Monday, August 22, 2016

Leaving the Cocoon

In The Weekly Standard, I dig into what we can learn from Burke's "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol," a sustained reflection on the importance of intellectual charity:
Identity politics cultivates "blindness of heart" by locking us in narrow categories, but it is not the only entity that might blind us to political realities and our deeper moral obligations. Burke retains skepticism about an ideological approach to politics. Government, he writes, is a "practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians." Recent years have seen increasing public tensions in part because of a divergence of the "schemes of visionary politicians" and the actual desires of the people themselves. For instance, proponents of the European Union thought that their schemes of integration could go forward without a buy-in from the broader body politic. The success of Brexit, the increasing tensions of refugee politics throughout the continent, and the broader nationalist surge are in part due to the divergence of ideology and public will.
And looking forward, whatever the results here in the U.S. in November, conservatives and others would do well to remember these words by Burke: "to criminate and recriminate never yet was the road to reconciliation, in any difference amongst men." If it hopes to avoid an irreparable schism, the right will need to focus on diagnosis rather than castigation.
This loss of faith goes far beyond the electoral interests of the right, however. For those interested in warding off the risk of authoritarianism, re-establishing public trust in democratic institutions is a necessary enterprise. This trust does not mean uncritical obedience, but it does entail an essential faith in the pillars of our republic. Remove that faith, and you open the door to tyranny or at least turmoil. Much could be done to restore that faith, but a key part of this restoration involves the act of having a mutual exchange, of those in power rising to the challenges of the time and collaborating with—rather than looking down on—those they govern. The citizenry of a republic are not simply to be managed, nor are they to be viewed as mere vehicles for the realization of ideological imperatives. Instead, they are agents with their own wants, desires, and beliefs. A serious republican politics recognizes this fact.
In this piece, I build on arguments advanced by Peggy Noonan, Rod Dreher, and others that part of what afflicts our civic conversation is a cocooned leadership class that blindly places its faith in a rigid ideology and unleashes scorn on those who dare to dissent from it.  The knee-jerk response to call those who disagree with current policies bigots, whiners, takers, or some other slam is not healthy for those who hope to maintain a robust civic culture, which is a perquisite for a republic.

Burke says that one of the great tasks of government is listening.  Neither "you'll get nothing--and like it" nor "you rubes never had it so good" exemplify an open ear.  Instead, those in power and those who seek to counsel those in power need to listen to their fellow citizens, inquire into the facts, and advance in a spirit of charity and humility.

For the right, charity and humility will be especially important in the months and years ahead.  Whatever happens in November, there are clearly substantial differences of opinion on the right, and purges--whether pro- or anti-Trump--will likely only worsen the problems facing the right.  As Pete Spiliakos has noted, "purge the voters and prosper" is not a strategy for success in a democratic republic.

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