Here is an excerpt from my recently published book: The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place and Community in a Global Age.
American politics is broken. One of the few things most Americans agree on is that Congress is an ineffectual body proficient in pandering to special interests while glibly spending money borrowed against our grandchildren’s future. The presidency oscillates between Democrats and Republicans, but nothing really seems to change. The near collapse of the banking industry in 2008 indicated that the corruption is not limited to the public sector, and the subsequent government bailout of certain entities deemed “too big to fail” suggests that we have forgotten how to think and act in terms of human scale.
The so-called culture wars have increased in rancor, even as the lines have become more fixed and the warriors more intransigent. Voices of decency, propriety, and wisdom are drowned out by those who specialize in vitriol and who take delight in demonizing their opponents. Somewhere in the process we have abandoned any conception of the common good.
The political landscape is dominated by “liberals” and “conservatives” who often seem both illiberal and downright hostile to conserving much of anything. For instance, the word “conservative” is used—indeed overused—to describe a political and cultural position as broad as it is nebulous. While most conservatives embrace some version of market capitalism and some limits on the size and scope of government, self-identified conservatives don’t agree on the substantive contents of the term. As a result, the word has become so elastic that it can be used to describe anything from a minimalist “night-watchman state” to so-called compassionate conservatism, which looks to government to facilitate, if not deliver, social services. Many who express an enthusiasm for foreign military adventures in the name of universal democracy call themselves conservative, but so do the relative few who support a restrained foreign policy that is skeptical of nation building. Evangelicals championing “family values” call themselves conservative as do business executives whose advertising campaigns seem hell-bent on undermining those same values. Is a concept that is so watered down that it can be credibly used to describe this range of views really worth much at all? Is the word itself worth conserving?
Likewise, the concept of liberalism has undergone changes of its own, for initially it had little to do with a steadily expanding welfare state. Liberalism derives, etymologically, from the Latin liberalis, which means liberty. Liberalism is a relative newcomer on the political scene. For liberals, the primary political unit is the individual and the primary concern is individual liberty. Entailed in this is the notion that humans are beings with the capacity to choose. Liberalism, then, is the political school of thought that emphasizes the free choices of individuals. The language of human rights goes hand in hand with liberalism, for these rights refer primarily to the moral status of individuals. Along with the notion of human rights goes the idea of human equality: all humans equally possess certain rights. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all Men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” he was giving voice to concepts firmly rooted in the liberal tradition. In this sense a major strand—and perhaps the major strand—of the American founding stems from liberalism.
At this point, an obvious problem emerges. According to this definition of liberalism, it seems that Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, are liberals. That is, they emphasize individual liberty, and political discourse is framed in terms of individual rights.
But Republicans, when they hurl the word “liberal” as an epithet, are not accusing Democrats of their love of liberty and rights. Instead, they are suggesting several things depending on the context. If the subject at hand is fiscal policy, then liberalism means a propensity to increase taxes—especially on the wealthy—and to increase state spending on social programs. If the subject is defense, liberalism means antimilitarism and a propensity to coddle the enemy. In the area of sexual ethics, liberals are libertines who want to destroy the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman and instead permit marriage between any two consenting adults. Liberals are pro-choice on abortion and against capital punishment. Liberals, so goes the rant, are soft on crime. They love the poor and resent the rich. They are convinced that global warming will destroy us all and that the state should take drastic measures to stop it. When “conservatives” call their opponents liberals they mean, at root, that they are irreligious god-haters or at least Unitarians. Liberals tend to drink pinot noir and concoctions with funny little umbrellas. In short, a liberal, in this colloquial sense, emphasizes expansive personal liberties and favors state solutions to social ills. The high rate of taxation and state intervention that makes the latter possible may, in fact, truncate the former, but that is beside the point.
When Democrats hurl names at Republicans, words like “fundamentalist” and “warmonger” merge to create an image of a gun-toting, Bible-thumping radical, a sort of John Brown for our times. Because some Democrats believe that the so-called Christian Right, secretly or not, has designs on turning the United States into a Christian fundamentalist theocracy, the term “conservative” sometimes carries these connotations. At the very least it is used to designate a group of people who have a particular set of moral beliefs that they want to impose on the rest of society. Furthermore, conservatives tend to be selfish and unconcerned about the poor and the destitute. Conservatives are against capital gains taxes and for capital punishment. They oppose inheritance taxes, corporate taxes, and any kind of progressive taxes, which has the effect of funneling more money to the rich at the expense of social programs that help the poor, whom conservatives resent as shiftless drags on society. Conservatives, so goes the rant, are selfish partisans of big business who, at the same time, want to impose a strict morality on the rest of us. They see the natural world as a resource to be strip-mined and deny that human activities have anything to do with climate change. They also tend to be flag-waving jingoists who love war, thrive on militarism, and own at least one handgun. Conservatives tend not to read books; they watch NASCAR and drink beer from a can (unless they are Baptists in which case they drink Mountain Dew). Big business’s use of salacious themes in advertizing may not be compatible with the moralizing rhetoric of the culture warriors, but that is beside the point.
