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The Virtues of the Old Establishment

What I miss about [George H. W.] Bush is that, while he had no program, and no principles beyond his bromides about service and patriotism, those bromides contained valuable ideas. Namely, that competence, the public good, and integrity matter, regardless of the party in power or the details of the legislation being debated. That there are rules and expectations of decency, which everybody ought to follow.

This essay for First Things celebrates the virtues of the old establishment.  There are significant things I disagree with in this article, including some of its criticisms of the elder Bush, who any reader of this blog knows I admire.  But I agree with the essays defense of the old civic and patriotic virtues, which I believe I was raised with and was taught in public school and church.

Unfortunately the author diagnoses our current situation-- "our politics has become absurdly high-stakes, even as character has been entirely devalued. There is no room for a politics of character that is not deformed by ideology and partisanship."

But, similar to what I've been writing in the last few months, he believes that a return to these virtues is the only viable path forward, as he concludes:

 But all sides can learn from Bush to set up standards of behavior and decency that cross ideological and party lines. We can treat each other as fellow citizens, even if we have very different political beliefs. We can try to hold all politicians to the same standards. We can build a cross-party understanding of decency. And we could do worse than to start with some bromides about service and patriotism.

There is some truth in this

An argument that Bill Clinton's lying helped pave the way for Trump's lying. "Both men have offered the public the same devil’s bargain. Both have asked their supporters to set aside truth, honor, and decency in exchange for the presidency of the voters’ dreams."  And so this analysis of the campaign:

[Hillary] Clinton chose to campaign against Trump’s character. In her advertisements, she did not focus on offering a better devil’s bargain. She chose to make the plainly absurd case that America needed to put the Clintons in the White House for the sake of integrity, decorum, and respect for vulnerable women.

This pro-Trump view is at least interesting to read

An interview on the Atlantic website with R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things on why he's guardedly optimistic about Trump.  The interview is interesting not just for his views on Trump but on the particulars of our cultural moment and this:

We have to have a welcoming, pro-immigration society that is capable of maintaining social unity. I would argue that you can’t have multi-cultural democracy—there are no multi-cultural democracies. They’re all in states of civil war or parts of empires.

And here is Reno's essay on First Things' website.  

This is not going to be easy. Our political culture is almost entirely captive to the postwar era. The Left advocates an administered, bureaucratic unity, characterized by state-sponsored identity politics and multiculturalism. The Right is captive to free-market ideologies that promise commercial unity organized around maximized self-interest. Neither program can meet the challenges of our time.

Interestingly, he calls for a renewal of virtue and covenant, both themes I've spoken, though from a different worldview.  But one reason I've spoken in these terms is the chance for common ground, that encourages me.

Humility, Sincerity, and Openness


In a six page conclusion to The Religion of Democracy, Kittelstrom surveys the influence of religious liberalism in the 20th century as liberalism became mostly a non-religious ideology (I'm really surprised that King isn't an eighth character for her, but maybe she thinks much has been written about the religious aspects of the Civil Rights Movement?).  She also draws a few conclusions, one was that commercialism ended up being embraced as an expression of freedom and the concerns that Jane Addams developed were eclipsed.

This paragraph nicely summarizes much of the book:

    For Addams, consumerism and the commercial interest were instead drags on freedom, the latest in a long line of determinisms that liberals challenged in defense of moral agency.  John Adams had shied away from dogmatic religion and defied a government based on hereditary privilege rather than the consent of citizens.  Mary Moody Emerson and William Ellery Channing also rejected autocratic government, extending democracy to religion by defending individual moral agency against the foregone conclusions of predestination and innate, total depravity.  Slavery was a deterministic institution, and to a debatable extent so was patriarchy.  After the Civil War, the new determinism of materialism, which William James called scientism, then threatened the free will of individuals with the explanatory power of biology that would make all social change the product of impersonal forces.  James enlisted the power of the imagination, which Channing and the Emersons had already linked to religion, to restore moral agency.  Thomas Davidson faced off against evangelical Christianity and socialism with a democratic deity of individual self-culture, which contested the determinism of class origin and ethnicity with a new social process of interdependent diversities, together producing a higher culture through their interactions.  The fixed idea William Mackintire Salter challenged was the laissez-faire state, which pretended that the custom of not protecting laborers' rights was immutable, a natural law like gravity.  Industrial capitalism also threatened liberty in the experience of Jane Addams, who saw the profit motive as a fixed idea that bore a haphazard relationship with human well-being, given that commercialism's quickest route to appeal was to play on desire, the basic human craving for pleasure.

In a sentence made sad by the recent election campaign, Kittelstrom wrote, "The discrediting of white supremacy may be the most significant parcel of liberal common ground cultivated in the twentieth century."

