This is an excerpt from James Mumford’s book ‘Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes’, which was Published by Bloomsbury in March 2020.
I’ll put it bluntly. Politically, I don’t like my options. Growing up in this giddy world – b. 1981 – I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the alternatives on offer. Because there aren’t very many. Deep polarization has delivered unacceptable options.
And not just at a party-political level – the dearth of boxes on the ballot paper. The real source of my frustration is the way every conceivable position on controversial moral issues has been bundled up into ‘package deals’ that I’m supposed to choose between. This clustering of causes across the political spectrum is the legacy the boomers bequeathed to us, and it’s got me all riled up.
My political identification is supposed to determine every view I take on the most fundamental questions I face. Say I’m on the Left. Because of the way positions have been packaged, the way I vote means I’m urged to press ACCEPT ALL to the terms and conditions of the whole deal: to sign off on every part of the platform. So, I passionately opposed the invasion of Iraq and defend affirmative action to the hilt. Am I simply to inherit an affirmative view of the legalization of drugs? Or maybe I am conservative. I worry about levels of immigration. I bemoan the rise of identity politics. Why am I then supposed to support greater sanctions on welfare for the unemployed?
It was a while before I was able to trace my dissatisfaction to its source – this packaging of positions. In 2013 I moved to the US. I am British, but I also believe in America. I had lived there before – as a child on the West Coast, in the Midwest for a time as a teenager, on the East Coast as a graduate student – and had always been impressed and inspired by how sanguine were the people I met, how open. I liked their awareness of and investment in the American project itself. This time, though, the climate felt different. It may well have been because previously I had been inexcusably oblivious to the volatility of ‘race relations’. But now I was struck by the volatility of ‘race relations’. And I was overwhelmed by the extremity of polarization. I knew about this in theory. But now I saw for real what it looked like for people to be socially divided along political lines – the faculty ostracizing the professor on the other side of the aisle; churches so engulfed by their division they ignored their raison d’être; family members simply disliking each other; and dinner parties where there were no debates because no one from the opposite end of the political spectrum had been invited.
But what struck me wasn’t just the partisanship, and its effects on how relationships fared and institutions functioned. It was the range of issues that had come to be enveloped by ideology. The ‘sites of contestation’ weren’t just about matters of state – about the federal budget or Iran’s nuclear programme. Thinking had become radically dichotomized about the most intimate quandaries, the most acute dilemmas, the weightiest of controversies – birth and death, growing up and getting old, race and gender, sexuality, family, our obligations to those near and far, what I do with my body and what I do with my wallet. Morality had become thoroughly politicized. Two opposing political visions governed how to act, and how to think about how to act.
Then, the more I thought about the separating out into packages of so many positions on the most existential and important questions, the more I thought about the combinations. And the stranger they seemed.
One of the things I was constantly riveted by in the US was the bumper sticker, one of the most familiar badges of identity. Those colourful if often weathered symbols, captions, emblems and jokes that drivers affix to their rear bumpers and other parts of their car’s anatomy attest to far more than partisan affiliations and the onset of the latest election cycle. Alongside partisan convictions are environmental, social or cultural ones, blazing forth people’s highest ideals and principles for all the passing world to see. You wear your heart on the boot of your car.
But what is most revealing about these stickers is the company they keep on each individual car. You pull up at the traffic lights. On your right is a car juxtaposing ‘Liberals Take and Spend. Conservatives Protect and Serve’ with ‘Pro Guns. Pro God. Pro Life’. On your left is a car displaying a rainbow flag alongside ‘Buy Fresh Buy Local’, ‘No Nukes’ and ‘Co-Exist’. Those stances may be ideologically aligned. But do they imply each other? Why should being religious preclude buying fresh, local produce? Why should a dedication to diversity commit you to unilateral disarmament?
Last year I returned home from the States. I’ll pretend it was a protest move against the political climate, rather than because I couldn’t land a job and my visa was about to expire. I had mixed feelings about departing. I was having to leave a country I love so much, but I would not miss its political climate. So I disembarked, thinking I had left the culture wars behind, only to find them staring me in the face.
It turned out that while I was away from the UK there had been some kind of referendum on whether to leave the European Union, and the country, by the slimmest of margins, had voted in favour. What I had not been prepared for was the character of the political cleavage. Just as in the States, people were socially divided on political grounds. Profound disagreement about politics had morphed into hatred of people. Groups were closing ranks; families had been shaken to the core. When I got home, I found that intense polarization was not only an American phenomenon. We may not have AR-15s on our streets. We may not have pro-life marches in our capital. Polarization may not correlate with political parties in so straightforward a way. But what had been both exposed and exacerbated was a brutal political antagonism.
What we also have, I realized, are package deals. Included within them might be slightly different positions. But the dynamic is the same. If you are a Remainer, you are supposed to hold a range of other views that have been bundled together, while the formation of a Brexiteer identity has served freshly to weld together a number of distinctly conservative positions. Here, too, right and left are ideologies proposing ideas not just on policy but on identity, not just who we vote for but how we live.
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This book is an attempt to wrest myself free of these package deals. I want to affirm certain fundamental principles on the Left and then question why those principles are expressed in some positions and ignored in others. And vice versa: I want to ask why the most compelling conservative principles are not expressed across the board. The aim, I should say, is not to point out inconsistency for its own sake – consistent worldviews can be wicked! My aim in ensuring I haven’t subscribed to a package deal is motivated by the assumption that a view can’t be right simply because it has been tacked onto another one for contingent historical reasons.
In their quest for power, politicians build coalitions, make compromises, pander to different interests. That’s their business. I get it. What I object to is when they paper over the differences and pretend that this amalgam of views creates a unified whole. What I object to is ideological amnesia, their deliberate attempt to make us forget that our intellectual settlement is a direct result of Cut-and-Paste.