How not to save civil society

I am going to urge you to take a look at Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times. I don’t like it and I very much hope that you won’t like it either, but let’s start by reading it.

civil-1Here’s the argument. Trump has his heart set on authoritarian control of all the major institutions in the country, not just the political and economic ones. If we just sit back and let him do it, as some self-styled “voices of reason” counsel, we will lose our democratic system and may never get it back. [1]

So here’s Krugman’s counsel. It is the last line in the column and it is a bell-ringer.

When neither the president nor his allies in Congress show any sign of respecting basic American values, an aroused public that’s willing to take names is all we have.

Of course, “ringing the bell” isn’t all Krugman has in mind. He is an economist, after all. He provides specific instances of the kind of opposition he thinks is crucially important. Here are the examples he provides:

  • It means patronizing businesses that defend our values and not those willing to go along with undermining them.
  • It means letting public figures, however nonpolitical their professions, know that people care about the stands they take, or don’t.
  • For example, it is not O.K. for newspapers to publish he-said-she-said pieces that paper over administration lies, let alone beat-sweetening puff pieces about Trump allies. It’s not O.K. for businesses to supply Mr. Trump with photo ops claiming undeserved credit for job creation — or for business leaders to serve on “advisory” panels that are really just another kind of photo op.
  • It’s not even O.K. to go golfing with the president, saying that it’s about showing respect for the office, not the man.

The examples make it clear what he would like to see happen. His initial phrasing—“an aroused public that’s willing to take names”—is very spirited; the examples, not so much.

Let’s remember that Krugman’s announced goal is to protect civil society. His proposal is that formerly civil society be relentlessly politicized. It means in point one that we patronize the businesses with the right political values and, I suppose, boycott those with the wrong political values. It means in point two, demanding of all public figures—writers, lecturers, actors, athletes, people who are famous for being famous—that they trade their fame in for public position taking. It means, in point four, that the highest office in the land be treated as a partisan office ONLY, and not also a ceremonial office. [2]

That’s what Krugman says. I have three things to say in response.


First, you don’t protect civil society like that. Krugman defines “civil society” as “institutions outside the government proper.” I agree, but I would define it a little more broadly. I would say that institutions that are principally political or principally economic are both outside “civil society.”

Second, Krugman portrays this an an emergency measure as if when the need for it is over, we will stop doing it. Isaiah 2:4 celebrates the beating of swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks. I am glad that can happen, but the much more common transformation is from plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears. Not very many people ever feel it is safe to change them back. It’s like not carrying a gun after a period of carrying it. It’s like turning off your burglar alarm now that it is safe to. These things just don’t happen.

Third, Krugman seems to feel that when we have done the right thing—we have risen up against the impending Trump dictatorship—we will stop and then it will be over. Why would it be over? When we stop, the other side will start. Everything we politicize, they will politicize. And when we are done, they will feel that it is their turn, especially if we are successful at it. What we do as an emergency measure, will become the new norm as they respond in kind.

I have profited greatly from reading a communitarian sociologist named Frank Hearn. In his book, Moral Order and Social Disorder: The American Search for Civil Society, he looks at things in the common three-part way. There is the polity (the political system) and the economy (the economic system) and the society (the social system). As a communitarian, Hearn finds that most problems are best addressed in the social system. He writes soaring and persuasive prose about social institutions and how reliant we are on their proper functioning.

And along with all the beautiful language, he provides a few really ugly words: politicization and commodification. These are processes (the -zation and the -ification tell you that) by which an issue that was at one place is taken up and put somewhere else. Some issues that are properly social have been “politicized;” they have been taken out of the setting where good outcomes might be achieved, and have been put somewhere else. If they have been put into the political system, Hearn says they have been “politicized;” if they have been put into the economic system, he says they have been “commodified.”

Krugman’s proposal is, using Hearn’s language, a massive politicization of civil society. If we do that, we won’t get it back.

[1] Revolutions, just in case your mind was going that way, are very poor ways to establish democratic systems for the same reason that “broil” is not a good setting for croissants.
[2] We have already had parents of soldiers killed in action refuse any recognition of their sacrifice if it is to come from the President, the Commander-in-Chief of all our armed forces.
[3] A perfectly ordinary triad of social institutions reflects this: polity, economy, society.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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