The Democratic Soul: A Wilson Carey McWilliams Reader
by Wilson Carey Mcwilliams, edited by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. Mcwilliams
University Press of Kentucky, 440 pages, $40
Redeeming Democracy in America
by Wilson Carey Mcwilliams edited by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. Mcwilliams
University Press of Kansas, 336 pages, $34.95
Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch, Marshall McLuhan, Wilson Carey McWilliams, and other progressives who broke with the left, both over its anti-Americanism and its rejection of tradition and religion as resources for the liberal state, have recently received significant attention for their critiques of liberalism. Liberalism, they insisted, lacked the resources to build community, and without such community society devolves into a type of democratic tyranny.
Among them, McWilliams and Lasch represent a native liberal tradition that has all but disappeared from America, a tradition influenced less by Locke and the secular Enlightenment and more by the small-town Protestantism that had long characterized most of America. A leading thinker of the left in the 1950s and 1960s, McWilliams’ relationship with the left and the Democratic party became more contentious as he defended Middle American values, such as a religiously infused notion of equality and the value of small communities, that the mainstream left had rejected.
McWilliams was an essay writer of exceptional grace and power, and these two volumes collect many of his most significant pieces, presenting both a nuanced picture of the underpinnings of our political life and an introduction to his thought. Redeeming Democracy in America is focused on the American polity, and contains a dozen essays on subjects such as political parties, the Bible in American history, and civic education. The more wide-ranging Democratic Soul includes double the number of essays, among them pieces on Leo Strauss, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and “democratic multiculturalism.”
The first volume includes a substantial bibliography, the second a perceptive interpretive introduction to McWilliams’ work by Patrick Deneen, one of the editors and a professor at Georgetown University, as well as a leader of the Front Porch Republic movement. The other editor, Susan McWilliams, is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College.
A child of prewar California and a family with deep progressive roots, McWilliams received his doctorate at Berkeley under the liberal political theorist Sheldon Wolin and for the last thirty years of his career (he died in 2005) taught at Rutgers University. Like many of his generation, during graduate school he was active in left-wing politics, particularly on behalf of civil rights, and was recognized as an early voice of the New Left. He contended, as he put it in an essay (included in the book) on censorship, that liberal industrialism “is the analogue of ancient tyranny,” and he criticized oligopolistic capitalism and the threats it presents to community and individual dignity.
These claims sometimes spill over into unfair characterizations of the free market tout court, yet McWilliams’ liberalism is apt to be misunderstood. In his essay on censorship he condemns the “foolish liberal proposition” that every thought needs to be uttered or protected, and he argues that artists and writers have a moral obligation not to introduce harmful things into public life. The left-wing student activist also served in the military, seeing no contradiction between the two different types of civic engagement. The young liberals later decried multiculturalism as undermining democracy and condemned divorce, abortion, and cloning as reflecting a radical individualism.
McWilliams, an active member of his Presbyterian congregation, frequently invokes biblical passages, not as proof texts but to demonstrate both the richness of reflection to be found in the Bible on questions of political order and how deeply such thought is woven into American life. He cites Matthew 7:1 (“judge not lest ye be judged”), for example, not as an excuse for tolerance of ways of life considered to be wrong or a reason for endless self-expression—as many Americans, even Christians, interpret that verse—but rather as a call to reform ourselves and our political culture. His inclusion of specifically religious concepts in his discussion of the secular structure of American political life without diluting them in a sect-less “civil religion” is one of his most important contributions to contemporary political thinking, especially valuable coming from a thinker on the left.
His major book, The Idea of Fraternity in America, published in 1973, was concerned primarily with what we would now describe as “social capital.” Written in the midst of the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a call to rediscover the bonds between citizens and neighbors—bonds based on affection and community rather than law or national politics. He roots his notion of fraternity not in the revolutionary rhetoric of the era but in the nation’s religious and political heritage.
These communal bonds of affection generate obligations that each member owes to the other rather than rights the individual asserts against the community. McWilliams believes these stronger, “fraternal” connections would protect the ability of citizens to make decisions for their own common good without being submerged in either a mass democracy (where their individual voice no longer mattered) or consumerism (where their voice could only be expressed through commercial transactions).
