The Great Regression — and the Road Back

In May, 2000, despite merciless and unrelenting harassment by a Republican Congress and the corporate mass media, Bill Clinton was completing eight years of peace and prosperity, with a budget surplus that promised a reduction of the five trillion dollar national debt.  Directly ahead: Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and a virtual suspension of the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

March 6, 2008 (crisispapers.org) – This past week I revisited an essay that I wrote in May, 2000: “On Civic Friendship.”  Reading it was a sobering reminder of how much we Americans have lost, economically, politically, and morally, since then – how much our sense of hope, our self-esteem and our international reputation have disintegrated under the Bush/Cheney regime.

In that essay, I contrasted a “well-ordered society” of citizens bound by a shared sense of justice, with a “private society” of autonomous individuals, loyal only to themselves and their immediate friends and families and aspiring only to maximize their personal welfare.  (The phrases “well-ordered society” and “private society” are from John Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice, coincidentally the subject ofmy doctoral dissertation). 

In May, 2000, despite merciless and unrelenting harassment by a Republican Congress and the corporate mass media, Bill Clinton was completing eight years of peace and prosperity, with a budget surplus that promised a reduction of the five trillion dollar national debt.  Directly ahead: Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and a virtual suspension of the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

Here is a re-write, in a much darker mood, of that essay, as a former celebration of the accomplishments of the American republic is transformed into a lamentation and a warning.  I close with a sketch of a possible route out of the abyss into which we have fallen these past eight years.

Civic Friendship

The United States of America is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state. 

So too are Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

So why has the United States, unlike these unfortunate countries, not suffered tribal turmoil throughout most of its history? Why have we and most of our fellow citizens been at least moderately safe in our homes, possessions and persons? And why have we lost much of this domestic tranquility and security in just the past eight years?

We Americans are separated by one-hundred and forty-three years from our one and only civil war.  Our Constitution is the oldest continuously operative political charter in the civilized world.  There is no armed rebellion against the government, or armed conflict by one racial, ethnic or religious faction against another.  Occasional acts of domestic violence against the government or the social order, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, are universally recognized as aberrations, and the belief of the perpetrators that such acts will set off a mass rebellion against the established political order are universally recognized as delusional.  Principled civil disobedience, such as the civil rights movement of the sixties, has succeeded on the foundation of the common principles of political morality, in particularly equal rights and human worth, as proclaimed in our founding documents.  Racial segregation collapsed when the aggrieved victims dramatized the moral contradictions of their oppressor's doctrine.  "Separate but equal" was thus proven a moral absurdity.

Thus, we have enjoyed moderate domestic tranquility, thanks to our shared concepts of justice and personal worth, and our sense that we belong to a unified community, that we are protected by just laws, and that the government rules with our consent.  We have, despite all our differences, regarded each other as compatriots: we are all "Americans." Accordingly, in our fortunate, “well-ordered” society, we have been bound by what John Rawls calls, "civic friendship:”

A society is well-ordered when it is not only designed to advance the good of its members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice.  That is, it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles…  Among individuals with disparate aims and purpose a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship; the general desire for justice limits the pursuit of other ends. 
A Theory of Justice, 1971, p.5).

These advantages of “civic friendship” in “the well-ordered society” are now unraveling with the emerging triumph of “the private society."  By replacement of what Michael Moore calls “the we society” with “the me society.”

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