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What Makes a Country?

What Makes a Country?
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Dear Reader —

What makes our country a country? What is it that constitutes our distinctively American political community? Recent events have thrust the question violently back onto the national stage. It is perhaps the political question of our time — one to which neither party currently provides an adequate answer. 

For decades, both parties have embraced a negative view of freedom — freedom from rather than freedom for. Thus Democrats have tended to identify freedom with unconstrained choice in the social and moral spheres, while Republicans have tended to identify freedom with unconstrained choice in the economic sphere. But neither has been especially clear about what common good, if any, these freedoms are meant to serve.

It’s no surprise, then, that we have lately seen countervailing trends on both sides. On the Left, the unifying goal of expelling allegedly offensive speech and behavior from the public square seems increasingly to trump First Amendment freedoms. On the Right, populist nationalism seems increasingly to trump economic liberty. While these trends understandably seek to fill in the hollows left by a one-sided view of freedom, they are ultimately particularistic and become coercive when they attempt to impose their visions on the country as a whole. Both, in other words, fail to offer a genuinely shared conception of political community within which freedom can flourish. 

This difficulty dates back to the earliest days of our country’s history, when the federalists sought to replace the Articles of Confederation with a more robust political architecture. Thus the Constitution was an expression of the principles of a political community in which freedom and pluralism were constitutive elements. The precarious nature of the Framers’ achievement became evident when our republic was nearly torn apart by civil war less than a century later. One of the many virtues that made Abraham Lincoln among our greatest presidents was his capacity to articulate what it was that unified our country — beyond even our constitutional patrimony — at a time of unprecedented and violent division.

We are not in the midst of civil war. But we are nevertheless in need of a similarly unifying vision — one that is confident enough to preserve our many and sometimes irreconcilable differences while also denouncing racism and bigotry as incompatible with that vision. To adapt a phrase from moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — Abraham Lincoln.

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


The Liberal Case Against Identity Politics. Vox’s Sean Illing interviews Mark Lilla about a new book in which he argues that liberalism must abandon identity politics.

No, Jobs Won’t Solve Racism. Also in Vox, Dylan Matthews takes issue with President Trump’s claim that more economic opportunities will improve race relations.

The ACLU Needs to Rethink Free Speech. In The New York Times, K-Sue Park criticizes the organization for defending white nationalists.

Coal Subsidies: America’s Worst Idea? In our own pages, William Murray takes issue with a new proposal from West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Shifting Regulatory Power to States Won’t Help. In The Conversation, Michael A. Livermore maintains that federalism is the wrong approach to environmental regulation.

A Plan to Rein in the Administrative State. James R. Copland & Rafael Mangual make their case in National Review.

The Decline of Big Labor. In RealClearPolicy, Stephen Lusk suggests a failed effort to unionize a Nissan plant in Mississippi illustrates why workers are increasingly opposed to unionization.

How to Break Silicon Valley’s Anti-Free-Speech Monopoly. Also for National Review, Jeremy Carl makes a case for regulating companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter as public utilizes.

This Law Could Make or Break High-Capacity Magazine Bans. Also in our pages, Matthew Larosiere contends a new California gun law offers the Supreme Court the chance to clarify whether such laws violate the Second Amendment.

The “Alt-Right” Aren’t on the Right. In The Federalist, Connor Mighell argues that “identity politics, of any stripe” is incompatible with conservatism.

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