Politics on a Human Scale: HistoriographyBy Jeff Taylor for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Sioux Center, Iowa. According to Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun. Even if we allow for superficial innovations, the wise king had a point. It’s one reason I love history and see it as important. The past matters.
Human nature was created, and suffered a fall, long ago. Similarly, human culture began flowing in streams that have recurred time and again through the millennia. For example, no one has improved on the six-fold classification of human government and its attendant mixed constitution synthesis, taught by Plato and Aristotle over 2,300 years ago. Yes, we have seen different varieties of tyrants come and go, and the past century has witnessed their carnage on a magnitude hitherto unimaginable, but the bad sort of rule by one was identified long ago.
What is true of the classical Greeks and Romans is true of the ancient Hebrews as well. The truths are there, temporal and eternal. As Bob Dylan commented in the 1980s, “People still love and they hate, they still marry and have children, still [are] slaves in their minds to their desires . . . What’s changed? When did Abraham break his father’s idols? I think it was last Tuesday. God is still the judge and the devil still rules the world so what’s different? No matter how big you think you are history is gonna roll over you.”
I don’t think I’m big at all but I do have a new book that deals with big subjects. Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism, published by Lexington Books, is centered on the relation between political thought and American political history. Power, democracy, liberty, community, and morality are major themes, including the Christian concepts of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. It provides a detailed look at how the two major political parties flirted with but ultimately rejected a commitment to decentralized power and the Tenth Amendment.
More specifically, the look at political decentralization in the United States includes agrarianism, states’ rights, the abandonment of the decentralist impulse by the national leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the dissident tradition on the contemporary political scene. It covers the subject with breadth and depth, from the founding of the republic to the present. A promotional website with more information about the book can be found here.
Unfortunately, the book—even in paperback—is expensive. I’d like to use the cliché “You get what you pay for,” but we all know good books that are cheap. Trade paperbacks are like that but academic presses often charge a lot. This is a big book, though, so you do get a lot for your money. It’s available wherever fine books (and base books) are sold. Bill Kauffman has a point in encouraging purchase by your local bookseller because he or she is human whereas online vendors meet us as computer interfaces. I guess human beings are on the other end of Amazon.com and local sellers use computers to acquire books such as mine, but there remains a difference of scale.
If you don’t have a local seller or prefer Amazon, know that the book may be currently out of stock but should be available again within a week or two (not the “1-3 months” listed). Or you can try some other online vendor or order directly from the publisher (use promo code LEX20AUTH13 when you checkout for a 20% discount). If you don’t have $50 to spend but you’re interested, you can borrow it from your local library through interlibrary loan. (The ebook version is less than the paperback.)
Politics on a Human Scale is largely historical, with contemporary application, but on a more personal level I’d like to take note of the historical context into which it fits. A history of the history. Maybe this isn’t of interest to anyone besides the narcissism-tinged author but in little ways I’ve tried to pay homage to authors and schools of thought that have been helpful to me and beneficial to society over the years. More broadly, others may be interested in the philosophical background of decentralist thought since the 1940s.
The book’s foreword by former Congressman Glen Browder (D-AL) was partly inspired by House-member introductions to two right-wing books published during the golden age of the John Birch Society: Congressman James Utt (R-CA) in The Fearful Master (G. Edward Griffin, 1964) and Congressman John Schmitz (R-CA) in None Dare Call It Conspiracy (Gary Allen, 1972).
Regardless of what gatekeepers of respectability may have thought about the Griffin and Allen books, the fact that Representative Utt and Representative Schmitz gave their endorsements left an impression on me as a young political activist. The ideas may have seemed far-out but at least a couple people with first-hand acquaintance with national power agreed with the broad outlines. That meant something to me. (Today I don’t embrace all of the details or the words used to describe the lay of the land in these books. For instance, I view the UN as an open vehicle of imperial powers led by the U.S. rather than a covert communist conspiracy, and I don’t think the Wall Street titans were pro-communist so much as ambitious men who could do business with the Reds because they shared a materialistic, power-hungry mindset. Orwell described it well at the end of Animal Farm.)
