Liberty and Union — a Politics for the 21st Century

Today’s conservatives should take a leaf from Daniel Webster’s book.

On January 26, 1830, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rose to reply to remarks by South Carolina’s Robert Hayne. At supposed issue was the sale of federal land, but the clash between differing philosophies of government was the real heart of the debate between Webster and Hayne. A close ally of Vice President John C. Calhoun, Hayne had advanced Calhoun’s theory of nullification and defended the institution of slavery, finding slaves to be a “people whose physical, moral, and intellectual habits and character totally disqualified them from the enjoyment of the blessings of freedom.”

In contrast, Webster defended the case for an enduring federal union. Finding slavery “one of the greatest evils, both moral and political,” Webster nonetheless thought it might be possible to compromise with slave-holding states — but he could not compromise the hope of an enduring American union. He argued that, by 1830, the unified federal republic of the United States had significantly advanced the prosperity and liberty of its citizens. At the end of his speech, in a passage memorized by schoolchildren in later decades, Webster alluded to the unfathomable horror of a broken union: “States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood!” — an image so terrible that he said he could not even really describe it in depth. Rather than that shattered republic, Webster called instead for an enduring union, ending his address with an invocation of that “sentiment, dear to every true American heart — Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!”

As a matter of history, Webster’s overall argument has considerable merit. The survival of the union has indeed allowed for the further expansion of liberty. The preservation of the union during the Civil War led to the end of slavery and paved the way for the United States to defend the liberties of its own people and other peoples during the 20th century. Likewise, the free market and the political freedoms of the United States helped make the national union into an economic and geopolitical colossus. Liberty and union have proven mutually reinforcing principles during the course of the past two and a half centuries.

Webster’s remarks do not involve just American history: In a broader sense, the institutions of union are wedded to the cause of liberty. It is partly to defend our ability to live free from the random violence of others that we form political unions. The Founders established this republic in order to create a set of institutions that would provide a civic space within which people could (among other enterprises) search for the truth, express themselves, worship as they chose, and pursue material prosperity.

The institutions of union are not only those of the formal government. What is possible in government and politics depends upon a broader civic space, which is shaped by various creeds, cultural habits, social expectations, technological innovations, media products, and so forth. So the defense of the union involves not just having certain formalized government structures but also cultivating this broader civic space.

Taking “union” in that broader sense, we have much to learn from Webster’s call for liberty and union. Conservatives might think of the task of the present as going beyond shrinking the size of the federal government: Instead, it involves the nurturing of those institutions, norms, and principles that make the life of a free republic possible. This nurturing does not relate only to policy or affairs of the state, but politics does play a role in it. Some of the key traits that have helped support the American republic include the respect for our individual dignities as human beings, religious and cultural pluralism and toleration, a vibrant middle class, a sense of accessible opportunity, a respect for past achievements, and a hopefulness for the future. Many of these traits have been challenged in recent years, and many could be strengthened anew.

Some on the right, often under the aegis of “reform conservatism” and the influence of Edmund Burke, have taken a renewed interest in the project of revitalizing civic norms. As leading reform conservative Yuval Levin has written, a key aim of government is the “creating, sustaining, and protecting” of the “space between the individual and the state — the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy.” Taking seriously the aim of defending that mediating space would play a crucial role in reaffirming the union while advancing the liberty and prosperity of individuals within this union.

A variety of challenges have beset the American civic compact over the past 15 years. A strong middle class and a sense of opportunity have been two long-standing pillars of the American civic culture, but these are both now in danger. Economic growth is down. Even before the onset of the Great Recession, the real economic growth of the 2001–07 period was, by historical standards, lackluster, and the recovery from the Great Recession has limped for years. Numbers from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis suggest that GDP grew at an annual real rate of about 3.5 percent between 1947 and 2000. Since 2000, its real annual growth rate has been a little less than 2 percent. This loss of broader economic vitality, combined with other factors (including technological growth, trade policies, and increasing expenses), has caused the middle class to feel increasingly harried.

In addition to these economic challenges, a series of intense disagreements, scandals, and failures have punctuated American life in the past decade and a half. The disputed 2000 election alone could have dealt a blow to a sense of national unity. But this dispute has been followed up by disappointments abroad, debacles at home (such as the response to Hurricane Katrina), a tremendous financial crisis followed by government bailouts, and numerous scandals regarding the administration of government. All these setbacks have weakened public faith in many major American institutions. Polling suggests that public trust in all three branches of the federal government, major American newspapers and news broadcasts, and large banks has collapsed since 2000.

And this is not simply a crisis in authority. There is also an increasing risk of a weakening of the broader lateral bonds of our culture. Numerous studies have turned attention in recent years to a crisis in the civic compact. Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, among others, has warned about the dangers of a decay of the American social fabric, creating a society that is more divided and afraid. Demographer Joel Kotkin has suggested that the United States may be on the verge of slipping into what he calls a “new feudalism,” with yawning social divisions, a deteriorated civic space, and a decline of opportunity.

