Kearneysville, WV. With the mid-term elections looming, the Tea-Party surging, and the Democrats worrying, it might be worthwhile to consider what’s at stake. After two years of undivided Democratic government, even the party faithful are significantly less optimistic than they were during those heady days when “change” and “hope” were still abstractions and therefore capable of eliciting wide-spread faith. The faith has dimmed for many. The hope has faded, and (to make a trifecta) the love has cooled. The talking heads have all declared that the Republicans stand to make significant gains.

If the predictions are correct and the Republicans assume control of the House of Representatives, the nation will face the prospect of gridlock—the one condition that, given current political conditions, seems to offer the possibility of restraint. The word, itself, suggests a traffic jam so intractable that motion, either forward or back, is impossible. Such immobility might at least serve to halt, or at least slow down, the frantic rate of spending that has rocketed the national debt into the stratosphere and dashed any hope that fiscal sanity can be achieved in the near term.

So gridlock is good. Or it might be said that gridlock is the least bad given our current political culture. But surely this suggests that something is amiss. Let me suggest three factors contributing to our current state of affairs.

1. Loss of common good. The language of common good has fallen on hard times. Thinkers from earlier ages employed the concept with assurance, for they rooted their political philosophy in a theory of human nature that affirmed that a) humans share a robust array of common ends and that b) the realm of politics provides a necessary venue for the common pursuit of those ends. To the extent that modern conceptions of human nature have lost any sense of the “commonness” of our ends, the language of the common good has been pushed aside. If human beings are seen primarily as creatures that, by an act of will, create their own individual realities, then the language of common good will invariably be eclipsed by the demand that individual freedom (characterized merely by my free-floating desires) be continually expanded. On the other hand, a polity oriented to the common good will be populated by citizens willing to sacrifice short term individual goods for long term common goods. This will create a context within which the flourishing of all can best occur. Bereft of the concept of the common good, all that is left is the politics of sheer power, which is merely the aggregate of the politics of sheer desire. Ironically, over the long run a politics of power reduces individual freedom, for as power expands, the space required for freedom necessarily contracts.

2. Special interest politics. The loss of any conception of the common good will manifest itself practically in the politics of special interests, which, by definition is contrary to the politics of the common good. Today every particular interest has a vocal advocate championing the continual expansion of public funding. Elected officials have powerful incentives to accede to the demands, for they have a special interest of their own: re-election. Thus, the multitude of special interest groups find a willing partner in elected officials. Both need each other to best accomplish their desired aims: continually expanded funding increases the relative power of the special interest and by pleasing enough special interest groups, a legislator can facilitate his own re-election. Again, politics becomes merely an assortment of power plays for personal gain rather than a corporate attempt to pursue a common future.

3. Loss of robust debate. Christopher Lasch understood that democracy will fail if citizens do not share a common life, which is to say, a common culture. Healthy democratic life requires robust discussion about the means to achieve the goods commonly agreed upon as fitting for human beings. If no common life exists, if there is no common culture that unifies a people, discussion becomes far more difficult and naturally tends to erode into power grabs suited to benefit the private good of some at the expense of the (now forgotten) common good. Lasch is adamant that robust debate requires a) public places that foster conversation between citizens who meet as equals, and b) a sense that individual citizens have not only a stake in the democratic process but the on-going ability to effect political outcomes. Only when these conditions are met will citizens seek to be well-informed about the issues of the day, for information is only sought when it is deemed useful. Thus, the obvious decline in civic literacy is, according to Lasch, a consequence of a pervasive sense that individual opinions about important matters don’t really matter. The decline in public places suited to conversation (for example, the rise of the shopping mall and the decline of the public house) is merely an indicator of rational choices by citizens who have no real ongoing connection to the political process.

So what can be done? There are, of course, no easy answers and no quick solutions. But let me suggest three related concepts that need to be part of the discussion.

1. A revitalized understanding of citizenship. Citizenship requires more than faithfulness at the ballot box. Citizenship requires an on-going and active participation in political life. One obvious problem arises when politics is seen primarily in national terms. In such a context, active and meaningful political engagement is far more difficult than when politics is seen primarily in terms of human scale political institutions where individuals regularly discuss and decide their corporate future.

2. A revitalized vision of localism. Citizenship is best expressed in face-to-face interaction with fellow citizens. Such interaction, of course, makes possible the robust conversations necessary for a healthy democracy. According to Lasch, such conversations also have the effect of cultivating the virtue of common decency, which extends far beyond the narrow limits of politics proper and serves to make citizens good neighbors. It may, in fact, be the case that citizenship and neighborliness are flip sides of the same coin. It is also undeniably true that the idea of the common good is more imaginable when framed in the context of human scale communities instead of a national abstraction.

3. A revitalized commitment to the principle of subsidiarity. Localism can only thrive if local communities exercise control over their own futures. A political system characterized by increasing centralization of political power is one where citizens are either complacent or frustrated. Complacent citizens are not really citizens at all and frustrated citizens are frustrated precisely because the sphere of their citizenship is so constricted. The principle of subsidiarity—the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest effective level—serves to empower local communities, and democracy without strong local communities is merely a charade.

It may be that gridlock is the best hope for the near term. However, there are hopeful signs that Americans are tired of the cynical politics of special interests. The on-going economic trials along with the looming entitlement crunch may, in fact, provide a catalyst for a renewed conversation about the common good, the limits of power, and the conditions necessary for a healthy democracy. Until that happens, gridlock may be the best option. But that’s not a very hopeful slogan.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Skipping nuance and the benefit of well thought-out argument that this article deserves… I’m not sure that “revitalizing” the good ideas you mention in Part II are possible within the grinding framework you outline in Part I; which is just short-hand for wondering whether the system can be revitalized at all?

