It requires no special genius to observe that the American political system has become dysfunctional. Although never fond of those who sit across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans have rarely vilified and demonized each other as they now do. Long regarded as the essence of American democracy, compromise has become all but impossible. This partisan hostility, and the self-righteousness that it breeds, often assumes the force of a moral crusade. G.K. Chesterton appreciated this peculiar habit of mind when he remarked that America “is a nation with the soul of a church.”[i] Such a faith, ironically, renders all moral judgments suspect, harmful, and even deadly, for it obscures reality and truth. Only doctrinal purity matters. To acknowledge the merit of an opponent’s arguments or ideas is to become a pariah, a heretic, a traitor to the cause.
This resolute sectarianism, this doctrinaire absolutism, helps to explain why Americans have lost confidence in their institutions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans, along with the peoples of Great Britain and Western Europe, believed in their governments, or at least did not see the flaws in their operation as insurmountable and beyond reform. Most found government to be effective and efficient within the limited scope of its authority. The historian A. J. P. Taylor noted that until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, “a law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.”[ii] That Englishman, as a subject of the crown, required no national identification card, had no need to report his income or financial transactions to the government, paid only modest taxes, and could travel abroad without a passport.[iii] By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, in Britain, Western Europe, and the United States, governments had begun to intervene to prevent citizens from eating adulterated food and from contracting infectious diseases. During that same period in Britain and on the continent, but to a lesser extent or not at all in the United States, the government enforced health and safety regulations for workers, imposed mandatory education for children at public expense, offered small pensions to the needy who had reached the age of seventy, and insured some workers against illness and unemployment. In the decade before the Great War, the trend was clear: the scope of governmental activity was expanding. Yet, until after the war, governments acted principally to help those who could not help themselves.
The Great War increased the demands on, and the responsibilities of, government. As is usually the case, governments, especially the liberal, constitutional regimes of Britain and Western Europe, were slow to respond. Statesmen were either unable or unwilling to confront the myriad problems that their citizens faced. As a consequence, parliamentary government appeared old, weak, enfeebled, even corrupt, and certainly no match for the vigor that the communists, fascists, and national socialists displayed, or seemed to. Between the world wars the failure of liberal government was not that it governed too much but that it governed too little and thus badly.
The Great Depression, and especially the Second World War, enlarged the proportions and influence of government in the United States at the expense of older constitutional limits. Unlike the years after the Great War, since the end of the Second World War growing numbers of Americans have become convinced that their government is too big, too expensive, and too powerful. Today disillusionment with government, and with the entire political system, is rampant. The outlook of those who have suffered under tyrannical, dishonest, or inept regimes in Eastern Europe and throughout much of the so-called Third World has spread to those who have enjoyed a generous measure of competence, democracy, and freedom. Nor is this sentiment confined to discontented reformers, progressives, and intellectuals, who have rarely been satisfied with anything; rather, they prevail among all manner of men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Weary of the unpredictability and violence of aristocratic rule, Europeans at the end of the Middle Ages had welcomed the ascension of the New Monarchs, such as Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile or Henry VII of England. By the end of the thirteen century, medieval institutions were already failing. The representative assemblies, with the notable exception of the English Parliament, were in decline. Feudal aristocrats warred among themselves in a ceaseless struggle for power. Throughout much of Europe, there was little stability and less security in an increasingly turbulent world.
Between the thirteenth and the seventeenth centuries, a new and in many ways a unique form of political organization emerged in Western Europe: the national state. The state could organize and deploy human and material resources to enhance national power. The state could direct the wealth of the elite into national service, and also restrain its murderous rivalries. At every turn, the pivotal figures in the development of nation-state were monarchs. European aristocracies sometimes eagerly and sometimes grudgingly gave their allegiance to these ambitious and often ruthless authorities. A powerful monarch seemed the only alternative to the even more brutal pattern of war, upheaval, and destruction that come to characterize government and society at the end of the Middle Ages.
