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Erie, PA. Readers of the Front Porch Republic are likely looking for new ways to conceive of American politics and culture.  They are in search of alternative categories to the existing options that are usually reduced to liberalism and conservatism.  Why is it that some Americans are discontent with these ideologies and their corresponding political parties?  Both Democrats and Republicans have become big government liberals and big government conservatives respectively.  In the mass media one finds a similar lack of variety.  CNN, MSNBC, and FOX NEWS are considered by some to be networks of varying political views.  They are different in a superficial way, but they share in common an affinity for big government and an obsession with politics.  The common thread that runs through both political parties and the mass media is large-scale government solutions to political, economic, and social problems.  The two political parties were largely indistinguishable in their respective responses to the recession.  While Republicans promote the war state, Democrats advance the welfare state.  In either case, big government and politics are the solution.  Discontented Americans may wish to consider an alternative to the prevailing ideologies, what I and others call modest republicanism.

Communism lost its political vibrancy and energy when after decades it became apparent that it would not produce the promised workers’ paradise.  Democratic societies are not immune from ideological dreaming.  Twentieth century American politics was an age of idealistic dreaming and metastatic faith, belief in the transformative power of political action that changes human nature and the very limits of politics.  Both liberalism and conservatism have reached a point of exhaustion because of their embrace of metastatic faith.  They will either regenerate or, like communism, dissolve.  The exhaustion of conservatism was readily apparent when the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 and by the end of the Bush presidency.  The Republicans were intellectually bankrupt in facing the prospects of the 2008 recession.  They resorted to a largely Keynesian approach to economic policy.

The exhaustion of the Democratic Party has been masked by Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency.  The appeal of his personality and his historic election combined with Bush’s failed presidency, has led some to believe that the Democrats and the liberal ideology they promote are alive and well.  With few exceptions, though, Obama represents the same old liberalism in more extreme forms.  He is taking big government to new heights from where it may come crashing down.  Compare Obama to the two previous Democratic presidents, Carter and Clinton, and one gets a sense for just how much further he has pushed liberalism toward the point of metastatic politics at its extreme.  In some respects, those that pertain to metastatic faith for example, Obama has more in common with Bush than he does with either Carter or Clinton.

What may become more common is the voter who is disenchanted with both Bush and Obama, annoyed by both Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, and in search of a new brand of politics.  This search is likely to lead to modest republicanism if such ideas are available to opinion molders and the leadership class. Modest republicanism is, then, an alternative to the politics of metastatic faith.  It calls for less government not more but it also moves toward a more sober brand of politics that includes more than a back to basics (e.g., security, efficient administration) style of politics.  It finds nobility in the aim of the American Framers to create a republic of liberty that avoids tyranny and works toward a state that allows individuals the freedom to do what is right and leaves it to the culture, (i.e., families, churches, communities) to be the primary instruments that direct individuals to the good life.  It assumes that government cannot create the ethos that makes liberty possible but it can help protect and preserve it.

In short, the problem is one of imagination, how we conceive of the possibilities of politics.  Generally speaking, the left wants more government to do more things because it desires what it thinks possible, a transformed world that has liberated man from the obstacles to what Herbert Croly called “the new republic.”  Some conservatives have become, apart from specific public policy prescriptions, indistinguishable from liberals in their enthusiasm for big government.  Consider Bush’s education policy and his foreign policy.  Both were transformative policies that intended to eliminate intractable problems once and for all.

The challenge for modest/front porch republicans is to provide a sense for what we can realistically hope for in political life without succumbing to cynicism.  What is to be hoped for?  There are historical examples of modest republicanism that can illuminate the way.  The American Framers constitutional system and the political and philosophical ideas that serve to justify it are a good starting point.  Their tradition, however, is not adequate in itself; it must be reconstituted to meet the challenges of the day.

One rather basic problem in contemporary politics is that character matters in the affairs of politics and governing.  The budget crisis is a case in point. Government needs to spend less of the taxpayers’ money.  Abiding by this need is not so much a matter of intellect but of character. What the nation and states need are representatives who will spend public revenue responsibly and in accordance with the general welfare and voters, scholars, and journalists who will call them to account when they fail to do so.  Many will respond to this suggestion by stating that fiscal discipline is easier said than done.  This is, however, precisely the point.  What the times call for are men and women of character who have the courage to act in accordance with the public good.  What we have are too many bright well educated leaders who provide persuasive reasons why we should spend more than is prudent and an electorate that is predisposed to believe what politicians claim is possible and desirable.

In Pennsylvania voters recently punished state representatives who gave themselves a pay raise by voting many of them out of office. Where is the same outrage when representatives spend in an even more irresponsible way for the sake of interest groups and ideology?  Government will not stop overspending until the general prejudice in favor of spending for both the reelection of career politicians and for metastatic faith is replaced by something more in line with modesty.  Such individuals will not appear from nowhere.  They are most apt to appear in a culture that is capable of cultivating them in the mediating institutions that foster the common good.

What is proposed on the pages of the Front Porch Republic is not “solutions” to political, economic, and social problems, but a disposition of mind and imagination that prepares individuals for the work of recovery and reconstitution as necessary and never-ending parts of civilized life.