Liberalism, in contrast, holds that in the public sphere we must act out of personal interest and that public power is only a play of interests against one another. Against this idea of public life, McWilliams argues for what Deneen calls “the discipline of freedom,” something that is learned and must be maintained and is not a matter of self-expression or the assertion of rights. He insists that liberalism cannot preserve that discipline, for it is structured to further private rights yet it cannot provide compelling reasons to obey laws that conflict with our natural desires. It simply assumes the presence of citizens “who keep their promises and fulfill their obligations even when doing so no longer seems in their interest,” but it cannot produce these citizens.
The logic of this kind of liberalism has also infected our private life, McWilliams insists. More than once he cites the Griswold and Roe decisions as exemplars of this infection.
America presents this liberal paradox sharply. In “National Character and National Soul,” McWilliams compares the private soul, reflecting an inner essence out of reach of society, and character, with the public persona, “dependent on the praise and blame of society” and subject to “shaping and legislative intervention.” The Framers designed a constitutional system that presumed a liberal character; a system based on a respect for civil rights, including commercial rights, and a thin, but real, level of social trust.
But character is not enough. Private liberty and civic equality are symbiotic and best supported by religious convictions, and they stand or fall together. This constitutional order needs other supports—McWilliams cites religion, natural right, and the notion of sacrifice. The problem is that in contemporary America, many citizens motivated by these are denied a voice in favor of a “zealous toleration” that marginalizes such commitments. This “shadow on the national soul” disorders our politics and removes the needed supports for the “self-sacrifice and implicit virtue” Tocqueville found central to American democracy.
To explain this disorder, McWilliams distinguishes between premodern faith and the trust on which liberalism depends. A product of modernity, trust posits two separate individuals “with distinct interests, concerned with conduct and not conscience, ideally suited to the liberal premise that human beings are by nature free, isolated beings.” Faith looks beyond behavior, holding that “my faith in you is premised on who you are, not on what you do.” Faith is holistic and “makes a judgment of wholes rather than in parts, of you rather than this or that moment or incident of your life.”
Against the liberal tradition, which he calls a form of “bad faith,” McWilliams asserts the equal dignity of each person as “the supremely important human fact,” a confidence that derives not from political compacts but ultimately from the religious insight that each person is made in the image and likeness of God. With the consistent erasure of religious arguments from our public square, “Americans seem to be losing the ability to think and speak in the language of grace and redemption which has been the counterpoint to liberalism in our national composition.”
McWilliams argues for the “need most of all to restore equality to its place as the highest goal of republics,” but not the liberal equality based on trust nor the majoritarian equality Tocqueville described, the soft tyranny of democracy that creates equality by reducing everyone to the same level. The equality McWilliams wanted, one that provides a refuge from the liberal tradition, recognizes the universal dignity of each person. This he traces to its Christian roots and identifies as a solution both to the tribalism of small-scale classical republics (which considered members superior to aliens) and to large-scale commercial republics, because equality demands “equal [political] deliberation, for my dignity requires that I be heard.”
Civic equality, he writes, means “equal feeling and sympathy, a conviction of equal dignity and common destiny. That sort of equality requires a public policy prepared to strengthen or reconstruct the local places and communities which are the nurseries of civility and citizenship.”
That civic equality, rooted in an understanding of man derived from religious faith, is fostered by democratic institutions. He identifies a number of possible institutional reforms, including strengthening political parties as bulwarks of political community and participation and, with conservatives like Russell Kirk, as a necessary buffer between the isolated individual and the state.
With Lasch, McWilliams represents the turn that liberalism could have taken in the 1960s and 1970s, to an understanding of public and private life rooted in devotion to the strengths of liberalism but admiring those other traditions that give meaning to people’s lives and training in the arts of virtue. These volumes may help contemporary liberals make that turn, and will provide others with a deeper insight into the roots and sources of our political life.
Gerald J. Russello is author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.