The cultural philosophy of a nation governs how the nation reacts to the challenges it faces. The political courses of actions a nation chooses flow from the dominant ideas it holds, which is to say that the relationship between philosophy and politics is a direct and practical one.
The United States was founded on the philosophy of the 18th century Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. The Enlightenment encompassed a range of ideas establishing reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. These ideas set the course for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, which focused the purpose of government on the protection of individual rights.
Our Declaration of Independence relies on the political ideas of early Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Our concepts of limited government and the required separation of powers come from Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), and Adam Smith gave us the rationale for free market economics in The Wealth of Nations (1776). The genius of the Founding Fathers was to transmute these Enlightenment philosophies into action in forming a nation-state.
In the 19th and early 20th century, Europe’s leading philosophers, in a movement known as the Counter-Enlightenment, abandoned Age of Reason ideals for a belief that feelings and intuition are more important than reason. The principles of individual rights and limited government were replaced by collectivism, and by the all-powerful state in various manifestations of cultural nationalism.
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Counter-Enlightenment philosophers replaced individual rights with the “general will” of the collective. The nationalistic glorification of the nation-state that accompanies collectivism fueled hostility among nations paving the way for two world wars. These, in turn, were followed by the spread of totalitarian communist dictatorships throughout the world.
In the United States, as argued by Michael Dahlen in The Roots of Capitalism and Stalinism in the West, the Counter-Enlightenment ideas “have undermined the commitments of Americans to the nation’s founding principles of individual rights and limited government.”
Prominent American Leftists groveled over the Soviet Union’s central planning, fawned over the socialist experiments in Cuba, China and North Vietnam, and idolized murderous tyrants like Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. As Counter-Enlightenment ideas infiltrated American culture, the role of government expanded, taking from our treasure and our individual rights.
In the early 21st century, American political culture finds itself in a rather confused philosophical state of affairs. Today’s versions of the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment are the globalization and counter-globalization movements.
Globalization, purportedly a business-friendly movement, favors easier movement of goods, capital and people across national borders. Conceptually, globalization reduces the importance of borders and of nation-states.
Counter-globalization, on the other hand, is an anti-business, anti-consumerism idea opposed to the integration of markets and to carrying great antipathy to multi-national corporations. Conceptually, counter-globalization increases the importance of nation-states.
If we try to un-wrap these positions philosophically, we unexpectedly find that the youthful counter-globalization protesters fall into the nationalistic Counter-Enlightenment camp based on their antipathy towards globalism.
They are, in effect, saying that the nation-state and borders matter, and propose recovering national sovereignty over international trade from malevolent multi-national corporations. They are practically quoting, I suspect much to their horror, President Trump’s views that “…there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag. This is the United States of America that I’m representing.”
In the United States we are witnessing a populist backlash to globalism where the traditional Left and Right are incoherently aligned without knowing it. In this identity crisis, the unrecognized premise of the alignment seems to be an implicit recognition that, in the 21st century, economic and geopolitical self-interest are inseparable.
The evolving relationship between philosophy and politics is yet unclear, but it points to a cultural philosophy consisting of a secular, democratic alternative to globalism. It is a peculiar U.S.-Centric cultural philosophy that, like the Enlightenment, centers on individual freedoms, but like the Counter-Enlightenment exalts national values.