Looking for America
This website’s purpose and how I came to it
Many discouraging observations can be made about Americans, some of them clearer than truth: French observers have called us les grands enfants. The late American historian Louis Hartz rued our “vast and almost charming innocence of mind.” Those are two of the nicer assessments. Although millions of us behave more encouragingly than that every day, often in distinctively “American” ways that I assess on this website, this is no time to congratulate ourselves or, alternatively, to consign ourselves to history’s dustbin by writing pre-mortems for the 2024 election.
The work presented on this website affirms — against mounting evidence to the contrary — that there has been and still can be an American, civic-republican culture that’s “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free,” as the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized it — a culture that’s capable of transcending “woke” corporate neoliberalism. authoritarian state capitalism, right-wing, nationalist revanchism, Marxoid totalitarianism, and post-modernist escapism. Those follies are responses to global economic, technological, climatic, migratory, and other riptides that no ideology can control. Yet, owing to accidents of history, including a paradoxical confluence of faith, political philosophy, fakery, and force, Americans “have all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty,” as the philosopher George Santayana noted. “To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career.”
The ascent of Donald Trump and of Trumpism has made many of us doubt and even despair of “American” virtues that we’d taken for granted or had dedicated ourselves to upholding. I doubted Americans’ capabilities along those lines soon after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, in “It’s Not Only a Constitutional Crisis, It’s a Civic Implosion,” a little essay for Bill Moyers’ website that you can read later on this website’s section, “A Sleeper Sampler.” I had doubted us even more deeply before anyone even imagined that Trump would run for the presidency and that tens of millions of Americans would have become credulous and cankered enough to elect him. “Jim Sleeper is the Jonathan Edwards of American civic culture – and that’s a compliment,” tweeted The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg in 2014 about my Salon essay “We, the People, are Violent and Filled with Rage,” written to assess, in Jeremiadic terms, the civic-cultural damage of the 2008 financial crisis and the run of public massacres, including in Oklahoma City in 1995, Columbine in 1998, and Sandy Hook in 2012.
Hertzberg’s reference to Edwards, the formidable, 18th-century Puritan theologian and public “thought leader”, has been fortuitous, and not only because the damage I’ve just mentioned is accelerating: I grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a small town settled by Puritans in 1644, just six miles north of the spot where, in 1741, Edwards would preach his (in)famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Some of my Longmeadow public school classmates were direct descendants of the town’s Puritan founders. A few of my teachers seemed to have been writhing in Edwards’ congregation when he preached. Whenever they looked at me in school, I felt them looking into me, partly for a particular reason.
That residually Calvinist, “Yankee” discipline converged with two other cultural currents in my upbringing, inclining me ever since to look out for and into civic-republican society’s ups and downs. The Calvinist current drew upon an older, Hebraic, Old Testament one, of law and prophecy, that was my inheritance as a grandson of four Lithuanian Jewish immigrant grandparents and that was deepened in my extracurricular but intensive exposure to it. Neither of those two currents disappeared when I entered Yale College in 1965 and learned that it had been founded by Puritans who’d put a Hebrew approximation of “Light and Truth” on its seal and envisioned it as a “school of prophets.” As if that weren’t enough, Kingman Brewster, Jr., Yale’s president during my undergraduate years and a lineal descendant of the minister on the Puritan Pilgrims’ ship The Mayflower, had been born in Longmeadow.
I wrote about the town in 1986 in a Boston Globe column for my 25th high school reunion, and in 2004 I assessed Brewster’s civic-republican legacy, whose remnants I’d encountered (and embodied?) in the last of the “old,” white-male Yale. (You can read those essays later on this website’s section, “Liberal Education and Leadership.”)
Beyond Calvinism and Hebraism, a third cultural current surfaced at around the time I turned 30, in 1977. Like many other New Englanders before me, I carried some of the region’s civic and moral presumptions (conceits? innocent hopes?) to New York City, although not to literary Manhattan but to “inner city” Brooklyn, where I ran an activist weekly newspaper before bicycling across the Brooklyn Bridge every day to work as a speechwriter for City Council President Carol Bellamy. By 1982, I was writing for The Village Voice, Dissent, Commonweal and other political magazines. From 1988 to 1995, I was an editor and columnist for the daily newspapers New York Newsday and The New York Daily News.
