CHAPTER EIGHT (Draft)
I expect most Americans associate the concept of liberty with political independence and the principles of a system of governance in which we wish to live. It is not my purpose here to address the inherent difficulties of liberty and democracy, a continuing responsibility that belongs to the American people as a political community. Rather, I invite the reader to reflect on the political culture and inheritance that presents itself to us today. When we look at our country, what do we see? Are we taking in the whole picture? What do we think and understand?
Some of us have grown accustomed to seeing everything through political eyes. Governance and public policy are dominated by partisan politics in the world we know. Political issues influence our lives even locally in many ways. But life is not political. Governance is important, yes, but if we limit ourselves to a partisan consciousness, we cut ourselves off from information that is otherwise available from exposure to the full diversity of knowledge, perspective, and new ideas. The richness of genuine human relationships goes undiscovered. Even our perceptions of political interests are sometimes limited by a blindness to the larger context.
In the following chapter I will outline several significant questions, offered here to broaden our perspective as we think about the future. I do not intend to pass judgment, but to encourage us to step back, open our eyes wide and consider our circumstances. I invite you to engage in personal inquiry and to deepen your thinking.
American history has been dynamic and complex, far more than a story of partisan conflict and moral inconsistency. Yes, there is disunity, moral decay, and a defensive fragility. But the broad American reality remains dominated by the unparalleled spirit of dynamic creative energy that emerged almost out of nowhere in the 18th century. The various polarities represented by our differences have generated immense energy. At times we seem either to hover more toward productive initiative or dissipation and self-indulgence. Fortunately, the complexity and interplay of our various polarities will discourage any tendency toward developing a single-minded totalitarian despotism.
If we value the United States as the model it has long represented to the world, it will be useful to consider our priorities and important to confront necessity. We cannot maintain the opportunity to seek the kind of political economy or social order we believe in, unless we can keep the American idea alive. The ability to represent our views openly depends on conditions that allow us to do so. This great challenge requires that we first rise above our differences at least to the extent necessary for honest engagement and effective problem-solving.
I am addressing you now at an unprecedented moment. It is only at such a time as this, disrupted, unsettled, and emotionally concerning that a cohesive refocusing of national vision is conceivable. As strange as this may at first sound, we stand on the threshold of a singular transformational moment—with the vibrancy of the American spirit poised potentially to erupt into the future, renewed and re-energized.
It is with this in mind that we turn to the questions before us, the meaning of justice in a political society and the unique circumstances of the United States.
Consent of the Governed
Most Americans think of the United States as a democracy and profess a belief in the legitimacy of democracy as a political system. But, peer beneath the surface and one finds a wide variety of views about what that means. Democracy has been understood to represent a broad range of values from intellectual freedom and economic justice to moral and civilized integrity. Some Americans prefer to describe the United States as a constitutional republic or union, rather than as a democracy.
Sociologist and social historian Robert Nisbet describes democracy as, “fundamentally, a theory and structure of political power. The historical root of democracy, as distinguished from liberalism which is historically a theory of immunity from power, is the proposition that the legitimacy of all political power arises from, and only from, the consent of the governed, the people. Lincoln’s famous definition of democracy as government of, by, and for the people cannot be improved upon either as a moral idea or as a historical description. And it is as right and as institutionally relevant today as it was in Lincoln’s day. But with respect to the ‘people’, as with the ‘individual,’ everything depends upon the practical, cultural contexts in which we choose to regard the people.”[i]
Two very different ways to regard “the people” were described in Chapter 7.[ii] The difference between the two, writes Nisbet, “is decisive in any political theory of democracy. The ‘will of the people’ is one thing, substantively when it is conceived in purely political terms as arising from a vast aggregate of socially separated, politically integrated individuals. It is something very different when it is conceived in terms of the social unities and cultural traditions in which political, like all other, judgments are actually formed and reinforced.”
