Restoring The “Common Good” – Or Simply Hijacking It For The Educated Elites? (Carl Raschke)

America is fracturing.  America is unravelling.  Such a proposition, controversial four years ago, seems almost a truism these days.  But a phenomenology of the Great American Crackup, quite evident in view of routine headlines and the apocalyptic and ostensibly calamitous outcome of the upcoming presidential election if the opposing party wings, according to the narratives of both sides, has rarely been pursued in any serious fashion.

In a recent article in the The Financial Times, the international newspaper’s American editor Edward Luce focuses on the United State Constitution itself and how the likely appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a self-declared “originalist”, will set things in motion few can anticipate.  The fracas over Barrett’s selection, he argues, “could light the fuse that ends in a full-blown crisis over America’s founding creed” and precipitate a “Constitutional meltdown” manifest in political and perhaps even armed strife not seen since the 1860s.  The blowup would be inevitable, he says, if the result is “another ‘judicial selection”, comparable to what happened in 2000, “to settle the US presidency.”

Luce envisions three very distinct possibilities, based on writings by University of Texas legal scholar Sanford Levinson: 1) “the breakup of America” similar to what happened to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s 2) an actual second Civil War 3) slow stagnation and national decline.  Though he considers all three options are far more than hypothetical, Luce agrees with Levinson that the third is the most plausible. In this instance the United States “simply drifts into becoming the ‘sick man of the west’, a 21st-century version of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire, which gradually descended during the 18th and 19th century into sclerosis.”

Luce, like so much of the liberal intelligentsia these days, views the problem both technocratically and pragmatically.  The American Constitution is out of date; it has become irrelevant to the new global, multicultural, and cosmopolitan order which enlightened progressive elites like Luce could easily fix if we were to rid ourselves of the anachronistic “white elephant” that is the 250-year-old U.S. legal and political system that allows disruptive, uncouth, and unpredictable populist leaders like Donald Trump to be elected. 

Luce constantly emphasizes the need to make the American Constitutional apparatus more flexible and “democratic,” which means (if one reads between the lines) silencing the raucous voices of those who feel abandoned by urbanization and de-industrialization and replacing them with more compliant, multi-ethnic coalitions who will dutifully uphold the benign, progressive neoliberal order that has been responsible, according to numerous studies, for the “pandemic” of economic inequality.

The Demise of the “Common Good”

Luce is writing from a standpoint that has appropriated a well-aged political commonplace that has been spun by partisans of progressive neoliberalism to both discredit and defang the populist pushback of the last four years.  That term is “the common good.”  Although the expression can be traced back to Aristotle, it first acquires genuine traction in the Western canon with the theological writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the emergence of natural law theory, as Mary Keys has detailed

The classical concept of the common good centers on what might be described as the discernible moral marrow of any political community, which for Aristotle resides in human nature itself (e.g., in Book I of his Politics he characterizes a human being as a zoon politikon, or “political animal”) and, for Aquinas, in that part of the human somatic and psychic makeup which ties people both to God and to each other in a manner for which they were “created”.      

The Aristotelian tradition diffused, albeit sometimes obliquely, through early modern political thought and can be glimpsed in the serial transformations of the idea of “virtue” as the key ingredient in political life, a notion which we find pronounced in the republican thought of Thomas Jefferson and his founding blueprint, shared by Madison and others, for America. 

Even though the emphasis of modern political thought has always been skewed toward individual “liberties” and natural “rights,” these foundational principles derive from a baseline assumption that the forms of association that constitute what the ancients understood as a polis or civis obtain both their energy and their legitimacy from certain natural bonds, whether they be immanent in the general order of things or adduced from “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as Jefferson so famously put it in the opening line of the Declaration of Independence..

In late modern thought the notion of the “common good”, as scholars have noted, was slowly usurped by Jeremy Bentham’s principle of “utility” or “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as “the measure of right and wrong.”(3).  In fact, many a casual political pundit will naturally conflate Bentham’s well-known apothegm with the Aristotelian intuition, even while, as philosopher John Rawls has stressed in A Theory of Justice, the principle of utility undermines the “common good”. 

Rawls writes that “when the principle of utility is satisfied, however, there is no such assurance that everyone benefits. Allegiance to the social system may demand that some, particularly the less favored, should forgo advantages for the sake of the greater good of the whole.”(155). Rawls seems to follow more specifically on John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “government is assumed to aim at the common good” which he formulates as “maintaining conditions and achieving objectives that are similarly to everyone’s advantage.” (205)

These more seasoned deliberations going back centuries are not inconsequential when it comes to figuring out why partisanship in our “postmodern” era has soared aloft.  Perhaps it is indeed because utilitarianism has degraded the common good prescription while making impossible even the barest, minimal consensus about what configuration of political actors might restore ballast to society once more. 