In 1987, my essay “Boodling, Bigotry, and Cosmopolitanism” sketched New York’s changing political culture for a special issue of Dissent magazine that I edited and that was re-published as In Search of New York. The “Boodling” essay was re-published yet again in Empire City, a Columbia University Press anthology of 400 years of writing about the city, edited by the historian Kenneth Jackson and the master-teacher David Dunbar.
In 1990, W.W. Norton published my The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York. The book was a tormented love letter to the city. It sparked public debate in and beyond New York. After 1999, while continuing to live in the city and writing many of the pieces referenced and linked on this site, I taught Yale undergraduates for two decades in political science seminars — “New Conceptions of American National Identity” and “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”
In the late 1970s I embraced, and I still affirm, a democratic-socialist politics that, unlike Stalinism and orthodox Marxism, had a distinctively American, civic-republican orientation that rejects Communists’ opportunistic (ab)uses of civil liberties, civil rights, and democracy. Democratic socialism in the 1970s steered fairly clear of the racially essentialist “identity politics” that many of its adepts now wrongly embrace by fantasizing about “Black liberation” and its analogues as cats’ paws of an advancing Revolution. If you sample my offerings in the section “Why a Skin Color isn’t a Culture or a Politics,” you’ll encounter my conviction that although ethno-racial identities are inevitable and sometimes enriching, they’ll never be wellsprings of social hope in America unless they’re transcended by all of us as participants in a thicker civic culture and citizens of a larger republic, if not of the world. Precisely because The United States is more complex racially, ethnically, religiously, and otherwise than most “multicultural” categorizing comprehends, we need to be working overtime to identify and, yes, instill, certain shared civic and moral premises and practices that I discuss in many of the pieces on this website.
Beginning in the 1990s and ever since, I’ve taken strong public stands against ethno-racialist evasions of the civic-republican mission. In 1991 I wrote a rather harsh assessment of leftist identity politics for Tikkun magazine that was re-published in Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, edited by Paul Berman. I refined and, dare I say, elevated the argument in civic-republican terms in a 1996 Harper’s magazine essay, “Toward an End of Blackness,” that identified the emptiness of American blackness and whiteness as vessels of social hope. I summarized and updated the argument again in 2021, in a Commonweal essay, “Scrapping the Color Code.” (You can find all of the essays on race that I’ve just mentioned in this website’s section on race, “Why Skin Color Isn’t Culture or Politics.”) I’ve published a lot more along these lines and debated in many public forums, some of them linked in the Commonweal essay and elsewhere on this site. (My two books on the subject are The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream (1997).
Some of this work sparked resentment among activists and academics on the left and among journalists and other writers across the political spectrum. I accused some of them of betraying a civic-republican ethos and creed that’s under assault by capitalist, neoliberal, and even radical-racialist forces, the most dangerous of them white-supremacy, but others of them unconstructively “woke” or more subtly, seductively commercial. Some of my criticisms of writers who’ve ridden these currents have been gratuitously cruel, even when accurate.
Civic-republican strengths and susceptibilities
Although many Americans behaved admirably, even heroically, on 9/11 and in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, what matters to a republic’s survival are the little things people do daily, when no one’s looking and no digital tracking device, cellphone camera, or journalist is recording them. Essential though a republic’s wealth and military power are to its strength, they can become parasitical on it pretty quickly when people are feelings stressed, dispossessed, and susceptible to simplistic explanations. Neither a booming economy nor massive firepower can ensure a republic’s vitality, especially when “prosperity” and power are dissolving civic-republican norms and practices.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against this in his Farewell Address in 1960, condemning what he called a “military-industrial” complex. (An early draft of his address, well-known to historians, called the danger a “military-industrial-academic” complex.) Hardly a radical leftist or rightist inveighing against capitalism or a deep state, Ike was a decent, heartland American from Kansas who’d gotten to know the military-industrial-academic complex from within as its supreme warmaker and then as Columbia University’s president.
