A Culture for Democracy
The American Left often accuses the American Right of advocating for an extreme agenda of individualism, of “social Darwinism” and greed that undermines Society by dulling our shared sense of community and empathy. And they are partially right: there is an extreme libertarian strain of specifically economic ‘conservatism’ that fetishizes autonomy and fiscal self-reliance. And there are far too many ‘conservatives’ who self-servingly equate their own professional and economic success with a concomitant moral worth – as if one had all that much to do with the other — and use that as an excuse to wash their hands of any concern for those whose successes are lesser than their own.
But, it is also true that so-called ‘cultural conservatism’ represents very nearly the opposite of that type of narcissism, concerning itself almost obsessively with what it perceives to be the deleterious effects of self-indulgent and undisciplined personal behavior on societal health.
On the other hand, “if it feels good, do it” and “my body, my choice” are slogans of the Left, not of the Right, and it would be hard to identify more “individualistic” sentiments or policies than those. There is an equally extreme libertarian strain of specifically cultural ‘liberalism’ that fetishizes autonomy and eclectic self-actualization. And there are far too many ‘liberals’ who self-servingly equate their own cultural eccentricities with a concomitant moral worth – as if one had all that much to do with the other – and use that as an excuse to wash their hands of any concern for those whose predilections are more orthodox and plebeian than their own.
There is, indeed, an undercurrent of ego running through our culture, but it is endemic across the political spectrum, not monopolized by one side or the other. On the Right, it manifests mostly as economic solipsism with a side helping of cultural self-sufficiency: hands off my money and my guns. On the Left, it manifests mostly as cultural solipsism with a side helping of economic entitlement: hands off my lifestyle except to subsidize it. And, in our solipsism, we on both sides conclude that neither culture nor politics are communal activities but personal instruments of our vainglorious ends, that whatever we want is Good and that whatever gets us what we want is, therefore, self-justified.
We have evolved, somehow, a culture of “rights” without a corresponding culture of “responsibilities”. We have lost the distinction between what is acceptable and what is right – between what we may do, as free people, and what we should do, as citizens of a shared civilization. As a result, we have assented to a general dwindling of any cultural authority to guide us along the path toward that distinction. To the contrary, we have re-defined both “intolerance” and “coercion” downward to mean not an actual and forcible interference but merely any kind of critical social judgement or persuasion. And yet, ironically, to fill the void in moral guidance that creates, we have replaced the instruction of cultural authority with a reflexive capitulation to the fickle fulminations of the social media hordes, have traded the counsel of considered cultural norms for the tyranny of impetuous popular passion.
We no longer even pretend to act as a nation, rather than as a cacophony of competing, self-righteous, and self-aggrandizing tribes, crouching in our isolated silos and launching missiles at each other in the belief that we are one shot – or one election – away from some kind of final and irrevocable victory of virtue over iniquity. And we can no longer cooperate because we can no longer trust each other to deal as moral equals and in good faith, rather than as mortal enemies in pursuit of some covert tactical advantage. We act not as diplomats but, rather, as political or cultural or economic raiding parties determined to capture a higher ground from which to launch our next missile with better accuracy and to greater effect.
Neither Capitalism nor a liberal republic can survive a solipsistic culture that disdains any commitment to the common weal. For a free society to avoid utter anarchy, the political liberty to do as you will must be tempered by the social discipline to do as you ought. Without the moral restraint of a responsibility to others and to Society, democratic government and the Free Market do, indeed, eventually and inevitably devolve back into little more than highly formalized variants of the Jungle.
But, if Capitalism and a liberal republic cannot survive a people who are free but irresponsible, a free people, irresponsible or otherwise, cannot survive accepting a Social bondage without ceasing to be free. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created, is reported to have responded, “A Republic – if you can keep it!” Our current circumstance suggests his fears were, perhaps, prescient. We seem disturbingly close, in a fit of fearful and jealous pique, to rebuffing the ideal of our Capitalistic liberal republic in favor of a prophesied collectivist haven. Alas, that haven may be gauzy and alluring but it is also treacherous. It presents itself as a warm cocoon to hold us secure and nourished as we grow wings. The danger is that the cocoon is never intended to open: its nourishing security is really a cage to bind those new-grown wings and prevent us ever taking flight.
