Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
They Said It:
Even a state thus plundered and mauled, stripped of moral armor, might be tolerable if only the activity of government were confined to its ancient bounds. But modern populations, upon which a popular press bestows presumption without knowledge, are resolved to extend the functions of government immeasurably beyond its old duties of defense and maintenance of internal order; for the public is now fascinated with the possibility of obtaining necessities and comforts through action of the state, even to the exclusion of those liberties which once were so resounding in a rally-cry. Economic appetites, now the masters of all classes, incline the public to demand a paternalistic regime; they encourage a variety of cheap Utopian fancies, as popular as they are gross; they lead almost invariably to manipulation of the value of money by the state, with its consequent inflation and insecurity; they are an excuse for profuse public expenditure; they make the labor questions doubly dangerous; and the delusion, already dismayingly general, that prosperity depends upon the action of government, must lead to socialism, if wholly triumphant – to a common poverty of body and mind which masquerades as common gratification . . . Corrupt and stupid governments may be tolerated when their activities are confined by prescription to a small and certain sphere; in this age of aggrandizement, however, corrupt and stupid governments deliver us up precipitately to class warfare and international anarchy.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1953.
NEITHER A DEMOCRACY NOR A REPUBLIC.
Roger L. Simon is one of our favorite people in the “new media.” He’s a former lefty. He was a Civil Rights activist in the ‘60s. He was a big shot novelist and an even bigger shot screenwriter who was nominated for an academy award in 1989 and who worked with such liberal icons as Woody Allen. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the OJ Simpson trial, and 9/11, though, Simon began moving right politically and eventually co-founded PJMedia, home to some of the finest writers and bloggers on the Right.
He is also a Donald Trump supporter. Or, if not a full-fledged supporter, he has at least made his peace with a Trump candidacy and, for that matter, with a Trump presidency. Trump may not be his favorite person in the world, but, as Simon puts it, he’ll be an improvement over the current occupant of the White House and infinitely better than either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Given all of this, Simon is a little unhappy these days with the state of the Republican primary contest. It’s not that he’s annoyed with Ted Cruz’s persistence or with John Kasich’s persistent delusions. He’s upset with the Republican power-brokers, that is, with the people who seem determined to “steal” the nomination from Trump at a contested convention. Like most of us, Simon knows that Trump will likely go to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland with a plurality, but not a majority of the Republican delegates, which means that his nomination will not be guaranteed – far from it. Trump will have to battle Cruz, the Republican establishment, and God knows who else to win the nomination in Cleveland. And since the delegates are usually chosen from among the members of said establishment, all of that may be too much for the Donald. And Simon thinks that stinks. He put it this way in a column last week:
A large question rears its head as we move toward the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer – to what extent is it possible to have a democracy, or even a democratic republic, in a country whose population is in excess of 320 million? When the Constitution was written, we were slightly over three million, not counting slaves that might have added another half million or so – in all, approximately a third the population of present day Los Angeles County. The more people the more possibility of chicanery, you would think, and the less possibility of any serious direct democratic representation. . . .
Rule 40 of “The Rules of the Republican Party” specifies that only someone who has won the majority of delegates in a minimum of eight states can have his or her name placed in nomination. That means only Trump and Cruz – not even John Kasich and certainly not Ryan, who did not even compete.
But then, as I understand it, you can still vote for them (Kasich, Ryan, etc.) even if they’re not placed in nomination (go figure) and more importantly and most obviously, rules are made to be broken – or, if not broken, rewritten.
And who would rewrite said rules? Why the rules committee, of course (said Alice to the Mad Hatter, or vice versa). And who determines who is on the rules committee? Well, that depends. (Didn’t you just know that?) Actually there really are rules for who sits on the committee, but they vary from state to state and can be rewritten themselves. (Didn’t you just know that too?) . . . . To paraphrase the investigations of the 1950s, are we now or have we ever been . . . a democracy?