Both of these descriptions are caricatures used by one group to discredit the other. And while they don’t get us far, they can give us some hints about what each side deems most dangerous. Those on the right are concerned about the libertinism and statism of the left, while those on the left worry about the moralism and social apathy of those on the right. Liberals want the right to be left alone in the bedroom, and they highlight the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. Conservatives demand the right to keep their own money and the freedom to raise their children in a decent society. Both generally recur to the language of individual rights to make their claims. In this sense, partisans on both the right and the left drink deeply of the well of liberalism.
Many liberals are progressives. Progressives believe that things are getting–or at least can get–progressively better. They are optimistic about human nature and the human capacity for good. They understand human progress to consist of, at least in part, progress toward greater individual freedom. Progressives tend to be optimistic about the human capacity to solve problems. They look forward to the possibility, perhaps in the distant future, of a world without wars, famine, or sickness. Some progressives look for a future without government or private property, but in America most look forward to one characterized by democracy and plenty for all.
American leaders on both the right and the left have, at various times, expressed their conviction that things are progressively improving, even as they lament the slippage that occurs when the opposition is in power. Ronald Reagan famously claimed that it is “morning again in America.” Talking heads on the right regularly equate progress with economic growth and argue that if the federal government would simply step aside, a new era of prosperity would dawn. Commentators on the left argue that if conservative culture warriors would stop prying into the private lives of others, peace and happiness would advance significantly. In recent years, it is impossible not to hear politicians, on both the left and the right, speak of “moving forward” or “moving ahead.” Apparently, they all assume that forward is the only reasonable direction and that things will get better if we continue to press onward in the same direction. In other words, the doctrine of progress seems deeply embedded in American political discourse.
If partisans on both the left and right express themselves primarily in terms of individual rights and think of politics in terms of an underlying and open-ended progress, then we don’t really need the term “conservatism” at all. Both sides are firmly rooted in the soil of progressive liberalism. They agree about the purpose of government (to protect individual rights) and the direction of history (progress). They may disagree about which individual rights to privilege and what specifically constitutes progress, but these are really in-house debates among liberals.
We are at this point confronted with a startling question: is conservatism a term that is useful or meaningful in the American context? At best “conservatism,” as it is generally used today, seems to represent merely one shade of liberalism. When the issue is framed in this manner, the raging debate between “conservatives” and “liberals,” while dealing with important matters, is really a series of tempests in one particular political teapot. The foundational questions have, it seems, been laid to rest. All sides are committed to the fundamental ideas of individual rights and progress.
In this book, I want to explore an alternative that I call the politics of gratitude. It attempts to move beyond the timeworn liberal-conservative dichotomy that has reduced our political and cultural discourse to clichés, vitriol, and downright silliness. While this narrative will not be recognized as either liberal or conservative by the chief spokespersons of either camp, I would like to poach the word “conservative” for its etymological bounty. The word “conserve” comes from the Latin conservare, which is a verb meaning to watch over, preserve, and protect or to continue to dwell in. This term describes stewards, people who commit themselves to preserving the good things of this world. Together they dwell in their various places, watching over those places and the goods inherent therein as they tend them in trust for the next generation. Stewardship gives birth to acts of responsibility and care that are oriented toward the long-term preservation of the natural, cultural, and institutional goods we have inherited, even as it seeks to improve them in the process.
This book attempts to develop an account of politics and culture rooted in gratitude and giving birth to responsible lives characterized by stewardship and a commitment to community. In the first half of the book, I discuss four concepts that are often neglected in our contemporary discourse but that are essential to a politics of gratitude. The four build upon one another and, hopefully, culminate in something that resembles coherence. They are as follows: (1) creatureliness, (2) gratitude, (3) human scale, and (4) place. In the second half, I employ these concepts in thinking about five different areas: (1) politics, (2) economics, (3) the natural world, (4) family, and (5) education. The outcome, perhaps already suspected, will be a political and cultural vision that is at once local, limited, modest, republican,* grateful, and green.
In a climate of increasingly shrill and partisan debates, where the words “liberal” and “conservative” are used as terms of abuse, where important matters are torpedoed by special interests seeking to aggrandize their power, Americans are looking for a better way. They are seeking a political and cultural direction that is authentically different and not simply the retreads of shortsighted ideas born of partisan politics and failed ideologies. Fortunately, there is hope. Many, on both the left and the right, are coming to the conclusion that neither the conservatism of the Republicans nor the progressivism of the Democrats offers long-term solutions to the many challenges besetting us. This book does not attempt to beat the same old drum or the same old heads. What follows is an alternative political and cultural vision rooted in gratitude, common sense, and a deep affection for the sheer goodness of life.
* By “republican” I mean a form of government based on regular elections and representation in the context of the rule of law.
The Politics of Gratitude is available for purchase here.
This excerpt is published by permission of Potomac Books. Their toll-free order number is (800) 775-2518.