The passage of Obamacare has qualitatively transformed the political polarization of Americans. For the 1/5th of the American people that describe themselves as liberal or very liberal – and for people from other countries, that means leftist – Obamacare is a triumph. Of course it is not as glorious a triumph as some would have liked, since leftists with consistent principles are dismayed by what amounts to a massive handout to the private insurance cartel. These, however, became a voiceless minority when Dennis Kucinich kissed Obama’s ring on Air Force One.
For the rest of America, identifying as centrist, conservative, or very conservative, the passage of Obamacare is a qualitative marker on what has been a long and often terrifying journey of government expansion. With the full acknowledgment that they could have been, and should have been, louder about these matters under Bush Jr. than they actually were, the rise of the tea party movement suggests that growing numbers of conservatives are no longer satisfied with the performance of the GOP. They will of course vote for GOP candidates come November – at the same time, many of those candidates my find themselves on the ballot because of this movement.
For our nation’s “political class”, a construct that shouldn’t even exist in the self-governing republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers, these developments are viewed with some alarm. This is not surprising, given what recent polls have discovered about the gap between this class, and mainstream America:
By a 62% to 12% margin, Mainstream Americans say the Tea Party is closer to their views. By a 90% to one percent (1%) margin, the Political Class feels closer to Congress.
The left side of the punditry and political establishment view the populist movement as something dangerous and irrational, and do their best to make sure that the handful of racists who show up with inflammatory signs are portrayed as it’s vanguard. Then they insinuate, with little to no evidence, that various figures such as Dick Armey or Sarah Palin are controlling the entire movement, though tea parties inspired by Ron Paul were taking place long before either of them arrived on the scene.
The right wing of the political class has viewed the tea party in two ways: with the same level of contempt as their liberal counterparts (isn’t it nice when they can agree?), or, on different occasions, with put-on enthusiasm in the hopes of co-opting and controlling the movement. That is, until David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times, titled “The Broken Society.”
I don’t claim to be anyone important, or to have been entirely original in writing on this topic myself for Inside Catholic last year. Brooks, as I did, and assuredly as more will since his recent visit to the United States, introduced his audience to the British political philosopher Phillip Blond, the man behind “Red Toryism” in the UK. Blond is also an advisor to Conservative politician David Cameron, who is expected to defeat the “devalued” Gordon Brown in the next election. What kind of reception can Blond’s brand of communitarianism expect in the United States?
During the 1990’s communitarians such as Amitai Etzioni were dismissed by some, though certainly not all, conservatives as having little relevance. Populist conservatives came to view this man, who had been praised by politicians such as Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., and Al Gore, with suspicion if not outright hostility. And I must say, the more I learn about Etzioni, the less I like.
Enter Phillip Blond, who brings his message to American shores over a decade after Clinton’s promise that “the era of big government is over” has been proven less truthful than his statements about Monica Lewinsky. He comes on the heels of unprecedented expansion of government, trillions of dollars in public spending, and a rapid degeneration of all civility and consensus within the American republic. What can this soft-spoken theologian turned political theorist possibly do to change any of this in the slightest?
David Brooks thinks he has a lot to offer. In his column, he writes,
This confluence of crises has produced a surge in vehement libertarianism. People are disgusted with Washington. The Tea Party movement rallies against big government, big business and the ruling class in general. Even beyond their ranks, there is a corrosive cynicism about public action.
But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.
This follows, of course, only weeks after Brooks dismissed the tea party as an right-wing mirror image of the New Left, modern “hippies” who will be just as ineffective as those of the past generation. Now they are a serious force to be reckoned with, and Blond’s communitarianism may be the key to answering their protests. Is it?
The answer, as always, depends upon conditions. If we insist upon establishing libertarianism as something opposed to communitarianism, or at least something alien to it, then the answer is probably no. The merits of communitarianism will hardly be explored, for the label alone will end all discourse. Libertarianism is authentically American; communitarianism is a crypto-socialist import of the political class.
As I have come to discover recently, however, communitarianism (at least, Blond’s version of it) and libertarianism are not all that opposed – provided that we stay within the bounds of constitutionalism. Take a look at Brooks’ list of things he believes Blondian communitarianism would accomplish, for instance, and find me libertarians who would fundamentally reject these ideas:
To create a civil state, Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs.
Beyond doctrinaire anarchist or individualist circles, say, within the tea party movement, which is mostly comprised of pro-life Christians, I couldn’t imagine a single one of these ideas meeting with reproach – provided, of course, that these “civil servants” are not agents of a nanny/police state and that these increased investments in infrastructure are balanced by massive reductions in government bureaucracy. Nor would they disagree with Blond himself, whom Brooks quotes:
“The project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.”
What Brooks doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that it will take “vehement libertarianism” to achieve this ambitious set of demands in the form that they would be acceptable to the majority of discontent Americans. If ideas such as these are the answer, then it is the energy, vigor, and yes, justifiable anger of the tea party movement that must be the vehicle for their implementation. Blond’s communitarian vision cannot be implemented from above.
Who in their right mind, for instance, envisions an Obama administration or a Pelosi Congress making serious strides towards any of these goals? “Decentralize power”? “Smallest units of government”? Would these phrases even compute? Who envisions them making responsible investments in infrastructure after they’ve nearly spent us into bankruptcy, or using an army of civil servants for anything other than the imposition of a leftist kulturkampf?
Even if, theoretically, all of the foregoing assumptions about Obama and Pelosi are mistaken, and they really were interested in a localist communitarian agenda, none of the same discontented Americans that Brooks wants to soothe would buy what they were selling. This President and this Congress would have better luck trying to get people to switch their long-distance providers than their ideological affiliations.
In the end communitarianism will have to decide whether it is organic or artificial, whether it springs from the real human desires of people at the local level or decrees from national bureaucracies, whether it respects real flesh-and-blood efforts of individuals to establish communities that reflect their moral and spiritual values, or seeks to impose a rigid and uniform secularism everywhere and anywhere. Will we Christians be allowed to build communities in which our children don’t have to be exposed to a filthy “sex education” and have condoms handed out them by public school apparatchiks? Will we be allowed to home school, grow organic food, to use alternative energy or health products?
As a Christian, I am interested first and foremost in spiritual and cultural community. Without that, the material community is nothing but a secular and hedonistic nightmare. Indeed, the material community is but a means to a higher end, and becomes twisted and corrupt insofar as it forgets this end and exists for itself.
Thus, let it be known: I will support no movement that does not recognize the fundamental, natural right to association, the right of Christians to establish communities that reflect their values, and to reject any and all impositions of alien, perverted, hedonistic anti-values upon them. Blond himself has rejected leftist moral relativism and libertinism, which is excellent; but this philosophical rejection will only retain itself in policy if communitarianism is a local and spiritual movement, as opposed to a federal and materialistic “program”.