Thursday, May 20, 2010

The New Anarchists

Mark Lilla on the "new populism":
Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.
Lilla's essay is fascinating and I highly recommend it. His thesis is that right now the only political movement is a desire for more autonomy. The left focuses on cultural issues like the right of gay people to marry, while the right focuses on economic issues like the right of people to decide how much they will pay to support the government. But the dominant message coming from both sides is that freedom and autonomy are the only goods. Community feeling is nonexistent, party loyalty fading, and even nationalism is often expressed as the desire that other people should just leave us alone.

I tend to agree with Lilla, mostly because I feel these things so clearly in myself. I have no community feeling and no party loyalty, and I hate being told what to do. I am a liberal partly because I share the cultural concerns Lilla describes, and partly because I value, for selfish reasons, common goods like public parks and public transportation. I also think that contemporary American Republicanism is too militant, too nationalistic, too prone to an irrational faith in free markets, and too given to flat-out lying. If I were English, I believe I would have voted Tory in the last election, partly because the Labor government was too interested in "nanny state" experiments like harassing the parents of fat children.

I wonder if we can sustain a robust public sector, providing things that we can all share -- free public schools, cheap public universities, parks, subways -- in a world without strong community loyalties. I think we can. The trick is to convince people that some government actions make everyone better off. When the Interstate highway system was proposed, many conservatives screamed about the unwarranted interference in local affairs. But once people started driving on the new expressways, the opposition vanished. I think we could do the same thing with high speed trains, and I am sure that once the national health insurance system is up and running, most people will learn to love it.

We are a social species, and modern life demands that we work together. I think those basic facts will sustain liberalism despite the intense individualism of our age.

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