I suggest a crisis by collecting in one breath the terms national character and political disorder. Nor do I shrink from the implicit affirmation that the people of the United States confront an identity crisis at the very center of our national existence, at once moral and political and touching precisely upon the reciprocal relationship between citizens and their government. When last I touched upon the subject of national character, I phrased the matter in these terms:
We have a problem. When we say “we,” we mean the citizens of the United States, and still more particularly those who undertake systematically to explain what constitutes us citizens or a people in the United States. The intuitive sense is scarcely more than a vague, geographic sensibility, while a more substantive construction now eludes us almost completely. The problem resides in confusion as to whether what constitutes us a people is a particular moral or political conformation or rather some less deliberate yet nonetheless evident cultural expression. The problem is that we have become clumsy about describing ourselves as a people in terms of what used to be called “national character.” For to some, if not many, the idea of character is a loaded term, implying the development of some specific moral or ethical expression that operates as a divisor separating those attaining the warranted degree of expression from other persons in the United States or elsewhere. Nevertheless, we find it awkward and difficult to speak of our collective existence in any meaningful sense independently of some such distinguishing function. Our problem, then, is that we desire to be a people but hesitate to be a chosen people. A “nation of immigrants,” we like to say, as if to imply that the immigrants always remain immigrants and never become Americans! Common sense reprehends the very idea, while common practice relies upon it in our most important collective judgments.
I went on to explain how we the people have come to celebrate our diversities as our only distinction. We have been led in that process by a president who advertises to the world not our sameness but our differences as the hallmark of our national character. To be sure, we are wonderfully diverse—in race, gender, sexual orientation, geography, incomes, national origins, livelihoods, and so many other ways. Yet none of these explain what makes us Americans. Our diversities do not constitute a national character, simply because neither singly nor altogether do they sum up a political quotient in light of which we live a distinctive political existence. Our only sameness is that of republicans.
Our crisis, however, results from the fact that we hold but loosely to the character of republicans. That character counts liberty as its chief goal, subordinating the ups and downs of policy initiatives to the overriding importance of self‐government. If we experience political disorder today, it results most assuredly from an increasing unwillingness to abide the outcomes of republican processes as binding our consciences. That is true in the struggles of contending interests through our political institutions. The issues that divide us do so not as the momentary victories or disappointments of politics but as the life or death verdicts of political maneuvering. Thus, it does not suffice to establish equal laws applying uniformly to all. The game is to assure protected privileges for the prevailing parties.
Count the issues that divide us and inquire how far they are reconcilable to the judgments of majority rule. Begin with the question of what constitutes authority in our federal structure for the deciding judgment on the questions of life and value. We pursue the debate on religious liberty not with a resolution to rest all our hopes on the free developments of persons and communities expressing their judgments in their states. Rather, we wrestle for a national rule ultimately to be imposed by the Supreme Court. Deference to the people has been replaced by commanding the people. The reason of the people has been replaced by the artificial reason of the judiciary or the arbitrary exertion of executive prerogative. Whether the issue is abortion or same‐sex marriage, the people are commanded to stifle their views in subjection to, not the rule of law duly established by representative institutions, but the rule of lawyers.
To understand what this means in practice, consider the case of Kim Davis, from Rowland County, Kentucky. Ms. Davis’ refusal to carry directly into implementation the decision rendered in Obergefell v. Hodges resulted in a federal judge taking it upon himself to supervise the conduct of her office. In order to accomplish that, Judge Bunning had to neglect entirely the failure in the State of Kentucky (which is directly responsible for Ms. Davis’ performance of her duties) to enact appropriate legislation to give effect to the court decision. The consequence was that Ms. Davis was directly subject to state laws that had not been changed, and in light of which she acted obediently, whether in conformity to her conscience or not.
Judge Bunning ignored that reality in affecting to command her subjugation to the court, where his duty was to address himself to the State of Kentucky. Now, the contending parties in the case, besides attacking Davis personally, were altogether indifferent to the niceties of federalism. Their goal was to accomplish the specified outcome, by hook or by crook. The fact that it meant derogating from the republican constitution of our society was but a small price to pay to achieve the goal. That interested parties would be thus insouciant about our political health might seem a small matter. That the judge would be equally insouciant, however, is a matter of political urgency.
