Mr. Brooks Meets Mr. Blond

The passage of Obamacare has qualitatively transformed the political polarization of Americans. For the 1/5th of the American people that describe themselves as liberal or very liberal – and for people from other countries, that means leftist – Obamacare is a triumph. Of course it is not as glorious a triumph as some would have liked, since leftists with consistent principles are dismayed by what amounts to a massive handout to the private insurance cartel. These, however, became a voiceless minority when Dennis Kucinich kissed Obama’s ring on Air Force One.

For the rest of America, identifying as centrist, conservative, or very conservative, the passage of Obamacare is a qualitative marker on what has been a long and often terrifying journey of government expansion. With the full acknowledgment that they could have been, and should have been, louder about these matters under Bush Jr. than they actually were, the rise of the tea party movement suggests that growing numbers of conservatives are no longer satisfied with the performance of the GOP. They will of course vote for GOP candidates come November – at the same time, many of those candidates my find themselves on the ballot because of this movement.

For our nation’s “political class”, a construct that shouldn’t even exist in the self-governing republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers, these developments are viewed with some alarm. This is not surprising, given what recent polls have discovered about the gap between this class, and mainstream America:

By a 62% to 12% margin, Mainstream Americans say the Tea Party is closer to their views. By a 90% to one percent (1%) margin, the Political Class feels closer to Congress.

The left side of the punditry and political establishment view the populist movement as something dangerous and irrational, and do their best to make sure that the handful of racists who show up with inflammatory signs are portrayed as it’s vanguard. Then they insinuate, with little to no evidence, that various figures such as Dick Armey or Sarah Palin are controlling the entire movement, though tea parties inspired by Ron Paul were taking place long before either of them arrived on the scene.

The right wing of the political class has viewed the tea party in two ways: with the same level of contempt as their liberal counterparts (isn’t it nice when they can agree?), or, on different occasions, with put-on enthusiasm in the hopes of co-opting and controlling the movement. That is, until David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times, titled “The Broken Society.”

I don’t claim to be anyone important, or to have been entirely original in writing on this topic myself for Inside Catholic last year. Brooks, as I did, and assuredly as more will since his recent visit to the United States, introduced his audience to the British political philosopher Phillip Blond, the man behind “Red Toryism” in the UK. Blond is also an advisor to Conservative politician David Cameron, who is expected to defeat the “devalued” Gordon Brown in the next election. What kind of reception can Blond’s brand of communitarianism expect in the United States?

During the 1990’s communitarians such as Amitai Etzioni were dismissed by some, though certainly not all, conservatives as having little relevance. Populist conservatives came to view this man, who had been praised by politicians such as Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., and Al Gore, with suspicion if not outright hostility. And I must say, the more I learn about Etzioni, the less I like.

Enter Phillip Blond, who brings his message to American shores over a decade after Clinton’s promise that “the era of big government is over” has been proven less truthful than his statements about Monica Lewinsky. He comes on the heels of unprecedented expansion of government, trillions of dollars in public spending, and a rapid degeneration of all civility and consensus within the American republic. What can this soft-spoken theologian turned political theorist possibly do to change any of this in the slightest?

David Brooks thinks he has a lot to offer. In his column, he writes,

This confluence of crises has produced a surge in vehement libertarianism. People are disgusted with Washington. The Tea Party movement rallies against big government, big business and the ruling class in general. Even beyond their ranks, there is a corrosive cynicism about public action.

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

This follows, of course, only weeks after Brooks dismissed the tea party as an right-wing mirror image of the New Left, modern “hippies” who will be just as ineffective as those of the past generation. Now they are a serious force to be reckoned with, and Blond’s communitarianism may be the key to answering their protests. Is it?

The answer, as always, depends upon conditions. If we insist upon establishing libertarianism as something opposed to communitarianism, or at least something alien to it, then the answer is probably no. The merits of communitarianism will hardly be explored, for the label alone will end all discourse. Libertarianism is authentically American; communitarianism is a crypto-socialist import of the political class.

As I have come to discover recently, however, communitarianism (at least, Blond’s version of it) and libertarianism are not all that opposed – provided that we stay within the bounds of constitutionalism. Take a look at Brooks’ list of things he believes Blondian communitarianism would accomplish, for instance, and find me libertarians who would fundamentally reject these ideas:

To create a civil state, Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs.

Beyond doctrinaire anarchist or individualist circles, say, within the tea party movement, which is mostly comprised of pro-life Christians, I couldn’t imagine a single one of these ideas meeting with reproach – provided, of course, that these “civil servants” are not agents of a nanny/police state and that these increased investments in infrastructure are balanced by massive reductions in government bureaucracy. Nor would they disagree with Blond himself, whom Brooks quotes:

“The project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.”

What Brooks doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that it will take “vehement libertarianism” to achieve this ambitious set of demands in the form that they would be acceptable to the majority of discontent Americans. If ideas such as these are the answer, then it is the energy, vigor, and yes, justifiable anger of the tea party movement that must be the vehicle for their implementation. Blond’s communitarian vision cannot be implemented from above.

Who in their right mind, for instance, envisions an Obama administration or a Pelosi Congress making serious strides towards any of these goals? “Decentralize power”? “Smallest units of government”? Would these phrases even compute? Who envisions them making responsible investments in infrastructure after they’ve nearly spent us into bankruptcy, or using an army of civil servants for anything other than the imposition of a leftist kulturkampf?

Even if, theoretically, all of the foregoing assumptions about Obama and Pelosi are mistaken, and they really were interested in a localist communitarian agenda, none of the same discontented Americans that Brooks wants to soothe would buy what they were selling. This President and this Congress would have better luck trying to get people to switch their long-distance providers than their ideological affiliations.

In the end communitarianism will have to decide whether it is organic or artificial, whether it springs from the real human desires of people at the local level or decrees from national bureaucracies, whether it respects real flesh-and-blood efforts of individuals to establish communities that reflect their moral and spiritual values, or seeks to impose a rigid and uniform secularism everywhere and anywhere. Will we Christians be allowed to build communities in which our children don’t have to be exposed to a filthy “sex education” and have condoms handed out them by public school apparatchiks? Will we be allowed to home school, grow organic food, to use alternative energy or health products?

As a Christian, I am interested first and foremost in spiritual and cultural community. Without that, the material community is nothing but a secular and hedonistic nightmare. Indeed, the material community is but a means to a higher end, and becomes twisted and corrupt insofar as it forgets this end and exists for itself.

Thus, let it be known: I will support no movement that does not recognize the fundamental, natural right to association, the right of Christians to establish communities that reflect their values, and to reject any and all impositions of alien, perverted, hedonistic anti-values upon them. Blond himself has rejected leftist moral relativism and libertinism, which is excellent; but this philosophical rejection will only retain itself in policy if communitarianism is a local and spiritual movement, as opposed to a federal and materialistic “program”.

19 Responses to Mr. Brooks Meets Mr. Blond

  • American Knight says:

    Communitariansim, I can’t much say it let alone spell it, smells like another statist lie. It appears to come from the right – hmm, could it be like those lefty-loony-statist neocons?

    Communities are organic – they occur because those who dwell in them have a common culture. Washington only has one culture – the lust for power. They are incapable of doing anything without an ever increasing lust for control. Right or Left be damned. The true balance in the political spectrum is trinitarian. God, Federalism, moral responsibility.

    The vertical separation of powers is best for checking the crazies in Washington of any party.

    God is best, well, for anything to have any legitimacy whatsoever.

    Moral responsibility is what will keep civil relations, umm, civil.

    All these isms have no regard for God, they do love the god they create. They do not have any desire for bottom-up power, it is all a desire to consolidate power at the top.

    We shun moral responsibility and use meaningless terms like personal or shared responsibility.

    Lies, lies, lies. The father of lies is the ultimate politician and we have way too many made in his mold.

  • Blond is a very interesting fellow… several years ago I came across a fascinating book edited by him (“Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology”), and a couple years ago I was very happy to see how engaged he’s become in politics… we need more like him (and like many here) who are working to instantiate & concretize proper theory into proper policy & politics.

  • Blackadder says:

    From the video, Blond seems like a nice guy, but for all his talk about radical conservativism, it’s ironic that the candidate Blond is most identified with is David Cameron, Mr. Establishment himself.

  • Grace Potts says:

    “For the 1/5th of the American people that describe themselves as liberal or very liberal – and for people from other countries, that means leftist – Obamacare is a triumph.”

    Respectfully disagree with this… In my (I’ll quickly admit, very unscientific) polling of leftist friends; it is my “liberal” ,”very liberal”, and “progressive” friends that are the most outraged with Obamacare. My more centrist friends are, to a person, delighted and grateful. I cannot fully grasp their delight and gratitude, but it exists, nonetheless.

    Perhaps you’re examining more reliably collected data.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Right after I wrote that, I also said:

    “Of course it is not as glorious a triumph as some would have liked, since leftists with consistent principles are dismayed by what amounts to a massive handout to the private insurance cartel. These, however, became a voiceless minority when Dennis Kucinich kissed Obama’s ring on Air Force One.”

    I haven’t seen very many “outraged” leftists myself – perhaps some who are disappointed that it didn’t go far enough. I’ve seen plenty of gloating and triumphalism.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    And BA,

    That’s a good point. But if Cameron is listening to Blond, and promising at least a partial implementation of his ideas, then I can see why he would be a part of his campaign.

    Indeed Cameron would be a radical departure from Gordon Brown, who has done to the UK what Obama is doing to the US – spending it into bankruptcy, among other things.

  • American Knight says:

    You are correct since the false left-right paradigm is a lie.

