“It’s time for Americans to wake up to a fundamental reality: the continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed.” So begins David French’s latest book, Divided We Fall.
As national division looms, perhaps nearer than ever, a most important task is set before civil associations in America. We must restore unity in an increasingly diverse country. Today, the best way to restore American pluralism is through localism.
Last May, Sohrab Ahmari—the young and increasingly popular op-ed editor at the New York Post—wrote an essay for First Things entitled “Against David French-ism.” French-ism, Ahmari writes, “is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets. And that sensibility is, in turn, bound up with the persona of one particular writer, though it reaches beyond him to pervade a wider sphere of conservative Christian thinking and activism.”
Of course, the “French-ism” that Ahmari describes is largely the same classical liberalism which has played an important role in American conservativism for quite some time.
In Divided We Fall, French comes back to defend his “ism” while pleading readers to realize the dire state of our nation and its almost certain collapse. French calls Americans of all stripes, blue and red, white and black, Christian and pagan, city-slicker and redneck, to come together around some of the founding tenets of the American republic. After all, we are not a people unified by blood and soil, and so, if we are to be unified at all, it must be in mutual assent to a set of ideas.
French argues that we can unify around liberalism and pluralism, but he fails to show the inherent limits of these ideas, which are imperfect and incomplete on their own. Rather than just the bolstering of liberalism and pluralism that French prescribes, we need a liberalism and pluralism tempered and formed by localism: a preferential care for one’s own family, place, and community.
By liberalism, French does not mean the ideology of a progressive or a Democrat. He means a system of ordering government around the autonomy of individual persons: ordering the government so that individuals can pursue their own vision of the good life within the same nation. French quotes Patrick Deneen’s description of liberalism: “According to Liberalism, ‘opportunities for liberty [are] best afforded by a limited government devoted to ‘securing rights,’ along with a free-market economic system that [gives] space for individual initiative and ambition.’”
The crowning jewel of French’s book, however, is the concept of Madisonian Pluralism. French tells us that James Madison understood the self-regulation of factions to be the key to the maintenance of liberty in the American social and political order. As French summarizes Federalist No. 10,
“the very existence of a robust republic consisting of different, competing communities and sects acts as an antibody against oppression. Thus, one of the core projects of a healthy American constitutional republic is to protect not just individual liberty, but the federalism and freedom of voluntary association that allow a multiplicity of groups and communities to flourish.”
Liberalism has a tendency to create and foster an unhealthy individualism. While French is right that it does not have to be this way (by valuing voluntary associations), liberalism has a tendency to fracture into ever more associations as the “freedom” of the “individual” is pursued to an increasingly narrow degree.
Pluralism has its problems, too. Improperly exercised, pluralism can devolve into a kind of moral relativism. Instead of valuing the ability of competing ideas to cohabitate with healthy and critical dialogue, we end up valuing the affirmation of ideas that are contrary to our own.
Despite these limits, French is right to make a case for liberalism and pluralism as necessary public virtues in our republic. But these limits also render liberalism and pluralism inadequate on their own.
Through much of the first part of his book, French decries the death of civil society. We have heard it before: the local associations are dying, parishes are crumbling from within, and there are no more good bowling leagues.
Civil society—that space where persons gather together around shared ideas, interests, or activities—will be crucial to any effort that seeks to restore genuine liberalism and pluralism in our nation. It is only when liberalism and pluralism are formed by localism—the garden bed of civil society—that they can help us avoid threats of greater national disunity. We need a local liberalism and local pluralism formed by the preferential care for one’s own family, one’s own place, and one’s own community.
Local liberalism and pluralism recognize the limits of these ideas and see that the most important parts of the First Amendment are the freedom of religion and the freedom of assembly—that is, the rights of community building, of local people coming together and helping themselves and their communities.
Voluntary associations are the tool of the localist, the art whereby “civil society” is formed and disintegration and disunification kept at bay. Civil society is the method by which true pluralism, one that engages disagreement—rather than simply affirming contradictory ideas—can thrive within communities and without disintegrating into division. And civil society is what grows from a local liberalism that prizes not just “individual autonomy” but the freedom found within communities and associations.
Finally, here at the heights of national disunity, it will be an increased commitment to civil society that will prevent and reverse further disunity. Sweeping national political consensus is not coming, and it likely never will. Social media, cable news, and echo-chamber podcasts will be tough to overcome. But what could come is a renewed commitment to our localities, our neighbors, and the idea of America.