From one of the world’s most celebrated moral philosophers comes a thorough examination of the current political crisis and recommendations for how to mend our divided country.
For decades Martha C. Nussbaum has been an acclaimed scholar and humanist, earning dozens of honors for her books and essays. In The Monarchy of Fear she turns her attention to the current political crisis that has polarized American since the 2016 election.
Although today’s atmosphere is marked by partisanship, divisive rhetoric, and the inability of two halves of the country to communicate with one another, Nussbaum focuses on what so many pollsters and pundits have overlooked. She sees a simple truth at the heart of the problem: the political is always emotional. Globalization has produced feelings of powerlessness in millions of people in the West. That sense of powerlessness bubbles into resentment and blame. Blame of immigrants. Blame of Muslims. Blame of other races. Blame of cultural elites. While this politics of blame is exemplified by the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit, Nussbaum argues it can be found on all sides of the political spectrum, left or right.
Drawing on a mix of historical and contemporary examples, from classical Athens to the musical Hamilton, The Monarchy of Fear untangles this web of feelings and provides a roadmap of where to go next.
The Monarchy of Fear Preface Election night 2016 was bright daylight for me—in Kyoto, where I had just arrived for an award ceremony, after a joyful sendoff from my colleagues at home. I was feeling pretty anxious about the bitterly divided electorate, and yet reasonably confident that appeals to fear and anger would be repudiated—although there would be a lot of difficult work ahead to bring Americans together. My Japanese hosts came in and out of my hotel room, explaining the schedule of the various ceremonial events. In the background of these conversations, but in the foreground of my mind, the election news kept coming in, producing, first, increasing alarm and then, finally, both grief and a deeper fear, for the country and its people and institutions. I was aware that my fear was not balanced or fair-minded, so I was part of the problem that I worried about.
I was in Kyoto to accept an award established by a Japanese scientist, businessman, and philanthropist—also a Zen Buddhist priest—who wanted to recognize “those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind.” While I loved the fact that Dr. Kazuo Inamori recognized philosophy as one of the disciplines capable of making a major contribution, I felt the award as more a challenge than an accolade, and was already wondering how, at this fraught moment in US history, I might actually live up to my laurels!
By the time the election result was clear, I had to go out to have my first official meeting with the other two laureates (both scientists) at the offices of the Inamori Foundation, so I dressed up in a cheerful suit, fixed my hair, and tried to express happiness and gratitude. The first official dinner was a chore. Social conversation with strangers, filtered through an interpreter, offered no distracting charms. I wanted to hug my friends, but they were far away. Email is great, but not like a hug for comfort and consolation.
That night the combination of political anxiety and jet lag made sleep somewhat intermittent, so I began thinking—deciding, around midnight, that my previous work on emotions hadn’t gone deep enough. As I examined my own fear, it gradually dawned on me that fear was the issue, a nebulous and multiform fear suffusing US society. I got some ideas, tentative but promising, about how fear is connected to, and renders toxic, other problematic emotions such as anger, disgust, and envy. I rarely work in the middle of the night. I sleep soundly, and my best ideas usually come to me gradually, sitting at my computer. But jet lag and a national crisis have a way of changing habit, and in this case, I had a joyful sense of discovery. I felt that some insight might possibly be the fruit of this upheaval—and who knows?—it might be insight that would give others some good ideas, too, if I could do the work well. I went back to sleep with a calming sense of hope.
The following day—after a cleansing morning workout—I plunged into formal ceremony. I donned my evening dress and smiled as best I could for the official portrait photo. The onstage ceremony was aesthetically beautiful and hence distracting, and listening to the biographies of my fellow laureates and their short speeches about their work was genuinely fascinating, since they were in fields (self-driving cars and basic cancer research) about which I know little, and I was filled with admiration for their achievements. Giving my own short speech, I was able to express some of the things I really care about and to thank people who had helped me throughout my career. At least as important, I could also express love of my family and close friends. (All this had to be written in advance for the sake of the translator, so no ad hoc modification was possible, but being able to express love was still extremely consoling.)
