Bad Faith and the Common Good: The Road to Civic Republicanism

“Philosophy always comes on the scene too late.” — G.W.F. Hegel1

“They say we don’t stand for anything.  We do stand for anything.”  — Sen. Barack Obama2

For years it’s been a political commonplace to observe that the Republicans represent the party of ideas while the Democrats are the stupid party.  Even Bush-phobic Democrats like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd say so.3  Republicans, she observes, so identify with their favorite philosophical mentors — Adam Smith and Edmund Burke — that they wear them on their neckties, while for Democrats, it seems, everyday is casual Friday.4

This lack of “vision” makes it hard for the public to figure out what — if anything — the Democrats believe in.  Recent polling data shows the Republicans with a two to one advantage when it comes to “knowing what they stand for.”  The result, say party strategists John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, writing in The American Prospect, is a disabling “identity gap” that nullifies the comparative advantage Democrats hold on economic policy issues.  More than any single factor, the perceived lack of identifiable principles threatens to keep the Democrats from exploiting recent Republican scandals and the Bush Administration’s record low approval ratings.5

Not coincidently, about the time activists digested these results, and just months ahead of the Fall 2006 election, Democratic Party precincts have begun to teem with philosophical activity.  No one can say any more that official Democratic Party philosophy starts and ends with William Plunkett of Tammany Hall and his careful distinction between honest and dishonest graft, his insistence that “bosses preserve the nation,” and his claim that “Tammany is the only lasting democracy.”6  Throughout the spring and summer, there has been a burst of “vision” statements, a genuine outpouring of articles, commentary, debate, and conferences.  The skies over party headquarters have grown dark with the non-stop flights of Minerva’s owls.

At the center of this party-driven intellectual renaissance stands The American Prospect.  Founded in 1990 by liberal Democrats like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, health policy scholar Paul Starr, and economic journalist Robert Kuttner, their aim was to combat the conservative ascendancy with better public policy.  But TAP no longer revels in the gray-on-gray of public policy analysis.  In 2000, the magazine got a $5 million foundation grant and a dual makeover.  It now projects a new cover and a new editorial focus.  TAP’s Executive Editor Michael Tomasky is a former Village Voice columnist who’s written a couple of books.  Hillary’s Turn, a glowing campaign portrait of HRC, appeared in 2001 right after she won the New York Senate seat.  Left for Dead came out a decade ago and signaled that Tomasky had definitely left The Voice for dead.  Taking public the long-standing cultural and space wars between the weekly’s front-of-the-book political radicals and its back-of-the-book cultural radicals, Tomasky sought to marginalize the multiculturalists.  Progressives, he maintained, had to downplay edgy, off-putting, transgressive Greenwich Village identities and root themselves instead in more mainstream values of “community, civic feeling, tolerance, compromise and optimism.”7

Tomasky builds on this values-first approach In “Party in Search of a Notion,” a TAP essay which covered him with a spring shower of praise and the crowning rainbow of a New York Times picture profile.8  Developing more attractive public policies is not the Democrats’ primary task, he argued.  Expressing a compelling political philosophy is.  Such a philosophy, he observed, must oppose the selfish individualism of the Republicans and at the same time distance itself from ultra-liberal Democrats’ preoccupation with rights and diversity.  What can wrap all these requirements into a single, persuasive package is civic republicanism — what TAP’ers call “the philosophy of the common good.”

Belief in the common good doesn’t mean conversion to some strange foreign doctrine.  It’s a matter, says Tomasky, of returning to the Party’s core creed.  Not Plunkettism of course, but the classic small “r” republican tradition of Rousseau and Madison.  From its inception, he claims, the Democratic Party has been the party of the common good.  More recently, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and LBJ were all practitioners.  JFK’s Inaugural Address sounded the anthem for a whole generation: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”9

Kennedy’s one-liner perfectly expressed civic republicanism’s guiding principle.  A good political action was one in which the citizen sacrificed something; a bad action one that simply advanced one’s own self interest.  Sacrifice in behalf of the common good was institutionalized in the form of agencies like the Peace Corps and in the exposure of all America’s young men to the military draft.  But according to Tomasky, Camelot’s common dreams were destroyed by the narcissistic 60s, the divisiveness created by the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of partisans of the common good like Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  By over-emphasizing individual rights and diversity, post-Kennedy Democrats lost credibility in wide swaths of America’s communities.  Foregrounding civic republicanism will enable the Party to get its groove back and maybe the 110th Congress as well.

Tomasky’s April 2006 essay won the media trifecta — instantaneous praise by heavyweight commentators in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.  Influential Democratic blogger Daily Kos confessed Tomasky’s piece sent his “heart aflutter.”  Tomasky was invited to give a presentation at the annual “Take Back America Conference” held in DC and keynoted by Senator Clinton.  Quite a crowd showed up to lend authority to the quest for the common weal.  The organizers’ post-conference press release provides a Homeric catalog of civic republican supporters:

Throughout the conference, progressive leaders called for overhauling the “Me” generation by replacing Republicans with civic republicanism.  Top Democratic leaders, including Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. addressed thousands of activists touting fair pay for good jobs, affordable health care, and energy independence as vital pieces of the progressive plan to put common folks, common sense, and the common good first.10

A Bigger Frame-Up?

Civic republicanism could fade like “framing” — the Party’s conceptual break-through of last year.  In 2005 alone, Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant sold 200,000 copies.  For a while it looked as if framing would catch on as widely as krumping.

Certainly it served a genuine need.  Party activists resented being beat to the intellectual punch by sneaky, side-winding Republicans.  Professor Lakoff explained how Democrats could fight back.  Not by reforming the country’s political institutions — or their Party’s — but by re-stating their public policy proposals in more compelling terms.  Lakoff’s notion of framing wasn’t simply rhetoric — persuasive speech.  It was persuasive speech that worked because it was part of an attractive, but implicit, philosophical framework.  Civic republicanism allows the Democrats to take the next logical step, grasping the whole framework rather just the frame.

