I write of an American tradition of liberty rather than of Liberty as such. I write not of the liberty we would find behind a veil of ignorance nor of the undiluted, principled, liberty some moralists consume straight up. I focus instead on a heritage of liberty, forged out of the particular and peculiar experiences of American history, protected and internalized by a panoply of institutions, and that has produced an American temperament infused with affection and admiration for its unique inheritance. American liberty inspires gratitude and a spirit of improvement that is constructive rather than revolutionary. Unlike Liberty as…
The most important battle for the American soul is being fought in history. The intellectual rise of Neo-Progressivism over the past three decades depended heavily on historians who helped craft a compelling story of America. This story had to expose and chronicle the dark history of exploitation of the privileged and powerful against a litany of victimized “others” while simultaneously laying claim to a worthy past that is unfolding toward a noble future. The psychological benefits of this story are many and powerful, though they rest on conceptual ground riven with subterranean stresses and fissures. At its most powerful, inhabiting this…
In politics, our myths are more important than our history. The stories that tell us who we are as a nation are the most powerful political tools in times of economic, military or cultural stress. Good or useful myths marshal populist anxieties, giving to people who are fearful of dispossession or political dislocation a story that simultaneously affirms their central role in this nation and explains the causes of their present turmoil. In 2008 the nation needed a useable myth that could tap into American populism and turn this potent political force into a conserving power. Obama’s myth has not created a sustainable narrative of America, but it might have weakened the very capacity of the nation to believe in and live as part of a better story of ourselves.
Progressives use laws and regulations as a means of narrowing the social space in which individuals and groups make choices. The objective is moral in nature and Progressives take freedom, of a certain sort, very seriously. The highest liberty is to do what is right and good and therefore they believe that an extensive, detailed, objective, and rational, legal (and regulatory) system is a necessary component in nudging people to their freedom. Working in tandem with a national media that presents a vision of a redeemed community, and a progressive educational system in which children internalize the moral vision of the national community (a subject I explored here), a comprehensive legal structure guides, shapes, and reminds citizens about virtuous living.
Much about the Progressive version of moralized politics is deeply American.
I have written elsewhere that the primary task of the Progressive state is the rearing of good citizens. In this way Progressives participate in a very ancient conversation about citizen virtues and the common good. To understand them well, one ought to pay close attention to the cave wall, to the images and ideals they craft in order to play on widely accepted moral principles and, then, to alter or shape those principles in an ongoing reeducation campaign. Progressivism is, first and foremost, a moral vision and its power rests squarely on how compelling democratic citizens find that moral vision. The rearing of good citizens requires, as a result, first deceiving citizens by “framing” policy alternatives in such a way as to tap into the linguist moral resources of the people and then, second, altering the moral framework by steady efforts at reeducation by several key institutions like the media, the judiciary, higher education, but especially government schools.
Robert Nisbet’s most important and yet neglected insight is that modern individualism and collectivism are the twin movements of modern democratic despotism. The first liberates individuals from myriad forms of authority (e.g., family, church, guild, local community) that characterize most pre-modern social orders. The second represents a new, equalitarian order based on the consolidation of isolated (liberated) particles into a new administrative regime that promises solidarity and community. In a previous essay I suggested that the dominant species of modern community, the democratic administrative state, faces severe—perhaps existential—threats to its hegemony because the financial burden faced by modern states makes it impossible for them to sustain the necessary level of provision for their citizens. The resulting austerity should open social space between the individual and state. The question now is whether new patterns of authority as well as richer conceptions of the person will emerge in this new social space.
There recurs, from time to time, a strange nostalgia for Robert Nisbet and his form of conservatism. Strange is this nostalgia because it comes from Progressives who claim to pine for some endangered species of Republican or some extinct communitarianism. These Progressives are disingenuous, at best. A recent example comes from an increasingly addled E. J. Dionne Jr.
Effective story-telling is ultimately an exercise of power. When historical accounts take on the authority of received wisdom they frame the reality we experience, offering simplified narratives of our inheritance and narrowed perspectives on our current range of choices. Powerful narratives have clear heroes, villains, victims and that help us see ourselves as part of a clear historical trajectory and they offer equally clear guidance about what direction we should choose. The more stock are the characters in our history the more politically powerful is the story. Those historical characters become part of a morality play. As contemporary inhabitants of this play, people must seek to avoid being attached to certain characters or risk fundamental misunderstanding along with political, social, and cultural irrelevance. Because all such powerful historical narratives are simplistic and produce stock characters, they necessarily determine the limits of political and cultural life in our time. The more distinct are the lines of development (causal relationships that lead to good or evil outcomes) the more effectively we can act on what we “know” about our past. In short, the past as constructed by the story-tellers limits how we can speak and act relative to social and political power.