Now, given that Simon mentions the phrase “democratic republic” in his intro., we can’t help but deduce that he knows the answer to the question he asks in his conclusion. Even so, that very same question is bound to be asked countless times by countless others less well informed than Simon over the course of the next several months; moreover, it’s likely to have a significant impact on the Republican convention, on the eventual Republican nominee, and on the possibility that the warring factions in the GOP can reconcile with each other in time to beat the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Over the weekend, for example, Donald Trump took to Twitter, as is his wont, to complain loudly and repeatedly that he is being denied his due because the Colorado Republican party made a decision last summer to award its 37 delegates this year without a traditional primary or caucus. “Totally unfair,” Trump complained, suggesting that he continues to grow angrier with the GOP establishment and continues to feel more and more detached from the party itself.
So let us answer Simon’s question now in order to clear up any confusion: NO. The United States is not now and has never been a democracy. It was never intended to be a democracy, and believe it or not, the candidacy of people like Donald Trump is precisely the reason why.
In some ways, this is the simplest of arguments. The Founders did not want a “democracy.” That’s it. In other ways, though, this is a far more complicated subject, one that is directly related to many of the problems that the nation is facing today, which helps to explain why faith in our government is collapsing and what, if anything, can be done about it.
The best place to start, we suppose, is at the beginning. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention produced a document that was explicitly republican in nature, which is to say explicitly anti-democratic. In Federalist 10, Madison went to great lengths to explain the shortcomings of democracy, writing that “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Knowing full well that the “madness of crowds” is a real danger to an otherwise just polity, the founders wrote a Constitution that guaranteed to each individual certain rights that could not be denied by a simple majority-plus-one of “the people.” Moreover, this constitution limited the power of the numerical majority by filtering the wishes of “the people” through elected representatives, who were then trusted to promote those wishes in the greater government.
The Founders’ rightful fear of “the masses” acting in unison and in the so-called “spirit of the moment” has, of course, been reiterated over the years by countless others far smarter than we, on both the Left and the Right. Burke wrote that we should be “afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” Echoing Burke, Russell Kirk noted that “The ordinary citizen does not automatically distinguish false propaganda for what it is. . . [This] ought to be evident to anyone who knows the course of events in modern Germany or Italy.” And Irving Babbitt put meat on the bone when he derided the notion that wisdom resides in the popular majority, noting that the “if the plain people at Jerusalem had registered their will with the aid of the most improved type of ballot box, there is no evidence that they would have preferred Christ to Barabbas.”
Even John Stuart Mill, the icon of contemporary liberalism, puzzled over and worried about the “tyranny of the majority.” “Is it, at all times and places,” he asked, “good for mankind to be under an absolute authority of the majority of themselves? Is it, we say, the proper condition of man, in all ages and nations, to be under the despotism of Public Opinion?” He then proceeded to answer his own question in the negative:
[S]uch phrases as ‘self-government’, and ‘the power of the people over themselves’, do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people [as] those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power . . . This view of things . . . has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. . . .
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
None of this is to say that “republican” governance is perfect or that it is without its own flaws. It is not, and one of the most important of these laws, is the tendency – produced by filtering the wishes of “the people” through elected representatives – to create a permanent “ruling class” of sorts. In their wisdom, the Founding Fathers recognized this, and so placed certain checks and balances within the Constitution to prevent this “ruling class” from consolidating and thereby forming a de facto government removed entirely from the will of the people.
These checks and balances worked for a century or so, but they eventually failed. This failure – the corruption of the Constitutional regime – was, in many ways, the beginning of the end for the American republic. Part of it was simply the natural progression of time; but a bigger part of it was the advantage taken of this progression by a less discerning and less unassuming group of political leaders. And the entirety of it distorted the Founders’ vision, effectively setting the stage for our current political disorder.
This process of corruption began shortly after the Civil War, when an extraordinary number of new inventions and technologies transformed the nation from an almost entirely agricultural society to one of largest manufacturing nations in the world. Unsurprisingly, this change in the nature of the economy, created a host of new and challenging social problems. In turn, the Progressives – starting with Republican Teddy Roosevelt and his Democratic counterpart Woodrow Wilson – insisted that they alone could handle these problems and only through a radical transformation of the Constitution.