Civic republicanism would seem to have much stronger legs than framing because it speaks to an even deeper need.  The Dems require a philosophy not just to combat the identity gap that’s opened up between the parties.  But also to address the identity problem within the party, between its ruling centrist faction — the right wing of the party — that has produced all its presidential candidates since Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential bid; its left counter-elite composed of presidential candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton; organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus; and its thousands of non-profit community, green and anti-war groups.  Each side is armed with its foundations, think tanks, magazines, and websites — weapons that fire as often at each other as at the Republican nemesis.

The right draws intellectual support from the corporate-friendly Democratic Leadership Council; the left, the Institute for Policy Studies — “an institute for the rest of us,” according to the late I.F. Stone.  The right speaks through the glossy pages of the New Republic; the left through The Nation, which boasts more than double its readership.  The latest best seller from the right is Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight — Why Liberals and Only Liberals Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.  But while the right is concerned with how American can get back on top, the left’s Barbara Ehrenreich examined life at the low-wage bottom, in her best-selling Nickle and Dimed.

Programmatically, the Party’s two wings could hardly be more antagonistic.  On health care, the left wants single payer; the right favors retaining the insurance companies that single payer would eliminate.  On the question of Iraq, the left wants to get out while the right wants to stay the course; on the Middle East, the left favors Palestine, the right is for Israel; on trade, one side is anti-NAFTA, the other pro-NAFTA.  Generally, the Party’s left calls for more state intervention — living wages, affordable housing, and universal health care.  The right wants to get the state out of the way of market forces, but insists that the Third Way — not the shock therapy way of Bush/Thatcher — is the best way to achieve the goal.

Naturally, the party’s two feuding factions have dueling electoral strategies.  The left advocates bottom-up organizing, reaching out to unregistered disadvantaged groups: blacks, single women, immigrants, the disabled.  The right’s strategy is to try to attract the electoral middle by “inoculation”: keeping the left’s ideas and its personalities out of the campaign.

If “new” and traditional Democrats have anything in common, it’s the belief that the other represents a threat to America — at least as serious as the nominal Republican adversary.  Progressive Democrats deplore “the stranglehold of the Democratic Leadership Council.”  They charge it’s caused the DNC “to drift toward the shoals of moderate irrelevancy,” so much so that the Party’s motto might as well be  “Better to Stand for Nothing than to Lose on Principle.”  They are determined to end the era of “Republican Lite.”11

For its part, the DLC charges the liberal left with ignoring “the direction of history.”  “Liberals, on the Democratic Party’s left today,” charges the editor of the DLC’s Blueprint Magazine, “are mainly fighting rearguard actions to hold onto the glory days.  Bill Clinton successfully shifted the paradigm for fighting poverty, for example, with policies that promoted a booming economy, not a Great Society.  The liberal left hates that.  It offends the religion of liberalism as codified during the great battles of yesteryear.”  Bush’s policies are working, wrote the DLC in March 2005: “a big train of transformation is leaving the station — Democrats can get on it or be left behind.”12

Like any permanently married and permanently unhappy couple, as much as they despise each other, the two don’t seem to be able to live apart.  One side has the most committed activists and speaks for the party’s key voting constituencies — African Americans and committed liberals; the other has the money and runs the Party’s major institutions.  The left’s chances of ever gaining party control are about as plausible as HRC’s effort to channel Eleanor Roosevelt through the medium of Jean Houston.13  Yet it presses on, afraid to go out on its own.  The right is stuck with the left it despises. Yet the more it demonizes Sharpton and Jackson, left academics and the “cosmopolitan class,” the greater price it must pay in general election turnout and volunteer enthusiasm.

What can civic republicanism do to unite the Party?  The hope seems to be that by ascending to a higher level of abstraction, the crippling policy differences that divide the two main factions will seem smaller.  Would the left buy in?  Initial, fragmentary signs were mixed.  Barbara Ehrenreich objected at the TBA conference that Tomasky had forgotten the class struggle.  On the other hand, she observed, the “common good” is a compelling phrase.  Ehrenreich confesses she often appeals to it herself.  Both sides like to claim legitimacy from “the community.”  And even if it’s all a bit vague, it’s better to hymn praises to the common good than bash each other over rival public policy, electoral strategies, or party governance.

But as a vehicle for steering the Party to unity, civic republicanism pulls noticeably to the right.  The mechanics suggest the project long underway in the British Labour Party.  With the help of renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens, and supported by both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Labour has produced the centrist doctrine of the Third Way.  Neither left nor right, neither social democracy nor outright Thatcherism, “The Third Way” resembles Giddens’ highly respected but ultimately ineffable “structuration” theory on whose principles Blair’s Third Way rest.  It is neither a theory of structure nor a theory of action; neither modernism nor postmodernism; it looks at social realty neither from the standpoint of the subject nor the object, but somehow combines the best of both.  Perhaps the most useful way to understand these British developments is in terms of the contemporary “Everything Bagel.”  It’s neither poppy seed nor sesame, neither onion nor garlic, but combines them all — and has less calories.

Civic republicanism is an American recipe for the Third Way designed to have the broad appeal of the Everything Bagel.  But while Michael Tomasky may be its most successful retail salesman, the basic ingredients were being prepared a generation ago, by some of America’s most prominent public intellectuals: for example, Harvard’s Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.  What they all had in common was that they were all critics of the late John Rawls seminal A Theory of Justice.

Just as it was about to expire, Rawls provided a philosophical justification for social democracy.  He deployed an innovative blend of rational choice reasoning with an appeal to the principles of Kantian universalism.  Strongly favoring income equality and individual rights, his ideal state validated the heavy lifting of income redistribution in terms of an “original position” — one that assumed a “veil of ignorance.”  How would you reason if you didn’t know which class you were in?  It was a form of reasoning that implied a kind of categorical imperative — a maxim valid for all universal beings.  At the same time, while guaranteeing basic liberties, the Rawlsian state held back from trying to shape lives of its citizens.  In professional lingo, he stressed the right over the good.

