The great, glaring ways in which my society’s norms have been morally wrong have pretty much always been obvious to me; though my understanding of the subleties and nuances of these wrongs has grown and changed over the years. It has been my privilege to work to change some of those norms and to see them replaced by others that I and many of my fellow citizens hope to be more humane. But there are other, less obvious norms that are the ground of my experience as well. Last week I participated as a spectator in a forum for candidates for mayor of my city. I attended a play at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, known affectionately as the Rep. I attended a St. Louis Symphony concert and a church service. I spent a day judging debates at a St. Louis Urban Debate League tournament.
In these activities I participated in the civic life of my locality. I affirmed my city by living and acting in it through corporate and conventional modes of behavior. I also ate meals at restaurants and with friends, shopped for goods at local stores, drove my automobile on local streets, visited with friends in their homes and enjoyed my own. By these and countless other actions, mailing letters, using electrical appliances, keeping up with the news, watching the Super Bowl, I pursued my social and civic life as I have for almost eight decades in various places in the United States of America. From my early youth until now I have known myself as a social creature, thinking that it was both my right and my duty to participate in my society’s formal civic life but also taking for granted a host of activities and pursuits that form the accidental and complex infrastructure that gives me a physical as well as a social connection to the turning earth, the seasons, the businesses of business and of learning, modes of intentionality that are as much a part of civic life as voting.
I know myself to be a historical actor too, as we all are, living within the stream of our times. It’s tempting sometimes to think that historical milieux can change suddenly and drastically, especially in revolutionary times—but that’s usually an illusion. What looks like sudden change upon inspection turns out to be the product of a gradual evolution. Such a consequence (e.g. the turn towards fascism in the world’s contemporary democracies) appears to have happened suddenly, or relatively suddenly, only because attention was focused elsewhere, engaged with images of an order of things that had long been imperiled. I mean to speak practically, not to propound a theory of history which I am not qualified to do. I also mean to speak from my own lived experience and from no one else’s. Events that might disconfirm my argument abound, the crashing of airplanes into New York’s world trade towers being perhaps the most recent large-scale Viking raid I have witnessed personally (albeit virtually). But the tensions in the middle east in the aftermath of the founding of Israel in 1948 were nothing new in 2001, and our country’s unfortunate involvement in fomenting and increasing those tensions off and on over the years was also old news. We Americans simply thought we were invincible, that our geopolitical situation preserved us from attack.
The political changes in my country have caused me to wonder if my thinking needs to change. I have understood myself as a liberal as long as I have been an adult. But I spent my professional life working in universities except for a period in the 1970s when I worked in the community arts movement, community arts having been an establishment effort not fundamentally different from the founding of land grant universities and community colleges. I am now realizing the extent to which these experiences gave me a situation and an identity in the center of American life, not on the fringes. What I am just fully realizing is that even though I participated in protests and voter drives during the 1960s and have had an albeit sometimes rocky love affair with today’s academic left, I thought of these things as expressions of civic virtue and not as revolutionary acts. Speaking for myself, it is a mistake to identify with claims of opposition to the center. We are capitalists in the United States, as Nancy Pelosi has recently pointed out. But being capitalist is not synonymous with being American. Capitalism is and ought to be subordinate to our evolved social vision. The New Deal got part of that relationship right, but only part. For many Americans, whole social groups indeed, were left out of the New Deal and denied the goods of American life by virtue of ethnicity, gender, or social class. Our public efforts, some of them misguided, to remedy the defects of the New Deal produced systemic stresses that eventually led to the top-heavy, overly bureaucratic infrastructure that the rightist insurgency has now seized and means to exploit for its own nefarious ends. But it is the evolved democratic social vision of the twentieth century that to my understanding remains the central project of American life and that of the evolved social democracies of the rest of the world, though many of them are presently being impacted by rightist insurgencies as well.
It is also a mistake to believe that the rightist insurgency in the U. S. is a demand for small government. It may have been that in the early days (though it is hard to think of HUAC and the McCarthyist witch hunts as small government projects), but by 1964 movement conservatism was clearly an ethnic nationalist coalition opposed to emerging social change and resentful of the declining world power of the United States as the Cold War continued. Nor is today’s rightist insurgency the sole projector of neoliberal economics. One of the rifts that could destabilize our emerging rightist government could pit neoliberals, both Democratic and Republican, in the congress against the economic nationalism of the executive régime. But I think it more likely that rightist forces will unify around rolling back regulations that protect citizens from corporations coupled with various repressive social policies: scapegoating immigrants and minorities, feminists, LGBTs, public schools and universities, unions, science and scientists, professionals of all sorts—a longer list could be made. Much of this will be done in the name of religion. While it is tempting to me to identify myself entirely in opposition to the rightist insurgency, I am beginning to understand that I care most as a citizen about preserving the evolved democracy I am coming to see as the main project of my lifetime and the lives of my family and parents and grandparents.
