Society Magazine

Michael Austin's Enemies, and What He Says About Them

Posted on the 27 May 2019 by Russellarbenfox
Michael Austin's Enemies, and What He Says About Them[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]
Michael Austin (who, for the record, is an old and close friend) does not fit most people's stereotype of a "patriot," the sort of person would would proudly fly an American flag and attend parades on Memorial Day. After all, he's an academic, a cosmopolitan, a liberal Democrat, a scholar of 17th-century English rhetoric, Mormon environmentalism, world literature, and the book of Job; when he wrote an earlier book about the Founding Fathers, it was entirely about how right-wing patriots completely misunderstand them. So it would be easy to assume that Michael's attachment to the idea of "America" would be a distant, contextual, and intellectual at best.
Michael Austin's Enemies, and What He Says About ThemThat assumption would be wrong--or mostly wrong, anyway. You'd very likely be correct about the flag and the parades. But Michael's latest book, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition, makes it clear that his attachment to--indeed, his "belief" in--the civic idea of America is both serious and strong. As long as I've known the man, it surprised me to see in these pages so much genuine passion and concern over the direction of the United States at the present moment. When he takes a line from the famous closing paragraph of Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address--"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies"--as his title, he really means it: he really believes that America's liberal democracy both provides a vital opportunity for, and levies upon us all a specific demand for, friendship. That friendship is, in his view, essential to America's "civic tradition"; democratic legitimacy in the American state--to say nothing of good government--is impossible without it.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the religious tradition that Michael and I share, famously stated that "friendship" is a "foundational principle," a "revolution" that could "civilize the world." This is not the sort of friendship that Michael is talking about. He does not conceive of the United States as a family or a community characterized by--or one that needs to be characterized by--deep senses of affection or charity; indeed, he starts his book out making it clear that he is not talking about how we all need to be nicer, or how we need to change the U.S. Constitution in a more communitarian or participatory direction, or how we just need to figure out who is worthy of friendship and who isn't. Michael instead proposes that the friendship which America needs is "civic friendship," and he uses Lincoln and a great many other historical examples--from the long, once broken, ultimately repaired friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; to Preston Brook's violent response to Charles Sumner's furious speech in the Senate against slavery; to the little known story of President Chester Arthur's willingness to change his mind, profoundly improve the functioning of America's bureaucracy, and accept the political consequences--to flesh out his idea. At its heart, Michael's civic friendship means taking seriously the long-term interests of one's fellow citizens--whether or not one agrees with, or can even barely tolerate, those citizens or their respective interests--simply as a matter of justice. The operation of the American democratic system, as he sees it, depends upon our use of persuasion, and our willingness to endure persuasion's frequent failures, as we debate and disagree about how to govern ourselves. To give up on persuasion means, for Michael, to deny the justice encoded in the democratic principles at the heart of our system (principles which, as he regularly acknowledges, emerged and continue to emerge only through much struggle, argument, and time), and instead simply accept that those you disagree with are your enemies, worthy only of being punched (at best).
Beginning with Aristotle's philia politike (which Michael defines as mutual self-interest elevated by goodwill, the desiring of the "well-being of [one's] fellow citizens for its own sake"--p. 36), and building upon Alexis de Tocqueville's many observations about the mores and habits he saw exhibited by the Americans he observed during his visit to the United States in the early 1830s (like the fact our commitment to voting and elections "seeps into almost every aspect of our lives"--p. 22), Michael expands upon the idea of civic friendship through evolutionary psychology, literary analysis, game theory, and more. His case for the possibility of persuasion, and the necessity of acting as though it is possible even in the most extreme and divisive moments, is a strong one. (His detailed study of the argumentative strategies employed, and responded to, by Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their 1858 debates is one of several highlights throughout this short book.) In addition, the book's language is often both beautiful and wise; Michael is no poet, but sometimes he expresses his civic friendship ideal in ways that are not only informative, but deeply appealing as well:
We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day--occasionally in a formal election but more often through the purchases we make, the people and institutions we choose to associate with, and the things that we give our attention to. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. When animated by a genuine concerns for the well-being of others, we will find ways to make our society more just. When animated by civic enmity or the desire to injure or defeat some group of people, we will find ways to make our society less just (pp 38-39).
This is the sort of language that ought to give everyone who has ever unfriended, snarked at, or triumphantly shouted down those they assume to be hopelessly wrong--the Mormon-bashers, the Trump-supporters, the pro-choicers, the Confederate flag-flyers, the PETA-funders--a serious pause. Less noticeably, but perhaps more importantly, it is language that ought to also give everyone who has occasionally felt themselves weirdly connecting with others against the assumed grain of American discourse--the Democratic Socialist of America activist who enjoys spending time with conservative farmers, the libertarian Google coder whose best friend is a life-long Marine, the conservative Christian who adores her membership in the local Quentin Tarantino fan club--some real encouragement: maybe they're doing something right! By so doing, it provide both groups, and everyone in between, a larger sense of how their--how all of our--choices fit, or don't fit, with America's democratic ethos, and thereby provides much needed encouragement (and warnings as well). Solely on an ethical level, Michael's book is both vital and valuable; as a Memorial Day read, I can't possibly recommend it more highly.
