Our parties, as liberal and conservative, oppose each other over progress in the drive toward ever-greater equality. In defending progress, as we saw in the last issue, liberals run into the difficulty that equality seems impossible to define and heedless in its never-ending motion. (See “Our Parties, Part One,” Winter 2015.) Liberalism claims to be more rational than custom, tradition, and common sense; but liberalism, or progressivism, relies on simpleminded principles and unthinking passion. It suffers from faults that it fails to acknowledge—the clumsiness of administering its programs, their cost, and its lack of prudence in dealing with foreign enemies (as opposed to its skill in defeating conservatives at home). Conservatives, for their part, face the difficulty of countering the impression that progress is inevitable and irreversible, and so of generally playing defense and reacting to their opponents’ initiatives. They have the faults of progressivism to work against but have enjoyed more success in electing conservatives than in reversing so-called progress. If liberals are the party of government, conservatives are the party of responsible government, their responsibility often being manfully to make the best of a bad situation.
Liberals have the advantage in the battle over progress because they call for more democracy in a democratic country, while conservatives find themselves stuck with defending inequality. And the liberals’ advantage isn’t confined to this point. Liberals also say that they are cruising on the tide of History, the winning side, as well as fighting on the side of justice, the right side—thus claiming credit for both greater power and greater morality. With the entitlements they favor, they appeal to citizens’ desire to live securely when young or old or poor—thus satisfying conservative instincts and attaching people to liberal programs. That fusion, bringing the spirit of conservatism to the support of liberal innovation, leaves the party of conservatism to defend the liberal status quo. Or conservatives can attack the status quo and try to reform or revolutionize it, either going slow with reform or seeking to return to an older, better day. If they go slow, they must accept and take responsibility for improving the liberal status quo; if, refusing this responsibility, they try to go back to some better time in the past, which serves as a standard (the “Republican Revolution”), they may frighten the country—and also themselves. Moreover, it probably is not possible to make just one of these choices and stick with it. Reformers will find themselves in need of a standard or principle with which to resist the liberals; revolutionaries will find it necessary, at some point, to moderate their views in order to win.
The way to understand this dilemma—since it probably is inescapable—is to consider more frankly the objection to liberal progress toward ever-greater equality. This objection, in practice, amounts to the defense of inequality by conservatives or Republicans. Democrats are the inclusive party: their drive toward equality seeks to include as equal all those presently considered unequal, those who lack security and are, in one way or another—by incapacity, lack of virtue, or bad luck—vulnerable. Republicans are the exclusive party: they believe that, while all share equality of rights, some people are better than others and deserve to be honored or rewarded for this. I call them the party of virtue, though they do not make that claim themselves. They would probably speak of “values” rather than of virtue, fearing the prudish connotation of that lovely antique word. They would also probably call themselves the party of liberty and reject the boastful claim of being more virtuous, so invidious in a democracy. But they want not any liberty but the virtuous use of liberty—liberty used to the end of supporting and honoring virtue, as opposed to lazy or licentious liberty.
Republicans are, of course, the party of money as well as virtue. Anyone particularly attracted to either virtue or money is likely to be a Republican, the obvious problem being that these two things are not identical. Recently, many of the Wall Street and technology rich have been supporting the egalitarian Democrats, thus challenging the association of virtue and money. (In a way, they actually illustrate the subordination of money to virtue, for they find virtue in lack of virtue as Republicans see it—in same-sex marriage, for example.) Republicans try to conceive virtue and money as close, if not identical, viewing success in money as justly earned, the money as a consequence of virtue. They believe in the free market as an institution both democratic and open to all—and just in its rewarding of merit. In general, with the idea of “getting ahead,” Republicans do their best to reconcile the inequality of virtue with the equality of democracy.
Democrats say that inequality is a matter of privilege, which is luck, not virtue. They say this especially about gaining wealth, but the more sophisticated will say the same of honors gained through talent or intelligence. They reserve their indignation, however, for those wealthy in money and tend to give a pass to those rich in another sense. Those outstanding in honor or public esteem and recognition are not attacked, as their ranks would include professors (at least in the opinion of professors); Democrats do not object to the inequality of the talented, the intelligent, or the celebrated on their side. Today, those uncomfortable about being wealthy in money will be Democrats, even if they are rich; those convinced that the wealthy deserve their wealth will be Republicans, even if they are poor and perhaps even envious. To be a Democrat is to believe that government must be concerned, above all, with counteracting ill luck; to be a Republican is to believe that government should sustain, rather than punish, the virtue of citizens and incidentally help out those who, through no fault of their own, do not succeed in managing their own lives. In this way of regarding them, our parties look different from the way they look in their division over progress, where liberals have the upper hand. Now, it is conservatives who take the initiative and stand up for something, rather than always being against something. They make the positive assertion in favor of virtue, to which liberals must react.