Less than three months into his presidency, (Teddy) Roosevelt publicly explained that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they mistakenly “accepted as a matter of course that the several States were the proper authorities to regulate, so far as was then necessary, the comparatively insignificant and strictly localized corporate bodies of the day.” This was a forgivable error on their part, he graciously and condescendingly admitted. After all, he said, “no human wisdom could foretell the sweeping changes, alike in industrial and political conditions, which were to take place by the beginning of the twentieth century.” But it was an error nonetheless and had to be remedied. “The conditions today are wholly different and wholly different action is called for,” Roosevelt said. “The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law” are no longer sufficient “to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth.” (emphasis added)
A few years later, Wilson would go on to describe the Constitution as “a document from a forgotten age,” and “political witchcraft,” and to insist that Jefferson screwed up when he included the “preface” in the Declaration of Independence. (For the record, that pointless preface begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”)
The Progressive tinkering with the Constitution is clearly a big part of our contemporary political problems. The Progressives made the government more “democratic,” which is to say that they invested more superficial political influence in the masses. But they also corrupted the republican nature of the government, turning the ruling class into a closed clique, an elite trained in and dedicated specifically to the “administration” of other peoples’ lives.
Among the many dire consequences of the Progressives’ attack on the Constitution was the 16th amendment, which gave the government and its new, morally superior guardians the power to tax some individuals at a higher rate than others, thus undermining virtually all of the key characteristics of the American experiment in self-government, ranging from the inviolability of private property to equality under law, and set the stage for the great American political game of using the tax code to punish and reward various groups of citizens. They also pushed and delivered the 17th amendment, which established the direct election of Senators by popular vote, rather than by the state legislatures, thereby destroying one of the key barriers to government by the “masses.” And finally, they created the Fed, which would, in time, assure the complete corruption of the ruling class.
Regular readers will recognize that we have spent countless hours of our and your time over the years lamenting the transgressions of the “ruling class” and the administrative state – their arrogance, their violation of both democratic and republican principles, the insatiability they introduced to the political system, their condescension, their ubiquitousness, and their economic inefficiency. Perhaps their greatest offense, however, was the catastrophic effect that they had on public morality.
You see, the Progressives were inveterate moralizers, advocate of government power being used as a moral corrective. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, “The Federal Government does scourge sin; it does bid sinners fear, for it has put behind bars with impartial severity the powerful financial, the powerful politician, the rich land thief, and the rich contractor . . . we strive to bring nearer the day when greed and trickery and cunning shall be trampled underfoot by those who fight for righteousness that exalted a nation.”
Wilson, for his part, was an acolyte of Richard Ely, one of the leaders of the “social gospel” movement, which held that “God works through the states to carry out his purposes more universally than through any other institution.” As much as any other utopian statist of his era, including but not limited to Lenin, Wilson believed that man’s existence on earth could be perfected. In order to perfect said existence, though, man had to have the sense to listen to the proper people, which is to say people like Wilson. The administrative state, in short, was established not simply to promote efficient governance through “professionalism,” but to advance the cause of moral righteousness as well. Or, as he put it in address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a Y.M.C.A. celebration on October 24, 1914:
No man can look at the past of the history of this world without seeing a vision of the future of the history of this world; and when you think of the accumulated moral forces that have made one age better than another age in the progress of mankind, then you can open your eyes to the vision. You can see that age by age, though with a blind struggle in the dust of the road, though often mistaking the path and losing its way in the mire, mankind is yet – sometimes with bloody hands and battered knees – nevertheless struggling step after step up the slow stages to the day when he shall live in the full light which shines upon the uplands, where all the light that illumines mankind shines direct from the face of God.
By injecting the notion of “morality” and its protection into the realm of public policy, by making its moral judgment just another function of government, the Progressives set the stage for a further and even deeper divide between the administrative state and the people. Of course, the Progressives did not see the harm in their righteous revolution. After all, during the Progressive heyday, most Americans were Christians and were, more or less, in agreement with the Progressives about the definitions of such terms as “right” and “wrong,” “moral” and immoral.” Indeed, the commonality of belief in the traditional Christian understanding of these terms was the glue that bound the rich to the poor and the various ethnic groups together in their love for a nation that honored them.
But the Progressive were shortsighted, and their moral grandstanding eventually threatened both the national consensus and their ability to maintain their position at the top of the social and political food chains. And here’s where things get really complicated.