That said--can I also recommend it on a political level? That is, do I think his diagnosis of American democracy, as a matter of political theory and political practice, is correct? Only partly. Hence, once I put on my own academic hat, I can only recommend the book with a couple of large caveats. I'll lay those out now, but they aren't going to affect the five stars I'm giving this book, so if feel free to skip the next several paragraphs and go to the end if that was your only reason for reading this far.
The first of my caveats is ideological in character; the second is structural, though they overlap in important ways. Let's begin with the ideological: Michael, as all of the above should make apparent, is not just a liberal Democrat, but a bone-deep philosophical liberal, someone who is entirely convinced that liberal principles of rationality, individuality, and pragmatism provide the only accounts of human freedom and flourishing worth defending. This means, of course, that there some major elisions in the book--not necessarily ones which Michael couldn't address and respond to, but ones that, as he made decisions about what to include and what to exclude in this 155-page book (with 30 pages of appendices), I suspect simply never seemed important to him.
For example, consider Michael's rather cavalier treatment of the inevitable "what about Nazis?" question (pp. 70-72). It's not that his eminently pragmatic responses (such as: the odds of anyone meeting an actual Nazi is vanishingly small; asking if one has to show civic friendship to a Nazi is probably just a self-interested effort of giving oneself an exemption from the obligations of American citizenship; proudly rejecting the intolerant only plays to one's own peer group and never advances actual discourse; etc.) are wrong--they aren't. But Michael can't, in my judgment, build a moral case for particular sorts of democratic actions on the basis of a civil religion without articulating the place of, and the relationship others should have to, those who rejects the basic precepts of a particular community's civil faith. And Michael does build such a case: his liberal principles are, on my reading, deeply parasitic upon republican and civil religious assumption.
Michael only mentions "civil religion" a couple of times--once to define it, following Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, as "wishing others well" instead of "wishing them ill," and once to insist, despite today's partisan divisions, that we still "hold enough beliefs in common to build a political process based on persuasion" (pp. 40, 147). It's my belief, though, and the belief of many others, that to take seriously an Aristotelian framework for understanding civic action--which Michael absolutely does--makes it impossible to avoid the human impulse to "understand the actions of individuals (including oneself) as embedded in some sort of collective, morally (and often religiously) substantive--that is, 'truthful'--cultural order." In other words, I do not see how it is possible to believe that the communal and cultural awarenesses which allow for concepts like "well-being" or "justice" to even make sense can avoid carrying with them (and even, despite the bogeyman this presents philosophical liberals with everyone, occasionally "establishing") some kind of clear communitarian or cultural or ideological marker. (Consider: how can one express what doing "well" is, as opposed to doing "ill," or what a "just" relationship is, versus an "unjust" relationship, absent some kind of substantive body of social or moral ideas being concomitant with or at least broadly accepted among those doing the expressing?) This is, in my view, Republicanism 101; Michael at one point mentions the classic Roman phrase "res publica," and how it relates to Aristotle's preferred mixed regime (the "politeia"), but he doesn't mention that the literal meaning of res publica, and thus the root meaning of republicanism, is "the public thing"--thus making it incumbent upon anyone who wants to make use of these ideas to define just which "public" is being referred to. The earliest English translations of these republican notions is what gave us "commonweal" and "commonwealth"--which, of course, cannot help but take as their beginning some specific "commons," some specific people or place or public, and what norms or habits or preferences are central to their own "weal," their own wellness. Which means, in the end, that one cannot avoid dealing with the problem of those habits or norms or preferences lead towards that which the community understands as the opposite of well-being.
Admittedly, there are other ways to understand this particular ideological matter, and it's one Michael and I have argued about before. But look: saying that Michael can't get to where he wants to get by way of civic friendship without dealing with the genuine theoretical problem of those whose beliefs are actually not "friendly" to the American community, does not mean that he needs to abandon his liberal convictions. Many liberal thinkers--John Rawls most famously--have labored (some with more success than others) over how one can sensibly defend the ideal of a liberal community of real fairness and decency that would be, nonetheless, freely chosen by all the different people who are part of it. No, I'm not expecting Michael to write his own version of A Theory of Justice; I'm just saying that if he wants to convincingly call to civic friendship those who, say, by their own philosophical and moral lights, genuinely understand baby-murdering abortionists and women-enslaving Republicans to be beyond the pale of any possible persuasion, then he needs to articulate a strong and substantive enough definition of the American community so as to ground that friendship which such people can supposedly share. Of course, one could abandon such substance, in favor of (as Rawls ultimately did) some kind of proceduralism: an "overlapping consensus" on self-interested electoral protections, perhaps. In other words: I hate you, but I won't shoot you in the face, and instead I'll just try to win elections, because I don't want to be shot in the face either. That isn't necessarily a bad ethic! But it's not an ethic that cares at all about "America's Civic Tradition," as Michael's subtitle does, either.
