Tribalism, Liberalism, and the Common Good

The tribalism of our politics is distressing.

The ancients believed that politics was a noble enterprise that (at least in principle) was further ennobling of man because it was, in the last analysis, about the common good, and the common good unites people. We hardly even talk about the common good anymore outside of academia. Under the liberal regime everything has become privatized – “good” reduced to “gain” in a zero-sum game that pits us against each other rather than uniting us as a people. Even the two mainline political parties share this commitment to private good and, in broad strokes, spend their time arguing over the best means of achieving the end of private goods for our atomized citizenry.

But if we are political animals by nature, i.e. ordered not only to our own good but to common goods by our common human nature; and if the liberal regime we have set up radically detaches us from common goods by setting up, a priori, the priority of private goods over common goods; then mustn’t we admit that the liberal regime is radically unnatural and contrary to our nature and therefore to our actual fulfillment as individuals and as a people?

But then, if our natures are contrary to the liberal regime then surely we will see signs of such contrariness through some form of rebellion against the regime. Can we then posit that the resurgence of tribalism, identity politics, and extremes of partisanship on both the Right and the Left, are manifestations of this rebellion?

In one sense, we might say that the de facto “common good” of America is private good. But this is a false common good by definition if it locks us into zero-sum games and the fake tribes of our contemporary political landscape. One might even reasonably speculate that this trajectory will land us inevitably in either tyranny or anarchy, but most assuredly not “polity”, not people-hood. We won’t be a people – we will be a mob, or perhaps several mobs pitted against each other. A mob of mobs.

Can we fail to recognize that the only way out of our current political dilemmas is not to double down on our own partisan, tribalistic, quasi-common and quasi-private goods, but to instead return to the older and venerable notion of the common good? In other words, mustn’t we critically re-examine and repudiate the very foundations of liberalism itself? But how do we do that from inside liberalism?

The most urgent question now seems to be this: Is it possible to reconstruct a shared vision of the common good that can re-unite a people who have been fragmented by centuries of liberal individualism?

Time will surely tell,  and we will be the authors of this history.

 

 

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