June 3, 2019


Miracle Workers: What the Resistance Can Still Learn from Arendt (John Thomason, June 3, 2019, Commonweal)

What has interested journalists most about Trump is his lies, and Origins does indeed contain insights into the role of lies in totalitarian movements. "What convinces masses are not facts," Arendt writes, "but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part." The application of this insight to contemporary American politics is obvious. Trump's rhetoric has substantial appeal precisely because it subordinates truth to a closed but consistent ideological system. These sorts of systems are so resilient, Arendt argued, because they appeal to both gullibility and cynicism, conditioning people to "believe everything and nothing, to think that everything was possible and that nothing was true." These are the conditions that allow a leader like Trump never to have to account for his lies. The Origins of Totalitarianism is therefore a prescient corrective to naïve claims that appeals to facts and truth can combat Trumpism.

Arendt has thus been welcomed to the #Resistance primarily as a prophetic psychotherapist, one who foretold the pathological appeal of Trumpism to the masses. It's likely that nothing would have pleased her less. Her account of the way totalitarian movements engulfed mid-century Europe was never meant to be merely descriptive. By examining how societies had become so debased that they fell prey to movements that treated every individual as utterly expendable, Arendt was taking the first steps toward articulating and recovering a positive vision of the kind of politics that might redeem those societies. In other words, her perennially popular descriptive views of the great crimes of the twentieth century (outlined most famously in Origins and Eichmann in Jerusalem) cannot responsibly be severed from her prescriptive views about the proper flourishing of politics. [...]

For Arendt, the root of freedom and therefore politics is just this kind of spontaneity, the ability of any person or group of people to initiate an unforeseen or unexpected event. How to promote and sustain this freedom is one of the slipperiest questions in Arendt's work. But even though the Hungarian Revolution was quickly crushed by the Soviet behemoth, in the five years that followed Arendt only became more convinced that this "fact" of freedom could not be stamped out from the human condition entirely. In a 1960 lecture called "Freedom and Politics," she explained why. "If one is serious about the abolition of political freedom," she declares, "it is not sufficient to prohibit what we generally understand by political rights.... One must take possession of even those areas we are accustomed to regard as outside the realm of politics, precisely because they, too, contain a political element." One recalls here Václav Havel's account of the grocer who one day simply removes the state party's slogan from his shop window, and in doing so exposes the nakedness of the regime to his neighbors. As long as necessity and coercion do not exercise complete and all-consuming rule over one's life, this kind of spontaneity, and therefore freedom, is always possible.

This account of freedom corresponds to something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs; at the base of the hierarchy are subordinate, lesser freedoms--freedom from want, freedom from coercion--that must be satisfied for the best and highest form of freedom to flourish. The pinnacle is public freedom, in which individuals can fully exercise their capacity for spontaneity in full view and appreciation of their peers and equals. Arendt believed that something called politics could only correspond to the full exercise of this highest freedom, the only kind that could mean "more than not being forced."

Arendt believed that this loss of a higher, positive vision of political freedom was the result of a Western philosophical tradition that disdained politics in favor of contemplation, one concerned, as Arendt would put it, with man and not with men. For the pre-Platonic Greeks, however, politics was an end in itself: the participation in shared enterprises with their peers, the expression of their full humanity in word and deed. In a 1953 lecture at Princeton, Arendt called this a "unique, outstanding way of life, of being-together, in which the truly human capacities of man, as distinguished from his mere animal characteristics, could show and prove themselves." Even though Western philosophy utterly abandoned this conception, in Arendt's view, it could not excise it from language. Therefore, it could not excise it from thought: "To the historical belongs what is really an astounding fact...that in all European languages we use a word for politics in which its origin, the Greek polis, can still be heard."

This is one reason Arendt believed there was still hope to restore the ethos of the polis in modern times. But we need not exalt the ancient Greek polis and its attendant injustices to recover the virtues that Arendt felt it promoted. For Arendt, the essential question of modernity was how to reconcile universal equality with freedom. 

Republicanism for Republicans (Brink Lindsey, Winter 2019, National affairs)

However much we may differ from one another, however many distinctions we draw among ourselves in a modern, sprawling, pluralistic society, there is one thing that binds all Americans together as moral and civic equals: the res publica, or commonwealth, under whose laws we all live and within whose institutions we can all participate to make those laws better. In the republican worldview, all Americans are "real Americans," because we all pledge allegiance to "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." As Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, "We are not enemies, but friends," because we are all members of one, all-embracing body politic. We're all in this together.