She does feel that many liberals became self-righteous dogmatists, which abandoned the core principles developed in the 18th century.  "Once liberals became dogmatists, they were no longer pluralists."  Of pluralism she writes:

    Pluralism is a pillar of faith in the religion of democracy.  It is not an easy faith and not suited to most people's minds.  Pluralism takes a step past multiculturalism, which affirms the vitality and preciousness of every human culture.  Pluralism forays beyond countable cultures into infinity, into the unknowable.  It is essentially a religious attitude, whether pluralists avow a faith or not, because it includes an intangible something beyond what anyone already knows, what can be named or quantified.  In this way it is supernatural.  When William James asked his audiences to believe that this is "a democratic universe," he meant one that was both unfinished--infinite--and in need of individual's unique perspective on what is true and good.

And so she concludes the book by advocating a resurgence of the liberal virtues of "humility, sincerity, and openness."


This weekend I finally read the November 21 issue of The New Yorker which included a selection of essays on the Trump election written by a wide variety of authors.  Here are three excerpts I found interesting.

First, a single sentence from Gary Shteyngart who was writing from the perspective of an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.  

Social media in the era of Trump is essentially Leningrad, 1979.

Next, a more hopeful paragraph which concluded Jill Lepore's essay:

    When does an ending begin?  [Frederick] Douglass saw that the end of a republic begins on the day when the heroism of the struggle for equality yields to the cowardice of resentment.  That day has not come.  It is thought by many, lately, and said by some, that the republic as seen its best days, and that it remains for the historian to chronicle the history of its decline and fall.  I disagree.  Sparrows may yet cross the sky.

 The entirety of Hilary Mantel's reflection was interesting, but here is one worthy paragraph in which she tries to answer the question of a stewardess who wondered "who voted for him?"

    No one we know--that's the trouble.  For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, chitchat in every forum going, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust.  On both sides of the ocean the bien-pensants put their fingers in their ears and smiled and bowed at one another, like nodding dogs or painted puppets.  They thought we had outgrown the deadly sins.  They thought we were rational sophisticates who could defer gratification.  They thought they had a majority, and they screened out the roaring from the cages outside their gates, or, if they heard it, they thought they could silence it with, as it may be, a little quantitative easing, a package of special measures.  Primal dreads have gone unacknowledged.  It is not only the crude blustering of the Trump campaign that has poisoned public discourse but the liberals' indulgence of the marginal and the whimsical, the habit of letting lies pass, of ignoring the living truth in favor of grovelling and meaningless apologies to the dead.  So much has become unsayable, as if by not speaking of our grosser aspects we abolish them.  It is a failure of the imagination.  In this election as in any other, no candidate was shining white; politics is not a pursuit for angels.  Yet it doesn't seem much to ask--a world where a woman can live without jumping at shadows, without the crawling apprehension of something nasty constellating over her shoulder [Note: this is a reference to her discussion early in the essay of the way Trump lurked behind Clinton in the second debate.]  Mr. Trump has promised a world where white men and rich men run the world their way, greed fuelled by undaunted ignorance.  He must make good on his promises, for his supporters will soon be hungry.  He, the ambulant id, must nurse his own offspring, and feel their teeth.

Democratized at Heart


With her sixth focal character, Amy Kittelstrom's Religion of Democracy relocates to Chicago, which by the late 19th century was the great industrial city and center of progressive reform.  She focuses in these final two chapters on William Mackintire Salter and Jane Addams.  First Salter.

Two statements of summary:

What he witnessed in Chicago drove him to demand a "new industrial ethics" and a new extension of the reach of the state into the regulation of wages, hours, and conditions as well as a new logical application of the American idea to include workers as real equals in decision making of all kinds.


"The voice of command is never heard among the spirits of the just."  Channing helped Salter point out that the business class needed justification by faith, to be converted to a democratic way of thinking and therefore acting.  This could happen only through the bubbling up of social morality from below until the government above reflected the impartial ideal of American democracy, guaranteeing a positive liberty of universal moral agency.  The liberal politics of moral suasion that had been exercised against drink and slavery now targeted the industrial elite as the body in need of reform.  The historical impact of Salter's efforts cannot be measured, but both the continuity of those efforts with the project of the American Reformation and the novelty of his case for the modern liberal state demonstrate how the liberal Christianity that fostered a culture of lived virtue grew into a religion of democracy that made liberty and equality into practical ideas.

Salter had grown up in the Congregational Church in Burlington, Iowa (which means that he had to have known the founding pastor of my congregation) but eventually left Christianity and was a leader in the Ethical Culture movement, a secular sort of church.  He played a role in the founding of the NAACP and his philosophical work was read by and influenced Gandhi.

One of the joys of Kittelstrom's book is that for each generation she points out who they were reading (an earlier post discussed the influence of the English Romantic poets).  By Salter's time the canon was quite diverse.  Unlike most American Protestants before him, he read and was influenced by Catholic thinkers, like Cardinal Newman.  And he was the first major American scholar of Nietzsche.  His reading of Nietzsche led him to abandon the optimism that had permeated American liberalism.  She summarizes:

In pace of the search for some eternal verity as an ultimate end that could be the basis of universal harmony, the study of Nietzsche led him to think that "in fact there might be end beyond end, the work of organization never being perfect, the completely ordered world remaining forever an ideal.  In that case struggle and competition would ever and anon arise afresh.

