We All of Us Can Be Swept Away

Seth Moskowitz, an associate editor at Persuasion, has some good advice for these fractious political times:

The recognition that no one, regardless of political persuasion, is immune to reactionary tendencies should leave us all asking the uncomfortable question: have I, too, fallen into the reactionary trap?

There is no clear-cut answer to such a subjective question. Still, many thinkers have managed to oppose certain forms of social change without becoming reactionary themselves. Whereas reactionaries are guided by reflexive opposition, these thinkers are driven by a positive vision and substantive principles. Whereas reactionaries inflate threats to the point of hysteria, these thinkers maintain a sense of proportion. I emailed several of them for advice on steering clear of a reactionary mindset. Here are the five best recommendations that came from those conversations.

  1. Do not let the illusions of social media trick you. Matthew Yglesias, who writes the political newsletter Slow Boring and co-founded Vox, told me that “the set of people who talk a lot about politics on the internet is much, much, much, much more left-wing than the American electorate. At the same time, the structure of American political institutions … [means that] electoral outcomes are meaningfully to the right of the actual electorate.” This dynamic, according to Yglesias, leads reactionaries to lose “sight of who in fact holds power in the United States” and respond “primarily to vibes on Twitter rather than to the realities of the political situation.”
  1. Learn to recognize and avoid “us-vs-them” thinking. This tribalist instinct leads to hostility and reflexive opposition towards those deemed the “other.” Chloé Valdary, the founder of an anti-racist and diversity training company, said that “to escape an us-vs-them mindset, it’s […] helpful to be able to pause and ask yourself when you’ve entered into a counter-dependent relationship with someone or some idea, where your identity has become dependent upon countering someone else.”
  1. Be skeptical of convenient narratives. Ben Dreyfuss, a journalist who writes a newsletter called Good Faith, told me that he tries to interrogate his “beliefs to see if they are conforming to easy narratives. And if they are, I try to push back against myself more […] whenever it looks to me like people are reaching hardened consensuses because of social media mobs I have a knee jerk ‘slow down and think about this.’”
  1. Avoid the “zeal of the convert.” Newcomers to a philosophy often take it to an extreme. Zaid Jilani, a journalist who has worked for various progressive organizations and now writes a newsletter called INQUIRE, told me that people shouldn’t “be shy about being open-minded and being willing to change their beliefs. But they should consider the idea that jumping from one extreme to another is unwise because there may be just as many flaws to the other side as there were to the one you originally were on.”
  1. Take seriously the possibility that you are wrong. This is by far the most common bit of advice that I received. Valdary said that “everyone is susceptible to self-deception, because we are all human beings. It’s not a left/right thing”; Dreyfuss told me that “you don’t need to be right all the time but the one thing you do owe people is attempting to be intellectually honest”; and Jilani said that it is important “to be curious and be vigilant about flaws in your own thinking.”

Reactionary politics is an easy trap to fall into these days, given that so much of what is deemed progress is really the opposite. Ultimately, however, reactionaries do more harm than good. We do not need them, or the alarmism and hysteria in which they often indulge, to save us. Nuance, principles, and moderation will do just fine.