Jonathan Franzen is sometimes described as an important political novelist; certainly his novels can be counted on to reflect the conventional wisdom of his most likely readership. In the book that made his reputation, Franzen spun the tale of an unhappy Midwestern family into a reflection on the period of economic “corrections” following the mid-nineties tech bubble. In Freedom, another novel about angry Midwesterners, Franzen explored the potential pitfalls, both personal and political, of Bush-era America’s gung-ho idealism. And in his latest novel, Purity, Franzen begins in California, a fitting location to address what today’s liberals seem to view as a transnational plague of moral-political purism.
The book’s chief protagonist is Purity “Pip” Tyler, whom we first meet as a recent college graduate attempting to pay down her student debt while working a dead-end job in Oakland. In her zigzag quest for guidance, Pip finds herself initially torn between two figures who both manifest purist tendencies: her mother, Anabel Laird, is a cartoonish feminist who insists her boyfriend do his part for gender parity by sitting down when he urinates; while the Julian Assange-like hacktivist Andreas Wolf, whose “Sunlight Project” Pip interns for in Bolivia, crusades against corruption by exposing private information online. Midway through Purity, another call on Pip’s allegiance emerges in the shape of Tom Aberant and his girlfriend Leila Helou. Both are investigative reporters striving to shoulder the journalist’s burden of deflating extremist bias. “The truth is somewhere in the tension between the two sides, and that’s where the journalist is supposed to live,” says Tom, a statement that prepares us for Leila’s later case for journalistic “filtering” as a critical civilizing activity.
This is a task that Franzen associates both with the citizen and with the novelist, and in Purity he attempts to make Tom and Leila’s moderation and restraint look more attractive—to Pip, and to his reader—than the charismatic charms of the purists. But Tom and Leila simply parrot what has long been the conventional wisdom in center-left politics, namely that passion and emotional investment are the enemies of reasonable political discourse. Those who believe otherwise are classed either with the ignorant, as in Thomas Frank’s picture of the working-class Kansans who are duped into voting against their self-interest, or with the psychologically unstable, as in Franzen’s last two novels and, by implication, in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s half-satirical “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Although Barack Obama is sometimes considered a representative member of this constituency, its true heroes are intrepid analysts like Cass Sunstein, Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, who show how political disagreements might be reduced to debates over how best to collect, interpret and disseminate data.
Anabel (the feminist) and Andreas (the hacktivist) both fall outside of this consensus about the mores of political discourse and are therefore depicted by Franzen as basically insane, a fact that undermines any sympathy the reader might be at risk of cultivating for their causes. Tellingly, for a novel that aspires to be a model of evenhandedness, Purity hardly mentions another kind of political actor who would be uninspired by the prospect of a politics that shares significant characteristics with fact-checking: Republicans. This may be because Franzen does not consider the Republicans to constitute a side (as of an argument), so much as a cabal of venal and xenophobic reactionaries—another view that would elicit sympathy from many of his readers. But it would also be of a piece with the greatest weakness of Purity and of the wizened worldview it encapsulates: its inability to separate out the vice of political purism from the virtue of political conviction.
In his 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber referred to two “irredeemably incompatible maxims” that he believed guided all ethically oriented action: the “ethics of responsibility” and the “ethics of conviction.” The ethics of responsibility, which he considered more appropriate for the politician, requires that actions be judged based on their expected consequences. The ethics of conviction, on the other hand, gives no thought to consequences, mandating responsibility only for “ensuring that the flame of pure conviction,” whether for the coming of the Kingdom of God or the dictatorship of the proletariat, “should never be extinguished”
Seemingly anticipating this year’s presidential campaigns, Weber describes how, in times of “excitement,” politicians trumpeting their convictions “may well spring up in large numbers all of a sudden, and run riot, declaring, ‘The world is stupid and nasty, not I.’” Most of these politicians are “windbags” of little interest; at the same time, conviction does have a role to play if politics is to be considered an “authentic human activity” as opposed to merely a nihilistic contest for power. When we say of someone that they have a “vocation for politics,” we mean precisely that they are able to demonstrate how the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility are, as a matter of authentic political practice, “mutually complementary.” Nothing is more moving than when a politician who “feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’” For this is “a situation that may befall any of us at some point,” Weber says, “if we are not inwardly dead.”
All political parties and politicians blend conviction and responsibility to some degree, but it is hard to think of a contemporary politician who lives up to the vision Weber expresses here. In no small part this is likely due to the strategic branding of our two major parties, which seems specifically engineered to pull the two ethics apart.
