Since the release of Evangelii Gaudium there have been countless articles and commentary about the economic portions of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation. Some of the commentary has been downright bizarre, such as Rush Limbaugh denouncing the Pope as a Marxist, or Stuart Varney accusing Francis of being a neo-socialist. American conservatives grumbled but dutifully denounced a distorting media when Pope Francis seemed to go wobbly on homosexuality, but his criticisms of capitalism have crossed the line, and we now see the Pope being criticized and even denounced from nearly every rightward-leaning media pulpit in the land.
Not far below the surface of many of these critiques one hears the following refrain: why can’t the Pope just go back to talking about abortion? Why can’t we return the good old days of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI and talk 24/7/365 about sex? Why doesn’t Francis have the decency to limit himself to talking about Jesus and gays, while avoiding the rudeness of discussing economics in mixed company, an issue about which he has no expertise or competence?
There are subtle and brash versions of this plea. At “The Catholic Thing,” Hadley Arkes has penned a characteristically elegant essay in which he notes that Francis is generally correct on teachings about marriage and abortion, but touches on these subjects too briefly, cursorily and with unwelcome caveats of sorts. At the same time, Francis goes on at length about the inequalities and harm caused by free market economies, which moves Hadley to counsel the Pope to consult next time with Michael Novak. The upshot—be as brief as the Gettysburg Address in matters pertaining to economics, and loquacious as Edward Everett when it comes to erotics.
On the brash side there is Larry Kudlow, who nearly hyperventilates when it comes to his disagreement with Pope Francis, accusing him of harboring sympathies with Communist Russia and not sufficiently appreciating Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. (R. R. Reno, who is briefly allowed to get a word in edgewise, wisely counseled Kudlow not to fight the last war—or, the one fought three wars ago, for that matter.) Revealingly, Kudlow counsels the Pope to concentrate on “moral and religious reform,” and that he should “harp” instead on “morality, spiritualism and religiosity,” while ceasing to speak about matters economic. Similarly, Judge Napolitano, responding to a challenge from Stuart Varney on why the Pope is talking about economics, responded: “I wish he would stick to faith and morals, on which he is very sound and traditional.”
These commentators all but come and out say: we embrace Catholic teaching when it concerns itself with “faith and morals”—when it denounces abortion, opposes gay marriage, and urges personal charity. This is the Catholicism that has been acceptable in polite conversation. This is a stripped-down Catholicism that doesn’t challenge fundamental articles of economic faith. Read More…
On September 9, 2013, a conference entitled “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core” was held at the University of Notre Dame. I was invited to deliver an introductory set of remarks on the first panel of that conference. I post those comments here in full.
(Following the conference, a first-rate letter opposing the adoption of the Common Core in Catholic schools, composed by ND Law Professor Gerard Bradley, was circulated widely to Catholic faculty. I was proud to sign this letter, which stresses especially the profound insufficiency the narrowly utilitarian aims of the Common Core curriculum).
The Purpose of Education in American Society
Remarks Delivered at the Common Core Conference
September 9, 2013
University of Notre Dame
I have been teaching a freshman seminar for about eight years that is entitled “The End of Education.” In the seminar we study about ten different authors, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Allan Bloom, all with an eye to exploring the questions “what is education for?” “What end does it seek to achieve?” The aim of the course is not necessarily to give my students the answer to that question but to make them aware of the intense debate that has taken place over the history of Western Civilization over the ends and purpose of education. As I begin my first class by explaining, if you want to know the commitments of a civilization, look at what it aims to teach its young. If one of the main marks of a civilization is its effort to perpetuate itself over successive generations, then its deepest and ultimate cares will be reflected in its educational commitments.
So I must acknowledge that at first glance the question that I’ve been asked to address for this session—“The Purpose of Education in America”—is exceedingly difficult, since there has been no national educational system in America, current efforts notwithstanding. This might be a sign or indication that America, as a civilization, has no civilizational commitments to its young, that it is a uniquely peculiar nation for not having long had a strong national curriculum like that of England or Germany or Japan. Many look at the patchwork, state- and local-controlled variety of education in America and conclude that it is time to standardize and modernize, time to adopt an American set of educational commitments. Read More…
One of the landmark studies of America, published 120 years ago, is Fredrick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s essay was inspired by a line that appeared in the Census report of 1890:
Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not therefore any longer have a place in the census reports.
