Academic

“Progressive Alternatives, Conservative Alliances: Prospects for Building a National Consensus”

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Left: Robert George, Right: Cornel West

Introduction 

The following essay engages some of the key proposals of an American progressive alternative conceived out of a dialectical exchange between Roberto Unger and Cornel West. In particular, it aims to offer two promising platforms for establishing common ground with conservatives, with the hope of building a new national consensus. These are: 1) its call for a new nationalism, and 2) its reformulation of the meaning of American self-construction. 

In attempting to articulate areas of possible common ground, the aim will not be to erase Unger and West’s meaningful divergences from conservative thinking (and in turn, from competing progressive outlooks that have been subsumed by the conservative agenda). Nor do I intend to dilute the radical implications of their vision. Rather, I want to point out areas that might provide occasions not only for building coalitions across the aisle, but also for cultivating the mutual understanding needed to unite a transracial working-class majority. 

Some radical visions are striking because of the extreme position they occupy within a given polar framework. Others derive their power from their latent capacity to transcend the limits of a polarity and give rise to a new world entirely. I think the progressive alternative articulated by Unger and West is of the latter type, and that it anticipates a world in which the dividing lines between Left and Right as we now understand them will shift—giving way to a new range of categories or, at the very least, new self-conceptions for the old ones. It is for this reason that, in spite of all of the apparent difficulties involved in mobilizing this progressive alternative as a launching point for building connections with the conservative mind, I remain hopeful that attempts to reach across the aisle and illuminate common ground could help to bring a new national consciousness to fruition. 

The essay will begin with a recapitulation of the broad philosophical contours of this progressive alternative. Then, so as to avoid unnecessarily diluting its message, it will address some of the initial difficulties involved in making that alternative workable, if not entirely convincing, from a conservative perspective. With these difficulties acknowledged, it will assess some key advantages that this alternative offers, whilst also acknowledging some of the indispensable alterations that must be made in the conservative imagination in order to cash out on those advantages. This part of the argument will involve explicating an important conceptual link between the progressive alternative and the conservative mind: namely the link between the progressive call for institutional experimentalism and the conservative affinity for free enterprise. Finally, it will briefly outline those elements of the proposal (nationalism and self-construction) that seem to offer good starting points for building coalitions with a broader range of fellow conservative citizens, with whom we share the future of our nation.  

The Progressive Alternative 

The progressive alternative we are now considering seeks to liberate the constructive genius of men and women by lifting the exemption from experimental alteration we Americans have placed on our institutions. Rejecting the neoliberal consensus which precludes meaningful structural change in our political institutions and market economy, and the deeper presupposition that we discovered the singular formula for a free society at the founding (to be altered only during periodic moments of crisis), it would work to democratize the market economy and increase the temperature of politics so that alternative structural regimes might emerge. In order to unleash this experimental impulse, it favors neither centralized bureaucratic regulation nor the unfettered dynamics of free enterprise exclusively, but rather forms of cooperation that combine government initiative with free market dynamics. “It rejects the simple contrast between government activism and free enterprise, not because it wants to have a little of each, but because it insists upon having more of both. To this end,” it “offers to renovate the institutional machinery for decentralized and experimental partnership between government and business.” 

By incrementally upgrading the institutional setting so that it becomes more conducive to experimental partnerships between government and business (and in so doing, permitting the innovations of the partnerships to alter the institutional setting), the idea is to expand the capacity of men and women to transform the environmental arrangements that shape their lives. This would be accomplished by integrating opportunities for reconstructive initiative in a wider range of market choices as well as through opportunities for social solidarity, thereby liberating channels of structural change that do not rely on the shock of crisis. That is to say, it would narrow the gap between our “context-preserving acts and our exceptional context-transforming moves,” “facilitating the piecemeal transformation of our contexts as a normal outgrowth of our everyday pursuits.”

