In 1742 the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “Parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle, are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps, the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon that has appeared in human affairs.”
Hume’s observation is a useful insight into the kinds of division and polarization that characterize the American political landscape today.
Like America’s founders after him, Hume was interested in how political factions operate. He observed that factions in the modern era had started behaving in ideological ways. Ideology, or “abstract speculative principle” in his vernacular, had become a powerful force in human associations, fueling the passions in ways that more mundane reasons for forming associations did not.
“Parties of interest” were more historically familiar than “parties of principle,” he argued, uniting citizens around common commercial and geographic interests. If, say, a politician has a keen interest in promoting solar energy because producers of solar products are in her district, she is acting out of interest. If her political decisions are framed by an abstract notion of “climate justice,” she is behaving ideologically.
In his day, Hume was primarily concerned with how religious abstractions were corrupting the pursuit of common political interests. But his observations are just as relevant today, as secular ideological commitments advance through a kind of zealotry akin to the religious fanaticism of Hume’s day.
Spiritualizing political ideologies produces what we might call a “politics of abstraction” in which adherents join an ideological tribe and defend its tenets with an inflexibility that the tribe’s members regard as virtuous. Hume said that members of factions experience a good deal of fortification from the “unanimity of sentiment” they experience in their common cause, but they are then disproportionately “shocked and disturbed” when they encounter any opposition to their ideological views.
The politics of abstraction is especially troubling when laid against the backdrop of two related developments in American public life.
First, because of its inflexibility, the politics of abstraction tends toward federal, one-size-fits-all policymaking whether the issue is climate change, government spending, taxes, healthcare, inequality, or whatever is driving the national debate. Variation, which is more common as solutions become more local, is unpalatable to ideological purists.
Progressives have long argued for federal solutions to problems, but lately, conservatives have been doing the same. The new nationalism that imbues a large swath of current Republican sentiments has little use for subsidiarity and federalism. From the Tea Party election of 2010 to the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016, Republicans have been sending people to Washington with hopes solving big national problems.
Very little has been said by the right or left in recent years about the virtues of mediating institutions, those bedrocks of a civil society that stand between the state and the individual, such as local associations, schools, houses of worship, neighborhoods, and families. The Contract with America that defined the Republican revolution of 1994 was anchored by policy goals presupposing the centrality of families, neighborhoods, and personal responsibility and action at the local level. Today, listening to the most prominent talking heads and politicians on the left and right, it is as if America is a nation full of unsheltered individuals seeking protection from a federal overseer. The sacred middle layer of protection between the state and the individual has largely disappeared from political rhetoric.
This problem is compounded by the incompatibility of a politics of abstraction with American institutions, which is a second problematic development. Our institutions are supposed to be vehicles through which publicly minded individuals engage in the give-and-take of solving common problems and pursuing commonly held goals. And yet our fundamental institutions such as Congress, universities, the executive branch, the media, and even the courts have increasingly become platforms for ideological expression in lieu of serving their core public purposes. It is no surprise that public confidence in them has declined significantly in the past few decades.
It is telling that as public confidence in federal and state government has declined over the past generation, confidence in local government has remained higher and largely unchanged over the same time period. Fixing potholes is less prone to ideological manipulation than fighting inequality.
Meanwhile, as ideological tribalism and institutional cynicism grow, we find ourselves more alone. Loneliness has skyrocketed since the 1980s. This is not to say that our political environment is causing the rise of social isolation in America. We do not know enough to make such a claim, and what we do know suggests that social isolation is a complex phenomenon. But it is worth noting that as voters on the right and the left have grown more exercised and angry about political issues bouncing around social media and cable TV, they are also feeling more alone. Ideological tribes may generate a “unanimity of sentiment,” in Hume’s terms, but they are no substitute for a neighborhood, church, school, or local civic organization where people stand side by side while helping a neighbor in need.
The corrective to political abstractions and personal isolation is the localization of national concerns. Almost everything that the United States needs more of is generated at the local and regional level. We need more new businesses. We need more jobs filled by underemployed people. We need more happy people. We need more healthy people. We need more good schools. We need more kids raised in two-parent families. We need more entrepreneurs with better ideas and access to more financing. We need more giving, more helping, more connectedness.
There is very little that federal government does to directly produce more of these goods. This is not to say that federal policy does not create conditions for flourishing or decline. It does. But too often, our public debates about public problems forget about the importance of looking to the local level for solutions.
Local solutions are important because human scale matters. People care most about – and are most likely to act on – that which is proximate to them. There is a reason that philosophers throughout the ages, from Plato to Hume, argued that the size of a polity matters. If problems are no longer the responsibility of those next door, and if those next door no longer feel connected to those who need them, the politics of abstraction wins.
America needs two forms of localism to counteract the politics of abstraction. The first is more local governance over issues we have ceded to Washington, DC. We need to give more flexibility to local agencies and institutions so they can better help low-income families get training and better jobs, create more educational options for families, create environments that entrepreneurs like, experiment with new types of infrastructure, make innovation easier, and more. This would be a large-scale project granting exceptions to federal and state requirements in favor of local innovation.
The second, and perhaps more important, form of localism concerns economic and social innovation. Smaller, local businesses generate revenue for other local firms and are reliable employers during economic downturns. Local entrepreneurs have a positive effect on income and employment and employ workers who are committed to their communities. We should make it easier for local entrepreneurs to launch new businesses through licensing and banking reform. We should make it easier to match enterprising firms with talented workers through modernized workforce development policies. But most importantly, we need what no government policy can achieve: local business and civic leaders committed to cultivating new business and social entrepreneurs no matter what political leaders do. This is an opportunity for a new generation of philanthropists and civic innovators.
Local action is the arena in which people are needed by others. It is the arena in which national problems become local. It is the arena in which you and I create solutions instead of waiting for distant bureaucrats to do it for us. It is the arena in which the politics of abstraction no longer makes sense and social isolation dissolves amidst true community.
Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor to the American Project.