Kyoto prize banquets end punctually and extremely early, so by 8:30 I was back in my room, and I sat down at my desk and wrote. By that time the ideas I had had during the night had taken form, and as I wrote, they became more and more developed and more and more convincing (at least to me!). By the end of two evenings of work, I had a long blog piece that a journalist friend of mine in Australia posted, and that blog piece simultaneously took a different shape as a book proposal.
But who am I, you might ask, and how did I come to take such a keen interest in the emotions of political unity and division? I am, of course, an academic, living a highly privileged life in the midst of wonderful colleagues and students, and with all the support I could wish for my work. Even at this time of grave threat for the humanities and the arts, my own university still strongly supports the humanities. As a philosopher without a law degree, I have the great delight of serving partly in a law school, where I can learn every day about the political and legal issues of this nation, meanwhile offering courses about justice and political ideas. So, it’s a fine vantage point, but it might seem too detached to participate in the anxieties of most Americans.
I was a privileged child, too, but in a far more complicated way. My family, living on Philadelphia’s elite Main Line, was upper middle-class and fairly affluent. I had love, excellent nutrition and health care, a first-rate education at an excellent private school for women, which in those days supplied incentives to excellence, free of gendered peer pressure, that a public-school education would have offered to girls only more unevenly. (My mother used to tell me, “Don’t talk so much, or the boys won’t like you,” apt advice for the times, but I didn’t have to worry about following it at school!) I’ve always loved reading, writing, and constructing arguments. Furthermore, my father loved my aspirations and supported them. A working-class man from Macon, Georgia, he had worked his way up to a partnership in a leading Philadelphia law firm by dint of ability and hard work, and he thought and said that this American Dream was available to all. That credo planted seeds of doubt. He repeatedly said that African Americans failed to succeed in America because they just didn’t work hard enough; and yet, observing his own visceral racism, as he made household help use a separate bathroom, and even threatened to disinherit me if I appeared in public in a large group (a theater troupe) one member of which was African American, I saw that his credo did not make sense of the situation of African Americans, held down and insulted by stigma and Jim Crow separation. And my father’s disgust with minorities extended to many who plainly had (despite social obstacles) achieved success through hard work: to middle-class African Americans and middle-class Jews in particular.
He understood that women could excel. He delighted in my success, and encouraged independence and even defiance. And yet I observed an issue there, too: for he married a woman who was working as an interior designer, and it was immediately understood that she would stop working, something that left my mother unhappy and lonely for much of her life. His attitudes were so mixed. When I was sixteen, he offered me the choice between a debutante party and a homestay abroad on the Experiment in International Living, and was thoroughly pleased that I chose the latter—but he would never have married a woman who didn’t choose the former. He did think that wearing daring fashionable clothes was (for both women and men) thoroughly compatible with intellectual aspiration and success, and the fun we had on shopping expeditions was doubled by the subversive plan that I would show up at his lecture on “Powers of Appointment” at the Practising Law Institute wearing a bright pink mini-suit. And yet, where did he really think all of this was heading? To what sort of family life, in particular? He encouraged me to date exactly those upwardly mobile preppy men who—like him—would never have wanted a working wife.
Meanwhile, that trip abroad fed further my skepticism about my father’s credo. I was sent to live with a family of factory workers in Swansea, South Wales, and I understood how poverty, bad nutrition, bad sanitation (no indoor plumbing), and bad health conditions (coal mining in particular, which had ruined the health of quite a few family members) robbed people not only of flourishing lives but also of desire and effort. My teenage pals in that family did not want to go to school or to excel by hard work. Like the working-class British families relentlessly studied in Michael Apted’s “7 Up” and its sequels, they envisaged for themselves no rosier future than the lives of their parents, and their greatest pleasure was to go drinking and to visit the legal gambling casinos nearby. I remember lying in bed reading an elite British novel—in that house with an outhouse in the garden—and thinking about why Eirwen Jones, my own age, hadn’t the slightest interest in reading and writing, or even in learning Welsh. The obstacles imposed by poverty often lie deep in the human spirit, and many deprived people can’t follow my father’s path. (By his own account, he was well nourished, given a lot of love, inspiration, and good health care, and somehow got a first-rate education. He didn’t notice how being white gave him huge advantages. Born in 1901, he also lived in a world of greater upward mobility than is now the case, even for poor white people.) So, I saw myself in a new perspective, as not just a very smart kid but as the product of social forces that are unequally distributed. It wasn’t surprising that much later I deepened this understanding through work in an international development institute and by a deep partnership with development groups working for women’s education and legal rights in India.