I got to know Representative Browder as a colleague in the Political Science department at Jacksonville State University. Glen’s participation was desirable because of his personal experience with American federalism as a state and national legislator, and a state executive officeholder, in addition to being a scholar. I also hoped his presence might lend some real-world credibility to a book that might be seen by some academic peers as an opinionated promotion of idealistic endeavors. (Things like democracy, justice, and peace.)
The interesting tangents contained in the book’s multiple appendices were inspired by America’s 60 Families (Ferdinand Lundberg, c1937, 1939 ed.). The title of Appendix B—“ Wilson and the Coming of War”—was inspired by President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (Charles Beard, 1948). The book’s model of ideology-transcendent decentralism is called The Quadratic Persuasion. The phrase is obviously borrowed from quadratic equation and less-obviously from the book The Populist Persuasion (Michael Kazin, 1995). In my chapter about William Jennings Bryan and the Progressive Era, I disagree with Kazin’s view of Bryan as a big-government forerunner of FDR. Nonetheless, I respect him and appreciate his populist sympathies.
The title of the book comes from the Front Porch Republic and Ciceronian Society zeitgeist that I’ve been associated with in recent years, with some Intercollegiate Studies Institute and The American Conservative influence as well. I’ve heard the phrase repeatedly—so much so that I was amazed when I did a web search and could not find a book previously bearing “politics on a human scale” as a title. That being the case, I moved forward with my plan to use the name.
Despite direct inspiration for the title by traditional conservatives of the communitarian-moralistic-crunchy con-intellectual sort, upon reflection I realized there were older antecedents as well. These antecedents were on the liberal, progressive, or even socialist side of the political spectrum. (My book argues that decentralism cuts across the simplistic Right-Left linear spectrum.) The language of “human scale” politics originated, at least in modern America, among the New Left and the Counterculture.
Dwight Macdonald, an anarchistic socialist and father of the New Left, paid tribute to Mohandas Gandhi when he was assassinated. Macdonald wrote, “Gandhi was the last political leader in the world who was a person, not a mask or a radio voice or an institution. The last on a human scale.” (Politics, Winter 1948) I was first exposed to human scale politics reading these and other Macdonald words forty years later.
George Orwell was one of the writers Macdonald introduced to American intellectuals through Partisan Review and Politics. With the exception of Orwell’s eventual support for WWII, the Londoner generally shared the New Yorker’s politics. One of Orwell’s acquaintances in Spain during its civil war was Leopold Kohr, an Austrian (or Salzburgian) serving as a newspaper correspondent in the late 1930s. Kohr went on to become an economist, political philosopher, and self-described anarchist. His most famous book was The Breakdown of Nations (1957). Kohr coined the phrase “small is beautiful,” which was eventually used by his student E.F. Schumacher as the title for his influential book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973).
In the 1970s, Schumacher popularized the Catholic decentralist economics of Distributism on the liberal side of the spectrum, especially among counterculturalists, ecologists, and skeptics of modern industrial capitalism. Among those influenced was Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA). Both Schumacher and Brown were Roman Catholics whose thinking was supplemented by Buddhist thought. The two were discussed, along with Ralph Nader, in the epilogue of Ecology as Politics (André Gorz, 1975). Gorz was an Austrian-French journalist and New Left intellectual.
Gorz and Nader served as bridges to the rising Green Party movement that began in West Germany in the 1970s and spread throughout the world. Nader became the presidential nominee of the Green Party of the United States in 1996 and 2000. Leader of the Social Ecology wing of U.S. Greens in the 1980s, Murray Bookchin was a longtime advocate of human scale. In his book Our Synthetic Environment (1962)—published a few months before the more-famous Silent Spring—Bookchin argued, “The human scale is also the natural scale.” Like Macdonald, he was a Trotskyite before becoming an anarchist.
Leopold Kohr, Murray Bookchin, and E.F. Schumacher were preeminent early fathers of the movement on behalf of human scale living. The New Left writer Kirkpatrick Sale was inspired by Kohr and wrote the foreword to the first American edition of his Breakdown of Nations. At Cornell University, Sale was a roommate of Richard Fariña, who became a folk singer, brother-in-law of Joan Baez, and friend of Bob Dylan.
