I propose to debate the philosophy of Herbert Croly:
Croly's thought leads to the conclusion that the American democratic system creates an inevitable contest among interest groups leading to the now common contention that the system is unfair, corrupted or perverted by the influence of insiders who have been since 1910 described as the "special interests."
There are those who say that this is a fiction -- American politics is not compromised by the influence of "special interests," but rather all interest groups are "special interests" and the contest among them is what comprises American politics.
It all comes down to whether we believe the relative influence of some interest groups as compared with others creates in some groups a privilege that makes the contest unfair.
Here is a summary of Croly's reasoning:
American people’s loyalty to the idea of democracy, as they understand it, cannot be questioned. But what it means to them is “popular government.” Yet “individual liberty can be permanently guaranteed only in case political liberties are in theory and practice subordinated to civil liberties. Popular political institutions constitute a good servant, but a bad master. . . . They erect a power in the state, which in theory is unlimited and which constantly tends in practice to dispense with restrictions.”
So the tendency of the Presidency, the Congress to seek to aggregate unto themselves more and more power is understood ...
But this is a “not a criticism of a certain conception of democracy, but of democracy itself. Ultimate responsibility for the government of a community must reside somewhere. . . . [Hence] There is . . . no logical escape from a theory of popular Sovereignty -- once the theory of divinely appointed royal Sovereignty is rejected.” Recall a similar point in Tocqueville--his rejection of the traditional republican conception of balanced government (that is, a balance of the classes in society). He argued that government must ultimately serve the interests of one or another class.
So there are going to have to be winners and losers ....
Granted, a democracy may impose “rules of action upon itself,” nevertheless “that body of law remains merely an instrument which was made for the people and which if necessary can and will be modified.”
“Individual freedom is important, but more important still is the freedom of a whole people to dispose of its own destiny.”
Can the "whole people" ever define or agree on its own destiny?
But democracy entails more than popular sovereignty. “It must at least mean an expression of the Sovereign will, which will not contradict and destroy the continuous existence of its own Sovereign power. . . A particular group of political institutions or course of political action may . . . be representative of the popular will, and yet may be undemocratic. . . . There can be no democracy where the people do not rule; but government by the people is not necessarily democratic.”
So while the people consent to be governed, yet may not like their government?
The American answer to this question of integrity has been the proposition of “equal rights for all and special privileges for none” (from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address). Yet “Such an organization may permit radical differences among individuals in the opportunities and possessions they actually enjoy.” Individual and social interests are held to be harmonized by the fact that the same liberties are enjoyed by all, and by the contribution individuals pursuing their own interests make to society as a whole.
Under this arrangement, there is supposed to be no room for permanent legal privileges for any class of citizens. Beyond this, “American political thinkers have always repudiated the idea that by equality of rights they meant anything like equality of performance or power.”
So the issue is joined as between supposed equality of opportunity and the reality of opportunity for the economically advantaged and socially well connected ...
Americans who believe in the notion of an equal start but an unequal finish are “wholly blind to the fact that under a legal system which holds private property sacred there may be equal rights, but there cannot possibly be any equal opportunities for exercising such rights.” Comparative material conditions dramatically affect opportunities.
The conservative reacts to this by defining rights narrowly to mean those of personal freedom and private property protected by the law. The radical develops a “more or less drastic criticism of the existing economic and social order.”
Is this analysis still the case?
Thus “The same principle, differently interpreted, is the foundation of American political orthodoxy and American political heterodoxy.” And reforming legislation typically pleases neither. Instead, society is fractured into contending groups: the ‘people’ appeal to the state against the corporations, the federal government supports shippers against the railroads, corporations seek Federal judicial protection from state legislators, employers battle unions, free traders oppose protectionism.
Croly argues that in the youth of the republic, “as long as economic opportunities . . . had not been developed and appropriated”, “opportunities were open to the poor and untrained man”, and “the public interest demanded first of all utmost celerity of economic development”, “Individual and social interest did substantially coincide” because the promise of prosperity was largely fulfilled via the expanding frontier: “the prodigious natural resources of a new continent were thrown open to anybody with the energy to appropriate them.”
But “With the advent of comparative economic and social maturity, the exercise of certain legal rights became substantially equivalent to the exercise of a privilege.”
Here we come to the divide -- that which splits conservatives from liberals ...
Croly then argues that reformers and demagogues, and public opinion itself, have preferred to fix the blame for the contradictions of American development not on the ambiguity of its fundamental principle, but on the behavior of one or another social group (e.g., reformers argue that “some of the victors have captured too many prizes, because they did not play fair&rdquo
. Hence the popular democratic politician assumes the role of prosecutor or “avenging angel.”
Blame the "special interests?"
But a democratic society requires an underlying unity: “a democracy . . . cannot prevail unless the individuals composing it recognize mutual ties and responsibilities which lie deeper than an differences of interest and idea.”
Unfortunately, “The principle of equal rights encourages mutual suspicion and disloyalty. It tends to attribute individual and social ills, for which general moral, economic and social causes are usually in large measure to responsible, to individual wrong-doing.” Thus “personal and class hatred” are aroused, and “angry resentment becomes transformed . . . into righteous indignation.”
So what does the concept of "equal rights" and "equality of opportunity" actually mean in today's USA??
Does Croly's ideas mean that "equal rights" and "equality of opportunity" undermines and makes impossible what used to be considered the concept of the "public interest?"