I've been thinking a lot about why this country almost broke apart in the 1860s, and why it's a good thing it didn't, and why the secessionist mentality lingers now as a destructive force in this country. In a globalizing world, the secessionist mentality is analogous to the adolescent who eats his dinner in his room rather than to join the family party downstairs because "Those people don't understand me. Those idiots criticize me for being self-absorbed, delusional, and often mean spirited." [Monday Update: Just saw Krugman's column making a similar comparison.]
We all have a stake in the free flourishing of local cultures and groups, but we also have a stake in learning how to get along. We want a society with self-reliant individuals, cultural particularity, and robust community life. We need the local and the concrete to counterbalance the abstract, centralizing forces that seek to homogenize us, but we also need centralized institutions that enable us to work together and coordinate and regulate our efforts. Nobody wants cultural homogenization or Big Brother, but we can no longer afford the adolescent violence associated with nationalism and the separatist movements they engender.
Contrary to the assumptions made by many in the conservative intelligentsia, "statism" is not the principal engine of leveling and cultural homogenization. The problem of the Last Man is not a political problem but a cultural or spiritual problem. And let's get real: Consumer capitalism and the mass media have been and will continue to be a far more powerful homogenizing and leveling force in the U.S. than the "state" will ever be. I understand principled conservatives' concerns about statism and leveling, but statism is assumed to be such an evil among so many conservatives that I see them as largely blinded to the real threat that comes at us from elsewhere.
I know, some conservatives understand that consumer capitalism presents a serious problem to the flourishing of the spirit, which for them, as for me, is their central concern. But the reality of the world we live in demands that they recognize that centralization, coordination, and regulation are practical necessities, and the danger is not the State qua State, but the state's historical tendency to serve the interests of oligarchs of one kind or another rather than the broader public interest. The American experiment provided the first modern opportunity to resist that tendency on the level of the nation state, and it has frequently succeeded.
But I digress. I want to talk about how the secessionist mentality derives from a dissociated valuation of Liberty. Liberty is a sacred value for Americans, but it is not
an absolute. A healthy society must find a balance between Liberty and Equality. The secessionist South and the Confederacy its oligarchs created was a paradigm of the toxicity that results when Liberty and Equality are out of balance. So much of the incoherence in our political discourse now results from confusion about this basic idea about how America's social health depends upon this balance --or in not seeing the achievement of this balance as important at all. Liberty is not an absolute; neither is Equality. Too much liberty creates too much inequality. Too much equality creates too much constriction, un-freedom, and the levelling conservatives fear so much. American politics, if it were sane, would be about citizens using the government to maintain this critical balance and to make the necessary adjustments when serious imbalances occur. We are in a crisis of imbalance right now, and the government is the only entity capable of effecting its correction.
In earlier posts (see also here), I argued that the problem with contemporary Libertarianism is that rather than understanding Liberty's role in a balanced tension with Equality, it promotes Liberty as an absolute, or at least as the dominant value to which all other values, Equality included, must establish a subordinate relationship. The problem that almost always follows when Liberty is accepted as the dominant value is serious economic and power inequalities. Oligarchs always scream about how their Liberty is being infringed upon whenever the majority in the name of the common good wants to rein them in. Their Liberty is necessary, these oligarchs argue, so that the whole society can benefit from their creative initiatives. They argue they deserve more Liberty because, well, they earned it, and they're just better than everybody else because they've proved it by being richer. Equality is anathema to them in any form it presents itself because it requires that they must give up some--not all--of the wealth and power that defines them as oligarchs in order to redress the imbalance they think is a benefit to the entire society.
The balance between Liberty and Equality is what makes the American system work when it is at its best. It's useful to think of Liberty, while it has an important role to play in both the political and economic spheres, as flourishing with the least restriction in the cultural sphere. The cultural sphere is the domain of values, science, religion, education, art, leisure. And in a truly free society, there should be minimal restriction on how groups and individuals live their lives in the cultural sphere, so long as they don't infringe on the rights of others. Let groups define their own rules and restrictions; let Puritans proscribe debauchery and revelry. Let Libertines prescribe it. Let the Amish forbid the use modern technology and let the engineers loose to develop it. Homogeneity of values in the American cultural sphere is impossible and undesirable, and no particular group, no matter how large or how powerful, can impose its values or insist its values be normative across the national cultural sphere.
That doesn't mean that diverse groups cannot get along, and it's the state's job to interven when one group refuses to play nice with the others. The state should have no interest in any particular group or subculture, but does have an interest in protecting groups and individuals who all stand as equals before the law, and it has an interest in promoting what might be described as a flourishing heterogeneity in which different groups live amicably together. The government has an interest only in protecting groups or individuals from abuse by other groups or individuals. If, for instance, child molestation is normative behavior for a particular group, the state must intervene to protect the child. If chattel slavery is normative within a particular subculture, the state likewise must intervene.
Liberty is a value that has central importance but it becomes a problem when a particular group repeatedly demonstrates that it can't play by the rules, i.e., when it becomes abusive of the rights of others, or when it wants to separate itself from the whole. Freedom is a sacred value, but is not an absolute value, and much of our confusion lies in not understanding that.
