Between the riots of last spring and the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol, the forces of polarization appear stronger than ever, manifesting across American society with increasing energy and destruction. Despite all our talk of “unity,” the division only seems to fester, perpetuated by the spread of misinformation and partisan efforts to justify all sorts of reckless disregard.
The various movements have their distinctions, to be sure. Each represents a unique set of grievances among a subset of the marginalized and misunderstood. Each focuses its rebellion on specific targets and enacts its chaos through particular methods of “culture war” and insurrection. Each has its own rhetoric, slogans, heroes, and enemies. Yet each finds unity with the others in one important way: These are manifestations of mob politics, pure and simple – and they stretch across cultural, religious, and political lines.
The new ochlocracy is everywhere, from online efforts to “own the libs” or cancel conservatives, to the secularized political religions of the Left and Right, to the Capitol crusades by barbarians with Bibles. The tribalism cuts deep, and the more widely it spreads, the more we risk making an idol of collective power and a mockery of ordered liberty. Without the proper safeguards – spiritually, morally, institutionally, and otherwise – the whims of the masses are likely to lead us to the whiplash of the state.
In his book The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, Kevin Williamson warns of these temptations, noting that while they may be ancient in their origins, they have found a new foothold amid the disruptions of modern capitalism and the decline of civil society. “[Frederich] Hayek worried that we were on the Road to Serfdom, and we are,” Williamson argues. “But it begins with the Road to Smurfdom, the place where the deracinated demos of the Twitter age finds itself feeling small and blue.”
For Williamson, the trend is reminiscent of the “primitive capitalism” of the early Renaissance. Economic change had begun to disrupt “traditional sources of status and meaning” among serfs and lords alike, leading many to experience their newfound individualism “as a burden rather than as an opportunity.” The winds of economic change brought plenty of prosperity, but they left many feeling “free, but also alone.” In response, Europe’s “deracinated citizen-subjects … sought out new sources of meaning and a new kind of lordship to which to submit themselves and thereby be relieved of the terrible burden of individuality.”
This same pattern of “deracination, crisis, fanaticism” has repeated itself elsewhere throughout history. In China, for example, Williamson traces a “similar vector” from “the failure of the Great Leap Forward to the fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution,” and more recently, from the country’s modern communist-capitalist hybrid to its latest iterations of despotic nationalism.
In modern America, amid the disruptions of globalization, we face a similar threat. While the expansion of economic freedom has brought tremendous blessings, these have not come without side effects or social challenges. “Globalization has brought wealth and cooperation, but it also has disturbed longstanding modes of life and upended communities,” Williamson writes, “especially those affected negatively by outsourcing and offshoring, changes in the nature of work … and other deep economic changes that are, gradually, making the world a radically better place.” Such challenges have been highlighted by such thinkers as Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, Yuval Levin, Mary Eberstadt, and Ross Douthat.
Capitalism is booming, but civil society is in crisis, whether one looks at declines in religious life, family formation, and community participation, or the corresponding increases in drug use, loneliness, depression, and suicide. More typically, such problems are swept away under the banner of “personal choice” or shrugged off entirely by the hubris of central planners. But alas, these are the places where modern fanaticism finds its home.
“What we have is Instant Culture,” Williamson writes, “which is to culture what stevia is to sugar … a substitute that replicates the real thing in certain formal ways but that remains nonetheless entirely lacking the essence of the thing itself.” If culture is fundamentally a “conversation,” as Michael Oakeshott once described it, Instant Culture hijacks our common language with “crude signaling,” offering “no meaningful connections across time” and “having the character of a spasm rather than that of a continuity.”
This manifests in a variety of ways across relationships, purchases, and politics. But it is most easily seen through our increasing reliance on social media, the ultimate faux community for the detached and disenchanted:
The mob politics of our time is a political phenomenon, in partial aspect, but it is much more substantially a social phenomenon … The mob is less an instrument for its members to get their way in this or that quotidian political matter than it is an instrument for them to find their way in a much larger and more meaningful sense, in the endless human quest for connection and significance. The disruption of globalization and the emergence of capitalism in its latest iteration has sundered many traditional relationships and dissolved many longstanding institutions and modes of life. The electronic mob – the virtual tribe – is for a great many lonely and foundering misfits the nearest substitute.