Turner recognized that contained within this small passage of officialese was a momentous turning point in American history. The official announcement of the end of the existence of the American frontier marked “the closing of a great historic moment.” In Turner’s view, the existence of the frontier, and all that it entailed, constituted the deepest source of the American character—more than any other explanation, including even the Constitution.
Turner was a fervent Progressive during the years when Progressivism was gaining steam—indeed, he receives top billing in Richard Hofstadter’s study The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. In Turner’s view, the role played by the frontier—and the type of values and attributes it fostered in Americans—was the root of the progressive thrust in American history, including, importantly in his view, the rise of the sense of American nationalism.
The wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country.
What is striking in these and similar passages is how closely Turner’s analysis echoes the hopes and intentions of the Founders of whom the Progressives were often fervent critics. He particularly echoes the Hamiltonians who envisioned a “national system” that would draw the allegiances of people away from local and parochial identities through the soft but persistent pressure of a nationalizing economic and political order. Turner recognized that this thrust toward an increasing national identity would be achieved through the encouragement of the individualistic spirit of the American frontiersman. The John Wayne, Daniel Boone spirit of the self-standing, self-made, independent, free individual would, ironically, forge the conditions for a national identity and usher in the possibility and even necessity of the Progressive stage.
A friend once described conservatives as people who agreed about one important thing—that at some point in the past, something went terribly wrong. After that, conservatives splinter into untold numbers of camps, since they disagree ferociously about the date of the catastrophe.
Most conservatives today agree that America has taken a terrible turn—that something went wrong at some point in the past. Most believe that America was well-founded by the Framers of the Constitution, but that something bad happened that corrupted the sound basis of the Founding. A few—generally unpopular—believe that Lincoln is to blame, that he introduced the beginnings of centralized State and the imperial Presidency. Many point to the catastrophe of the 1960s as the main source of current woes (a striking number of these constitute the neoconservative faction). But, at least in the circles in which I travel, an increasing number have settled on the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th-century as the source of today’s troubles, and see President Obama as the direct inheritor of this philosophical and political movement that was born in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
The dominant narrative about the rise of Progressivism, both in the halls of academe and its distillation in the popular media expressed by figures such as Glenn Beck, is that Progressivism was a virus that was incubated in a foreign (particularly German) laboratory and was transported to America by intellectual elites, often educated at German universities and influenced by thinkers such as Kant and Hegel (such intellectuals include the likes of Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey). These Progressives despised the classical liberal philosophy of the Founding, and sought either an explicit rejection of the Constitution or an effective change by re-defining it as a “living” document.
This is a plausible case – and, the fact is that major progressive figures turned often to German and other foreign sources in developing their intellectual critique of the classical liberal philosophy of the Founding. Thus, by attributing the rise of Progressivism to a foreign contagion, it can be comfortably maintained that the Founding was good and true and was corrupted by a fifth column.
However, what this argument overlooks is that the greatest analysis of American democracy—Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, a full half-century before the flowering of Progressivism—already perceived the seeds of Progressivism’s major tenets already embedded in the basic features and attributes of liberal democracy as established at the Founding. Of particular note, while the major figures of Progressivism would directly attack classical liberalism, Tocqueville discerned that Progressivism arose not in spite of the classical liberal tradition, but because of its main emphasis upon, and cultivation of, individualism.
Individualism is a distinctive phenomenon arising in liberal democracy, notes Tocqueville. The idea of the individual is at least as old as Christianity, but individualism is a new experience of self that arises with the passing of the experience of embeddedness in a familial, social, religious, generational, and cultural setting that is largely fixed and unchanging—the basic features of an aristocratic society. The rise of liberal democracy, by contrast, is premised upon a view of the individual deriving from the social contract tradition, which conceives of human beings in their natural state as defined, above all, by the total absence of such constitutive bonds, inherited roles and given identities (a philosophy that Bertrand de Jouvenel said was developed by “childless men who forgot their childhood”). Instead, as Tocqueville describes, in a democracy, “the chain” that once bound a peasant all the way to a king is “shattered,” throwing each individual in their freedom and equality finally “into the solitude of their own own hearts.”
Often discussed in different sections of the newspaper or the blogosphere, the twin crises of health care and higher education are extraordinary in their similarities. Both are regarded as necessary goods for human flourishing whose costs are spiraling out of control. Both rely on a professional class that is becoming more specialized, losing the generalist who once cared for the “whole person.” Both have seen expanding intervention by the central government which has sought to provide access to the lower and middle classes. Both are believed by many conservatives to be properly reformed by means of market-based solutions. Both are the subject of intense contemporary political debate.