If A Theory of Justice represented a splendid mausoleum for social democracy, the critique of Rawls served as the cradle of civic republicanism.  His numerous critics insisted he had a naïve, atomistic, individualistic view of the self, which had adopted the veil.  The principles of justice could never be explained in rational choice terms but only in terms of community standards and shared meanings.  The job of the state was not to safeguard individual rights or distribute income fairly, but to promote “shared understandings.”

By the 80s, the ideas of the philosophical critics had filtered down to political scientists and political sociologists.  Writers like Benjamin Barber, Amatai Etzioni, and Robert Bellah produced what became the full-fledged political ideology of communitarianism complete with journals and think tanks.  Gradually, ideology transformed into even more easily digestible political journalism abetted by such well-known writers as Alan Wolfe, Jim Sleeper, Fred Siegel, and Tomasky.

The effort to press communitarianism into the service of Third Way politics goes back to the early years of the Clinton administration.  Actually both Clintons were deeply involved.  Early in the Administration, Hillary reached out to Michael Lerner the creator of the Political of Meaning.  Lerner’s book with that title came out a few years later as an attack on the Clintons who’d spurned him, but it contained many of the themes of civic republicanism.

Anti-materialism.  “It’s the economy, stupid” — the Clinton’s ’92 campaign slogan expressed exactly the wrong Weltanschauung according to Lerner.  Material goods were beside the point.  Priority should be given to spiritual goods, the pursuit of values.  Genuine political action involves self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement.

Centrism. Lerner himself still believed in the timeless values of the prophets.  But he described himself as “agnostic” about capitalism and the traditional left program of wealth redistribution or government control of corporations.  The combination of faith and doubt allowed old political activists to assume a new role: not as partisan supporters of the oppressed, but as mediators in the struggle between left and right — who would measure the claims of both by their congruence with “the common good.”14

In communitarianism, the center-left would find its criterion of the good.  While Lerner held up Berkeley-style, “communities of meaning” as the source of value, more mainstream communitarians focused on less spiritual, more traditional, i.e., pre-60s, ideas of American community.

And, finally, civil society as the matrix of community.  “My vision is based not on government,” explains Lerner, “but on cooperation among people.  That is what civil society is all about.”  Nowadays, state and federal government do too much.  They turn citizens into clients.  “Instead of relying on someone else to do things for us, the idea is to create institutions in civil society that we fully control and in which we personally participate.”15

How community-controlled institutions would take over such “big government” functions as mail delivery, air traffic control, and the processing of social security checks, Lerner never explained.  Probably more damaging from the White House standpoint, however, was the crushing weight of ridicule.  The Politics of Meaning staggered under the double burden of being perceived as too Jewish and too New Agey.16  Ms. Clinton dropped Lerner like a cold knish.  Then she left guru-finding to her husband who cultivated more mainstream communitarians.  Amitai Etzioni, founder of the communitarian journal the Responsive Community, McWorld v. Jihad author Benjamin Barber, Harvard’s Michael Sandal, and the Kennedy School’s Robert Putnam would all serve as White House consultants and advisors.  William Galston, co-editor of Responsive Community with Etzioni, served as deputy assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy.17

It would be a mistake, though, to see the themes of civic republicanism as narrowly serving the ends of partisan Democrats.  In the 2000 campaign, Bush strategist Karl Rove reached out to communitarians like the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet and University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky.  The result was compassionate conservatism.

While not agnostic about capitalism, the center-right communitarians offered criticism of the traditional Republican bottom-line approach to poverty.  The point was to save souls, not just money.  America needed, as Michael Lerner would have put it, “a spiritual bottom line.”  Compassionate conservatives, like civic republicans, stressed the moral superiority of civil society to the state.  Aiding the poor voluntarily was more virtuous than acting under the compulsion of the state.  Activist Americans involved in their local communities represented what was truly exceptional about this country.  It was in these communities of concern that the genuine civic virtues were developed.  Compassionate conservatism was generally less secular than civic republicanism, but sometimes the convergence could be quite startling — as, for example, in the rhetoric of George W. Bush’s first inaugural speech.  “I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort,” he urged, “to defend needed reforms against easy attacks; to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor.  I ask you to be citizens.  Citizens, not spectators; citizens not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character.”18

The Bad Faith of Civic Republicanism

“Ideology” can be understood as the distortion of social reality caused by social perspective.  The prism of ideology explains why pro-business and pro-labor economists can never agree on such basic questions as whether raising the minimum wage helps or hurts low-wage workers or whether mass immigration increases or decreases the number of jobs for natives or whether cutting taxes produces more or less revenue.

Third Way centrists think that tacking back and forth between left and right immunizes them from ideology.  They confuse history’s direction with their own tropism for office, history’s locomotive with the gravy train.  Just because partisan advantage can be found in the middle doesn’t mean that’s where truth or wisdom or justice necessarily lies.  However much they insist on a values-first approach, the values of centrism are mostly situational.  Stalin — who could argue equally well for the Popular Front against Hitler, for the Hitler-Soviet pact, and then for the Great Patriotic War against Nazism — was a centrist.

Civic republicanism, the new vision for the new Democrats, is egregiously ideological in just this centrist sense.  It’s neither republican nor civic nor even particularly Democratic.  The civic republicans’ notion of the common good resembles Herbert Hoover’s concept of “public interest” much more than the Roosevelt-Truman emphasis on the interests of “the little guy.”  And for all its emphasis on the need to put values first, it’s essentially amoral.  In Sartrian terms, it’s less of a philosophy than ideological exercise in bad faith.

