What do Eurosceptic movements, support for Donald Trump, and recent college protesters have in common? All are populist reactions to political correctness and its precondition of abolishing our common political sense of what we can do together. Such a lesson one can garner from French philosopher Pierre Manent, who is little known in America, but who understands how to see and speak politically amidst political correctness and its populist overcorrections.
Consider the following: European political leaders disregard national interest through the promotion of European Union unification and mass immigration; the upper class disenfranchise America’s more secular, working-class voters; college students find solidarity in identity politics as universities abandon liberal education for technocratic agendas and diversity mantras. Each time, populist representatives arise where elites fear to go, the latter forfeiting their claims to real representation and to national leadership, often by scorning (or condescendingly giving into) the vox populi and their concerns.
The “revolt of the elites”—as Christopher Lasch describes the actions of our self-segregated leaders—is their abdication of any identification with lower classes. Westerners have gradually removed the embodied forms of what we have and do in common, which enables us to see and speak politically.
Seeing politically means, like the Machiavelli dictum, “the reading of ancient things” to understand “the experience of modern things.” One uses political science, from Thucydides to Tocqueville, to comprehend contemporary life. Speaking politically applies that knowledge in shared reflection and civic deliberation. But, political correctness opposes speaking politically; it derives from the disorder of an absent common life that otherwise permits seeing things politically.
In Seeing Things Politically (2015), Mr. Manent calls political correctness “a discipline of speech that attempts to respond to the current malaise of the representative regime.” Consider the European Union: While the EU ignores disunity among European nations and unassimilated Muslim immigrants, political correctness mutes political speech when representation and its preconditions are abolished. As the implicit rules of what and how one says something, political correctness is a top-down method, absenting common identity, to impose the appearance of order and ignore actual disorder. Political experience enables political epistemology; its absence blinds us from seeing things politically. Not seeing “who represents what or whether or not a political body is being represented,” Mr. Manent writes, Europeans suffer from the EU ‘s doctrinal refusal “to see what we see” and to talk about politics correctly.
The welfare state, for example, illustrates removing preconditions of representation. Because the welfare state allows democratic states to extend their inclusion of working classes, Mr. Manent notes in Democracy Without Nations? (2008), they are no longer represented. Being represented in government presupposes a unified group exists prior to representation. But state welfare eliminates the working class as a class that works, which can then be represented.
An American example is Charles Murray’s examination of Fishtown, Pennsylvania. In 1970, Fishtown was “a tightly knit, family-oriented, hard-drinking, hardworking, hard-fighting blue-collar neighborhood that felt persecuted by the government and disdained by the elites.” As federal welfare policies and social liberalism continued, this community eroded. In 2010, Fishtown massively frayed in terms of religion, marriage, workforce participation, and neighborhood bonds. Such documented ills, Mr. Murray notes, have been ignored by most network-news programs, major editorial writers, and Democratic and Republican politicians. The persecution by the government and disdain by elites has continued, but the old Fishtown capable of representation is gone. While politically-incorrect facts about family life are ignored, Fishtown is the type of community that is most conducive to seeing Donald Trump as its representative. With stagnant wages and job losses, Mr. Murray writes, Trumpism means “the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class.”
The identity politics of Mr. Trump are not new, but harken to the education of the current ruling class now managing university campuses. Before 1969, the late Christopher Hitchens recalled, the old left made would-be revolutionaries “claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work.” But in claiming that the personal is political, “speaking as an X” individually replaced group action in qualifying a college student “as a revolutionary.” These radicals separated individual identities rather than identifying together as a polity. Tenured would-be radicals settled for less than revolution, embracing technocratic policies supplementing political correctness to maintain order on campuses and countries. That generation created a tradition from which the current radicals now draw in revolt against morally-bankrupt university management.
Aristotle says that man, uniquely possessing speech, is the most political animal—only we can deliberate our common life together. Yet how can a group speak politically if no common life is perceivable? Well, Europe’s malaise centers on an inability even to identify politically. To represent, one must have prior ties to those who are represented. But the transnational bureaucracy in Brussels and Strasbourg do not democratically represent Europe; rejecting a common culture that precedes and makes possible politics, European national leaders unsubstantially represent their nations. The American example of the white, lower class’ support for Mr. Trump parallels the European malaise hidden under speech discipline and Eurosceptic responses.
Similar disciplining on college campuses presents two extreme temptations for students: believe everything (including the personal) is political, or believe that almost nothing has political relevance. All speech is politicized (and disciplined), or no political speech exists. Removing what is held in common introduces disciplined speech. In The Metamorphoses of the City (2014), Mr. Manent asserts that political correctness is speech confused as action. Because political disagreement supposedly implies political violence, college speech-codes interpret verbal disagreement as antagonizing action. The personal (or nothing) being political removes the common, so our “we” becomes “otherized.” In rebuttal, Mr. Manent argues for the Aristotelian position of politics as the constant project of “putting in common” our lives “in the most deliberate way possible.” Between the two extremes, the common is political.
