Commentary Magazine


For the Love of Country

“The era of big government is over,” President Clinton announced in his State of the Union address in January 1995, responding to the mandate of the people as expressed in the newly elected Republican Congress. That statement has proved to be so patently false—look only at Clinton’s proposals for educational reforms, which would enhance rather than diminish the role of government—that one may overlook how misleading it is in another respect. For “big government” is a euphemism for the current version of the “welfare state.” And it was this that the American people had rejected.

The welfare state is objectionable not only because it is big government but because it is bad government. The English, who have had more experience with it than we have, call it the “nanny state.” It treats individuals not as adults but as wayward and improvident children who require the constant supervision and protection of their guardians—which is to say, legislators, bureaucrats, social workers. That such a state is inefficient, costly, cumbersome, corrupt are the least of its vices. Its real offense is that it is demeaning and demoralizing to those who come under its not too tender embrace.

In reaction to the welfare state, conservatives, and many liberals as well, are now seeking to restore and revitalize the institutions of civil society—family, community, church, local associations, private enterprises—in the hope that there, in the intimate, personal relations of daily life, individuals will be able to function as free, responsible, moral adults. This is an admirable idea, and one that deserves to be put at the top of the political agenda. It will take, to be sure, a good deal of ingenuity and determination to carry it out. We will, for example, have to go beyond the current strategy of the “devolution” of welfare to the states and devolve it further to civil society, thus making it the ultimate responsibility of families, communities, and charities.

We will also have to divest ourselves of unrealistic expectations about civil society itself. Some families are too dysfunctional to perform the roles assigned to them, or, if not actually dysfunctional, then so weakened by divorce, serial cohabitation, and single-parenthood as to be of little avail in the task ahead. So too, private and communal associations, even many churches, are so permeated by the dominant cultural values that they can hardly serve as paragons of morality and responsibility. It is evidently not enough to revitalize civil society; we have the far more difficult task of remoralizing it.

But there is another problem that the welfare state has bequeathed to us and that civil society—even a rejuvenated civil society—may not be able to solve. The welfare state has not only denigrated individuals. It has denigrated the state itself by reducing it to the role of in loco parentis and obliging it to assume the domestic, “nurturing” tasks of parents and families. It has, in effect, depoliticized the state, deprived it of its unique and essential functions. By the same token, it has de-politicized the citizenry. The citizens of a welfare state are not so much citizens, defined by their membership and activity in a political community, as subjects, wards of the state.

The proponents of civil society, in their eagerness to do away with the nanny state, may run the same risk—of belittling, even delegitimizing, the state itself, and in the process subverting the idea of citizenship. In the new dispensation, the inhabitants of civil society, released from the bondage of the welfare state, will no longer be subjects or dependents. But neither will they be citizens in the classic, political sense of that word. They will simply be inhabitants of civil society—individuals, families, neighbors, parishioners, employees or employers, members of one or another “voluntary association.” As such, they will care for themselves and for one another, for the young, the old, and the infirm; they will provide for their needs and amenities. Unlike the infantilized subjects of the welfare state, they will be adults, with the rights and obligations, the satisfactions and duties, of responsible, moral individuals.

That is all to the good, and infinitely better than our present situation. But it is not enough. For there is another dimension of adulthood lacking here, and that is the political. Aristotle reminds us that man is “born for citizenship”; he is “by nature a political animal.” Not a “social animal,” as this phrase is often mistranslated. It is not in the “household” or in the “village,” Aristotle says, but only in the polis that man is truly human, decisively different from “bees or any other gregarious animals.” Bees and animals, after all, also inhabit households and villages—civil society, as we now say. They provide shelter and sustenance for themselves and their young; they even have social relations and social structures. What they do not have is a polity, a government of laws and institutions by means of which—and only by means of which, Aristotle believed—man consciously, rationally tries to establish a just regime and pursue the good life.

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I may be especially sensitive to this apolitical, even in some instances anti-political, aspect of civil society because I have encountered it before, in quite another context. Decades ago, before politicians and political scientists discovered the virtues of civil society, historians discovered the virtues of social history—“history,” as it has been called, “with the politics left out.”1

This was history “from below,” not the “elitist” history that focuses on great events, great ideas, and great men (or even great women), but the history of ordinary people in their ordinary lives. The subjects of the new history—the poor, women, minorities, blacks—had been omitted or “marginalized” in the old history, it was said, because they played no conspicuous role in politics. To bring them onto center stage and give them starring roles, history itself had to be depoliticized. Thus, where the old history took place primarily in the political arena, the new history focuses on the home, family, community, workplace—in short, on civil society.

The effect of the new history has been not only to depoliticize history but to de-aggrandize it as well, to shift attention from great, public, historic events and personages to the daily lives of the “anonymous masses.” The new historians pride themselves on “de-privileging” the great, restoring the existential reality of life, rescuing ordinary people from “the enormous condescension of history.” One eminent social historian has explained why politics is of little importance:

Have not the vast majority of people in the past thought that where they lived and how they made a living, who [sic] they married, and what happened to their children rather more “basic and significant” than who won the last election?

But is it not a new and more demeaning kind of condescension to assume that the vast majority of people are less interested in “who won the last election” than, say, a Harvard professor, who can somehow manage to be interested in national politics without neglecting his home, career, or family? And is not politics itself—not only the “last election” but the democratic system that sustains and validates elections—of vital importance to the lives of all Americans, and perhaps to “ordinary” people more than to the “elite” because their freedom, rights, opportunities, and even their livelihood are more intimately bound up with the democratic political process?