Jean-Paul Sartre makes a useful distinction between lying to someone else — simple prevarication — and the double deception involved in lying to oneself (“bad faith”).  For one thing, the consequences of bad faith are more ramified.  The self-deceptive actor not only misleads others, but loses freedom and integrity as a person.  The woman who pretends to herself that the man she’s encountered isn’t really making sexual overtures when he is serves as one Sartrian example.  She lets her hand fall limply into his as if it were a neutral gesture seemingly oblivious to the man’s real intent.  That way, she can enjoy his meal and his compliments without having to acknowledge his expectations.

Generally speaking, bad faith means a willful blindness to the defining aspects of a situation.  Selective vision enables the actor to avoid choice.  Having it both ways confers a material advantage, which the actor ignores, assuming a dubious moral posture.

In the civic republican version of bad faith, the gradual abandonment of liberal commitments to the disfavored is transformed into the virtue of gradualism.  The simple reality that a harsh struggle is going on between haves and have-nots is transmuted into the notion that we’re all in one boat — or community.  And a rising tide lifts them all.  But as recently as 2004, Paul Krugman observes, the U.S. economy grew at a strong 4.2 percent.  Yet the real median family income — the purchasing power of the typical family — actually fell.  Meanwhile, he notes, poverty increased, as did the number of Americans without health insurance.19  The conviction that the low-end boats will somehow levitate themselves despite the trends that have persisted for a generation is rebranded as Tomasky’s virtue of “optimism.”

The Common Good as Nihilism

There’s nothing more basic to the philosophy of the common good than the idea that it represents a triumph of values over base self-interest.  But how good is the common good itself?  Does it have any determinate meaning?  Iseult Honohan’s scholarly textbook identifies at least half a dozen of the main contenders.  Finally, she is forced to conclude:

The common good is a horizon of meaning, or a regulative idea to be taken into action and decision-making rather than a fixed goal.20

In other words, the common good will vary quite a bit in political practice.  But what practically causes it to move this way or that across the left-right spectrum?  TAP writers like Robert Reich deny it, but Third Way politics can’t be untangled from the tactics of triangulation — perhaps the most notorious expression of the Democratic center’s bad faith.21  It’s the task of civic republicanism to disguise the narrow partisanism of its means by an appeal to common ends.

The term itself comes from Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s toe-sucking political counselor, who’d previously served in similar advisory position with the late Senator Jesse Helms.  Morris described triangulation as “a strategy that moves to a higher place, a third place, above either of the two parties by adopting the best of each and discarding the worst.”  Triangulation, “is really Hegelian in concept,” Morris explained in a Frontline interview, “the idea of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.  And when we originally discussed it, we (Morris and Clinton) did so in terms of Hegel, which (sic) we had studied at Oxford.  But in American politics, we spoke of triangulation.”22

Actually, Morris’ concept of the Hegelian dialectic would be more appropriate in a noodle shop than at the Oxford high table.  Instead of Hegel’s idea of development through the antagonism of opposites, Morris’ notion is like ordering from a Chinese menu: choosing the tastiest from column A and the healthiest from column B.  There’s no sense of the contradictory forces involved in real dialectic.  A better metaphor for Clintonian triangulation comes from navigation, where it means to determine your own location by locating others’.  In political navigation, you find your position by distancing from left and right, locating yourself in the center between them.

To survive politically, the argument runs, politicians must identify their electoral vulnerabilities and then move closer to the adversaries’ position, drawing off votes and political leverage.  Morris advised Clinton in 1996 that he had to move closer to the Republican position on welfare if he wanted to be re-elected.  Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored bill.  True, the most horrible consequences predicted by left critics never happened.  But the welfare reform shift still illustrates ethical problems inherent in triangulation.

Two major ethical problems stand out.  First, and very simply, triangulation is corrupt.  The triangulating politician doesn’t weigh an issue on the merits of its advantage to his constituents but on the merits to himself.  Seeking a private benefit from a public choice is the common definition of corruption.

Second, triangulation ignores the ethical relationships embedded in the most contentious public policy issues, where the parties far from having anything in common are really involved in an antagonistic relationship: landlords and tenants; creditors and debtors; rich and poor; patients and HMOs; workers and bosses; between those who discriminate and those who are the victims of discrimination.  Obviously, in power terms, every one of these relations is asymmetrical.  Assuming a middle position doesn’t have a neutralizing or moderating effect.  It amplifies the power of the stronger who will naturally prevail if there’s no state intervention in behalf of the weaker party.

The more state support is withdrawn from the comparatively poor and weak, the more the constituencies of the right grow richer and stronger and the more pressure grows on the  erstwhile Party of the Common Man to move further to the right.

Ultimately, it’s because the Party is organized to win office rather than to advance the interests of its disparate voting constituencies that America’s Third Way keeps shifting to the right.  Recall that, in the 1950’s, Sweden used to be the Third Way.  Neither communism nor capitalism but social democracy: government ownership of basic industry; government regulation of the private sector; price controls, etc., all administered by a labor party government which in turn was controlled by the unions.  By the 60s, though, the Third Way meant the via mediocritas between Sweden and Wall Street: a welfare state that ensured full employment, employment security, and generous benefits.  Now TAP founder Robert Reich says, Third Way is an all-out shift to the free market, with no job security, but education for those “left behind.”23

Civic republicanism doesn’t aim at the good — it skillfully navigates towards the most expedient and calls that terminal point “the good” wherever it happens to lie.

Confusing the State with Society

What is a small “r” republican?  Do civic republicans qualify?  According to Tomasky, civic republicanism “comes to us from sources such as Rousseau’s Social Contract and some of James Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, that for a republic to thrive leaders must create and nourish a civic sphere in which citizens are encouraged to think broadly about what will sustain the republic and to work together to achieve common goals.”24

Perhaps I have a bad translation, but I can’t find the part where Rousseau talks about how leaders create a civil society.  In my copy of Social Contract, Rousseau argues that a civil state can be created by people willing to give up their natural liberty, exchanging it for a civil liberty far richer — at least insofar as the state rests on the control of a sovereign citizenry who agree to take turns ruling and being ruled.

