“The intellectual cannot operate at room temperature.” – Eric Hoffer, “First Things, Last Things” (1971)

Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) meant that intellectuals in his day tended not to be temperate. In our day, this defect – moral overheating – has been democratized: Anyone can have it. Now, everybody can be intoxicated with intimations of apocalypse, all day every day.

Hoffer was a longshoreman and an autodidact who wrote slender books hefty with wisdom. His first, “The True Believer” (1951), put him on a path from San Francisco’s docks to a 1983 Presidential Medal of Freedom. In Hoffer’s time, intellectuals often were feverish because this was the best way to be noticed, and to say, about this and that: Listen to our intelligent selves or the end is nigh.

In 2017, many others emulated this act. Were Hoffer still with us, he would marvel at today’s vast, deep reservoirs of extravagant rhetoric. For example:

During two decades, the internet was barely regulated as it delighted its users. In 2015, a regulatory policy (“net neutrality”), one without a constituency sufficient to move Congress, was imposed by bureaucratic fiat. Thirty-three months later, net neutrality was ended. And the gnashing of teeth commenced: “This is the end of the internet as we know it.” (Sen. Bernie Sanders); “A brazen betrayal” (Sen. Richard Blumenthal); “Outrageous” (Sen. Cory Booker); “Shameful” (Sen. Sherrod Brown).

Another example: Most of the nonstop noise emanating from the White House is audible wallpaper, there but unnoticed. Some is, however, interestingly symptomatic, as when a presidential assistant calls this year’s tax legislation “the most significant tax reform we’ve had since 1986.” Which is like bragging about the tallest building in Boise. The 1986 tax reform radically simplified the tax code. Since then, the code has acquired over 15,000 new wrinkles. The 2017 tax legislation might – this is difficult to measure – have managed to make the 70,000-page code more complicated. On a scale of importance from 1 (negligible) to 10 (stupendous), the legislation might be a 3.


Never mind. Cue the Cassandras. This tax cut of less than 1 percent of the next decade’s projected GDP is “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.” (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi). It “will result in 10,000 extra deaths per year” and “our country will be living on a shoestring for decades.” (Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers)

The many Americans who are happiest when unhappy seem addicted to indignation; brain imaging might show pleasure points lighting up. Furthermore, because today’s technologies have eliminated barriers to entry into public conversations, ignorance and intemperateness are not barriers. Because modern technologies allow the instant, costless dissemination of fulminations, and because the more vituperative the fulminations the more apt they are to be noticed in the digital clutter, public conversations often quickly degenerate into something less.

Christopher DeMuth, president emeritus of the American Enterprise Institute, notes the interaction of high affluence and modern technologies. “Americans have attained levels of material comfort, leisure time, and education unknown until the recent past.” And as Americans have become “entangled by networks of communication,” they have entered “a world of empowered mass intimacy” that encourages the better but also “the darker angels of human nature.” New modes of communication enable us “to organize ourselves into highly defined networks of affinity and endeavor,” which splendid cooperative endeavors; but also are “fracturing our politics.”

Institutions that hitherto organized and stabilized politics – parties, Congress, federalism, civic organizations – have been, DeMuth says, “deconstructed by a thousand networks of ideology, interest and identity.” Such “private networks have commandeered central institutions of government.” Congress, especially, has buckled beneath the weight of “many more numerous political causes than a representative legislature can manage.” Congress has responded by offloading onto the administrative state’s executive agencies activities that are essentially legislative. So, its members are free to opine on behalf of causes that are made conspicuous and potent by the new technology-created networks.

The result is an ever-more-clamorous politics, and the survival of the shrillest. Hence 2017, the year of living splenetically, has been replete with confirmations of Eric Hoffer’s aphorisms: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” And: “We lie the loudest when we lie to ourselves.”

George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: