The Enlightenment And The Constitution

Among a number of depressing discoveries I made during two-plus decades of university teaching was the fact that most of my students had never heard of the Enlightenment.

I know, I know–that was just one of many deficiencies students brought to a class on law and public policy…so why do I consider that particular deficit to be especially depressing? Because–as I have repeatedly explained on this site– Enlightenment philosophy caused a significant shift in human understanding. Its philosophers introduced what has become the prevalent–although certainly not universal–worldview of modern  civilization. The Enlightenment introduced western civilizations to science and empirical inquiry, posited the existence of human rights and challenged/toppled belief in the divine right of kings, among many other things.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of MAGA Republicanism is its wholesale rejection of that Enlightenment worldview. There are several theories about the appeal of MAGA partisanship (I can’t dignify MAGA by suggesting it’s a philosophy–it isn’t. It’s a visceral, tribal scream…)–certainly, racism is a huge factor. But so is a primal fear of modernity, a rejection of the secular civilization that grew out of the Enlightenment.

As I’ve recently written, I tend to see much of today’s political turmoil as a fight between Puritan fundamentalism and Enlightenment modernity, so I was interested in a New York Times book review by Emily Bazelon some months back titled “Speaking Truth to Both Right and Left.” The review focused on two books, one of which–Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge— I’d read. (The other, by George Packer, remains on my “eventual” list…)

Packer and Rauch are here to defend the liberalism of the Enlightenment — equality and scientific rationality in an unapologetically Western-tradition sense. They see this belief system as the country’s great and unifying strength, and they’re worried about its future.

I worry alongside them. A lot.

Packer expresses his deep fear that Americans have lost the “art” of self-government.

He means, with credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, “not just rights, laws and institutions, but what free people do together, the habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs.” Self-government depends on trust, “which we’ve lost.”

The review notes that Packer’s lens is economic.

He ties his thesis about Americans’ loss of the art of self-government to the inequality that he has covered extensively and intimately in his career as a journalist. “If I had to put it in a single sentence,” he writes, “I would say: Inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” He recognizes that “racism is in our marrow, and enough Americans either celebrate or tolerate this evil that it came within a whisker of gaining a lasting hold on power.” (He’s talking about Trump, though he would recognize that racism has in fact gained such a hold in other ways and times.)

Bazelon outlines what she calls Packer’s “biting” critique of the Left, and ties it to abandonment of the Enlightenment framework and the Left’s focus on subjectivity and “psychological trauma caused by speech and texts.”

Rauch addresses the Enlightenment basis of America’s Constitution more directly.

Rauch’s subject, in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” is the building of human understanding. He takes us on a historical tour of how a range of thinkers (Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, Mill, Hume, Popper) sought truth, came to embrace uncertainty, learned to test hypotheses and created scientific communities. He is astute about the institutional support and gatekeeping that sustains “the reality-based community of science and journalism.” Social media platforms are bad at this because their profits are built on stoking users’ existing rage and spreading lies faster than truth. This is not a new critique, but it’s nice to see Rauch weave it into his larger project.

Rauch describes the danger posed by Rightwing trolling and disinformation, but–like Packer–he also recognizes and criticizes the excesses of the left.

He blames it for cancel culture, defined as firing or ostracizing people for stray comments or social-media posts (some awful, some awkward, some expressing mainstream-until-yesterday views). He writes at helpful length about the difference between criticizing and canceling. “Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”

Bazelon ended her review with a question I find increasingly pertinent: why do so many of today’s Americans reject the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and civic equality? She wanted both Rauch and Packer to “consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone.”

it’s a very important question.


Kinds of Inequality

I sometimes listen to a podcast called Persuasion, in which Yascha Mounk interviews prominent writers and thinkers on a variety of subjects relevant to government and policy. I was particularly intrigued by a recent conversation he had with philosopher Michael Walzer.

Walzer is a noted communitarian, and as someone of a more libertarian bent, I have disagreed with several of his positions. (My issues with communitarianism are for another day…) In this interview, however, he makes some fascinating and persuasive points about the nature–and the varieties–of inequality.

Walzer begins by distinguishing between equality and sameness, and between power and resources.

If you think about the political system we have, we have a mechanism called elections for reducing inequality—radical inequality. Some people win, some people lose. Some people have a lot of power, some people have far less, and many of us are just watching. And yet, in the distributive system—if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded—the resulting inequality is okay. The distribution of medical care should go to the people who are sick or most sick. That seems a natural way of distributing medical care, even though it means that some people get more if they need it, and some people get less if they don’t. 