Democratic politicians since the Nineties have, for the most part, been so eager to prove themselves responsible that they have declined to stand in any one place long enough for it to be ascertained whether they are inwardly dead, or still twitching. In response to the post-sixties stigmatization of liberals as motivated by emotion and ideology, many in the party even embraced a label—“progressivism”—that conveyed disdain for holding one’s ground. The technocrats who have seized control of the Democratic Party in recent years have taken things a step further by implicitly claiming that the right information, filtered correctly, could eliminate the need for statements of belief from politics once and for all. Not coincidentally, the party’s progressive standard-bearers (the Clintons, Harry Reid, Obama) have been repeatedly ridiculed for backtracking, often while deploying an armada of facts and figures in self-justification, far beyond the spot where a more courageous politician would have stood her ground.
Republicans have taken the opposite tack. Maybe because so much of the media who cover politics share Tom and Leila’s fetish for complexity, right-wing politicians are sometimes goaded into justifying their ideas in terms that are at least intelligible to (if almost never confirmable by) journalists and other policy elites. But all it takes is a brief saunter into the Wild West of right-wing talk radio, or a look at the speeches Republicans make when they are not among mixed company, to be disabused of the notion that “responsibility”—once the watch-word of the right’s economic approach—plays any serious part in this worldview. Indeed the term “RINO,” applied to any elected official who attempts, like poor John Boehner, to use their power to achieve actual policy objectives, underscores the extent to which the Republican Party’s constituency has come to consider electoral politics as a tool for declaring “Here I stand” on every issue—from abortion to tax policy to the shade of red that is appropriate for holiday coffee cups.
Not that every Republican politician is a figure of true and deep conviction—far from it. But for some time now to announce oneself as a Republican has been inseparable from adopting a rhetoric that emphasizes conviction above responsibility and in some cases above reason. It has taken Donald Trump’s unique skill set to fully exploit the political, commercial and theatrical possibilities of this situation. Trump’s Republican rivals tried early in the primary season to discredit him by pointing out that he had held diametrically opposed convictions years or even weeks earlier. This strategy failed. It was Trump who best understood that the origins, content and plausibility of the conviction were irrelevant: what mattered was to hold it with utter certainty. Even better than his erstwhile competitors, then, he feeds what has become the undeniable fantasy of Republican politics: where the progressives dream of a politics that could be purified of conviction, the Republicans imagine a politics where they would be relieved of all responsibility.
The Republican Party does not, however, have a monopoly on the ethics of conviction. Although Hillary Clinton remains the favorite to win her party’s nomination for president in 2016, there exists a vast expanse of political territory to her left in which passion is held in higher regard than pragmatism. This is the territory occupied by what is sometimes called the far, extreme or anti-capitalist left—though it would be better to call them the convinced left, since what distinguishes them from self-described progressives is less a distinct policy platform than a spirit of moral self-assurance. The convinced left shares the right’s suspicion toward “status quo” politics, but rather than producing a predictable parade of insiders pretending to be outsiders—Washington careers made out of denouncing Washington—this suspicion often manifests itself in a rejection of electoral politics altogether.
There are good reasons for this rejection. After all, it is hard to imagine fundamental transformation coming from a political system in which lobbyists draft bills that suit special interests, candidates spend more than half of their working hours on fundraising, and congressional districts are so gerrymandered that experts estimate no more than thirty seats will be “in play” next November. In a 2014 study of policy decisions from 1981 to 2002, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The situation seems unlikely to improve, with the New York Times recently reporting that 158 American families are responsible for nearly half of the campaign contributions to 2016 presidential candidates. Perhaps our system has become so corrupt that the most responsible course is to work outside of it.
At the same time, few on the left would deny that there is some difference between Barack Obama and George W. Bush in areas like health care, foreign policy and income inequality. And however pessimistic the convinced left is concerning electoral politics, what it is not skeptical of, at least for the most part, is the power of government to enact its agenda. It is therefore natural for it to oscillate between despair at the available options and desire to win power. The real dream of the convinced left is to be released from this depressing either/or by producing a candidate with Weber’s authentic political vocation—that is, one able to blend responsibility and conviction so as to combine a realistic chance of gaining political power with an ability to hold his ground when the chips are down. The remarkable rise of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president represents one step in this direction.