Not content with the dichotomy between gradual but trivial reform on the one hand, and revolutionary but total change on the other, this progressive alternative calls for gradual reform in a revolutionary direction. It recognizes that with proper direction, incremental change can over time produce radical results, provided it continuously readapts itself to the trials and errors of its experiments. 

The economic aims fall under four main categories. First, to narrow the gap between the backward sectors of the economy and the insular, experimental fringe of the knowledge economy, so that the innovative capacities of the fringe become disseminated throughout the economy as a whole. Second, to tighten the link between finance and production, so that the former serves the latter. Third, to reinstate a balance of power between capital and labor, so that working people capture a higher percentage of the wealth they help to produce, find reprieve from financial precarity, and leverage more bargaining power in order to check the managerial class. Fourth, to go beyond redistributive schemes of tax and transfer in order to change the deeper structures of opportunity that exacerbate inequality. 

This progressive alternative also forwards bold proposals for educational reform. As indispensable centers for the cultivation of free, self-determining citizens capable of adapting themselves to changing circumstances and market opportunities, centers of learning should cultivate students’ analytic and synthetic capacities of the imagination. Instead of prioritizing rote memorization, they should imitate the cooperative problem-oriented approach of the advanced sciences, and develop critical skills with a dialectical pedagogy that teaches subjects from multiple perspectives. National standards should prevail, but local management should take the lead in implementation. State initiatives should support programs or schools that can help people reinvent themselves throughout life. Reform of this kind would seek to liberate people from the constraints of the socioeconomic conditions they find themselves in, not only by developing the skills needed for economic mobility, but also by broadening their conceptual horizons and deepening their connection to history. It would help sustain the kind of engaged and critical citizenry needed for a flourishing democracy. 

In pursuing these ends, this progressive alternative would try to do good on the dreams of the American prophets: That through individual initiative and collective action, we can elevate the intensity, vitality and scope of experience, permit the cultivation of various and distinct personalities, and liberate our capacity as transcendent beings to alter our life-contexts for the better. It would seek to redeem our latent faith in the divinity of human being: a faith that upholds our capacity to transcend the scope of any particular social universe, and affirms the open future that such a divine capacity proffers for the taking. 

Initial Difficulties Preventing Mutual Understanding and Collaboration

There is much in this proposal that is bound to induce anxiety in conservatives of various temperaments. This is apparent on four levels. First, the insistence that we eradicate the tendency of “institutional idolatry” and apply the logic of experimental tinkering to institutions directly challenges the conservative preference for minimal deviation. “Conservatism” as conceived in Britain and the United States since Edmund Burke has been wary of “the spirit of innovation” and its designs for social reform. Aware of the fragility of human civilization and haunted by the devastating consequences that have followed from emancipatory movements, they tend to view programs for institutional change as forces of destabilization that could, in the worst case scenario, precipitate chaos and anarchy, and in the more moderate case, disrupt the scheme of the given social hierarchy. 

For both conservatives in the line of Burke and religious conservatives informed by the doctrine of original sin, the fragility of civilization and the practical limits of institutional innovation follow from the inept rashness of reason and the corruptibility of the will. Their view of the human condition tends toward the tragic, granting a degree of skepticism about the power of human agency to change things for the better. This holds especially for the mechanism of government, where individual impotence can become magnified by collective depravity. This leads them to favor the preservation of systems that work passably well and stand the test of time, despite our worst proclivities. Thus, with regard to the progressive alternative, conservatives would probably perceive a slippery slope between lifting the protective exemption of our institutions from experimental tinkering and the eventual unravelling of those constitutional structures that protect life, liberty and property. It would be heard as a call to revolution—and moreover, an affront to the exceptional character of the American founding. 

