Conservatives and liberals clash frequently on a wide array of issues, from taxes to trade, from deficits to defense. But their greatest conflict may lie in their contrasting attitudes toward civil society.
Conservatives regard the institutions of civil society - families, churches and communities - as sources of hope and renewal. Self-styled "progressives" see those institutions as seedbeds of prejudice and ignorance.
Conservatives believe that poverty stems largely from a lack of spiritual resources, resources that typically are transmitted through private, voluntary groups. Progressives view poverty as a simple lack of resources.
Conservatives think social justice is best pursued through the restoration of community, familial love, self respect and responsibility - all products of a robust civil society. Progressives think social justice requires that we redistribute material wealth.
Consider, too, how both groups react to the Tea Party movement.
For conservatives, this movement is a classic example of civil society in action: Ordinary Americans, appalled by the sudden, massive expansion of big government and the equally sudden, explosive growth of the national debt, have spontaneously organized into associations demanding change.
The great French author Alexis de Tocqueville surely would applaud the Tea Party movement. He would see in it an example of how a vigorous civil society, by serving as a check on the centralizing ambitions of the state, is vital to the health and well-being of democracy.
But progressives support the centralizing ambitions of the state. Thus, they've attacked the Tea Party movement with a fury that might have reminded Tocqueville of the French Revolution's hatred of religion. Prominent progressives have denounced Tea Party members as "terrorists," "racists" and "Nazis" who deserve to be "taken out."
The depth of progressive hatred of the Tea Party movement is startling. But I suppose this is how the "ruling class" invariably reacts whenever the "lower orders" start acting uppity.
Make no mistake: Although today's governing class calls itself "progressive," it is, in fact, profoundly reactionary.
By undermining civil society, strengthening the state and even trying to pin a smiley face on big government by renaming it the "federal family," it is laying the groundwork for the democratic despotism that Tocqueville foresaw and warned against in his landmark book, "Democracy in America."
Progressive hostility toward the Tea Party movement has reinforced my conviction that strengthening civil society is more urgent today than ever before. We Americans need to regain something of Tocqueville's sense of awe and wonder at the power, ingenuity and creativity of those vital institutions.
Several years ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a Heritage Foundation audience how a vibrant civil society contributed to a more just society in the rural Georgia of his youth:
"When someone down the road fell upon hard times," Justice Thomas recalled, "or when sickness beset a family, or when a hurricane or fire destroyed or damaged someone's house, people instinctively helped in whatever way they could. Not helping was unthinkable."
We need to remember that we are not helpless, ignorant masses desperately clinging to our guns or religion, as President Obama once said on the campaign trail. Nor are we anxiously awaiting the arrival of a messiah-president to deliver us from what Tocqueville called "the trouble of thinking and the cares of living."
Rather, we are the American people. We remain strong and resourceful. And we must open our minds to the untapped potential of freedom, the hidden strengths of civil society and the indomitable power of the American spirit.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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