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To Defeat Polarization, We Need A Revival of Civic Virtue
Political decentralization could be the key to addressing today's identity-driven polarization.
Niccolo Machiavelli, in Discourses on Livy, remarked that fortunate were the states that could hark back to “the virtue and the methods” of their Founding Fathers. The political thought of the Framers has long served as a kind of blueprint for the United States, forming the basis of the country’s national heritage, foundational ideals that united Americans and guided them during times of tumult.
And yet, few today would argue that Americans are united by a common national idea. Polarization is at its highest since the 1970s, and partisan animosity is reaching new extremes. While many hoped that the Biden presidency would “lower the temperature” and make American politics less divisive and partisan, culture wars and societal polarization have not abated. This is hardly surprising, considering that cultural wedge issues are embedded in ideological differences, being too broad in scope and scale to be addressed by government action — let alone executive fiat.
Such conflicts cannot be resolved by appealing to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, as Machiavelli hoped, because the tension-ridden synthesis of republican and liberal strains in the Framers’ political thought broke down in the postmodern age. The decoupling of liberty from the republican conception of civic virtue and the individualization of the satisfaction of one’s pursuit for meaning, purpose and recognition in life away from a common national idea are behind the fragmentation of American society into identitarian groups, which have become the key outlet for the assertion of one’s thymos. In harmony with these alterations in the structure of societal fabric, commensurate institutional changes such as greater “indirect rule” and limitation of the power of the central government may be warranted.
In the context of this discussion, virtue means civic virtue, a set of prescriptions and ideals that shape an individual’s behavior in relation to his fellow citizens and government rather than morality (e.g. patriotism, sacrificing one’s individual interests for the sake of the common good, etc.). When conformity to virtue is enforced by the coercive apparatus of the state, the government is said to violate liberty. If, however, an individual behaves according to virtue voluntarily, those external standards become internalized, and he can be considered free. For the Framers, virtue first and foremost meant public spiritedness, “an exercise in self-righteousness” that was an indication of the people’s capacity for self-government, as Irving Kristol put it.
The twin requirements of liberty and virtue led to what Stephen Macedo called the conflict between “the desire to promote a civically healthy society on the one side and, on the other side, the desire to respect freedom and diversity.” While there have certainly been many other doctrines that influenced the Framers’ thinking, such as work-ethic Protestantism and “state-centered theory of power and sovereignty,” the interaction between the liberal idea of liberty and the republican conception of virtue came to define many of the issues still on the agenda (even though as John Argesto demonstrated, the idea of virtue began to fade in the minds of Americans following the end of the Revolutionary war), such as abortion, financing of faith-based institutions, mandatory prayer and the study of critical social justice theories at school.
For example, the Declaration of Independence is thoroughly Lockean in its focus on God-given natural rights. This liberal vision of sources and ends of government is narrower than the one postulated by republicans, who place considerable attention on the necessity of virtue. According to the Declaration, “Governments are instituted among Men” to “secure … rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and the government is legitimate as long as it has the consent of the governed. “All men are created equal,” and individuals possess rights, including the right to behave in ways that do not necessarily contribute to the common good. That is why the U.S. Constitution has no mention of God, in spite of the immense religiosity of Americans at the time. The Founders’ limited government as envisioned in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is a Lockean “umpire,” a neutral arbiter whose function is what James Madison in Federalist No.10 referred to as “the regulation of these various and interfering interests” of property holders.
However, following the victory in the War of Independence and in prelude to the Constitutional convention, the Framers departed from the “social contract liberalism” of the Declaration of Independence. For unlike Locke, the Founders often called attention to the importance of virtue in the operation of a republican government. For example, when writing about what would restrain the House of Representatives “from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society,” Madison points to “the vigilant and manly spirit which animates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.” While both sides of the debates surrounding the adoption of the Constitution highlighted the importance of virtue in the functioning of a republican government, the Federalists were Lockean liberals at their core; their preoccupation with liberty led them to reject cultivation of virtue promoted by republicanist Anti-Federalists – for them, not even the necessity to foster “general welfare” trumped individual freedom.
As Madison writes, “as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” The diversity inherent to human society means that “giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” is “impracticable,” and “the protection of these faculties is the first object of government.” In contrast, for the Anti-Federalists, such as Samuel Adams, an ideal America was a “Christian Sparta.” For instance, Charles Turner from the state of Massachusetts argued that education “shall be adequate to the divine, patriotick purpose of training up the children and youth at large, in that solid learning, and in those pious and moral principles, which are the support, the life and the soul of republican government and liberty, of which a free Constitution is the body.”
