Erik Cleven is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
Many people are frustrated with the state of American politics today. There is a high level of political polarization and many say our system is broken. People are afraid to discuss politics with their friends and neighbors, or even with close family members. Some even fear for democracy itself.
This semester, I team-taught a course called “Political Thought in the Work of Dostoyevsky” with my colleague, Professor Peter Josephson, at Saint Anselm College. This experience convinced me that we have something unique to learn about American politics from great writers like Dostoyevsky. Let me explain why.
Dostoevsky is often credited with having foreseen the negative consequences of the 19th century ideologies of nihilism and socialism as they unfolded in the Russian Revolution and the history of the Soviet Union. But he did not write treatises that offered theoretical arguments describing his political ideas. Instead, his novels tell stories that show what happens to characters who adopt and live out particular ideas, and the implications of those ideas for lived life. These stories also teach us something about our own lives.
In Crime and Punishment, the main character Raskolnikov imagines a “great man” like Napoleon who can dictate his own moral rules. He kills an old pawnbroker and justifies her murder by arguing that she is hoarding resources that could be put to better use helping many more people. Over the course of the novel, we see how his conscience torments him and refuses to conform to his own theoretical ideas. In the end, Raskolnikov’s acceptance of others’ suffering and love helps him overcome his ego.
The novel Devils follows the members of a small revolutionary group in provincial Russia. Many of them have rejected the traditional norms of society and believe that a new person and a new society can be created if they, the enlightened few, impose their will on the masses. As the action unfolds, selfishness and fear lead them to self-destruction and the destruction of others.
The Karamazov brothers is perhaps the book where Dostoyevsky most clearly articulates his own alternative to these political ideas. One of the characters in the novel, Father Zosima, a Russian monk, teaches the way of active love. It teaches that evil can be defeated by it. Father Zosima says we must avoid lies, including lies to ourselves, contempt and fear. Why avoid these three things? Because they stand in the way of active love and, as the other novels show, they lead to destructive consequences.
With this lens, we can see that contempt motivates Raskolnikov’s actions by Crime and Punishment and the nihilists of Devils, and that attitudes towards others matter as much as the ideas they might have. Contempt allows political actors to see their own freedom as superior to the freedom of others because they believe only they see the truth.
This allows them to view people as enduring means to an end and to dehumanize them as legitimate targets of politically motivated violence. Active love, on the other hand, requires humility and sacrifice for others, and through this we pursue not just our own interest, but the interest of others.
This is what Dostoyevsky has to teach us about American politics today. The biggest problem in American politics is not that some people want big government and some want small government, or that some people support abortion rights and others support gun rights. The biggest problem is that our politics are often driven by contempt, contempt for those who think differently from us.
I’ve heard liberals and progressives say that people in red states are stupid at best and just plain bad at worst. Likewise, I have heard conservatives say that the liberals are traitors who are destroying the country. These views are often accompanied by feelings of superiority and contempt.
I’m not saying this because I’m above those feelings. I know only too well the temptation to react to political expressions with contempt. But, I also know that I want to overcome these feelings, and I know many Americans who bemoan the state of political polarization in our country and yearn for civil dialogue with their neighbors. Perhaps Dostoyevsky gives us a way forward.
Perhaps our first test of any political communication, whether on social media, in the press or in person, should be whether it is an expression of contempt. It is not liberal or conservative policies that are incompatible with democracy, but dehumanizing contempt.
American democracy depends on different points of view. Without them, it’s just autocracy. Likewise, New England political traditions are rooted in the idea that we all have something to learn by listening to our neighbors. Otherwise, why hold a public meeting? These traditions require humility and are eroded by contempt.
That doesn’t mean we can’t be angry at injustice or wrong. It simply means that we do not respond to injustice or evil by further dehumanizing others. It also means staying open and connected to my neighbors and remembering that I always have more to learn.