The liberty we discover in associations
Professor Goldman’s succinct analysis offers a useful taxonomy of freedoms to frame a contemporary conversation that is otherwise abstract: freedom of the person, freedom of association, and freedom of self-government. The taxonomy is useful precisely because the whole collapses without any parts. In Goldman’s essay, there is less to question than to expand. I want to focus on one type of freedom for two reasons – the freedom to connect. One is that it is the hinge that the others depend on. The second is the possibility that we misdiagnosed their decline in the Conservatives’ legitimate concerns over attacks on the freedom of affiliated groups from family to religion. In other words, the problem with associations is not that they are unfree. It is that they seem unnecessary.
Freedom of association is not just about removing barriers to association. It’s about preserving the need for association. People who live in a state of addiction can do all sorts of things that they don’t just because it’s more convenient not to do so. Association – real association – is hard work. And we found an easier way. In order to stand up for the human well-being of association, we have become dependent on politics as a spectacle.
The conventional explanation for this is Tocquevilles: aristocrats are tied to other aristocrats. “In democratic centuries, on the other hand, when the duties of each individual to the species are much clearer, devotion to a person becomes less common: the bond of human affection is expanded and loosened.” But that lets us off the hook. It assumes that our motive for our dependence on politics is benevolence toward humanity as opposed to benevolence toward humans. It is unclear whether the motive is benevolence at all. It is more of a cheap alternative to the human need for association. This thrill depends on Shmittian politics being carried over by friends and enemies to the relatively mild and unobtrusive form of politics in the Anglo-American tradition.
During the Rote Angst, Louis Hartz wrote that a society reacts to external threats by imposing internal conformity. A defining feature of the last generation of American life, however, was the lack of concentrated, truly existential threats from opposing nation-states.
We seem to have developed a need for such a threat – and this is relatively new to the American character. Now that it has largely dissolved abroad, we have found it in each other. This can be seen in the apocalyptic terms in which we describe meaningful but relatively humble political disputes, from the election on Flight 93 on the right to the reflexive evocations of “security” of this or that identity group on the left.
Not surprisingly, politicians or activists find crises under every stone they tip over. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, paraphrasing Norman Podhoretz, identified “the immutable political content of the proclamation of impending doom. The person making such a statement asks that he or she be given power to someone else. “
That is the nature of power. It doesn’t explain why there is such a market for it. In this regard, Robert Nisbet is a better leader than Hartz. Nisbet noted that community was such an enduring human need that people who couldn’t find it in the meaningful personal relationships around them would instead seek it in the faceless realm of politics. A friendly change to Nisbet’s thesis could be: People who don’t need to find meaning in relationships that place specific demands on them will instead be interested in politics.
A policy that meets such a fundamental need must be intense regardless of what it is actually about at any given moment.
Goldman rightly observes what contemporary Americans often forget: this free association “presupposes the possibility of reasonable disagreement”. However, Schmitt’s distinction between friend and foe does not allow it. Also an intersectionality that imposes vertical conformity on all who oppose a particular enemy. The armchair diagnosis is that this describes the polarized relationship between Democrats and Republicans. It’s more disturbing and accurate than diagnosing intra-party relationships. We are all intersectionalists now.
Intersectionality is a result of identity politics, a description of overlapping sources of oppression. But it also requires a uniform conviction of all victims. A person who is oppressed as a member of a group is obliged to form political alliances based on an alleged unity of interests with all these groups. He or she does not have the freedom to move alliances from issue to issue – a flexibility that was at the heart of James Madison’s claim that a faction is not dangerous in an enlarged republic with different interests. In the intersectional thesis, diversity requires uniformity.
Real associations make demands on their members. Political affiliations or antipathies towards a president are free. They are also substance-free.
We see this as a leftist phenomenon. It is, and it is sustained by the rise of alert capitalism, the problem of which is less a fanciful conspiracy of financial coercion than a simple inability to find shelter from politics. Politics – or to be more precise cleaning – dominates marketing. It’s supposed to motivate our purchases and who we’re doing them from. It permeates the culture.
However, this expectation of unity is not limited to the left. On the right, the existential threat of – what exactly? – So much uniformity that party politics, which has meanwhile become presidential politics, dominates every office from the White House to the district clerk and associations from advocacy organizations to places of worship.
Temporary political alliances made for mutual benefit can be healthy. Indeed, a gun rights group whose goals are achieved through the election of a particular candidate might be well advised to partner with, for example, a pro-life group whose own interests dictate similar voting priorities. An environmental group might join a group that supports racial preferences for similar reasons. The tendency becomes pathological, however, when these relationships become more permanent definitions than alliances of expediency: To be pro-life means to be pro-gun, just as environmentalists support identity politics.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity – that a need should be met by the institution closest to the individual – recognizes the human imperative for these closer associations such as the family or the community, but also the imperative to preserve the necessity of these.
There are, of course, threats to these apolitical associations, which are properly classified as threats to freedom of association. Government assaults on the family, such as a Washington state law that allows patients under the age of 13 to communicate with insurance companies and medical providers about “sensitive health services” without their parents’ knowledge, are alarming. This also applies to attacks on religious freedom, such as the thinly veiled attempt by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was rejected by the Supreme Court, to weed out places of worship for particularly restrictive pandemic regulations. Activists and politicians knock down educational institutions from both directions: the left kidnaps them to enforce ideological conformity, but instead of keeping these institutions at a distance from politics, the right imitates the tactics and tries to politicize them in their own image. The 1619 project, for example, seeks radically to politicize primary and secondary education through a curriculum agenda based on objective falsehoods.
President Trump is right to respond by defending American heritage without apology, as he did in his July 4th speech on Mount Rushmore. Part of the problem with the 1619 curriculum, however, is precisely the attempt to politicize local civil society institutions, which is why Trump’s executive nationalization of a project of “patriotic education” – including a commission to resolve the controversial question of America’s Founding Principles above will answer somehow – is a poorly thought out answer. If conservatives believe in Tocquevillian civil society, the priority should be to restore a policy-free space.
In addressing these threats, we might also consider the possibility that the greatest threat to associations is not our freedom of association, but our need to do so. Real associations make demands on their members. Affiliations or antipathies towards a president – choose your poison: Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden – are free. They are also substance-free.
The job of associations is to deal with the hectic pace of individuals and families who lead interesting and meaningful lives and – through trial and error instead of coordination and coercion – find the balance between freedom and commitment. There may be little fame as is conventionally understood. But the full spectrum of Goldman’s taxonomy of freedoms depends on what should be enough fame. Maintaining such a balanced freedom requires a retreat from politics rather than an escalating obsession that becomes more hectic and intense as the issues they actually face recede.
In this context, Goldman asks a question that shakes the hearts of politicians and activists: “America of the twenty-first century is not Arcadia. But is it a protototalitarian inferno? “When journalists feared the big party conventions had become boring in 1996, George F. Will noted that” a widespread indifference to politics, especially in August, is a sign of the health of America, where the basic elements of happiness are not routine endangered in elections. “
An unhealthy infatuation with politics is the greatest threat to associative life in America today. Of course, Americans should oppose government threats to freedom of association outside the political realm. Likewise, perhaps more importantly, it is important to restore the need for association by reducing the supply of flat alternatives.