A Civic Renewal
IN THE AGE OF TRUMP, and in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic distress, and deteriorating race relations, the collective mood of the United States could best be characterized as mixture of mistrust, anxiety, powerlessness, fear, alienation, frustration, grievance, anger, and spite. Each likely feeding the other. It feels as if things are just falling apart . . . and the other side is to blame. While this ominous disposition may only nest itself on the periphery of our lives as we move throughout our day, it pervades our thinking and our beliefs in very subtle but powerful ways. It becomes a kind of corruption that tears at the civic bonds that our people likely haven’t seen or experienced in generations — probably since the Civil War. There are those that will make allusions to the tumultuous 1960’s Civil Rights/Vietnam War years as a corollary, and that this will soon pass as it did before.
However, I fear it may be different this time. It feels like the stakes are different. It feels as if the collective character of our country is different. The partisan rancor is palpable. I feel that even at that time, though there were riots, protests, the denial of Black citizen’s rights, and the killing of innocents, most Americans had a general sense of what it meant to be a citizen within a community and that civic life was very important to them. They had a general felt sense that our lives should be aimed at elevating the common good and that our collective destinies were intertwined. We were bound to one another. This sense of solidarity and commitment to the common good were, to a certain extent, a reflection of the humility and perseverance experienced through the hardships of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. I believe that it was those moral resources of civic-ness that led to popular support for the nonviolent Civil Rights movement and the legislation that followed that enshrined those rights for our African-American brothers and sisters.
I don’t think I’m out of line in stating that we don’t have those same moral resources today. Something happened along the way to 2020 that has led us to live increasingly separate lives that, in my view, can be explained by the concept of moral individualism. This principle rests on the single unassailable tenet that: I don’t owe anyone anything, aside from those obligations that I choose for myself. This concept is fully articulated and debated in Justice by the political philosopher, Michael Sandel. For some time now, this notion of freedom has slowly weaved its way into both the liberal and conservative political mindsets in various domains and differing extents. While this ethic may seem liberating for some, it denies the fact that we have obligations that we did not choose: to parents and family, to a religious tradition, to a racial/ethnic group, to a hometown, or to our country — and by extension, our fellow citizens. There is a felt obligation or loyalty bound up in these communities that holds a particular moral weight for each one of us. We are bound in solidarity to others that we didn’t get to choose and we can’t easily abandon or choose to not obligate ourselves without some severe moral cost to our identities. As we draw further inward toward our own self-interest, desires, or goals — irrespective of the common good, moral individualism denies us the importance of community and a community’s function for building our collective character and social trust.
More importantly, moral individualism denies us our identity, our story, a narrative that we can place ourselves within that gives us as human beings — meaning. The moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, in his seminal work After Virtue describes human beings as having what he called a narrative conception of the self. Simply put, our moral starting point did not begin at our birth. Rather, our story is a continuation of those who came before us just as our story carries on after we’re gone. What’s more, we are all nested within communities that carry a collective story that gives us identity and meaning. I would argue that the anxiety, powerlessness, alienation, anger, and grievance that Americans are suffering from today on both the Right and the Left is a direct result of this loss of a sense of purpose, meaning, and social trust, which in turn has been a direct result of this shift in perspective of the moral self. This has happened at levels that range from the individual all the way up to our country as a whole because as human beings we are embedded in a series of interconnected an overlapping communities that define us.
At the individual level, this loss of identity/meaning has robbed us of substantive relationships and our mental and physical health. We divorce more and marry less. We’ve become more risk averse, more anxious, and more depressed. Researchers have observed strong associations between rising levels of individualism and rising levels of mental health issues such as alcoholism, drug use, and suicide. When we don’t interact with people in a substantive way by seeing all relationships as transactional and as a means to our own ends, we begin to lose our sense of self. We become untethered from relationships and communities that give us meaning and a sense of trust. While moral individualism has seemingly freed us from constraints that bind us, it has also made us aimless, disconnected, and empty.
This also has implications at the country-level. Human beings require a collective narrative that binds us and gives us as a nation meaning. After the post-war years, that narrative was that America was a democratic beacon of hope, prosperity, and freedom to the world as a counterpoint to Soviet communism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have struggled to define that narrative because we’ve struggled to be a civic community and to remember what we owe one another as citizens. In the absence of this kind of civic spirit and unifying national narrative, it is easy for identity politics, conspiracy theories, and strident nationalism to fill that void and provide people, hungry for identity, community, and purpose, the meaning they desire. MAGA and Donald Trump’s language of anxiety, anger, and grievance spoke to many Americans in this way. Donald Trump didn’t create our civic decline, but he did see an opportunity to exploit it. Moral individualism has cast the concept of citizenship as the right to do anything one wishes without restraint, consideration of others, or the common good. To address this, we need to reinvigorate civic-ness in America and have our people think deeply about what it means to be a good citizen, the rights and duties that it requires, and how we can enable the good citizen in all of us.
Why? What is at stake? The 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher, Plato was deeply suspicious of democracy as a form of political organization and instead believed that an enlightened philosopher king was a better form of government. The idea of any king, enlightened or otherwise, would be anathema in this day and age, however, Plato supported this principle because he believed that a good ruler must always seek truth and virtue. Put another way, a good ruler can only be good if they seek to understand the nature of our reality through philosophic and empirical inquiry. In addition, they also must have the requisite moral qualities or good character (to be wise, just, honest, temperate, and courageous) in order for them to make good decisions regarding the community. The right way of being leads to right action.
Plato’s student, Aristotle, extended this idea and argued that in order for a democracy to work properly for the common good, the same condition — citizens seeking truth and virtue, must be required of all of its citizens if all of its citizens were to rule. Aristotle contended that if citizens did not adhere to this, they would easily fall prey to demagogues and popular decisions that could tear the community apart and lead to ruin. Plato would likely have responded to this with: it would be better to be ruled by a good king than cling to the hope that all citizens could be true and virtuous. However, the problem with this view, as Aristotle might rejoin, is that you can’t always ensure the likelihood of a true and virtuous king either. Furthermore, the American political environment is and has always been very hostile to kings or tyrants of any kind.
Therefore, if Aristotle is right about what is required of citizens for democracy to work properly, and if the United States is still truly a democracy, then the solution must lie with a focus on citizenship and how to promote the common good. Implicit in this focus is the understanding that to be a good citizen we must first recognize that we are bound to one other and have obligations to each other that we do not get to choose. Then we must all seriously commit to seeking both truth and virtue, learning how to deliberate well with each other so that we can live good lives, together. Our democracy is what is at stake here.
If Trump loses the election, this is a moot point, right? Let’s not kid ourselves. If Biden wins the presidency and Trump doesn’t create a constitutional crisis by refusing the results of the election, the anxiety, powerlessness, alienation, anger, and grievance that Americans have been feeling will not go away. The conservative media ecosystem, which has learned to harness that negative sentiment as a means to their ends, will double-down and fight even harder to stymie liberal political wins and whittle away their support with the public. This in turn will result in liberals lashing out in defense. Both sides will employ extreme and vitriolic language that will continue to coarsen and corrupt our public life. Violence may very well become commonplace.
To prevent this possible future, we need a more elevated public life in America. This cannot come from government. It starts with us practicing and demanding better of — not just our public officials, but our media sources, our institutions in civil society, and each other as well. How do we become better citizens and engage in a new era of civic renewal? That is the focus of this essay series.