Given our widespread reliance on such tools, it is a substitute that sticks, serving to foment our worst tribal tendencies with great efficiency. “The French Revolution was carried out with muskets and guillotines for the same reason the Rwandan genocide was carried out with machetes,” Williamson writes. “Those were the tools at hand.” Likewise, we moderns are simply “channeling our passions” with the tools we have been given, and the more we type and scold and self-protect, the more the mobs feel emboldened toward future glory.
… Which brings us back to “smurfdom,” that cheeky word Williamson uses to capture the disposition of the “deracinated demos” – the looting mobs burning storefronts, the cancel-culture warriors of Twitter and woke capitalism, the conspiracists of QAnon. Where the smurfdom sticks, the smurfdom is likely to spread. Such a trend does not bode well for a free and virtuous society.
When we merge our identities with that of a collective mob, we diminish our ability to think, reason, and discern for ourselves. “Genuine political discourse and political culture are possible only among those individuals with enough regard for their own individuality and sufficient confidence in its value to stand apart from the tribe,” Williamson writes. And when we steadily devalue ourselves, it is far easier to dehumanize our neighbors, creating villains where none actually exist and using our collective grievances to justify all sorts of malice and violence. “Decency in government is an impossibility among citizen-subjects who understand one another only as means to some other end rather than valuable in themselves,” Williamson reminds us.
Further, by making an idol out of collective power, such efforts routinely seek to untether our notions about “democracy” from the constitutional framework that protects us from raw majoritarian rule. Whereas the American system has long relied on procedural democracy as a “substitute for violence,” our modern mobocracy treats it as a “social ethic” to be followed at the point of a spear. James Madison spoke of factions and federalism for such a time as this. As Williamson explains:
The implicit proposal that human beings have more value in corporation, that masses grow more valuable and more legitimate the larger they are and the more demanding they grow, and that the individual must always in the end be answerable to the collective is pure barbarism – it is might-makes-right thinking metathesized from authoritarian political principle to authoritarian cult. It is a virtual guarantee of social and cultural stagnation, ugliness, stupidity, repression, bigotry, illiberalism, narrow-mindedness – and, inevitably, violence. It is the cult of the modern primitive, whose object of veneration is the modern primitive himself.
Lastly, when the efforts of the mob inevitably cease, we will find it far harder to return to normalcy with our freedoms fully intact. “Mob rule does not end with the mob,” Williamson concludes. “The mob rarely acts on its own and never for long. Mob rule is not a mere riot: It is what happens when the mob successfully recruits the state to act as its henchman.” Whether seen through the soft despotism of Germany’s post-war Streitbare Demokratie or America’s steadily emerging police state, the government inevitably responds to the blazing fires of the mob with similar heavy-handedness and top-down control.
If we hope to “heal our nation,” as many of us are desperate to do, we will need more than the standard arsenal of partisan tricks, self-serving moral relativism, and hazy calls to “unity” that are little more than pushes for blind cultural conformity. True healing will require vigilance, honesty, and moral consistency – not cowering to mobs, succumbing to conspiracies, exulting in conformity, or ceding our liberty to despots. But it will also require a deeper commitment to freedom and the moral responsibilities that it requires, both individually and across our families, communities, and institutions.
“What the mob hates above all is the individual, insisting on his own mind, his own morals, and his own priorities,” Williamson concludes. From there, the rest is sure to follow, beginning with the creation and revitalization of institutions that are free from the ideals of cultural conformity and collective power for its own sake.
Holding fast to freedom and virtue may not look “powerful” or “strong” in the face of belligerent hordes. But holding that line in our thought and, more importantly, our action will do more than just keep the pitchforks at bay. It will fill in the cracks in our civilization that got us here in the first place.