    I use the term to describe enviro-terrorists, ELF, PETA, Communists, collectivists, Marxists, Liberation Theologists, the president, the lying worthless political hack, hippies, homosexual activists, pro-aborts, people who drive those stupid looking toy cars, anyone that drinks wheat grass as their lunch, people who recharge using crystals, Oprah, MSNBC, everyone Obama hangs out with, college professors who still wear corduroy, the French, Oregon, Hollywierdos, Yoga, cheeseless pizza, whole wheat pasta, non-alcoholic beer, Green Day, the New York Times, most heretics and, of course, the first leftie – Satan.

    This list is not complete and I reserve the right to add anyone and anything else I don’t like at any time – so watch it. ;)

  • Grace Potts says:

    Joe-

    I agree wholeheartedly with your follow-up statement. I think it is very true that leftists with consistent principles are a voiceless minority, betrayed by Rep. Kucinich. My disagreement was with the assertion that leftists are 20% of the population, and that that leftist 20% feels that Obamacare is a triumph.

    I simply wanted to state that my mileage has varied. The leftists I know and read seem to be 5% of the population, and they are anywhere from outraged, disappointed, and disgusted. While the moderates and centrists I know seem to be 40% of the population, and they seem quite pleased, and doing plenty of gloating.

    (but this is only a reflection of my limited experiences and interactions, and I would certainly accept less biased data to the contrary. the statistical population of my friends and acquaintances is much too small to provide anything but a personal interpretation. and as you’ve said: what I call a liberal, and what you call a liberal… may not be the same thing. as such, I personally disagree with the one part I quoted- it’s not what I’ve seen.)

  • Eric Brown says:

    I actually fall into none of the categories mentioned nor do I have any preference for any of the non-categorical items, e.g. eating certain foods.

    “the first leftie – Satan”

    This is just simply childish.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, you see Grace, you’re proving my point, at least somewhat.

    I would agree that the hard left is maybe 5% of the electorate. Though so curious was I one year – after having worked on a campaign for a socialist candidate – as to how many people in America voted for any socialist candidate, that I went state by state and tallied the votes. It was a little over 20,000. That’s pretty far from one whole percentage point, though I will grant that probably the overwhelming majority of far-leftists either a) don’t vote or b) vote for the Democrats in the end, maybe the Greens or some independent, rarely for an actual socialist.

    That leaves us with another 15%. And I think that is probably an accurate percentage of the American electorate that both identifies as liberal or very liberal, and thinks Obamacare is basically a good idea, perhaps with some criticisms or reservations. So, I think my statement was accurate. I don’t think that 15% agrees with the other 5% on Kucinich either.

    Granted this is one massive bit of speculation.

  • Grace Potts says:

    Hey Joe-

    So the irony is that I’m trying to tie up all my conversations on-line, and take a break from the computer for a little while… but this is interesting to me, and keeps calling me back! So I’ll try and sum up… we’ll have to see how that goes :)

    I’m probably somewhat proving your point, because I mostly agree with you. It is quite possible that my disagreement is largely a semantic issue… so I’m trying to brings some more objective numbers and terms to the conversation. Here is a recent gallup poll:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/120857/conservatives-single-largest-ideological-group.aspx

    Looking at the bar-graph in the middle, you’re precisely right “liberal” and “very liberal” are 21% of the population. However, when I think about who is crowing and triumphant over the passage of “health care reform” I’m thinking of those two bars in the center: I’m not counting the “conservative” and “very conservative”, nor the “very liberal” and “no opinion”; I’m counting the people who self-describe as “moderate” and “liberal”, and they are 51%, more than the 40% I was thinking of, and much more than the 20% you were speaking of. The 5% leftists I was thinking of as unhappy with the legislation, is probably that 5% that self describe as “very liberal”. I was incorrect to describe the pleased as only centrists/moderates.

    When I say moderates/centrists are happy, I’m talking about this:

    http://themoderatevoice.com/66948/healthcare-reform-a-policy-victory-for-moderates/

    and this:

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/obamas-moderate-health-care-plan

    and this:

    http://thehill.com/opinion/columnists/lanny-davis/74487-the-centrist-healthcare-plan

    Those moderates, centrists, and liberals that are happy with this legislation seem like they might be about half the population, coalescing just left of center. I don’t think it’s a marginalized 20% that’s crowing and triumphant. That’s all.

  • Grace Potts says:

    Here is what I would have said:

    For the 1/2 of the American people that describe themselves as liberal or moderate – and for people from other countries, that means center and left of center – Obamacare is a triumph. Of course it is not as glorious a triumph as some would have liked, since liberals with consistent principles are dismayed by what amounts to a massive handout to the private insurance cartel. These, however, became a voiceless minority when Dennis Kucinich kissed Obama’s ring on Air Force One

    For forty-five percent of America, identifying as very liberal, conservative, or very conservative…

    But that’s just my opinion, based on what I’ve read/heard and the very light research I’ve done. I really don’t disagree with much of what you’ve said here- just that one bit at the beginning.

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