The most important caveat in the foregoing paragraph is this one: “if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded.”

Walzer then considers the role of equality in achieving justice.

What makes for injustice is not inequality in political power or inequality in the distribution of health care or welfare or education. It is when these distributions don’t take place for the right reasons and through the right procedures. It’s when you get more health care than I do because you have more money than I do. You have taken success in the market and you have bought health care, or elite positions for your children in the country’s universities, or political influence. So it’s the use of one social good which may be rightly possessed to claim many other social goods that ought to be distributed differently. It’s an argument that depends on what the special goods we distribute mean to the people who make them and share them. And those meanings may be different in different societies.

In other words–as I used to tell my students–it depends. And it’s complicated.

Mounk responds to Walzer’s observations by referencing current criticisms of American capitalism, especially the dominance (not simply the possession) of money. As he says, it is one thing to buy yourself a nicer watch or car than your neighbor can afford. It is another thing entirely when your greater fiscal resources buy you “better healthcare, better access to education, better access to opportunities for your children, higher likelihood of winning political office.”  That is when we are rightfully concerned.

As Walzer puts it,

It doesn’t bother me if you can collect rare books and I can’t, or if you can take a month’s vacation and I just get two weeks. That doesn’t bother me. It’s when your wealth matters in every other sphere of activity—and right now, crucially, in politics. It’s when your wealth can buy a senator or a judge, or a law, or an exemption from a law—all of that I want to rule out. I don’t think it’s crucial to a socialist or social democratic society, that someone who has an economic green thumb or some entrepreneur who invents some machine that people enjoy using, that they make more money than I make. It’s what they can do with the money that matters.

The interview contains a number of very interesting exchanges, including Walzer’s description of himself as a liberal communitarian, and his criticism of the illiberal Left. I encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety–but I’ll end by highlighting Walzer’s observations on the “education wars” I often write about.

Walzer notes that, when it comes to conflicts between religious doctrines and public education, we’ve gone quite a long way in the direction of accommodating religion. As he says, we’ve allowed religious communities to create parochial schools. We’ve allowed the Amish to take their kids out of school before the established legal age. We’ve allowed the Haredim in Kiryas Joel to run a public school system. But these children are going to grow up to vote in our elections, and that fact gives citizens of the democratic state an important interest in their education. That interest leaves considerable room for parental decision-making, but–as Walzer says– it is too important to abandon.

A thought-provoking conversation.


Beyond Left And Right

Bret Stephens–the New York Times columnist– is too conservative for my taste, by which I mean I tend to disagree with his positions on issues. But he is conservative within a traditional American liberal democratic framework.

If that observation seems odd to our contemporary American ears, it is because the language of politics has been debased. Years of Rush Limbaugh and his clones turned “liberal” into an epithet devoid of meaningful content, and the radicalization of the GOP has confused “conservative” with Neanderthal.

Which brings me back to a recent Stephens column with which I do agree.Mostly.

Stephens says the U.S. needs a Liberal Party. He dutifully recites the reasons third parties routinely fail in a system that is set around a two-party duopoly, but he also argues that both the GOP and the Democratic Party are historically weak. I’m unconvinced that things have changed enough to make a third party viable, but in the process of his discussion, he makes a very important–and very under-appreciated–point.

By “liberal,” I don’t mean big-state welfarism. I mean the tenets and spirit of liberal democracy. Respect for the outcome of elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the principle (in courts of law and public opinion alike) of innocent until proven guilty. Respect for the free market, bracketed by sensible regulation and cushioned by social support. Deference to personal autonomy but skepticism of identity politics. A commitment to equality of opportunity, not “equity” in outcomes. A well-grounded faith in the benefits of immigration, free trade, new technology, new ideas, experiments in living. Fidelity to the ideals and shared interests of the free world in the face of dictators and demagogues.

All of this used to be the more-or-less common ground of American politics, inhabited by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes as much as by Barack Obama and the two Clintons. The debates that used to divide the parties — the proper scope of government, the mechanics of trade — amounted to parochial quarrels within a shared liberal faith. That faith steadied America in the face of domestic and global challenges from the far right and far left alike.

But now the basic division in politics isn’t between liberals and conservatives, as the terms used to be understood. It’s between liberals and illiberals.

Stephens points to the illiberalism of both the Right and the far Left, pointing on the right to  “Stephen Miller on immigration, Steve Bannon on trade, Josh Hawley on elections and Marjorie Taylor Greene on every manner of lunatic and bigoted conspiracy theory.” On the Left, he excoriates excesses of the “Me too” movement and the so-called “cancel culture.” He says that the illiberal Right is by far the most dangerous, because it is capable of winning elections and, when it loses, willing to subvert them.