We have been no less careless in dealing with questions of entitlements and security (involving not only foreign threats but also immigration and environmental hazards). Interested parties have engaged in seeking to maneuver representative institutions into positions respecting these concerns without regard to the fundamental authority of public opinion. The same has been true on issues of education (particularly affirmative action) and other cultural values. In short, we have descended into a political warfare of some against all that brooks no restraints of constitutional necessity.
Our discourse has attained a “winner takes all” orientation that is dismissive of alternative options. In that sense we become enemies instead of fellows mutually embarked in a vessel whose safe voyage is of ultimate advantage to us all. Despite the obvious reality that zero‐sum politics finally mean everyone loses, that has become the character of our political transactions.
There are many issues that divide us that are insusceptible to compromise. Abortion must either be wrong, subject to exceptions, or right, subject to exceptions. It cannot be somewhat wrong and somewhat right. Either redistribution is a rightful tool of national policy, or it is unwarrantable intervention. Civil marriage is an appropriate exercise of police power at the national level or it is altogether inadmissible. Religious liberty is limitable only by principles of non‐interference in the religious scruples of others, or it is subject to political direction. These and other intractable oppositions, however, are resolvable on the higher ground of republicanism. For republicanism begins with the principle that the role of government is subject to the role of the citizen, rather than the reverse.
What is the role of the citizen? It is to superintend the exercise of legislative authority and the administration of the laws. Public opinion—not as the ephemeral reflection of daily polling but as the settled expression of majority sentiment—is the vehicle through which this superintendence takes place. James Madison established this standard at the outset of life under the Constitution.
Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one. As there are cases where the public opinion must be obeyed by the government; so there are cases where not being fixed, it may be influenced by the government. This distinction, if kept in view, would prevent or decide many debates on the respect due from the government to the sentiments of the people. (National Gazette essay, 19 Dec. 1791).
Madison’s argument is carefully balanced, establishing the authority of public opinion while nonetheless making room for displays of statesmanship that can shape public opinion. In that sense, his argument is altogether consistent with that of Abraham Lincoln,
Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.” And although it was always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as a matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress towards the practical equality of all men. (Speech at a Republican Banquet, Chicago, Illinois, December 10, 1856. Basler, IV, p. 385.)
We find Lincoln here responding to a political crisis with deliberate effort to steer the ship of state back toward political equilibrium.
The difference between our situation and that which Lincoln faced was that he was initially trying to right a listing ship, while we are trying to hold together a ship breaking apart, what Jim Piereson calls a “shattered consensus.” The political polarization in our time is all the more dismaying precisely because it derives not from deviation from a single pole but rather from the multiplication of polar differences to all appearances ad infinitum. Thus, even while we retain the commitment to the “central idea” of equality that Lincoln sought to salvage, we seem to have lost the lodestar of republicanism that engendered the commitment to equality.
What will it take to revive national character in the United States? First and last, the citizens’ voice must be heard and heeded. Consider, for example the case of immigration. The citizens’ voice declares unequivocally that immigration must be controlled. Every other policy option on the question must be secondary to that. However we may divide on immigration preferences, our representatives must act so to control immigration as to safeguard our judgment that the era of open‐ended immigration is no longer healthy for this society. It is not an abstract question but a concrete necessity. Whatever it takes to compel our representatives, elected and appointed, to acknowledge that reality must be accomplished.
In a more difficult case we must develop conscientious awareness that we should no more compel a photographer or baker to provide services for a same‐sex wedding than we would compel a painter to depict the scene of a same‐sex wedding. We may expect in this regard the commands of conscience to provide immunity and the citizens’ voice would embrace the reasoning of James Madison,
It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. (Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785)
And even were the reason for such a privileged claim not religious, it would no less be a claim of conscience not to be impaired. For a similar reason every citizen would stand upon a superior claim of right to refuse acknowledgement to civil procedures that do not conform to ordained practices. This truth can be reconciled to civil provisions for same‐sex marriage without conflicting with religious views that see such unions as unapproved by divine injunction. The citizens’ voice should prevail in the form of social practices.