The first view leads naturally to an increasingly powerful centralized State, simply because government seeks to meet the needs otherwise served by communities and the intermediate institutions found in a diversified civil society. The second view places government in a role that is but one of a plurality of associations and group allegiances existing in a healthy society. Understanding this difference will be crucial to the recovery of a stable order in the United States, and to reversing the trend toward concentration of civic responsibility and power in the federal government.
During the 20th century the term “liberalism” was corrupted by well-meaning politicians and intellectuals who were attracted by the potential effectiveness of centralized government. So, in the interest of transparency, it is important that we define our terms. The word “liberal” derives from the word “liberty.” Classical liberalism, rightly understood, was the philosophical movement that sought liberty and independence for the individual from the rigid institutional oppressiveness of Medieval Europe.
Emerging in the 19th century, it developed into widely divergent extremes. Classical liberalism was influential in the founding of the American Conservative Movement one hundred years later. But, strangely, it also led to the emergence of radically different social philosophies and utopian visions, including totalitarian forms of socialism. It presents a very strange pedigree and this is important to understand.
Today the word “liberal” has come to be associated with a politics of power, as opposed to the politics of decentralization and local self-sufficiency it originally signified. Similarly, the often-heard criticism of “big government” is the complaint of those who value local independence and self-sufficiency. It reflects a relative judgement, diversely defined, rather than a necessarily blanket condemnation of the federal government. However, it is now generally believed by a plurality of Americans that “big government” has advanced in size well beyond any useful or appropriate extreme. The bureaucracy is thought to have become unwieldy, unresponsive, and to function with an uncontrollable will and purpose all its own.
Such widely held views challenge us to revisit the conceptual foundations of the American Idea. Many Americans are coming to recognize that the tensions generated by frustration, fear, and limited perspective are dangerous. Misinformation and distrust among citizens have come to threaten a coherent American future. Differences in belief regarding what is rational, true, and trustworthy have grown steadily, and fraudulent manipulation appears to be playing a role. This has contributed to conflict and confusion that has erupted and metastasized in the new century. The political retreat from truthfulness has projected Americans into a kind of dream world in which truth appears false, good will is perceived as evil-spirited, and the foundations of stability and rational governance are upended.
Ideas Have Consequences
The present difficulties have not appeared out of nowhere. The confluence of crises outlined in Chapter 2 and the historical influences reviewed in Chapters 5 and 6, have evolved over time. While we are most aware of growing instability and distrust evident in recent decades, it comes with a long history. Indeed, we are living with the consequences of ideas, social forces, and political antagonisms that all have roots in past centuries.
The developments involving social philosophy and the social sciences during the 19th century were among the most significant influences in American history. It is inevitable that the social sciences would be subject to critical scrutiny following the great tragedies of the 20th century. However honest and well-meaning the objectives of academic disciplines, (sociology, social psychology and political science), the fear of totalitarian social experiments continues to influence popular perceptions.
The imaginative invention of supposedly ideal societies by social philosophers in the early 19th century, and brought to life in the first half of the 20th century, led to appalling consequences. The nightmares of enforced conformity, mass murder and total war had their origins in the good intentions of social reformers and theorists who sought radical solutions to the oppression and sufferings of ordinary people. One of the apparent consequences of such inventive theories was that utopian societies cannot bear questioning. Everyone must agree or submit, whether they like it or not. Those who resist are restrained or eliminated.
Humankind learned painful lessons in the past century. And, it appears we have more to learn. In the 21st century there is, or should be, another substantive concern for the social theorist. I refer to a difficulty that is fundamental to the very nature of the social sciences.