This civic conception of patriotism stands in stark contrast to the blood-and-soil conception increasingly evident on the conservative right. Conservatives today all too frequently distinguish between "real Americans" -- white, native-born, Christian, and disproportionately rural -- and the rest of the country, vowing to "take their country back" from fellow citizens they regard as the equivalent of foreign occupiers.

Such attitudes and rhetoric are utterly poisonous. They are also deeply un-conservative, given that a creedal rather than ethnic understanding of American national identity is among our oldest and most cherished political traditions. This raises some questions: Why the need for a republican turn on the right? Isn't it possible to resist populist ethno-nationalism in the name of genuine conservatism?

Of course such a response is possible, and many good conservatives are doing precisely that -- if so far with a notable lack of success. The problem is that, under contemporary conditions, the language of conservatism pulls its users naturally and almost irresistibly toward the ethnocentrism and dark divisiveness we see so much of today. In the rapid social change we've been undergoing since the 1960s, one common denominator has been a quest for civic equality by traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged groups -- blacks, Hispanics, women, gays. In these circumstances, a political right that expresses itself in terms of conservatism -- "standing athwart history, yelling Stop" -- slips all too easily into a defense of the status quo by the traditionally dominant groups. This has been a recurring, and recurringly disgraceful, theme of postwar conservatism. Opposition to school desegregation, hostility to the civil-rights movement, excuse-making for sexism, demonization of homosexuality, and most recently a rising tide of intolerance toward the foreign-born -- all are black marks in the annals of the American right. This need not be where the intellectual tradition of American conservatism points, of course. But it has too often been where the rhetoric of conservatism has been taken (and allowed) to gesture.

Making matters worse is postwar conservatism's enduring self-conception as the antithesis of liberalism. Not just its rival, its opposite number, its balance and counterweight -- no, in the conservative imagination, liberalism is too often the enemy. From the Buckleyite beginnings of the modern conservative intellectual synthesis, liberalism was presented as an alien, un-American, elitist ideology that was on the same continuum as, and acted as the enabler of and apologist for, totalitarian communism. Since the Cold War ended and communism passed from the scene, the caricaturing has now elevated liberalism to public enemy number one. Today, "owning the libs" has become an end in itself; inflicting a loss on the other side is a victory regardless of the implications for policy or the national welfare.

Obviously, people on the left routinely caricature and demonize conservatives as well. An accounting of the failings and excesses of today's left would occupy an essay of at least the length of this one. But that is no excuse for anything. This is not just a point about civility. A politics that justifies its own abuses by reference to those of its opposition amounts to little more than a negation.

And even more important, a conservatism that views itself as the negation of liberalism is actually wrong about itself, or at least about the tradition whose name it has taken. American conservatism, at its best, has been about conserving the broad liberal tradition of individualism and the rule of law -- both by promoting those essential pre-liberal attachments to family, faith, community, and nation on which a liberal order depends, and by checking both the excesses of reformist liberalism and the illiberalism of the left. Conservatives have tried to draw a distinction between old, good, "classical liberalism" and new, bad, "modern liberalism," but the distinction ignores deep and important continuities.

The misconceived blanket opposition to liberalism has made the center-right vulnerable to its own most illiberal elements, which have now remade conservatism in their own odious image. Among the repugnant lowlights: animus against the foreign-born carried to the point of orphaning and caging children; acquiescence in blatant corruption by the president and top officials; mindless trashing of the liberal international order and the global economy; restricting the franchise for some voters rather than insisting it be preserved as the bedrock of a republican form of government and confidently competing for the votes of all Americans; and systematic subversion of the rule of law to stymie investigations of foreign tampering with our elections. It will be very difficult to beat this back, to restore decency and honor to the right, using only the rhetoric of conservatism -- especially in its current degraded state.

The rhetoric of republicanism, by contrast, tilts easily in the needed direction. At its emotional core is patriotism, a fundamental moral passion of the right. But with that passion conceptualized in civic rather than ethnocentric terms, republicanism reorients patriotism away from divisiveness and instead enshrines it as a universal, unifying principle.

The conservative right's ethno-nationalism already generates intense opposition -- but from the left, where the critique is marbled with open-borders cosmopolitanism and outright hostility to nationalism of any kind and American exceptionalism in particular. The left's campaign may ultimately succeed given the trajectory of demographic change in this country, but whether it succeeds or fails, the effect on the right is to strengthen the conflation of patriotism and white identity politics.