In doing so, conservatives follow a different, older political science from that of the progressives. John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of liberals, saw two typical parties in modern times: the party of reform and the party of order. The reformers held the beacon of progress in their advance. But noble as that advance might be, Mill recognized that it could cause some disturbance in society as it was being improved. He therefore awarded the party of order, the conservatives, with a positive function in this context. They were not to slink away defeated but instead to bring the discomposed and the grumpy—people like themselves—into line by stressing the need for order out of the temporary disorder of reform.
Recently, Yuval Levin, in his book The Great Debate, proposed an analysis of liberals and conservatives that traces the division back to Tom Paine versus Edmund Burke, with more philosophy than Mill’s division and with the advantage to Burke. If we are brave enough to go back to Paine and Burke to understand this division, though, we might as well return even further, to Aristotle. Aristotle also thought that there are two great political parties in society, but for him they are democrats and oligarchs (or aristocrats). Democracy, he maintained, wants to include all people as citizens and pursues equality to do so; oligarchy wants to divide the people into those who deserve to be citizens and those who do not. But democrats and oligarchs differ not only in what they want but in how. Democrats want instinctively a whole that includes everybody, and they are willing to sacrifice human differences in order to have it; oligarchs insist on a distinction between the few and the many, and they care less about the whole. Oligarchy represents our human faculty of deliberate choice based on reason, while democracy takes men as they are and is satisfied with, and takes responsibility for, what chance presents to us (“no matter who you are, we embrace you”). In this view, the whole that democracy craves is responsible for the equality that it espouses as a means to that end, as if the only way to make society whole is to have no condition for membership.
Each of the two parties starts by ignoring the other, though the oligarchs do so more deliberately. Yet human societies are characterized both by being wholes and by containing differences of rank or honor within those wholes. Every society is both democratic and oligarchic, in other words, but hardly ever does a society bring into balance those two tendencies, both of which are partial by themselves. Instead, all, or almost all, actual societies go with one tendency or the other. They absolutize their own preference to make a partisan whole. They think that because all men are equal in some ways, they are equal in all ways, or that because some men are better in some ways, they are better in all ways. Rather than cooperate, as would be sensible and just, the two parties attack each other, one whole against the other, driven perversely by their very reason and their sense of justice to absolutize their differences.
Abstractly, both tendencies are correct. We are born into a society that we must accept as by chance or providential, a whole that we have not chosen, and yet we cannot as humans prevent ourselves from admiring some of our fellows more than others. Surprisingly, in the Aristotelian view, the reform party is the oligarchical party, as it is the oligarchs who want to set a standard for inclusion or preferment in society. Even if the standard is wealth (in money) rather than virtue, it remains a standard. And those setting that sort of standard imply that there is virtue in making or having money. Aristotle agrees with those who deny that money and virtue are the same, but he argues with those who claim rank on the basis of money that they, too, really want virtue; so why not go for real or better virtue? His political science is aimed at the reform of both great parties by instruction. Democrats learn the importance of choice that permits honoring, oligarchs the need for a whole that includes all.
Alexis de Tocqueville presents Aristotle in modern dress, which means in the perhaps inferior circumstance that humans now live in a democratic age and do not have a viable choice between democracy and aristocracy (as Tocqueville presents it). Actually, our modern, liberal democracy permits the few, known as elites, to gain mostly unopposed honor and advantage over the many as long as the opportunity for rising appears more or less equal and open. And if our democracy is less democratic than Aristotle’s, which was based on the rule of the indigent, so our oligarchy is more democratic than his, offering opportunity to many to rise.
Tocqueville says that the two great parties rest on two opinions “as old as the world.” One wants to restrict popular power; the other wants to extend it indefinitely. In this formulation, Aristotle’s two parties are stated in terms of only one of them: the democratic. Oligarchy appears as a naysayer rather than as the initiator of choice, so that both parties focus on the people—the power of the people rather than the whole that they aim at. From the standpoint of power, democracy is about majority rule, and equality is not so much the overriding end as the means to majority rule—democracy in action as democratic government. An insistence on virtue would disqualify—or “marginalize,” if not exclude—too many of the people and thereby subtract from its power. So it was that the American Founders’ Federalist Party, which was responsible for the Constitution and which Tocqueville calls “aristocratic,” was overborne by the Democratic-Republican Party (precursors to today’s Democrats), in the election of 1800.