Among the earliest warnings concerning this dilemma came from historian and philosopher Eric Voegelin in 1951. Human society, Voegelin warned, is not merely a series of events that exist in the external world to be studied by objective observers as though they are natural phenomena: “For man does not wait for science to have his life explained to him, and when the social theorist approaches social reality he finds the field pre-empted by what may be called the self-interpretation of society.”[iii] A political society, Voegelin pointed out, is a coherent world with its’ own holistic integrity, “illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization…. The self-illumination of society through symbols is an integral part of social reality, and one may even say its essential part, for through such symbolization the members of a society experience it as more than an accident or a convenience; they experience it as of their human essence. And, inversely, the symbols express the experience that man is fully man by virtue of his participation in a whole that transcends his particular existence, by virtue of his participation in…‘the common’, as Heraclitus called it….”[iv]
Voegelin’s views are not inventive or imaginative. He traced the character and historical development of political societies from antiquity in many parts of the world, and he presents a well-documented challenge to the social scientist of today. Is it possible, Voegelin asks, for a theorist to stand outside social reality, or is he or she not rather a part of it? “And if he be himself a part of reality, in what sense can this reality be his object? And what does he actually do when he clarifies the symbols that occur in reality? …Does the theorist perhaps possess standards of interpretation of his own by which he measures the self-interpretation of society, and does clarification mean that he develops an interpretation of superior quality…?”
“Certainly, these questions cannot be answered all at once”, Voegelin comments, but the catalog he outlines “…should indicate the complexities of the theoretical situation.”[v]
A World Without Trust
It should come as no surprise that political figures and parties alike have been distrusted by Americans for a long time. That a deepening distrust of political elites has progressed unabated, especially since the mid-twentieth century, has been documented by Robert Nisbet and others.[vi] This steady deterioration over many decades eventually came to infect intellectual elites, scientists, and leaders in business and banking – all of whom had allowed themselves to be perceived in the popular mind as politically tainted. A significant and enduring problem in the 21st century, this colors almost everything from partisan politics to mass media and climate change. What is truth, and who is trustworthy?
If a loss of belief in trustworthiness subverts our access to information and degrades our relationships with neighbors, the ground of human society is indeed poisoned. It is in this context that a powerful need for social and cultural rootedness and belonging has emerged in a society bereft of local community and meaningful civic association. Individual lives are to a large extent devoid of the family support, religious community, and interest associations of a healthy civil society, which used to nourish emotional stability and good judgment. Children are not being parented – by parents who were not themselves parented. The cost can be measured by the accelerating statistics of broken marriages, pathological disturbances, and mass murder.
No one has defined the problem more clearly than Robert Nisbet:
“Because of our single-mind concentration upon the individual as the sole unit of society and upon the State as the sole source of legitimate power, we have tended to overlook the fact that freedom thrives in cultural diversity, in local and regional differentiation, in associative pluralism, and above all, in the diversification of power.
“Basically, all of these are reducible, I believe, to the single massive problem of the relationship of political government to the plurality of cultural associations which form the intermediate authorities of society. These are many: religious, economic, professional, local, recreational, academic, and so forth. Each of them is a structure, often large, of authorities and functions. Each of them is an organization of human purposes and allegiances related to some distinctive institutional end…. And whether it is the economic corporation, the huge labor union, or the profession, each offers, in its own way, innumerable problems of freedom and control in society. There is no unalterable guarantee of freedom in any of them.
Nevertheless, it is the continued existence of this array of intermediate powers in society, of this plurality of ‘private sovereignties,’ that constitutes, above anything else, the greatest single barrier to the conversion of democracy from its liberal form to its totalitarian form. It is the fact of diversity of appeal that is foremost in this social constitution.”[vii]
These words were written before the dominance of multinational corporations was fully realized, and before the weakening of labor unions compromised the economic power of American workers. But Nisbet identifies numerous other examples of intermediate associations and institutions that have been weakened or have vanished as well.
“The weakening of these groups,” wrote Nisbet, “reflects not only spiritual isolation but increasing State power…. The individual who has been by one force or another wrenched from social belonging is thrown back upon himself; he becomes the willing prey of those who would manipulate him as the atom citizen in the political and economic realms. Given nothing but his own resources to stand on, what can be his defenses against the powerful propaganda of those who control the principal means of communication in society?