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Dr. Michael P. Federici is Professor of Political Science at Mercyhurst College. He is in his twentieth year of college teaching. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C. (1990), his M.A. from CUA in 1985, and his B.S. in Economics from Elizabethtown College in 1983. Dr. Federici has published two books, The Challenge of Populism (1991) and Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order (2002) and several articles and book reviews. He has a forthcoming book, an edited volume of Orestes Brownson’s political writings (ISI Books), due out in 2010 and he is currently working on The Political Theory of Alexander Hamilton to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Federici’s teaching and research areas include American Government, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Political Theory, and American Political Thought. Dr. Federici has taught American Government for the Junior Statesmen Foundation Summer School at Yale University and Georgetown University. He won the Joseph Friedl Award at Concord College that is given to the professor who “Exemplifies the true essence of the college professor” and he won the “Distinguished Teaching Award” at Mercyhurst College in 2004. Dr. Federici participated in a debate January 29, 2008 at Georgetown University sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Tocqueville Forum on “America: Empire or Republic?” The debate is available on the web at: http://isi.org/lectures/lectures.aspx. He also gave a lecture at Notre Dame Law School in April 2008. He is currently president of the Mercyhurst College Faculty Senate and serves on the College’s Board of Trustees. He was recently appointed to the Editorial Board of the journal Humanitas and to the Board of Directors of The Academy of Philosophy and Letters. In August 2002, he was one of a select group of American scholars invited to deliver a paper during the Chinese Comparative Literature Association’s Conference in Nanjing, China. In 1993 Dr. Federici participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Thomas Jefferson that was held at The University of Virginia and The College of William and Mary. He was a Distinguished Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. In 2004 he wrote a winning grant application to the U.S. Department of Education for a $984,920 three-year grant from the Teaching American History Program for the Corry Area School District. In 2005 he wrote another successful TAHG for the Erie City School District for $499,736. He served as the Project Director for both grants. Professor Federici has been interviewed for local and national media including WJET TV, WICU TV, WSEE TV, C-SPAN, WQLN Radio, WJET Radio, WNYC Radio, WBEN Radio (Buffalo), The Erie Times News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and CQ Weekly.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Dr. Federici-

    You are most definitely the best writer on here. But am I mistaken, or did you not tell your students that you voted for Obama in the 2008 election?

  2. Dr. Federici-

    I’m curious, would you please explain what and to whom you are referring when you say “leadership class”?

    Thanks in advance.

    pax, caritas, et bonum-
    GP

  3. As a former student of Dr. Federici, I think he is referring to the “natural aristocracy” concept of Aristotle which was also prevelant among the American Framers.

    This is to say that certain individuals naturally have greater talent than others, and are born with the characteristics of an ideal ruler. The idea of mixed government also stems from this for various reasons.

    I would elaborate but I am on the way out.

  4. “Modest” seems to me the operative qualifier here…something altogether different than the self-glorifying bulimia of the current lapsed Republic…an edifice where the best laid plans are put into committee and in the fullness of time, everyone gets their cut of a final plan that competes earnestly with an accumulating pile of the worst ideas in history.

    I would feel better about our fate if the Congress and the Executive were to trade places with the occupants of the Great Ape House at the Bronx Zoo for a fortnight. The ape’s most colorful gibbering would, by and large… exceed the combined intellect of our current standing government. By default or as planned it don’t matter because the proof is in the spoiled pudding.

    After all, Washington D.C. is now a Human Zoo, an amusement park if you will, where the bamboozled citizen is invited down to be stirred by the wonder of our Potemkin Monument while those working behind the scenes pick the body clean like a bunch of Piranha on a ganja-fueled munchy session.

    Not on purpose mind you, it just happened this way after the people decided to sit back and watch as the Establishment took to rolling big giant spliffs of dollar bills and smoking them in a manner redolent of the locomotives of yore. They see green shoots now, growing sweetly emerald out of the thick carpet of bullshit that covers the place like the slopes of Mt St Helens after it blew.

    Anyone not seriously cynical should pinch themselves and wake up to the walking nightmare.

  5. The issue of the capital structures of government is one that is based on unlimited consumption (sales taxes, business liscenes, sin taxes, and the like) and a limit on wealth taxes like the property tax. Not being an advocate of taxes but understanding the need to pay for the public good, I have yet to hear a conversation about the cost structure of government. I am not talking about the paper headlines of local mayors using the city credit card to take out a potential business to lure them to town, but the real stuff about what services do we want local and state government to provide? Why is the federal government in the local and state government game? What are the limited services that should be provided? Let alone who (public or private) who should be providing it.

    It is time for a conversation about what we expect, need, want, from our government. The cost structure is within our control economically. It is not however, within our control with regards to the special interests that expect the government spending to benefit themselves. Police, Fire, Engineers, Contractors, Health Insurance providers, teachers, landscapers, the list goes on. This is not just the normal list of special interests groups. They are friends, neighbors, fellow PTO members, church members.

    Local government is expected to serve up the services at low prices, ala Wal-Mart, without the correct economic incentives, competition, or understanding of profit.

    I read with amazement in the local papers, the blank spaces where this conversation could be happening, and see nothing.

  6. “Government will not stop overspending until the general prejudice in favor of spending for both the reelection of career politicians and for metastatic faith is replaced by something more in line with modesty.”

    I don’t believe this will happen. The temptation posed by the vast sums of money the Federal government can now raise is irresistible. Like Sauron’s ring, it’s just too much concentrated power and everyone who comes into contact with it will eventually succumb. Being about as far from hobbits as you can get, modern Americans firmly believe you can do a lot of good with that much money… and snap, we’re snared.

    The only way to break the addiction to money is to take it away, or rather take away the means of raising so much of it. Repealing the income tax could be a start. But what are the odds of that happening?

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