Some of the enthusiasts for civil society may be falling into the trap of the social historians, of unwittingly disparaging those they respect and giving credibility to those they distrust. One of the unfortunate consequences of the welfare state is that it has exacerbated the anarchic impulse in American society. The bureaucratic bullies of the Left give a semblance of plausibility to terrorists of the Right. Today, more than ever, when there are so many legitimate grievances against government, we cannot afford to delegitimize legitimate government.

Nor can we afford the luxury of being apolitical, of depriving ourselves of the proper resources of government. Indeed, civil society itself requires them, if only to preserve its independence, strengthen its constituent parts, and thus help re-moralize itself. A sensible tax policy could encourage two-parent families, as it currently encourages home ownership. Or divorce laws could be devised to deter the break-up of the family, rather than, as at present, facilitating it. Or the courts could support (as they did for much of our history) the rights of communities to enforce anti-pornography, anti-obscenity, or anti-abortion ordinances. Or, if the courts are recalcitrant, the legislature could act more vigorously to achieve these ends.

What is required, in short, is a delicate balancing act: to discredit and dismantle the welfare state while retaining a healthy respect for the state itself and its institutions. In much the same way, critics of the current administration have the task of exposing the legal and moral corruption of the President and his associates, without detracting from the dignity and legitimacy of the presidency itself—indeed, pursuing the former all the more vigorously in order to preserve the latter.

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But something even more important is at stake in the denigration of the state. “Citizenship,” in discussions of civil society, is all too often reduced to civility and sociability. Good citizens are good neighbors: they attend PTA meetings, donate blood, curb their dogs, are courteous and considerate. These are no mean virtues; in our time, they are very considerable virtues. But they are not the only virtues associated with citizenship. Some virtues—ambition, zeal, energy, venturesomeness, leadership, and heroism—transcend family and community. These are outsized virtues that may only be realized on a national or even international scale. The qualities that make for good neighbors do not necessarily make for great leaders, still less for heroes.

The devaluing of these virtues impoverishes not only society as a whole but also those individuals who do not themselves aspire to them, who make no claim to eminence. Hegel, who is better known for his praise of “world-historical individuals,” nevertheless appreciated the need of ordinary citizens for a spirit that elevates them above their ordinary lives. Civil society, he said (long before Tocqueville popularized the idea), is that “territory of mediation” where people, in addition to satisfying their needs, begin to overcome their “particularity” by experiencing themselves as more than isolated individuals. But only in the state, he insisted, do they truly fulfill themselves and transcend their particularity by being identified with something larger than themselves, with the “Spirit” or “Idea” manifest in the state.

Americans have never been comfortable with terms like “Spirit” or “Idea,” especially as applied to the state. But we do understand and respect the ideas of nationality and patriotism. “Statecraft,” as George Will has memorably put it, is a form of “soulcraft”; it helps shape the character, and hence the soul, of a people. Of a people, not merely of individuals. And not merely the character of a people but its very identity, its sense of nationality and its spirit of patriotism. This, finally, is what we are in danger of losing—and again, today more than ever.

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Paradoxically, the collapse of Communism, so far from invigorating us as a nation triumphant over an “evil empire,” seems to have left us demoralized and purposeless. The absence of any external threat to the country, a welfare state woefully deficient in soulcraft, a multiculturalism that has fragmented society, and a postmodernism that has deconstructed the culture—the combination is proving nearly fatal to our sense of national identity and pride.

Civil society is the least of the culprits in this regard, but it can unwittingly contribute to the same effect. It is natural and commendable for individuals to seek satisfaction in their families and communities, to make these the center of their emotional ties and moral commitments. But to feel completely fulfilled in these roles and entirely identified with them is to lose that larger sense of national identity which comes not from civil society but from the state and the polity. Today, when politics has been so tainted by cynicism and scandal, and when the state itself has been so perverted by the politics of welfare, the retreat to private and communal life is all too understandable. But it would be most unfortunate if it were to deprive the state of the services, the resources, and the loyalties of its citizens, in peacetime and, more urgently, in wartime.

Why compete for national office and take up residence in Washington, if all one’s values and interests are centered on one’s family and community? Why support a strong national defense and a vigorous foreign policy designed to maintain America’s supremacy, if one’s commitments are entirely local? Why, in times of national emergency, take up arms and possibly give one’s life, if one has so tenuous a relationship to the country as a whole—if there is so little sense of a national interest requiring that ultimate sacrifice?

The phrase “little platoon,” coined two centuries ago by Edmund Burke, has become one of the watchwords of civil society. But the context in which that phrase appears is rarely quoted:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country, and to mankind.

And again:

We begin our public affections in our families. . . . We pass on to our neighborhoods and our habitual provincial connections. . . . Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards, by which alone men come to be affected, as with their own concern, in the prosperity of a kingdom. . . .

Civil society, Burke teaches us, is a two-way street. It takes us back to our roots, to our nearest and dearest. But it should also take us forward to our nation and country. Love of country—the expression now sounds almost archaic—is an ennobling sentiment, quite as ennobling as love of family and community. It elevates us, invests our daily life with a larger meaning, dignifies the individual even as it humanizes politics. “Properly understood,” as Tocqueville would have said, civil society should not be the enemy of the state but its ally—an ally not of the welfare state, to be sure, but of a state worthy of our “public affections.”

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Footnotes

1 See my “The ‘New History,’ ” COMMENTARY, January 1975.

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