And both were once almost exclusively the province of the Church, and, indeed, can trace their institutional origins—hospitals and universities—as part of the Church’s charitable ministry.
This latter fact, it seems to me, sheds bright light on the common roots of the contemporary crisis of each area. The dominant voices in the debate in both areas—health and education—cleave closely to the contemporary party lines. On the Right, the case is made that a competitive market model will solve the ills of both health care and education. By allowing prices to be driven by supply and demand, and the motivations of the primary actors—doctors and professoriate, on the one hand, patients and students, on the other—to be largely self-interested, the market will resolve how best to allocate the relatively limited access to the best health care and the best institutions of higher education. On the Left, it is believed that the State should rest a heavy hand on the scales of the market, enforcing widespread access, suppressing costs (or providing subsidies), and forcing providers to conform to state-mandated expectations and standards.
Yet there is something fundamentally amiss with making provision of health and higher education contingent on market models and profit calculus, as both seem to be goods that are not subject to the same kind of calculus as automobiles and bubble gum. The very idea that doctors and teachers are or ought to act out of the motivations of self-interest, and provide services to their “consumers,” seems fundamentally contradictory to the kind of work and social role performed by each. The decline of the “generalist” in each sphere is indicative of a deeper crisis of the willingness to act on behalf of a broader conception of the good intrinsic to each profession and on behalf of the person being served, in favor of the specialization encouraged by modern canons of efficiency, productivity, profit, and rationalization.
At the same time, the State is rightly suspected of being unable to fundamentally improve or even maintain the quality of either sphere. It is doubtless the case that it can assure access by the heavy hand of threats, but many rightly worry that, as a consequence, the quality of care and education will deteriorate as a result. The State takes on the ersatz role of “generalist,” seemingly concerned for the good of the whole. It can only pursue that good by seeking to control pricing and access while influencing the ways “care” is provided, but it fails necessarily in caring for the vision of the whole that the actors of the professions are no longer willing or able to perform.
The debate as currently constituted represents a pincer movement aimed ultimately at the re-definition of each area—as we have seen in so many areas of contemporary life. While superficially opposites, proponents of each position in fact share a fundamental hostility to the original presuppositions that had informed the foundation of both institutions—the corporal works of charity central to the Church’s earthly mission.
In fact, it seems increasingly evident that practices such as health care and education are likely to fail when wholly uninformed by their original motivation of religious charity. Neither functions especially well based on the profit-motive or guided by large-scale national welfare policies. As the failure of the market model in each area becomes evident, the demands for the second—government intervention and control—have quickly followed. That both are reaching crises at the same time is hardly coincidental: both benefitted for a long time from the “social capital” accumulated as Church institutions, a legacy of cultures and practices that persisted for a long time even after the practitioners had ceased to embrace them. However, in both cases, the social capital is now depleted, and each now operates on a nonsensical combination of self-interested market motivations and taxation and threat-based national welfare policy. Neither is a fitting motivation or model for either sphere.
While much aspersion has been cast upon some of the leading villains who have engineered the latest imbroglio in Washington, D.C.—Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, the Republicans, among those most often named—it is at least instructive to stand back from the current moment and consider the curious status of representation itself in today’s political circumstance. For we have neither of the two proposed forms of representation that were debated at the creation of America, but instead a hybrid that, arguably, combines the worst of both without the virtues of either.
Mostly forgotten today is that a major source of debate during the original ratification debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was the very nature of representation, and in particular, the role that would be played by elected officials along with their relationship to the citizenry. The debate especially touched on respective views of the organization of the House of Representatives, but more broadly implicated the very nature of representation itself. According to the Federalists—those who sought ratification and eventually carried the day—the Constitution aimed at the creation of fairly large districts with numerous constituents, better to decrease the likelihood of passionate political expressions and participation by the electorate. Larger districts would, they hoped, make it more likely that only the most successful and visible people would be sufficiently identifiable by a larger electorate, ensuring the election of “fit characters” to office who, they also hoped, would better be able to discern the public good than if the entire body of the people had been gathered for that purpose.
