Liberty and Community After Progressivism

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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. 

The choice before us is not between strong community or weak community, or between a strong government or radical individualism.  The real choices concern the kind of communities that we produce and the sorts of persons we foster in our communities.  Because the Progressive image of community emerged in the context of rapidly decaying communities during the most rapacious era of industrial capitalism, they constructed models of community that recognized the government as the instantiation of the public will.  American Progressives at the turn of the 20th century were dealing with very real problems of anomie, economic exploitation, and the irreversible destruction of a social skein of authorities that had, heretofore, protected Americans from the behemoth state.  These same Progressives developed a not unwarranted critique of both local governments and intermediate institutions as being repressive, bigoted, and fundamentally hostile to individual liberty.

Indeed, one very powerful way of telling the story of American liberty runs through ever more comprehensive consolidation of diverse, eccentric, parts into a national community.  In this story the forces of national centralization fought, and yet fight, against local privilege and private interest on behalf of the most noble ideals of the nation—from ending slavery and Jim Crow to the protection of the most vulnerable members of society from grinding poverty, from various forms of discrimination, and from all manner of inequality.  Injustice retreats as the federal government expands the administrative state. Local, historically rooted, tradition-bound, communities give way to ever more abstract and distant forms of community.

Progressive conceptions of liberty and community, in short, express a powerful justice narrative—a narrative that has much to commend it on historical grounds.  But out of this historical experience, combined with powerful philosophical and ideological commitments, Progressives have crafted a vision of solidarity, of community, of the person, and of the state that is more than the result of fighting against egregious forms of injustice or against the atomizing forces of industrial capitalism.  The building block of their community is the person made fit for incorporation into a set of abstract relationships, an individual whose moral architecture is general, abstract, and tautological.  Whatever person the individual produces out of her choices, her style, her individual tastes, she must have internalized the abstract axioms that form the moral foundation of the national community.

The production of fit citizens is the greatest task of the Progressive state.  This task is much more complicated than most people seem to realize.  It surely includes fostering many forms of dependency so that, in some manner, citizens are akin to subjects or clients of the state.  Political conservatives stress the way Progressives—especially in the form of the Obama administration—create economic dependency and how the co-dependent relationship between the Democratic Party and various groups (such as public-sector unions) produces policies that make many Americans economically dependent on the growth of the administrative state.  These Republican politicos also stress that the various policies of the welfare state, from Social Security to Obamacare, create entitlements and dependence that encourage the political class to adopt a form of paternalism.

Related, but more insidious than these strategies of creating dependent subjects, is the task of making these subjects into citizens—people who do not relate to their government out of necessity or dependence but out of moral commitment.  Progressives don’t want subjects, they want enlightened citizens who are empowered, with the help of the national community, to find their authentic selves and to discover in the abstraction of the nation-state the repository of their spiritual yearnings.  Progressives believe in virtues—of empathy, of tolerance, of “disinterestedness”—that liberate individuals to be who they ought to be.

Indeed, liberation is the key to virtuous citizens.  When trapped by the prejudices of the local customs, the religious superstitions of the church they inherited, the moral teachings of their parents, the pernicious beliefs of large sections of the society about race, sex, sexual orientation, the individual cannot be free, she cannot discover her true self, nor can she participate fully in the higher solidarity of the national community.  To be free a person must simultaneously escape from the corrosive influence of all manner of institutions and arrangements (most especially found in families and religious organizations) that bind a person to specific individuals and to institutions while embracing and internalizing the General Will of the people as expressed by their government.

One can only become a true citizen when one is free from attachments other than to the nation-state.  How can you be free if your parents and school teach creationism and restrict your access to competing views?  How can you be free when the institutions that most shape you teach you to believe in a normative understanding of human sexuality?  How can you be free if all those in your social network stress that women cannot parent properly if they pursue a career?  How can you be free if access to education depends on the family and its resources? In all these cases, family and other social institutions stand in the way of individual freedom and personal authenticity.  The only real protector of the individual, and the only institution capable of rearing citizens, is the state insofar as it is animated by a correct vision of the community.