“Only in their social interdependences are men given to resist the tyranny that always threatens to arise out of any political government, democratic or other. Where the individual stands alone in the face of the State he is helpless.”[viii]
Freedom or Control
Isaiah Berlin, philosopher and historian of ideas, has commented that “almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.”[ix] However, he suggests that two distinct perceptions of freedom have emerged over time. Unlike the pair of interpretations regarding individuality described earlier, this duality is more personal. One is simply the idea that we should be free to do or to be what we are able to do or to be without interference. The second is the idea of having full control over ones’ own initiative and purpose as self-directed individuals.
These two concepts seem quite similar at first glance. Yet, they differ substantially in their implications and consequences. The second view has tended to accompany an arrogance that is easily imposed on others. While the first involves the absence of coercion, the wish to be left alone, it recognizes the inevitable impact of our actions on the people around us. Recognizing the potential for personal freedom to negatively impact the freedom of others, it seeks freedom for the many, and asks only that we be guaranteed a reasonable measure of completely free space around ourselves. The second concept implies unrestricted self-assertion and absolute control of ones’ own life regardless of the consequences imposed on others.
In reference to the first view, Isaiah Berlin comments that “coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings. Mere incapacity to attain a goal is not lack of political freedom.”[x] Berlin again: “The most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship, declared that at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill compiled different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our nature’ (Constant).”[xi]
The second concept of freedom, deriving from the will to control ones’ own life and destiny, has significant consequences for society. Clearly those seeking such liberty perceive themselves as responsible persons possessed of good judgment and perhaps exceptional wisdom, who are able to make choices based solely on their own ideas and purposes. Given the natural human resistance to rational and moral limits discussed in the previous chapter, this is an attitude that can quickly disrupt the equilibrium in communities or of society as a whole.
Over the course of the 19th century the second concept came into direct conflict with the first. As social beings, an insistence that we should be free to do as we wish is never exercised in isolation. The attitude that we have the right to influence or control the lives of other people easily follows. It is convenient to assume that we know best, and some people believe they know the true interests of other people better than they do themselves.
This tendency gained traction during the 19th century, hitching a ride with the powerful Enlightenment belief that to understand the world is to be freed, and, significantly, that there must surely be one implicit and coherent truth behind all others. This was allied with the conviction that all of reality must ultimately be harmonious, and that science and reason will give humankind knowledge of a single unified truth. It followed, therefore, that fully rational thinkers will never disagree and that conflicting values or truths are ultimately impossible. Consequently, numerous influential thinkers became convinced that if reason and rationality demand that our values must coincide in a free and “just” society, they must be made to coincide by any means necessary.
A broad spectrum of the intellectual elite became convinced that the better educated and more rational members of society have a right and responsibility to create and maintain a free society—that is, to do for citizens what they would do for themselves if they possessed the rationality and competence to comprehend what was in their best interest. This is clearly related to the view among individuals described in the previous chapter that assumes the validity of their own knowledge and perspective without regard for the fundamental structure of justice.
Thus, political philosophy has been capable at times of rationalizing the idea that restraining people in their own interest can potentially have validity, because “the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things.”[xii] To some extent the Enlightenment philosophers Locke, Montesquieu, and Kant all bought into this view.[xiii] According to this doctrine, “freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is no tyranny, but liberation.”[xiv]
When social philosophers sought to envision a utopian society for the future, they stumbled into the logical absurdity of forced acquiescence. “Liberty,” Berlin observes, “so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the 18th century, and all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of the wise lawgiver….”[xv]
Needless to say, this problem raises substantial concerns about our understanding of justice and morality. Can it ever be justified or appropriate to place forcible pressure on a citizen for being, in our view, irrational?
Neither justice nor efficiency of government will be possible without consideration of the full range of social and economic circumstances, or the immense diversity of interests, education, and intellectual capacities among its citizens. Leadership is rightly made responsible for the economic health of the nation as a whole, and yet perfect fairness will always remain out of reach. One might well argue, however, that a just and morally responsible government will seek to be fair-minded without equivocation.
The challenge that presents itself today is the need to secure just governance in a politically conscious society that is as contentious as ever, but is yet orders of magnitude larger and more diversified than the America of 1787.