The Anti-Federalists, by contrast, argued for relatively small and homogenous districts in which there would be frequent rotation in office and shorter terms (a year, at most), thereby ensuring that representatives would be drawn from the body of the citizens, and that there would be a close bond between constituents and their representatives. Rather than hoping for representatives who would be prominent, visible and “fit,” instead they hoped representatives would be drawn from the “middling” part of society, whom they believed would be less prone toward vices of the “great,” such as luxury and empire, and more likely instead to be people of “ordinary” virtue.
In short, the Federalists subscribed to a “filter” theory of representation, which they hoped would lead to political leaders who would be able to make decisions in the “public good” rather than constrained by the narrow parochial interests of their constituents. They sought to encourage the formation of private-minded citizens who would pay relatively little attention to political matters, leaving it to competent “fit characters.” The Anti-Federalists advanced a “mirror” theory of representation, instead hoping that representatives would reflect the modest virtues of the yeomanry. They hoped to foster high degree of deliberation and political discussion among the whole of the citizenry, favoring more local and deliberative forms of self-government.
The Federalists hoped that representatives, drawn from among the ambitious, would—whatever the differences of their regions and constituencies—all share an ambition for American greatness, and put aside differences in favor of crafting policies toward that end. The Anti-Federalists hoped for a numerous lower chamber of considerable contention, one likely to thwart the ambitions of the elite and instead keep the central government relatively ineffectual, while fostering strong local forms of political self-rule. The Federalists believed in a strong division of labor, in which “fit” elected officials would do the “work” of politics; the Anti-Federalists defended the role of “amateurs” in politics, believing that citizenship consisted in that ancient practice of “ruling and being ruled in turn.”
The Federalists—particularly Madison in the justly celebrated Federalist 10—argued that this form of representation, combined with a large geographic scale, would constitute the best means of combating the formation of “majority factions.” Their overarching fear was of a portion of the polity using the levers of government to effect its narrow ends.
The Anti-Federalists insisted that their version of representation would forestall the creation of a “consolidated” government, making frequent agreement at the federal level unlikely, while also fostering civic virtues and practices that would keep governance close to home. Their overarching fear was a powerful central government commandeered by the wealthy and powerful.
Today, we have combined parts of each theory and arrived at a highly unpalatable and even toxic mix.
Earlier this week I began a series of lectures in one of my classes on the thought of the Anti-Federalists. I began by echoing some of the conclusions of the great compiler and interpreter of the Anti-Federalist writings, Herbert Storing, whose summation of their thought is found in his compact introductory volume, What the Anti-Federalists Were For. I began with the first main conclusion of that book, that in the context of the debate over the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were the original American conservatives. I then related a series of positions that were held by the Anti-Federalist opponents of the proposed Constitution. To wit:
They insisted on the importance of a small political scale, particularly because a large expanse of diverse citizens makes it difficult to arrive at a shared conception of the common good and an overly large scale makes direct participation in political rule entirely impracticable if not impossible. They believed that laws were and ought to be educative, and insisted upon the centrality of virtue in a citizenry. Among the virtues most prized was frugality, and they opposed an expansive, commercial economy that would draw various parts of the Union into overly close relations, thereby encouraging avarice, and particularly opposed trade with foreign nations, which they believed would lead the nation to compromise its independence for lucre. They were strongly in favor of “diversity,” particularly relatively bounded communities of relatively homogeneous people, whose views could then be represented (that is, whose views could be “re-presented”) at the national scale in very numerous (and presumably boisterous) assemblies. They believed that laws were only likely to be followed when more or less directly assented to by the citizenry, and feared that as distance between legislators and the citizenry increased, that laws would require increased force of arms to achieve compliance. For that reason, along with their fears of the attractions of international commerce and of imperial expansion, they strongly opposed the creation of a standing army and insisted instead upon state-based civilian militias. They demanded inclusion of a Bill of Rights, among which was the Second Amendment, the stress of which was not on individual rights of gun ownership, but collective rights of civilian self-defense born of fear of a standing army and the temptations to “outsource” civic virtue to paid mercenaries.
As I disclosed the positions of the Anti-Federalists, I could see puzzlement growing on the faces of a number of students, until one finally exclaimed—”this doesn’t sound like conservatism at all!” Conservatism, for these 18-to-22-year-olds, has always been associated with George W. Bush: a combination of cowboy, crony capitalism, and foreign adventurism in search of eradicating evil from the world. To hear the views of the Anti-Federalists described as “conservative” was the source of severe cognitive dissonance, a deep confusion about what, exactly, is meant by conservatism.
