A Decent Party of Privilege?
Note: This is part of the “Promise of Republicanism” series, which can be found here in its entirety.
I welcome Brink Lindsey’s call for a more “republican” center-right — as I think all Americans should. Since I’m neither a republican nor a Republican, however, my endorsement is that of someone who welcomes the proposal from the outside — and is, I hope, the more persuasive for that.
The kind of republicanism Lindsey advocates — with a small “r,” though with avowed links to the party of that name as Lincoln founded it — stresses virtue and the public good. Now, it’s tempting to throw rocks at both parts of that. The claim that civic virtue is required to bear citizenship’s burdens often, historically (as Rogers Smith documented in Civic Ideals), degenerates into the claim that virtue attaches only to certain groups, who alone are worthy of citizenship’s rights. And talk of the public good, in a complex modern society and polity, all too easily excuses taking the good of one sector or part of society as a proxy for the whole, disparaging the interests and the claims that any attempt to articulate and promote a public or general interest necessarily slights.
Lindsey has anticipated and rebutted such criticisms. He explicitly demands that the republican revival include everyone and that it embrace, rather than trying to slow or reverse, social movements for the equality and dignity of groups formerly or currently left out of the social contract. But to some extent, whether a center-right republicanism can fully navigate these shoals is beside the point. The question is not what the perfect or ideal political philosophy would be, but what we want a plausible, achievable party ideology to look like given that no such ideology will capture every political truth and every legitimate social claim or grievance. Given that: Even if a republican philosophy might be less capable of dealing fully with questions of power and pluralism than I would like, it probably represents the most viable prospect we have of producing what might be called a decent party of privilege.
The rich, as it were, we will always have with us. More generally, there will always be people who feel that they do fairly well out of existing arrangements and are therefore inclined to keep them largely as they are. No amount of progressive education and agitation will change that. Just as those who have the fewest resources and lowest status in any society are very likely to resent the institutions that left them in that position, those who have plenty of resources and high status are very likely to affirm them. (I remember some time ago a piece in Dissent claiming that in a just world, while the party of the left would call for an out-and-out classless society, the party of the right would be Rawlsian, devoted to arguing that certain, limited departures from perfect equality could be justified as the source of incentives whose effects would ultimately benefit the least well off. That kind of right is just not going to happen. The comfortable will always form a party that seeks to preserve more privilege than that. And if a Rawlsian program were ever enacted, many of the least-advantaged would soon become privileged enough to consider joining such a party.)
The question is in what mode the privileged will affirm existing institutions. In an unadorned mode, a coalition of the privileged would advocate preserving those privileges because, well, who wouldn’t? In practice, of course, arguments for privilege are never quite that crass. (Even fascists argue not from their strength but from their alleged peril, from the threat posed by communists and/or by races that manage to be both inferior and nearly omnipotent.) But rationalizations are always at hand, whether cultural-conservative (as with the Whit Stillman character’s only-half-ironic argument that the “urban haute bourgeois,” or UHBs, play the essential role of upholding essential if small bits of civilization like detachable collars), populist (the people criticizing privilege are not “really the people,” not to be counted alongside the proper, national group whose claims the state ought to heed), or, perhaps most durably appealing though not especially intellectually reputable, meritocratic (those who are doing well must have been, somehow, those who worked hardest).
Lindsey’s obtrusively inclusive republicanism — captured though hardly exhausted by the slogan, “we’re all in this together” — suggests an entirely different approach. It suggests that privileges are justified only if they’re shared, with economic benefits and opportunities broadly diffused and if necessary diluted. It evokes the one-nation conservatism embodied in Britain by Disraeli, Macmillan, Heath, and (more dubiously and less effectively) May. From this perspective, republicanism’s relative blindness towards the reality of social interests is a feature, not a bug. If the goal is to incorporate into a party system the interests of the most-well-off while ennobling or broadening the way in which those interests are pursued, a party devoted to a public good, however elusive that is to define, may be by far the least bad of the likely alternatives. The function of the public good is not to actually exist but to orient and civilize the goals of people who would otherwise favor only themselves and those like themselves.
If all this sounds very un-American, aristocratic, and British (or, until, recently, Canadian, though so-called Red Tories up north are now endangered), Lindsey’s mention of Lincoln, and his references backwards to the “original principles of the American republic,” suggest another parallel that is probably more appropriate to revolutionary regimes. Most such regimes, e.g., those in France and Latin America, periodically contain parties that either call themselves “Radical” or are commonly classified by political scientists as such. Radical in this sense signifies attachment not to future revolutions but to past ones: This kind of radical wants not to tear society up by the roots but to return the polity to the purity of its roots. Such parties appeal largely to the middle class; stress work, personal and civic responsibility, and community, but not in the extreme and alarmist ways fascists do; call for a society that does not need acute class conflict because all have adequate rights and opportunities; and hearken back to the values of the country’s revolution and the virtues of those who fought it. (Lincoln saw himself as continuing and perfecting the American founding. In perhaps history’s most useful fiction, he portrayed the founders’ egalitarian aspirations as implicitly including African-Americans. Nowadays, even more usefully but less fictively, one can — and Lindsey does — instead appeal to the paradigm of Lincoln himself.)