Michael's subtitle brings me to my structural, and more simple, complaint: restoring civic friendship, as vital and valuable as I agree it is, cannot, in my judgment, restore America's civic tradition, because the basic operations of our democratic and electoral systems are no longer responsive to republican civic action, or at least not nearly as much as they once were. There are a hundred ways to examine this degeneration of America's constitutional order, even if one restricts oneself solely to basic republican principles. There is the way the enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States undermines any sense of a common good; the way the legal recognition of money as equivalent to speech corrupts the trust voters are supposed to have in their elected representatives; the way the globalization disrupts the patterns of life by which citizens might feel any real ownership over the communities; etc. Michael does not at the beginning of the book that he feels no obligation to address any comprehensive proposals for reform, simply because, until "people in the country trust each other and are willing to set aside differences and work for the common good," none of them will happen. His decision--and it's a perfectly reasonable one--is to focus on "things that we actually control," specifically "the way we talk to other people" (pp. 9-10). To the extent that not being enemies is a chicken-and-egg problem--something he acknowledges at the very end of the book, in a thoughtful section on the "risk of embrace"; basically the "who starts treating their enemies as friends first?" question (pp. 154-155)--then simply asserting the need to begin with persuasion is entirely defensible. Except for the fact that even Michael himself can't ignore the structural obstacles to persuasion in America today entirely.
Twice in the book--once while invoking President Johnson's insistence upon getting Republican support as the Democrats pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the Senate, and once when talking about combating the way partisan polarization benefits small groups of extremists (pp. 73-74, 81)--makes an important admission: "Our primary election system makes this dynamic especially difficult." Michael does imply that the problem here is voters that "rarely reward" politicians who compromise, but his own language makes it clear he knows that, when it comes to career-minded politicians who wish to maintain their party's nomination, it is not the "voters" in general but rather "well-funded primary challenges" that are the problem. Without a complete transformation in how parties operate, how candidates are recruited, and how elections are paid for--the sort of transformations which Michael said was beyond the scope of his book--you can't get away from the problem that primary contests pose for the ideal of elected politicians as agents of, and responders to, real democratic persuasion. Which means that, in this matter at least, the "way we talk to other people" has to be less about democratic debate and more about building coalitions of the like-minded sufficient to challenge major funding sources, with the aim of occasionally, in one election or another, actually disrupting their entrenched control over the process. At the present corrupt moment, unfortunately, truly concerned voters I think often need to act more along the line of Alinsky's rules, rather than Austin's.
Note what I said there: "often," not "always." The ideal of civic friendship is not simply a fine ideal; it is an ethically meaningful one. Michael is, as I said at the beginning, a genuine believer in the aspirational possibilities and principles he sees as embodied in America's constitutional democracy--his commitment to the practice of liberal democracy is nothing less than patriotic, in every sense of the word. Yes, I think his liberal equanimity gets in the way of his dealing with serious theoretical problems that his aspirations cannot honestly avoid addressing in the United States of America, circa 2019; and moreover, I think his sole focus on our personal rhetoric and political choices and relationships cannot, in the face of actual anti-republican obstacles out there, actually do what he hopes it will do. But so what? Maybe American democracy is in terminal decline, or maybe there will be some revolution to restore it or make it into something different--maybe some of those reading this will even be part of that revolution, whatever it may be. But whether this country, whom so many have sacrificed so much for over its 230 years of existence, declines or improves or just muddles along--the ethical and civic rightness of Michael's call to practice democratic friendship and trust will endure. Michael is anything but a moralizer, but at the book's end he returns to the call I quoted above, and it remains powerful one: "[W]e vote every day for the kind of country we want to live in. We vote by how we choose to participate--or not participate--in the civic life of our democracy. Every time we have a political conversation, we are casting a vote for the kind of political conversations we want to have" (p. 155).
Michael Austin's Enemies, and What He Says About ThemFrom what I've seen over more than a quarter-century, Michael's whole life, academic and otherwise, has been guided by his deep liberality and rationality--his conviction that any two people, or any two tribes or religions or genders or anything else, assuming even just the most minimal of civic connection, nonetheless can and should be friends. Not just mutual sharers of procedural tolerance, but people who share, in the midst of their endless and perhaps necessary disagreements, a desire for the well-being of one another. This is liberal Christianity is how he approaches the contentious world around him, and around us all. It's a rather beautiful ideal--even, perhaps, as Smith suggested, a revolutionary one, though Michael's notion of civic friendship doesn't really have a place for those who see a need to revolt against that which sometimes makes friendship harder than it should be. That's a flaw, perhaps. But this Memorial Day, I salute Michael's patriotic defense of civic friendliness, American-style, and of the choice to talk and listen to one's fellow citizens with openness, seriousness, and respect. Buy three copies, and given them away to the first MAGA hat-wearer and first BLM protestor--and then, most crucially, the first snooty "pox-on-both-your-houses!" self-righteous supposed independent--you meet. None of them may need the book, or like it--but you never know.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Magazine