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The Anti-Federalist support for cultivation of virtuous mores in the population by means of religion and law did not find its way into the formal documents such as the Constitution — ultimately, the Federalists’ position prevailed in the “great national discussion,” and Lockean liberalism became embedded in the institutional structure of the American political system. How then did the Federalists aim to sustain virtue in the populace that, as they acknowledged, was becoming increasingly unvirtuous as the memory of the collective struggle against a common enemy began to wane?
In order to address this conflict between liberalism and republicanism inherent in their political philosophy, the Federalists introduced institutional arrangements, such as an extended republic and mixed government. These were essential to curbing the populace’s unvirtuous conduct: their aim was to “refine and enlarge public views” so as to restrain the tyranny of the majority. However, these institutions were not tasked with a positive goal of instilling virtue — they were created to prevent undesirable behavior, not cultivate a virtuous one. The task of fostering and sustaining virtue in the populace was left to the people themselves, in particular, families, schools, local Churches, etc. Reconciling virtue and liberty, the Federalists rejected imposition of virtue on the people from the top — virtue was to be sustained from the bottom, in line with Locke’s liberal vision as opposed to republicanism.
The Federalists assumed the existence of virtue in the American people. Publius writes that in America there exists that
“honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government, [ . . . ] qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
By depersonalizing cultivation of virtue in the institutions and decentralizing in the multiplicity of societal actors, the Federalists managed to protect individual liberty. At the same time, the American political system came to rest on a particular kind of virtue — public spiritedness, faith and love for the newfound government, sustained by society rather than the government.
For a long time, Americans aligned themselves with the ideals of virtue required of a citizen of a republic, with the United States staying a relatively homogenous society with fairly uniform standards of behavior prescribed by Christian religion. The conflict between liberty and virtue did not manifest itself because there was no need to impose restrictions on individual liberty to foster virtuous behavior as Americans were already virtuous. Even though the republican idea of virtue eventually came to be replaced by Protestant work ethic, its widespread presence in American society meant that it need not be fostered coercively by the state — thus, Americans’ need for recognition was satisfied through a national idea first rooted first in republican virtue and then Protestant faith.
The pursuit of recognition is one of the fundamental forces behind human action. Many thinkers pondered, in one way or another, the problem of thymos or the part of the soul that craves honor and recognition. Indeed, as Steven B. Smith argued in his lecture on Hobbes’ political philosophy, it is by controlling pride that the emergence of modern civilization was made possible. For G. W. F. Hegel, recognition is the “fabric of sociality,” a stage in which consciousness is transformed into self-consciousness on its path towards Spirit. The struggle for recognition leads to the master-slave dialectic that marks the beginning of "history" — and reaching full mutual recognition constitutes its end. And more than a thousand years before Hegel, Plato introduced the concept of thymos, along with epithymia (lowly pleasures) and logos (intellectual pursuits).
Thomas Hobbes succinctly summarized the challenges thymos poses for a society in his Leviathan: because “men are continually in competition for Honour and Dignity,” “there ariseth on that ground, Envy and Hatred, and finally Warre...” Ultimately, the variety of views on this issue can be broadly categorized as follows: humans are either left free to seek recognition (and, by extension, meaning) on their own as in a liberal vision, or the problem of thymos is addressed via the coercive apparatus of the state (an “authoritarian” perspective).
This distinction is well-illustrated by Thomas Hobbes in Chapter XIV of Leviathan, when he writes that though “the force of Words” is “too weak to hold men to the performance of their Covenants,” “there are in man’s nature, but two imaginable helps to strengthen it”: “a Feare of the consequence of breaking their word; or a Glory, or Pride in appearing not to need to breake it.” In accordance with an “authoritarian” outlook, Hobbesian Leviathan, according to the Scripture (Job 41:34), is a “king over all that are proud.” Sovereign’s absolute power was a constraint necessary to control people’s destructive craving for thymos, which is why “to the Soveraign is committed the Power of Rewarding with riches, or honour.”
In contrast, republicans relied on “Pride in appearing not to need to breake it” in holding men to the “performance of their Covenants.” That is why one of the most prominent republican thinkers to influence the Founding Fathers’ political philosophy, Charles Montesquieu, maintained that in monarchies, aristocracy’s “code of honor” served as a check on monarch’s absolute power. Likewise, in democratic republics, virtue, understood as public spiritedness — the willingness to put aside one’s factional interests for the sake of common good — satisfies individual craving for thymos without engendering violent struggles between societal actors. Pride is derived from being patriotic and acting in the name of the collective.
For in a republic, individuals associate their own good with that of the collective, and individual interest thus becomes aligned with societal interest. In the republican vision, glory and recognition are gained by sacrificing oneself for larger causes or for the common good of the collective, such as a national idea. National identity proved to be a great substitute for the equal recognition of one’s worth thanks to its universal applicability, playing the role of a political religion in the United States. The uniqueness of the attitude of the Federalists consisted in their synthesis of liberal and authoritarian approaches to the problem of thymos: their vision rested on virtue, but a virtue that is not cultivated by the state as a rule.