Like most of the people I knew in Bryn Mawr, I was at that time a Republican, and I admired the libertarian ideas of Barry Goldwater. I still believe Goldwater was an honorable man and totally committed to the eradication of racial segregation—he had in fact boldly integrated his family business. I think he really believed that people should choose to be just and should respect and help one another, only without government coercion. But when I began working for his campaign while still in high school, I discovered that most of my fellow Goldwaterites were not high-minded but deeply racist, supporting libertarianism as a screen for segregationist views. The ugliness of white supremacist politics repelled me, convincing me that Goldwater was naïve and that only the force of law would finally break the grip of Jim Crow. I also understood by then (after that homestay in Swansea) that real equality requires equal access to nutrition and health care. I began to embrace the political ideals of the New Deal, while my father protested to my school that my history teachers had “brainwashed” me—not the only time he underestimated the independence he had proudly nourished.
I’ve mentioned the theater, and early in my life the arts, especially theater and music, became my window onto a more inclusive world. First of all, it was a world that encouraged the expression of powerful emotions, unlike the WASP culture of Bryn Mawr. All my teachers encouraged my mind, but the drama teacher encouraged my whole personality. I decided that I wanted to be a professional actress. I did summer stock for two seasons, left Wellesley College after three semesters to take a professional job in a repertory company, and pursued acting at what is now the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU (New York University)—until I understood that I was not a very good actress, that the life was too unstable, and that my real passion was thinking and writing about the plays. But I still act and sing as an amateur (I’m better, having had real-life experience), and it brings me joy. I also urge my colleagues to act (in plays connected to our law-literature conferences). I’ve found that sharing emotions with one’s colleagues humanizes the law school and enriches intellectual friendship.
It was in the theater that I first encountered people who were openly gay. Indeed, I had a big crush on one such actor at the age of seventeen, and observed his life with the keen sympathy of disappointed infatuation, seeing how he had a life partner who visited him and with whom he had exchanged high school rings, but that they were openly together only in the world of the theater, not in the larger society. This seemed to me utterly absurd and irrational. He was certainly much nicer than most of the boys I knew, more understanding and respectful. I guess by that time I understood the ugly self-interest behind racism and sexism, but discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, previously hidden from me as were the phenomena, was another appalling American vice I then added to my list.
After deciding not to become a professional actress, I returned to the academic side of NYU, where I thrived. And soon after that I met my future husband, got engaged, and converted to Judaism. I was and am attracted to the primacy of social justice in Judaism. And I have always loved the Jewish culture I joined, finding it more emotionally expressive and more openly argumentative than WASP culture. As one of my Jewish colleagues (highly successful) said of his own history in “white-shoe” law firms, WASP lawyers would never criticize you, just fire you suddenly after five years, whereas Jewish lawyers would yell and jump up and down, but in the end, treat you pretty fairly. Though no longer married, I’ve kept my Jewish name and my Jewish religion, and am more involved in the life of my congregation than I was back then. (With the middle initial C, I honor my birth name, Craven.) So that meant that I joined one of the groups my father despised, and he did not come to my wedding, although my mother helped organize it. (By that time my parents were divorced.)
