Introductory remarks at the political symposium sponsored by the Center for Cultural Leadership in Saratoga, California, October 27, 2012
I want to start with a quote from Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention this past August:
This Republican narrative — this alternative universe … says that every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made….
We Democrats — we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it … with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly share prosperity. You see, we believe that “we’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “you’re on your own.” ….
This assertion by Clinton is false, for two reasons:
First, most Republicans — at least conservatives, and that’s what he really means, I believe — don’t champion a “you’re on your own” ethic. In fact, we relish a “we’re all in this together” ethic, especially we Christian conservatives. We know we’re not islands. We know that all Americans have a vested interest in working together to make this a great country. Our difference with Clinton and the other Democrats isn’t that we deny that “we’re all in this together.” The difference is that we deny that the state should determine how “we’re all in this together.”
According to politically liberal ideology, there are only two options: (a) “you’re on your own,” a naked individual, in a selfish, self-centered, avaricious, uncaring society, or (b) “we’re all in this together” in a state-sanctioned and -maintained collectivist society directed by political elites. Those are the only two options some liberals seem to see.
There is, however, a third: a “we’re all in this together” ethic that looks to civil society — the family, the church, friendships, businesses, other “private” associations — for its social cohesion. In other words, we deny the “you’re on your own” ethic, but we also deny the “we’re all in this together” ethic that looks to the state for social cohesion.
The Collectivist Paradigm
I want us to ponder a deeper point. Clinton (and especially Obama, for whom he was a surrogate) isn’t proposing chiefly a political policy; he’s offering a cultural paradigm. Let’s call it the collectivist paradigm. It’s a paradigm in which government works together with business “to promote . . . broadly shared prosperity.” This means that the state guides the market, the state “justly” redistributes the goods of the market, the state shapes “the good society.” When Clinton says, “we’re all in this together,” he means that the state (that is to say, leftist elites) get to decide how we’re all together. This is the collectivist paradigm. It’s only different in degree from Marxism. The state is the great cohesive factor of a society. The state is the institution that holds us all together.
The Civil Paradigm
In contradistinction to the collectivist paradigm is what I’d like to term the civil paradigm. This paradigm sees not the state, but so-called “private” associations (family, church, businesses) as the social cohesion. The state is not the overriding social glue, but simply one part of the glue, and maybe the least important part.
The civil paradigm poses a great threat to the collectivist paradigm. When people start depending on their families for health care, on friends for a “safety net” in hard times, on the church for moral standards, on private schools for education, on businesses for material provision, they no longer need the state for much of anything except protection from molestation (which is its legitimate function). The collectivist paradigm rightly sees the civil paradigm as offering competitors to its elitist vision. This is why Marxist societies assaulted the family and bulldozed churches and turned friends into secret-police snitches and abolished businesses. This is also why the Democratic Party today supports abortion and no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage and politically financed public education and high taxes on business. It’s not about “freedom.” It’s about diluting and emasculating its competitors. And know this: strong families and churches and businesses and friendships are the competitors to an elitist state; they replace most of today’s state functions.
The collectivist paradigm (like the civil paradigm) creates a particular kind of culture: individuals lose their sense of self-reliance and become informal wards of the state. They autonomously break the bonds of family and church and live for self and explore (and become enslaved to) all sorts of flagrant and perverse sexual acts. They take wild financial risks, confident that if they fail, the state will bail them out. Men are nonchalant about their vocation, knowing that they need not pay a penalty for not being responsible for a wife or children. Women care little for marriage, knowing that they can’t depend on collectivist men to care and provide for them, so they bombard the workplace on career tracks that would likely prevent a sustained marriage.
Sound familiar? Please understand that I’m suggesting that the “we’re all in this together” ethic of the Democratic Party and, in particular, political liberalism, isn’t chiefly an economic or even political paradigm. It’s a cultural paradigm. And it produces a particular kind of individual.
The Autonomy Paradigm
Speaking of individual, there is one group about whom Bill Clinton’s statement is accurate — that’s the libertarians of the Ayn Rand variety: the dope-smoking, porn-lusting, fornication-proliferating, authority-hating, family-rejecting, church-loathing individualists. They hate not just the state, but also the family and the church and any bond that would impose limits on their lust for autonomy. They love free markets and free sex. They deplore the state and they deplore God. Let’s call theirs the autonomy paradigm.
And make no mistake: they are not the natural allies of us conservatives. The enemy of my enemy (a rapacious state) is not automatically my friend — especially if he’s an enemy of the God of heaven and earth and that God’s standards. Moreover, the autonomy paradigm is a ripe victim for the collectivist paradigm. Why? Because man was created for community, and if he denies communities like the family and church, he’ll soon be forced into the community of the state. In the words of Robert Nisbet, “Community will get its revenge.” The great social bulwark against massive political intrusion is not the naked individual, but bold and inviting social institutions like the family and church and businesses. And you can be sure that just as the other paradigms produce a certain kind of individual, so does the autonomy paradigm.
This is the message of Angelo Codevilla’s book The Character of Nations. Different nations produce different kinds of people. This is why this election is so important. This election isn’t chiefly about economics or even politics, but about culture. It’s about the kind of American we want to have in 25–50 years. It’s about the kind of people we want our grandchildren to be. Culture shapes people, and political choices shape culture. Whom we elect in a few days will shape the kind of people that live in this country.
That’s the cultural stake in the impending election.