Untimely Meditation
from "Conclusion: Prelude to the Unknown"

The misconceptions in democratic messianism ultimately stem from the narrow understanding of the sources of freedom that has become the commonsense of American conservatism since Reaganism. Individual freedom is associated primarily—primally, so to speak—with participation in the free market. A core meaning of civic democracy, namely, government’s provision for the common good, was relentlessly attacked and, more importantly, redesignated and reimagined as an infringement on individual freedom. This understanding has planted itself in the structure of feeling—or, as Tocqueville would have said, the habits, ideas, and mores—of many Americans, and not just those who strongly support the Republican Party. An insecure job, lack of health coverage, and burdensome costs of educating one’s children become signs, evidence, proof, of one’s freedom. A sense of “self-reliance” in Emerson’s language becomes associated with the precariousness of life in society. Living paycheck to paycheck without protection against unemployment and illness is evidence of freedom. As I have heard someone who lives with such precariousness say, That’s democracy, isn’t it? It is this identification of democracy with an existence exposed to the vicissitudes of the economy that is the hallmark of Reaganism’s influence and its evolution through the Gingrich Congress of the 1990s and Republican dominance since 2001. A quarter century of slogans and actions has ingrained the idea that democracy and freedom flow from social precariousness.

What then becomes of civic democratic values? How do citizens experience their belonging to the body politic and their participation in it? Therein lies the corollary reduction, for if the sources of freedom are reduced to participation in, and exposure to, the free market, then political liberty as such comes to seem something derivative and secondary. The citizen’s participation in the polis is easily reduced to the right to vote—and to contribute money to candidates and parties—while civic responsibility for the common good is ultimately reduced to patriotism. It is easy to parody the cowboy capitalism embraced by Bush as by Reagan—a parody made all the easier by the white Stetsons and folksy manner affected by them both—but their populist appeal has dramatically shrunk the meaning of freedom and citizenship. When carried into foreign affairs, freedom reduced to deregulated capitalism and citizenship reduced to patriotism produce the simplistic opposition of freedom and tyranny that Reagan expressed in his brand of anticommunism and Bush in the “war on terror.” And when it comes to nation building, this same perspective gives rise to the attitude that democracy is attained by elections-plus-markets.

Philosophically, these neoconservative or neoliberal views rest on a metaphysical claim: the free market is the absolute source and ultimate goal of human freedom. This conception is a far cry from Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty. While the economic freedoms associated with capitalist industry and enterprise are in Berlin’s view a valuable feature of modern society, the free market itself is a historical development that neither God nor historical necessity authored and ordained. Rather, it is an eventuality in human history whose benefits and possibilities are worth protecting and perpetuating. Berlin’s orientation to tradition in the Burkean sense of valuing whatever has proved valuable to human existence over time keeps him ever on the alert against the global claims of any single value, including liberty:

The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or injustice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited. We are rightly reminded by R. H. Tawney that the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is physical or economic, must be restrained. This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of some a priori rule, whereby the respect of the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the liberty of others like him; but simply because respect for the principles of justice, or shame at gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty (Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 170). 

And, just as important, Berlin does not give the principle of freedom any absolute, unequivocal interpretation. He defends, rather, maintaining a wide area in which individuals can exercise freedoms. The freedoms that are enabled by commerce, enterprise, and markets have proved valuable in innumerable and indispensible ways, but free markets are not thereby the origin, principle, and ultimate meaning of freedom. Berlin has a conservative appreciation of liberalism, affirming at once “Burke’s plea for the constant need to compensate, to reconcile, to balance,” and “Mill’s plea for novel ‘experiments in living’ with their permanent possibility of error” (Ibid). At once conservative and liberal, his thought is neither neoliberal, since he eschews any metaphysics of the free market, nor neoconservative, since he does not seek to engineer society and individual behavior in accordance with an ideology or religiously inspired, state-enforced conception of family, morality, or sexuality.

