Magazine | March 20, 2017, Issue

A Republic, If We Can Renew It

(John Lund/Getty Images)
The answer to transnationalism and identity politics is pluralism, modesty, and liberty

Turmoil now convulses political systems throughout the West. While Donald Trump, Brexit, and various populist movements across Europe are different phenomena with distinct lineages, the current insurgencies against the status quo often stress loyalty to place and call for national self-determination. It would be a mistake to discount the many genuine benefits of the post-1989 trend toward “globalization” (such as the accompanying decline in poverty in many developing countries). The current form of globalization may, however, have reached a point of diminishing returns: Economic growth has slowed in many industrialized nations, the weakening of national borders has increased the threat of international terrorism, and restive populaces seem increasingly skeptical of global integration. When even Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary and doyen of “neoliberalism,” is calling for a “responsible nationalism,” reforms are clearly needed.

Globalization has also often relied on an alliance between technocratic transnationalism and identity politics, which, at their core, are at odds with the hope of republican self-governance. In the present moment of disruption, it is therefore worth reflecting on the limits of transnationalism and identity politics and thinking about how to recover a sober-minded republicanism that honors human potential while acknowledging human limitation.

The term “transnationalist” can be used in many ways and can often degenerate into a vague slur, but a rough outline of the transnationalist ideology might go as follows: Contemporary transnationalism is skeptical of national self-governance, seeking instead to empower global entities. Often, transnationalism cloaks itself in the language of the “market” and has faith in an economic “creative destruction” that will destabilize or undo existing national boundaries. Transnationalists are often also technocrats: If life should be managed by central planners, why consign these planners to national borders? Sociologically, many Western transnationalists are most comfortable in institutions of meritocracy and enjoy international confabs — such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — where they can communicate with like-minded influencers.

Modern-day identity politics may seem distinct from transnationalism, but, as political scientist Andrew A. Michta and others have noted, the two movements have been allied. This might in part be an alliance of convenience. If one wants to break down a sense of national fellowship, accentuating identity politics (especially along lines of race and ethnicity) is a good way to do it. But there are severe costs to encouraging a tourney of identity groups. Especially in a multiethnic society, playing up ethnic differences risks fracturing communities and degrading public trust in the legitimacy of governing institutions. Meanwhile, we have witnessed at many American universities — major incubators of present-day identity politics — a breakdown of civil discourse, intellectual debate, and cultural daring. All too often, the campus culture war has turned its artillery on the spirit of creativity and critical discussion.

Both technocratic transnationalism and rigid identity politics produce results at odds with republican governance and our deeper human thirsts. Technocratic transnationalism offers us a culturally deracinated wasteland — a world of cubicle farms and “Muzak” in which TED talks and “thought leader” hot takes make poor substitutes for serious speculation and artistic accomplishment. For ideological technocrats, the consent of the governed might seem less a requirement of political legitimacy than a roadblock to the implementation of utopian dreams. Identity politics combines a hectoring cultural aggressiveness with a deeper solipsism. Making every question of policy into one of “Who will do what to whom?” undermines the rule of law. And because of the United States’ own fraught legacy on race, identity politics is especially poisonous here; the existence of past wrongs can become fodder for demagogues who want to deepen divisions in the present and extend them indefinitely into the future.

Redressing the failures of identity politics and transnationalism will demand a recovery of traditions of republican self-governance, with an emphasis on pluralism, modesty, and an enriched sense of liberty. Republicanism finds its foundation in the local but, unlike identity politics, offers a fluid notion of civic belonging. It holds that Americans of all types — of all creeds, incomes, and national origins — can come together to forge a body politic that, while diverse, has common civic and cultural touchstones.

No aspect of culture “belongs” to any one group (farewell to the toxic concept of “cultural appropriation”), and there should be a sense of common access to the culture. The politics of such a republicanism should in part be guided by appeals to reason; civic passions must be subject to rigorous interrogation. But it should also resist the technocratic-transnationalist imperative to efface the local, and it should recognize the legitimate role of the passions and virtue (a crucial supplement to rationalistic calculations) in guiding public affairs. As part of its appreciation for political life as grounded in a specific locality, republicanism views the national not as a vestigial organ but instead as the backbone of civic and political life.

Georgetown professor Joshua Mitchell recently argued that six ideas underpin the challenge to the post-1989 paradigm:

(1) Borders matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5) decentralization matters; (6) PC speech — without which identity politics is inconceivable — must be repudiated.