    I’m increasingly less confident that the system will allow for heterogeneous subsidiary localities within the body politic – not without a fight, anyhow. The question to me seems to be this: what kind of fight do we want to have, and are we scouting the ground on which we want it fought? A ballot-box fight of citizens strikes me a guaranteed to fail for all the reasons you highlight in Part I.

  2. well, I realize it’s simple, but best way I have of conceptualizing what we presently do is to think of a gardener who puts all his effort into finding the best seed, plants it in spring, comes back in August and finds an overgrown mess. So he goes looking for different seed. Not a question of finding the right leaders so much as finding the right citizens, people who are going to show up at the meeting, hearing or whatever it is this week. Maybe you all can contribute to a rebirth of civic engagement. Then we’ll be okay. Fractious to the last, I imagine, but just fine.

  3. I love gridlock.

    3. A revitalized commitment to the principle of subsidiarity. Localism can only thrive if local communities exercise control over their own futures.

    This, I think, is the unarticulated link between the Tea Parties and certain Protestant sensibilities [if not Catholic]. The trend has been that increased centralization [if not “judicial activism”] has removed moral decision making from the people to an unaccountable Leviathan.

    Whether it was the Roman church vs. the king in the investiture controversies of the middle ages, or the Calvinists [and later, the unitarians] railing against the state control of religion in Britain and America, there has always been a healthy tension there, and a necessary emergency valve.

  4. This piece promoted significant discussion in the office today (here at the end of the day). This quote is related to the most serious limitations of the argument:

    BOQ On the other hand, a polity oriented to the common good will be populated by citizens willing to sacrifice short term individual goods for long term common goods. This will create a context within which the flourishing of all can best occur. EOQ

    Doesn’t history teach that an individualized conceptions of the common good that blossom into local conceptions of the same inevitably are either co-opted by those seeking power or are themselves so powerful that they quickly cease to be local? In either event and as a corollary, a high commitment to the principle of subsidiarity cannot be sustained over the long term.

    I so wish it were otherwise.

  5. Clay Johnson: Doesn’t history teach that an individualized conceptions of the common good that blossom into local conceptions of the same inevitably are either co-opted by those seeking power or are themselves so powerful that they quickly cease to be local? In either event and as a corollary, a high commitment to the principle of subsidiarity cannot be sustained over the long term.

    I so wish it were otherwise.

    This is a good argument. Some of the Federalist Papers arguments were that the states had turned into mini-tyrannies, autocracies. On a practical level, it’s simply easier for a small number of people to tyrannize a small number of people than a large number of people.

    But I do not think such tyrannies are sustainable in the long term.

    There is the current and valid argument that “states’ rights” were synonymous with institutional racism, and it was the US government that ended Jim Crow. All true, but Leviathan is not the cure-all for every problem, or the Best Way. Even the wisest king is not God.

    Presidents and Congresses and Supreme Courts even less so. In the end, we’re on our own. Who do we trust? Our rulers or each other?

    That’s what this whole democracy/republic thing is all about.

    Not that either choice is all that appealing. 😉

  6. Thank you, Mark, for providing one of the few real rays of light and hope in what is otherwise a thoroughly dispiriting political season. But I have few illusions about gridlock turning heads to reconsidering the common good instead of digging in on individual illusions and special inerests. You seem to have a more hopeful take on what Deneen suggests is getting the government (gridlock and all) we deserve. Thanks for at least lighting a candle.

  7. Mark: As someone who has served as counsel to several small New England towns, I cannot help but think, despite my sympathy for your proposal, that it’s hopelessly unrealistic. If you had been sitting in these open town meetings over the last couple of decades, as I have done, you would have seen the passing of a generation that included a lot of people who understood citizenship, as you have described it, and its replacement with younger people who interact with local government much more as consumers. The young couples who have purchased McMansions work two jobs, and have very little time for voluntarism; what little time they have is more likely to be plowed into youth sports and other opportunities to spend time with their kids. And they demand that local government spend their considerable tax contributions to maximize their own benefits, inevitably pushing toward the professionalization of town staff and marginalization of volunteers.

    Your post also overlooks the degree to which towns are inevitably pressured, by their chasing of tax revenues, to lure corporate employers by means that are often bad for the community; just as states are often involved in a race-to-the-bottom absent national minimum standards, municipal governments are drawn into that dynamic as well. Until the country deals with the profoundly anti-democratic features of its corporatist system, the kind of localism that you advocate is never going to emerge.

  8. Citizens must come to think of themselves as obligatory agents in the furtherance of the Republic, a Republic which will have its problems. Now, the depauperate citizen awaits some kind of savior who can wave a wand and create utopia. The citizen , or a portion of the citizenry votes and considers this the fulfillment of an obligation that begins and ends in spectatorism.

    American Empire is , by in large, an elaborate bait and switch whose chief venue lies within the realm of distraction because Cause and Effect have been thrown overboard. Our primary mental absorption has hopped over those closest to us and concentrates upon things miles away from us and of little meaningful import to a realized soul.

  9. Jorge 56,
    Your experience seems to validate my argument not undermine it: one of our problems is a denigrated understanding of citizenship. But you, yourself, say that you have witnessed the change. Which is to say, it once existed and within your life time. Arguing for the need to recover something that existed only one generation ago doesn’t strike me as hopelessly idealistic. Arguing for something that has never existed is idealistic.

    With that said, something has brought about the changes we are both lamenting. What are the changes, both political and cultural, that need to be made? I suggested three notions that should be part of the mix. There are many more. What are they? And looming behind that question is one raised by Marchmaine: can the system be revitalized or does it need to be dismantled and reconfigured before we can recover the kind of robust citizenship so necessary for democracy?

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