A republican movement on the right, on the other hand, can criticize ethno-nationalism as fundamentally unpatriotic and unfaithful to American exceptionalism -- that is, in terms that carry real weight with conservatives. Republicanism thus offers an opportunity to actually weaken right-wing attachment to ethno-nationalism internally rather than simply mobilizing against it externally and hoping to outlast it.

And a republican right could do more than just give right-wing ideological arguments for abandoning white identity politics. By refashioning the right's domestic-policy agenda, republicans could also give voters new reasons to vote Republican and thus reduce the political dependence on pandering to white fears and resentments.

Conservatism, relying heavily on libertarian thinking, now often identifies "small government" as its chief desideratum of economic and social policy: lower taxes to spur initiative, fewer regulations to lighten the load on business, less government spending to reduce dependency and the need for taxes. That orientation was constructive in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s as pushback against left-liberalism's infatuation with top-down planning and hostility to the spontaneous innovations and adjustments of competitive markets.

But as liberal suspicion of markets abated, and as structural changes in the economy meant that a rising tide now lifted the rich's yachts a great deal while ordinary folks' rowboats rose little or not at all, the idée fixe of small government has risked becoming an intellectual dead end. Rising to the challenge of new conditions means embracing the need for major structural regulatory reform, not so much to unburden business as to expose it to more robust competition by removing regulatory subsidies and barriers to entry. It also means embracing the need for active government in some key arenas -- to help people develop the skills they need to thrive in an increasingly demanding labor market, and to provide social insurance that protects people against the inevitable losses and dislocations associated with a dynamic market economy.

Republican principles point the way to a new center-right approach to economic governance. The pole star for republican governance is the public interest, or the common weal -- the values that we share across ethnic, regional, sectarian, and class lines and that require collective action for their advancement. As Lincoln, the towering figure of the American republican pantheon, ably summarized the matter, "The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities." This is a statement both of the limits of government and of the uses of it.

Relative to libertarian dreams of minimal government, the public-interest standard may seem vague and permissive. But its flexibility is simply a recognition of reality's messy complexity; libertarian efforts to delineate the proper role of government within clear, bright lines are as intellectually incoherent as they are hopelessly utopian. The ideal of the public interest, informed by deep republican skepticism of concentrated power, can serve as a powerful constraint on government. Fidelity to a public-interest standard means relentless opposition to the manipulation and takeover of policymaking by insiders, as well as to policies, however well-meaning, that fail to accomplish their stated purposes. Although shrinking government just to make it smaller is not the goal, hostility toward corruption and wastefulness does push toward making government simpler and more transparent.

A new approach to domestic policy is further aided by the republican conception of liberty as non-domination. The basic intuition here is that freedom requires a level of personal independence among the citizenry, and that in turn requires a broad middle class and limited extremes of wealth and poverty. In the republican view, excessive imbalances of power and status undermine government in the public interest because both the rules themselves and their administration will end up slanted in favor of the powerful.

Opposition to domination leads simultaneously toward a deep appreciation of markets and the recognition of a vital supporting role for government. Competitive markets are a bulwark of independence because they encourage a proliferation of options; they are an important check against arbitrary power because they subject market actors to accountability at the hands of their customers. But for market competition to operate as intended, government has a few big jobs to do. First, it must provide and enforce rules that structure and sustain competition; second, it must secure the broad enabling conditions that allow people to participate successfully in the market system and protect them from the hazards of life when their participation goes awry.

These republican ideas can be developed into a rich conceptual framework for active but limited government. The public interest, as an enabling principle, frees center-right policymaking from the libertarian cul-de-sac and reorients it toward problem-solving governance. The public interest, as a limiting principle, then distinguishes center-right problem-solving from the center-left variety by directing attention to the possibility of insider capture and other unintended consequences, and by focusing on policy designs that minimize these pitfalls. An understanding of freedom as non-domination, meanwhile, pushes the center-right toward greater concern with inequality as a political (as opposed to essentially economic) problem and a clearer recognition of the realities of structural disadvantage.

Republican principles thus supply the intellectual tools the center-right needs to resume the main work of governance: helping real people to improve their lives in tangible ways. And if the center-right can better attend to the material as well as the more-than-material interests of its base among rural voters and the white working class, it will not have to rely on divisive culture-war theatrics to mobilize support.

As suggested, recovering our republicanism requires returning to the classic view of republican liberty.

Posted by at June 3, 2019 8:06 PM