We Belong!

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we've both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together - Pat Benatar

So the Democrat Party declared at their national convention last night that "The government is the only thing we all belong to." That is an amazing statement from a major political faction in this Republic of ours.  The United States of America was built, foundation-up, on the notion that the government belongs to the people, not that the people "belong" to the government.

Free people do not "belong" to their government. Period.

I confess that I am writing this post with a small amount of modest pride. Yesterday National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, a brilliant man and brilliant writer, wrote on National Review Online a lengthy article on this topic. And reading it was a surreal experience for me. Let me tell you what I am not saying. I am not saying that Levin is plagiarizing my book. Yuval Levin has no earthly idea who I am, and I am sure he has no earthly idea that my book even exists. (Although, come to think of it, his colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Michael Cromartie, does have a copy I personally gave him...)

At any rate...

In Chapter 6 of my book, "On Helping the Poor," I reflect at length on how progressivism understands the relationship between people and the government. Progressivism cannot conceive of any "collective," any sense of "belonging," outside of the State. As I put it, for them there are only two options: people are either orphans or wards of the state. There are no mediating institutions in the progressive worldview, free associations of free people who band together for community and civic purposes. Either, in the President's own words, "You're on your own," or you're lovingly embraced by a Federal program.

Levin makes the same point:

The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.

After making my point, I illustrate this concept by examining President Obama's online slideshow of the fictional character "Julia." The slideshow follows "Julia" throughout all the major turning points of her life, from early schooling, college, career, reproductive choices, and, finally, to her retirement, noting how poor Julia could not succeed at anything without various Federal programs to help her along in life. I write:

[A]t every momentous turn in Julia's life, the only institution that stands between success and catastrophe is the State. No family, no husband (even when she decides to 'get pregnant'!), no community, no friends, no church, no volunteer associations, not so much as a local billiard or dart league.

Lo and behold, Levin produces the exact same exhibit:

Indeed, the president and his administration don’t seem to have much use for that space at all. Even the family, which naturally stands between the individual and the community, is not essential. In May, the Obama campaign produced a Web slideshow called “The Life of Julia,” which follows a woman through the different stages of life and shows the many ways in which she benefits from public policies that the president advocates. It was an extraordinarily revealing work of propaganda, and what it revealed was just what the president showed us in Roanoke: a vision of society consisting entirely of the individual and the state. Julia’s life is the product of her individual choices enabled by public policies. She has an exceptional amount of direct contact with the federal government, yet we never meet her family. At the age of 31, we are told, “Julia decides to have a child” and “benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform.” She later benefits from all manner of educational, economic, and social programs, and seems to require and depend upon no one but the president.

Okay, that was weird, but not inexplicable. After all, Obama's "Julia" slideshow has been an object of derision in right-wing circles ever since her appearance in May.

So later on in my chapter I include a section called, "America, Land of the Free (Associations)." I make the argument that one of the things that has historically made America unique is its rich tradition of free associations and civic organizations. I quote the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, who marveled at how "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations."

On cue, Levin comments:

Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.

Okay, this struck me as really weird! Yuval Levin must be a Legilimens, and maybe I should start Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape. Or, I suppose the easier explanation, one that does not require the magical world of Harry Potter (but, on the downside, requires the unhealthy vice of pride) is that, well, great minds think alike. Hence, the modest pride in writing this post. I wrote something that anticipated great thoughts from the mind of Yuval Levin!

And I do recommend reading his great thoughts, which are expertly expounded. Particularly these penetrating observations:

The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society — emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise — are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.
The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.

The former perspective is one that baldly asserts that we all "belong to our government." And, as de Tocqueville observed, it is a tried and true recipe for civil tyranny. "United States of America" and "tyranny" ought to be words on opposite ends of a spectrum and, as Levin shows, the rhetoric and worldview of our President dangerously aligns them.

And he is right to observe that "this is no trifling matter."

Brian Mattson