We hardly need Pew Studies to show us how bad political polarization is today or how skeptical everyone is of the media. Many of us—like this New York Times author—recall a time when we could sip a beer at the local watering hole, watch the game, and never learn our copatrons’ political affiliation—only their abhorrent athletic allegiances.
Unfortunately, in the era of Trump and fake news—exacerbated by our obsession with “now this and now that” new headline—we must suffer always to know a stranger’s politics.
We find ourselves doomed to like or dislike, trust or distrust, our neighbors solely on their politics—and to engage only with the media outlet that we find trustworthy. And so we are thrust into a self-reinforcing cycle. A cycle that we have seen for many years, but one that seems, I hope, to be reaching its highest pitch, soon to come crumbling down.
Here I want to participate in just the same lamentations about our political parties, in order to criticize both and then imagine how philanthropy might promise a better way for us.
A first problem is that the politics of the left have finally caught up with the philosophy of the left.
In the 1960s, left-leaning philosophers made the “critical turn.” Advanced by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, philosophy became “critical.” That is to say, rather than proposing new ideas—a concept of the common good or ethical norms, even a theory of language—"critical philosophy" chose instead to criticize. It took what was on offer in the great canon of philosophy and literature, and criticized its errors, biases, misunderstandings, and so on.
Critical philosophy is, therefore, necessarily parasitic. It does not stand or exist on its own. It lives, instead, by feasting on what does stand on its own. Now, this may be fine or even beneficial in philosophy—it has surely borne some fruit—but it is pernicious in politics. It is the responsibility of the politician to pose solutions, and not just any solutions, but coherent solutions.
But the left, having forsook constructive politics for the sophisticated criticisms of its intellectual forebears, now only criticizes. Worse even than failing to provide any value, this political approach results in a profound schizophrenia of conflicting complaints.
The left hates Columbus Day for its celebration of genocide. At the same time, the left celebrates that America was founded by immigrants—but those immigrants are at one moment heroes, and the next moment enemies when seen as the modern “establishment,” having achieved political and social prominence by slaughtering the Natives.
Again, the left has no notion of the American creed—or at least a too-thin understanding of what binds us together—making us uniquely a nation. But of course it is the “American thing” that makes immigration to America so appealing. Not only the first generation of immigrants, but for generations on end, immigrants came to these shores not to abandon their heritage, but to preserve it in a free land—one that didn’t demand their acquiescence to so many enforced norms of behavior and speech, but instead freed them to self-regulate, respecting the (often stringent) norms and habits that they brought with them.
The critical left knows only how to criticize and undermine these norms and habits, leaving in their wake such a path of destruction that it falls to federal forces to piece together the rubble of habit and shared practices and produce uniform expectations for life in the American public square. True enough that immigrants continue to come for the material benefits and safety that our shores provide—but we are rapidly forsaking the freedom, the diversity that used to draw them here. We’ve not yet banned the burka, but there is no mistaking that religious freedom is on shaky ground today.
An equal and opposite reaction, the right simply suffers from a mirror problem. While the left can only destroy, the right can only maintain—if not the status quo of today, then at least the status quo of, pick your era, the post-war golden age or the Reagan years. In Shattered Consuensus, Dr. James Piereson argues that the right is sometimes “revolutionary” and defends that this revolutionary spirit is properly conservative.
True enough, but revolution toward what? Is this ever a forward-looking revolution—that is, to what is new, to what is needful for our times—or always a revolution to resurrect bygone eras?
Yuval Levin opens his popular 2016 work, Fractured Republic, with a chapter titled “Blinded by Nostalgia.” His criticism is that both the right and the left are consumed by nostalgia for previous American eras. The criticism, however, seems more acute on the right than the left: rarely are democrats criticized for being troglodytic and the “stuck-in-the-past” jokes about conservatives are not without merit.
Later in the book, for instance, Levin points out that the right insists on seeing “the liberal welfare state as the epitome of modern government” and so they “fight merely to make it smaller or roll it back”—rather than recognizing that the welfare system is here to stay but that conservatives might work “for a greater market orientation in the provision of services.”
That’s a novel idea, and not one likely to be taken up by a party whose sole focus is “getting back” to the 1950s or 1980s. And too often this nostalgia merely surfaces in a knee-jerk reactionism to change.
The commentariat has not infrequently noticed the empty nostalgia in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, and there can be no doubt that the political right, generally speaking, lacks any solutions worthy of the name. As Ben Sasse notes in his 2016 book, Them, both parties are intellectually bankrupt, lacking a vision for the future of America. If the left has consigned itself the criticism, the right has consigned itself to reiteration.
Again, Levin’s point that the right continues only to complain about the welfare state, without making the honest recognition that it cannot simply be eliminated is apt. Creative solutions are needed, not merely statistics comparing the size of today’s welfare state to yesterday’s.
Philanthropy should stand apart from this benighted binary by offering something constructive.
While the political left and right resign themselves to criticism and nostalgia, philanthropy should be stepping in to offer a brighter vision and constructive solutions. Whatever his other errors, John Arnold is correct in suggesting that philanthropy can and should be willing to risk more, to be more profligate towards a social good, than government or the for-profit sector can be.
More than likely, the first thing that comes to mind when philanthropy is “constructive” in ways that politics is not, is philanthropy’s role in providing some sort of “safety net.” This is surely the responsibility of the philanthropic sector, but more than simply the safety net of material protection, philanthropy should be envisioning a good society boldly and comprehensively.
Yes, we need food drives and soup kitchens—but beyond that, we need those nonprofits that improve city life and rural life, promote policy and foster conversation, help sick folks and strengthen communities. These organizations are equally engaged in executing the task that our political parties are unable to do: offering, and more to the point realizing, a constructive vision of a good society.
More than this, while our political parties have become bloated and binary, nonprofit organizations—the bastions of civil society—remain plentiful and often human-scale. The contemporary political environment has forced us into a decision between two intellectually bankrupt parties, unable to represent vast swathes of its constituents.
In the nonprofit sector, however, decentralization reigns and a plethora of nonprofit organizations are available to help you strengthen civil society and improve your community without having to swallow much that you may not like.
While the inadequacy of our political parties today is disappointing, if it means the flourishing of philanthropy—which I argue would mean the flourishing of a freer society—then thank God for dysfunctional politics. While the left criticizes and the right looks-longingly, may philanthropy create, propose, and thrive.