Losing Political Community
We are a political community that denies we are a community. It is time we recover this lost sense of politics that emphasizes flourishing and the common good.
The United States is not a real political community.
Now, one might read the headline of this piece and scoff, as it is clearly hyperbolic, yet, the core of the message is a serious one: American individualism has destroyed the common good and our sense of community. It presents a problem that postliberals have been attempting to solve, realizing the dangers of separating from one another and existing only to serve ourselves.
For our nation’s history we have always prided ourselves on one thing: our “freedom.” It is true that this freedom which we championed changed its character throughout history, but in terms of government this “freedom” has manifested itself in a particular way. Negative freedom such as freedom of speech and the right to bear arms turned into positive freedoms such as having a “right to healthcare.”
Our definition of freedom for the majority of American history, however, is some kind of release from coercive force and the liberty of individual will. This is most evident in our Constitution and Declaration. That same liberal spirit survives today on the left and the right. Our liberal roots have been our making, and will be our downfall.
With this understanding of freedom in mind, the traditional definition of a political community does not share any commonalities with the United States’ governmental structure and ethos. The governing ethics of the United States are actually anti-political, and therefore, since man is a “political animal,” anti-human.
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Greek philosophy posited a definition of political community through the lens of “the city.” According to Aristotle in the Politics, everything about the city is aimed at some telos, or a higher purpose and end. Man is by nature a political animal in the sense that he naturally forms communities and needs them to pursue the ultimate human good, achieving eudaimonia, or happiness and flourishing. The city exists to enable what he describes as the fundamental human activity: the exercise of reason according to virtue. He also makes clear that humans need the city to live a full human life, and that a life without the city is incomplete.
Successful civilizations have a higher purpose and are united in achieving their end. A good Athenian to Pericles was one that served the imperial ambition. A good spartan was one that revered the laws of the land as their rigid instruction book for life. Both state and civil society existed in harmony, fundamentally intertwined on a principled level and breeding good citizens and societies. The private and the public were not recognized as separate but connected and symbiotic. In the United States, the public-private distinction is something sacred and the role of government is seen not to create a public life through law and custom but to allow the most private freedom without infringing on rights.
The United States is a Lockean republic. Nearly every stereotypically American value can be summed up with various formulations of “stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours.” It is a republic largely founded on individualism as an ideal and that the best life of a man is one who can do as he pleases as long as he stays out of his neighbor’s business, as long as he is not violating someone else’s rights to life, liberty, and property.
The American state is an anti-society. Its structure is more akin to an economic zone than an Aristotelian city. This observation of America turning into an “economic zone” is often made, but rarely is it said that it was always an economic zone in its founding principles. Obviously, America is a “political community” in a literal sense, but a very superficial one. It tries to leave community formation to voluntary individuals, but in the process vacates the city’s responsibility to facilitate community actively through good law and custom. In other words, we are a political community that denies we are a community. It is time we recover this lost sense of politics that emphasizes flourishing and the common good.
If the United States is not a proper political community, and political community is required for humans to achieve flourishing, then how can we ever hope as a nation to be united in a shared virtuous goal? The only times America has been truly united has been in reaction to something, including our War of Independence and September 11, 2001.
A proper country is one that has this symbiotic relationship between citizen and state, each actively participating in the other’s life for the common good. The United States’s governing ethos is very prejudiced against any action of the state that may be coercive, even if that action would help citizens pursue virtue.
America is more like the European Union than we care to admit: an economic zone that ensures protection of rights from foreign threats. There is, unfortunately, little interest in our country today to preserve or enforce any semblance of proper political community. In the long run, though, we can see that , truly, in John Adams' words, “Our constitution was made only for moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Good “cities” understand that private actions have public consequences. The virtue of our neighbor is our business. This is the nature of politics simplified: getting involved in each other’s business to varying degrees. Our current emphasis on individual liberty and an aversion to conformity impede the development of genuine political community.
This nation is in need of a massive reframing in how it views politics. Politics is not just about securing your right to be left alone. It is the opposite. Politics is coming together as a community and deciding how we are going to pursue flourishing. It is high time Americans started being nosier about what their neighbors are up to. Not in an overbearing way, but one that reflects our shared care for one another — and that is not a difficult place to start. Politics must be an avenue for us to achieve the highest goods together, not separating ourselves into lanes which we stumble along the path to virtue, unsure of our direction.
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