Even more than Eisenhower’s warning or Jonathan Edwards’ and Hebrew prophets’ denunciations, developments since 9/11 have convinced me that Americans who’ve become accustomed to think well of themselves would be better off convicting themselves of their complicity in democracy’s decline. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon claimed that “a slow and secret poison” had worked its way into the vitals of ancient Rome’s republic, distorting and draining its virtues and beliefs. In our own time, faster-acting, glaringly public poisons have been working their way into our republic. Yet most Americans, “liberal” or “conservative,” have been ingesting and pushing them without naming or countering them honestly.
One may insist that whatever is driving Americans’ increasing resort to force, fraud and mistrust comes from human nature itself. The republic’s founders understood that argument in Calvinist terms and also from reading Gibbon’s semi-pagan assessment of human history as “little more than a record of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” They tried to devise a republican system of self-government that “doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections and gives an order to our individual strivings,” as one of their legatees, John McCain, put it two and a half centuries later in one of his last addresses to Senate colleagues.
Assessed by these lights, Trump (who cruelly disparaged McCain) is only the most prominent carrier and pusher of imperfections and poisons that the founders knew were already in us — even in those of us who deny that we’re carriers and pushers. Even Barack Obama reinforced our “vast and almost charming innocence of mind” in 2008 by staging a year-long equivalent of a religious revival rally for the civic-republican faith across partisan, ideological, and ethno-racial lines. But he wasn’t only a performance artist; he embodied and radiated distinctively American strengths that fascinate people the world over — not our wealth and power or our technological affinities, which are often brutally or seductively unfair, but our professed commitment to a classless egalitarianism that inclines any American to say “Hi” to a stranger instead of “Heil!” to a dictator; to give that stranger a fair chance; to be optimistic and forward-looking; and, from those collective and personal strengths, to take a shot at the moon.
I don’t think that the American republic is sliding irreversibly into Nazi-style fascism, as some on the left fear and some on the alt-right hope, or that it will succumb to leftist totalitarian socialism. More likely is an accelerating dissolution of the civic-republican way of life that Daniel Aaron, who was a mentor of mine, called “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” That subtle balance of divergent qualities and of the trust and comity they engender is being routed by the global undercurrents that I’ve also mentioned -– economic, technological/communicative, climatic/migratory, and demographic/cultural –- that are sluicing force, fraud, and mistrust into our public and private lives. A bare majority of us are holding on to common ground.
Looking across the tracks. Illustration by Philip Toolin, a film art director/production designer who’s been doing this since he was 15.
In his foreboding 1941 prophecy, What Mein Kampf Means for America, Francis Hackett, a literary editor of The New Republic, warned that people who feel disrespected and dispossessed are easy prey for demagogic orchestrations of “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and, out of these three elements, a counterfeit reality to which there was a violent, instinctive response. For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fiction as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.”
Edward Gibbon and Jonathan Edwards would have recognized that condition in us now. Yet its causes and subtleties often escape the notice of journalists who are busy chasing “current events” without enough historical and moral grounding to contextualize them within the “undercurrent events” that are driving upheavals and horrors around us and within us. I have a thing or two to say about that myopic side of American journalism (and I have some experiences to share) in this website’s sections on “News Media, Chattering Classes, and a Phantom Public” and on “Scoops and Revelations.”
The undercurrent events that many journalists mishandle aren’t malevolent, militarized conspiracies; they’re civically mindless, commercial intrusions into our public and private lives that derange our employment options, public conversations, and daily aspirations and habits. They do this by bypassing our hearts and minds relentlessly, 24/7, on their way to our lower viscera and our wallets, to attract eyeballs and maximize the profits of swirling whorls of shareholders. These commercial riptides incentivize (and brainwash?) many Americans to behave as narrowly self-interested investors and as impulse-buying consumers, not as citizens of a republic who restrain their immediate self-interest at times to enhance the public interests of a “commonwealth.” That word remains on our legal documents and pediments, but we’re losing its meaning, along with its “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free” ethos.
