How Citizens Are Building from the Ground Up
by charles taylor, patrizia nanz, and madeleine beaubien taylor
harvard, 120 pages, $14.73
Of all the contemporary thinkers I have enjoyed reading over recent years, Charles Taylor is probably the one from whom I have learned the most. It isn’t simply his arguments on matters such as the formation of the modern self and the nature of our secular age that have proved so instructive; it is also his constant ability to present different and even conflicting viewpoints in a cool, constructive, and appreciative manner. In an era when the default setting is the demonization of those with whom we differ and the swift dismissal of any viewpoint that makes us uncomfortable, Taylor’s tone is as instructive as his arguments are insightful.
It is thus always a delight to see another book published by Taylor—this time co-authored with Patrizia Nanz and Madeleine Beaubien Taylor—especially one of such uncharacteristic conciseness. And the topic is a vital one. The authors believe Western democracy is in serious trouble. Our leadership is detached from the people, who now feel disenfranchised and irrelevant. Such a problem cannot, of course, be adequately analyzed, let alone resolved, in under a hundred pages, but the authors highlight a number of important ways that democracy must be revitalized: democracy has to start at a local level; it needs projects in which local people feel a sense of ownership and from which they receive benefits; and it has to avoid the kind of top-down condescension that has come to characterize so much of our modern technocratic discourse. To support these ideas, the authors cite a number of diverse initiatives from around the globe that have achieved just these kinds of results. For that reason alone, this book is well worth reading.
Yet the book is also—and oddly—a function of the world it critiques so ably. First, the authors set up their argument with sweeping references to Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, and AfD, lumping together movements which may well be more different from one another than the standard liberal-left narrative claims. In this way, they protect the liberal left from having to do any soul-searching about the causes of such phenomena.
For example, it is possible that all British racists supported Brexit, but not all Brexit supporters were racists or even right of center in their political instincts. Some of the most high-profile Brexiteers were card-carrying hard-left socialists. The history of the British relationship to Europe is a complicated one that cuts across traditional political lines—which is one reason why the results of the referendum subsequently proved so hard to move through parliament. It may be comforting to the left to blame “populism” for the atavistic reaction of the plebs to the results of neoliberal economics, but it is unfortunately not the truth—or at least, not the whole truth.
And this leads to the second weakness in the book: its failure to look at the left and see any responsibility for the current divisive nature of Western politics. One could certainly argue that the economics of neoliberalism have not served rural communities and traditional industrial centers well, but the destruction of community identity is more complicated than a simple case of free market economics. The abolition of the pre-political institutions and traditions that often held local communities together and gave them a sense of worth and identity—from churches to fox-hunting—has also served its role. And any reader of Thomas Hardy’s novels knows that this process began many, many years ago, long before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The disenfranchising of rural communities cannot be blamed on the boom of the 1980s, and any solution has to undo more than a few decades of damage and has much more on its plate than making local people feel ownership of economic revitalization projects.
This highlights the somewhat optimistic view of community identity in this book. Yes, communities have narratives and have a sense of place—I learned that from Taylor as much as from anyone. And restoring and respecting those communities are important parts of the solution to the problem of feeling disenfranchised and worthless. But that always brings the very real risk of tribalism. Taylor himself has indicated that there is a path—not a logically necessary path, but still a real historical path—from the Romanticism of J. G. Herder to the Reich of Adolf Hitler. Can a strong love of one’s home community and a deep sense of belonging exist without xenophobia? In theory, yes. But in practice that danger is always going to be there. How to avoid such an outcome might be a good topic for a further book.
Which points to a third area where more discussion is needed. Yes, strengthening democracy depends upon local initiatives; yet it also needs national political parties that appeal not simply to their ideological bases but attempt to offer everyone something. That is not the case at this point in time.
The advent of Trump should certainly provoke soul-searching on the right regarding how the conservative movement came to a point where it seems to have no publicly compelling alternative to the man now at the helm of the nation. But the left too needs to take some responsibility and ask itself if it has abandoned the people from whom it traditionally drew its support—the working class, the poor—in favor of a hotchpotch coalition of middle-class groups with grievances and a disdain for those truly at the bottom of the economic food chain. Yet despite this, it seems virtually impossible to persuade the left that not everyone who voted Trump did so with enthusiasm and not everyone who voted Brexit simply hates the French. Being referred to as belonging to a “basket of deplorables,” or being characterized as old, senile, and selfish, scarcely reassured working-class voters that their interests would be best represented by someone who did not even seem to think they were worthy of the franchise. Nor does refusing to vote for those who said such things make these voters into racists.
As the current turmoil may well reveal, the politics of bespoke identities are the luxury designer goods of an otherwise prosperous economy. That will force the left to take a long, hard look at itself. This book might prove a step in the right direction, for it certainly refocuses on the things that matter—real communities, living wages, the dignity of work, the importance of civic participation. And so we can only hope that, despite its shortcomings, it still leads to the kind of soul-searching on the left that will be necessary for our national democratic processes to serve their purposes.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.