In his 2018 book simply titled The Common Good former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich makes a persuasive case that Watergate launched a now four-decades-old epoch of “whatever-it-takes-to-win politics.”  His bias, as one would expect, is against Republican presidents, but he also has strong words for those of his own party, even Barack Obama on whose transition team he served.

“The idea of ‘the common good,” Reich writes,  “was once widely understood and accepted in America. After all, the U.S. Constitution was designed for ‘We the people’ seeking to ‘promote the general welfare’ —not for ‘me the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth and power as possible.’”(23). Furthermore, a “patriotism” crafted around the common good “does not pander to our divisiveness.” (53)  

What does Reich understand by “the common good”?  Reich declares that “it consists of our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society—the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.”  It revolves around “a concern for the common good—keeping the common good in mind—is a moral attitude. It recognizes that we’re all in it together. If there is no common good, there is no society.”(31)

Stoking partisanship, even for whatever higher “purposes” we may have in view, is the antithesis to serving the common good. “Americans sharply disagree about exactly what we want for America or for the world. But we must agree on basic principles—such as how we deal with our disagreements, the importance of our democratic institutions, our obligations toward the law, and our respect for the truth—if we’re to participate in the same society.” (37). It also involves “trusting that most others in society will also adhere to the common good,” while having half of the country currently at each other’s throats does not at all bode well. (45)

“Our core identity—the most precious legacy we have been given by the generations who came before us—is the ideals we share, the good we hold in common. If we are losing our national identity, it is not because we are becoming browner or speak in more languages than we once did. It is because we are losing our sense of the common good.”(47-8)

Hijacking the Language of the Common Good

Reich is elegant and authentic in his presentation, and his voice resonates deeply out of the complex Western liberal political tradition to which he belongs.  He does not, unlike most of his fellow Democrats, blame the demise of the common good on the Trump presidency.  According to Reich, “Trump epitomizes what has gone wrong.”  In addition, “Trump is not the cause. He is a consequence—the logical outcome of what has unfolded over many years. His election was itself propelled by widespread anxieties, and distrust toward our political and economic system. Say what you want about him, Trump has at least brought us back to first principles.”(12). The view is similar to what I myself have argued in a recent article published in an international academic journal as well in my book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics.

Reich is not in any way endorsing the presidency of Trump, which has cleverly used every possible piece of familiar propagandistic tradecraft to keep at full boil the American version of the global, populist jacquerie against the progressive neoliberal “ruling class” (in precisely the way Marx meant it), which counts among its minions the wealthy and educated of the world in a sustained effort to discredit its opposition through plenary control of symbol-making apparatus of the new information economy dominated by the media and academia. 

But he makes a trenchant point among the hurricane of Trump-hating that emanates from the new ruling class (which secretly reflects their hatred of Trump’s constituencies) in its desperate effort to take apart the administration and the political messages it casts.  His point is that restoring the “common good” means both sides are going to have to make an unprecedented and Herculean effort to listen to the other one – and perhaps even abide some of their frustrations – without belittling, humiliating, or demonizing them.

Reich’s magnanimity contrasts sharply with the altogether fulsome effort of former emergent church celebrity pastor Doug Pagitt to hijack the nonpartisan touchstone of the “common good” through his hyperpartisan political project Vote Common Good in order to browbeat and shame evangelicals, typically Republican since the 1980s, into voting this election for Biden. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a religious leader, or an entire church, or even a denomination endorsing a particular political candidate, contrary to what IRS regulations may demand.  The religious right has been indulging in this pastime for decades.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with condemning the character or the policies of a presidential candidate, as many younger evangelical leaders have done in their discomfort with their elders’ blind fealty to the Republican party.

But Pagitt, who had a huge following long before he dove deeply into politics, has gone to an extreme with making his “common good” movement, which his website loudly proclaims is all about defeat of a particular candidate while invoking evangelical bromides and twisting scripture to give a more partisan meaning to “faith” than even his conservative adversaries could have possibly dreamed up.

