30 April 2012

The secret origin of political polarization

On the strength of James Kalb's review in the May American Conservative, Jeffrey Bell's book The Case for Polarized Politics delivers less than it promises. Bell appears less interested in vindicating the two-party system, a prerequisite for polarized politics, than in explaining Why America Needs Social Conservatism, which we must infer to be the essential ingredient for polarization. It seems likely that Bell simply accepts polarization as the consequence of that social conservatism he deems vital, or that where social conservatism flourishes, polarization is inevitable. According to Kalb, Bell regards social conservatism as an aspect of American exceptionalism. The author contends that no other country has the sort of social conservatism the U.S. enjoys -- or endures. Bell blames this on history. Because the American Revolutionaries had an easier time of it -- they didn't have as long a struggle with "blood elites and religious authorities," -- they embraced what Bell calls the "conservative Enlightenment" while the rest of the West adopted a "left Enlightenment." I'll let Kalb explain the difference.

Like all political expressions of the Enlightenment, [the conservative Enlightenment] emphasized equality; unlike the left Enlightenment that has won in most of the West, it based itself on God and natural law. That feature made it conservative in some ways but radical in others. It limited the demands of equality by tying them to traditional religious and moral conceptions, but also made them far more specific and peremptory. Since it viewed rights as readily knowable and established by God, it saw them as immediately applicable to daily life and not subject to political review.

The opposing movement, the left Enlightenment, believed that equality and other rights arise out of human progress rather than divine law....Emancipation, therefore, means progressive overpowering of social authorities....for the left Enlightenment the lack of self-evident answers rooted in the nature of things makes decisive leadership and an elite vanguard necessary.

The key to Bell's history is the assumption that whatever religious establishment America had circa 1776 did not oppose the Revolution and thus didn't drive enlightened radicals in an anticlerical direction. On a related note, the lack of a powerful Loyalist establishment (in retrospect) meant that enlightened Americans never had to turn toward conspiratorial vanguardism -- though the Revolution of 1776 and the Founding of 1787 could just as well be seen as vanguards at work. Bell's most questionable premise is that the "conservative Enlightenment's" reliance on God and natural law made it more pluralistic, innovative and "trusting [of] ordinary people," while the left Enlightenment encouraged a "paternalistic [system of] command and control" based on the special, exclusive wisdom of vanguards. In this reading, the left Enlightenment becomes a kind of gnosticism while the conservative Enlightenment, grounded in the easily availability of divine revelation, becomes a kind of priesthood of all believers.

Kalb isn't quite as enthusiastic about the conservative Enlightenment as Bell. Kalb raises the objection that tribalism, implicitly present in America as elsewhere, "destroys social trust and makes the conservative Enlightenment unworkable." While Kalb wants to blame this on immigration, you could just as easily blame nativism for the flaw. In general, Kalb doesn't seem as keen on pluralism, individualism or egalitarianism as Bell. Here's Kalb's critique of American conservative weakness:

Social conservatism seems unable to develop stable, articulate, and effective elites and even undercuts them through the insistent concrete egalitarianism Bell praises. Without such elites, however, it suffers from the populist inability to maintain stable and articulate principles or effective tactics and strategy.

In other words, Kalb isn't as keen on anti-vanguardism as Bell is, either. We tend to think of vanguards as characteristic of radicalism, but Kalb reminds us that conservative regimes may depend on vanguards -- and probably have through history -- as well. In addition, Kalb isn't as confident as Bell about the accessibility of conservative Enlightenment. Kalb observes that while American religious leaders may not have stood in the way of  conservative Enlightenment, "major religious thinkers have generally not been adherents" of it, either. Less optimistically, Kalb argues that "it is hard to explain from general principles why conservative Enlightenment positions are correct or why they imply socially desirable results." He blames this on the current absence of "an intellectually satisfying understanding of God and natural law that yields liberty, equality, and the pursuit of self-defined happiness as the central principles of politics, and also yields conservative results on social issues." Kalb closes his review with the claim that "some basic change is needed in the understandings on which our politics are based that gives us more substantial goods to aim at." He might take his own advice by considering the other sort of "social" relations: those between wealth brackets and inside the workplace. It seems absurd for Bell or Kalb to argue about the evolution of leftism or conservatism without taking into account the demands made by the industrial working classes or their (often self-appointed) spokesmen. It seems self-evidently fallacious to argue that "social conservatism" in the sense shared by author and critic -- we don't expect "social conservatives" to talk about labor issues nowadays -- is the force that determines political polarization in the U.S., whether you find that a good thing or not. Bell and Kalb seem to belong to the Ivory Tower Enlightenment; they take abstract ideas -- not to mention divine revelations -- too seriously for their own good.

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