The specific ways in which the Progressive state rears its citizens is beyond the scope of this essay.  But it is necessary to grasp the moral agenda that vivifies Progressives and gives coherence to their policy objectives in order to understand the diverging prospects faced by the United States and Europe in an age that Nisbet called the “twilight of authority.”  Is it possible, as I suggested in my previous essay, that we are experiencing a sufficient challenge to the Progressive administrative state to create the space for what Nisbet called a new form of laissez faire that can restructure social, political, and personal authority?

The general or theoretic answer is easier than any predictions about the infinitely complicated and fluid circumstances of particular nations.  I will venture only so far as to say that the United States is in a much better position for a genuine reorientation toward the social (as expressed in ever more robust mediating institutions) than most European nations.  However much the United States might be characterized as a welfare state, it is deeply resistant to the Progressive vision of community.  The welfare state has created many forms of dependence.  Federalism is not as robust in idea or practice as it was a 50 or 100 years ago.  Large blocks of voters associate their well-being with an expanding administrative state.  The Federal government (and many state governments) exercises great power in education and in the production of moral beliefs of its citizens.  And yet, in all of these areas, large groups of citizens, drawing from deep and perhaps neglected traditions, are in full and effective resistance.

The Obama administration attempted a more thorough reorientation of American public moral commitments than has been attempted since the New Deal.  They did not simply respond to a financial and economic crisis, but considered that the great public anxiety caused by these circumstances would make the Progressive themes of a disinterested, non-partisan, government whose representatives speak the language of community, solidarity, collective sacrifice, and a new tone in Washington, would resonate with the citizens.  The failure of Obama to fathom the reaction is, in part, the result of his fundamental misunderstanding of how Americans understand themselves as citizens.  The contrast with Europe is instructive—perhaps decisive.

Europeans were liberated from structural hierarchies through their governments.  More prone than Americans to prize national solidarity, for Europeans equality and national community have long been closely allied.  If I am correct about the two parts of the Progressive vision of national community (requiring both creating dependency on the national government and producing the moral architecture of individuals who make up the national community), Europeans have been much more successful than the Progressives in the United States in the second objective. One recent study by the Pew Research Center reveals how Americans have been moving toward European beliefs about national identity, individualism, about religion and the role of non-governmental influences (if not quite institutions) in shaping good people, good citizens.  But, more importantly, it exposes how very much Americans are still outliers compared to Europe on these subjects.  Americans, for instance, stress the importance of freedom over welfare protection (59% favoring freedom over “nobody in need” whereas Spain has only 30% who favor freedom).  More suggestive still, Americans are equally divided over whether they consider their identity primarily attached to religious belief or nationality whereas in France, 90% attach their identity primarily to nationality.

To a large degree, the United States has escaped the logical conclusion of democratic equality because of its unusual—exceptional and unrepeatable—origins and circumstances.  Rather than individualism (people understood as disconnected, private, equal, and politically helpless) taking hold, American circumstances and early choices (long before the creation of the nation) produced self-reliant people who do not look to distant governments for relief but rely upon their private resources and then expand outward, as necessary, to friends, community, and local government to solve problems.  Long experience of creating new communities fostered both a disposition to work with those with whom one lives and a deep regard for the importance of local political freedom.  Equality emerged in tandem with political freedom and cultivated the habit of self-rule as expressed by particular, small, and real communities.

The trend-line in America has been toward individualism and away from self-reliance; toward an abstract national community that expresses itself in the administrative state and away from distinctive, eccentric, and home-grown local communities that expresses themselves in robust citizen participation to maintain their distinctiveness.  It is doubtful, however, that Americans have accepted the soft tyranny of the administrative state—they have not, as have the Europeans, internalized the moral code necessary to make proper citizens of the Progressive community.

In many European nations, the historical and experiential resources of self-reliance and self-rule are scant and a crisis of authority is indeed possible in the very near future.  No such crisis looms for America where the social space already exists. In the context of a crisis of the federal government’s ability to provision its citizens as it has before and where the progression of dependency on the administrative state is halted or reversed, Nisbet’s appeal to a new form of laissez faire is reasonable.  As Nisbet noted, we cannot design the institutional matrix to fit this expanded social space, but we can expect that the space will allow citizens to craft real, local, particular, and freedom-loving communities that will stand as counter-weights to the gravitational pull of a national community of equal, separate, and morally propagandized citizens.