Following Mitchell, one might say that three important themes for the recovery of republicanism will be the national, the local, and the plural. The first three of Mitchell’s points reflect the importance of rehabilitating the national: Borders, immigration, and national interests all have implications for the architecture of the nation-state. Entrepreneurship and decentralization both imply the importance of local initiative; entrepreneurship comes from the enterprising energies of individual actors, and decentralization involves the empowering of local authorities and civic bodies. Undoing the new intolerance — whether it’s called “PC speech” or “identity politics” or “the right side of history” — would make possible a new forging of community and the sustaining of a diverse public square.

Mitchell’s discussion of national interests hits on another important point: the extent to which the citizens of a nation have a right to demand a politics that aims for their benefit. From the perspective of technocratic transnationalism, the desires of a nation’s citizenry should pale before the bright glare of technocratic truths. But a more modest republican politics would have doubts about the idea that the job of a nation’s leaders is to impose their own conception of virtue on a supposedly benighted populace. Instead, it would work from the assumption that leaders have an obligation to their people — to listen to them, to use their best judgment in advancing the people’s interests, and to demonstrate virtue in public service.

The recovery of such modesty could bring many benefits. A radical immodesty drives both technocratic globalism and identity politics. The latter fixates on certain aspects of identity (most notably race and sexuality) in order to obscure the complexity of the individual. Meanwhile, technocratic globalism is, if anything, even more radical in its eagerness to disrupt communities — some forged over centuries — in the name of the free flow of capital and labor. One of the most radical political actors of the post–Cold War era is German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has encouraged a refugee flow that threatens to destabilize Europe, undermine the European Union, and unleash a wave of alienation throughout not only Europe but also the Middle East.

A renewed modesty would embody a few principles: that technocrats do not know all, that localities should be trusted to know their own interests, and that the nation-state is a vehicle of mediation informed by and responding to the limits of human knowledge and the diversity of human experience. Each of these follows from the others. If technocrats often do not know exactly the best way to decide crucial or even minor questions of governance, they should defer when possible to those more immediately affected. This preference for localism in turn implies the importance of the nation-state, which can be viewed as localism writ large. Given the limitations of technocratic knowledge and the diversity of cultural and historical conditions, there cannot be a single political order that precisely responds to the needs of more than 7 billion people. We can insist on certain universal ethical imperatives while recognizing that the modes of respecting them will vary from place to place.

Part of the project of republican renewal is to return to the classical tradition of liberty, which sees liberty not simply as the removal of impediments to one’s desires but instead as the enterprise of self-government. The task of self-government is complex. It demands introspection and virtue on the part of citizens, space for rational argumentation, and attention to the civic architecture that makes self-government possible.

According to this capacious narrative of freedom and self-governance, defending liberty does not mean simply limiting the growth of government or dissolving restraints on the gratification of consumerist lusts. It also involves the cultivation of the intellectual modes and sociopolitical conditions that facilitate republican life. Much of this effort lies beyond the domain of state action. For instance, government policy cannot ensure empathy, learning, and a love of liberty. The virtue of a republican citizenry is born of the countless diffuse efforts of families, religious organizations, private organizations, and friends. Government policy can nonetheless both reinforce and undermine civic architecture.

Addressing the present challenges will require that we rethink the ways in which we approach many policy issues. Immigration and trade have proven flashpoints in the current populist insurgency (the first having to do with the transnational movement of people, the second with the transnational movement of capital and products). But fresh thinking is also required on other policy issues, including entitlements, health care, education, and social policies (from religious liberty to government preferences for various identity groups). Reforms should focus on promoting policies that recognize inherent human dignity but also help rehabilitate a sense of civic belonging. Government policies should be reformed so as not to encourage identity-politics balkanization. Policymakers should favor subsidiarity and decentralization in order to craft a politics that is more responsive to local communities and more nourished by them.

A republican politics should not entail a retreat to isolationism. In fact, perhaps the surest way of avoiding isolationist retreat is to shore up republican civic institutions. A United States that considers itself a diverse but integrated civic union (rather than a battleground of warring tribes) is one that will be more able to keep its international commitments. To complement Larry Summers’s “responsible nationalism,” we might also cultivate a “responsible internationalism” — one based on democratic buy-in, respect for the role of the nation-state, and prudence in the exertion of power.

The alliance of transnationalism and identity politics has simultaneously eviscerated and distorted local belonging, and the ensuing civic alienation has helped foster a climate of revolt. Returning anew to the ideas of republican life can help counter this anxiety, correct the mistakes of the present, and restore hopes for the continued endurance of the republic itself. By safeguarding the public square, we can defend the opportunity to tend our private gardens.

– Mr. Bauer is a writer from New England.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller. He also blogs at A Certain ...

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