The American Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that freedom is the human birthright – that our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable, not merely a matter of social consensus or political magnanimity. It is a stirring elocution of moral principle and aspiration. But, in the same text, that proclamation is followed immediately by a warning: our rights may be morally inalienable, but they are not practically secure. They must be defended against those who would usurp them. That is the purpose of government.
But government can only achieve that purpose if does not, itself, become the usurper. A benevolent dictatorship lasts only as long as the benevolence of the dictator, and those prone to seeking dictatorial power are rarely equally prone to an overwhelming sense of duty or of altruism. The same is true of democracy: the legitimacy imparted by a democratic process does not automatically make the result of that process either wise or moral. “The people” can be – and all too often are – as self-serving and tyrannical as any individual despot. Governments control the predators among us through a limited authority for coercion, by explicitly subverting their freedom to prey upon their victims. But, particularly in a democracy, how limited can that authority be if the predators outnumber the prey?
In practice, we can only have liberty to the extent that we deserve it – to the extent that we accept our own self-limitations – our own responsibilities – to respect the liberty of others and to support and reinforce the social fabric that distinguishes civilization from the Jungle. If we want to avoid tyranny, we must not only assert and demand our rights but acknowledge and shoulder those responsibilities. We are individuals, certainly, but we must also be citizens.
If the ship of State is pitching wildly among the swells of an unruly sea, unable to maneuver or to hold a steady and propitious course because it is perversely and ineffectually rigged, you don’t fix it by replacing the keel or re-planking the hull, never mind by scuttling it and setting off in a lifeboat. You begin, at the least, by trying to untangle and re-align the rigging, the better to help the sails catch the wind.
We are, indeed, tossing in an unruly sea of feral individuals and belligerent tribes with a government and an economy that is perversely and ineffectively rigged. But, as bad as things might seem, we are not actually foundering. Abandoning the ship in order to find some sturdier one, or dismantling it out from under ourselves in the hope of rebuilding it to be stronger and faster, is neither necessary or reasonable. No doubt, the rigging must be untangled and re-aligned. And, no doubt, to do that will require some political and economic change, some principled compromise, and, probably, some modest amount of personal sacrifice for the common good.
More importantly, though, it will require a cultural change, not only to clear the tendentious rigging but to calm the tempestuous sea. It will require us to let go of our tribal animosities and personal self-absorption for long enough to recognize that we do, indeed, share a common interest with those we think of as our enemies. It will require us to re-establish basic norms of civil social interaction and some basic foundations for mutual trust. And It will require us to abandon the sanctimonious certitude of our clannish allegiances and begin, once more, to see ourselves as a nation, indivisible, pursuing liberty and justice for all as self-confident but humble pluralists.
 From section III, “Communist and Socialist Literature”, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, London, 1848,
 To be clear, I separate Communism from Socialism not because it does not assert the same vision of a Society elevated in moral importance above the individual but because, in its naiveté, it presumes it needn’t worry about enforcing such moral elevation because individualism – and the very individual – would have become obsolete, extinct and, therefore, irrelevant.
 “When Amazon Was Young; The Early Years”, by Steven Loeb; at vator.tv, downloaded 3/31/2019
 “When Amazon Was Young; The Early Years”, by Steven Loeb; at vator.tv, downloaded 3/31/2019
 Yes, I am aware that it was New York City, not Washington, D.C., that hosted the Federal government during those first few years while they worked out what neutral territory to appropriate for the national capital and constructed it. “Washington” is our modern-day metaphor for the center of Federal power, and the word is clearly used in that sense. Provided it doesn’t deceive, concision is sometimes more appropriate than precision.
 Here is a typical example: “Sweden Isn’t Socialist”, by John Stossel, Reason online, 2 January 2019 (https://reason.com/2019/01/02/sweden-isnt-socialist/, downloaded 5/1/2019 @19:31 EDT).
 From https://data.oecd.org/gga/general-government-spending.htm, pulled 20 May 2019 @11:20 PM EDT.
 Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics; from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States, pulled 21 May 2019 @12:20 AM EDT.
 “How Many Rules and Regulations Do Federal Agencies Issue?”, Clyde Wayne Crews, Jr, Forbes, 15 Aug 2017 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/waynecrews/2017/08/15/how-many-rules-and-regulations-do-federal-agencies-issue/#3baf63e01e64, pulled 20 May 2019 @11:36 PM EDT).
© Copyright 2019, Augustus P. Lowell