Since then, America has been democratic as a whole, and the distinction that James Madison tried to maintain in 1787 between a republic (good) and democracy (bad) has been abandoned. When today’s Republican Party formed in 1854, it was a popular party—but it was still a virtue party. Abraham Lincoln made sure of that and set an example for today, for the contemporary conservative need is to recognize the basis of conservatism in virtue and to make virtue democratically suitable to our time. Lincoln’s opposition to slavery took America back to the Declaration of Independence more than to the Constitution—as he put it, the Constitution was the “frame of silver” and the Declaration the “apple of gold”—and hence to equality, the principle that all men are created equal. This is the democratic principle in its extreme in Aristotle’s analysis, which Lincoln used to abolish the distinction between free and slave that Aristotle thought endemic to human life.
Perhaps Aristotle was not altogether wrong, because he understood freedom to be as much a human accomplishment, through virtue, as a gift from nature, perfect without a human contribution (the view stated by John Locke). As he explains it, nature gives men the capacity for freedom in their capacity for virtue (as opposed to animal instinct). It is up to men to make themselves free through education and politics by engaging the capacity for virtue. Lincoln took heed of nature’s requirement of virtue as well as nature’s gift of equality. Freedom is an attainment, a right to be free and be treated as free, not a right to be let alone and to be respected, regardless of how that freedom is used. For one thing, citizens should not use their freedom in elections to impose slavery on others, contrary to Stephen Douglas’s theory of popular sovereignty. Free citizens must be morally disposed against slavery so as not to tolerate it. Equality should be understood as equal rights, a “standard maxim” constantly looked to, though never perfectly attained. The Constitution tolerates slavery but only in a manner that does not fix it in our politics and in preparation for the day when free citizens will be willing to abolish it. Lincoln subordinates the Constitution to the Declaration by infusing it with the spirit of equality; at the same time, he specifies that spirit by explaining how the Constitution will bring it about with the free consent of citizens—for the South found itself coerced only when it refused assent to a president duly elected under the Constitution to which it had consented.
Lincoln had more to say about promoting virtue in a democracy. In a less well-known speech of 1857 to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, he speaks to farmers, “the most numerous class,” having the most votes, he remarks—not entirely as a joke. These farmers are not stupid peasants; they are always using their minds. They know the difference between doing one’s work and doing it well, which they take pride in. They do their work thoroughly, which means with an eye to how it might be improved and become more productive. They know, therefore, that labor and education are compatible and that labor is not slavish (nor is it a punishment) but, on the contrary, makes one free. Free labor is earned freedom, freedom with virtue in the moral and intellectual as well as the physical world. It justifies the hope that the course of the world “shall be onward and upward.”
This is progress as it was presented before the Progressives, to which conservatives in a democracy might repair, a progress without the mindless extension of equality, the numbing guarantee of historical inevitability, the well-meaning oppressiveness of Big Government, the sludge of bureaucracy, and the curse of demagoguery. In one of the typical beauties of his rhetoric, Lincoln warns the Wisconsin farmers that he is going to flatter them—before proceeding to do so. And Lincoln gets away with it. Virtue, to do its work, needs an agreeable presentation. Lincoln, intellectual founder of the Republican Party, the less self-knowing party, is the rare American politician who has something to say about what he is saying.
What about virtue as the Democrats see it? Republicans do not have a monopoly of virtue because humans cannot live without passing “value judgments,” prizing some activities and some humans over others. Democrats have no difficulty in stating their virtues, even if they would not volunteer them. Their virtues are those of inclusiveness, which are two opposites: compassion and justice. Both aim at succoring the vulnerable and weak, but compassion comes readily from the heart, while justice comes out of indignation against the few and applies coercion to enforce the demands of the many. Compassion is undiscriminating, and justice is focused. Democrats prefer these virtues to generosity, the Republican virtue of giving freely and well. Generosity to Democrats seems hit-or-miss and arbitrary; its very voluntariness, they believe, causes those who practice it to puff themselves up above the rest of us—which is the general objection of Democrats to virtue. They would rather have taxation, universal in principle and rationally selective in application. This is the wholesome coercion of the whole. There can also be a wholesome exclusion from the whole of Republicans who deny the virtues of the whole, which focus on the vulnerable. For Democrats, the whole is that of those who put inclusiveness first.