Realizing the importance of higher ideals in orienting an individual in his quest for meaning, the Federalists embedded in their foundational documents the ideal of virtue that revolved around faith in the American system to guide citizens’ behavior. This regularity is absent in the Lockean liberal society, which fails to fulfill people’s thymos and thereby leads to the fragmentation of society into identity groups. As reflected in the famous maxim “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” the system created by the Founding Fathers provided outlets for the satisfaction of thymos, just like in republicanism, redirecting the power of human ambition in a way that facilitated protection of individual liberty.
The American people also had a collective sense of identity forged by the struggle for independence that connected each person to the nation. Such strong identification of one’s own good with that of the nation and emotional loyalty were possible because many Americans at that time actively participated in the creation of the republic, investing their efforts and even sacrificing their lives for their country’s sake – a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. People are more likely to support a government that is at least partly a product of their endeavors, which is why active citizen participation in the political life of their country is such a crucial prerequisite of a republican government. By creating a system that rested both on self-interest and virtue as well as ambition and dedication to higher ideals and common good, the Federalists managed to overcome the limitations of Locke’s liberal political philosophy. As Leonard R. Sorenson put it, “the success of the Constitutional order depends equally upon the action or restraint-producing passion of ambition and upon the direction-giving sentiments of virtue.”
Deep down, the Founding Fathers fulfilled humans’ fundamental need for regularities by the “power of their example.” For the political project of the Federalists was, in a way, a manifestation of an insight made by Machiavelli: in republics, reliance on institutions was possible because of virtuous Founding Fathers who established them in the first place, “obviat[ing] the need for future men of their kind.” Thus, liberalism’s problem of factionalism that results from the lack of higher values provided by the government was alleviated because factions at least had common values and impersonal institutions to regulate their behavior, a national idea that could be evoked during disputes.
In pre-industrial and industrial America, economic security was the end goal of the majority of the citizens. Even in the twentieth century, politics still centered on economic issues — the rights of workers and welfare programs on the left, promotion of the private sector on the right. Thus, seemingly irrational and rudimental satisfaction of thymos through “tribal” attachment to a nation or a political system could work as most citizens sought to realize themselves primarily through economic success.
The people could not stay virtuous forever, however. Over time, the collective memory of the War of Independence began to wane, and a unifying American national idea became sidelined by the issue of slavery. And republican virtue, as Isaac Cramnick argued, became replaced with a Protestant work ethic that emphasized “industry, frugality and simplicity” rather than public spiritedness, leading to the economization of the public sphere. This way, the conflict between liberty and republican virtue turned into a synthesis of individual liberty and Protestant virtue, which involved self-interested pursuit of wealth, destroying whatever remained of republicanism in the United States. The Anti-Federalists’ worries about capitalism’s effects on public virtue materialized when Protestant religion provided an ethical basis for the liberal state.
Already in the middle of the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln lamented the fading of national memory, histories that “were the pillars of the temple of liberty,” “a fortress of strength; but, what invading foe-men could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the levelling of its walls.” Still, the national idea, even though it began to fade in the memory of Americans, was not completely sidelined by group identities. But following the Second World War, American society underwent fundamental changes in its system of values and goals that dealt a mortal blow to the national idea.
In this postmodern age, the quest for economic security no longer dominates American’s day to day lives due to dramatic increases in standards of living. Survival was superseded by self-expression. Indeed, as writers like Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now and projects such as Our World in Data have demonstrated, the world, including the West, have undergone unprecedented growth in standards of living following the end of the Second World War. Even in America, seen by many as an exemplar of “rogue capitalism” in which “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”, between 1979 and 2015, the poorest 20 percent of Americans experienced, on average, an 80 percent increase in their incomes in spite of increasing economic inequality.
As the desire for self-realization and recognition of one’s worth replaced the struggle for economic survival, thymos replaced epithymia as the primary motivating force behind our actions and the relative importance of materialist values declined. However, as Anthea Roberts and Nicholas Lamp write, “[e]ven if disability payments, welfare handouts and cheaper products mean that laid-off manufacturing workers are materially better off than their parents, what they have lost in pride and status will likely outweigh any material gains.” Thus, it is no coincidence that in the second half of the twentieth century, the first significant movements centered around group identity formed. People became insulated in identity groups, while virtue from a collective good turned into one man’s (or group’s) idea of what is right — a kind of moral relativism that became one of the defining features of postmodernity.