Arendt also eschews a metaphysics of freedom, although tradition and innovation play an altogether different role in her thought. Politics is a realm of human innovation for Arendt, but this idea itself belongs to a fragile, continually threatened, often interrupted tradition. Arendt maintains that human freedom requires the wordly space of a politically guaranteed public realm to make its appearance, and that the political realm is itself owed to an innovation, a creation, a gratuitous act of human freedom, which we trace back to the ancient Greeks. For it is they who made—and recorded—the leap from clan to polis, from ritual to performance, from strength to eloquence and threat to persuasion, from cult to public realm. This transvaluation of values was un-grounded: nothing necessitated it, predicted it, caused it. The creation of the political realm is the event-without-a-cause that inaugurates human freedom. Freedom is not a divine gift but rather the work of a human miracle. Arendt’s decisionism contrasts with Carl Schmitt’s in that the “decision” that inaugurates the political realm is not a violent act of dominion of one or some over others but rather an unchartered step from the prepolitical sociality of kin, clan, and cult to political community. In the political community, belonging is defined by participation. Kinship relations remain important, as do religious rites, but once the politically guaranteed public realm is created the spaces where these other relations reign—the household and the temple—stand in contrast to the public square. Belonging as it pertains to the political community, the polis, the body politic, is a question of participation, and is therefore utterly distinct from belonging to a tribe, family, or cult. Arendt’s caution and skepticism regarding the nation-state as it developed in European history centers on the threat that popular sovereignty poses to citizenship and the plurality of self-rule. She nevertheless does not have recourse to the sort of categorical distinction that Jürgen Habermas makes between constitutional patriotism and nationalism or the one that Etienne Balibar makes between civic and ethnic nationalism. Those conceptions seek to separate a good kind of political identity from a bad one in order to banish the bad. This is to seektoo much. The citizen’s belonging to the polis transcends his or her “tribal” identity but does not abolish it; indeed, to put things in modern terms, civic identity does not abolish any of the citizens’ other identitifications, be it nationality or religion, language or race, ethnicity or gender. The ungroundedness of the polis suggests a more unsettled, ongoing, undecided process of forging participation and belonging: civic life arises from and breaks with all preexisting, prepolitical relations, but it also at the same time must reinscribe them. Only so long as individuals’ participation in public affairs holds its distinctive value will civic identity stand above and limit the scope of all other identifications. The ordeal of democracy, whether creating it or maintaining it, requires that individuals continually reanimate their political participation and civic identity; when that fails, the political realm is susceptible to all manner of sectarian, populist, or totalitarian permutations. Similarly, democracy never escapes the recurrent ordeal of finding effective symbols and myths of fraternité, a process that is likewise susceptible to a range of enlightened and unenlightened outcomes.

The idea that the political community is founded on an ungrounded act of agreement transcending all other forms of belonging and identity found powerful expression in American history in the Gettysburg Address, when Lincoln calls America a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equalHe thus affirms that what made America a nation was a shared idea of liberty and a mutual pledge of equality. Keeping up that temporary agreement of intentions and wills defines much of the drama of American democracy. In advancing his inspiring account of America’s origins, Lincoln attributed the founding gesture of nation building to the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution. He did so in order to dispute the longstanding constitutional justification of slavery, and he did it in the midst of the civil war that he was fighting in the name of holding the nation together despite the breakdown of the agreement among its many wills and intentions. He also already foresaw that only a new birth of freedom would preserve the nation. Resonant in his every word is a sense of the creativity and fragility of democracy.

The Party of Lincoln has largely abandoned his legacy in recent decades. He held that the universal rights of every individual are more fundamental than states’ rights; he held a tragic view of the responsibilities of political office; and he believed that if Providence is manifest in history, it is only ever as a warning to the nation of the consequences of its unjust actions. The wisdom of tragedy is something Lincoln possessed as few other American politicians and statesmen have. As political thinkers, Arendt and Berlin respect the frailty of human affairs in exact proportion to their affirmations of positive and negative freedom. Political community rests for Arendt, let us recall once more, “upon the unreliable and only temporary agreement of many wills and intentions,” and she did not hesitate to state the sobering thought that “the periods of being free have always been relatively short in the history of mankind” (Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 201). And Berlin saw in the ineluctable plurality of human ends the permanent potential for conflict and tragedy: “If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social” (Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 169). Max Weber, quite in keeping with Lincoln’s understanding of the vocation of politics, discerned the tragic awareness at the heart of the ethic of responsibility in contrast to the ethic of ultimate ends. The United States has since September 11 been caught up in violent and uncertain events under the leadership of a president whose proclamations for spreading freedom are intoned with an utter denial of tragedy. The United States is going to need the wisdom of tragedy if it is to rescue the commitment to freedom from the wreckage of democratic messianism, and it is going to need to draw far more amply on the traditions and experiences of democratic ideas if it is to rededicate itself to liberty and self-rule, at home and abroad.