Drawing a distinction between civil society and a civil state is no academic quibble since Rousseau thinks of civil society mainly in terms of its potential for slavery and corruption and a properly organized civil state as the remedy for the inherent corrupting and enslaving tendencies in civil society.  You don’t have to go further than the first sentence of chapter one to read that “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.”  In Rousseau’s view, it is in civil society, not in the civil state, where those chains have been originally forged.  “The first man who,” he asserts, “having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society” (DI, Second Part).

Given his view of its potential to promote domination, Rousseau stands out as the most impervious of all Western political philosophers to the charms of civil society.  He argues against the formation of the little associations so beloved of today’s civic republicans.  Explicitly, his model society is Lycurgan Sparta — a city-state advanced in women’s rights, universal education, and broad equality of the citizenry.  But practically no family life, a strange kind of uncirculating money, scarcely any trade, one profession — the military and no civil society.

Madison was far less extreme than Rousseau, but he also saw civil society more as the problem than as the solution to the question of the good political life.  But where Rousseau depicted civil society in terms of potential for corruption and slavery, Madison worried about its propensity for instability.  For Madison, civil society is the matrix of disorder, party spirit and faction.  For Madison, as for Rousseau, the primary source of social conflict in civil society is the unequal distribution of property — “Those who hold and those who have not.”  Madison’s remedy is not to promote the values of civil society, but to damp down its disruptive potential by creating structural barriers to the play of interests, i.e., “mixed government.”  If Madison had a communitarian view of civil society, he would have never thought it necessary to create the elaborate mixture of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism that we know as the U.S. Constitution.

Madison was no populist.  The point of constitution writing, he says, is to make sure that the wisest and most virtuous, not the most typical, get to rule.25  But he sounds like Bakunin compared with folks like Tomasky who want to displace the genuine republican concern about equality with a vaporous civic republican notion of the common good.

Madison was no civic republican.  Preventing inequality, he holds, is an important exercise of state power.  The idea that holding neighborhood picnics or cultivating community gardens could do the job seems not to have occurred to him.  Madison called specifically for government measures to prevent economic inequality: “by withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. . . . By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.”26

There’s a giant frontier separating classical republicans from civic republicans.  It’s demarcated by the recognition that interests in civil society tend to diverge rather than converge and that it’s the task of government to prevent excessive, destabilizing material inequality.27  That is, inequality so great that individual autonomy disappears and citizens become subjects of political or economic royalists.

Whose Civil Society?  What Community?

“Everyone quotes Tocqueville of course — Gingrich no less than Clinton — but that was because he got so many things right.”28

Ideologists of the right, left, and center express bad faith in characteristic ways.  The Marxist left judges existing conditions by the ideal of a future socialist state without war, social conflict, or poverty.  The neo-liberal right uses a perfect market as the standard: one that automatically produces just and efficient outcomes — except of course that someone is always interfering with the market!

The bad faith of the American center is expressed in terms of a model civil society whose institutions reliably produce civic virtues — trust, moderation, engagement, and concern for the common good.  With the constant accumulation of civic virtue or “social capital,” civil society achieves an ideal balance between bureaucratic state interference and excessive individualism.   Unfortunately, such a society is pretty much a figment of imagination — providing as realistic a standard for judging and shaping modern society as the court of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

As political scientist John Ehrenberg points out, there are two rival versions of civil society.29  One can be found in the writings of the classical political economists and Hegel, who was influenced by them.  The other might be called the romantic school, romantic in Isaiah Berlin’s sense: a nostalgic vision which points toward “some state that is in principle unrealizable.”30

The classical account of civil society developed out of 18th-century Enlightenment writings by the French physiocrats and the two Adams — Ferguson and Smith.  They liked to distinguish between “civil” i.e., modern civilized society, and the barbarous (Germanic) society out of which civil society had gradually emerged.  The barbarian society, which had engulfed Europe after the disintegration of classical civilization, was made up of kinship groups.  Barbarous society was flat: essentially a bunch of extended families.  It was also simple: there was no elaborate division of labor and no economic hierarchy.  Kinsfolk lived together in camps, bartered goods, and held property in common.  With the medieval revival of towns, trade, and private property, Europeans began to treat each other not as kinsfolk but as persons — separate individuals who recognized each other as the bearers of individual rights and responsibilities.  They formed urban communities in which kinship played only a subordinate role.  Contract and competition replaced status and personal obligation.  Members of civil society were not simply subjects of a royal sovereign, insofar as they were able to contract and bargain freely.

The source of the new freedom was the system of needs and the means of satisfying them that had grown up on the basis of private property.  But however much civil society represented an advance in autonomy and material progress over barbarian society, it was no communitarian idyll.  The classical economists saw civil society as a sphere of competition and self-interest.  “It is not,” observed Adam Smith famously, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer and the baker that we expect our diner but from their regard for their own self-interest.”31

Hegel’s concept of civil society built on the insights of Smith and drew some darker inferences.  He understood that, without competition and division of labor, human beings would never rise above mediocrity.  On the other hand, competition led to a polarized society.  There grows “a concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands,” he wrote.  But “despite an excess of wealth, civil society, is not rich enough, i.e., its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble.”32  To moderate the tendency of civil society towards all-out competition and mutually assured destruction, the state — in the persons of a universal class of enlightened civil servants — must play a decisive regulating role.

The usual punch line to this oft told chapter in the history of ideas comes from Marx who came along next and asked cynically, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies [Who will guard the guardians]?”  He proposed a different universal class — the revolutionary proletariat — whose historic role it was to wipe out the guardians, the state and civil society.  But Marx’s draconian solution to the problem of civil society is not the point.  It’s rather that Enlightenment thinkers from Smith and Ricardo to Marx and Hegel all understood civil society as deeply problematic.  On the one hand, it liberated human productive powers as never before.  But not without a cost.  How could there not be a cost?  How could a society which made competition the means for deciding who eats and who starves not create the potential for injustice and social conflict?

