In recent weeks, I’ve been undertaking a much-belated crash course in Roger Scruton’s political writings. I am currently working my way through How to Be a Conservative (Continuum, 2017), and would recommend it almost without qualification (except for his discussions of religion and its relation to secular law–perhaps more about that anon). Particularly helpful, however, is his discussion of what in my view is the great issue of contemporary politics and political theory, long sidelined and only belatedly getting the attention it desperately needs: the question of identity.
This, of course, is also the question that Hazony’s Virtue of Nationalism put back at the center of the agenda, and which makes that book essential reading even if you are convinced that nationalism is a big bad scary bogeyman. As Bill Galston put it crisply and memorably at a Hudson Institute book launch discussion with Hazony and Walter Russell Mead, “There’s an important distinction between the conditions necessary for sustaining a political order and the conditions necessary for legitimating a political order. Your contention is that too much of contemporary political theory is fixated on the latter, and you want to draw our attention back to the former” (I paraphrase from memory, mind you). This is not, perhaps, quite right, because I think that in fact legitimacy is a key part of what is at stake in this refocus on political identity: legitimate institutions, after all, as O’Donovan points out, cannot be merely formally legitimate, but have to be recognized as legitimate. And recognition requires representation. And representation of a body politic requires, well, a body politic. Thus the question of identity.
Scruton (whose thought on this and related subjects is startlingly reminiscent of O’Donovan’s) articulates the connection with remarkable clarity in How to Be a Conservative. The central problem of modern politics (or perhaps for any politics that aspires to human freedom), Scruton notes, is how to secure room for disagreement without crippling the capacity for common action. We must rule by majority rather than unanimity, because unanimity is rarely available, but while still inviting and encouraging minority dissent as the way to refine and test majority opinion. How?
“In families, people often get together to discuss matters of shared concern. There will be many opinions, conflicting counsels, and even factions. But in a happy family everyone will accept to be bound by the final decision, even if they disagree with it. That is because they have a shared investment in staying together. Something is more important to all of them than their own opinion, and that is the family, the thing whose welfare and future they have come together to discuss. To put it in another way: the family is part of their identity; it is the thing that does not change, as their several opinions alter and conflict. A shared identity takes the sting from disagreement. It is what makes opposition, and therefore rational discussion, possible; and it is the foundation of any way of life in which compromise, rather than dictatorship, is the norm.
“The same is true in politics. Opposition, disagreement, the free expression of dissent and the rule of compromise all presuppose a shared identity. There has to be a first-person plural, a ‘we’, if the many individuals are to stay together, accepting each other’s opinions and desires, regardless of disagreements.”
This is a critical insight–blindingly obvious, perhaps, but no less regularly ignored by our remarkably blind punditry and intelligentsia, who are forever wringing their hands about the decline of civility and the rise of political polarization and proffering various “whodunnit” explanations for this polarization (most of which seem to feature the Koch brothers in some capacity). All the while that they decry this incivility, many of our elites continue busily tunneling away at the foundations of this shared identity, proclaiming “diversity is our strength.” Say what you will about Tucker Carlson, but he had some great observations on this slogan at last year’s National Conservative Conference, pointing out that it may be all well and good to say that diversity is a good thing worth pursuing, or that we are strong enough as a nation that we can embrace diversity more than many nations in the past, but that it makes no sense to say that the diversity itself is the basis of that strength. On the contrary, strength comes from unity, and it is on the basis of that unity that people feel they have strong enough roots to branch out and grapple with diversity. If you know the ground on which you stand, you can afford to lean over further to take another’s hand. If you know that, at the end of the day, you’re stuck with one another, you can afford to have a good shouting match in the middle of the day. To the extent that American politics once favored civility, moderation, and compromise (and it has surely always had its fractures), it was no doubt in large part because representatives of both parties saw themselves as sharing the same history, traditions, and identity:
“The nation state, as we now conceive it, is the by-product of human neighbourliness, shaped by an ‘invisible hand’ from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts, and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbours both to grant each other space and to protect that common territory. It has consciously absorbed and adjusted to the ethnic and religious minorities within its territory, as they in turn have adjusted to the nation state. It depends on localized custom and a shared routine of tolerance. Its law is territorial rather than religious and invokes no source of authority higher than the intangible assets that its people share.
“All those features are strengths, since they feed into an adaptable form of pre-political loyalty. Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance–in something like the way people identify themselves with a family–the politics of compromise will not emerge. We have to take our neighbours seriously, as people with an equal claim to protection, for whom we might be required, in moments of crisis, to face mortal danger. We do this because we believe ourselves to belong together in a shared home.”
Do Americans believe this any more? (Granted, especially given America’s racial past, this belief has never been simple and unproblematic, but the fractures are certainly greater now than they have been in a long time.) Do BLM protestors believe they belong together in the same shared home as Duck Dynasty types? Do Trump voters believe they belong together in the same shared home as Ivy League liberals? Do Christian conservatives believe they belong together in the same shared home as transgender activists? To ask the question this way is to answer it, since, to the extent that we identify ourselves in terms of such categories and causes, we could not possibly belong together. Perhaps, indeed, we have grown so far apart that there is no way that we could; few on the Left see “the country, its territory, and its cultural inheritance” (never mind its broad Protestant religious inheritance that Scruton omits to mention) as something even worth loving or preserving, and many on the Right have responded to this fragmentation by balkanizing themselves into tribal or religious identities.
The conflict over statues has become a vivid case in point of our current crisis, revealing that the markers of our history and symbols of our common identity no longer (or to some extent never did?) symbolize the same history and identity. This conflict is both a symptom and aggravator of our current malaise; as “racial justice” activists express their alienation from our shared home by tearing them down, many conservatives cannot but feel an increasing alienation from the land they once called home. Such mutual alienation explains, of course, our inability to manage the sorts of policy disagreements that are almost sure to arise over a problem as perplexing as coronavirus. A strong family could probably agree on a masking and social distancing policy for a large family gathering, whatever the different instincts and convictions of its members, but a group of mutually distrustful strangers could not.
I will not close with comforting platitudes about how to restore this shared identity, because it is hard to be optimistic; the standard ways that cultures and peoples renew their identity have all been the objects of withering suspicion and deconstruction in recent decades. Perhaps, though, we may take comfort from the prevalence of neighborliness, solidarity, and the sense of shared responsibility that has been–for all the media’s love to focus on conflict–the dominant response to the virus. The anti-maskers and angry protestors may be loudest on social media and spotlighted on TV, but most of what I encounter day-to-day in my community, when I take off the cynicism glasses, is a genuine affection and sense of responsibility for our fellow citizens in the face of a shared challenge that requires us to care for one another. That sense of belonging and mutual responsibility is frayed nearly to the breaking point, but human beings being what they are, it is perhaps more stubborn and durable than we often imagine.