Second, the programmatic ambition of the progressive alternative may very well galvanize conservative opposition to perceived government expansion. Even when progressives entertain no interest in revolutionary change, but still call for bold government initiatives (e.g. the New Deal) that imply a restructuring of institutional settings, conservatives fear that such initiatives will restrict our freedom in the long run by concentrating too much power in the government. For many conservatives in America at least, this aversion is not reducible to a mere technical disagreement about the proper functioning of our political economy, but relates back to their tacit sense of what it means to be an American. Theirs is a self-reliant, industrious citizen that sees behind the helping hand of government the shadow of a future codependency. By allowing government to become an unnecessary crutch, they fear that we will lose the spirit of independence and initiative that has been the source of our prosperity. 

Third, the call for higher temperature politics unsettles the conservative proclivity towards slow, low temperature politics. Since human reason easily overestimates its own prowess and tends to construct schemes that abstract values (e.g. equality) from their interconnected relations in a complex world, it can lose sight of the organic character of society and the gradual nature of meaningful change. The conservative seeks to counter this tendency by slowing down politics so that it does not trample on the mediating institutions and customs that bind society together. 

As Unger points out, the preference for low temperature politics is even more entrenched in the American context since it has roots in the nation’s constitutional logic. Alongside the liberal principle of separation of powers, the founders instantiated a conservative principle meant to slow reform efforts in a manner proportional to the scope of their ambition. “The conservative principle,” he writes, “is that a table of correspondences be established between the transformative reach of a political project and the severity of the constitutional obstacles its execution must overcome. The point of the conservative principle is to slow politics down, and to tighten the dependence of change upon crisis.” Although Unger correctly asserts that we could do away with the conservative principle of the Constitution while keeping the liberal one, we would still have to ensure that these conservative worries were adequately addressed by some combination of the liberal principle of fragmented power, one the one hand, and a procedure of institutional change that would not subvert it, one the other. 

Fourth, one must admit that conservatism does not always side with the democratic impulse. Unger and West embrace a democratic faith in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women to reshape their social contexts if given a greater share of political power. Given the cultural climate today, it would be precarious to explicitly contradict this faith by proclaiming, as conservatives from past eras have done, that people are generally incapable of just governance and depend upon the preservation of natural hierarchies for their own good. But even if many conservatives have come to embrace a robust faith in democracy, it is doubtful that the anti-democratic intuition has really departed from the conservative mind. Corey Robin argues, for example, that the conservative mind may also be called the reactionary mind, for it constitutes a continual defense of power and privilege in resistance to emancipatory movements that threaten an expansion of democracy and a loss of elite advantages. “For that is what conservatism is,” says Robin: “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” It resists “the agency of the subordinate classes,” deeming it a threat to the hierarchical order that ought to prevail in the public and especially the private realms. While neither I nor Robin think that this agenda exhausts the philosophical richness of the conservative imagination, it is an impulse that we should remain aware of, and perhaps even learn to channel.

I mention these contentious areas in order to highlight some of the initial challenges that progressives would face in carrying this project forward on a bipartisan basis. For those who see little hope in this bipartisan ambition, the exercise will of course seem superfluous. But for those who see in this progressive alternative a platform for reshaping the contours of the political landscape, the opportunity to jumble up categories and forge new alliances will come as a welcome prospect. As we will see, however, meeting some of these initial roadblocks may not be as philosophically fraught as one might expect. 

Progressive Improvements, Conservative Adjustments 

One of the great virtues of this progressive alternative is that it effectively addresses the aforementioned concerns without sacrificing its basic commitments to progressive reconstruction. Serious as these conservative objections might be to other types of progressive designs, they are for the most part already accounted for in the basic program put forward by Unger and West. On this point their success comes down to one crucial feature: namely, their departure from Marxist revolutionary politics in favor of the incremental experimentalism of American pragmatism. By moving in this direction they are able to distinguish themselves from the kind of all-encompassing revolutionary gestures typified by the French Revolution and the communist usurpations of the 20th century, as well as from programs that would call for central economic planning and a multiplication of bureaucratic programs.  