Another comes from across the pond, where Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong pacifist and old-school socialist, has recently become leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn’s appeal to party members—including, we should confess, one of the authors of this editorial—lay precisely in his having genuine principles: that mere fact promised to restore ideas to their rightful role in public life after the hollowing out supervised by Tony Blair and his less charismatic epigones. Corbyn is therefore a perfect test case for the way that the dialectic of conviction and responsibility can affect such a politician once he finds himself in a position of power. Looked at from one perspective, the salient fact is that Corbyn is now one election away—perhaps one financial crisis away—from genuine power. Were he to convince the electorate of his competence, by 2020 Britain might have its first truly socialist prime minister in more than forty years. Looked at from another perspective, however, the salient fact is that he now has the perfect platform from which to raise various long-standing grievances against the establishment, refusing to sing the (monarchist) national anthem, debating over whether to go along with the traditional commemoration of the (imperialist, nationalist, classist) First World War, and so on. The Labour Party is, on this view, just a bigger version of Stop the War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—and no more likely to achieve its goals.
Fealty to this idea of politics as protest has many advantages. For one thing, it relieves Corbyn, and those who support him, from having to choose between various goods—that is, from determining which among their priorities are the most important and which should be set aside for a better time. For another, it allows Corbyn’s supporters to revel in the pleasures of purity, of remaining unsullied by the mire that, as Hamlet well knew, threatens to corrupt all human action and political action above all.
Corbyn’s reluctance to compromise can be justified in many ways, but it is not without its costs. Among those costs is the ability to transform potential allies into actual ones and thereby move society in the direction he desires. Insofar as he fails to do this, Corbyn exemplifies one of the difficulties of the convinced left more generally. As Thomas Frank noted in an article for the Baffler in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, “With the partial exception of the anti-apartheid campaign of the Eighties, no movement of the left has caught on with the broad American public since the civil rights/Vietnam War era.” The LGBTQ lobby may beg to differ, but Frank’s worry about the convinced left’s problem making “common cause with ordinary American people” is nevertheless worth reflecting on, especially as, nearly four years after the end of Occupy, the left again finds itself involved in a passionate movement with wide potential resonance.
With protests spreading in recent months across college campuses and the rest of the country, much has been made—especially by liberal commentators who seem to take a Franzen-like pleasure in condemning the excesses of political enthusiasm—of the requests of student activists, and some groups associated with Black Lives Matter, for “safe spaces.” In the caricatures of these critics, safe spaces are the invention of spoiled teenagers who want to purify their environment of challenging opinions. But the concept did not begin with millennial college students. Its history can be traced to the beginnings of the women’s, gay, and lesbian movements in the 1960s and 1970s, in which safe spaces sheltered members of oppressed groups from threats to their security and freedom of expression; later they were often cited as an aspiration for institutions, including colleges, that sought to provide a reprieve from pre-existing power hierarchies.
Now, as then, the appeal of the concept reveals disillusionment. We are especially likely to build mini-societies—whether philosophical, spiritual or political—when we believe our wider social space to be irredeemably corrupted. In this sense, at least, proponents of safe spaces may have more in common with the rest of our political spectrum than is commonly supposed. The convinced left, the progressives and the convinced right agree on hardly anything, but they are united in their certainty that their political opponents—those with whom they share an ever-diminishing space, whether ideological or geographical—are beyond the pale.
Safe spaces, though, have not always been valued primarily for offering a refuge from malignant social forces; some of their proponents have also envisioned them as a “prefigurative” or transitional step toward a more capacious kind of dialogue—one that both respects boundaries and holds out the promise of redrawing them. The ideal would not be a space that is purged of conflict or risk, but one that is safe enough for the development of what the political philosopher Danielle Allen, quoting Ralph Ellison, calls “antagonistic cooperation,” a form of political disagreement that “involves admitting that … participants’ interests diverge and then tussling with them, like friends.” In her book Talking to Strangers, Allen asks us to take seriously the idea that we are each members of a “mini-polis,” which extends to approximately 99,999 people (as per Aristotle’s instructions) in our surrounding area. This means, for a start, making personal contact with the inhabitants of our polis, and listening to them. Only then can we undertake the larger work of pushing our local institutions—universities, churches, businesses, magazines—to share power and sacrifice in ways that build political trust.
Purity is a plague on our politics, but Allen does not agree with Franzen that the cure is to locate the truth that lies between two sides. In a citizenry as diverse as ours, she suggests, some differences are bound to be irresolvable. Yet this does not mean that we should simply accept our “settled patterns of mutual disdain.” Admittedly, almost everything in our society militates against talking to strangers, and to reverse the tide would require many of us extending our circles of acquaintance beyond even our friends on Facebook. But the ability to build an effective political movement, in addition to a passionate one, might depend on cultivating the kind of convictions that are able to survive contamination.