The risk of terrorism makes starkly clear the stakes of the undoing of the civil compact. As the transformative tragedy of September 11, 2001, demonstrates, terrorists are the ultimate disrupters — aiming to blow up the foundations of normalcy, mutual respect, tolerance, and civil comity. The current breed of terrorists seeks to turn the infrastructure of modern civil society (openness, technological innovation, and so forth) against itself. In place of hope, terrorists aim for fear. In place of freedom, anxiety. In place of union, conflict.

A wave of public anxiety about the civil compact helped propel Barack Obama into the White House. The now-discredited description of Obama as a post-partisan uniter was meant to appeal to this anxiety. Examining the failure of his administration’s policies to address many of these underlying challenges can in turn reveal the value of a different philosophical approach.

The Obama administration has offered one way of responding to the challenges facing the union: what former New Republic writer Noam Scheiber has called “boardroom liberalism.” Scheiber describes boardroom liberalism as a “view from on high — one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it.” In the face of social divisions and inequalities, boardroom liberalism proposes a vast administrative state that will knit the nation together and right purported social wrongs. An elect clique will establish justice and use the powers of the federal government to enforce this vision. In this worldview, checks and balances are impediments to the realization of justice. If Americans are worried about the turmoils of the current era, a newly empowered state will step into the breach.

A number of President Obama’s signature efforts have rested upon alliances of the government with various major interests. For health-care reform, it was certain insurance companies and other favored groups. The president’s financial policies and the continued insistence upon Too Big to Fail have helped encourage some large banks to grow even larger. On immigration, the administration has relied upon a network of major foundations, activist groups, and corporate behemoths. Many of the “green” initiatives proposed by the White House involve or would involve large sums of crony-capitalist redistribution (from the taxpayers to some lucky interest).

The view of the centralized administrative state as a great uniter is understandable and has some element of truth. Government and its administrative institutions do play a role in establishing national unity. But the project of boardroom liberalism falters on a number of levels.

Proponents of bureaucratic absolutism may think of their policies as a needle to sew the nation together, but their ministrations might end up acting more like the repeated stabs of an awl. When the broader public is disillusioned with, or at least skeptical of, the ruling elite, centralizing further power in a bureaucratic elite is likely to deepen public anxieties. The centralized vision of boardroom liberalism might have appeared persuasive in the mid-1960s, when the vast majority of Americans had great trust in government. The growth of the Great Society depended upon this trust. But in our more doubting time, giving more and more power to faceless government bureaucrats seems a considerably harder sell.

As bureaucrats become further entrenched in power, they are increasingly likely to view themselves as a cut above the citizenry they are meant to serve. A bureaucracy — like any organization — develops its own institutional imperatives, which may at times be at cross purposes with its original aims. The limitations of bureaucracy have only become clearer in recent years. From outbreaks of incompetence at the upper levels of Veterans Affairs to the IRS targeting of conservative organizations, we see how, even when centralized bureaucracies have laudable aims, they can fail to live up to them.

All too often, the further centralization of power in an administrative technocracy leads not to the advancement of the weak but to the enrichment of the strong. This tendency has, unfortunately, been often demonstrated over the past few years. The first stage of the economic recovery proved very good for some upper-income Americans, but many lower-income workers have seen their economic prospects stagnate. A scion of privilege might be able to afford the best medical care, but a worker forced to buy a substandard insurance plan on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges after being kicked off his old plan has fewer options. One of the anointed elect might feel protected from the pressures of unfettered illegal immigration — but millions of native-born Americans and legal immigrants feel the bite of diminished economic opportunity and strained civil resources.

The emphasis on homogeneity in boardroom liberalism — its resistance to sharing power — has particularly stark consequences in the United States. The institutions set up by the Founders are all about the diffusion of power. In a parliamentary system, a narrow national majority of 51 percent can ram through whatever it wants, but that’s not the way the American political system works. Passing major reforms in the American system requires consensus among a number of interests, and achieving that consensus often requires compromise, bipartisanship, and the recognition of others’ legitimate claims to power. The fact that the president’s legislative agenda faltered the instant he lost a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is at least in part due to the Obama White House’s approach to government. The president’s pivot to governing through executive actions is the next logical step in boardroom liberalism — the executive branch choosing to go it alone and tossing aside both constitutional niceties and hopes of a constructive bipartisan dialogue.

In addition to calling for a hypercharged technocracy, boardroom liberalism has also been allied with a mode of identity politics that splits the nation into various groups and pits these groups against one another. Contemporary identity politics has tried to make the space for civic conversation a no-man’s-land: One is either with the angels or with the demons — on the side of “progress” or a reactionary hater. Many of the president’s allies are quick to suggest that opposition to the president’s policies is due to some unsavory motive (such as racism or revanchism) rather than to a legitimate disagreement about the ends and means of government. The incessant implication that it is somehow illegitimate to disagree with a given policy has helped polarize the public debate. In complement to a technocratic will to absolute power, practitioners of boardroom liberalism proclaim an absolute ownership of moral authority.