Consider for example the first worry mentioned in the previous section: that continual experimentation with institutional machinery amounts to a revolutionary subversion that could dismantle our system’s structural integrity and undo the safeguards that protect our liberties and rights. Were we in Burke’s position vis-à-vis the French Revolution this objection would be salient, for in that case the aim was to do away with an old order entirely and replace it with a new one. Much the same holds for the communist revolutions that unfolded in the 20th century. That being said, Unger and West’s progressive alternative is not predicated on the necessity of radical revolution all at once, but on the liberation of experimental energy as an everyday extension of our ordinary, “context-preserving” activities. The whole point is to do away with our dependence on crisis for structural change by assimilating the mechanisms of experimentation into the diffused activities of a wide and various citizenry—much like the way diffused individual decisions shape the larger dynamics of free enterprise markets. 

That experimentation would be piecemeal is crucial because it limits the immediate force of the reformist impulse and compels it to be prudent in its application. Like Dewey, Unger and West seem to think that reconstructive reform along the lines of scientific trial and error is necessary. But this still leaves open the question of how we could ensure that the diffused activities of our citizens do not end up dismantling the very system that protects them. Unger and West readily admit that even incremental change guided by a sustained programmatic effort could lead to revolutionary outcomes. Do we have any reason to suppose that ordinary people would exercise their power prudently? One might conclude that this question is bound to compel the progressive and the conservative to part ways, since it touches on the bedrock question of whether one embraces a democratic faith in the constructive capacities of ordinary men and women. If, as Robin argues, the conservatives represent the camp that tends to resist the agency of the subordinate classes, could they really follow someone like Lincoln when he asks, “Why should there not be patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?”  

I think the conservative mind has already integrated the faith of our democratic prophets, if by a process of gradual osmosis. Latent in the conservative appeal to free enterprise and individual freedom is a tacit faith in what Friedrich Hayek calls the “spontaneous forces of society”—those uncoerced activities of free individuals that animate the spirit of capitalism and generate creative order out of decentralized activity, provided a viable rule of law prevails. As representative democracy and capitalism have proven their worth as superior alternatives to the aristocratic and mercantilist systems of the past, conservatism has evolved to accommodate a world marked by dynamism, continuous enterprise, sustained growth, and social mobility. The conservative of today is as much an exemplar of the spirit of democratic capitalism as the progressive, for he has come to recognize that order may be preserved through diffuse networks of individual activity, and that excellence and distinction may be achieved in the world of market competition without the edifice of fixed social orders. Even though he has often pitted himself against the democratic impulse, and may very well continue to play the important role of defending hierarchical order, he has learned to embrace the underlying faith of his adversaries. Thus, Unger’s call for “decentralized and experimental partnership between government and business” should strike conservatives as but an extension of the market logic of free cooperation and diffused activity. It is a call to liberate the spontaneous forces of society. 

The same principle holds regarding the danger of concentrated power in government. Since these experimental partnerships would be subject to market competition, they would not wield the kind of concentrated regulatory power that a large bureaucratic apparatus would, mutatis mutandis. On the contrary, they would multiply the variety of available markets and alter the institutional setting of the market economies themselves. As Unger puts it: 

The agent of this institutional reshaping of the market economy cannot be a central bureaucracy guiding from on high. It must be a range of governmentally established and funded social and economic organizations that emulate the market, in competition with one another as well as with standard private businesses…Their mission is not to regulate or to compensate. It is to create markets for more people in more ways. It is from the variety of their relations to the people and the firms with which they deal that one can hope for the eventual emergence of alternative regimes of property and contract. The market-oriented idea of free recombination will thus be generalized and radicalized by being imported into the institutional framework of the market itself.