“We believe,” the website states, “that many Christians voters recognize that their faith calls them to oppose the policies and approaches of the Trump administration. For many of these voters, their primary commitment is not to switch parties, it is to be faithful to their beliefs and convictions and to make the common good their voting criteria. The behavior of Donald Trump makes it difficult for them to continue to support him.”

On Twitter the message is even more strident.  “This Sunday, turn your faith into action and love your neighbor as yourself by deciding to vote AGAINST the hateful, corrupt, and discriminatory policies of Donald Trump,” Vote Common Good tweeted on Oct. 18.  Another tweet from the previous day is even more pithy but shamelessly partisan in its appeal to the evangelical subliminal.  “Because I follow Jesus, I will not vote for Trump.”

Vote Common Good also have a very subtle, manipulative, and disarming message on its home page to evangelicals who are uncomfortable with Trump’s personality and behavior, insofar as they have historically stressed “character” as important when making an electoral decision.  It is reminiscent of ads for chocolate to a consumer preoccupied with eating healthy. “Voting for a Republican is not as important as listening to that Spirit inside of you. It’s okay to go against what you’ve always done. We don’t have to give an account for what we do in the voting booth to anyone but the Lord. Character is what we do when nobody is watching.”

Brief translation apropos your mom’s cheerful advice not to do what she knows you are going to do anyway: “Okay, you secret racist, homophobic, hallelujah-shouting bigots, go ahead and vote Republican as you’ve always done, but this time the holy spirit will condemn you, and we know what Jesus says about sins against the holy spirit – they can’t be forgiven.”

Aside from who is paying, and how much Pagitt is being paid, for this travesty against honest Christianity, the greater “abomination” – as the prophets were wont to call it – lies in its gross distortion of the expression “common good” which is not about any occupant of the White House, no matter how loathsome, or any political party for that matter.  As Reich himself stresses over and over, seeking the “common good” comes down to finding deeper grounds for a difficult conversation about moral values.  

And both casual study across the internet and more sophisticated academic research has made it fairly clear in the last four years that the evangelical vote for Trump has nothing to do with liking him.  It is about choosing someone who can assure them their values will be honored.  

Trumpism, Populism, and the Politics of Resentment

Trump’s rhetoric may be “hateful” even to many evangelicals, but his actual policies so far have not moved the dial significantly away from what has been boilerplate Republican legislation since the early 1970s.  And yes, Virginia, those pictures of children in cages were taken during the Obama administration and one, according to the “right-wing” outlet CNN, was deliberately lifted from an entirely different context primarily to promote outrage over the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies.

The loss of the common good, which Reich bemoans, may in fact be due in one important sense to the ideological debasement of the phrase by the very educated elites who have turned it against the less educated strata of society to shame and seal their marginalization, largely as the outgrowth of the digital economy and globalization.  

That, at least, is the tacit argument of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel who in his very recent book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? develops a very strong case that the meritocratic structure of higher education along with the American obsession with credentialing has not only driven the trend toward widening income inequality, but also the profound social resentments against the hauteur and cluelessness of the new professional class, which considers itself superior because of its commanding role in the new “knowledge economy.” In effect, American democracy, once constructed on a foundation of theoretical equality of opportunity and the rejection of class privileges has created a whole new caste system based on the linkage of wealth with access to higher education.

Sandel writes:

Those who celebrate the meritocratic ideal and make it the center of their political project overlook this moral question. They also ignore something more politically potent: the morally unattractive attitudes the meritocratic ethic promotes, among the winners and also among the losers. Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified. (25)

Luce’s complaint about an outdated U.S. Constitution and Pagitt’s sly, condescending paternalism toward evangelicals typifies elite hubris, which as part of an idiom that increasingly drones on about equity and “inclusiveness”, two essential elements in any chemistry of the common good, seeks to exclude the deeply held moral values that are interwoven the growing, unspoken class conflict.   The elite attitude seems to be that electing one more obviously neoliberal progressive presidential candidate,  will somehow make the problem go away.   

The common good, in keeping with this attitude, is only for the “winners” in the meritocratic competition, as Mark Rosenberg writing in Foreign Policy suggests.  Rosenberg laments the pesky persistence of populism as a “de-stabilizing” force for the planet’s wealthy investors, who are “treating America like an emerging market.”

The intensification of that attitude, rather than the soul-searching we desperately need, among elites since Hillary Clinton’s infamous quip about a “basket of deplorables” four years ago guarantees that no matter who wins the November election the very ground on which America stands is going to heave horribly, and whatever fragments of the “common good” have still survived over the past half century will be swallowed up in the process.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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