Thursday, March 23, 2023

The State of Liberal Democracy In America

Language is a nuanced thing.  Too often, readers will gloss over terminology without stopping to dissect it.  This kind of passive reading is deceptively expedient and ultimately detrimental to a capacity to learn on a deeper level.  Words and phraseology should always be studied and questioned if our goal is to grow as thinkers.

When we examine the term "liberal democracy," what we find is a blatant contradiction.  Liberalism, as it is commonly understood, stresses the primacy of the individual over the collective.  Democracy, conversely, connotes a collective.  How, then, could these two seemingly antithetical ideas coincide in a way that makes sense?  For decades, America (and Great Britain to a comparable degree) has possessed the unique capability of synthesizing the two.  When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, what he found was a people who cherished liberty and individual freedom while also recognizing the importance of civic participation and association.  This balance, however, has proven to be quite precarious.

Since the 1960s or thereabouts, Americans have begun to embrace a dangerous ideology that is seriously harming the well-being of our democracy: libertarianism.  Libertarianism, in excess, has a deleterious effect on what Robert Putnam commonly refers to as "social capital."  Putnam hypothesizes that social capital, which facilitates norms of trust and togetherness, is an integral part of robust democracy.  It is when individuals cease to recognize the importance of togetherness that we, as a nation, fall. 

In effect, what we have today is a surplus of liberalism, in the classical sense, and a serious deficit in participatory democracy.  Americans today are spoiled by options and choice.  They can work remotely, browse Netflix for hours on end, play videogames, and effectively opt out of real-world interaction.  Though this is, unquestionably, convenient (especially in the era of COVID), it has brutal repercussions.  How can America properly function as a democracy if its inhabitants are introverted, asocial housecats (to borrow a phrase from Owen Benjamin)?

What America needs is a return to 1950s-style communitarianism.  Liberals, and even a great deal of neocons, will of course call this a reactionary idea.  What, though, is reactionary about prosperity?  Nineteen-fifties America was civically bonded in a way that is unthinkable today.  That is not to say, however, that there wasn't significant illiberalism in the form of racial segregation.  It should go without saying that I am not a proponent of returning to that aspect of American society.  Rather, I am arguing for the return of religious institutions and voluntary associations.  The restoration of grassroots, bottom-up civic society, not the state, is my prescription to the problem of mass civic disengagement and unfettered libertarian ideology.  In short, America must return to the Tocquevillian ideal. 

This blog post was originally published in American Thinker


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