The Perils of 180ism

Stop blindly opposing your adversaries. Stick to your values and think for yourself.

A few months after I first moved to the United States, “The Colbert Report” premiered on television. In his very first episode, in October 2005, Stephen Colbert defined “truthiness.” What matters, he argued in a hilarious imitation of a hard-charging right-wing television pundit, isn’t whether some statement about the world is true; it’s whether it feels true.

Colbert’s shtick was so popular, I quickly realized, because it encapsulated what many of my new friends in New York defined themselves against. These were the waning years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Bush argued from the gut; my friends insisted that it was important for politics not to be too emotive. Bush saw the world in Manichean terms and cast himself as the champion of freedom in a monumental war against the “axis of evil”; they insisted that such a simple juxtaposition between good and evil was a poor guide to reality.

I didn’t altogether agree with them. In a democracy, it seemed to me, emotions will always have an important role to play. My friends’ reluctance to admit that al-Qaida really was, well, evil struck me as morally obtuse. And yet, the terms in which they defined themselves helped to shape my own self-understanding. On the whole, I was happy to join a political tribe that believed in looking the facts in the face even when they don’t fit your preferred narrative and insisted that a complicated question like how to respond to 9/11 allowed for more than two possible answers.

This made me all the more disoriented when I recently re-watched Colbert’s segment on truthiness and realized that it could now describe a much broader cross-section of the ideological spectrum than he originally intended. Yes, it did and still does describe much of conservative America. It feels true to many conservatives that Donald Trump won reelection (or should have done so), and so a shockingly large number of right-wing pundits and elected officials maintain that it is true. 

But there are also plenty of slogans that my own friends and colleagues on the left parrot, even though they do (or should) know that they are misleading: “America has made no significant progress in matters of race over the past 50 years,” for example, or “climate change will end life as we know it in about a decade.” We keep repeating those slogans even though the truth of the matter is considerably more complicated. Who wants to quibble over complications when the cause is so just, the stakes so high, and the opponent so despicable?

In the days after 9/11, Bush argued that “every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Today, a similarly Manichean slogan enjoys the backing of a vast array of American institutions: Either you sign up to a very specific understanding of what it is to be an anti-racist, or you are a racist. 

For a long time, I have struggled to understand why so many of my old friends and colleagues have embraced the reductionist worldview that is now taking over public discourse, in some cases even turning themselves into enthusiastic enforcers of the new “moral clarity.” The key to the answer, I have come to believe, lies in a phenomenon that, at the suggestion of my colleague Emily Yoffe, I propose to call 180ism: the tendency of many participants in public debate to hear what their perceived enemies have to say and immediately declare themselves diametrically opposed.

Since I was raised in Europe, I knew nothing of the Grinch or “The Cat in the Hat.” So when everyone started to talk about Dr. Seuss back in March, I initially paid little attention to the debate, only looking up his work after it remained a bone of contention for days on end. Thanks to that delightfully entertaining research, I now understand that the whole controversy can be seen as a kind of Seussian fable illustrating the growing tendency of just about everybody involved in American public life to engage in 180ism.

It all started when an obscure group of teachers claimed that some of Dr. Seuss’s early books included offensive drawings, prompting his estate to announce that it would no longer allow the books to be printed. Over the following days, the Chicago Public Library retired existing copies from its collection. EBay banned the books from its platform while continuing to sell copies of “Mein Kampf.”

The right quickly denounced all of this in extreme terms. Fox News devoted a whole day of wall-to-wall coverage to the controversy.

A principled response from the left could have poked fun at the apocalyptic hyperbole that quickly took over many right-wing media outlets, especially since they had failed to condemn the assault on the Capitol in similarly unambiguous terms. But it should also have made clear that, even if some of Dr. Seuss’s decades-old drawings really would be considered offensive today, there are genuine concerns about banishing his books.

For decades, the American left has rightly criticized attempts by conservatives to ban books they consider morally tawdry, like “Lolita” or the Harry Potter series, from public libraries or large retail chains. When a publicly funded institution like a library takes a book out of circulation, this amounts to a few officials telling the general public what it is allowed to ponder. Private companies should have much greater leeway to decide who they do business with. But when a large retail store that effectively controls a huge chunk of the market refuses to stock a book, this, too, limits the circulation of ideas in worrying ways. The left used to argue this about Borders and Walmart back when I first arrived in the country; surely, the same principles should now apply when it comes to eBay or the Chicago Public Library.

