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The Enlightenment and its opposite in America today

How polarized America in 2015 looks remarkably similar to a new nation just beginning to take root in the 18th century.

Variations on the idea that America is deeply and evenly divided have been the dominant interpretations of politics since the 1960s. Before that, it was understood that Americans were divided, but not deeply, in many ways – by race, region, religion, class, ancestry, gender and party. Describing the country as fundamentally split along one particular axis would have seemed simplistic and overheated.

Whether or not the country really changed, the idea of an America divided into two hostile camps took root. The vocabulary evolved: there was a counterculture, then a generation gap, a culture war and then Red v. Blue America. Political scientists settled on a description of America as polarized.

I’ve been skeptical of the polarization thesis, mostly because it is obvious that politicians and people very active in politics are far more rabid and adamant than the rest of us. But I have become less wary of the idea that this is a moment in history where basic worldviews are colliding with unusual force.

The Democratic and Republican debates this fall, for example, might as well have been from Mars and Venus. The contestants were on different planets.

The comparison that occurred to me comes from Europe around the time America was being invented. We are repeating an aged dialectic between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment.

The 18th century Enlightenment was driven by fervent belief in the power of reason to improve the human lot and growing doubt about the legitimacy of kings, gods and mere tradition. The ideas of the Enlightenment inspired the American Revolution and Constitution; they also inspired the French Revolution and its guillotines, showing that belief in rationalism could be just as zealous, bloodthirsty and irrational as any other “ism.”

The secular rebellion against the Enlightenment came to be called the Counter-Enlightenment; it is far less studied and revered.

The figures of the Counter-Enlightenment were profoundly skeptical of pure reason’s capacity to command the human heart, soul and libido. Edmund Burke, England’s iconic Tory, believed that tradition, custom, manners and habit were far steadier guides than the dry discourses of Locke and Hume. Russian and German Romantics believed the Enlightenment philosophers didn’t comprehend the power of bloodlines, ethnic kinship and common history – the volk.

The kernel of wisdom in the Counter-Enlightenment was its realism about the actual power of reason to rule human events. That has been vanquished by the dark side of the Counter-Enlightenment in Europe that sowed the seeds of modern nationalism and fascism.

It seems to me there is a murky battle between the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in America today.

Today’s Enlightenment thinkers believe that rational policies, reasonable institutions and American ingenuity, unleashed as never before by infinite computational power, technology and data, can solve our earthly problems.

Democratic philosophes believe laws, government and public institutions best serve the common good; Enlightenment Republicans put their faith in free markets, the invisible hand and for-profit institutions.

The decline of organized religion and the increase in non-believers in America has nurtured both sides. Enlightenment thinkers believe that increased secularism is a triumph of rationalism over superstition; Counter-Enlightenment believers feel threatened, persecuted and have grown more fervent as a result.

Another strand of the American Counter-Enlightenment is exuberant nationalism, which we call patriotism in this country. Heightened by prolonged economic stress, the Counter-Enlightenment impulse is to stump for American Exceptionalism, the American “spirit” and to exaggerate threats to the homeland — immigrants, China’s economic power, Islamic fundamentalism or Russian aggression.

The Enlightenment mind wants to combat entrenched poverty with well-engineered child welfare programs, public schools and higher education; the Counter-Enlightenment believes in the power of parenting, religion, family values and bootstrap pluck.

Some of our never-ending arguments fit this frame. The Enlightenment response to gun violence is to legislate and regulate. The Counter-Enlightenment impulse is to double down on the nearly religious belief that the Second Amendment unequivocally bestows individuals with a fundamental human right to own and carry a gun.

The Enlightenment response to the personal and moral dilemmas of abortion is to push prevention through education and contraception and to insist individuals with liberty to make their own choices; the Counter-Enlightenment believes in moral education and insists religious doctrine trumps individual liberty.

The 18th century Enlightenment argued that the “rights of man” (yes, “man” not woman, and usually not a man who wasn’t white, Christian and a property-holder) extended beyond kings and clerics; the modern 20th century American Enlightenment extended rights to women, non-whites and people with different sexual preferences.

The Counter-Enlightenment impulse in both cases was to resist change in the name of religion, ethnic purity, tradition or deference to the wisdom of ancient habits and mores. When gay marriage became a prominent issue in 21st century America, the Enlightenment impulse quickly understood it as a simple rights issue, easily addressed by reason; the Counter-Enlightenment resisted.

There has always been a tension between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment tendencies, which is why it is a useful way to look at current cultural and political problems. The velocity of change now is enormous. Some people embrace it with idealistic but naïve fervor and some cling harder to old things.

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