Tocquevillie’s Democracy in America — the Koran of American communitarians –came out only a couple of years after Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.33  But the traveling French aristocrat offered a model of civil society far more optimistic, benign, and cooperative than anything produced by Hegel or his classical predecessors.  This may have been in part because America’s civil society was still comparatively undeveloped.  But it was also because Tocqueville was simply uninterested in the material side of civil society.  Property ownership, exchange, division of labor, the way goods were produced . . . were not his métier.  These economic institutions — and the U.S. Constitution for that matter — counted a good deal less in shaping society than people thought, he insisted.  Harking back to the earliest traditions of Roman political thought, Tocqueville emphasized mos maiorum  the customs, habits, and values of the ancestors.34  Turning the economists upside down, he argued, for example, that the extent of commerce in a country is determined not by the extent of its division of labor but by moral and cultural factors: it’s not economic institutions that produce love of money, it’s the opposite.  Greed causes commerce to develop.

Tocqueville also continues the tradition of French philosophes who found in the virtues of relatively unspoiled natives living in exotic places an opportunity to put the vices of his countrymen in sharper relief.  What Tocqueville, a liberal Frenchman, chiefly doesn’t like about his compatriots is their penchant for political extremism and their insistence on centralizing political life.  Instead of the Confucian sage or the frankly sensuous Bougainvillean or the compassionate Turkish pasha, Tocqueville offered the civic-minded Americans as counter-models.

Notwithstanding the enslavement of the blacks, the extermination of the Indians, and a certain tendency toward conformity, all of which he deplored, Tocqueville believed that Americans were the most democratic, egalitarian, and civic-minded people on earth.  The sovereignty of the people in the U.S. was pure and genuine.  Explaining these achievements was the peculiar nature of American civil society — the Americans’ propensity for association, both political and non-political — but above all the local institutions which Americans had created even before the Revolution.  Tocqueville prized the town meetings as the source of popular sovereignty and the secret of its stubborn continuity.  “In the township, as well as everywhere else, the people are the source of power but nowhere do they exercise their power more immediately.”  This is a good thing, because the locals are ever the best judges of their own affairs, a point not understood by meddlesome French central authorities.

The power of local association to advance the common good led Tocqueville to emphasize North-South convergence and social unity in American society — again as opposed to the fractious French.  He entertained the possibility that manufacturers would ever form a specific “aristocratic” economic class only to dismiss it.  Cultural factors, drawing them into the community, were too strong.  “Though there are rich men,” Tocqueville allowed, “the class of rich men does not exist; for these rich individuals have no feelings or purposes; no traditions or hopes in common, there are individuals, therefore, but no definite class.”35  Similarly, the North and South would ever find they had more in common than apart.  Economic difference, he pointed out, didn’t make for economic conflict.  It made for cooperation.  The North needed the Southern consumers of its manufactured products.  The South wants to sell its produce to the North.36

If Tocqueville exaggerated the potential of voluntary association to produce national and social unity, 21st-century communitarian successors exaggerate his contemporary relevance.  The America of New England town meetings remains their Camelot.  It lives on in PTA meetings, the community projects of the Rotarians, pick-up basketball games, and Friday-night, after-work get-togethers among steelworkers.  These associations create a force — social capital – that builds ties between groups (“bridging capital”) and strengthens ties within a group (“bonding capital”).  When society is producing enough social capital, the argument goes, it means a stronger economy, more democracy, improved community health, less crime, more tolerance.  Yet, since the 1960s, the output of social capital — America’s fabled capacity to produce local association — has lagged.

“What’s killing off our social capital?” is the big communitarian question.  What’s happened to all the cross-class associations?  The Kiwanis?  The Knights of Pythias, the bowling leagues, etc.?  As Harvard’s Robert Putnam observed, charity work is way down, PTA membership is less than half what it once was, America has more bowlers and fewer leagues.  It all adds up to a crisis of civic engagement, which he cleverly titled “Bowling Alone.”

According to Putnam, who was invited to the Clinton White House to explain how civic America has unraveled, there are lots of factors: TV, suburban sprawl, the time squeeze, the Generation X effect, etc.  But none is so serious as to prevent a civic revival if we only give it a try.  What’s lacking is the will to connect with that guy in the next driveway.  It could happen.  But Putnam sees big trouble “unless you and I, along with our fellow citizens, resolve to become reconnected with our friends and neighbors.”  However risible it may sound, says Putnam, Americans, if they wish to carry out any institutional change, must follow the Gilded Age Protestant reformer Henry Ward Beecher, who counseled, “Multiply picnics.”

How picnics can realign interests that are inherently divergent, communitarians don’t explain.  How do you even get the GM executives from Gross Pointe to come to their employees’ picnics in Flint?  And even if they did, the idea that trust, reciprocity, cooperation can emerge just from sharing weenies seems a bit like the theology of the Eucharist.  When one man’s health care plan is another man’s cost, it’s hard to build trust.  It’s hard to form a common civic bond between those who want to export the jobs and those who rely on them for survival.  It’s easier to decide who will bowl first than to agree on who will get laid off first.

Communitarians fail to consider the possibility that America’s “crisis of civic engagement” may be caused by too much social capital instead of too little.  Organized labor — the only effective countervailing power in a capitalist society — has become too fragmented to resist the main drift.  Historically built around the monopolies of local jurisdictions, U.S. labor has stagnated since the ’55 AFL-CIO merger, becoming ever more local, fragmented, and corrupt.  American unions have no trouble producing bridging and bonding capital in the form of nepotism, hiring favoritism, and crime family alliances.  But localized American labor organizations don’t match up well with transnational corporations.  In the “flat world,” labor’s localism spells doom: it can’t organize, strike, defend pensions, or maintain its health plans.  Its 20,000 stagnating fiefdoms tellingly illustrate how communitarian ideals fail to provide a helpful focus for achieving the common good.

