Genealogy suggests origins, lines of descent, and an unfolding sequence. Genealogy is helpful because it helps us to understand the present by identifying its real causes. In my previous blog posts I have sought to develop a genealogy of contemporary American political ideas, that is, I have developed a very brief history of the ideas that continue to impact American politics today. I believe that this is valuable because it helps us to understand what is at stake and the deeper values and ideas that lay behind contemporary policy disputes.
In brief, contemporary American politics is the upshot of a political drama that has been unfolding since the Enlightenment. During this period the politics of tradition, community, and religion were replaced by liberalism, which emphasized liberty and individualism. Liberalism triumphed over tradition, but its victory did not go uncontested. In differing ways, liberalism has been contested or modified by a wide variety of alternatives: modern absolutism, progressivism, conservatism, and Marxism. The conflicts and factions of contemporary American politics may be usefully mapped out using these terms and ideas.
It is beyond dispute that the original political idea of American polity is liberalism. From the Declaration of Independence and the pamphlets of Thomas Paine to the obvious influence of John Locke, much of the founding of America was inspired by the ideals of classical liberalism. At the same time, American adherence to liberalism was modified by the strong and public presence of Christian faith as well as loyalty to local customs and communities. The early American colonists were not rootless individuals or market factors, and in explaining their revolution they just as often appealed to inherited privilege, ancient usage, and divine ordinances as liberal ideals. Thus, at the outset, the American political imagination was really an amalgam of liberal ideals, conservative passions, and traditional realities.
In the late nineteenth century, utilitarianism entered American politics through the progressive movement. This movement pushed the American polity to consider the consequences of its institutions and practices not just the principles of liberty, custom, and Christian religion. In this perspective, the balance of human satisfaction and suffering mattered more than established law or philosophical principles. Accordingly, the progressives of the period advocated for prohibition, the softening of penal codes, the federal income tax, women’s suffrage, labor laws, popular election of U.S. Senators (contrary to the original Constitution), compulsory education, universal public education, publicly funded institutions of higher education, and many similar measures that were believed to promote, the greatest good for the greatest number.
Although the progressive movement continued to influence American politics, it was radicalized throughout the twentieth century by influence of Marxism (both old and new, economic and cultural) and other forms of socialist redistribution. Although doctrinaire Marxism never took full hold in America, many of the revolutionary ideals of Marxism were appropriated by progressives including antipathy towards private property and religion, a growing fondness for redistribution, economic interventionism, utopianism, the rejection of hierarchy and differentiation, radical egalitarianism, et cetera. Under the pressure of these ideals progressivism gradually adopted a radicalized version of the principle of utility.
Classically utilitarianism insisted on the maximum aggregate of satisfaction, but thinkers like J. S. Mill counted some satisfactions as higher than others and aggregate satisfaction did not always necessitate equal satisfaction. During the latter half of the twentieth century, these non-egalitarian elements have been stripped away. The new version of the principle of utility insists on the maximization of equal satisfaction and the minimization of all human suffering (real or imagined, even hurt feelings). This radicalized version of progressivism is evident across a broad spectrum of economic and cultural issues: the expansion of federal powers in the New Deal, LBJ’s entitlement and welfare programs established during his war on poverty and great society initiatives, affirmative action programs, the proliferation of stifling codes of political correctness, the deployment of new thought police, cultural relativism, the deconstruction of classical education, sexual revolution, radical subjectivism, euthanasia, abortion, etc.
Unsurprisingly the development of radical progressivism has occasioned strong opposition from liberals and conservatives who have been pushed into an uneasy liberal-conservative alliance. To put it in simple terms this alliance is composed of cultural conservatives (usually religious, often southern, and increasingly blue-collar) and classical liberals (sometimes characterized as libertarians). This alliance is uneasy because classical liberalism does not put a great deal of value into public religion, patriotism, or community; rather it confesses faith in individualism and exchanges motivated by enlightened self-interest. In fact, liberals belonging to the corporate managerial class often abandon their conservative allies for the sake of market advantage. Indeed at times the diverse priorities of liberals and conservatives comes to the fore in controversies about public religion, patriotism, multiculturalism, and sexual ethics.
At the same time, the liberal-conservative alliance makes some sense in so far as, both groups are opposed to expansive government and progressive utilitarianism. The opposition to government expansion is an obvious point, but perhaps more deeply, liberals and conservatives oppose the idea that government should work to increase aggregate satisfaction. This stance is not rooted in heartlessness, but in the conviction that government should preserve and protect certain principles; for them it is not the task of government to produce outcomes for the population.
What we find in American politics is an ascendant movement — radical progressivism — opposed by uneasy allies. Of course one may accuse this or that side of outrageous behavior, inconsistency, grandstanding, or whatever, but this is true of almost any real political movement. The real question does not concern this or that policy or scandal, but the underlying philosophical principles — the powerful ideas that inspire the aspirations, hopes, and imagination of the body politic. Whether we like it or not, we must ask ourselves about truth and goodness, about unity and hope, and the meaning of the human person. Politics is not enough even for political matters. In the end, as Plato knew long ago, we will have no rest from political travails until our leaders become lovers of wisdom or lovers of wisdom become our leaders.
Join Dr. Smith in the live Colloquium (for CSA Fellows) to dialoague about American politics.