Arendt praised French Radicals for their inclusion, secularism, and opposition to bigotry; she angrily corrected those who called Clemenceau a liberal, feeling that only a Radical, not a (market-oriented, individualist) liberal, would have been so vigorous in defense of Dreyfus. On the other hand, Raymond Williams pointed out that all Radical parties have sat towards the right of the political spectrum. Radicals — again, in the neo-revolutionary/civic sense — uphold the politics of equal citizenship rather than that of social equality and fundamental structural change, and their stress on the public good makes them somewhat suspicious of mass movements, whose members often denounce existing structures for neglecting or demeaning their own interests and rights. Both Arendt’s and Williams’ observations have a lot to them, and we can best understand Radical politics by putting them together. Radicalism conceives itself as embodying the principles of a country’s founding revolution, while espousing a politics that may not actually extend to everyone the coverage of those principles. It is partial and partisan in spite of itself. But this, again, suits the ideology of a decent center-right that embodies, in a fairly honorable way, a part of the political spectrum rather than the whole.
Circumstances of sportsmanship
Those who study the conditions for countries’ becoming, and remaining, democratic, often stress what I have labeled democratic sportsmanship: most simply (though it can get complicated), a willingness to accept a loss. As Nancy Rosenblum has pointed out, it is unrealistic to expect the strongest version of this, in which each party’s supporters fight for it more or less ironically, realizing that their own party embodies only part of the truth and that the polity is better off for the presence, and power, of other parties. Surely this is not how most actual partisans will ever think. But a weaker version of sportsmanship is both viable and necessary. Even if those supporting a side want it, simply, to win, and are convinced that it always ought to, they may have enough sense of the opposition’s legitimacy that they refuse to do what it would take to prevent that opposition from ever winning again. It’s not whether you think the other side ever deserves to win but whether you think it should be allowed to win.
Many (including me) have stressed the subjective conditions of having this attitude: for instance, a sense of humility, and a refusal to make politics one’s only social allegiance and source of ultimate meaning. But there are objective conditions as well. One can easily bear letting the other side win only if the consequences of its victory are likely, in fact, to be bearable. Here words may matter less than the concrete realities. Calls for magnanimity in victory — for “civility,” tolerance, and so on — are of course welcome (and we rightly miss such magnanimity when it’s absent). But more consequential is the substance of the goal that the other side is pursuing and stands to enact if it wins.
A republican right, should we be lucky enough to get one, may not be vigorous in rooting out social injustice, privilege, and lack of opportunity. And it will probably to some degree denigrate, label as unrepresentative or ungrateful, those calling on government to do so. But the degree of this disregard and disdain will be muted. A party that sees itself as pursuing an inclusive public good will be, at least in principle, open to critique and correction. A republican right would, like Burke — though not for his reasons — treat mass dissent as an indication of real grievances, not as a sign that the enemies of the nation are strong and must be crushed. For these and many other reasons a republican right, unlike some other sorts, would seem to the left a decent and legitimate competitor: in the traditional distinction that Lindsey also draws, a rival or opponent rather than an enemy.
The decent right and the rational left
Though this essay is not about the left — either as a party or as an ideology — a decent right would help it stay on track as well. Consider markets on the one hand and constitutional authority on the other.
One doubts that self-styled “democratic socialists” like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez want to abolish market exchange altogether. Their practical proposals are mostly social-democratic, not socialist. But under the bidding pressure of trying to appeal exclusively to progressives by stressing market failures, public goods, and social needs that markets cannot promote, left politicians can make it sound as if they do not value any business activity or respect the profit motive. Ever-more uncompromising and emotional attacks on market forces in health and education aren’t always balanced by defenses of markets in other realms. A kleptocratic and unprincipled right, which regards markets as a tool of power and privilege and employs arbitrary tariffs and other interventions as the proper reward for loyal political service, does little to discourage this tendency (and much to cement the impression that every market is “rigged”). But a right made up of, say, principled ordoliberals— or something slightly more conservative than that — would remind the center-left to compete for the mantle of the party that can make a certain version of the market economy work for everyone, as the right would be clearly claiming and striving to do. A Rawlsian right may be a fantasy, but a Rawlsian left is not. A republican right might help cement it.
Constitutional authority is a similar case. Partisans naturally and legitimately focus on winning, victory being the only way to achieve policy outcomes that they regard as intensely important. But on a larger level, each party must also feel attachment to the rules of the game (though it’s not a game). While each party’s voters stand to gain more if their own party wins than if the other does, all parties’ voters in the long run gain much more from a peaceful, impersonal mechanism for choosing the winner and constraining the consequences of victory than they can through a few victories that, by flouting the rules in either elections or governance, endanger the other side’s attachment to those mechanisms. For such reasons, as I’ve argued elsewhere, every polity needs constitutional authority: common arrangements for determining both the rightful holders of power and particular limits on the exercise of power. And social diversity and a plurality of ways of life are not opposed to but require this sense of impersonal, constitutional authority. Absent such a sense, we will struggle to legitimate power without appealing to an allegedly common ideology, religion, or tribe. A republican right that appealed to constitutional authority, rather than to the uglier kinds, would durably provoke the left into doing the same — into articulating an account (somewhat different from the right’s account) of why both their actions when in office and those of their opponents are entitled to the acquiescence of voters who fervently oppose them on substance. The right was the first to employ on a mass scale the dangerous, legitimacy-questioning chant, “not my President” (applied to Obama). The left, alas, has aped it and applied it to Trump. May they both climb down; but the right must climb down first.
Democracy involves power. A political campaign is — whatever else it is — a competition to win more of it than the other side has, and to use the state’s coercive force in the pursuit of ends that the other side does not fully share. Decency lives in the adverbs: how one intends to exercise power, within what constraints, with what underlying attitudes. The right we have now operates with all the wrong adverbs. A republican right would more properly modify the verbs of power and would help ensure that the left would do the same.
Andrew Sabl teaches political theory at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics (both Princeton University Press) as well as “Liberalism Beyond Markets” for the Niskanen Center.