Above all, communitarians ignore how the creation of communities of resistance  — as opposed to communities of trust — have historically redefined and enriched the meaning of the common good.  How in a few short years, did U.S. public ideals evolve from the norms set by the Good Citizen’s League in George Babbit’s Zenith, Minnesota to the combative values inherent in the battle against “economic royalists” proclaimed by the New Deal?  It was no picnic.  Or rather it was the picnics held inside occupied factories by striking workers that led to most of the workplace rights and social benefits that ordinary Americans still enjoy.

Ultimately the question is, how do good republican values spread?  Through bottom-up antagonism of interests or from trickle-down idealism?  The 14th-century poet who sang of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight hoped that that the courtly virtues upheld by the knights of King Arthur’s round table could spread out from there.  Chastity, compassion, chivalry, self-sacrifice, and loyalty could be the regulative ideals in the wider society.  But how could the ideals that the knights tried to practice among themselves in the court be reproduced in the manorial culture based on most brutal forms of serfdom: the corvee, le droit de seigneur, forced feudal dues, the restrictions on personal mobility?  These were two different moral universes, and the ethic of the court could hardly survive in the atmosphere of the manor.

Still, the sociology of the 14th-century court poet seems more plausible than that proclaimed by contemporary communitarian philosophers.  At least Sir Gawain and the knightly aristocrats had what Antonio Gramsci would call “hegemony”: the ability to advance their ideals without force — particularly through intellectual and moral leadership of the church.  How do the volunteer, non-profit, and NGO activists impose their values on the rich and on corporate leaders — especially when they’re funded by these sources?  Or even more fundamentally, how can the circuits of social capital widen so greatly that they displace the circuits of real capital?

Holding Hands with Hoover?

“Our nation can achieve permanent health only from within on the basis of the principle: The common interest before self-interest.” Program of the NSDAP (“Nazis”) February 24, 192037

Michael Tomasky concludes “Party in Search of an Idea” with his own “I have a dream” speech.  It comes out of the mouth of a candidate who emerges victoriously from the 2008 primary tussle, and who dares to stand up — Coriolanus-like — against the selfish multitudes, insisting he will be responsible only to his own vision of the public interest.  “I respect the work you do and support your causes,” says Tomasky’s alter ego, “But I won’t seek and don’t want your endorsement. . . . I am running to communicate to Americans that I put the common interest over particular interests.”

There is probably no shortage of candidates willing to lead a Third Way crusade for the common good in the next presidential election.  Over the last decade civic republicanism has become the party orthodoxy of the New Democrats.  But the upshot is a stunning ideological retrogression: the New Democrats resemble nothing so much as the old Republicans.  Particularly the ideals and agencies of Herbert Hoover — a man whom the Democrats invoked for over thirty years every time they wanted to assert their political identity.

Hoover’s 1929 Inaugural Address resounds with civic republican themes.  Addressing a large D.C. crowd in the rain, Hoover, like today’s advocates of the Third Way, positioned himself between all-out laissez faire and socialism.  He appealed to common good, against special interests.  Above all, he insisted that the “Community” was his touchstone: “Self-government does not and should not imply the use of political agencies alone,” he explained.  “Progress is born of cooperation in the community — not from governmental restraints.  The point of government is to “encourage these movements of collective self-help by itself cooperating with them.”38

The tragedy of Hoover is that he wasn’t just bloviating.  He really meant it.  In winter 1932, as the American economy began to disintegrate, Hoover put his communitarian ideals in practice.  He launched his community-based approach to saving the banking system.  For over a year, America’s poorly regulated, uninsured financial institutions had been collapsing by the thousands.  The nation’s bread lines were matched in length by the queues of savers lining up vainly seeking to withdraw their liquidated life savings from bankrupt institutions.  No question, there was a crisis, Hoover allowed, but the answer was not big government.

It was community organizing.  Citizens should act in behalf of the common good, by putting their savings back into the failing system.  “Everyone hoarding currency injures not only his own prospects and those of his family,” he said, “but is acting contrary to the common good.  I call upon our civic associations to organize in every state and town to make clear the problem and to effect our purpose.”

Hoover meant business: “I am today calling upon the heads of the leading civic organizations to meet with me on Saturday next for the creation of a national organization to further this campaign.  In the meantime, I request that the heads of such civic organizations in each state and in each community organize without waiting for the national action.  I have so far invited the heads of the Chamber of Commerce, the Labor and Agricultural associations, the church and school organizations, the men and women’s service clubs, the veterans and patriotic organizations and the trade associations.”39

Shortly after Hoover was removed from scene, Franklin D. Roosevelt closed all the nation’s banks.  After reopening them, he forced the big institutions to submit to a system of deposit insurance which they had resisted because of its expense.  The banks had preferred running the risk of bankruptcy to suffering an infringement on their autonomy.

As the decade wore on, Americans began to realize, the problem of economic insecurity wasn’t caused so much by big government as it was by a government that wasn’t big enough to stand up to big capital.  Communities of resistance began to sprout up all across the country.  Not just factory occupations and sit-down strikes but old people’s movements like the Townsend Plan, pension movements, tenant movements, unemployed councils, a new more comprehensive labor federation.  And the movements were translated into legislation and government agencies.  Social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, and maximum hours, fair labor standards, public housing.

By 1936, the Democratic Party had been transformed.  Social movements had transformed the party’s power base.  Notably diminished were the Dixiecrats who had gained the 1924 presidential nomination for John W. Davis, J.P. Morgan’s indefatigable counselor who could defend the poll tax as effectively as U.S. Steel.  FDR made the transition clear in his “rendezvous with destiny” acceptance speech.

In Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, Roosevelt pledged himself to lead nothing less than a second American revolution — a class war against the country’s “economic royalists.”  The owners of the country’s banks, corporations, and securities had a achieved a monopoly of control over American industry and enterprise.  They created “a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction.”  The result was that ordinary workers were subject to “an industrial dictatorship”; ordinary families had their life’s savings wiped out.  The political liberties Americans had won in Philadelphia was now “meaningless in the face of economic inequality.”  The owners of American finance and industry had complete control over capital, savings, wages, leaving Americans in the same situation as the minutemen.

Who represented the real values of the republic, the royalists or those who resisted them?  “The economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America.  What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”  But the American Constitution and the flag stand for democracy, not tyranny, “against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike. . . . I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war.”

Tomasky says Roosevelt’s New Deal was about “giving people the tools to improve their own lives.”  In other words, Roosevelt’s stature could be measured in Clintonian units, and his programs were positioned along the Third Way.  But where did Roosevelt get the money for the “tools”?  For social security, for unemployment compensation, for agricultural support programs, for TVA for rural electrification programs, PWA, and WPA?  Very simply from taxes on those who didn’t want to pay for the tools.  And with the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Standards Labor Act, Roosevelt created not just a tool, but a weapon — placing it in the hands of workers who used it to organize against employers.

Perhaps almost as fundamentally, Roosevelt provided a new political sociology: instead of the pretence that the miner and the mine owner were “in the same boat,” a frank acknowledgment of the enormous disparities of U.S. power and wealth that had arisen; instead of restricting political action to a philanthropic “third zone” where Rotarians sent inner city kids to camp, a pledge to fight in the zones where real contests for wealth and power took place.  No wonder he was so widely denounced in Harvard, Yale, and Metropolitan Clubs across the country as “a traitor to his class.”

Of course, everything that was new becomes old and vice versa.  Roosevelt and Harry “Give ’em Hell” Truman (“’em” being Wall Street and the big corporations) are now the Old Democrats.  The old Republicans like Hoover are the New Democrats.  The search for a new political philosophy has resurrected the local philistinism satirized by Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt, transforming Zenith’s union-battling Good Citizen’s League into a model of civic engagement.

The inevitable curvature of social perspective ensures that ideologies can never serve as mirrors, simply reflecting social conditions as they are.  But at least they don’t have to be window shades, making it impossible for the light of social reality even to enter the room.  As ideologies go, civic republicanism functions somewhere between a drawn shade and a blown fuse: a mental meltdown of the moderate middle.


1  Philosophy of Right, Trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 12.

2  Kenneth S. Baer and Andrei Cherny, , “Swing Ideas, Not Swing Voters,” The Democratic Strategist 1.  Obama was joking.

3  See, for example, Maureen Dowd, Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004).

4  Maureen Dowd, “Fukuyama, Hannah and Zegna,” New York Times 21 June 2006.

5  John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, “The Politics of Definition,” The American Prospect, 20 April 2006.

6  (New York: Signet Classics, 1995).

7  (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 211.

8  Robin Toner, “Liberal of the Lost Generation Senses a Shift,” New York Times, May 8, 2006.

9  The American Prospect, 16 April 2006.

10  At the TBA conference, John Kerry hit the civic republican bulls’ eye: “Our one biggest idea, the one that makes us Democrats, is not to stand for selfishness but to stand for the common good.”

11  Brad Parker, “Tremors inside the CDP: Grassroots Activists Come Together to Transform The California Democratic Party,” Progressive Democrats of America 2.4, 11 May 2005.

12  Peter Ross Range, “Behind the Curve,” Blueprint Magazine, 15 March 2005.

13  “Advisor Downplays Hillary Clinton’s Conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt,” CNN, 24 June 1966.

14  POM, 234

15  POM, 213.

16  Michael Kelly, “Saint Hillary,” New York Times Magazine, 23 May 1993.

17  Barber’s memoir.

18  “Inaugural Address of George W. Bush,” 20 January 2001.

19  Paul Krugman, “Left Behind Economics,” New York Times, July 14, 2006.

20  Iseult Honohan, Civic Republicanism (New York: Routledge, 2002), 157.

21  Robert Reich, “We’re All Third Way-ers Now, ” TAP, March-April 1999.

22  “Interview: Dick Morris,” Frontline: The Clinton Years, ABC News Nightline production in association with WGBH/Frontline, 16 January 2001.

23  Ibid.

24  Party in Search.

25  Federalist Papers, #57, Publius (Madison) (New York: Penguin, 1987), 343.

26  National Gazette, January 23, 1792.

27  See for example, Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, 1.17: “Ineptitude for a free mode of life is due to the inequality one finds in a city.”

28  Benjamin Barber, Truth of Power (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 139.

29  John Ehrenberg, “Beyond Civil Society,” New Politics, Winter 1998.

30  Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), xi.

31  “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. . . .”

32  Philosophy of Right, 150.

33  Robert Putnam, a leading communitarian calls Tocqueville “the patron saint of American social capitalists” (292).

34  I, 392.

35  II, 160

36  I, 422

37  “Programme of the NSDAP,” 24 February 1920.

38  Herbert Hoover, “Rugged Individualism Speech,” 22 October 1928.

39  Press Statement, 3 February 1932, The Depression Papers of Herbert Hoover

Robert Fitch Robert Fitch joined the Laborer’s Union, Local 5 in Chicago Heights, Illinois when he was fifteen years old. He eventually traded his shovel for a briefcase and has since taught at Cornell and New York University, organized for the unions, and written for The Baffler, Newsday, Village Voice, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Nation. Still a union member, he lives in New York City. His latest book is Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise (Public Affairs, 2006). Read Michael D. Yates’ interview with Fitch about the book: “What’s the Matter with U.S. Organized Labor?
An Interview with Robert Fitch”
(MRZine, 30 March 2006).

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