What is tomorrow’s presidential election about? The economy? The candidates say so only because the undecided – and unaligned – voters say so.

The economy isn’t the real issue, says Yuval Levin in his Weekly Standard article, “The Real Debate.” Watch the convention speeches, he suggests. Listen to Romney talk to his millionaire friends behind closed doors. If they didn’t have those pesky independents to win over, the parties would say that the election is a struggle between the government (defended by progressives) and individuals (defended by conservatives).

But Levin eventually dismisses this idea, too. When it comes to understanding what’s at stake in this election, the parties are about as clueless as the undecided voters.

Levin spends the rest of the article developing what he considers the true meaning of the election: the survival and prosperity of “the space between the individual and the state” and the “mediating institutions that occupy [that space]: the family, civil society, and the private economy.” Progressives “have always viewed those institutions with suspicion, seeing them a instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness,” Levin asserts, but conservatives insist that “local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions – from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets – will make for better material outcomes and a better common life.”

Levin is mistaken about three things: (1) the cause of some of these institutions’ declines, (2) the proper role of these institutions relative to individuals and government, and (3) the result his focus on these institutions would produce.

(1) Why the public realm is in decline

Levin believes that the federal government, under the control of the progressives from Franklin Roosevelt forward, has shoved churches and charities out of their proper roles of caring for the poor. While the government has maintained a social safety net since the New Deal, however, churches and charities have never seen the demand for charity exceed their supply. This is true especially when one considers the entire world. Jesus’ promise that “The poor you will always have with you” is in no danger of being annulled by the United States government’s safety net.

Like many neoconservatives, Levin argues that the loss of a public life is only a product of our current saeculum, Levin referring exclusively to the dynamics of the years following World War II. Richard Sennett argues more convincingly, though, in his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man that our public life has been deteriorating for about two hundred years and through no fault of the federal government. In eighteenth century English and French societies were balanced between the claims of civility (public life) and the claims of nature (private life):

They saw these claims in conflict, and the complexity of their vision lay in that they refused to prefer the one over the other, but held the two in a state of equilibrium. Behaving with strangers in an emotionally satisfying way and yet remaining aloof from them was seen by the mid-18th Century as the means by which the human animal was transformed into a social being. . . . The tensions between the claims of civility and the rights of nature . . . not only suffused the high culture of the era but extended into more mundane realms. These tensions appeared in manuals on child-rearing, tracts on moral obligation, and common-sense beliefs about the rights of man. (18 – 19)

The breakdown of a transcendent “order of Nature” associated with Romanticism around the turn of the nineteenth century and industrial capitalism’s growth as the century progressed caused people to question the conventions that upheld public life, Sennett argues.

Gradually the will to control and shape the public order eroded, and people put more emphasis on protecting themselves from it. The family became one of those shields. During the 19th Century the family came to appear less and less the center of a particular, nonpublic region, more an idealized refuge, a world all its own, with a higher moral value than the public realm. (7)

Sennett, a sociology professor at New York University and the London School of Economics, was at least as conservative when he wrote The Fall of Public Man as Levin is now. Sennett believes, for instance, that our current emphasis on sexuality as merely “an expressive state” is indicative of the loss of the public realm. “We uncover [sex], we discover it, we come to terms with it, but we do not master it,” he states. But his conservative thesis does not lead him to blame the federal government for burdening family life. In fact, given Sennett’s thesis, it would be hard to imagine any government action that would alone recreate a balance between a public and private life, thereby freeing the family from some of the burden the collapse of public life has placed on it.

(2) The proper role of local institutions relative to individuals and government

Levin places “the family, civil society, and the private economy” between the individual and his government. Reading Levin, the image that comes to mind of these entities is never that of a triangle, as one might see reading John Locke’s commentary on the individual, society, and government. Instead, Levin creates a vector of sorts with society standing between the individual and the state. He speaks twice of “the space between the individual and the state” and of “that intermediate space, and . . . the mediating institutions that occupy it.”

One wonders if Levin’s mediating institutions include unions, anti-defamation leagues, and mosques, but no matter. At a conceptual, theoretical standpoint, no institution should serve to mediate between government and individuals. Indeed, from a metaphysical standpoint, no space exists in our republic between government and individuals.

Locke and our Founders believed in a state of nature in which individual preceded society and that society preceded government. He believed that, should government fail, society and individuals would still exist. He did not believe, however, that elements of society such as the family, the church, or the private economy were “mediating institutions.”