For this reason, no cause is more congenial to the Democrats than environmentalism. The danger from climate “change”—here a scientifically neutral euphemism for “warming”—equalizes everyone by exposing the equal vulnerability of all. All are guilty, but the most successful are the guiltiest. Guilty of what? Of having made the most technological progress while inspired by the most advanced science. Fortunately, science has technological remedies for climate change, so that progressives do not have to turn against science and forsake its ambiguous help. In our woes of excess warmth, science will make us more equal and less vain about our triumphs over nature, together with two valuable political consequences: we shall have more Big Government and more redistribution of wealth from rich countries to poor ones. Science will be morally improved by turning it to the task of sustaining, not exploiting, nature; science will indeed secure the triumph of human morality instead of seeking to increase the bounds of human empire, à la Francis Bacon. Putting man back into his place—an equal place, not a separate kingdom—in nature will be true progress toward equality and sobering inclusiveness, to boot. When taken to the limit, Democrats are the party of ambition against all human ambition.
Since the 1970s, especially since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Democrats have defended the right to abortion fervently and with increasing conformity, so that nowadays no strong abortion opponent would be with the Democrats. The vehemence of abortion supporters betrays a strong moral indignation against the other side for keeping women down, in the status of the second sex, bound to motherhood. Their Republican opponents, Democrats think, do not want to allow women to join men as equals, whether in career opportunities or in sexual liberation. Thus, theirs is a demand for inclusiveness in the new gender-neutral society created by feminism. Feeling on this issue runs high on both sides, but that in support of abortion is more remarkable because it runs against any maternal inclination and serves only to make career more convenient and sex more available. Women are slightly more than half of Americans, and though most do not follow feminism to its demanding extremes, all are open to the judgment that women are often put upon by men. Feminism has a stranglehold on American universities—not just threatening but actually squeezing—and an important role, at least a veto power, in the Democratic Party.
By its interest in safeguarding women’s careers, feminism has made its peace with capitalism and with the bohemian bourgeoisie of Hollywood moguls and would-be technocrats, thus enabling Democrats to dispense with Marxism, though not, of course, with Big Government. Democratic women like to work for the government and to be active in public-employee unions. Republican women are likely to appreciate the advantages of femininity, which grace the virtues of a woman, as distinct from those of a man. They might think that women are better than men in some regards, whereas Democratic women believe that the two sexes are roughly the same and that men treat women as inferiors accidentally and unnecessarily. Above all, Republican women believe in feminine modesty; Democratic women, if they practice it, do not believe in it.
A word should be added on libertarians, who haven’t yet entered into our discussion. Libertarians hold to the sovereignty of the free market as far as they can. The free market, they believe, substitutes for the government of men, who have special interests, as all men do, that disqualify them as just and impartial rulers. But since government is necessary to regulate these special interests, the rule of law is needed and desirable, and libertarians are not anarchists. They can be quite fierce and unbending in enforcing the law, if law has been the product of just consent in a fair system of representation. They do not like executive or judicial discretion, however wise or responsive to emergencies, because it clouds the calculations and expectations of free citizens. Libertarians are leftists of the Right or rightists of the Left. They can go left in company with Democrats, demanding abortion rights for women, or they can go right with Republicans, who justify inequalities arising from the accidents of a free market. Though they are the party of self-interested calculation, hostile to the demands of virtue, they can be quite surprisingly moralistic in defense of the freedom expressed in “spontaneous order” (the concept of their philosopher, Friedrich Hayek). Readers of Ayn Rand know that they have their heroes, too. Libertarians cause trouble for both parties, wanting, as they do, to eat their cake (allowing inequality) and have it, too (not imposing inequality). They do not cause trouble for an analysis based on the duality of parties, however, even though they stand for a whole that just happens without anyone’s caring for it (spontaneous order) and for a freedom that needs no instruction in virtue.