As a result, four hundred years ago the word “politic” in English corresponded to wise, prudent, sober, and reserved. In the sixteenth century, during the French Wars of Religion, the politiques, such as Michel de Montaigne, were the advocates of reason, moderation, and compromise, who sought a peaceful end to the fighting, unlike the fanatiques who would accept no settlement but wished to continue the slaughter until they had annihilated their enemies. By the twentieth century, such words as “politics” and “politician,” and such phrases as “playing politics,” had taken on derogatory connotations. Politicians were neither astute nor judicious. They were, on the contrary, disreputable, unscrupulous, loathsome, and often stupid, the more so if they happened to be members of the opposition party.
Today, many throughout the Western world, and certainly in the United States, have come to fear the power of a centralized government, which once seemed so necessary and beneficial. They question not only the distribution of power but also its exercise, not only the structure of government but also its nature. Critics argue that government officials, isolated and disengaged, make arbitrary decisions without consulting, or even bothering to understand, the people whose lives they disrupt. The alternative, opponents of big government assert, lies in local autonomy. They may be right. At the same time, there have been numerous instances when the converse was true, and representatives of the national government acted with greater justice and compassion than did local authorities. The Civil Rights struggle in the South during the 1950s and 1960s provides an obvious case in point.
It often goes unremarked that, in fundamental respects, the debate about local versus national power is irrelevant. The more important reality to consider is the existence of bureaucracy at every level of society and government. Employed in the administration of life, millions of bureaucrats in the United States and around the world inhibit democracy and suppress freedom. Consider that the worst enormities of the twentieth century, such as, for example, the Holocaust against European Jews, were not merely the product of ideological fanaticism. Thorough, efficient, interested in advancing their careers, and perhaps indifferent to all moral objections, bureaucrats made possible the execution of such crimes as the Holocaust. They were, in a literal sense of the word, irresponsible. What happened as the result of their decisions and actions was neither their fault nor their problem.
The contemporary United States is not Nazi Germany. Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville identified the very different sort of despotism to which democratic nations such as the United States were susceptible. Tocqueville found that the political language at his disposal was inadequate. The words, and thus the concepts, “despotism” and “tyranny” did not explain the new order. He confessed the difficulty attendant even upon describing this novel form of oppression. “The type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened,” Tocqueville began, “will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world.” He continued:
I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; . . . he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country. Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances.
Men living in such a world are equal, but alone, restless, and indifferent to the welfare of all save themselves and their families. Given to amusements that are dull, trivial, and yet beguiling, they become pliant instruments in the hands of a benevolent but invincible state that manages every aspect of their lives. Why, Tocqueville asked, should this overarching bureaucratic apparatus “not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?” [iv] Isolation has made citizens vulnerable to bureaucratic manipulation and control. It has left them feeling powerless, reminded at every turn that the promise of self-government has eroded. The form of democracy remains; the substance is disappearing.
At the same time, there is a development taking place that Tocqueville could not have anticipated. Although modern governments and bureaucracies have amassed immense power, their limitations are also beginning to show. Consider only the lawlessness that now prevails in certain districts of every major American city. Consider further the situation that has resulted from the nearly complete breakdown of civil government in such countries as Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, South Sudan and so on. The disintegration of political authority is producing a new kind of order, which does not rest on the rule of law or even on aristocratic privilege, but on brute force. The criminal gangs that have imposed such an order, whether they call themselves the Bloods, the Crips, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Islamic State, have no intention of negotiating a settlement or a truce with any government. They have seized power and they intend to use it for their own purposes and to their own advantage. Regrettably, both the nineteenth-century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the twentieth-century radical nationalist Adolf Hitler had it right: people respond less to ideas than they do to the realities of power.
