When Front Porch Republic came into the world seven years ago, it did so largely on the strength of an intuition. Everyone was weary of “bigness.” The financial collapse triggered by the failure of banks that were “too big to fail”; the ever expanding war on terror, which had led to the biggest American foreign policy disaster in one hundred years; an Obama administration that promised to add an average of 1 trillion dollars to the national debt annually (a promise it has kept); such items ran in big block letters on the front pages of our newspapers.
But in the back pages, one saw many smaller signs of such weariness. An interest of those living in big cities to “know their farmer” and to buy what they ate from places near where they lived; a rise in the number of young people, mostly by necessity, returning to their hometowns, and seeking to improve them where they could; a rise in young “aspirant” farmers and a tremendous increase in the number of intergenerational households across the American landscape. Thanks to Bill Kauffman and others, one also began to hear tales of secessionist movements in all fifty states: from liberal socialists in Vermont seeking to carve out a fleecy paradise of freedom in the north woods to rural Californians sick of financing the unsustainable welfare and cultural schemes hatched in the liberal corridors of power in Sacramento. Finally, it just seemed that everyone regardless of politics was reading the books of Wendell Berry and finding nourishment in them.
Could this convergence of interests among “bourgeois bohemian” locavores buying kale at their co-op, and liberal policy analysts with an appreciation for the cultural capital produced by community self-government, with “fire-eating” Jeffersonians, Kirkian traditionalists, the odd monarchist, and a handful of Chestertonian distributists, come to anything? I, a mere student of Aristotle in search of a way to live in accord with nature, was anxious to learn.
But, I rather doubted it. But there were occasional small signs that something may be striking home. First, there was the modest rise of Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism, in the United Kingdom (not to mention the sensation it created here). And then, for goodness sake, Rod Dreher moved home! The most promising signs were, sad to say, the continuing discontent among the electorate in the United States and abroad. In every instance, the theme was the same. The deracinated, globalising elites that constitute the supermajority of the political class in western nations viewed their people with contempt and were, more and more, being held in contempt by the people.
Yesterday’s vote by the people of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union is — by several orders of magnitude — the greatest sign that the peoples of the West have lost trust in the institutions of “bigness” with all their empty utopian promises and would rather participate in the difficult work of shaping their own future.
Such a vote was certainly a vote against the ongoing bureaucratic regime of the Union, against its reduction of member states to servile clients, and against the suicidal immigration and migration policies that have brought the Union to intractable crisis. It was not, therefore, primarily a vote for a restoration of genuine self-government seen as a good in itself.
As Blaise Pascal once suggested, all philosophy begins in disappointment. Our vision of the political good, of justice, emerges out of our encounter with failure, injustice, and discontent. One has first to know one knows nothing before one can seek after wisdom, and one must sense the “pain of loss” that comes from sin before one can seek redemption.
Those positive elements we saw years ago converging on a preference for, even a sense of the necessity of, the local — in food, in culture, in sacred rite, and political act — however genuinely good they were, were also first born of disappointment. Alienation in a world of institutions grown teratological — too big for their own good or the good of those they claimed to “serve” — occasioned the rediscovery of such things. Liberal rationalism, with its obsession for the totalizing system, of bringing every dimension of human life under the rule of administration, with its conviction that every serious distinction between persons was a policy problem to be solved rather than a cultural condition to be reckoned with and even revered, was bound to end in failure. And so, our moment, with its myriad and mostly inadequate quests after a proper human scale, was inevitable in turn.
But let us be clear. The vote yesterday was no vote in favor of those good things. It was a vote that revealed the fraying of elite consensus and the submission of the masses to it. It was a vote that testified to how little, how weak, a sense of nationality, shared culture, shared faith, and a shared sense of the common good is left in the United Kingdom. And the votes that, I presume, will follow in other member states will corroborate this general loss of faith.
Ours, therefore, should be thought a populist moment. The people do not believe their leaders have either their own interests or the common good of their polities at heart, and so those leaders are being rejected. We have had several years now to try to come up with some political vision to replace the one those leaders tried, to our loss, to put in place. Now is the time to bring that political vision to some kind of clarity and coherence.
The rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy has certainly brought some of the questions essential to that vision to the fore — a need to reassume our political responsibilities on immigration and citizenship, on the defense of the republic (as opposed to the prosecution of empire), on trade policy and a concern for domestic industry and manufactures. These are matters of great import. But they are small potatoes in comparison with the necessity of having a shared vision of the common good and the Good Itself. I doubt any western country, the United States included, has a sufficient remnant of moral imagination and cultural capital to restore such a vision. And I am hardly alone in doubting that Trump, for all the real questions about policy he has raised, has anything like the integrity or intelligence to help us do that.
And so, yesterday’s vote affirms that we are in an age of widespread political disappointment, one that has gone so far that calls for change can win a majority. But we do not have sufficient resources, at least not yet, to do the hard work of political “philosophy,” to discern, as a people seeking to be virtuous together, a genuinely good alternative to the status quo ante. Unless we can find them, the fracturing and withdrawal of polities will remain what it presently is — a mere politics of dissolution that will gain in force as it approaches entropy. But if we continue to make the case, in ever new and ever more compelling ways, that Aristotle first made twenty-five-hundred years ago — that all politics is local, because human nature finds its fulfillment in the shared life of a city — perhaps present disappointment and dissolution will finally become a prologue to an order more modest and befitting to human nature, and to a politics not of optimism but of hope.