In the moral and philosophical muddle of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the political Left in particular was pretty thoroughly fragmented on the questions of morality, the nature of moral beliefs, and the role of the government in promoting the righteous “happiness” of the masses. While the Progressive pietism was sufficient for the morally upright members of the governing class, the masses were seen as men and women of less sturdy character, people whose happiness had to be managed by other means. Among those who offered a workable and non-injurious means of maintaining and regulating the happiness of the masses that would not threaten the well-being of the Progressive republic was the aforementioned John Stuart Mill. Mill’s soft-utilitarianism offered a course correction for the Progressives, one that would allow the masses to enjoy their freedom without harming the state. Mill’s “harm principle” fit the moral confusion of the day quite well.
The harm principle, you may recall, restricts state action against free men and purports to ensure that the greatest liberty will always be advanced, regardless of the conflicts that might exist between the state, its ruling class, and the masses. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will,” Mill wrote, “is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
On the surface, this seems perfectly reasonable and perfectly likely to restrain otherwise aggressively interfering busybodies – like the Progressives. It also has the added benefit of not forcing people to give the things they enjoy, but which aggressively self-righteous moralists (again, like the Progressives) believe to be sinful. Think here of prohibition. The Progressives righteously banned alcohol as a moral abomination, but in the span of a decade, were forced to walk back their piety, acknowledging that their strict morality could not be effectively imposed through state coercion. Everyone is happy, right? Well…no. That’s not right, for below the surface the harm principle eats away at the fabric of the republican society.
In its essence, Mill’s harm principle is the institutionalization of moral relativism. Nothing is inherently good; nothing is inherently bad. All actions must be judged only by the largely abstract and subjective measure of the harm that they may do to someone else. Since the 1960s, the American Left has, by and large, lived by the motto “if it feels good, do it.” This is merely the contemporary appellation of Mill’s harm principle. If it makes you happy, if it’s something you want to do, if it gives you pleasure, then do it, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.
We’ll grant, of course, that we have the benefit here of hindsight. Still, looking at the moral mess initiated by the Left in the early part of the 20th century, it’s not hard to see how this would all play out. The combination of the Progressive and Utilitarian attacks on the founding virtues would create a ruling class that sees itself as the paragon of a “new and more comfortable” moral system, and thus entitled to its status and to its power to affect and control the destiny of the nation. At the same time, it would also create a country class that is essentially the opposite; victimized by the moral relativism encouraged by their absentee “betters,” and thus subjected to the social and economic horrors of moral collapse.
As we said, in hindsight, it doesn’t take a genius to see how the harm principle would lead inevitably to moral collapse. It does, however, take a genius to see that it will result just as inevitably in the radical corruption of republican principles. Fortunately, we have been provided with such a genius in the person of Charles Murray, whose narrative about the new ruling class and the new lower class is among the most important analyses of our time.
Generally speaking, over the past few years, when we have discussed the corruption of the ruling class, we have quoted our old friend Angelo Codevilla, who first put the “ruling class vs. country class” narrative into the public consciousness. At the same time, we have cited Charles Murray to explain the descent of the country’s “Fishtown” residents into moral ambiguity and then into social, economic, and familial collapse. What we’ve left out of the story in so doing is the fact that Murray’s narrative pretty perfectly captures the bifurcation of the country into two classes based on the moral principles expressed by the Progressives and the Utilitarians. Murray described it all in his famous tale of “Belmont and Fishtown.” Forgive the long quote here, but this is important:
As recently as half a century ago, Americans across all classes showed only minor differences on the Founding virtues. When Americans resisted the idea of being thought part of an upper class or lower class, they were responding to a reality: there really was such a thing as a civic culture that embraced all of them. Today, that is no longer true. Americans have formed a new lower class and a new upper class that have no precedent in our history. American exceptionalism is deteriorating in tandem with this development.
America has never been a classless society. From the beginning, rich and poor have usually lived in different parts of town, gone to different churches, and had somewhat different manners and mores. It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values — classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship. . . .
It may be said without hyperbole that these divergences in the Founding virtues put Belmont and Fishtown into different cultures. When two parts of America behave markedly differently with regard to marriage, the socialization of their children, their work habits, their criminality, and their religiosity, they differ on some of the most fundamental dimensions of life. Taking the white population ages 30–49 as a whole, those whose behavior is intrinsically problematic for the civic culture — men who are not making a living, women who are raising children without fathers, those who commit crimes, and those who are simply social isolates — amount to about 20 percent of the population. That, in rough terms, is a reasonable way to think of the size of the new white lower class.