Freedom as Rights
It is in this context that I draw your attention to a uniquely American way of thinking about freedom. In no other country is there a greater preoccupation with the idea of “rights”. The fierce American obsession with rights, as opposed to freedom in general, appears to be an inheritance from a past in which chattel slavery was an immediately present, visceral and inescapable reality in American life and culture. This suggestion might startle white Americans at first, yet it is easily traced in popular language, as well as in legal decisions handed down by the courts both before and after the Civil War. In historical terms, it is not long gone.
The United States maintained slavery long after it was outlawed everywhere else in the western world. During most of the first century of nationhood the institution of slavery was upfront and personal for every American. An assumed legacy established in the colonial era, it produced an intense and uniquely American fear of enslavement in any form. Hence the emotional charge carried by the notion of freedom.
Judith Shklar, a respected political theorist and Professor of Government at Harvard, has observed perceptively that “rights have an independent value. Nor are they acts of liberation; they are freedom itself, because they constitute a perpetual social process without end, a way of political life. They are the result of a history of freedom which must always be understood with slavery as its background.
“But, she continues,” slavery is not the whole answer. The legal institutions of the United States have also contributed to increase considerably the importance given to personal rights. And it is the meeting between those two legacies that has created in the twentieth century a liberalism which expresses itself in ever more frequent and ever more demanding claims aimed at obtaining more rights…. American political culture is radically legalistic and focused on the courts. Above all, the rights of minorities are in the hands of judicial magistrates and not in those of the legislators, who act for the majority of the citizens who have elected them…. In short, freedom means that every person has the right to defend himself effectively in a judicial court against all those who would like to deprive him of his full citizenship and of his constitutional rights.” [xvi]
Judith Shklar goes on to reflect on how strange it is “that in a country as democratic as the United States, there should have been those two anomalies: slavery and the supremacy of courts…. The Constitution begins with these words: ‘We the people.’ But even though there is not a single word about a court such as the Supreme Court to be found in the Constitution, it is in fact nine old judges who, unless the Constitution were to be amended—something that is extremely difficult—are the sovereigns. They have the last word. This is an institution which is obviously irreconcilable with democracy, but results from the conjunction of the three following facts: legal traditions inherited from the Colonial and Revolutionary period, distrust of any government, and a democracy which had little confidence in itself. This convergence has given to the United States two sovereigns, the people and the Supreme Court. This means that there is no sovereignty in the United States…. Given this complicated situation, the drama of freedom in the United States is not a simple fight between liberty and equality, between the minority and the majority, or between the individual and the masses….”[xvii]
Identity and Belonging
Political freedom will never be a simple matter in America. Disagreement about what liberty actually means predates the United States and has continued for centuries. As we all know, personal freedom is inevitably constrained by practical necessities: access to education, employment, good health—and the legal system. And, our expectations are of great consequence. A sense of personal dignity and self-respect is very important for all peoples, and Americans are no different.
Late in the 20th century disappointment and growing distrust intensified into anger among Americans who had lost their jobs, their expectations, and their way of life to poorly paid workers in other parts of the world. Among these, a significant portion of the middle class joined the ranks of the working poor following the financial crisis in 2008, and they remain there at this writing. The lives of millions of Americans were devastated at that time, generating a felt sense of betrayal. While it is natural to fixate on the politics, the momentous consequences of the past half century are complex and incalculable. Social and economic marginalization have brought impoverishment and insecurity to a large part of America.
Perhaps most concerning is the manner in which we do politics. Political community in the United States is, at present, severely challenged. Politics has long been understood as inevitably unseemly, dishonest, and lacking nobility in character or quality or purpose. Yet, such conditions in politics are hardly new. Our unquestioning acceptance of this comes with the distorted consciousness of modernity. There are good people in public service, well-meaning, moral and deeply committed. However, as we all know, political institutions and agencies welcome and foster corruption. They have long provided humanity with ready means for the expression of our worst characteristics.