Because the Democrats are the party of the people, they are free to be less scrupulous than the Republicans, who are more earnest and uptight. Both have their scandals, but Democrats get away from theirs more easily and do not suffer much from guilt. To see the difference, contrast the most outstanding recent scandals of each party, those of Presidents Nixon and Clinton. Nixon had to face his embarrassed party and resigned in shame; Clinton’s party supported him with a dismissive shrug at his misdemeanor, and both he and his party prospered. Whatever the faults of Democrats, they automatically mean well, as being on the side of the people, which is also the winning side, the party of History. The Republicans’ virtue compels them to defend propriety in the conventions that the more virtuous erect to identify themselves, in which they too readily take satisfaction. Republicans take pride in being shocked, Democrats in not being shocked. Thus, as a dinner companion, one would probably prefer the beguiling charm of a Democrat to the stiffness of a Republican. But when selecting a spouse, one’s preference might be reversed, to favor a person capable of shame.
As the more inclusive party, Democrats are more informal than Republicans. For Democrats, formalities are barriers closing off the warmth of feeling known to them through their scientific psychology as “empathy.” Republicans are suspicious of psychology—the modern psychology that speaks of the self, not the soul, and so has nothing to say of the beautiful soul. They sense its hostility to virtue, particularly the virtue of self-reliance, so contrary to its therapy of self-excusing. But Democrats love the sort of care that makes few demands on the recipient. They do give the impression, though, that they would be happy if the recipient got off his duff enough to show gratitude to Democrats with his vote. But they always want to make it easier to vote, and they prefer automatic voters, voting their interest or their identity, to conscientious ones, who might think about it.
Republicans believe that virtue is efficacious. If you are honest and hardworking, you will succeed in making a living for yourself and your family. This means that society is, on the whole, just; it rewards the deserving. A just society needs the support of a just God to correct for human imperfections, and Republicans tend to be churchgoers and worshipers more than do Democrats. Many Democrats go to church, too, but often to liberal churches that preach compassion for human weakness rather than assistance to the virtuous. Republicans speak of sin or vice, though less frequently than they used to; Democrats omit sin and denounce the vices of the powerful and rich. Republicans will agree to have government help the “truly needy,” a suspecting description they like to use, but in a spirit more of generosity than of justice. For Democrats, virtue is not efficacious and society is not just. Things are stacked against the various vulnerable groups, and they have no real chance to show their virtue. The vulnerable, suffering from the callous neglect of the pseudo-virtuous, are victims in need of government’s protection.
Republicans contend that the welfare state has encouraged a disastrous loss of virtue in Americans. In America, the welfare state, under the title “the Great Society,” came later than in the social democracies of Europe. The name suggests an intent to avoid confusion with socialism and the lassitude that develops when the government pays one’s bills, just as Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats had denied that permanent “relief” was their plan. But the name also appeals to America’s desire for greatness. With a crushing victory in the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson became the author of an ambitious transformation of America that began with a “War on Poverty.” In demographer Nicholas Eberstadt’s fine analysis, that war, despite its bureaucratic overhead and naïve scientific optimism, was actually won. At a huge cost, estimated by Eberstadt as about $1 trillion annually, poverty as it was in the 1960s has been nearly eliminated. In a startling sign of the incompetence with which this feat was accomplished, the measure of improvement in the War on Poverty—the government’s “poverty index”—has not moved down since the war began. According to the official measure, poverty has held its own. So much is progress impeded by its own machinery that it cannot identify its success. Or would news of success be inconvenient for Democrats, who would like to spend still more, and whose party depends on finding ever more poverty to overcome? Believing in the irreversibility of their progress, Democrats nevertheless conceive, when they encounter opposition, that all may be lost in a moment. “History,” with its supposed inevitability, is as unreliable as virtue and as mysterious as God.
Yet the war on poverty, though won, has made the country worse, not because of the cost but because the American people have become corrupted in a “tangle of pathologies.” The phrase comes from Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s notable report of 1965, used by him to describe disturbing trends within the black community but now borrowed by Eberstadt to describe what has spread to all races and classes. The pathologies are welfare dependency, flight from work, and family breakdown. Each represents a failure of the virtues that philosophers have often thought necessary to the life of republics: self-support, taking satisfaction in one’s work, and living with responsibility for one’s family. These are “bourgeois” virtues, perhaps, but as the political theorist Judith Shklar once said, What other sort of virtue is there? These indicators of social health began to drop with the legislation of Johnson’s Great Society, and have worsened with its advance. They constitute a vindication of the Republicans’ criticism of the Democrats and their purported progress.