The Cold War and the existential struggle against the Soviet Union to an extent filled the gap left by the retreat of religion and classical republican virtue. When contrasted with Soviet communism, it was easier to unite the people around American national identity — just as in Rome, external threats forced Americans “to lay aside their private quarrels to rally to the defense of the patria.” The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only superpower — and polarization worsened dramatically in the 1990s. As Machiavelli so acutely observed, in a republic, factional strife and societal challenges are the prerequisite to the preservation of freedom and “the source of supply which enabled it to acquire the greatness at which it arrived.” Without challenges and conflicts, society’s mores soften, and stoic, “awful” virtues (as Adam Smith called them) turn into “amiable” ones that characterize commercial societies.
While there are many factors at work behind the surge in polarization, from socio-economic ones such as increasing inequality and demographic changes to the digitalization of the discourse space, (and there is still much disagreement among researchers as to the ultimate causes of polarization in the United States) the emergence of postmodernity and the disappearance of a common national ideal may be considered one of the determinants. For example, a recent paper found a correlation between rising ethnic diversity and polarization (“the increase in the non-white share has been twice as large in countries with rising affective polarization as in those with falling affective polarization”) — and heterogenization of the American society is one of the characteristics of a postmodern society.
The waning of a collective national identity laid ground for the emergence of identity politics and the resurgence of populism, accompanied by the decline of virtue. Virtue — like everything else in a postmodern society — became relativized, depending upon the perspective of the individual rather than reflecting universally accepted truths. Postmodernity emerged as the ultimate realization of the ideas of liberalism: nowadays, America is characterized not just by economic liberty, but also moral liberty.
Indeed, in our day and age, the very idea of virtue may seem conservative and even reactionary. It no longer has the same sway in discourse it once had in America’s early days. With the destruction of common values and socially constructed self-imposed restraints on one’s behavior, “state-centered language of power and sovereignty,” not just in economics but also politics, has started to play an increasingly influential role. This is why, from both left and right, we can hear calls to constrain individual liberty, be it for the sake of “social justice” or the preservation of the morals of American society from the malignant influence of immigrants. Those new visions of what constitutes virtue, however, are actively being promoted by activists through regulations and statutes, undermining America’s Lockean state that the Federalists created to protect individual rights and liberties.
Liberty without constraints is self-defeating, and controls on human action are thus inescapable. Something has to curb our worst impulses — for the alternative to an internal “Guardian,” voluntary adherence to a socially accepted idea of virtue and conformity to formal and informal rules of the game, is an increase in the potentially tyrannical powers of the government. Reduced reliance on the national government, combined with decentralization that leaves more decision-making power on the local and state levels, may help adapt the political system to the realities of postmodernity. In a multiracial, pluralistic nation of three hundred million, commonalities are rare, but in more homogenous states or municipalities, citizens are more likely to have similar worldviews and agree on shared values.
Some observers, including Francis Fukuyama, suggest that it could be possible to cultivate a sense of belonging to a single nation in Americans by reinstating mandatory national service, which would “serve as a contemporary form of classical republicanism, a form of democracy that encouraged virtue and public-spiritedness rather than simply leaving citizens alone to pursue their private lives.”
However, today’s problems cannot be addressed simply by turning to the paradigms of the past. Efforts to cultivate virtue, be it on the level of the country or the states, should be avoided, for we can already witness the danger such power in the hands of the government poses to individual liberty (as the Framers recognized all too well), from the attempts to ban speech that “facilitates” abortion to imposition of Critical Race Theory on students. While the institution of mandatory national service is definitely not equivalent to the introduction of “woke” curricula to schools, it still constitutes a restriction of individual liberty that should be eschewed; what’s more, bringing together members of different factions espousing opposing worldviews could be counterproductive.
We live in a society in which, in Jurgen Habermas’s words, “comprehensive worldviews and collectively binding ethics have disintegrated” and “the surviving post-traditional morality of conscience no longer supplies a substitute for the natural law that was once grounded in religion or metaphysics.” We should avoid imposing universal solutions to challenges that are bottom-up in nature, reflecting fundamental forces out of our control.
Attempting to build “the tower of Babel … without God … to set up Heaven on Earth” is a recipe for catastrophe as the utopian political projects of the 20th century have demonstrated all too well. Instead of trying to change the course of such large-scale societal phenomena, we should adapt our political system to the realities of a postmodern society. The object of institutional engineering should be piecemeal reform of the political system, not a wholesale reshaping of the social fabric.
The author would like to thank Ilya Lokshin, Associate Professor at HSE University, and Sanzhar Akayev, Assistant of the School of Politics and Governance of HSE’s Faculty of Social Sciences, for their feedback on this essay.
Sukhayl Niyazov is an independent author and researcher. His work has appeared in The National Interest, The American Conservative, City Journal, Public Discourse, Starting Points Journal, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, among other publications.