Decay and Renewal
Imagine a former auto worker, a white man in his mid-50s whose $30-an-hour job and its benefits were replaced a decade ago by a job stocking shelves at Wal-Mart for less than half the pay and who has lost his home because he accepted a predatory mortgage scam of the kind that prompted the 2008 financial and political near-meltdown. Imagine that he winds up here:
Illustration by Philip Toolin
“When the people give way,” warned John Adams (a graduate of the then-still residually Calvinist Harvard College and a self-avowed admirer of Hebrews) in 1774, “their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour…. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”
In 1787, Alexander Hamilton, urging ratification of the Constitution, wrote that history seemed to have destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government through reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
In 1975, two centuries after James Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and others designed the republic with dry-eyed wisdom about its vulnerabilities, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt worried that “Madison Avenue tactics under the name of public relations have been permitted to invade our political life.” She characterized the then-recently exposed Pentagon Papers, which confirmed the Vietnam War’s duplicity and folly, as an example of the invasion of political life by public relations, of Madison by Madison Avenue – that is, of efforts to separate its public promises of a democratic victory in Vietnam from realities on the ground, until, finally, the official words lost their meaning and, without them, the deeds became more starkly brutal.
What many Americans should have learned from that debacle, and what I’ve been learning ever since, reinforces Oliver Goldsmith’s warning, in 1777: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates and men decay.” A wealthy society may decay and implode not only because its prosperity isn’t distributed fairly but also because it’s only material and therefore weak against profit-maximizing engines such as Rupert Murdoch’s media, which prey upon the susceptibilities and resentments of stressed, dispossessed people such as the former auto worker and the Uber driver. If the manipulative engines aren’t stopped, they’ll grope, goose, titillate, intimidate, track, indebt, stupefy and regiment people, many of whom will crave easy escapes in bread-and-circus entertainments like those of Rome in its decline. They’ll join mobs that demand to be lied to with simplistic story lines that tell them who to blame for their pains and who to follow to fix them.
Perhaps with Gibbon’s slow and secret poison in mind, Alexis de Tocqueville described “the slow and quiet action of society upon itself” in the little daily interactions that matter as much as the high moments of national decision. Writing Democracy in America in 1835, he marveled, perhaps wishfully, at an American individualism that seemed willing to cooperate with others to achieve goods in common that individualism couldn’t achieve on its own:
“The citizen of the United States is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety….This habit may even be traced in the schools of the rising generation, where the children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established…. The same spirit pervades every act of social life. If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of the public is hindered, the neighbors immediately constitute a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to an authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned.”
This civic-republican disposition — to give the other person a fair chance and to back her up as she tries, to deliberate rationally with her about shared purposes, and to reach and to keep binding commitments — relies on the elusive balance of civic values, virtues and body language that’s ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free. You see it in a team sport whenever a player closes in on the action not to show off but to back up a teammate and help him score. You see it in how people in a contentious meeting extend trust cannily to potential adversaries in ways that elicit trust in return.
You used to see it even on Capitol Hill, as I did in 1968, while interning for my western Massachusetts Republican Congressman, Silvio O. Conte:
Or maybe you don’t see civic grace like that so often these days. Maybe backbiting, road rage, and the degradation of public space and cyberspace are prompting quiet heartache and withdrawal as trust in other people slips out of our public lives. Without the balance that I’m sketching here and elsewhere on this website, the United States won’t survive as a republic amid the undercurrent events I’ve mentioned.
Civic-republican grace in writing and public life
Finding a better description of civic republicanism than I’ve offered here would require harder analysis and reportage, but also more poetry, faith and, sometimes even a little fakery. You can develop an ear and an eye for it, and maybe a voice for it. I’ve been following American civic republican culture’s ebbs and flows since around 1970, when I was 23, but really since World War II, because I was born two years after the war’s end and grew up in a civic culture that seemed more triumphant and coherent than it actually was or ever had been.
