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A Republic, If We Want It

This is a little long for a blog post. It wasn't originally intended to be one. It was written almost six months ago and over that time was submitted, in various revisions, to four conservative/Catholic online publications. None of them wanted it (actually, none of them even acknowledged it with a rejection, which I guess is the state of online publication these days). So I'm posting it here, where at least a few people will see it. It was written before the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which has brought out more explicit and fervent rejection of the constitution on the left. I saw a link to a story at The Atlantic, a magazine I was once willing to pay to read, called The Constitution Isn't Working. I only saw the headline, but that seems enough.


"A republic, if you can keep it." I suppose everyone knows that famous remark, said to have been made by Benjamin Franklin to a woman who asked whether the Constitutional Convention had created a republic or a monarchy. (The details of the story vary, but that seems to be a common version). The remark gets a lot of exercise, generally as a scolding of political opponents charged with being the menace against which Franklin warned. But there are good grounds for wondering now if the more pertinent question is not whether we can keep Franklin’s republic, but whether we want to.

I don’t know what potential failures Franklin had in mind, but for some time now one very clear possibility has been the reduction of the constitution to an empty set of words that mean whatever the Supreme Court says they mean. That possibility has long been foreseen by at least one side of the long-running argument between those who believe that the constitution should be interpreted straightforwardly as written, and those who believe that changing times warrant very loose interpretation.

Conservatives have naturally, almost by definition, been in the former camp, liberals or progressives in the latter. Many years ago when I was in high school I had a conservative civics teacher who truly valued free discussion and organized a formal debate on this question. As a teenager with leftward inclinations, I instinctively took the progressive side: conditions in the second half of the 20th century required creative new (or new, at least) interpretations of laws written two hundred years earlier, and so forth. “Spoken like a true liberal!” I recall my teacher saying triumphantly, and I was mildly pleased. But even as I made my argument I was troubled by the challenge posed by my opponents: what would or could be the limits of this flexibility? How and by whom might they be set?

It often seems that progressives do not in fact recognize any real limits on the license to interpret, and in effect redefine, the constitution's written words. They tend to see concern for the mere letter of that document as a small-minded obstacle to the implementation of their beautiful vision. They seem to believe that the intent of the constitution is simply the promotion of the good, and that therefore what is good (i.e. what is at the moment desirable to them) is necessarily constitutional, and what is not good is unconstitutional. Lately the progressive vanguard hardly even bothers with that argument, denouncing the constitution itself as being at best obsolete, at worst an actively harmful instrument of oppression, etc., etc.

Recently (and I suppose inevitably) a similar impatience has appeared on the right, in two forms. On the populist right, many Trump enthusiasts feel frustrated by institutions and politicians that seem forever retreating under progressive pressure. The idea that Donald Trump is in any serious sense "literally a fascist" is pretty ridiculous, but he does seem to have the temperament of an autocrat (not every autocrat is a fascist). And his most zealous followers don't seem to mind. They just want him to deliver a blow to a ruling class which no longer bothers to hide its contempt for them. That “he fights” is more important to them than his fidelity to the principles of the republic. It isn’t so much that they disregard, much less reject, the constitution as that they don’t think in those terms.

And on the more sophisticated right are those described, by themselves and others, as post-liberal: academics and pundits, many of them Catholic, who believe that the classical liberal foundation of the American system is intrinsically and fatally flawed, its metaphysical agnosticism making it unable to resist moral and cultural pathogens that are killing liberalism itself and becoming repressive in its name. I’m sympathetic to this position, and in fact said similar things more than twenty-five years ago in the pages of the little-known and short-lived Catholic magazine Caelum et Terra. I referred there to the Supreme Court as “nine popes without a God,” and I did not intend it as a compliment. But I am cynical and pessimistic by nature and figure that any replacement of the liberal order is likely to be worse, at least in its first century or two. I would rather see the liberal constitutional order revivified than abandoned, though cool reason gives me little hope that it will be.

Through the rhetorical mists we can discern on both sides a drift toward two types, maybe archetypes, of non-democratic government: the benevolent monarchy, and the council of the wise. As to the first: in every presidential election we hear people talk as if the president were a national father figure whose wisdom and power can, should, and will make everything all right, if only we will do as he says. Obama's more fervent supporters went wildly in this direction, and so have Trump's. Both tend to make striking—and to my eyes embarrassing—emotional displays of their devotion to the leader and willingness to serve him.

And as to the second: people now commonly talk of the Supreme Court as if it were a council of tribal elders endowed with a fundamentally unrestricted power to decide, on the basis of its own wisdom, what is best for the whole tribe. Progressives especially, but not only, tend to speak of the Court as if its job is to consider present circumstances, needs, and wishes, and to issue commands based on their judgment of those rather than on the constitution, closing the question with "we have spoken": in short, to make law, not to apply it.

And maybe we are indeed drifting toward one of these types, or a combination of them, adding our own technocratic touch in the form of advice and consent from “experts” whose acquisition of expertise clearly does not provide them with good judgment. And maybe that's because they are natural, and self-government is not. For years now I have had an unwelcome but persistent suspicion that self-government is an unnatural thing, something of a fluke when achieved, difficult to preserve, and probably short-lived. If that's true, then the U.S. has done very well to have lasted as long as it has. And it's no surprise that the machinery is now deteriorating, possibly beyond repair.

My use of the word "machinery" is significant. Our constitution and our system are rationalistic and somewhat mechanistic, with many moving parts driven by forces which are often in opposition, but harnessed and balanced to do the work of governance. Two gears do not turn together freely in a spirit of mutual support: one forces the other to turn, and without the resistance of the second the first would spin freely and uselessly. There is wear and tear on the parts, and like all machines this one will eventually fail without proper maintenance. I don’t think anyone would seriously claim that ours is now well-maintained.

Possibly the most significant aspect of this neglect is the indifference and ignorance of the putative citizenry, many or most of whom can hardly now be called "citizen" in any sense of the word richer than "resident." (That this is not altogether an accident is another and important topic, too large for this little essay.)

Maybe this is just a matter of the peoples of the modern democratic republics settling back into the normal human modes of organization. Maybe these modes are, so to speak, organic, developing naturally out of the nature of the human, in a way that our republican machinery, based on abstract principles, does not. Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches have always had some sort of part-monarchical, part-conciliar organization, and have lasted quite a bit longer than any republic.

I return to the question: do the American people of the twenty-first century A.D. want to keep their republic? And if they do not want it, what do they want in its place? Do they yearn in their hearts for one of those more ancient, perhaps more human, modes of governance? Is this the turn of events that Walker Percy describes in the opening pages of Love In the Ruins as a stalled roller-coaster starting to move again, with “...the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes….”?

Do these tendencies, so puzzlingly atavistic to those who believe in the inevitability of rational progress and in “history” as a deity on whose right hand they sit, suggest that our system is in some degree contrary to human nature? The Israelites asked for a king, and the prophet Samuel explained in the most definite and vivid terms why this would be a bad idea: see 1 Samuel 8:10-18. The warning was dire. But they insisted, and got their way. And Samuel was right, and it turned out badly for them.


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I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, "Sorry Mr. Franklin, we couldn't keep it!"

Articles like this, ones that argue from a place outside the standard left/right binary, do not seem to get a lot of attention, alas. We are to a great degree polarized, and many of us know it, but we do not seem to want to listen to people who are offering possible ways out.

A prime example of this is Chris Arnade's fine book Dignity. I remember one comment on FPR praising the book for not being the sort of thing that one side could pick up and use as a cudgel against the other, but that seems to be the very reason it was largely ignored, even after his initial work in The Atlantic and The Guardian got a lot of attention. My suspicion is that if the book had come out strongly leaning to one side or the other in terms of its criticism it would have likely been a best-seller.

I've read a bit about Arnade's book, but not the book itself. Can't remember where but it may have been in Quillette, which tries to step outside the polarities.

Great bumper sticker.

Arnade is the keynote speaker at this year's Front Porch Republic conference in September. Greatly looking forward to hearing him.

I am becoming ever more convinced that the key force working against the Republic is centralization/consolidation of power. The Framers tried their damnedest to put roadblocks in front of it, but the Civil War, whatever its positive outcome, pretty much put paid to all that. Whether Lincoln purposely manipulated abolitionist sentiment in order to centralize power, as some of the "peace democrats" believed, or the centralization of power that occurred during the war was simply a "natural" outcome of governing during a crisis (I suspect it was something of both), the so-called "Second American Revolution" pretty much struck the death blow to the Republic as previously understood.

And here we are 150 years later, with that consolidation of power continuing unabated. And the Machine, as Kingsnorth calls it, becomes the destroyer of tradition, because tradition tends to stand in the way of centralization.

I'm not convinced that the Civil War was a *fatal* blow, but it was certainly a blow. Simply as a result of the Union victory, apart from any particular acts by Lincoln, it put an end to the idea that the states are "states" in anything like the usual non-USA sense of the word. For a long time at party conventions speakers would say things like "the sovereign state of Ohio," long after the question of actual sovereignty had been disposed of. I guess they don't do that anymore.

I've been convinced for a long time that the only hope of preserving the country is moving significant power from the federal government to the states. Conservatives in general are fine with that but militant progressives are not. Their reaction to the Dobbs decision certainly looks that way. They seem to hold a variant of GW Bush's "no one is free until all are free" doctrine.

Was out with a group of friends last night, mostly academics but all fairly traditional Catholics. The subject of the November election came up and the general opinion was that while it looked likely that the GOP might flip the House, they could also lose the Senate. One of the guys said that it would be interesting to see whether the Dems would continue their attacks on that body as being "undemocratic," and on the electoral college as well, if they were in charge of it instead of the House.

~~it put an end to the idea that the states are "states" in anything like the usual non-USA sense of the word~~

I think that once that happened the die was cast, even if it wasn't necessarily apparent at the time. The repercussions took time to work themselves out. Jefferson got a lot of things wrong, but he was correct about states' rights as a way to diffuse federal power.

~~They seem to hold a variant of GW Bush's "no one is free until all are free" doctrine.~~

This is why they can't let "San Francisco be San Francisco and Utah be Utah," as Bill Kauffman has said.

"I think that once that happened the die was cast, even if it wasn't necessarily apparent at the time." Probably true. It's the great tragedy of this country that those important principles were used to preserve slavery. The latter was bound to be defeated sooner or later, and more or less inevitably take down the former. Anyone who defends them now will be charged with racism, wanting to bring back slavery, etc. Unless of course it's a progressive cause, like "sanctuary cities."

If the South had had its way it would certainly have been "later" as far as ending slavery was concerned because they actually wanted to expand slavery by permitting it in the federal territories. Lincoln laid it all out in his 1860 Cooper Union speech, which is about the South's push for that expansion. Here's a bit of it:

"But you will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights. That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. ...

Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' "

The whole thing is worth a read:

'If the South had had its way it would certainly have been "later"....' Oh, for sure. There's no doubt about that. There's a school of thought that holds that slavery was doomed by economic forces anyway, but that's just speculative, and the intentions of the South at the time were not in doubt.

When I said "defeated sooner or later" I was thinking in sort of abstract moral terms, that slavery was so thoroughly alien to the whole American idea that it couldn't stand indefinitely. But practically speaking it's hard to see how the stalemate could have been broken by any means other than war or a breakup of the country. The north wasn't going to allow the latter, so.... I'm not convinced that the south didn't have the better of the argument about whether secession should be allowed to happen or not. That's the tragedy of it: that in principle, setting aside their reasons for wanting it, the southern states might have been right in asserting their right to go their own way.

It's kind of funny now to see the U.S. government jump into situations like that in other countries and take the side of self-determination by the group that wants to split.

"That's the tragedy of it: that in principle, setting aside their reasons for wanting it, the southern states might have been right in asserting their right to go their own way."

Right. The legality of secession and the reasons for wanting to secede are in a sense unrelated, although in hindsight they have been blurred together.

That the South was wrong about the one big thing does not mean that it was not right about many other smaller things. This is a viewpoint, however, that can cause misunderstanding, given modern liberal education's insistence that slavery was the only thing that mattered, and that appeals to any other issues are either unimportant diversions or worse, crypto-defenses of slavery.

I have joked about this with friends with whom I've debated these issues. At one point I proposed to write on an index card, "Slavery was a great evil that had to go!" and that I would carry that card at all times. Whenever the subject of the CW came up in our conversations, I would simply display the card in order avoid having to explain, for the thousandth time, that my support of certain aspects of the antebellum South has nothing to do with being "soft" on slavery. Furthermore, I could at any point in the conversation when the subject of slavery came up simply flash the card so as to remind my opponents where I stood on that particular matter.

As far as the Lincoln speech goes, I think he was right about the expansion of slavery but wrong about secession being the destruction of the Union. The South undoubtedly shot itself in the foot in many ways by its hubris and bluster, but this does not mean that the North's responses were necessarily less ill-intentioned. There is a species of historiography that places blame for the thing entirely on Southern intransigence, but any fair reading of the events leading up to the conflict makes that idea ridiculous.

Lincoln wasn't speaking Holy Writ there. He was politicking.

Your flash card sounds like an excellent idea. The tragic connection of states' rights and slavery is a great rhetorical gift to progressives. Any attempt to devolve power to the states, and independence on matters where progressives don't want them to be independent, is conveniently smearable as an attempt to bring back slavery. As is any issue on which the southern states tend to take unprogressive views, e.g. abortion. I was about to say it's a dishonest tactic, but I think people who really live in the progressive bubble actually believe it, or at least enjoy the outrage of thinking about it.

I'm not competent at all to discuss the history of the Civil War, but I'm puzzled by this: "he was right about the expansion of slavery but wrong about secession being the destruction of the Union" How could secession not be the destruction of the Union?

What I mean by that is that there would have still been a workable union of the remaining states. The South's exit may have damaged it in some sense, but I don't think it would have been destroyed.

Oh, I see.

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