Or we may take the case of capital punishment as another illustration of a false conception of the alternatives we confront. Justice Stephen Breyer announced himself at the end of the last Court term ready to declare capital punishment unconstitutional. He reasoned that the United States is increasingly isolated in the world in applying the penalty, which makes it an unusual punishment and therefore inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment. He failed to observe, however, that the Constitution speaks to our understanding and not to the voice of the peoples of the world. Capital punishment for capital murder may well be usual for Americans albeit unusual globally. In that context it would announce the voice of the citizens of the United States, as the Constitution itself does, and therefore would not be unusual in a constitutional sense. The point is that our constitutional compass points to the citizens’ voice for authority.
Even if all the peoples of the world are potentially Americans, that makes neither the world America nor the world’s laws a standard for constitutional interpretation. If and as capital punishment for capital murder becomes rare in the United States, that could surface a constitutional standard to ban capital punishment. But if so it would derive from the fact that the citizens’ voice had spoken loudly.
We could multiply such examples to illustrate how we may navigate our polarized public discourse. But what remains as crucial is not so much the accommodations that are available to us as the surfacing of means to reinvigorate the citizens’ voice. That is to say, that means need to be deployed to convey with clarity the citizens’ voice, to make it once again the standard of just policy. That in turn implies that our contemporary modes of discourse must be rendered accessible to broad communication of political principles that reinforce the embrace of republicanism. In my previous discussion of the issue I described the embrace of republicanism as a love of the principle on which America is founded.
America is a chosen nation, and as such the substantial meaning of the choice defines the relationship. The people have made a moral commitment to the choice itself and not merely to one another. It is at least true that the beloved America of the 18th century was a substantive choice. That choice is captured in the Declaration of independence, which “imposes moral persuasion as the only legitimate grounds of polity… and … in turn, makes that governance the comprehensive moral foundation of political life.”
The coercion of the law is not a substitute for moral commitment. Accordingly, efforts to give voice to the will of the people are above all efforts to render coherent a clear public philosophy. To sum up that public philosophy in terms that would still have been recognizable in the 18th century, government in the United States is subject to the will of the people. Government independent of the will of the people is but a form of despotism, however disguised it may be by the forms of representation. At the heart of our public life there lies always the revolution principle that makes our government the government of our choice. Republican life is possible only where the citizens are republicans.
Here it is well to forestall the sophomoric objection that where the majority must always rule the majority must always be right. It is not necessary that the majority always be right; it is rather only necessary to acknowledge that only the majority (or a supermajority as appropriate) always has the right to decide, while no one else ever has the right to decide ultimately. To countenance anything else would be to admit a ruling will independent of the society and therefore to derogate from the standard of republicanism.
Reviving our national character means reviving the republican modalities of our national life. Not only opinions must be revived but practices must be revivified. Systematic modes of communication to elected and appointed official must be developed, something other than the routine generation of “letters from constituents” by partisan apparatchiks. Of course, the best way to accomplish that is to engender a pervasive and constant discourse imbued with the principles here called for. In 1838 Abraham Lincoln called for every mother to whisper the love of liberty to every lisping babe that prattles on her lap. We need the grown-up version of that appeal, casting a light through our public darkness toward a love of republicanism for every aspiring citizen.
We live in an era of political disorder or distemper, in which our fevered conversations exclude a mutually held moral commitment. President Obama famously insisted that there is no “red America; no blue America; only one America.” Unfortunately, the one America he invoked was a blank slate on which he sought to inscribe a character foreign to our true national character, the national character George Washington urged us to develop. That character, Washington said, would let “an attention to the chearfull performance of their proper business, as Individuals, and as members of Society, be earnestly inculcated on the Citizens of America, then will they strengthen the hands of Government, and be happy under its protection: every one will enjoy the fruit of his labours; every one will enjoy his own acquisitions without molestation and without danger.”
When we speak of national character we are talking about the inevitable influence of good government and good laws upon the people subject to them. At the origins of this nation it was expected that such influences would triumph over differences of interest, religion, economics, geography, and cultural values. That such expectations were justified seems vindicated by the experience of Americans for nearly two centuries under the Constitution. That we have strayed far from them in more recent times seems no less certain. Before our Constitution can regain its authority in our lives it must regain its authority in our souls. And it falls to us to exert ourselves to make that possible. Otherwise our Constitution, mistakenly called a living Constitution by those who have contributed to our straying, will be but a dead letter.
This essay was first presented at the October 2-3, 2015 meeting of the Philadelphia Society.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 “If we advert to the nature of republican government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.” James Madison, Speech in Congress, 27 November 1794. PJHM 10:507‐8.