Nostalgia for the smaller face-to-face societies of the past is common to both progressives and conservatives. There was a time, whether it was 100 years ago or 10,000, when relationships between people were more meaningful, families lived more in harmony with nature, and communities worked together to care for the young and the needy. The critical difference between progressives and conservatives, as explained by George Scialabba in his recent essay about Wendell Berry, published in the Baffler, is that progressives believe that the inhuman scale of our institutions cannot be reversed.[*] Mr. Scialabba writes that conservatives like Berry are ineffective antimodernists because conservatives have retained faith in the dynamic potential of neighborhoods and communities. It is a difference that conservatives should embrace wholeheartedly.
This bedrock difference between conservatives and progressives has unfortunate but unavoidable consequences, Mr. Scialabba admits, because virtue is not such an important value in a bureaucratized society “dense with complex systems, which only large aggregations of people (or money) can move.” In a complex society that does not rely on face-to-face interactions, Mr. Scialabba argues, we need “more, not fewer, plans, laws, and policies.” Berry’s call to cultivate our own gardens and learn the virtues we have forgotten is contrary to the “big thoughts” necessary to save the planet. In the progressive vision, the ideal of a limited government is no longer possible, except for those restrictions on government action enshrined by the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions.
The conflict between conservatives and progressives is so deep because conservatives believe the centralized planning Mr. Scialabba is calling for and the control that large institutions exercise over our lives is precisely the cause of our social ills. Of course, even conservatives recognize that many things must be done on a large scale, such as national defense, border security, utility grids, and environmental regulation. But virtue is fragile; it requires face-to-face community, and even the purpose and vision necessary to confront national issues must be grounded locally. The dystopian future our children face is primarily a cultural failure caused by the decline of communal associations whose authority has been usurped by large institutions. Without strong communities, elites in government and business will always run roughshod over the masses. The big ideas of progressives promise many things, but, with the exception of promoting big unions, they are not advancing any ideas that could remedy the loss of agency that has so emasculated communities. Like the ruling classes of the past, progressives have become disdainful of the less educated “basket of deplorables” with their parochial religious sensibilities.
As Republicans continue to become more dependent upon the votes of the working class and lose the support of college-educated suburbanites, there may be new opportunities for compromise. Many conservatives agree with progressives that it is an injustice for capital to be taxed at a lesser rate than labor and that management’s control of the voting machinery of public companies has unfairly enriched executives. Conservative pundits regret that government is often captive to the interests of big business and the military industrial complex. Both sides of the spectrum may also be persuaded to make incremental improvements to the public welfare by our numerous think tanks and public policy experts. However, as positive as the potential for agreement may be, these things would only make our society slightly less broken.
Our best hope lies in persuading the good people on the left that faith in the dynamic potential of neighborhoods and local associations can be well-founded. Roger Scruton called this the “romantic core of conservativism,” the belief that what has been lost can be regained but in reimagined form. This faith is essential to our humanity because only in smaller associations is it possible to achieve the immediacy and trust that allow for meaningful relationships with mutual appreciation for the unique gifts everyone brings to the table. Small groups can reverse our decline and decadence because they rely more on life-affirming communal values rather than the quantitative analysis of bureaucracies. Human talents cannot fully mature and be realized separate from the “little platoons” that give life meaning.
Empowering small groups may seem counter-intuitive in this age of global warming and pandemics, but it does not mean that efficacy must be forfeited. The power of Edmund Burke’s platoons has been changing corporate America for 50 years since the big automobile manufacturers learned that their hierarchical structure could not compete with the Japanese team-based approach. Now the operations of America’s most competitive companies are team-oriented. In education, the trend is also towards empowering students and parents. School choice is an obvious example, but so are “flipped” classrooms where the teachers act more like coaches. Our dystopian criminal justice system could be improved with community courts and small local jails for nonviolent offenders free of the rape and abuse so prevalent in large jails and prisons.
There are innumerable things that could be done to make communities more resilient by engaging people in ways that would provide more meaning to all our lives. Unlike the dreams of progressives, reinvigorating communities does not require a nationwide approach. One community can blaze a path for others to follow. Cities and especially neighborhood associations can be the new laboratories of democracy we so desperately need if they are empowered by larger institutions. Of course, no institution, no matter how magnanimous, will freely surrender power, but the populist refrain of “drain the swamp” suggests the masses intuitively understand our dilemma and may effect change. The future success of our democracy depends upon making small groups more central to our day-to-day lives.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
[*] George Scialabba, “Back to the Land,” The Baffler, January 6, 2020.
The featured image is “Village Wedding” by Jan Steen (1625-1679) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.