University of Rochester intellectual historian Robert Westbook calls for a renewal of civic humanism and the virtues that come with it. Here is a small taste of his recent essay at The Baffler: “Virtuous Reality: The Politics of Character in a Post-Liberal Age.” (I could only excerpt a small portion below, but his comparison between Nixon and Trump is also worth reading).
Some commentators blame the citizenry for their imperfect virtue and would freeze them even further out of public life, calling for more insulated ruling elites. Andrew Sullivan, drawing on Plato, the most venerable of democracy’s enemies, asserts without a shred of convincing evidence that “the barriers to the popular will, especially when it comes to choosing our president, are now almost nonexistent.” Elites, he says, channeling Plato’s call for a “guardian” class, must “provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.” Lumping Bernie Sanders with Trump and Ted Cruz as “political sociopaths,” Jonathan Rauch joins Sullivan in blaming the country’s political woes on “unmediated” democracy. “Our most pressing political problem today,” he concludes in a spasm of contrarianism, “is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.” Our best hope lies in inoculating our politics from “swarms of voters” by investing greater power in guardians of a better sort.
Neo-republicans can only regard such proposals as a recipe for the acceleration of corruption and elite domination. The only remedy for a crumbling republic is the revitalization of civic virtue. And this precludes despair or fatalism. The path forward is rather to launch bold experiments, invent new institutions, revive the atrophied ideal of democratic control of public policy, and so cultivate the badly damaged traditions and practices of civic virtue.
In this daunting enterprise of civic-republican reclamation, public education is crucial. As one of our finest American historians, Alan Taylor, recently remarked, the nation’s republican founders placed a weighty bet on the nation’s schools. They were well aware that civic virtue is not inborn. By transforming our public schools into engines for the production of “human capital,” we have effaced the political purposes for which they were established. Taylor concludes: “We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeing power through bluster and bombast.”
Read the entire piece here.