In his essay “Politics, Philosophy, and the Common Good,” Alasdair MacIntyre mounts an argument that the modern nation-state cannot in fact promote a politics of the common good because its political discourse rejects any genuinely rational enquiry and debate about overall forms of life. It sets “limits that are characteristically presupposed by its modes of discourse rather than articulated,” especially the proscription against appeals to first principles. He is careful to point out that appeals to more substantive goods do appear, but they only do so in non-systematic ways – such appeals “contain and domesticate those issues, so that any political appeal to first principles does not become a philosophical debate about first principles.” They appear only in order to “negotiate temporary settlements” with this or that interest group who must be kept on board for an electoral coalition to succeed.
However, he notes trenchantly that the ostensible neutrality of the nation-state on the question of the good life ignores the practical reality that the outcomes of particular policy choices are not neutral in their effects on various conceptions of the good life. The neutrality is a lie. In practice, “every political and social order embodies and gives expression to an ordering of different human goods and therefore also embodies and gives expression to some particular conception of the human good.” Hence, he argues that nation-states are in fact “oligarchies disguised as liberal democracies,” maintained by elites who control and constrain choices and outcomes in line with their conceptions of the human good. Though they may speak loudly about freedom and diversity and the people, they in practice believe in and to some extent implement a vision not of “the people” but of “their people.” And to be sure, MacIntyre would suggest that the conventional politics of the U.S. is really an ongoing battle between two relatively small elite establishments, one represented primarily by large traditional corporations and the other by creative class institutions. Various groups are addressed and enlisted in this fight. But the fight is constrained by the boundaries of these two establishments. And any policy path must somehow conform to the limits set by these establishments.
The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency both challenges MacIntyre’s analysis and confirms it. On the one hand, there is little doubt that Trump represents a choice that the elites (of either party) did not want. And there’s a way in which Trump himself represents not a conventional elite-drafted leader with a set of relatively scripted ideas in line with a major party, but rather a vote to “make America great again” – which everyone, for and against, agrees is a code for a certain conception of the good. Put simply, Trump is a defense of a certain form of the good life. And the unusual responses of many political elites – like the many who have announced they will not attend his inauguration – is a response in kind. It is a recognition that Trump represents something deeper than conventional policy change. Whether for those who champion him or despise him, he is an argument about a form of life. Many people, for and against, recognize that what is at stake with Trump is something more than a set of policies. It’s about national character or values or something like that. On both sides.
However, Trump also confirms MacIntyre’s argument. MacIntyre’s premise is that what is impossible in contemporary nation-state politics is a systematic – that is, philosophically responsible and rational – debate about the common good, about the first principles that shape individual and common good. In fact, what we have in the country is a pretty full-blown and increasing culture war. But we have no way of addressing it as such in the public discourse. Trading barbs over “racism” and “political correctness” are the best we are able to do. Both are in fact codes for deeper convictions about what a good society is. A reasonable public discourse would unpack these. Unfortunately, we too often get imposition, not genuine debate – and this (in different ways) from both sides.
So perhaps a good question for this day is: could Donald Trump – unintentionally, to be sure – usher in the possibility of a deeper, more philosophical account of our shared political life? Perhaps, given the opening that has appeared, we as a society could become more explicit and articulate about these competing views. For some, such an invitation is useless. On the one hand, some – many technocrats, for example – suggest that Trumpism is a symbolic protest against economic and demographic forces that simply will not be denied. White Christian manufacturing America is ending, no matter what Trump does. On the other hand, some – and I think especially of advocates on issues where Trump and the Congress are likely to do considerable damage – will find that such finery can’t be afforded because of the urgency of pulling out all the stops to prevent damage. I don’t buy the inevitability argument, and I don’t think the blocking argument fully grasps the problem that opposition to things like the ACA and immigration are not simply irrational prejudices, but arise from a particular view of society which needs to be confronted and rationally debated if advocates want a national consensus rather than just a 50%-plus-one political victory.
Of course, there are things that make this transition difficult. MacIntyre, for example, insists that this is really only possible at a certain, much smaller scale. Perhaps a bit less harshly, such a conversation would have to be mediated, and the current forms of social media (as I write my blog…) are often poorly designed to sustain conversation about first principles. In terms of political strategy, Democrats have every reason to dig in and defend, especially if Republicans feel (temporarily) emboldened by their control over so much of the machinery. Impasse will prove more attractive than paths forward. That’s probably why this isn’t a conversation about the specifics of the immediate legislative agenda. It’s a longer-term conversation. And it’s not easy.
If one might expect such a conversation anywhere, it would be at Politics and Prose, the nation’s wonkiest bookstore in upper northwest DC, on the eve of the Trump presidency. Essayist Jonathan Chait was there, discussing his new book on the durability of some of the legacies of Barack Obama’s presidency. The place was packed. The discussion was between two extremely well-informed people. Yet it’s not easy. I witnessed a temptation to laud technocracy, elite-college intelligence, even-tempered competence, moderate and prudent rather than pure solutions – all things which are very valuable. But they are not first principles. At one point, there was an exchange where Chait suggested the real worry people should have is about the erosion of “small-d democratic norms” and a set of habits of thinking and discourse. (Chait, to his credit, delicately but clearly pointed out the problems these norms are having because of liberals on college campuses, not only because of a certain tweeting candidate.) The conversation started verging on at least something like first principles. But it could never develop beyond that, and it was relatively clear that even the crowd gathered at P&P still tended to think about the immediate – the cabinet appointments, the policies, and the like. And often enough, the conversation turned to electoral cycles, debates over redistricting, effective (and ineffective) means of communication, and demography – that is, it turned to the machinery of “what will get us the first down, the 50% + 1?”
So, maybe the Trump presidency and the reaction against it is an opportunity to see if MacIntyre is right. Can we actually have a rational philosophical conversation about first principles, rather than just fighting? For a Catholic, the places to start the first principles discourse is with life. Let’s talk about abortion, health care, and immigration together. And let’s talk not simply about the what and how (which does matter), but about the why. Do others want to propose other places to start? Great, let’s talk.
Maybe MacIntyre is right. But maybe not. Now is the time to find out.