“Conservatism,” thundered the headline in The Guardian, “has gone rogue and lost touch with the rest of us.” It was published on May 2, five days before the Conservatives emerged to hand Labour its worst defeat in nearly three decades.
The author of this unfortunate observation was Will Hutton, a columnist for the paper and the principal of the same Oxford college that forged John Donne, Thomas Hobbes, and Jonathan Swift. It is tempting to forgive the don his embarrassment: Even the most astute observers, after all, sometimes get it wrong, and there’s nothing quite so petty as reveling in an opponent’s poor prognostication from the syrupy safety of hindsight. But Hutton’s mistake wasn’t his alone; it was endemic to an entire class of educated people who, glancing at their Facebook feed and finding there nothing but Milifans, opined that the end of David Cameron was nigh. This vast obliviousness wasn’t limited to Britain’s swells: Warsaw was similarly shocked this week when the conservative Andrzej Duda won the first round of the country’s presidential elections, their disbelief echoing that of the intelligentsia sprawled in Tel Aviv’s cafés in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s most recent victory.
As their respective electoral disasters befell them, leftists from Tel Aviv to the Thames looked up to the heavens in search of answers, coming back with a single explanation: As they themselves were clearly the champions of reason and common sense, their opponents must have triumphed by peddling fear, nationalism, and other crude sentiments. Haaretz’s London correspondent made this comparison explicit when he reported to his readers that Cameron was merely Bibi with a posh accent, winning by scaring the uncouth with a constant drumbeat of nightmarish scenarios involving enemies from without and within.
Such uniform explanations, coming from those who normally sanctify complexity and diversity, are surprising. None of those on the left taking Cameron’s measure bothered mentioning, to name but one obvious example, that his refusal to resort to massive borrowing did not, as some Labourites predicted, cause stagnation but rather led Britain’s economy to grow at a rate that far outpaced the rest of the continent, with the United Kingdom adding more jobs during the recent Tory tenure than the rest of the continent combined. Nor did Israeli critics of Netanyahu particularly care that Israel’s economy continued to grow steadily in 2014, despite a 50-day military conflict that cost as much as $2.5 billion. For the Smart Set, the only reason for the rise of the right was the depravity of its supporters.
And yet, don’t hasten to pillory the hapless progressives for their failings. The contemporary global left, to the extent that such an entity even exists, is certainly guilty of a wide array of intellectual and moral failings, from advocating disastrous redistributionist schemes as economic panaceas to refusing to acknowledge the clear and present dangers of radical Islam. But the problem here isn’t the left; it’s the decimation of the space in which rational and reasonable political conversations used to take place—the late, great public sphere.
In case the name Jürgen Habermas means little to you, the public sphere is the space in which private individuals can come together and discuss the matters—political, financial, artistic—that shape their shared lives. Habermas, the German philosopher closely associated with explicating the concept, argued that while the public sphere was robust from the late 17th century until roughly the first half of the 1800s—all those coffee shops dense with debaters dissecting the latest legislative act—society took a nosedive with the ascent of the industrial economy. By the time we reached the late 20th century, Habermas lamented, mass media, spin doctors, and ravenous consumption colluded in eroding the public sphere into oblivion. Inherent in Habermas’ theory, however, is a curious contradiction: Idealized as the fertile ground from which liberal democracy had sprung, the public sphere historically thrived only when inhabited by a relatively small portion of the population, all of which was moneyed and thoroughly educated. The masses messed it up. Wild democracy ended up strangling its midwife.
With the emergence of the Internet, a pride of post-docs hurried to debate whether the virtual network might constitute a public sphere for the modern age. Decent arguments were made in each direction. All are now moot: What the Web might’ve been hardly matters; it’s what we’ve chosen to make of it that does. And what we’ve made of it is just another tattered square in the raggedy quilt that is our social fabric, falling apart at the seams.
The precise reasons for this collapse will likely keep scholars and poets busy for decades, but, to the rest of us, they hardly matter. We need only to look to Britain or Poland or Israel to realize that we’ve no more public sphere, that we live now in dissociated hamlets, that we’re no longer the sons and daughters of united nations but rather members of disparate tribes, each occupying its homeland and each pursuing its goals.
This—must it even be said?—is a lamentable situation. It could have been avoided. Academia, were it not for its zeal for the piffles of identity politics, might’ve put a finger in the dam. So might’ve journalism, currently more likely to chill free speech than to promote it. But now that this age of neo-tribalism is upon us, we would do well to adjust and adapt. One handy guide is Yuri Slezkine’s seminal The Jewish Century: Jews, Slezkine argues, have thrived because they are the ultimate Mercurian people, small and exclusive tribes specializing in providing services to the larger and homogenous swaths of society, the Apollonians. Mercurian peoples survive, Slezkine argues, by cultivating their purity and grooming the differences that set them apart from the others, and they thrive when, like the Jews, they are able to dominate realms—like diplomacy, banking, or entertainment—that the Apollonians deem too disreputable to claim.
Which might help explain the renewed roar of anti-Semitism even in corners previously believed to be resistant to it: The original small tribe, Jews could thrive only when society at large was there to accept their services, however begrudgingly. And when society at large—Slezkine’s Apollonian majority—itself separated into tribes, the old affinities lost much of their shine. If we no longer occupy the same public sphere, we hardly have any use for another tribe’s genius.
We may, of course, yet rebound. We’ve had darker ages and have been swept by more benighted ideas. We may once again learn to see past our tribal borders, once again crowd the coffee houses with conversations, once again construct a cohesive and coherent Apollonian majority. For now, its tum-tum time, with all the comforts and terrors inherent in tribal life.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.