So I took a step back and discussed several ways by which we might understand what is meant by conservatism—first, as a set of dispositions, then as a response to the perceived threats emanating from a revolutionary (or even merely reformist) left, and then as a set of contested substantive positions. And, I suggested, only by connecting the first and third, and understanding the instability of the second, could one properly arrive at a conclusion such as that of Storing, who would describe the positions of the Anti-Federalists as “conservative.”
First, there is the conservative disposition, one articulated perhaps most brilliantly by Russell Kirk, who described conservatism above all not as a set of policy positions, but as a general view toward the world. That disposition especially finds expression in a “piety toward the wisdom of one’s ancestors,” a respect for the ancestral that only with great caution, hesitancy, and forbearance seeks to introduce or accept change into society. It is supremely wary of the only iron law of politics—the law of unintended consequences (e.g., a few conservatives predicted that the introduction of the direct primary in the early 1900′s would lead to increasingly extreme ideological divides and the increased influence of money in politics. In the zeal for reform, no one listened). It also tends toward a pessimistic view of history, more concerned to prevent the introduction of corruption in a decent regime than driven to pursue change out a belief in progress toward a better future.
William Galston has written an important column in the Wall Street Journal, devoted to an assessment of Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average Is Over. The book tells of a coming(?) nation of two economic classes, the meritocratic elite and an increasingly poor, even third-world economic class of underemployed who gather in large ghetto areas (e.g., Texas) with poor public services but plentiful distractions (think: internet porn, 24/7/365 football, and soon-to-be legalized marijuana delivered by e-joints).
Aficionados of science fiction know that Kurt Vonnegut predicted this world already in 1952, with the publication of his first novel, Player Piano. There he describes with chilling accuracy this world ever-more coming into view—one divided between a meritocratic class with all the right degrees (even the secretaries will have Ph.D.s in a credential-inflated future) and the “Reeks-and-Wrecks,” who a visiting dignitary from the Middle East insists on calling “Takaru”—”slaves.”
We should be unsurprised, as Galston seems to be—shocked, shocked!—that this world comes ever more clearly into view. Indeed, as domestic policy advisor for President Clinton, Galston assisted in the expansion of this social and economic arrangement, participating in one of the most libertarian administrations the world has ever seen. According to Cowen, “technology” is displacing middle-class workers into either a shrinking class of “winners” or a growing class of “losers,” but assuredly, part of that “technology” is a regime of free-trade agreements and a host of other government incentives that have supported the infrastructure of globalization and worker replacement.
This inconvenient fact makes Galston’s closing paragraph a real howler: “Whether by accident or design, Mr. Cowen’s book represents a fundamental challenge. To government-hating, market-worshiping conservatives, it poses a question: If this is the consequence of your creed, are you prepared to endorse it? To liberals and progressives: What are you going to do about it? And to all of us: Is this a country you would want to live in?”
It is altogether risible that Galston, or anyone, thinks there is any significant difference between Republicans and Democrats in this regard. One need only look at the widening chasm of income inequality under Obama who—as a candidate running for his first presidential primary—dispatched Austan Goolsbee to Canada directly after pretending to be a populist for rust belt voters in the 2008 Michigan primary, to assure the Canadians that he would do nothing to touch NAFTA. Read More…
In this past Sunday’s New York Times a story appeared noting that the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor would result in the sixth sitting Catholic on the High Court. The article was most noteworthy for what it didn’t really say – namely, that few people are really much interested in this aspect of Sotomayor’s “identity” because it doesn’t seem germane to the current identity issues at play. According to the article, Sotomayor is not particularly an observant Catholic (it seems she is the sort who attends Church on occasional Easters and baptisms), and few if any on the Left or Right think it is a relevant factor in her background (though, perhaps this is the source of nervousness among some on the Left who fret about her stance on abortion, though they are prudent enough not to attribute this concern about her Catholicism out loud).
The article notes that, while she was raised Catholic, she is not seen to be particularly orthodox, and further that there are a variety of views within the Catholic church itself. This seems to be an acknowledgement that bears no further commentary or reflection on the part of the Times writer, though it’s interesting to reflect that while it’s sufficient to point out the variety of views within Catholicism, it’s well understood what is meant by referring to the relevance of Judge Sotomayor’s identity as an Hispanic. That there may be differences in viewpoint among women, or Hispanics, or Hispanic women, for that matter, is hardly worth considering: whatever makes her “experience” relevant to her supporters is supportable only to the extent that it lines up with pre-approved jurisprudential and interpretive positions. That there is “variety” within the designated group “Hispanic women” is not worth mentioning, since it’s only one iteration of that “identity” that is deemed to be acceptable.
