Soul-searching: What Spirited Reasoners Do Best

Some of you will recall that this blog, available now on several sites, began as an exploration of open-minded, non-partisan solutions to society’s most vexing problems. It seems, however, at least when one looks back over the postings from the last eighteen months, that rants against President Trump—and Trumpism in general—have eclipsed that earlier mission. What gives?

The answer, fortunately or unfortunately, is fairly straightforward. The presidency of Donald Trump has, unlike that of any of his predecessors in our collective lifetimes, forced even Spirited Reasoners into the following Hobson’s Choice:


(a) we pretend that his form of conservatism represents a thoughtful, legitimate option in policy debates against competing progressive ideas;


(b) we recognize that such pretense may serve to legitimize what Spirited Reasoners have an ethical duty to denounce.

As a young man I wondered how a political charlatan like Adolf Hitler could have come to power in a nation as sophisticated as Germany, the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. One answer—the one I once considered the most plausible—was that Weimar Germany was in the grips of ruinous inflation and humiliation following World War I. Having lost that war, and having watched as their government agreed to unreasonable reparation payments to the victorious Allies, voters were eager to support any demagogue having the power, or even seeming to have the power, to bring back a sense of national order and pride. Hence, their willingness to overlook atrocities against Jews and other non-Aryans, especially when those victims were portrayed as the evil instigators of all Germany’s ills during and after that war.

Having now witnessed the rise of a similar demagogue right here in the United States, I am less convinced of the correctness of that rationale.

America in the year 2016 was not suffering from a military defeat on the scale of Germany in the 1920s and 30s, though one could argue that our defeat by North Vietnam followed by years of floundering in the quicksand of the Middle East, punctuated by the events of 9-11-2001, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, have left Americans feeling rather like something less than conquering heroes. Nevertheless, many of us were surprised to watch campaign rallies during the summer of 2016 that resembled those of the National Socialist Party in 1932 Germany, complete with hats and Confederate flag paraphernalia reminiscent of brownshirts and swastikas.

Given all that, should Spirited Reasoners simply rock back in our comfortable chairs, shrug our collective shoulders, and opine that one brand of conservatism is just a variation of another, and, therefore, we should continue our original mission to find a healthy middle ground among legitimate political extremes?

If only that branch of Hobson’s Choice were available to honest observers. Instead, what we have witnessed over the past three years has been the demonization of at least one huge group of non-Aryans: those having the temerity to seek asylum in the United States after facing the torture and death of their families at the hands of gangs and kingpins in their home countries. We have seen a president willing to permit innocent children to be torn from their families, an inhuman practice stopped only when the outcry of public sentiment became too politically risky even for a right-wing demagogue having the support of a bloodthirsty mob. Unfortunately, many of these “huddled masses yearning to breath free” (to paraphrase the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty) remain in cages, wondering whether their eventual death will come at the hands of deportation to tyrants or to Covid-19.

In short, there are times when Spirited Reasoners must eschew the usual wisdom of seeking compromise solutions lying somewhere in the middle ground between left and right. Our nation faced a similar moment in 1860, when a majority of voters in the North felt a moral certainty about the need to end or at least limit the spread (in the case of Lincoln’s public pronouncements) of slavery, and almost every voter in the South could quote scripture to justify slavery’s continuation.  There simply was no middle ground. When Lincoln tried it, using words meant to mollify the South during his inaugural remarks, he was met with the attack by Rebel troops against United States property at Fort Sumter.

If there is no other silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud, it may at least have given some of us time to ponder what Lincoln might have called “the better angels of our nature.”