.” Other polls are not quite as stark, but even they show a substantial fraction of the population thinks what happened was a defense of democracy, not an attack on it.

The usual framing of America’s current polarization portrays this as a gulf between left and right, with a diminishing number of moderates. Another way to characterize the present divisions, however, may be to draw a distinction between “reasonable people” and “unreasonable people.” What threatens the nation are not differences in ideology, debates over specific policy issues, or even deep constitutional questions; the real danger is the growing number of unreasonable people in U.S. public life. By “unreasonable,” I mean those who are either unwilling or unable to be swayed by facts or honest discussion, and who prefer to build and live in dream palaces of their own imagining.

The presence of unreasonable people matters because the core principles of democratic politics—and especially the commitment to free speech, unfettered media, freedom of association, and the like—assume that the citizenry (and especially its leaders) are receptive to rational discourse in the “marketplace of ideas.” This assumption is perhaps most clearly expressed in the chapter “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. No matter how much our initial preferences may differ, a liberal society rests on the belief that open expression and discussion will bring new facts to light, identify what is working well and what has gone wrong, and spotlight injustices or other departures from core principles. Over time, open debate and discussion will eventually weed out inaccurate information and change enough minds to produce a change of course.

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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