That said – what if her Catholicism were relevant? What if she were to come out in the next few days and acknowledge that her Catholicism – though very personal to her – was deeply formative and it was the lens through which she would make judgments on the bench. Imagine if she were to say the following: “I would hope that a wise Catholic woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a secular male who hasn’t lived that life.” One can imagine the uproar that would attend such a statement – yet it would be as absolutely true reflection of her “life experience” as her Hispanicness and her woman-ness. Why is her “identity” as a Latina woman acceptable to the Left, whereas a stated identity as a Catholic – if expressed so explicitly – would automatically disqualify her for consideration?
Let me quote (as I’ve quoted on other occasions, elsewhere) from an essay by my teacher and mentor, Wilson Carey McWilliams, whose perceptiveness on this matter, I think, gets to the bottom of why some groups matter in liberal society:
“Notably, the groups that [liberal reformers] recognize are all defined by biology. In liberal theory, where our ‘nature’ means our bodies, these are ‘natural’ groups opposed to ‘artificial’ bonds like communities of work and culture. This does not mean that liberalism values these ‘natural’ groups. Quite the contrary: since liberal political society reflects the effort to overcome or master nature, liberalism argues that ‘merely natural’ differences ought not to be held against us. We ought not to be held back by qualities we did not choose and that do not reflect our individual efforts and abilities. [Reformers] recognize women, racial minorities, and the young only in order to free individuals from ‘suspect classifications.’
“Class and culture are different. People are part of ethnic communities or the working class because they chose not to pursue individual success and assimilation into the dominant, middle-class culture, or because they were unable to succeed. Liberal theory values individuals who go their own way, and by the same token, it esteems those who succeed in that quest more highly than individuals who do not. Ethnicity and class [and, one might add, religion], consequently, are marks of shame in liberal theory, and whatever discrimination people suffer is, in some sense, their ‘own fault.’ We may feel compassion for the failures, but they have no just cause for equal representation, unlike individuals who suffer discrimination for ‘no fault of their own.’”
["Politics" (American Quarterly, v. 35, Spring/Summer 1983, v. 1&2, p. 27)]
Sotomayor’s “experience” as an Hispanic woman matters because it’s overcoming or elimination will lead to the triumph of liberal individualism – that is, its irrelevance. Her Catholicism – to the extent it were relevant – is odious to the extent that it is an obstacle to the fruition of liberal individualism. Some experience is relevant because its ultimate aim is to be irrelevant; other experience is objectionable because people should know better than to stand athwart history. Thus one sees how the deepest liberal assumptions are built into the fabric of what is deemed to matter. Unless that can be perceived clearly, we are already arguing on ground that has been defined by the deepest liberal assumptions.
My Georgetown colleague Michael Kazin wrote recently of the re-ascendancy of Left-wing patriotism and its revival as a “liberal faith.” Long moribund in the aftermath of the Vietnam War – when the New Left especially came to abhor American participation in foreign interventionism, militarism, colonialism and its embrace a crass consumerist free-market ideology – it has taken some four decades for the Left again to embrace the American narrative of liberty, equality and prosperity, helped along by the efforts of aging New-Leftist Todd Gitlin and made finally reputable with the election of Barak Obama. While Michelle Obama backpedaled from her unscripted campaign statement that she was “proud of America for the first time in [her] life,” her admission encapsulates the view of a wide swath of the contemporary Left. Seeing the innumerable flags being waved on the Mall on the morning of Obama’s inauguration, there came the full realization that the Right monopoly on the imagery and language of patriotism had come to an end. Kazin predicts a vibrant set of competing narratives over the meaning of the American narrative, with both Left and Right laying claim to the mantle of patriotism.
Something more significant is taking place on this front, however. A growing chorus of voices on the Right – still marginal to the mainstream of the Republican Party, admittedly (I would have to include myself) – has begun taking up quite a bit of the substance of the criticisms of America made formerly by the New Left, albeit to a different tune and distinct set of goals. Reading Andrew Bacevich’s recent book The Limits of Power, I was struck by – and sympathetic with – not only the often stinging rebukes and criticisms of policies and political actors, but a more sweeping condemnation of the broad sweep of American political history and its basic self-congratulatory narrative.