Provided it were willing to undergo philosophical reconstruction on its own accord, conservatism could assimilate a great deal of this progressive vision and make itself a more formidable adversary by doing so. In reacting to this new progressive formulation preemptively, it could emerge out of the darkness of its current confusions and into the light of a new conservative vision that redeems the best of its own heritage by ascending to a truer version of itself. But to do this it would have to make some difficult choices. First, it would have to concede to the progressives that the institutional exemption from experimentation is unnecessary and stultifying. In other words, it must let go of what Unger calls “institutional idolatry,” and begin to shift its center of gravity away from American exceptionalism towards an embrace of American experimentalism. Second, it ought to recognize continuity between the progressive aim of democratizing the market economy and its own aim of preserving a society where individuals remain free to pursue their own objectives. From the perspective of maximizing people’s freedom to live self-determining lives, the prospect of generating more types of market arrangements for people to participate in, while simultaneously opening up experimental regimes in institutional machinery, should be welcomed. Third, it must sort out its relationship to the faith of democracy: on the one hand affirming its connection to the spirit of democratic capitalism, and on the other hand integrating a viable conservative vocation that owns its defense of power and hierarchy while also acting as a guardian of American democracy. 

In closing let us briefly outline some core areas where a workable, if not complete, consensus might be cultivated. 

First Point of Connection: A New Nationalism

The nationalist element of this progressive alternative offers perhaps the most compelling prospect for forging allegiances with conservatives. Even though it proved to be one of the more controversial proposals in the course, it inspired wide support from our visitors, including Michael Lind, who has been a leading advocate for “liberal nationalism,” as well as Julius Krein and Francis Fukuyama, both of whom have neoconservative roots. 

Unger’s nationalism follows from his deeper commitment to experimental pluralism, as well as his recognition that in our day the nation-state remains the predominant center of power on the world stage. His “reconstructive Left” would work to redirect “the course of globalization to make the world safe for a plurality of power and of vision and for the national experiments on which our success in achieving greater inclusion, opportunity, and capability largely depends.” As nation-states remain “the favored ground for the development of collective differences as well as for the conduct of collective rivalries,” we should seek to differentiate our national project while encouraging fellow nations to draw from their own unique differences and pursue alternative variations of the free democratic society. This approach seeks to ameliorate the stagnating institutional homogeneity that has prevailed in the era of globalization and American hegemony, while also channeling the natural human desire for differentiated group identities: 

The nation-state wants to be different, without knowing how. Its people want to see characteristic images of possible and desirable association embodied in distinct national practices and institutions. The nation is a form of moral specialization within humanity, justified, in a world of democracies, by the belief that humanity can develop its powers and potential only by developing them in divergent directions.

This kind of nationalism implies “the substitution of institutional and moral distinction—shared engagement in building a shared future—for generational succession as the basis of what a nation is.” Its derives its unificatory power from neither ethnic group identity nor the claim of a particular religion, but from the cooperative pursuit of projects. We come together by doing things together.

The shift from American exceptionalism (which tends to express itself in unconditional terms and to assume the superiority of American institutions) to American experimentalism (which is contingent on our construction of the future) implies abandoning “institutional idolatry.” Once freed from this constraint we would be able to begin harnessing nationalistic energy around the projects of the state without so easily succumbing to the pitfalls of isolationism, xenophobia, and chauvinism. When the field of our identity undergoes a conversion from the domain of rigid fixities from the past to the open horizon of the future, it becomes less absolutist and more prospective in character. What might have been a source of solipsistic self-defensiveness becomes the field of a grand destiny unfolding through time: a destiny tinged by the past, but pulled by the future. 

This is not to say that the American national identity would become merely creedal, or that it would lack any living content in the present. As Lind argues in The Next American Nation, we need a “liberal nationalism” that can sustain a rich cultural thickness while steering clear of the nativistic tendencies which are on the rise. This type of nationalism would reject the creedal view that America is not a true nation but an amalgam of people unified by democratic ideals, as well as the multicultural view that we are really separate peoples that happen to inhabit the same territory. In their stead, Lind advocates for a “transracial nation united by American English, the slowly changing but identifiable American national culture, and a common ethic of civic familism.” Such a nationalism would revitalize a notion of America as a melting pot and forge “a new union of cultural and economic nationalism in the interest of the transcracial middle class.” 

