Much of the sturm und drang of modern politics comes from unspoken but fundamental differences about what government is for. What if someone, an imaginary candidate like me, were to say what those differences are. Would that help? As the lady once said about the power of chicken soup, “It couldn’t hurt.”
The real divide in American politics is not democrat and republican or even liberal and conservative, but libertarian and communitarian. Five years ago I wrote about this elsewhere, but in a nutshell (always a dangerous place because a nut lives there) it comes down to this:
Libertarians see individuality as primary and community as secondary and subordinate to it. Communitarians see community as primary and individuality and secondary and subordinate to it.
The more fervently one is about either, the more intensely the belief that individual or community is fundamental. This morning I happened upon Sam Harris’s blog. He is the notorious atheist, about as libertarian as one could imagine, or at least you might think so. But look what happened when he suggested that community has value even to individuals: The Blog : How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying) : Sam Harris
America swings from one to the other, and like a pendulum, when it gets far to one side it begins to be drawn back to the center, swinging off to the other side and so on, back and forth.
Right now, we are swinging past individuality, toward individualism; that is, toward an ideological belief that the individual is “sacred.” The logical end of this thinking is that community is at best immaterial, but at worst is destructive of individuality, making it virtually “demonic.”
America has succeeded, though, by embracing both. The tension between individual and community is not bad but good, and ultimately healthy. Too much of either is what is really demonic. Half a century ago we were coming out of a time of excessive community, which was the springboard of the beats, the hippies, and the sexual revolution. A half century earlier unions and others fought for social welfare in response to the fabled ‘robber barons.’ Look back and roughly every fifty years we are at the far end of one or the other idea of America.
I believe government exists to preserve the healthy tension between libertarian and communitarian ideas of America. The function of government in a democratic society, therefore, is to mitigate volatility and inequity. Too much of either makes for chaos, too little of either makes for tyranny. And a healthy government will consist of people who may prefer one but recognize the need for both.
This was precisely the reason why we have the Constitution and not the original Articles of Confederation. And we should elect people who understand this tension even as they may prefer one or the other notion.