John Calhoun, on the other hand, didn’t believe that individuals existed outside of their society from the point of view of government. He denied the state of nature that Locke, Jefferson, and Lincoln maintained as a necessary metaphysical understanding between individuals and their government:

But it is equally clear, that man cannot exist in such a state [of nature]; that he is by nature social, and that society is necessary, not only to the proper development of all his faculties, moral and intellectual, but to the very existence of his race. Such being the case, the state is a purely hypothetical one; and when we say all men are free and equal in it, we announce a mere hypothetical truism; that is, a truism resting on a mere supposition that cannot exist, and of course one of little or no practical value….

Calhoun denied that the individual existed outside of society, and he used that denial to defend slavery. If we adopted Levin’s similar metaphysical relationship among individuals, society, and government, we may lay the foundation for the end of the secret ballot. The Supreme Court has recently lifted the prohibition against bosses telling their employees how they should vote. Could employees and other “intermediaries” also put more pressure on individuals by putting an end to the secret ballot, which isn’t nearly as old as our republic?

This space, if it existed, would abhor a vacuum. If the fifty states were sucked into it as “mediating institutions” between individuals and the federal government, could we justify the repeal the constitutional amendments for the direct election of United States senators and for the more direct means of electing presidents? Would we be more inclined to pass the recently drafted “Repeal Amendment,” through which a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures would overturn a federal law or regulation?

Despite Levin’s charge, few people – even few progressives – want to see the economy, the family, religious institutions, and voluntary associations weakened. But I don’t want them seen as standing “between” and individual and her government, either. No such role for them was mentioned in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, and no such power should be accorded to them now.

I suppose I open myself to the charge of being too concerned with political metaphysics. I would answer the charge as follows: the hierarchy of Nature’s God, Man, and Nature is fixed and is also baked into our founding documents. This hierarchy amounts to a political convention – not the type the parties hold just before each presidential election, but a necessary fiction, if you will, like a dramatic convention, examples of which would be an aside and a soliloquy that an audience chooses to believe in to make a play work.

The hierarchy among God, people, and nature, famously expressed in Jefferson’s observation that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred,” is an instance of transcendence in a culture that Sennett says is governed by “the principle of immanence” (22). And this hierarchy – this precious convention – and the famous clause it fosters, “All men are created equal,” often seems invisible to very conservatives who claim they want to restore our Founding Fathers’ governing framework.

(3) Undue focus on local institutions and restoring the public sphere

It seems counter-intuitive to say that attempts to improve the political clout of local institutions would prevent us from restoring a balance between our public and private spheres. However, what Sennett calls “localism and local autonomy” is a symptom of the loss of our public sphere.  Our “dead public space” and our “contempt for ritual masks of sociability” have made us more reliant on relationships among people we know (15). (These ritual masks, the eighteenth-century version of which amount to the most entertaining reading in The Fall of Public Man, make up a more comical kind of convention than Locke’s and Aquinas’s grand Natural Law conventions, but they would be almost as important as a means of restoring our public life.) We now fear impersonal life – the life that our roles and masks allowed us the freedom to experience before Romanticism. Localism, taken to an extreme and as a substitute for an impersonal public life, can be self-defeating in a global culture:

Localism and local autonomy are becoming widespread political creeds, as though the experience of power relations can have more human meaning the more intimate the scale – even though the actual structures of power grow ever more into an international system. Community becomes a weapon against society, whose great vice is now seen to be its impersonality. But a community of power can only be an illusion in a society like that of the industrial West . . . . In sum, the belief in direct human relations on an intimate scale has seduced us from converting our understanding of the realities of power into guides for our political behavior. (339)

This “retribalization” Sennett warned us of almost forty years ago seems to fit the nationalistic Romantic age as well as today’s political polarization and international religious strife. Localism, which can lead to retribalization, won’t make up for the lack of a true, public life.

4. And so

All politics may be local, but it’s not all personal. We have to balance our care for local institutions with a new willingness to adopt protocols and conventions, some theoretical and some seemingly silly, to shore up our freedom and, as Sennett puts it, to “learn to act impersonally” (340).

I’m voting tomorrow, but not to restore the space between the individual and government. Mike Huckabee called to let me know today that the election will set the course of this country for a century. It’s a big election, but after thinking over some of the sweep of John Locke’s and Richard Sennett’s thought tonight, I don’t know if I can go as far as Huckabee. I’m not sure, either, if Sennett, in enjoining us to act impersonally, had Huckabee’s robo-call in mind.