For decades, defenders of liberty and self-rule have been fighting what seems like a continuous battle about the power, reach, and accountability of the federal government. Thoughtful critics of the federal invasion of our liberties draw from rich intellectual, political, and constitutional arguments. But few think as deeply about the cultural conditions of a free and self-reliant people.
Moral outrage, when it is not fatuous, is politically potent. Vivid examples of politicians and commentators in full-throated, red-faced attacks against malignant motives and vicious political acts come easily to mind for all but the most apolitical. In some cases these outbursts are reactions against assaults on how things are or have been—on the decent order of things as inherited. But any honest observer must acknowledge that the more successful production of moral outrage has issued from those seeking fundamental transformation.
King Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
— Monty Python and the Holy Grail
In his enviably readable book Inventing Freedom, Daniel Hannan refers to King John of England as “providentially bad.” Most importantly for the cause of English liberty (and by extension American liberty), the “obnoxious” and overbearing behavior of King John resulted in the Magna Carta. Had John been more artful and politically deft he might have aggrandized more power to himself and imposed a number of political innovations on a disgruntled people. But John, being bad, inspired reaction.
A century and a half after the Norman invasion brought to England a new ruling class and an imposed Continental feudal political arrangement, the nobility—who were themselves the offspring of the “bastard” Normans—drew deeply from the older Anglo-Saxon traditions still encoded in the sinews of English order to check the king and produce a crystalized defense of old liberties. In the Magna Carta they drew from the past but also altered the future. Often in reaction we make progress.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, by Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, ed., George H. Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
New power emerges out of confusion—and ours is a confused age. No dominant historical narrative supplies us with a common story, and without a common story we belong neither to each other nor to shared ideals. When a people are unscripted by history, the past becomes raw material, to be processed via key moral and political vocabulary by those who would willfully impose “new modes and orders,” to quote Machiavelli.
Disordered times produce the search for order and the desire to impose order. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport are in the former category. Their book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism seeks to revise our historical understanding of the rise and development of American conservatism by tracing it to Herbert Hoover.
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.