Yuval Levin, writing in the August 13, 2012 issue of National Review, wonders in The Hollow Republic if progressives can imagine a middle ground between the individual and the state:
This attitude toward mediating institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the progressive cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an “artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass.”
Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers precisely for creating such barriers, which can guard the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.
Edmund Burke, Paine’s great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society — evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. “We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke wrote. “We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” To sweep them away and leave only the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social improvements.
This difference of opinion about mediating institutions is no trifling matter. It gets at a profound and fundamental difference between the Left and the Right. The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.
The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society — emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise — are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.
The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.
The president’s exceptionally revealing description of America in his Roanoke remarks thus points to a key dividing line in our politics, and to a central issue of contention in this election year. It’s not a surprise that it turns out to clarify a broad range of the Obama administration’s most troubling and peculiar policy choices.
Mitt Romney has chosen to respond to the president’s remarks largely by defending the honor of individual achievement and initiative in business. This is certainly understandable, since Obama’s statement on that front was an astonishing insult to America’s tens of millions of business owners and entrepreneurs (including Romney himself). But he should also take the opportunity the president has handed him to offer a defense of American life — with its dense array of forms of common action, only a few of them political — against a cold and listless technocratic vision that promises to smother the drive and energy of our republic and leave the citizen defenseless against the whims of government officials.
To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work together, but government is just one of the many things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.