The Liberty We Find in Associations

Professor Goldman’s incisive analysis provides a useful taxonomy of liberties to frame a contemporary conversation that otherwise verges on the abstract: liberty of the person, freedom of association, and freedom of self-government. The taxonomy is useful precisely because the whole collapses without all the parts. There is less to challenge in Goldman’s essay than to expand upon. I want to focus on one type of freedom—the freedom to associate—for two reasons. One is that it is the hinge on which the others depend. The second is the possibility that, in conservatives’ justified concern about assaults on the liberty of subsidiary associations from the family to religion, we have misdiagnosed their decline. Put otherwise: The problem with associations is not that they are unfree. It is that they seem unnecessary.

Freedom of association is not simply about removing barriers to association. It is about preserving the necessity of association. People living in a state of dependence are free to do all manner of things that they do not do simply because it is more convenient not to. Association—genuine association—is hard work. And we have found an easier way. To stand in for the human good of association, we have fallen into a dependence on politics as spectacle.

The conventional explanation of this is Tocqueville’s: Aristocrats are bound to other aristocrats. “In democratic centuries, on the contrary, when the duties of each individual toward the species are much clearer, devotion toward one man becomes rarer: the bond of human affections is extended and loosened.” But that lets us off the hook. It presupposes that our motive for our dependence on politics is benevolence to humanity as opposed to benevolence to human beings. It is unclear that the motive is benevolence at all. It is more like a cheap-thrill alternative to the human need to associate. That thrill depends on a Schmittian politics of friends and enemies being grafted onto the relatively mild and unintrusive form politics takes in the Anglo-American tradition.

During the Red Scare, Louis Hartz wrote that a society reacts to external threats by imposing internal conformity. Yet one defining feature of the last generation or so of American life has been the absence of concentrated, genuinely existential threats from opposing nation-states.

We seem to have developed—and this is relatively new to the American character—a need for such a threat. Now that it has largely dissipated abroad, we have found it in each other. It is evident in the apocalyptic terms in which we describe meaningful but relatively modest political disputes, from the Flight 93 election on the right to the reflexive invocations of this or that identity group’s “safety” on the left.

It is unsurprising that politicians or activists find crises beneath every stone they overturn. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, paraphrasing Norman Podhoretz, identified “the unvarying political content of the proclamation of impending doom. The person making such a statement is asking that power someone else has be given to him or to her.”

That is the nature of power. It does not explain why there is such a market for it. In this, Robert Nisbet is a better guide than Hartz. Nisbet noted that community was such an enduring human need that people who could not find it in the meaningful, face-to-face relationships around them would seek it in the faceless realm of politics instead. A friendly amendment to Nisbet’s thesis might be: People who do not have to find meaning in relationships that make concrete demands on them will gravitate to politics instead.

A politics that meets a need so fundamental must be intense, regardless of what the stakes at any one moment actually are.

Goldman correctly observes what contemporary Americans often forget: that free association “presumes the possibility of reasonable disagreement.” Yet Schmitt’s distinction between friend and enemy does not permit it. Neither does an intersectionality that imposes vertical conformity among all who oppose a given enemy. The armchair diagnosis is that this describes the polarized relationship between Democrats and Republicans. It is more troubling, and more accurate, as a diagnosis of intra-party relationships. We are all intersectionalists now.

Intersectionality is an outgrowth of identity politics, a description of overlapping sources of oppression. But it also imposes uniformity of belief among all victims. A person who is oppressed as a member of one group is obligated to form political alliances based on an alleged uniformity of interests with all such groups. He or she does not have the freedom to shift alliances from issue to issue—a flexibility that lay at the core of James Madison’s claim that faction was not dangerous in an extended republic with diverse interests. On the intersectional thesis, diversity requires uniformity.

Real associations make demands on their members. Political affiliations with or antipathies toward a president are free of charge. They are also free of substance.

We think of this as a phenomenon of the left. It is, and it is bolstered by the rise of woke capitalism, the problem of which is less a phantasmic conspiracy of financial coercion than a simple inability to find shelter from politics. Politics—or, perhaps more precisely described, preening—dominates marketing. It is supposed to motivate our purchases and from whom we make them. It pervades culture.

Yet this expectation of uniformity is not confined to the left. On the right, the existential threat to—what, exactly?—requires so much uniformity that party politics, which has come to mean presidential politics, dominates every office from the White House to county clerk and associations from advocacy organizations to houses of worship.

Temporary political alliances, formed for mutual gain, can be healthy. A gun-rights group whose objectives are served by the election of a given candidate might in fact be well advised to join forces with, say, a pro-life group whose own interests dictate similar electoral priorities. An environmental group might, for similar reasons, align with a group that supports racial preferences. But the tendency becomes pathological when these connections calcify into permanent definitions rather than alliances of convenience: to be pro-life is to be pro-gun, just as to be an environmentalist is to endorse identity politics.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity—that a need should be met by the institution closest to the individual—recognizes the human imperative for these closer associations, like the family or parish, but also the imperative to preserve the necessity of them.

There are, to be sure, threats to these apolitical associations that are properly classified as threats to freedom of association. State assaults on the family, such as a Washington State law that allows patients ages 13 to communicate with insurance companies and medical providers about “sensitive health care services” without their parents’ knowledge, are alarming. So are assaults on religious freedom, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s thinly veiled attempt—rebuffed by the Supreme Court—to single out houses of worship for especially restrictive pandemic regulations. Activists and politicians batter educational institutions from both directions: The left hijacks them to impose ideological conformity, yet rather than preserving the distance of these institutions from politics, the right responds by mimicking the tactic and trying to politicize them in its own image. The 1619 Project, for example, seeks radically to politicize—on the basis of objective falsehoods—primary and secondary education through a curricular agenda.

President Trump is right to respond by defending America’s heritage unapologetically, as he did in his speech at Mount Rushmore last July 4. But part of the problem with the 1619 curriculum is precisely the attempt to politicize institutions of local civil society, which is why Trump’s executive order nationalizing a project of “patriotic education”—including a commission that will somehow answer from on high the much-disputed question of what America’s founding principles are—is an ill-conceived response. If conservatives believe in Tocquevillian civil society, the priority should be to restore a space free of politics.

While addressing these threats, we might also entertain the possibility that the greatest threat to associations pertains not to our freedom to associate but rather to our need to do so. Real associations make demands on their members. Affiliations with or antipathies toward a president—pick your poison: Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden—are free of charge. They are also free of substance.

The task of associations is the hustle and bustle of individuals and families making interesting and meaningful lives and finding—by way of trial and error rather than coordination and coercion—the balance between freedom and obligation. There may be little glory, conventionally understood, in that work. But the full range of Goldman’s taxonomy of liberties depends on it, which ought to be glory enough. Preserving such balanced freedom requires a retreat from politics, not an escalating obsession with it that grows more frantic and intense as the problems it actually needs to address recede.

In this regard, Goldman asks a question that chills the hearts of politicians and activists: “21st century America is no Arcadia. But is it a proto-totalitarian inferno?” In 1996, as journalists fretted that the major party conventions had become boring, George F. Will observed that “widespread indifference to politics, particularly, in August, is a sign of the health of America, where the basic elements of happiness are not routinely at risk in elections.”

Today, an unhealthy infatuation with politics is the greatest threat to associative life in America. Certainly, Americans should oppose state threats to the freedom to associate outside the political realm. It is equally, perhaps more, important to restore the necessity of association by reducing the supply of shallow alternatives.