Some of the writing collected here records my and others’ growing disillusionment. For me, a lot of it began as journalism, “the first rough draft of history” if a journalist has some grounding in history and isn’t just chasing “breaking news.” Whenever the chattering classes make cicada-like rackets over the latest Big Thing, I’ve tried to assess that noise in its historical and other contexts, remembering Emerson’s admonition “that a popgun is [only] a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.”
Contextualizing current events this way sometimes yields scoops and insights that others have missed. (See the “Scoops and Other Revelations” Section for a sampler of what I’ve found.) Some of those pieces spotlight fissures and fragilities in the republican experiment, and some assail public leaders and journalists who I believed had lost their civic-republican lenses and standards, along with virtues and beliefs necessary to wise reporting. (See also “Leaders and Misleaders”)
If I were to resume writing a regular column, I’d call it “Somebodyhaddasayit,” because some my work has prompted people to tell me that they were glad that I’d written what they, too, had been thinking but were reluctant to say. Somebody really did need to say it, even when saying it made enemies not only among the “villains” but also, as George Orwell lamented, among editors and other writers who cancel honest speech that might embarrass them. “Saying it’ requires not only sound judgment and tact, but also, sometimes, courage.
Editorial writer and editor at New York Newsday, 1992
Sometimes I’ve defended people who bear the American republican spirit bravely against daunting odds. One of these pieces began in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library in 2006, when I was looking for some family background on Ned Lamont, who was making a Democratic primary bid for the Connecticut U.S. Senate seat of Joe Lieberman, in protest against Lieberman’s unbending support for the Iraq War. I ended up writing not about Ned Lamont himself but about a long-forgotten uncle of his, Thomas W. Lamont II, whose young life and supreme sacrifice in World War II seemed a fata morgana, a fading mirage, of the American republic and of the citizenship that we’re losing, not at its obvious enemies’ hands but at our own. (See the essay “Duty Bound” on this website’s section, “A Civic Republican Primer.”)
Being an American like Tommy Lamont is an art and a discipline. You can’t just run civic grace up a flagpole and salute it, but neither should you snark it down as merely a bourgeois mystification of oppressive social relations. When the Vietnam War’s brutality and folly were at their worst and official words had lost their credibility and official deeds had become more murderous, the perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas urged protestors “not to burn the American flag but to wash it.” I took his point, and I work with it. Americans who consider themselves too sophisticated for that strike me as naïve.
I wouldn’t call my writing “nationalist” or “conservative,” but more than a little of it has been motivated by my and others’ American, civic-republican patriotism. I’ve written often for left-of-center sites and journals, challenging much of what’s called “conservative” in American life. But a civic-republican compass points rightward sometimes, and I’ve written once or twice in right-of-center venues to condemn racialist “identity politics” and ethno-racial banner-waving that too often passes for progressive politics even when it only compounds a racial essentialism that fuels white superracist politics as much as black-power politics.
Although American national identity was developed self-critically — and sometimes hypocritically –in universal, secular Enlightenment terms, ultimately it relies on something akin to religious faith, even though it doesn’t impose any particular religious doctrine. Living with that paradox requires skill and empathy, as some leftist activists learned while swaying and singing with black-church folk against armed white men in the American South. But precisely because the country is so diverse religiously, racially, and culturally, it needs to generate common civic standards and lenses, with help from newly potent (and therefore always “mythic”) civic narratives. We don’t refuse to ride horses because they’re strong enough to kill us; we learn to break them in. Some liberals need to learn something similar about religion and patriotism.
How (and How Not) to Think About Left and Right
Both left and right in American life offer distinctive truths that are indispensable to governing ourselves by reflection and choice, rather than by accident, force, and fraud. The left understands that without public provision of common supports in a village that raises the child, the family and spiritual values that conservatives cherish cannot flourish. But the right understands that unless a society also generates and honors protects irreducibly individual autonomy and conscience, even the best-intentioned social engineering may reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse. Each side often clings to its own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong.