It would be bad enough if America experienced just a new lower class pulling away from mainstream America. But during the same half century, a new upper class developed that pulled away from the other direction. They were new not just because they were getting richer, but because they constituted a class that shared distinctive tastes and preferences that increasingly isolated them from everyone else. I am not referring to all of Belmont at this point, but to the most successful people in managerial and professional occupations — the elites who are in positions of influence over the nation’s economy, media, intellectual life, and politics. . . .
The members of America’s new upper class tend not to watch the same movies and television shows that the rest of America watches, don’t go to kinds of restaurants the rest of America frequents, tend to buy different kinds of automobiles, and have passions for being green, maintaining the proper degree of body fat, and supporting gay marriage that most Americans don’t share. Their child-raising practices are distinctive, and they typically take care to enroll their children in schools dominated by the offspring of the upper middle class — or, better yet, of the new upper class. They take their vacations in different kinds of places than other Americans go and are often indifferent to the professional sports that are so popular among other Americans. Few have served in the military, and few of their children either.
Worst of all, a growing proportion of the people who run the institutions of our country have never known any other culture. They are the children of upper-middle-class parents, have always lived in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and gone to upper-middle-class schools. Many have never worked at a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, never had a conversation with an evangelical Christian, never seen a factory floor, never had a friend who didn’t have a college degree, never hunted or fished. They are likely to know that Garrison Keillor’s monologue on Prairie Home Companion is the source of the phrase “all of the children are above average,” but they have never walked on a prairie and never known someone well whose IQ actually was below average. . . .
This brings us to the reason that we cannot take much comfort from Belmont’s overall success in practicing the Founding virtues. Tocqueville, when explaining why the American system ensured that a despot could never successfully divide Americans against each other, wrote that “local freedom . . . perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them. In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.” That’s not true any more.
So what does all of this mean? Well, it means that we, as people, have a real mess on our hands. This nation is not and never has been a democracy. The Founders, mercifully and rightly constructed a government that would be protected from the vicissitudes of mass opinion. But the Founders’ anti-democratic, republican efforts were thwarted in large part by the post-Enlightenment moralists of the Progressive and Utilitarian movements. These moralists fostered – if not outright created – the present political and moral ethos in which the republic has become dysfunctional. It has also become dissatisfying to the overwhelming majority of people in the nation, who have not only suffered socio-economic consequences of moral collapse, but are also almost entirely locked out of the power structure that determines wealth, power, and access to the policy-making processes.
People like Roger Simon see the machinations going on behind the scenes of the Republican party nominating process, and it bothers them. It convinces them that the system is broken and is therefore unfair to the “regular people” in the country whose voices are not being heard. But they’re only half right. The system is not broken, but it no longer functions. And it no longer functions because it does not have the self-effacing and unassuming ruling class necessary for it to do so.
What this means is that changing the system will not fix the problem. Indeed, it is likely to exacerbate the problem and to introduce other distortions of the will people, those against which the Founders sought to guard the nation. The solution then is for the current “ruling class” to be replaced with individuals who are removed from the pieties of progressive self-satisfaction on the one hand and utilitarian moral relativism on the other.
The good news is that the emergence of new media figures like Simon, Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, Mark Steyn, and countless others demonstrates that there is both a market for mainstream constitutional republicanism and the means by which to serve that market. In a rebellion against an entrenched upper class, these means will be all important.
The bad news is that this may still not be enough and there may be no other means by which to depose the ruling class than to allow the collapse of the culture they built. If Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, none of the problems detailed by Charles Murray will be alleviated in any way. Indeed, they’re all likely to be exacerbated. For a variety of reasons – economic, social, and moral – the Progressive administrative state cannot long survive.
Two-hundred and twenty-nine years ago, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention and, according to popular history, answered Roger L. Simon’s question then and there. “A republic,” Franklin labeled the new American government, “if you can keep it.”
We’ve kept it thus far, but cannot continue to do so without drastic change.