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Brink Lindsey's essay on small-r republicanism in National Affairs

"This essay is addressed to those conservatives and Republicans, from leaners to stalwarts, whose loyalties to movement and party are now badly strained or even severed," Brink Lindsey writes in his essay "Republicanism for Republicans" (National Affairs, Winter 2019). Strained or severed, that is, because the Republican Party "has been overrun by people or ideas you find repellent. And the things that attracted you in the first place — the intellectual seriousness of the 'party of ideas,' the optimism and idealism, the record of real-world policy accomplishments and skillful statesmanship — don't seem to count for much anymore." He acknowledges the "immense" nature of the project "to reconstruct the American right," given that the Republican Party "is overwhelmingly under the spell of Donald Trump and seems determined to plumb the depths of intellectual and moral self-abasement in the service of a cult of personality."

He wants conservative intellectuals to return to discourse about a small-r republic, "the ideal of political liberty achieved through popular self-government," an ideal which "saw political liberty not as the expression of some spontaneous general will, but as the artifact of constitutional structure: limits on power, checks and balances, and the rule of law." This form of government "rests on the civic virtue of the people, bound together as fellow citizens, who are called upon to uphold the public interest and safeguard it from corruption." Among the "small group of academic philosophers" who are interested in "republicanism as a theoretical alternative to liberalism," he counts Philip Pettit and Robert Taylor, saying that they emphasize "freedom as non-domination."

This kind of conservatism is not the opposite of liberalism; rather, it coexists with liberalism and draws from it. Liberalism, after all, cares about "individualism and the rule of law," and, in his view, it depends on "family, faith, community, and nation," so conservatives should have no argument there. When conservatives abandon certain liberal principles, they produce heinous results. "Among the repugnant lowlights" of conservative sins in today's American politics, he names: "animus against the foreign-born carried to the point of orphaning and caging children; acquiescence in blatant corruption by the president and top officials; mindless trashing of the liberal international order and the global economy; restricting the franchise for some voters rather than insisting it be preserved as the bedrock of a republican form of government and confidently competing for the votes of all Americans; and systematic subversion of the rule of law to stymie investigations of foreign tampering with our elections."

He wants opposing factions to stop demonizing each other, and he aspires to see "that partisan identity once again cuts across demographic and cultural identities instead of politicizing them."

"Republicanism," he says, "begins with love and unity: the patriotic love of country, a love that unites all of us regardless of party. However much we may differ from one another, however many distinctions we draw among ourselves in a modern, sprawling, pluralistic society, there is one thing that binds all Americans together as moral and civic equals: the res publica, or commonwealth, under whose laws we all live and within whose institutions we can all participate to make those laws better." In this, I see echoes of Mark Lilla and Ross Douthat. Lindsey says he'd like to see patriotism, "a fundamental moral passion of the right," recast "in civic rather than ethnocentric terms." Republicanism would distinguish itself from the left in its "support for a stout national defense" and its "valorization of the nation's protectors in the military and police."

A few issues here.

In today's United States, citizens are not, in fact, defending democracy. Corruption is unchecked and the public interest is not being served. A political theory may say that citizens ought to do better, but since in fact they are doing poorly, the political theory needs to have a realistic account of that and a pragmatic response to it if the theory intends to be relevant and useful.

He acknowledges that current events represent the country's "darkest impulses," and that "the Trump presidency is not a freak accident, but rather the culmination of developments that have been corrupting the conservative movement and the Republican Party for many years." What I'd like to see is acknowledgment that these dark impulses belong not just to humanity nor even to something particular to the American self-concept (though surely that is true), but that they belong to the conservative movement and the Republican Party, as that is the political house that was corrupted here, and therefore that special ownership for causing and fixing the problem lies with conservatives and Republicans. In one instance, he blames "the left" for its "open-borders cosmopolitanism and outright hostility to nationalism of any kind and American exceptionalism in particular," saying that such advocacy pushes the right toward its reactionary "conflation of patriotism and white identity politics." It is certain that warring political factions indeed fan the flames of their rhetoric when responding to each other's arguments, but pointing out that phenomenon is often intended to blame one's own intemperance on the other side. In this article, it would be nice if that observation were followed by a suggestion about how conservatives could please stop practicing white identity politics regardless of their anxiety about something they heard someone else say about borders and imperialism. He says "a republican movement on the right" could "criticize ethno-nationalism as fundamentally unpatriotic and unfaithful to American exceptionalism." OK, but it seems that movement does not exist yet, so, meanwhile, why can't conservatives simply stop endorsing white supremacy? Why does a highly academic movement need to arise from ivory tower mist and tell them how to behave according to their own alleged principles? Why can't they just stop being racist if they are not racist?

He does say — and he makes this central to his argument — that many white Christians on the right are guilty of "utterly poisonous" rhetoric. He wants "to resist populist ethno-nationalism in the name of genuine conservatism." The problem I have is that he does not explain exactly where this poison comes from. He deems it "deeply un-conservative," a judgment that could function as an excuse for intellectual conservatism to avoid fully reckoning with how it arose within the conservative movement in the first place. If these ideas are not attached by strings to conservatism, why do the bearers of these ideas call themselves conservatives? He begins to blame the terminology of the conservative movement where he says: "under contemporary conditions, the language of conservatism pulls its users naturally and almost irresistibly toward the ethnocentrism and dark divisiveness..." This is at once reassuring (since he is assigning some responsibility to conservatism) and alarming (since it isn't obvious to me what is worth saving about conservatism if the very words that describe it seduce people toward evil). He is a little more specific when he says that language meant to argue against progress, in a social context where the progress being discussed is the civil rights of oppressed groups, "slips all too easily into a defense of the status quo by the traditionally dominant groups." Yes, that is true. He also suggests that today's conservatism uses "divisive culture-war theatrics to mobilize support" because it isn't actually "helping real people to improve their lives in tangible ways," which is to say, if the movement would just talk more and do more about jobs and other material concerns, maybe white people would be more curious and less angry and would channel their energies toward productive conversations and lose interest in being racist. Maybe. But I wonder why white people don't already lose interest in being racist and go forth and have their own more productive political conversations about jobs and other things they care about.

