This week, a fascinating face-off took place on MSNBC. Politics Nation host Al Sharpton had on Virginia GOP Senate candidate Corey Stewart and proceeded to grill him on his ties to the alt-right. Sharpton asked Stewart if he considered himself “the candidate for white nationalists in the state of Virginia.” Stewart explained that his constituents didn’t want to discuss race; Sharpton demurred and pointed out Stewart’s ardent advocacy for Confederate monuments. Stewart then said, “You’ve made a career out of dividing people by race; you’ve been a race hustler your entire career.” Sharpton responded by stating that he was merely “standing up for racial justice.”
Now, here’s the thing: Both of these people are race hustlers, though not of the same degree. Sharpton has made a career out of racial hoaxes and secondary boycotts and corporate shakedowns, and he continues to be welcomed into the good graces of Democrats; Stewart has opted into racially charged rhetoric for political gain (most recently by speaking warmly of the Confederacy, siding with President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comments regarding Charlottesville, and hiring former Paul Nehlen employees) and has been largely shunned by the Republican party.
So, why does any of this matter? Because perceived threat from out-groups polarizes our politics — and when you combine that perceived threat with loyalty to particular political institutions, ugly things follow. We become willing to hobnob with heretofore-taboo viewpoints and people; we resonate to conspiracy theories. We make common cause with those who will join us in fighting our enemies. We abandon individual moral responsibility in favor of “winning.”
Now, the most important aspiration for every human being should be the same: to answer for our own individual moral responsibility. Yet every institution has an interest in quashing that aspiration. As Aristotle points out in his Politics, institutional loyalty can be consonant with virtue only so long as the institution itself is good. But few institutions are totally good; virtually none are sinless. That means that institutional loyalty will often be pitted against individual virtue.
How can we overcome that conflict? There are only two possible outcomes: Either institutions change and adapt to better reflect virtue, or individuals change and adapt to reflect the sins of their preferred institutions. Human nature is heavily biased toward the latter.