Sale wrote a history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, 1973) but his pivotal contribution was the book Human Scale (1980), which contains a chapter called “Politics on a Human Scale.” During the past decade, Human Scale has been reprinted by New Society Publishers (NSP)—publisher of Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence by Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy. Like Bookchin, Sale is a native of New York State who ended up in Vermont. He wrote for Front Porch Republic in its early days (2009), including nods to Kohr and Bookchin, but he is better known as director of the pro-secession Middlebury Institute.
Brown the Democrat and Nader the Green were political allies in the 1990s. Both have been presidential candidates multiple times (Governor Brown in 1976, 1980, and 1992; Citizen Nader in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). Russell Arben Fox is correct when he says that Nader understands “the central truth (or, if you prefer, the central problem) of democracy in a post-industrial, late capitalist, globalized, technology-ridden age: that to enable real local democracy, and to engender real civic patriotism, people must be able to seize national power and use it to establish a level playing field for the pursuit of the common good.” Commenting on an FPR article I wrote about Nader, Fox continues: “In the end, Nader and his unflagging activism has been all about the authority of the people: their authority to speak, as a community, and demand responsiveness from political institutions, and accountability from corporations.”
Despite Nader’s reputation as a proponent of the nanny state, his foundational concerns are popular sovereignty and social justice, which often pit him against both big government and big business (who, more often than not, work hand-in-hand against the common good). Nader was sufficiently skeptical of centralized power—at home and abroad—to earn the votes of a fair number of Reason magazine and Cato Institute libertarians in 2000-2008.
Prior to Nader’s affiliation with the Green Party, a classic early work that promoted human scale politics was Green Politics by Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra (1984). In his article “From Red to Green” in New Internationalist (November 1985), Chris Plant wrote, “The Green movement has gained considerable influence and credibility— particularly in Western Europe. In the Federal Republic of Germany the Greens hold the balance of electoral power in several states and are a major influence nationally. . . . They have caught the popular imagination and exercise an influence in favour of decentralization, appropriate technology, community power and politics on a human scale.” Other early books on Green philosophy included Building the Green Movement (Rudolf Bahro, 1986 – NSP) and The Greens and the Politics of Transformation (John Rensenbrink, 1992).
The U.S. Green Party, partly descended from the Counterculture and the New Left, has three decentralist positions among its Ten Key Values: decentralization, grassroots democracy, and community-based economics. Sadly, Greens often default to a knee-jerk defense of federal, or even global, bureaucratic control in policy debates, thereby acting more as an auxiliary of the Democratic Party than as a genuine alternative to big government liberalism. I became a Green in 1987 and worked as a leader within three state parties (SD, MO, MN), including chair of the Missouri Green Party in 1996. My human scale perspective is deeply informed by my Green involvement. (There are other roots, as well—e.g., constitutional and political history, Jeffersonian philosophy, and Christian theology.)
In addition to Bookchin and Sale, another Green Mountain State connection comes from The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, 1990). At one time I owned the book, so its subtitle may have planted a seed in my mind. Bryan is a political science professor and a colleague of Sale in the Second Vermont Republic project. McClaughry is a co-founder of the E.F. Schumacher Society, a decentralist conservative who served as White House senior policy advisor during the first year of the Reagan administration, a former member of the Vermont legislature, an unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial nominee, founder of the free-market Ethan Allen Institute, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren. The Bryan and McClaughry book was published by Chelsea Green Publishing, which would publish Bill Kauffman’s secession book Bye Bye, Miss American Empire twenty years later (2010).
Wendell Berry, acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist, made a notable contribution to human scale politics with Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays (1993). He approached the subject as a Christian agrarian and localist. Along similar lines we have seen FPR’s own Bill Kauffman. He’s an Upstate New Yorker like Sale, while Berry is a Kentuckian. Kauffman, a prolific writer, advanced the ball with Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (2003) and Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (2006). Kauffman’s emphasis on populism, decentralism, liberty, and peace has given him a seemingly eclectic politics, with support going to candidates ranging from George McGovern and Ralph Nader to Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.
In addition to Look Homeward America, the year 2006 saw the publication of Rod Dreher’s influential Crunchy Cons: How . . . Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at least the Republican Party). The countercultural variety of conservatism during the G.W. Bush years promoted local attachments, community-based economics, organic food, a small-is-beautiful ethic, and a humble foreign policy. Berry—long a favorite of granola progressives associated with Jerry Brown, Ralph Nader, and the Green Party on the Left—was also a favorite of this group on the Right.