Whether you agree with his specific critiques or not, I think he is absolutely correct about the need to reinforce and restore the underlying liberal consensus that democracy requires-what he describes as the “capacious” liberal faith within which we can argue in good faith about what “sensible” regulations look like, and the extent of the “social supports” that cushion the vagaries of a market economy.

Today, we characterize those debates over specific policies as “liberal” or “conservative,” but they can only occur within a larger, widely accepted liberal democratic framework that embraces a government protective of individual autonomy, based upon consent of the governed (as reflected by the votes of the citizenry)and committed to equality before the law.

Specific policy debates are, as Stephens says, parochial quarrels within that shared liberal faith.


Liberals On Campus

A few days ago, the editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article in which he counseled a “young conservative” on how to navigate Indiana University’s “left-wing” campus in Bloomington.

There are so many things wrong with the consistent right wing trope about “lefty” professors, the perceived persecution of their conservative colleagues, and the imagined “indoctrination” of their students–where to begin?

For one thing, these critics are painting with a very broad brush. The so-called “elite” colleges–Harvard, Yale, etc.–probably do have faculties that are disproportionately politically liberal, but there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that most definitely do not fit that stereotype. Many of them are religious, and others are small and medium-sized institutions reflective of the communities in which they are located; very few of them are bastions of liberal brainwashing.

What this characterization of the “liberal” professorate actually reveals is the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) extremism of those who employ it. As “conservatives” have become more radical and doctrinaire, they have applied the term “liberal” more and more broadly. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes  (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.

Positions that used to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial–positions that were held by Republicans as well as Democrats–have become markers of political liberalism.

I’ve taught at the university level for the past twenty years, and if I had to identify one “ideology” that virtually all my colleagues have in common, it wouldn’t be a political “ism” at all; it would be a belief in the importance of data and evidence. What distinguishes academia –what makes its denizens “liberal” in the original sense of that word–is willingness to examine one’s own preconceptions and change positions when credible research proves those preconceptions wrong.

One of the enduring contributions of the period we call the Enlightenment was the scientific method, and what the early American colonists called “the new learning.” Before the emergence of science and empiricism, education began with “biblical truth,” and consisted of studying how “learned men” had explained and justified that truth. You began with the answer and learned how to confirm it. When science came along, it flipped the process: first, you asked  questions, and then, through repeated rigorous experimentation and observation of the world around you, you tried to find answers that others could replicate.

Today, political liberals and conservatives are both prone to start with the answers, and to become angry when data and fact don’t support those answers. The mission of the academy is inconsistent with political ideologies of all kinds; that mission is to ask questions, evaluate data, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it requires.

If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.


Political Fundamentalism

I had lunch today with a delightful young woman who, among other things, is active with the League of Women Voters. During our discussion, she remarked (rather plaintively) that she found it difficult to understand why the League was so often viewed as a “liberal” organization. “We don’t take positions until we have studied them carefully,” she said. “We gather evidence for two years, and assess it carefully, and base our position on that evidence.”

There you go! Basing positions on evidence is what is now considered liberal.

The conversation reminded me of an explanation from my book God and Country: America in Red and Blue. I was looking at the paradigm shift caused by the Enlightenment, and the profound effect that shift had on our Constitution.

When Francis Bacon insisted that laws governing the material world could be inferred through careful observation (a notion that, for contemporary Americans, is an unremarkable commonplace), it had enormous implications for the existing, traditional, deductive methods of understanding reality. The “old learning,” had begun with an a priori “given,” the bible, the absolute truth of which was unquestioned. The primary goal of Puritan education was thus directed at biblical understanding; one began with the text and learned—deduced—how to interpret it. Proper interpretation required the application of time-tested methods of exegesis and analysis, and instruction in historical context and meaning (mostly, what important theologians of the past had decreed to be correct understandings and approaches). One started with Truth, and education was the process of learning to apprehend and defend that Truth. Bacon changed the fundamental order of things by teaching that education must begin with observation of natural phenomena.

We are a country that was founded on a radical notion: evidence matters. Today, however, those of us for whom evidence still matters are dismissed as “liberals” by the political equivalents of the Puritans. Like those Puritans, our ideologues (of every stripe) begin with their “truth,” and look for evidence to support it and ways to impose it.

No wonder we find it so hard to communicate.