The rightist emergence in the developed democracies of the west seems sudden (if it does) because of its determination to undo history and because of its violence. We democrats (note the small d) are accused of violence when we protest, just as we are accused of having changed the world illegitimately, albeit we represent the slow evolution of western society towards democratic institutions (e.g. universal suffrage, equal access to education, health care, and other public goods for all persons regardless of race, religion, gender, social class, place of origin, etc.) And what may have begun in this country, seems to have begun if I consult my memory and my family’s, as what was billed in my youth as an effort to ‘restore free enterprise’ has now become a movement to destroy every vestige of democratic socialism among us by any means necessary—and the harm, the pain, the social dislocation and disruption this will cause are not accidental but intended as the means of reestablishing governance by what the rightist insurgency believes to be our legitimate ruling class: white, affluent persons who subscribe not only to a radical neoliberal economic ideology but also to a reactionary and paranoid set of social beliefs that for some are reinforced by a retrograde piety that calls itself Christian. Our current Vice President is representative here more nearly than his boss, but the President adds a beefed-up nationalism and overt kleptocracy to the already toxic mix of recommended rightist practice.
One can fault Edmund Burke for many things. He could not have been a feminist. His record with respect to slavery and colonial abuse, the two great issues of his time upon which he spent the most of his energies, is mixed and problematic. He was not a democrat in any sense of the term. His most famous writing is a tract attacking the French revolution; yet he more or less supported the American. To say these things, however, is to say only that he was a man of his time. Perhaps it is more important that he was a practicing politician, spending his career in the British House of Commons, that his writings have more of the character of obiter dicta than of philosophy. The last thing I want is to endorse the uses to which Burke’s ideas have been put by American movement conservatives. Indeed what seems useful to me at the moment is more nearly what Burke has come to represent in the history of ideas than what Burke actually said about politics or history. Burke’s understanding of the French revolution was deeply flawed, his reaction to it naïve and sentimental. But his position as a politician observing and reacting to what he took to be the destruction of the evolved society just across the channel accords very well with my position with respect to my country’s present history. I have claimed now several times that we are an evolved democracy in the United States. Like Edmund Burke, our founders did not approve of democracy; but we have evolved towards democratic institutions, particularly in the last century, just as we have made some efforts to remedy the consequences of slavery, the native American genocide, and our terrible record as a colonial power. Some have said, and used Burke as their justification, that this evolution has made us weak; I believe, on the contrary, it has made us strong. Now, our evolved democracy faces, if not extinction, at least a severe and cruel curtailment. I don’t need to rehearse the horrors of the past few weeks, only to allude to them and to the fact that they are being praised enthusiastically by representatives of the rightist electorate even whilst their leaders’ behavior horrifies most Americans and indeed most of the rest of the world.
I think protests have to continue, and I will participate as I am able. Beyond protest, I think we all have to organize better than we have ever done before in order to start winning again at the polls, to fight attempts to suppress our votes in the courts and where we fail, to mount massive voter drives to obtain credentials for the disfranchised. We need to participate in local politics. We need to support our local cultural and eleemosynary institutions as well as regional and national advocacy organizations that are doing the work of democratic resistance. We in the American democratic majority have presently lost the ability to command. Some of Burke’s thoughts about France might give us pause as to why that happened; but now, we stand to lose much more. For me, at least, the realization of what I have to lose, may have lost already, is what I have to defend. It is what I think Burke saw, beyond the specifics and with all his flaws and limitations, in the idea of a developed society. Our local institutions will hold for the time being, but we have lost the ethical center of our civilization. This makes conservatives of all of us who are lifelong liberals, and it means partly that liberalism and conservatism were never a binary opposition.
But it is the specifics that count the most. It isn’t enough just to be opposed to the rightist régime because it is duplicitous, authoritarian, bigoted, and violent. That’s one of the mistakes we made in last year’s election. We have to know what things we value in our civic life, and we now more than ever need to tell their stories—the stories of all those things we had come to take for granted as permanent in our lives and in the world. Why is it that I think the rightist insurgency threatens these things? My symphony orchestra is at least half female and includes a goodly proportion of players whose ethnicity is non-white. My church officially supports the ambitions of LGBT persons. Most of the candidates for the office of mayor in my city are African American. The St. Louis Urban Debate League serves St. Louis City Public Schools, most of whose students are African American. A recent play at the Rep involved a conflict between a gay man and the mother of his dead lover. My front window now features a poster welcoming refugees. The International Center just around the corner from my house is a haven for immigrants, as is my church, which also counts a number of same sex couples among its members. I am a supporter of Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and public media as well as my local art museum, botanical garden and zoo. I am a member of the League of Women Voters. From my perspective these facts are signs of the times and of my participation in the normal social life of my locality. From the perspective of the rightist insurgency, however, I am living in the middle of a politically correct community that needs to be brought into conformity with traditional values.