Patrick Deneen is a political scientist and FPR senior editor. He writes in a stream of philosophy that has ancient and medieval origins and includes Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835, 1840), The Idea of Fraternity in America (Wilson Carey McWilliams, 1973), and The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (Christopher Lasch, 1991).
A little over a century ago, William Jennings Bryan was a three-time presidential nominee and leader of the Democratic Party. During the Progressive Era, the “Great Commoner” was a preeminent voice for populism and agrarianism, justice and peace. He was indebted to the Jefferson-Jackson tradition of political principle and was deepened by the thought of Tolstoy when he met for twelve hours with the great novelist and social philosopher during a visit to Russia in 1903.
In 2007, in a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA), Deneen eloquently distinguished between Bryan and later big-government Democrats such as Wilson and FDR. (I argued the same in a book released the previous year: Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy.) Deneen called Bryan a “human hero”—supplementing the “godly hero” description used by recent Bryan biographer Michael Kazin.
Deneen discerned Bryan’s underlying philosophy: “Bryan defends diversity—and hence, eschews the monistic idea of single form of political perfection—based upon the different forms and courses of human life and local folkways and the variety of God’s manifold gifts to humanity. He thus assumes the mantle of a fierce prophet against efforts to ‘improve the race,’ to make all of mankind akin to Gods. Bryan could not be a defender of a permanently expanded government which sought to heal the wounds of humankind, because such expansion without limit would eventually devour everything in its maw, would seek to blot out God Himself (or, more likely, become ‘the God that Failed’ surrounded by its piled corpses), and surely destroy humankind in its wake.”
Front Porch Republic was founded in 2009. Presumably named after the subtitle of Kauffman’s 2006 book, FPR desires to “promote the ideals of place, limits, and liberty through fostering political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism” and seeks to “champion human scale, the ‘little platoons’ [as Edmund Burke called social subdivisions], respect for the natural world, and reverence to God.” (In the words of its editor-in-chief, political scientist Mark T. Mitchell.)
The Ciceronian Society was founded by political scientist Peter Haworth in 2010. It is dedicated to the study of tradition, place, and ‘things divine.’ Its first two annual meetings had a Jeffersonian flavor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I began writing for FPR in late 2009 and became a founding member of the Ciceronians a year later. Both groups spring from a traditional conservatism that includes Aristotle, Burke, and Russell Kirk as forefathers. Belonging to this tradition is the one possible exception to New Left origins of human scale politics in modern America: The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (Robert Nisbet, 1953). A second exception comes from the classical liberal perspective: A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (Wilhelm Röpke, c1958, 1960).
Mark Mitchell presented the paper “Human Scale and the Modest Republic” at APSA in 2008. His book The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place & Community in a Global Age was released in 2012. Donald W. Livingston, a founding member of the Ciceronian Society, has also been an Emory University philosophy professor and Abbeville Institute president. Livingston was author of “David Hume, Republicanism, and the Human Scale of Political Order” in Arator (2010) and its revision “David Hume and the Republican Tradition of Human Scale” on the Anamnesis website (2011?).
The language of scale and the recognition of human realities stretch back to the mid-point of the twentieth century, with roots going much deeper into medieval and ancient times. Yet such matters have relevance in 2013. One example is the much-publicized conflict between the Establishment and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party—with the former caring primarily about power acquisition and the latter being more committed to principle (however imperfectly understood and applied).
On our own website, this past week, Mark Mitchell summed it up when he wrote, “The question of scale is one that is rarely asked today, but it may be the essential neglected political issue of our time.” This is a question, and potential issue, that can unite us. Moving us beyond the tiresome Obama vs. Boehner competitive preening, beyond the Hannity vs. Maddow race to the deepest circle of infernal nonsense. Every sincere person of good will, regardless of partisan identification or ideological label, should be interested in politics in the light of human scale. If Lord Acton was correct in asserting that power corrupts—and there is every reason to believe that he was—it stands to reason that power is most safely wielded when it is most widely dispersed and when it is closest to the people being governed.