In a preview of his book published in 2006 in Commonweal (and found in revised form in the first section of his book), Bacevich urged a reconsideration of the basic narrative of American history:
Crediting America with a “great liberating tradition” sanitizes the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale and thereby provides a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.
If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self-evident to the obtuse, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” He spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and to extend their commercial reach abroad.
How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.
Unless one knew this was written by a self-declared conservative, this is the sort of jeremiad that one might have expected to read by a hackneyed Leftist author in the Nation or Mother Jones. That it comes from a conservative makes it both jarring and interesting, but also gives rise to a concern whether this counter-argument against the broader narrative of the American tradition can have any purchase with the broader American public. Are such efforts to criticize the dominant (indeed, liberal) American narrative doomed to political irrelevancy, whether from the Left or the Right? Will some version of the “New Right” now come to occupy the space once occupied by the New Left – vilified by the mainstream, seen as vaguely cranky, out of touch and too deeply pessimistic to be allowed into the American conversation? Will it be a fast-track to electoral irrelevancy, or worse, give rise to self-certain declarations a la Trilling that America is solely and exclusively a liberal nation?
On the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s death, David Brooks wrote of what he regarded to be the single greatest accomplishment of Reagan, which had less to do with any policy achievement or appointment to the Court, but rather with a fundamental redefinition of conservatism from the pessimistic strain of the likes of Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers and Richard Weaver to a more optimistic strain. Brooks wrote,
To understand the intellectual content of Reagan’s optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. It was largely a movement of disenfranchised thinkers who placed great emphasis on human frailty and sin, the limitations of what we can know, and the tragic nature of history.
Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse…. Conservatives looked back sadly to customs and institutions that were being eroded. What was needed, many argued, was a restoration of stability. ”The recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century,” Kirk argued.
Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. As early as 1952 during a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, Reagan argued, ”I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”
Reagan frequently invoked many phrases of none other than Thomas Paine – that opponent of Edmund Burke and sympathizer with the French Revolution – particularly the line, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again,” an invocation that Bacevich rightly subjects again and again to withering scorn. Echoing the analysis of the recently and very regrettably departed John Patrick Diggins in his excellent study, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History – who noted in particular the deeply anti-conservative Emersonian roots of much of Reagan’s optimism – Bacevich instead frequently invokes the words of Reinhold Niebuhr and his constant recollection of the inescapable reality of original sin and the human propensity toward pride and self-aggrandizement.
It may indeed be the case of a rejuvenation of pre-Reagan conservatism, drawing deeply from the works of such authors as Kirk, Weaver, Niebuhr and other “pessimists” (or, I would submit, Realists) may doom any such New/Old/Paleo conservatism to irrelevancy in the American narrative. However, if some of its basic message has remained the same, times have decidedly changed. Faced with a collapsing economic system, the undoing of the American-led Post-World War II global consensus, the growing evidence of environmental and moral depletion all around us, the message of conservative realism may be ripe for a re-hearing and reassessment. Everywhere people are realizing that the message of optimism – don’t worry, be happy, and pay for it tomorrow – was in fact a message of deception, duplicity and fraud. Neither the mainstream Left nor Right appear capable of speaking meaningfully to the import of this moment. Ironically, the very moment that the Left has re-connected to its message of “liberal faith” may be the very moment when that faith is proven to be too much evidence of things unseen. In the meantime, a critique of the American narrative – combined with a reconsideration of “Another America,” a tradition of localism, community, self-government based in limits, a culture of memory and tradition, undergirded by faith and virtue – may have found its moment. For starters, its heroes are more likely to be the likes of the Anti-federalists (see Bill Kauffman’s book on Luther Martin for a start) than the triumphalist narrative of the Founders and their creation of an empire of liberty. Its cultural heroes are more likely to be the Waltons rather than the celebrity flavor of the month (I can’t recommend enough a re-viewing of this series, now more than ever, courtesy of Netflix. We have been watching it with our children for some months, and it is salutary and decent beyond description). I speak here of a revival of patriotism, alright, but a patriotism based in places and folkways, not abstraction and expansion. Thus, perhaps not the sort of patriotism we are used to, but one of noble lineage and one that will need good storytellers to begin to displace an otherwise broken and tinny narrative that now should be discarded.