There is nothing that requires this to be so. The manner in which we behave politically is a choice based on ones’ personal ethics and sense of integrity.
The word “political” is usually taken to imply the seeking of power within an institution or governing structure. And the manipulative means by which this end is pursued are often intended never to see the light of day. However, power can be applied directly or by manipulative means in any relationship that requires negotiation, agreement and compromise, even a supposedly egalitarian one. This can take place in the internal dynamics of a family, a sporting club, or a community-based church. When our choices or actions lack the honesty of transparent motives, we are lacking integrity. As the means, so the end.[xviii]
The question before us is how governance, whether formal or informal, can be managed in such a way that acknowledges the diverse experience and felt-needs of the community, even while recognizing the tough constraints of necessity.
Without cooperation and collaboration, effective governance is not possible in a politically free society. The Constitution of the United States requires it. And without trust we are lost. The functional decision-making required to secure national safety and security requires both trust and honest cooperation. The freedom required for partisan debate cannot afford a weakening of the constitutional order.
Americans deserve the opportunity to clarify a more coherent vision of the nation’s identity, purpose, and manner of political engagement. We cannot look to political leadership for this. An animating vision needs to be lodged in the hearts and minds of the people. Its’ form must transcend politics and embrace all that is rich and honorable in American cultural diversity. The identity of a political society is grounded in the vitality of its’ animating idea. And local community is the only place where representation of the American idea can be adequately conceived, discussed, and articulated among engaged citizens.
A society enters existential crisis when its’ structural coherence and fundamental animating idea breaks down. When this takes place there are only two possible outcomes. Either the political order disintegrates, leading to the collapse of social order – or a deeper conception of the animating idea is recognized and articulated.
To be made a reality, the potential for a new beginning must be internalized and increasingly asserted by a broad spectrum of citizenry. To depend on political leadership for defining the American idea would expose our vulnerability. True leadership, and indeed citizenship itself, knows that political truth is plural and can only be represented through the diversity that gives this nation its meaning and character. The need for a shared articulation of the distinctive character of political society in America has emerged as the principal challenge at an existential turning point.
Eric Voegelin put it thus: “When [conscious] articulation expands throughout society, the representative will also expand until the limit is reached where the membership of the society has become politically articulate down to the last individual and, correspondingly, the society becomes representative of itself. Symbolically this limit is reached with the masterful, dialectical concentration of Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”[xix] The symbol “people” in this formula means successively the articulated political society, its representative, and the membership that is bounded by the acts of the representative. The unsurpassable fusion of democratic symbolism with theoretical content in this formula is the secret of its effectiveness.”[xx]
We will begin to concentrate our minds toward this end on the coming pages, focusing first on true nature of personal freedom, and then on the foundational unit in civilized societies: the local community.
[i] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community, Oxford Univ. Press (1953), pp. 229-230.
[ii] See Chapter 7, pp. 6-8.
[iii] Eric Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics”, in Modernity Without Restraint, Univ. of Missouri Press (2000), Collected Works, vol. 5, p. 109.
[v] Ibid., pp. 129-130.
[vi] See Chapter 6, pp. x-x.
[vii] Robert Nisbet, op. cit., p. 244.
[viii] Ibid., p. 247.
[ix] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, in Liberty, Oxford Univ. Press (1969, 1978), p. 168.
[x] Ibid., p. 169.
[xi] Ibid., p. 173.
[xii] Edmund Burke, Appeal from the Old to the new Whigs (1791), pp. 93-4 in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (World Classics edition), vol. 5 (London, 1907).
[xiii] As reported by Isaiah Berlin, op. cit., p. 194.
[xv] Ibid., pp. 194-5
[xvi] Judith Shklar, Redeeming American Political Thought, Univ. of Chicago Press (1998), p. 112.
[xvii] Ibid., pp. 112-113.
[xviii] Words attributed to Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948).
[xix] “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The closing words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863.
[xx] Eric Voegelin, op. cit., pp. 119-120.