The argument to me sounds like, if only white conservatives would understand what they actually believed, and if only they would stop feeling antagonized whenever they hear a dissent or challenge such that they jump into endorsing some hostile position that they don't actually believe. My concern is that they do actually believe the things they say they believe.

An article like this written by someone who wants a political movement that "cuts across demographic and cultural identities" should also explain why Black people and people of color should want to be in a movement that not only tolerates but indeed draws its lifeblood from white people who are difficult and whose ideas are frankly dangerous to them. These are people who (the author argues) need a counter-movement or revival to indirectly nudge them to stop being racist. Black people and people of color aren't responsible for teaching white people how not to be racist (nor for coming up with gentle paternalistic techniques to persuade or trick them into not being racist in a way that does not require conscious effort from the white people, nor even indeed for waiting around for them to suddenly stop being racist), but then, if they're not part of the new small-r republicanism counter-movement, it will be just another white conservative movement that lacks diversity.

This particular failure is set up in part by the chosen audience for the article: those disaffected Republicans who newly feel "politically homeless." How many non-white Republicans stuck around after the Republican Party's positions during the 1960s civil rights movement? Who are the Republicans of color who found the party appealing for the last fifty years, yet find Trump (OK, maybe George W. Bush) the last straw, but not that much of a last straw that they aren't willing to immediately return as long as all the Trump supporters smile and say sorry and briskly wash their hands? Some can surely be found, but not many. Not enough to Make the Republican Party Diverse Again. What this article needs, then, to succeed in its visionary agenda of rebuilding a conservative movement is to reach out to potential new converts to conservatism and explain what conservatism has to offer them and why the people they'd be hanging out with are not dangerous or obnoxious to them because the new improved old-guard white Republicans who are now new small-r republicans have already done their Amazing Grace (and then some, we hope), all on their own. The movement has to be demographically diverse from the beginning. It can't just be the same white people declaring themselves reformed because they asserted a New Year's Resolution to be slightly less racist and who are then wondering why people of color haven't yet shown up to their party. This is going to take a while. Yes, the Republican Party may face its "day of reckoning," but two years into the Trump administration that hasn't happened yet, and meanwhile vulnerable Americans (and people the world over) are still being targeted, damaged, and alienated, so the bloodshed needs to stop before anyone wants to reckon in a cheerful, fraternizing way with that party or people who were recently in that party. To put it another way: Any discussion of apology, repentance, and reconciliation includes not just the offender's change of heart, not just the offender's changed behavior toward other people going forward, but apology and restitution to their previous victims, which includes being sensitive to the needs and wants of the people to whom they would make apology and restitution, and the possibility that the victims may choose not to forgive or may move forward in their own ways. The "reckoning" is not just an inventory, reclassification, and housecleaning of one's own ideas but a reckoning with other people who are affected. The way to make a political party that "cuts across demographic and cultural identities" is to actually include people of other identities by actually listening to them and adjusting your positions in response to their needs.

Any revisionist narrative that says A great wind blew the MAGA hat up in the air and it accidentally landed on my blond head and stayed stuck there for a couple decades, but now I've decided to take it off, and now I think the sun and rain will grow brown-haired people from the ground in my front yard and they are going to want to hang out with me and collaborate politically with me and with the institutions I like is missing the part about the apology and rectification. All the people involved have agency. Certain things were done, and real work will have to be done to begin to fix it. There is no reason to treat the offense with kid gloves. Treat the offenders with civility so that they are able to participate in the dialogue, yes, but be honest with them about what they need to change.

"White identity" concerns are toxic and cause real damage, so it is important not to use language that is too accommodating toward them. Here is an example where I called out that language in a New York Magazine article by Andrew Sullivan.

An important note about sex/sexuality/gender: When he says that republicanism could "embrace traditional values" (whatever those are — this is a mysterious comment within an article that previously claimed to reject "excuse-making for sexism, [and] demonization of homosexuality"). He cautions: "Those values must truly reflect the broad contemporary moral consensus as opposed to a particular, sectarian conception of the good." This seems to up-end everything else he says in the article. In the article overall, he says that revolutionary small-r republican academics should teach ordinary Americans how to identify and speak better about their true values, but, in this sentence, he says that republicanism can accept some bigotry as long as it's popular bigotry ("the broad contemporary moral consensus") and not elitist bigotry ("a particular, sectarian conception of the good"). Not sure why there would be separate rules for sex and gender topics (where popular bigotry is allowed) and race topics (where he expects values to be more principled).

Lastly, his call for the "valorization" of soldiers and cops seems out of sync with his main point that conservatives today are far too excitable over MAGA-hat jingoism and that they need to tone it down and be more sober and intellectual over material concerns in their day-to-day lives. It is one thing to appreciate the role of soldiers and police, and another to deliberately develop hero-worship. I also don't think that this is enough substance to distinguish right from left. If right and left make peace with each other and can more productively discuss civic issues of mutual concern, such that their only difference is who is attracted to a valorization cult of men in uniform, that relatively shallow rah-rah team spirit (or resistance thereto) will start to pull them apart into dysfunctional factions all over again.

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