Mr. Manent attended the university, École normale supérieure (ENS), a center of the 1968 Parisian riots. Postmodern politics erupted among competing communist student groups as any common life there disappeared. Students called ENS a hotel, hospital, and asylum because “the politicization of the school had destroyed all life.” Before 1968, political philosophy declined, and European philosophers spoke little on politics. Some who did (Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre) would have done better to keep silent. An apolitical epistemology explains why many intellectuals were not anti-fascists before WWII and why they later naively adopted communist sympathies. But 1968 missed its rendezvous with Mr. Manent. He found another way to study political questions through philosophical studies.
He learned how to think politically from his mentor, Raymond Aron. Mr. Manent met Aron at ENS when Mr. Manent attended his seminar on ancient and modern political science. There, Aron delivered his graduate students from a disdain for politics (common among peers politicizing everything) and demonstrated that something can be known in politics. Afterwards, Mr. Manent joined these fellow students and lifelong friends to create the few outlets for French anticommunists like Aron and this “anti-totalitarian generation.” They argued, that totalitarianism was understandable only within the context of democracy vis-a-vis Alexis de Tocqueville.
Removing civil society between the individual and the state is the opposite of and counter-effect to a representative regime. State abolition of private and public freedoms purportedly fulfills the “imagined equality” of democratic semblance among unequal citizens. The totalitarian temptation completes this semblance—every individual can be equally subjected and isolated by despotism. This semblance hides the totalitarian potential laden in modern democracy.
Relevant here is how Tocqueville distinguishes aristocracy from democracy. Aristocracy possessed stable, though unequal, bonds among its members. Modern democracy erodes these bonds by having comparatively equal individuals. The result, Mr. Manent writes in Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1996), is two alternatives: equal subjection to bureaucracy or equal rights exercised in civil society. The nature of democracy tends to erode social capital, but the art of democracy means rebuilding it through voluntary associations. Tocqueville found that Americans understood the art of undergirding the substance of civil society in this way.
Now Americans have what Murray calls a “cultural inequality.” Once, we had bragged about having a civic culture uniting us across class by means of shared daily experiences and assumptions about marriage, honesty, industriousness, and religion. Now that common civic culture has unraveled into a class society. Our upper class, possessing advanced education, often through graduation from elite schools, shares tastes and preferences isolating it from Middle America; our lower class has withdrawn from America’s core cultural institutions. Personal politics at universities is an upper-class phenomenon, support for Mr. Trump a lower-class phenomenon.
Both exhibit a segregated culture—politically-correct identity politics defines the former, and politically-incorrect politics the latter. The upper class practices but does not preach our core institutions, while the lower class has left them. Christopher Lasch emphasizes that “liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.” What Lasch meant by liberalism is what Tocqueville meant by democracy. The capital is borrowed from aristocratic institutions—but either not practiced or not preached. Political correctness and populist reactions suggest the loaned capital is defaulting.
Any response to this inequality in a democratic regime requires examining the “totalitarian temptation.” The demands of college protesters and strong-man politics bespeak a regime representing a breakdown of what we hold in common. The soft despotism present in modern American politics is a sign that modern democratic man has spent the political capital inherited from aristocracy and is thus in danger of losing the institutions, mores, and practices that sustain our way of life. Though parts of the soul were rearranged when aristocratic regimes democratized, Mr. Manent suggests, the same parts persist: “Thumos [spiritedness] has not been annihilated” despite democratic conversion.
The Western way of devising the new means by which to put things in common, Mr. Manent argues, reflects the Western belief in “conversion”: the soul’s ability to change while fundamentally remaining the same. This belief is reflected in the modern invention of the nation-state, a political metamorphosis unseen since the Roman metamorphosis from city to empire. The homogenous city is intimate but exclusive; the homogenizing empire is universal and peaceful. The nation embodies the city in its civil society; the state embodies the empire in its sovereign authority under which all individuals are equal. Here, the representative regime of the nation-state mediates the forms of city, with the state allowing for equality (and potentially liberty) by presupposing nationhood.
Europe forgot this political science because it forgot how to see and to speak politically. Though Europe invented the nation-state, the EU alienates Europe from its achievement. His generation, Mr. Manent opines, “rejected the totalitarian temptation, but we no longer know what is the point of our deliberation; we no longer know to what end nor for whom we deliberate, or even if we deliberate.” Instead, an “unlimited identification with every other” alienates common political speech from anything shared to deliberate and act together. Contra his Europhile peers, Mr. Manent argues that the EU emperor has clothes but no political body.
For our elites, whether illiberal liberals, Trumpians, or other, are in the thrall of, as philosopher Peter Lawler terms it, “a post-political, post-religious, and post-familial fantasy,” in which one can live untethered without institutions “designed for beings who were born to know, love, die, and be from somewhere in particular.” Whereas Europe’s fantasy entails politically-correct elites refusing to see the obvious disorder, America’s fantasy consists of the disorder of cultural inequality and dual-class pathologies. Both are chimeras that require our putting political things in common again.
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