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Solidarity in America

Solidarity in America

Dear Reader —

When a young French aristocrat arrived in Jacksonian America in the 1830s with the ostensible purpose of studying the American prison system, he was impressed by the democratic character he encountered there. The citizens of that still-new Republic, Alexis de Tocqueville thought, evinced a winsome combination of self-reliance and a propensity to form associations of all kinds — churches, schools, clubs, neighborhood and professional organizations — which, by drawing the individual out of the private sphere into a civil society distinct from government, tempered the excesses of both individualism and the state.

Yet, Tocqueville also perceived a latent danger: Left unchecked, individualism could wind up undermining liberalism. By treating the human person as an isolated and fully autonomous agent unaccountable to others, individualism could vitiate those institutions needed to mediate between the citizen and state. Lacking the resources needed to address social problems, atomized individuals would look to government, as children look to parents, for help and protection. The result? The expansion of federal power and the retreat of liberty. 

In this, Tocqueville presaged the crisis of democracy characteristic of our own times, said Joshua Mitchell at a recent event at the American Enterprise Institute titled “Christian Political Principles in the Age of Trump.” Tocqueville’s insight, Mitchell thinks, was to see that excessive governmental control over individuals is not the contrary of individualism, but its natural expression. Statism and radical individualism are two superficially opposed symptoms of the same underlying disease: the breakdown of that civic culture famously described in Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” 

The event, co-sponsored by the Thomistic Institute and AEI’s Values & Capitalism initiative, featured remarks by First Things editor R.R. Reno, followed by a panel moderated by Baylor University’s Elizabeth Corey and featuring Mitchell, a professor of political theory at Georgetown University, and George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

In his remarks, Reno followed Tocqueville in arguing that we are facing a breakdown of the communal bonds needed for a flourishing civic life, particularly the family. It is true that the federal government has grown in size and scope. But the fundamental problem with American democracy today is not that we suffer from want of liberty; rather we suffer from rampant individualism. Statism, Reno emphasized in Tocquevillean manner, emerges from atomization. Put in Catholic terms, ours is a crisis of “solidarity,” not freedom.

According to Reno, American conservatives have long emphasized a different principle of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity, the idea that political decisions should be made by those at the lowest levels, wherever possible. This highlighted a commonality between Christian political thought and the libertarian critique of federal power —  which was important, even necessary, at a certain point in time. But it also tended to put freedom of the individual over community. The rise of populism signals that this “era of conservatism is over.” Different political moments demand different emphases, and ours demands solidarity more than subsidiarity. 

What does this mean politically? In a move redolent of the distributism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Reno advocates restoring private property to the middle class — calling this “the most important” political project today — and encouraging family formation. To do so, he insists, we must not be afraid to wield the power of government.

In his response, Weigel expressed more than a little skepticism about this proposal. Citing recent religious liberties issues — in particular, the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate — Weigel argued that the federal government is more apt to hurt than help. Moreover, he pointed out that the principle of subsidiarity is essential to Christian political thought, with firm roots in the New Testament. To look to government to redress our social, cultural, and religious problems is to risk pitting this principle against solidarity.

Reno is right to chide those who see no positive role for government (even if only to empower state and local institutions and communities). And he is right to stress the sometimes corrosive effects of individualism, both social and economic. But in our era of rising nationalism and bureaucratic power, Weigel’s skepticism is surely warranted, too.

How can we revitalize solidarity today? And what role, if any, should the federal government play? These questions go well beyond internecine disputes among American conservatives and Christians, cutting to the heart of our political crisis today. Reno offers a salutary reminder that without an adequate conception of political community to counterbalance the forces of diffusion — a new metaphysics of democracy — more dangerous, ersatz forms of solidarity will rush in to fill the void. 

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

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy 


Public Unions Are Violating Workers’ Constitutional Rights. Jacob Huebert asserts that the upcoming Supreme Court case is about the First Amendment, not whether public-sector unions are good or bad. 

5 Facts About Trump’s Infrastructure Plan. The bipartisan group No Labels breaks it down in our pages.

Congress, Follow the White House’s Lead on CFPB Reform. Daniel Press praises the administration’s efforts to rein in the controversial agency.

The Already Forgotten Trump Budget. James C. Capretta argues that the proposal is glaringly disconnected from political and fiscal reality.

The Next Step Toward Universal Health Care. Stephen D. Schear contends that pursuing public health-insurance options at the state level is the best move for those seeking single-payer coverage. 

Veterans Deserve Easier Access to Their Medications. In RealClearHealth, Chad Souers calls for reforming the military prescription drug system. 

What Do Would-Be Governors Have to Say About Education? Frederick M. Hess and Sofia Gallo spotlight policy priorities of this year’s gubernatorial candidates. 

America’s Dangerous Foreign Mineral Dependence. In RealClearEnergy, Matthew Kandrach asserts that an increasing reliance on imported minerals and metals needed to make electric cars and other consumer goods carries economic risk. 

America Needs NAFTA to Maintain Energy Dominance. Also in RealClearEnergy, Richard D. Kauzlarich makes his case.

Net Neutrality Would Make the Internet More Expensive. Julian Adorney takes issue with a legislative push to resurrect the internet regulations.

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