The central enterprise galvanizing national unity would be a strengthened state: one “powerful and competent enough to address problems that can only be addressed at the level of the nation as a whole.” To embrace this prospect, we have to abandon the cynical attitude that government is the inherent problem, and get behind an activist national government reminiscent of Hamilton’s “energetic” federalism. The Right also has to loosen its anti-statism. Following Krein, it needs to recognize that not “only do many of the most pressing problems require more state intervention, but the entire free market framework, in which business is imagined to be in diametric opposition to central planning, misses the reality of today’s economy.”

This move would of course be difficult for some conservatives to make. As Krein points out, the “entire conservative movement has been built upon the fiction that a traditional sense of collective duty can be renewed by maximizing individual freedom.” “Despite promoting a kitschy patriotism,” he continues, “it is constantly devaluing the bonds of common citizenship by eliminating or privatizing the functions of the state.” In allowing its libertarian preference for the spontaneous forces of society to devolve into an unqualified preference for privatization, it has lost touch with the organic ties that hold those forces together, and thus repressed the best of its own characteristic traditionalism: a capacity for national connection and spiritual magnanimity. To regain an authentic relation to its traditionalist roots, conservatism should heed the teachings of its Burkean lineage, which has tended to view society as an organic whole in which the institutions of civil society and the state work together to preserve the integrity of the national community. At their noblest, conservatives of this sort have synergized their reverence for the past with a robust love of country, and seen it as their duty to protect the transgenerational continuity of the body politic so that the transmission of its heritage might be preserved for the benefit of posterity. They have been especially attuned to the organic relationship between the constitution of the nation and the lived spirit of its people, and emphasized the importance of mediating institutions like the family and the church for sustaining bonds of common citizenship.

But this repression is already breaking down. Though misguided, the turn by many on the Right to nativist forms of nationalism seems to indicate that they are ready for a national conception that can unify us as a living, patriotic people—a people with a discernible culture and a formidable state that inspires loyalty and concretizes citizenship. If properly articulated, I think that conservatives would be the first in line to get behind a more robust statism, provided it affirmed a common national identity worthy of reverence and pride. They would readily agree with Lind’s view that “American culture, defined as language, customs, and holidays, is extraordinarily widely shared, well defined, stable, and venerable.” 

Second Point of Connection: American Self-Construction 

As the microscopic parallel to nationalism, the theme of American self-construction also offers a viable platform for cultivating a common set of interests between the left alternative and a future version of the right, if on a more philosophical level. That being said, the philosophical nature of this theme should not be taken as an indication of its irrelevance to the programmatic project. In order to imagine an alternative, we have to keep in mind the livable human possibility we are aiming toward, with its attendant interior and exterior dimensions. Furthermore, if we are successful in illuminating threads of continuity between the fundamental religious aspirations of the progressive alternative and the conservative mind, that could prove indispensable not only to the reconstruction of a workable consensus, but also to the emergence of a heightened register of democratic consciousness. 

Unger and West’s basic critique of American self-construction is that it has exaggerated the element of self-reliance at the cost of devaluing the role of solidarity in the formation of the self and its possibilities. In this regard, they might say, we are sons and daughters of Emerson to a fault: always trying to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and shoulder the responsibility of inventing ourselves without acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others. We therefore cut ourselves off from a more capacious sense of self that recognizes the centrality of relationships in the formation of who we are. The effect of this exaggerated self-reliance is to atrophy the capacity for both genuine solitude and authentic connection with others, since in constricting the  scope of the self, we effectively sunder its structural integrity. “If,” as Unger puts the matter in The Left Alternative,

the predominant tendencies of consciousness in American life have understated the extent to which society can be reorganized, they have also exaggerated the degree to which the individual can save himself without needing to be saved by the grace of other people…To this mirage of self-reliance turning into self-salvation Americans owe their common oscillation between an extreme individualism and an equal extreme collectivism…their attraction to the middle distance of pseudo-intimacy and cheerful impersonal friendliness in social relations. 