The government, here or anywhere, in a globalizing world, must accept a pluralism in the cultural sphere, which means that it should be as values neutral as possible except when it comes to a reverence for the constitution and the rule of law democratically enacted. Living in a globalizing world means learning to get along with others who do not share one's cultural values, and that "getting along" is the primary civic virtue, (other virtues and their development are activity for the cultural sphere, for philosophy and religious practice), and the language we must use in the civic or political sphere is the rights language of Equality before the law. America is the first country which created the possibility to do this, and even though retrograde social forces in American society have stubbornly resisted America's promise in this regard, America has slowly found ways to overcome these regressive tendencies.
This is hard for movement conservatives to accept because they are the embodiment of these retrograde forces insofar as they reject pluralism and abuse politics in a program to obtain a privileged place for their cultural values. These people are wrong to thing that they are the real Americans and that they own the American idea. Their program should be rejected tout court as inimical to what's best in the American project. The problem is not their values but their program to obtain for them a privileged place in the political sphere. Movement conservatives and the religious right have complete freedom to live their values and to create institutions that embody them, but they simply cannot impose their values in the political sphere.
And so if Liberty is native in the cultural sphere, then equality is native in the political sphere. Cultural initiatives, whether religious, philosophical, educational, or artistic cannot and ought not ever to be dictated from within the political sphere, but some efforts initiated outside of it can be supported within the political sphere when there is broad agreement that they promote the common good or the public interest.
In a healthy society, amity, or a peaceful balance, between Liberty and Equality has implications for activity in the economic sphere. The free exchange of goods and services is an essential element in the healthy functioning of activity in the economic sphere, but, once again, Liberty is not an absolute, and it must be checked when severe inequalities in wealth (and the power that comes with it) emerge. Neither is some rigid idea about Equality an absolute, and so, of course, any healthy society would reject a program to implement a top-down redistributionism in which some ideal of complete Equality was the goal. The challenge is not to celebrate Equality as preferable--or Liberty--but to find a balance point that defines social health, and the health of activity in both the political sphere and the cultural sphere depend on this balance being struck in the economic sphere.
My longstanding argument on this blog has been that the animating spirit of the American experiment has been its struggle in fits and starts to find this balance, and that while its failures have been egregious and its retrograde elements powerful and persistent, what makes this country interesting is its ability to correct course. The social and economic imbalances that dominated American society in the post-Civil War period were corrected by the efforts of Progressives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and these efforts culminated in the mixed economy compromise we think of now as the New Deal consensus that dominated the political sphere throughout the mid 20th century and created the conditions for unprecedented, widespread prosperity.
This consensus was accepted by mid-century Democrats and Republicans alike, and it provided the framework for civil discourse, and honest disagreements about how best to manage issues that came up within the political sphere. Right-wing extremists had little credibility and were relegated to the fringe or were roundly defeated as Goldwater was in '64. During this time the cultural and economic backwater which comprised the states of the former Confederacy was slowly integrated into mainstream America both economically and politically. It wasn't perfect--corruption and dirty dealing were always there during the New Deal ascendancy, but things were generally on track. Sure, there was some Liberal over-reaching, but there was enough sense and pragmatism within the consensus to make adjustments when needed.
All this changed with the ascendancy of movement conservatism during the Reagan presidency fueled by a conservative backlash triggered by the social and economic anxiety that characterized the seventies. (See my post "How Liberalism Got Its Bad Name" for my somewhat contrarian defense of this era as Liberalism's finest moment.) In the course of the next thirty years, the movement-conservative agenda to destroy the New Deal framework and the amity between Equality and Liberty that it had established largely succeeded. And we are harvesting the bitter fruits now of their efforts. Those bitter fruits are egregious economic inequalities, the mainstreaming of incoherent, extremist right-wing ideology, and the destruction of any civil framework for solving real problems that Americans need to confront and solve.
We have a collective mentality now that is very close to that of the late 19th Century. Movement conservatism in this country has bought into the propaganda of the contemporary oligarchs, just as poor whites have bought into it in the South. We seem to have forgotten everything we've learned. We've allowed the retrograde to become respectable, and the American experiment founders as a consequence.
There is so much confusion and so little clear thinking. And because the cultural divides that separate us have become so severe, we are divided and conquered as poor whites and poor blacks were set against one another during the Jim Crow era and rendered powerless. Americans are frustrated and angry, but confused about who to be angry at. They blame the government, but they own the government, and if they keep electing these patriotic-cliche-spewing, Bible-thumping mercenaries for corporate interests to run it, what do they expect? And if they continue to allow themselves and their fears to be manipulated by those who care nothing about what is in their best interest, they will continue to make it difficult for people with any sense to find a way to solve the serious problems that confront us.
I'm not without hope that we will, as we have done before, weather this crisis and find our way forward, but it requires leadership. It's not going to get better on its own. I still think Obama might be the guy, but he has disappointed so far. But it's early.