I’ve had a charmed life in some respects, then, but early on I gradually learned to see it as privileged and to ponder the exclusions of others. One form of discrimination I did not avoid was discrimination against women, which played a major role in my early career (though I had a lot of encouragement, too), and which probably explained my not getting tenure at Harvard—although in a narrow decision, and with two departments split, any number of things could be brought forward to explain the result. And, like most working women of my generation, I’ve experienced the problems of reconstructing family life around expectations that were new and not yet fully explored. Even when both parties have the best intentions, male expectations of an earlier era are hard to live down in the heart, particularly when there are children. And sometimes two people who love one another just cannot manage to live together. But I certainly don’t regret plunging in. My daughter, now a lawyer working for the rights of wild animals at Friends of Animals in Denver, is among the great joys of my life. (Her lovely and supportive husband, who was imprisoned in East Germany for three years, at the age of eighteen, for putting up one political poster criticizing Communism, has shown me the perspective of an immigrant, one who loves the United States, with its freedoms and its tradition of welcome and inclusion.)
Academics can be too detached from human realities to do good work about the texture of human life. That’s a risk inherent in academic freedom and tenure, wonderful institutions that did not protect philosophers of most earlier eras. My own commitments and efforts have always led me to want to restore to philosophy the wide set of concerns that it had in the days of the Greeks and Romans: concerns with the emotions and the struggle for flourishing lives in troubled times; with love and friendship; with the human life span (including aging, so well studied by Cicero); with the hope for a just world. I’ve had a lot of partners in this search for a human philosophy (and several superb mentors, including Stanley Cavell, Hilary Putnam, and Bernard Williams). But I’m hoping that my own history, both in its unearned privileges and in its awareness of inequalities, has helped my search as well.
Maybe if I had been able to hug my friends, that night in November 2016, I would not have embarked on this book project, or not right then. But once I started down this path, my friends have been crucial sources of support, understanding, skeptical challenges, and useful further suggestions. Deference is poison to intellectual work, and I am so lucky that my colleagues and friends are far from deferential. But there is one above others whose skeptical challenges, provocative insights, cynical scoffing at all emotions, and unwavering support and friendship make me enjoy my life and work more and (I hope) do the work better. So I dedicate this book to Saul Levmore.
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School of the University of Chicago. She gave the 2016 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities and won the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, which is regarded as the most prestigious award available in fields not eligible for a Nobel. She has written more than twenty-two books, including Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions; Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice; Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities; and The Monarchy of Fear.
“An elegant and precise stylist, Nussbaum…writes about gut feelings like envy and disgust with an air of serene lucidity...one of the virtues of this slender volume is how gradually and scrupulously it moves, as Nussbaum pushes you to slow down, think harder and revisit your knee-jerk assumptions. [Nussbaum is] a skillful rhetorician…she wants to show how the feeling of fear is primal and therefore universal, reminding us that we were all helpless infants once, dependent on the kindness and mercy of others.” —New York Times Book Review
"An engaging and inviting study of humanity's long-standing fear of the other." —Kirkus, starred review
"Noted philosopher, prolific author and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum assesses our current political crisis, which she argues is essentially a politics of blame and fear. From classical thought to the hit musical Hamilton, she uses a variety of examples to illustrate what brought us to this fraught place and how we can move forward." —Chicago Tribune
"Nussbaum’s erudite but very readable investigation engages figures from Aristotle to Donald Trump in lucid and engaging prose...Nussbaum offers fresh, worthwhile insights into the animosities that roil contemporary public life." —Publishers Weekly
"One of America’s leading philosophers here probes this dangerous fusion of emotions, explaining Trump’s twenty-first-century ascendance as part of a distressing human dynamic manifested through history and around the globe...even readers skeptical about Nussbaum’s political orientation will welcome this call for an emotionally healthier public life. — Bryce Christensen, Booklist
“Nussbaum is an elegant and lyrical writer, and she movingly describes the pain of recognizing one’s vulnerability…” —Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker
“Nussbaum is one of the most accomplished political and moral philosophers of our time…there is almost no domain of political and moral life and thought that her work and apparently endless curiosity have not explored.” —William Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts