It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. (Man = Man or Woman) Theodore Roosevelt, Excerpt from “Citizenship In A Republic, April 23, 1910
What is it to be a citizen of the Republic? Does Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 guidance help? I must admit these are vexing and challenging times. The politics is moving in a very strange direction, and there is not much to explain it or even to understand it regarding our common political history.
Modern Trumpian Republic
The Trumpian Republic seems dedicated to making rich people richer, though they tell us it is support for the working and middle classes. Starting many years ago wealth has just continued to concentrate to the few and away from the breadth of our Republic. (For the record, wealth inequity is a trend since the mid-1970s, see The Economist, “The Rich, The Poor and The Growing Gap between Them,” June 15, 2006).
For those believing in the Trumpian Republic, it depends on the market and modern social Darwinism and, of course, a friendly administration in DC.
The expressed hope is that if you work harder, are smarter, manage your money wisely, you will accumulate a comfortable nest egg. If you or your family become ill or luck-is-against-you, then you must “suck-it-up,” and maybe things will be better next time.
Modern Liberal Republic
Democratic themes always seem to be taxing and regulating more, and seeking retribution against those called out as racist, misogynist, homophobic, and Islamophobic, etc. There is this thing of “identity” which for a country boy is very difficult to understand. “We” seems to have become an inappropriate term because it melds identities. We cannot just shake hands and drink a beer together and find common interests. Now it is so much more serious and metaphysical.
Mark Lilla’s Dispensations
Fortunately, Mark Lilla has stepped up to address this from a politically liberal perspective. He has also provided much insight about President Reagan’s policy paradigm in his book The Once and Future Liberal After Identity Politics copyrighted in 2017.
This short book discusses the characteristics of modern American political history. He has divided this history into two “dispensations” (i.e., systems of order, government, or organization of a nation, community, etc., especially as existing at a specific time). (p7)
The first is the Roosevelt Dispensation and the second is the Reagan Dispensation beginning in 1980. Each of the Dispensations “brought with it an inspiring image of America’s destiny and a distinctive catechism of doctrines that set the terms of political debate.” (p 8)
The Reagan Dispensation
Moving directly to the Reagan Dispensation, it had specific policy outlines.
•Reagan abandoned the dour, scolding, apocalyptic style of the 1950s conservatism and radiated hopefulness. (page 39)
• Government “is the problem.” Not tyrannical government, or inefficient government, or unjust government. Government itself (p31)
• The good life is that of self-reliant individuals not citizens of a republic with common goals and duties to each other. (pp 30 and 31)
• The freer markets are, the more they will grow and enrich everyone. The priority is to build rather than redistribute wealth. (p 31)
The Sunset of The Reagan Dispensation
Though the adjustments of the Trump candidacy and administration have changed this message in ways we do not yet fully understand, Lillia suggests that there are reasons to think we are near the end of the Reagan political model. “Indeed, there are reasons to think that we are already in an interregnum” (p 53)
“Though Trump’s election was a momentous defeat for Democrats and threatens everything liberals have ever worked for, it also exposed the emptiness of anti-political conservatism.” (p 54)
The Liberal Response
So, how have liberals responded to the “Reagan Dispensation? Quoting Mark Lilla at length, because he sets the distinction between the policies of Reagan and the liberal response.
The conclusion is the liberal opposition dropped the ball when it had an exceptionally clear opportunity to change the dominant American political paradigm. It did not preserve values of common-wealth, common-group, and American citizenship.
You might have thought that, faced with a novel anti-political picture of the nation,
• Liberals would have countered with an imaginative, hopeful vision of what we share as Americans and what we might accomplish together. Instead, they lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it.
• You might have thought that faced with Republicans’ steady acquisition of institutional power; they would have poured their energies into helping the Democratic Party win elections at every level of government and in every region of the country, reaching out especially to working-class Americans who used to vote for it. Instead, they became enthralled with social movements operating outside those institutions and developed disdain for the Demos living between the coasts.
• You might have through that, faced with the dogma of radical economic individualism that Reaganism normalized, liberals would have used their positions in our educational institutions to teach young people that they share a destiny with their fellow citizens and have duties toward them. Instead, they trained students to be spelunkers of their identities and left then incurious about the world outside their heads. (p.60)
The Inner Thing – A Homunculus
The title of his book is about “identity politics.” Certainly, politics since the beginning of time has been an effort to create alliances based on common policy needs and to define the adversary. He clarifies this indicating that the founding problem was about political identification while beginning around the 1960s, the term “identity” entered the lexicon. It is about an inner thing, a “homunculus that needs tending to.” (p 62)
This shift began in the 1970s and 1980s and “attention was now less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens and our identification with different social groups within it.” “People began to speak instead of their personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender.” Citizenship was no longer a common unifier and JFK’s call to action to “do for your country” became passé and irrelevant. (pp 66 – 67)
Mark Lilla’s work is an excellent framework to try to understand the current state of American politics. Beyond understanding, he seeks to restore a solution, which is for liberals to re-establish a sense of citizenship. In this essay, we will present several perspectives. I want to start first with commentary based on the theme of this web site: Resilient action affirms durable truths.
I Call Myself XD
To understand the context of this essay a little personal background. My culture is Democratic though I now call myself XD: Not Republican, Libertarian, Independent, but XD. I believe my ancestors back to the Jackson Administration were Democrats from the hill country of Tennessee.
My grandfather worked diligently for the Democratic party. He was active in years past on the county Democratic central committee in California. Though he came from Appalachian origins, he was a loyal Democrat (they use to call it being a “yellow dog Democrat”) even when it related to more urban programs and urbane people such as Franklin Roosevelt. He fully supported the Roosevelt Dispensation including,
• Citizenship was universal, which has been the basis of civil rights when our deeds started meeting our words
• The political end was freedom: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
• Though we were moving from Jim Crow and a closed culture, the Roosevelt Dispensation pulled us towards our better natures. It truly was the bridge for citizens to change. (p 35)
My grandfather ran for county supervisor and lost, but my father in the 1950s ran and won for three terms. All of this happened within the context of change.
The family lived on a 40-acre cotton farm only 30 miles from Delano, the center of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers vineyard strike. It was very unifying and heady. I remember my father, a son of the south, raised in the west, worked with the movement through the apparatus of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Dad had a hamburger lunch with Bobby Kennedy during Senate hearings on migrant labor and receiving a phone call at the cotton patch home from Vice President Humphrey about how to make the community action council more effective locally.
Through his service, Dad was an active citizen advancing government as an element for improvement. He reveled in his citizenship – it carried him towards his better nature.
Politics Used to Work
In comparison to our era, government was not the problem. Instead, there was progressive “good government” and inner identity did not appear to be an impediment to associating and working together. From what I could see, the time and the politics though stressful and hard-core were more progressive.
They were starting from a more traditional point, but there was a feeling of promise and hope in the future. An excerpt from the New York Herald Tribune in 1966 makes this point. It documents the history of the grape strike and Senate hearings on migrant labor where my Dad met and broke bread with Bobby Kennedy. There was great differences and intensity, but there was also the hint of common-ground.
It was an odd sight, Sen Robert Kennedy in a proper pin-stripe suit moving along a line of pickets in work clothes. He was responding in his Boston manner to cries of “Welcome” shouted in Spanish accents.
The New York Democrat was there last week outside struck vineyard 140 miles north of Los Angeles, with Democratic Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey and Republican Sen. George Murphy of California.
They had come for the last of three days of hearings in the state by Sen. Williams’ subcommittee on migratory labor. This little town is at the center of Southern California area involved in a seven-month long vineyard workers’ strike.
The welcoming shouts were loud, for Sen Kennedy has joined Sen. Williams in promising to push hard for a bill to give all farm workers what the pickets are demanding: the chance to bargain collectively with their employers.
Sen. Murphy, a conservative under heavy home-state pressure from powerful employers, said he didn’t necessarily support Sen. Williams’ bill. But even he conceded that farm workers should have the right to unionization, provided the “property machinery” could be set up to accomplish it.
Citizenship is Not Enough
Mark Lilla’s book has a common element of citizenship. Growers were a tenacious group, stubbornly countering efforts of the UFWOC to organize. Out of the dialectic, however, came a grudging change in a very rural area.
Farm workers and their families developed standing and wages and working conditions improved. Their children in many cases went off to the military or college as citizens and returned to their communities, with the tools of civic participation which I learned working in local government, many have effectively employed as citizens.
Citizenship is not enough. If we are to develop durable truths, the focus must be on actions that advance truths such as inclusion, commonwealth, “good government,” and educational and better employment opportunity.
In this regard, service is the key. Mark Lilla recognizes this when he observes that citizenship provides the framework for solidarity that “transcends identity attachments. Democratic citizenship implies reciprocal rights and duties.” (p 123)
Exercise Duty through Service
While rights and duties are reciprocal; Exercise Duty through service. The difficulty that largely eroded a post-WWII commitment to service born from defeating Nazism, fascism, and imperialism was Vietnam. More specifically the call from the Selective Service System requiring young men to leave their homes and go to war, serving in harm’s way and maybe dying, by fighting Communism in Asia.
A portion of a generation’s males, for their reasons presumably derived from their identities or survivability, decided they would not serve and either left our country or implemented work arounds through educational and other deferments. By January 27, 1973, service in Vietnam became moot as we withdrew from the conflict and the United States ended draft calls.
A Retreat from Expectations
I believe this action ending draft calls justified in many minds a retreat from the expectation that we must serve to have a coherent government. The basic bargain as described by Lilla was “We have duties because we have rights; we enjoy rights because we do our duty.” (p 123) This interdependence was broken, and the conventional wisdom was there were no repercussions and no necessity to the relationship between rights and duties.
No Price to Pay
Empirically we found in the short-run there was no price to pay for not doing your duty or possibly, turning it on its head, the duty of the individual was to resist. As we have seen through our recent history, for some, resistance became glorious.
If we are going to revitalize our national political culture and move away from the intransience and disintegration that now appears normal, we must act to encourage folks towards a common purpose, that is, service.
Just Restoring the Draft Is Not Inclusive Enough
A suggestion may be that we restore draft calls. Probably it would not be a bad policy, but the extent of the action needs to be more inclusive. We need to use government to bring Americans together to service in our military, teach literacy, perform environmental restoration projects, assist those with medical needs.
In short, we must rebuild the organizational, governmental and human infrastructure of citizenship, nation, and community.
Developing National and Community Avenues for Service
The recent service from Hurricane Harvey’s Cajun Navy is exemplary of community service. Service needs to be expanded and regularized; to be inclusive of not only youth but also all Americans.
I believe WE (irrespective of identity) hunger for this commitment some place in our psyche. It likely will be somewhat personally inconvenient, involve training and specific commitments.
Folks should receive some compensation or at least reimburse expenses. It should be an investment in a stable American political culture that raises us rather than vexes us. It will provide impetus towards the spirit of service and provide real opportunities for inclusion in what you can do for your country.
One Example of Citizen Empowerment: The Civil Air Patrol
After four years of military service and service in California local government for over 20 years, I felt I needed different interconnectivity in the community. To accomplish this while continuing to work, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. It is a volunteer organization focused on a cadet program, aerospace education and emergency services. (In 2016 CAP was awarded by the AF Rescue Center 132 SAVES, more than any other military related entity.) They have primarily performing lost aircraft and lost person searches though they also include disaster relief and photographic documentation missions. The Civil Air Patrol (US Air Force Auxiliary) has provided me with an avenue to empower my citizenship. It is tangible, hands on, and provides highly useful services about which I am very proud.