Salter believed that government should "strive to give opportunity . . . for every life to become a positive blessing, both to itself and others."  He was worried that industrialization was leading America toward a plutocracy that would destroy our democracy (a worry that doesn't seem to go away).

And like all those before him in this tradition, he emphasized the importance of education for developing the virtues.  "Until men are democratized at heart, the forms of democracy count for little."


An interesting section of this chapter discusses the role of the Chicago World's Fair not only in convening the Parliament of World Religions but a series of intellectual conferences which Kittelstrom says gave birth to modern academia.

"How shall all citizens be best helped to realize their political nature?"


The fifth focal character in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy is Thomas Davidson, with whom I was unfamiliar.  He was a writer and educator of the turn of the last century, a friend of William James, whom she picks as typical of the liberal response to growing industrialization, as Davidson's work included a focus on the working classes. One theme which appears in this chapter and continues in later ones is that American liberals were rarely tempted by socialism even as they developed a progressive response to industrialization. 

By this time the movement was less clearly religious, having grown beyond the confines of New England Congregationalism. Davidson was a Scottish immigrant who had lived and worked in a number of countries, paradigmatic of the growing globalism of liberalism.  But the originally religious impulse that liberty rests upon the development of moral virtue, remained.

Kittelstrom summarizes Davidson's ideas:

he believed that everyone must work out their own operative truths by careful deliberation, that these truths become meaningful when they manifest in practical action, and that the only rule for common morality is love, treating others as impartially and benevolently as a truly good God would.

With Davidson she introduces what she will call the "liberal paradox." 

Liberals were to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe; and by expressing their convictions forthrightly, without regard for reputation. . . . Yet liberals were also to engage in mutual criticism, which meant listening to contrary views and exercising upon them the same analytical powers and discriminating faculties they used to develop their own views.  This often led to more disagreements than agreements, more splintering than unity, and competition between personalities rather than cooperation among them.

Another aspect of the paradox was that while they believed everyone deserved an education and thus they worked to educate all types of people, they also could discuss things in such a refined way that they excluded some of the very people they were trying to include.  She writes that sometimes liberals were talking more to each other than the wider culture.  I think of a similar paradox--the liberal church which greatly values inclusivity and multiculturalism yet is overwhelmingly white, a common occurrence.

In the late 19th century, and in response to industrialization, liberalism began to advocate for more governmental action.  She writes that "Davidson believed that the function of the state was the protection of individual rights and freedom."  Davidson wrote, "How shall all citizens be best helped to realize their political nature, with all that that implies in the way of intelligence, sympathy, and helpfulness?"  The political virtues would also be developed through the state, which is similar to a point Michael Sandel makes near the end of his book Justice.  

On a point relevant to our recent election, Kittelstrom summarizes Davidson:

Since he believed that reaching for perfection was the goal of human life and that the state exists "for no other purpose but to put a stop to the action of the sub-human, Darwinian law of the survival of the strongest and the tyranny of the most cunning," he believed state intervention was justified.

Will on the Carrier Deal

George Will continues the free market critique of Trump's carrier deal with a column entitled "Trump’s Carrier deal is the opposite of conservatism."  An excerpt:

When, speaking at the Carrier plant, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said, “The free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing,” Donald Trump chimed in, “Every time, every time.” When Republican leaders denounce the free market as consistently harmful to Americans, they are repudiating almost everything conservatism has affirmed: Edmund Burke taught that respect for a free society’s spontaneous order would immunize politics from ruinous overreaching — from the hubris of believing that we have the information and power to order society by political willfulness.

Order v. Personality

Evan McMullin makes important points in his op-ed in the NYTimes pointing out the ways Trump is acting like an authoritarian already.  

Mr. Trump’s inconsistencies and provocative proposals are a strategy; they are intended to elevate his importance above all else — and to place him beyond democratic norms, beyond even the Constitution.

This is the wake of Larry Summers' op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing the Carrier deal. 

It seems to me what we have just witnessed is an act of ad hoc deal capitalism and, worse yet, its celebration as a model. As with the air traffic controllers, only a negligible sliver of the economy is involved, but there is huge symbolic value. A principle is being established: It is good for the president to try to figure out what people want and lean on companies to give it to them. Predictability and procedure are less important than getting the right result at the right time. Like Hong Kong, as mainland China increasingly imposes its will, we may have taken a first step toward a kind of reverse transition from rule of law capitalism to ad hoc deal-based capitalism.

One article praising the deal does so for the very reason that Summers (and I) are alarmed by it.

It may be a qualified win, but the Carrier deal suggests that Trump’s promises of greater federal intervention in the economy were not just posturing. It could open the door for Trump to take a much more active role in the economy, not simply through fiscal policy but through direct involvement with specific companies.

All point to an erosion of the norms and traditions of our country.  We must work to conserve what is important in our tradition of order.