The consequent damage to the public sphere can’t be undone by clinging to the left-vs.-right floor plan that I mentioned at the outset. Analysis and organizing against socio-economic inequities are indispensable, but insufficient. That’s equally true of conservative affirmations of communal and religious values that bow too quickly to accumulated wealth that, as Oliver Goldsmith noted, disrupts and dissolves values and bonds that conservatives claim to cherish. (See this website’s sections, “Folly on the Left” and “Conservative Contradictions.”)
Ever since Madison helped to craft a Constitution to channel and deflect such factions, the republic has needed an open, circulating elite – not a caste or an aristocracy — of “disinterested” leaders whose private or special needs don’t stop them from looking out for the public and its potential to govern itself by reflection and choice. When John McCain voted in 2017 against repealing Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, he admonished Senate colleagues to “learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us…Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments, and how corruptible human nature can be, the problem solving our system does make possible…and the liberty and justice it preserves, is a magnificent achievement…. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’”
Maybe McCain had a good speechwriter, but he also believed what he was saying, even though he hadn’t always lived up to it. (See the section, “Leaders and Misleaders”.) Another flawed but sincere legatee of the founders’ Constitutional project was New York Mayor Ed Koch, whom I assailed for years until I got to know him a little better.
Many Americans still do uphold that civic-republican promise as moderators of candidates’ debates; as umpires in youth sporting leagues; as participants in street demonstrations; as board members who aren’t afraid to say, “Now wait a minute, let me make sure that we all understand what this proposal is based on and what it entails;” or as jurors who quiet the ethno-racial voices in their own and fellow-jurors’ heads to join in finding the truth. Truth is a process as much as it’s a conclusion. It emerges not from radical pronouncements of the general will or from ecclesiastical doctrines but provisionally, from the trust-building processes of deliberative democracy. “[A]nyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to,” Brewster wrote. “If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others.” In politics, unlike science, the vitality of truth-seeking matters as much as the findings.
At any historical moment, one side’s claims may seem liberating against the other side’s dominant conventions and cant: In the 1930s, Orwell sought liberation in democratic-socialist movements against ascendant fascist powers, and his sympathy remained with workers, but sometimes that required him to oppose workers’ self-proclaimed champions, especially Stalinists, as well as their capitalist exploiters. As I wrote, Orwell “never forgot that both left and right tend to get stuck in their imagined upswings against concentrated power and to disappoint in the end: The left’s almost willful mis-readings of human nature make it falter in swift, deep currents of nationalism and religion, caught between denying their importance and surrendering to them abjectly and hypocritically as the Soviets did by touting ‘Socialism in One Country’ while preaching Marxism as a secular eschatology.”
The balance to hold out for against ideologues is like that of a person striding on both a left foot and a right one without needing to notice that, at any instant, all of the body’s weight is on only one foot as the other swings forward and upward in the desired direction. What matters is that the balance enables the stride. Again, it requires both a “left foot” of social equality and provision – without which the individuality and the communal bonds that conservatives claim to cherish couldn’t flourish – and a “right foot” of irreducibly personal responsibility and autonomy, without which any leftist social provision or engineering would reduce persons to passive clients, cogs, cannon fodder, or worse.
A balanced stride can be upset by differences among individuals and divisions within every individual’s human heart between sociable and selfish inclinations. A strong republic anticipates such imbalances by sustaining an evolving consensus, without ceding ground to hatred and violence. It remains vigilant against concentrations of power because it knows how to extend trust in ways that elicit trust and reward it in return. Being ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free requires acting on virtues and beliefs that armies alone can’t defend and that wealth can’t buy. Ultimately and ironically, a republic’s or democracy’s strength lies in the very vulnerability that comes with extending trust. “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In common place terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger,” Brewster wrote, in a passage that is now the epitaph on his grave in New Haven.
Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, presenting herself not only as a black woman demanding vindication against racism but also as a decent, American working Everywoman, damning no one but defending her rights. Presenting herself that way, she lifted the civil society up instead of trashing it as irredeemably racist.
Civic grace like that is heroic, and rare. But after forty years of tracking American civic culture’s ups and downs, I believe that, ultimately, it’s all that we have.