Duty Empowering Citizenship
The Civil Air Patrol was my choice allowing me to become a more empowered citizen. Every citizen would have their preferred activity, but Americans must feel value and pride when they empower their citizenship.
While we should expect every young American to perform required service for their country, state, and community, we should also develop service opportunities for all Americans such as the Civil Air Patrol. The implementation could be through communities or states, or non-profits but it should be an essential element of our governmental processes, not just a mandatory diversion for government agencies. Our diverse nation will come together in service. It will be better times and a better place.
Creating the Glue
Empowering citizenship through service is the goal. Service is the necessary element creating the glue binding us together in citizenship. With it, our politics will be more stable and ameliorative.
Others have discussed factors to improve our American politics from a liberal perspective. James Poulos and David Brooks are essayists who have weighed in on the status of liberalism including weaknesses in Lilla’s theme and analgesic measures.
James Poulos: Liberals Are Well Aware They Are Losing Control of The West’s Political Imagination, but Not Why.
As James Poulos presents, liberal philosophy has a major log jam pitting humanism and identity against each other. The problem is a competition for victimhood between groups to define they are the most oppressed and the most out of power and, therefore, deserving of power and money.
The other side of the coin is denouncing the oppressors. Mark Lilla advises we have lost most of the common-group in our culture and what potentially binds us is simply citizenship. James Poulous challenges him that citizenship is not enough.
At the end of his Foreign Affairs article Poulos concludes:
The sobering conclusion is that liberals who think they can safely abandon humanist culture for the high ground of citizen politics will be overrun by the left’s identitarians and their intersectional allies. Politics will not save us from identity politics because politics can never save us, however inescapable and indispensable it may be.
To pursue a truly shared vision of justice, humans require a deeper common ground. Even for hostile critics of liberalism—especially Christian or secular humanists on the right—now is not the time to give in to schadenfreude. Today’s deep crisis may have been inevitable. It may augur some healthy or inspiring changes. But if liberalism does collapse or shrivels up, history strongly suggests that the restoration of Western social order on a different foundation will require another great cycle of war.
David Brooks Praising Equipoise
David Brooks approach offers some palliatives for the challenge of modern American politics. In the quote below I am abridging them somewhat:
Refuse to be a monad (simple, single-celled organism). As the Lebanese born writer Amin Maalouf points to the myth that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that matters.” Some people live this way, hanging around just one sort of person, loyal to just one allegiance and leading insular, fearful lives. In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life. The more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. The final step is to practice equipoise. This is the trait we should be looking for in leaders. It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities — to have the passions, blessings, and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings, and hurts of several others.
We Need Gas In The Tank
I am concerned that James Poulos’ and David Brooks approaches do not put any gas in the tank. Free market individualism and a focus on inner-identity are powerful brews. I believe we shall continue to squabble until some epic external event (such as magnum storm Harvey) forces us for our very survival to cooperate. Out of survival, governments will take affirmative action to facilitate citizenship through service programs.
Interesting with Brook’s article are the comments from his readers. So many of the folks show real anger and reject looking for common-ground or seeing it in a common citizenship. For many of them, David has sold out, and Trump style Republicans are simply the enemy. There is no hint of the common weal in many comments. Personally, I appreciate Mr. Brook’s essay.
James Poulous makes the most powerful prophesy: But if liberalism does collapse or shrivel up, history strongly suggests that the restoration of Western social order on a different foundation will require another great cycle of war.
I guess out of a war we may develop citizenship, but the alliances will undoubtedly be different, and the suffering may be intense.
My humble suggestion is that we need to be pre-emptive seeking citizenship through service. The task of leadership is defining the vision that will compel us forward, together, as citizens serving to achieve the common weal of the American Republic.