5. Critical Patriotism and Civil Community

Last week, we discussed the need for greater reliance on dialogue as opposed to political debate in the public arena. This week, this discussion continues. In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus has a chapter on “Critical Patriotism and the Civil Community.” [1] The major point of the chapter is that, while civility is a virtue in public life, civility cannot exist without some notion of the worth of the civil community of which we are a part. If our civil community is hopelessly corrupt, as extremists left and right imagine, then there can be no warrant for civility, what is needed is a revolution. [2] It is with wisdom that Neuhaus begins the chapter with its best quote: “Civility is highly valued by the uncertain. It needs most to be exercised by the certain.” [3] We live in a time when this observation is important.

Political Certainty and the Problem of Radical Solutions

One most discouraging aspect of contemporary politics is the certainty with which the political extremes, left and right, are certain of the correctness of their policy preferences. This aspect of American politics is made more troublesome by the fact that identity politics, of which we spoke last week, has made rational compromise difficult to obtain. If, for example, decisions about how to best manage our health care system are caught between the extremes of “there can be no single public funding system” and “there must be a single payer system,” compromise becomes impossible. In a variety of areas, this lack of ability to compromise harms our nation.

Secondly, where extremes control the debate, moderate, smaller, and less disruptive policy prescriptions become impossible. The recent debate over “The Affordable Care Act” (ACA), known as “Obamacare” is illustrative.  President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and their advisors were determined to make a complete, radical change in the American healthcare system. Opponents were determined to prevent this. Many experts doubted that the public and private exchanges ACA exchanges could work, since they would attract the worst and most expensive risk and charge the lowest rates—something everyone in the insurance business knows is financial suicide. One party, did not mind this, since they saw the ACA as a step on the road to nationalized health care. The other party did not care because they believed (it turned out correctly) that the inevitable collapse of Obama Care would return them to power. Lost in all this was the need for America to have a more efficient and cost-effective medical care system. Because the extremes controlled the debate, a bad policy result obtained and billions of dollars and years of time were and are still being lost. Only recently has a more incremental revision been possible, perhaps because both parties feared the consequences of a complete collapse of the system.

The Virtues of Dialogue and Compromise

A rational government trusts that, over time, the public will embrace rational decisions if they are given time, information, and results. Even if one considers that the current policy in some area is not functional and dramatic change needs to be made, small changes in the right direction over time will lead everyone to recognize that fact. On the other hand, if the proposed polity solution turns out to be incorrect, then small changes will be easier to undo than dramatic ones.

In order for small changes to be made, the parties must set aside their ultimate polity preferences, enter a real dialogue, and compromise. This cannot be done in the setting of irrational charges, personal attacks, and public anger. Compromise requires the quiet moment of reflection on what is possible and necessary under the circumstances obtaining. In other words, it requires that wisdom and restraint be public virtues.

The term “civility” derives from the term “civil” and relates to public life. Civility is that public virtue that allows courteous, rational public debate, the absence of violence, physical, moral, or mental violence, all of which are counter-productive in the search for rational public policy. As America moves into a new era, restoration of (or at least an increase in) civility to public life is important. Without this, we are trapped into a series of policy missteps that ultimately damage our “civilization,” which is the end product of a civil public arena.

Civil Patriotism

Many on the left of America fear what they believe is a “jingoistic” irrational Patriotism. To the extent love of country, support common institutions, and care about the fundamental institutions (like the Constitution) are unreflective, there is a real danger in this fear. However, there is also a danger in jingoistic, irrational rejection of our social institutions, institutions that have served our nation well and allowed the social and economic progress we have made since our founding. True Civil Patriotism, and a love for our civil society, does not mean a lack of concern for its shortcomings and failures. It means a willingness to display respect for those who disagree with us and to listen with respect and openness to the critique they offer in the search for a better society for all.

As a Christian, I believe that it is only by injecting that most Christian of virtues, self-giving love into the public life of our nation that this is possible. Today is President’s Day. At the beginning of our nation, the wealthiest and most powerful figure of its birth, George Washington put everything at risk to create, form, and sustain our public institutions. He resisted every temptation to gain permanent power as he served our nation. At the moment when our nation was most fractured, Abraham Lincoln served our nation to maintain our union and fundamental institutions, and in the process eliminated the greatest evil present in the formation of our nation.  Perhaps it is to their example we should return as we face the problems of today.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 69; “…civility assumes, if not a consensus about, at least a search for a reconstituted vision of the civitas.”

[3] Id, at 55.

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