But instead of sticking to their long-standing principles, even veteran writers on the left decided that they would rather argue that it is just fine for some books to disappear than agree with a conservative. If Fox News criticized the banning of a children’s book, then the children’s book must have been unforgivably offensive, and the banning of it righteous—worthy of defense in a stream of op-eds in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

This is the world of 180ism. According to the logic of the moment, you must either think that Dr. Seuss never made a cringe-worthy drawing or that we should cheer when public libraries remove his early books. You must either believe that antifa is a major threat to national security or defend the right of a bunch of extremists to beat up anyone they consider a fascist. You must either cheer when state legislatures tell teachers what they can say in the classroom or celebrate that a growing number of them are telling students to make their racial identity central to their lives. 

180ism has three core components.

The first and most obvious is that the primary question most participants in public debate ask themselves is not “How do my values inform my views on this matter?” or “What is the evidence for what is being asserted?” Rather, it is “How do I demonstrate that I am a loyal member of my political tribe?” As it happens, the easiest way to do that is simple: Look for what the enemy says on any one issue and stake out the opposite position.

The second component is that public discourse becomes dangerously narrow when a lot of individuals with big platforms reflexively contradict whatever their adversaries say. Complex questions that should, in principle, allow for a large number of different answers are then flattened into a simple referendum between diametrically opposed sides. 

The third component is that the dynamics of 180ism exert enormous pressure on anybody who does not behave as expected. If, unwilling to let the discourse shoehorn you into one of two sanctioned positions, you insist on giving a third answer, you are denounced as an attention-seeking contrarian. And if, following your long-held values or principles, you come up with an answer that your political adversary happens to agree with, you are denounced as a traitor. In a discourse dominated by 180ism, occasionally disagreeing with your friends—a sign that you are willing to think for yourself—is widely interpreted as proof of bad faith.

In many of the examples I have given, it is the left that is guilty of 180ism. So let me be abundantly clear: I do not believe that the two sides in America’s great political fight are morally equivalent. That is why I publicly and persistently advocated for the election of Joe Biden. Nor do I think that conservatives are any less susceptible to the sins of 180ism than progressives; the aversion to supporting anything that a prominent adversary happens to agree with is, almost certainly, even more pronounced on the right.

But that is no reason to soft-pedal just how bad the state of the discourse has now become on my own side. In fact, it is precisely because I myself have long been part of the left-wing tribe that I feel especially compelled to speak out when my ostensible allies are willing to throw their principles out of the window.

Part of the reason is instrumental. To succumb to 180ism is to define yourself, not by your own principles, but rather against your opponents. In other words, it is to let your political adversaries choose your values for you. And if the right is even a little shrewd—choosing their own positions in ways that force those who are stuck in the logic of 180ism to defend highly unpopular ideas and organizations—this will inflict serious harm on liberal values. It could even increase the chances that Donald Trump or one of his allies will return to the White House in 2024.

But an even deeper reason is moral, intellectual or, if you will, aesthetic. I work in left-leaning institutions, write for left-leaning publications, and live in a left-leaning milieu. How the people around me talk about things is especially important to me because I care about thinking through the complex challenges that face all of us in an intellectually honest way—and the only way to do that is as part of a community that encourages people to think for themselves.

The deepest reason to resist 180ism is, simply, that succumbing to it is a terrible way to think and live.

The state of the public discourse makes it tempting to tune out. To cite a phrase that is very popular on social media these days, I am exhausted.

And yet, it is important that those of us who are unwilling to participate in the grand new American pastime of 180ism don’t simply withdraw. For if those who recognize that most questions have more than two possible answers fail to make their voices heard, our debates will perennially be framed as a gladiatorial contest between two mutually hostile halves of America, and we will remain more interested in owning each other than in solving our problems.

180ism is all around us. But its victory is not foreordained. And so those of us who want to think about the world in a serious manner have a responsibility to stop repeating the comforting slogans that now make up so much of our public sphere. Let’s have the courage to think for ourselves—and build the friendships, institutions, and publications that are capable of recognizing that the world remains as complicated as ever.

Yascha Mounk is the founder of Persuasion.