Tocqueville echoes this point about “the middle distance,” but diagnoses it as a symptom of a democratic society without clear class divisions. In aristocratic societies, he argues, “citizens have fixed positions one above another” and thus have more clearly delimited relations with one another. When clearly established relations prevail, “each man perceives above him someone whose protection is necessary to him and below him someone else whose cooperation he may claim.” The established relations therefore “achieve the effect of binding each man closely to several of his fellow citizens” and curbing egoism, at least within a small circle of relations. “In democratic times, on the other hand, when the obligations of every person toward the race are much clearer, devotion to one man in particular becomes much rarer. The bond of human affection is wide and relaxed.” This does not have the effect of strengthening solidarity, but of disintegrating it. It suspends people in a state of social indeterminacy, wherein “new families constantly emerge from oblivion, while others fall away,” and “each class closes up to the others and merges with them,” making its members “indifferent to each other.” And as “the thread of time is ever ruptured and the track of generations is blotted out,” we become people who “owe nothing to anyone and, as it were, expect nothing from anyone,” imagining our destinies to be isolated and entirely in our own hands. I daresay that Burke would have little to quarrel with in this analysis. 

It is worth mentioning Tocqueville’s view on this matter because it bears on the fundamental agreement between traditionalist conservatism and the progressive alternative regarding the importance of solidarity to self-construction. On the side of experimental pragmatism, Unger and West answer Tocqueville’s dilemma by calling for the diffusion of new regimes of cooperation that would permit the creation of new social relations—ones that allow individuals to distinguish themselves by participating in creative enterprise with others. Theirs is an appeal to “the cause of the constructive imagination: everyone’s power to share in the creation of the new” and transcend the drudgery of their self-confined condition. Precisely through their cooperative pursuit of the new, men and women could enjoy a deeper kind of freedom that trades in self-isolation for true self-possession:

Faith in the power of the individual to better his or her life is the most prominent element in the American religion of possibility, but it is not the only or even the most important one. That religion also includes something more basic and something more ambitious: a belief in the unlimited potential of practical problem solving and a faith in democracy as a terrain on which ordinary men and women can become strongly defined personalities, in full possession of themselves.

On the conservative side, acknowledgement of the importance of solidarity takes the form of a defense of society’s extragovernmental mediating institutions, most importantly the family and the church. Their answer to Tocqueville’s dilemma is to keep these institutions strong so that our children grow up with a sense of responsibility and with habituated virtues—both of which are needed to free us from the isolated world of the middle distance. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives often find themselves at odds with egalitarian movements because they detect in them a levelling impulse that would flatten social distinctions or break down the customs and mores that make solidarity among people possible. But their fight to preserve these ordered relations and the progressive impulse to create new ones are flip sides of the same coin. Both seek to free us from ourselves, to divinize humanity, or just help us become human in the truest sense, which amounts to the same thing. Along these lines, I hope that in due time we shall find the wisdom and magnanimity needed to forge alliances worthy of the tasks before us. The future of American democracy depends on it. 

Works Cited

Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address.” 1861. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. 1835. Penguin Classics.

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind. 2013. Second Edition Reprint. 

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790. Oxford World Classics. Pg. 132. 

Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. Pg 71. 

Julius Krein, “The Three Fusions,” in American Affairs. 2018. 

Michael Lind, “Classless Utopia versus Class Compromise,” in American Affairs. 2018. 

Michael Lind, “The New Class War,” in American Affairs. 2017. 

Michael Lind, The Next American Nation. 1995. 

Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. 1982. 

Roberto Unger, The Left Alternative. 2009. 

Roberto Unger and Cornel West, The Future of American Progressivism. 1999. 

Comments are closed.