The Eberstadt analysis may well be incomplete, however. The tangle of pathologies he shows to coincide with the growth of the welfare state also coincides with the rise and success of feminism, beginning in the 1970s. The feminist desire to gain independence, especially from men, not only turned women away from motherhood and family toward careers but also compelled them to abdicate their traditional role, stressed by Tocqueville and accepted by nineteenth-century feminism, of being in charge of morals and mores. One could say that women have held on to that role but now use it differently. Instead of shaming sexual and other misconduct by both sexes, they reprove oblivious male disregard of women’s equality. It is clear in regard to feminism as to the welfare state that Democrats have not exactly abandoned virtue, then, but adapted it to programs mainly intended to substitute for virtue. Republicans, for all their love of moneymaking and sometime worship of economics, bear the burden of defending virtue in a democracy.
And yet—another yet—greatness can be found in both parties. Democratic egalitarianism is elitist in inspiration. “The few are always the ministers of the few,” said Machiavelli, and this goes for the progressives, as well. They care for themselves, and they can remind one of the defects of oligarchy—oblivious self-satisfaction and unjustified superiority—as much as do Republicans favoring the rich. But Americans want to be a great people, not just another people like all the rest, and they locate their greatness mostly in their great presidents, and those presidents come from both parties—when one from the party of inclusiveness, like Jefferson or Franklin Roosevelt, shows the people what an aristocrat is, and when one from the virtue party, like Lincoln or Ronald Reagan, makes virtue popular rather than conceited. Thus, one should not dismiss the ambition of the Great Society, even if, in effect, it made Americans more dependent and less great. (Only George Washington, the father of his country, and Abraham Lincoln, the savior of his country, hold popular reputation untainted with partisanship. While Washington served before our parties formed, Lincoln was the first president of the new Republican Party but still enjoys bipartisan esteem.)
Democrats and Republicans also differ over “relativism,” which is the term that Republicans use to disparage the multiculturalism of Democrats. Democrats have indeed increasingly shifted their thinking from “progress,” with its positive value, to “change,” ostensibly neutral but, in practice, the same as before. The individual rights they once thought the basis of progress have been eclipsed by the notion of “culture.” Formerly, the ways of liberal society were thought to derive from knowledge of rights, but now it is the reverse. Culture is held to be the basis of that “knowledge,” now demoted to mere belief. Democrats tend to accept, with some hesitation in the older generation and among the uneducated, the view that all cultures are equal, hence that the best culture is a multiculture. In this way, relativism becomes a principle itself, the principle that saves principle in the age that denies it. Democrats will therefore become indignant—on principle—about someone who holds a principle and will take offense at Republicans not so much for their principles as for having any principles that imply judgmental standards. With this development, taking offense becomes legitimate, replacing the calm toleration taught by earlier liberalism, since standards can often be deemed insults against the person or group judged. In this mess, confused Republicans, inevitably old-fashioned, stick to their principles and often forget to argue for them, calling them “values,” as if they could not, and need not, be defended—you have your values, and I have mine.
And to speak of defense, both parties are public-spirited, but each in its way. Republicans are much more likely to join the volunteer military, which performs well. To serve in the military is to make a career of sacrifice and risk; those who do so cannot help taking pride in themselves and feeling some disdain for others they defend, who live an easier, better-rewarded life. Such people are Republican material. Democrats are more likely to work in the caring and regulatory parts of government—public employees in the kludgeocracy, servers who, with their own entitlements, serve themselves first.
America is a country that stands for progress—in prosperity, in freedom, in science, but, above all, in the practice of self-government. That is the attainment set forth on the first page of The Federalist and so nobly in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as America’s gift to mankind—the plan of an experiment whose success would prove that any other country could do as America had done first. America would not be best in this enterprise, or even unique; only first. This was high ambition but not exclusive. Yet it proved too much for the partisans of progress, who put their faith in History rather than in their own virtue. America’s troubles are the failures of progress, manifest most obviously in the low approval of government these days in public opinion surveys. The party of government, the Democratic Party, has lowered Americans’ estimation of their own government. It has done so even while changing the standard from the once-valued “self-government” to the much lower standard of “government that cares.”
We began, in the previous issue, with the inevitability of progress—inevitable because it is intended to be irreversible. The purpose of this “progress” (which deserves its quotation marks) was to escape the fate of living in the status quo of prejudice. But instead of being a substitute for fate, this progress became a substitute fate. It is indeed worth joining the fight against unreason—but virtue is the way. Virtue depends on us, not on History. It must be suitably accommodated not to angels but to men, not to the ages but to our time. It asks not only what makes us better off but also what makes us better. Let this be the task of the party of virtue as it contests the party of progress.