Two Kinds of Pride in American Politics
by Benjamin Studebaker
I’ve been thinking about pride’s role in politics. When I say pride, I am not talking about mere self-respect. I am thinking about vanity, about the insidious mistake of thinking we are superior to others when in fact we are their equals. This is pride in the grim, nasty, old-fashioned sense. I think there are two kinds of pride running amok today. One is associated with entrepreneurs, with those who consider themselves “self-made”. The other is associated with professionals, with those who consider themselves “educated”. Let me share them with you.
The Pride of the Entrepreneur
The first kind of pride is the pride of thinking that a person can overcome their worst impulses alone and unaided, without the support of strong political and social institutions. This is the kind of pride associated in ancient times with the Stoics, who believed the “Stoic sage” could be virtuous in any situation, regardless of conditions. Today this is the pride of the hustler, the entrepreneur who believes anyone can succeed in American capitalism if they possess enough grit and determination. These hustlers pridefully reproach anyone who criticizes American capitalism, accusing them of failing to take responsibility for their own lives. They fail to recognize that we live socially embedded lives, and that our ability to succeed depends in large part on whether we have access to the right kind of help at the right moments. They flatter themselves, imagining that they are self-made, that they need no help from anyone, that all those who fail to succeed are inferior to themselves.
Even in antiquity, the Stoics were reproached by the followers of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine. For Plato, the kind of people we become depends in large part on the kind of community we grow up in. For Aristotle, we are “political animals”, who cannot live apart from one another. Outside of human communities, we can live only as “beasts” or “gods”. Since we lack divinity, all alternatives to social life are beastly. Virtue is only attainable through a complex social system which allows spare time for education and contemplation. For Augustine, no one can resist sin without the grace of God, and grace is accessed through the true faith disseminated on earth by the church. Whether we take the argument in a secular or religious direction, all of these theorists emphasize that we need concrete institutions above and beyond the individual to become virtuous people.
If we want people born in difficult circumstances to reach their potential, we need to give them access to the social goods which enable human flourishing, whatever we take these to be. This requires, at minimum, access to quality healthcare, housing, education, energy, and sustenance. Yet the hustlers deny these goods to others at every turn, insisting that every person can reach their potential by willing it or manifesting it.
The Pride of the Professional
The second kind of pride is the pride of thinking that a person does not need to worry about their desires because their desires are benign. This is the pride of the professional, the college-educated person who thinks the right kind of education is sufficient for virtue. This kind of person thinks that their university education gives them a superior perspective. They can indulge their impulses because their university experience has trained them to reject all bad ideologies. They are not racist, fascist, misogynist, or homophobic, and therefore they are better than other people. The purity of their educated perspective gives them moral license to indulge in more traditional vices. Having signaled their ideological virtue, they now get to determine when lust, gluttony, and greed are okay and when they are not. They marketize romantic relationships through dating apps, sell both fat acceptance and thinspiration, and celebrate corporate greed when those corporations are owned by people who have the right skin color or the right gender. They are free to envy one another, and they are free to direct their wrath at those who have failed, in their view, to reject the bad ideologies.
These virtue signalers make the mistake of thinking that we can divide people into two lots–the educated people who follow the science and reject the bad isms, and the uneducated people who spread fake news and harbor pathological ideologies. By getting appropriately educated, these people think you can move from one category to the other. Once you become educated, you have knowledge to share with others. Those others are obligated to accept the truth which you have and they lack, and if they fail to do so you may direct your wrath, and the wrath of others, at them.
But virtue is not a set of facts, which you learn and then possess. Virtue is a kind of skillfulness, which we carefully apply to each new situation we face. Virtue enables us to make wise decisions, but wise decisions require that we doubt ourselves, that we confront what is distinctive about each situation we find ourselves in, that we carefully consider things. It is also something we can easily lose, if we stray too far from the institutions and structures that nourish us, that give us the time and resources to think deeply about the situations we find ourselves in. True education results in humility, in an awareness that in every new situation we may be mistaken, that having been right last time is no guarantee that we will make the right decision now.
The American university system increasingly produces people who believe that they have “the facts” and have progressed from being “learners” to “teachers”. It focuses on preparing students for a world of work in which they are advantaged if they are good at self-promotion, and therefore it does everything it can to make them prideful. It is a kind of false education.
The Consequences of Pride
Both of these forms of pride have the same function–they enable rich and powerful people to justify contempt for the American worker. The entrepreneur scorns the worker for failing to figure out how to hustle, while the professional scorns the worker for failing to accept “knowledge” from the experts who possess it. On these two grounds, the worker is told that they are unworthy of the social goods which are necessary for any person to reach their potential. They are told that they cannot enjoy access to quality healthcare, affordable housing, true education, affordable energy, and even sustenance. They are blamed for the situations they are in, and no effort is made on their behalf. The Republican Party is dominated by entrepreneurs, and the Democratic Party is dominated by professionals. Neither party thinks the workers morally deserve access to a set of basic, fundamental economic rights. Both are deeply prideful and deeply wicked, in different ways. The proud Republican tells the worker to figure it all out on their own, while the proud Democrat tells the worker that their interests and needs cannot be a priority until they accept the “knowledge”. Caught between a rock and the hard place, the worker is condemned to endless toil, with no time and no energy left for escape. All the worker can do is persevere and hope for a brighter future, in this life or the next.