Bureaucracy alone cannot constitute a nation, and sustaining the conventions of republican governance requires more civil conversation and less self-righteous demonization than we have seen lately. The limitations of a fusion of technocratic absolutism and identity politics have become increasingly apparent to many Americans. And, potentially on both sides of the political spectrum, the hunt is on for a more salutary replacement.

In recent years, conservatives have turned energetically to thinking about how to renew the civic compact. Rather than centralized redistribution, we could have a set of policies emphasizing broad-based growth, governmental reforms, decentralization, and pluralism.

Proponents of boardroom liberalism have correctly diagnosed Americans’ anxiety about their economic fortunes, and their solution to this anxiety has been technocratic redistributionism. This purported solution has too often failed to create space for organic economic growth. Rather than redistribution after the fact, an alternative model could emphasize creating the conditions for broad-based economic growth. Part of this could be the scaling back of various crony-capitalist programs that reward large players at the expense of newcomers to the field. Other strategies could include curtailing guest-worker programs that undermine the aspiring American worker, and disciplining the growth of various expenses (such as for health care) through the market and necessary government oversight.

Reigniting real long-term economic growth would go a long way to restoring the economic optimism of the middle class, and it would also help restore fiscal sanity. A more vibrant economy would lessen the need for various programs meant to alleviate economic hardship; it would also increase tax revenue, and make more sustainable big-ticket programs such as Social Security. The long-term unsustainability of entitlement programs (especially medical ones) poses a threat to our existing civil compact; tens of millions of Americans have built their lives upon the assumption that these programs will be there for them. Reforms of these programs and other government enterprises could make U.S. finances more sustainable.

Decentralizing power in a considered way would help restore public faith in the institutions of government and lead to more efficient outcomes. While polling shows a loss of faith in large-scale bureaucracies, support for many local institutions remains stronger. Local institutions are more directly accountable to the people they serve, which increases a sense of public trust. In the name of justice or fairness, boardroom liberalism insists upon countless administrative foot soldiers reporting back to central command in Washington. An alternative model of considered decentralization would seek to make the administration of state power more accountable.

Education exemplifies the possibilities of re-localizing power. As state and federal mandates have piled up, public schools have become ever more estranged from their communities, and their public standing has suffered. Instead of the model of running schools according to the whims of Washington bureaucrats and behemoth testing companies, we could encourage states and localities to create and administer their own educational standards. And the play between these differing approaches to education could lead to an educational system that is stronger as a whole.

A complement to political decentralization is the broader cultivation of a sense of pluralism. A more pluralistic, civic-minded politics suggests the possibility of having legitimate differences but also communicating across these differences. By affirming the dignity of diverse approaches to life and by allowing individuals more of a say in the shaping of their local civic culture, pluralistic politics could tamp down the internecine conflicts raging in our universities, Twitter feeds, and city squares.

Recent events such as the Sony hack and the terrorist attacks in France, Denmark, and elsewhere emphasize the importance of a vigorous national defense as a key part of maintaining a free civic space. Those who would disrupt the free expression of ideas through violence and threats of violence assault our enjoyment of liberties. The Founders put restraints upon government to limit the government’s ability to undermine our freedoms, but they also instituted a government to protect us from external and internal threats to liberty. There is not always a trade-off between security and liberty. A society rocked by violence, one in which malefactors of various stripes can cow people into silence with threats of death, will likely not remain free for long. This national defense partly involves protecting against threats at home, but it also demands the defense of core American principles and interests abroad.

A set of Unionist policies for the 21st century could appeal to both political parties, but Republicans, members of the party forged in the name of the Union, could particularly benefit from this shift. Many of those policies that would strengthen the civic space could appeal to current members of the Republican coalition, from pro-growth advocates to social conservatives to libertarian populists. Moreover, a political program of opportunity-oriented, Burkean renewal could win over voters in the economic and cultural middle. Many feel left behind by the current governing paradigm, so Republicans have much to gain electorally by making a case that they have a political platform that can empower the average person. 

And, of course, the nation as a whole would benefit from a strengthening of the civic institutions of union. The task of renewing the national union should not be viewed as a reactionary nostalgia for a bygone, simpler age. The good old days might not have been quite so perfect as we remember, and a sense of foreboding about the future is no substitute for actually improving that future. Instead, this enterprise would help us meet the challenges of the present while trying to live up to our best enduring principles. The aim of this politics would not be to try to halt change but instead to channel the forces of change in the direction of principles of opportunity, happiness, liberty, and virtue. Unlike the top-down administration of boardroom liberalism, this channeling would result from a multilayered play of institutions and individuals.

Ultimately, we can view strengthening the civil compact as an act of preservation — endeavoring to realize the best of our ideals and seeking to renew the promise of both liberty and union.


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