Why have governments, including those of the richest and most powerful nations on earth, become so impotent? Part of the answer lies in the democratization of violence. The age of great wars is most likely past. Yet, the world has entered an era of small, protracted wars that are often more brutal than the global conflicts which preceded them. Among the hallmarks of civilization is the capacity not to prevent war but to contain it. Before 1914, civilians were clearly distinguished from soldiers, and the conditions of peace were markedly different from a state of war. There were, of course, anticipations of the future in the Spanish and Russian insurgencies against Napoleon’s armies, in William Tecumseh Sherman’s destruction of Georgia and the Carolinas during the infamous “March to the Sea,” and in the Prussian siege of Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The Spanish and the Russians conducted guerrilla campaigns, or “little wars,” against the French invaders. Union forces and the Prussian army were determined to ravage entire peoples.
By the outbreak of the First World War, the indiscriminate slaughter of the enemy had become an act of patriotic devotion to the fatherland. The Second World War was a veritable school of barbarism, overlaying Western Civilization with a bloody residue of violence and destruction that continues to undermine all standards of civility and ethics. Hitler counted the extermination of European Jews among the principal war aims of the Nazi regime. The Japanese, Germans, British, and Americans all considered cities and civilian populations to be legitimate targets, to say nothing of the atrocities that the Red Army committed against non-combatants on its long march across Eastern Europe to Berlin. As the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote at the end of the war in 1945:
The war through which we have lived has surpassed in savagery and destructive force any yet seen in the Western world. . . . In this war everyone–workmen, peasants, and women alike–is in the fight, and in consequence, everything, the factory, the harvest, even the dwelling-house, has turned target. As a result the enemy to be fought has been all flesh that is and all soil, and the bombing plane has striven to consummate the utter destruction of them all.[v]
Jouvenel recognized that the Second World War had breached the divide that had historically separated war and peace.
Increasingly since 1945, peoples throughout much of the Middle East and in many parts of Africa and even Europe, as well as those in numerous American cities, have found themselves residing amid perpetual battlefields. At times, the carnage subsides, but it never disappears or ends. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has written that “total war and cold war have brainwashed us into accepting barbarity. Even worse: they have made barbarity seem unimportant compared to more important matters like making money.” [vi] With the advent of radical Islamic terrorism around the world and the heightening of racial animosity in the United States, the bloodshed has worsened in recent years. Among the most important causes of such outbursts has been the decline of the state. Governments no longer enjoy a monopoly on violence, nor can they any longer enforce the law or maintain public order. A state of war exists without war having been formally declared. The leaders of various nations, including the United States, of course, have long resorted to this practice, except these are wars fought by peoples against other peoples, not between the armies of states. In addition, the governments of Europe and the United States have shown themselves to be powerless to stop the torrent of immigrants and refugees, many of whom seek to escape chaos and brutality, from inundating their borders. Taken together, the incessant wars of race and religion and the nomadic existence to which millions are now condemned reveal the contours of a new Dark Age against which governments will be ineffectual, if not wholly impotent.
We thus confront the paradox of government becoming ever more restrictive and intrusive while simultaneously being unable to establish justice, keep the peace, secure the borders, or, for that matter, provide adequate relief in the wake of a natural disaster. This incongruity has proven especially confounding for Americans. Since at least 1863, Americans have entertained two irreconcilable definitions of freedom. According to the older sense of the word, “freedom” meant the absence of intervention by an outside authority, the freedom to be left alone. This understanding rendered freedom and power at odds. Power, especially when concentrated in the national government, was always and everywhere the enemy of freedom.
The Founding Fathers envisioned the Constitution as the law that governed the government, restricting the extent of its activity. Yet, the delegates who gathered at Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, intended to strengthen, not to weaken, the national government. By the late 1780s, most Americans had grown dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation. Under its auspices, the Continental Congress had long been helpless to cope with the instability of political life, with the innumerable economic and commercial problems that beset the Republic, and, most troubling, with popular uprisings such as Shays’ Rebellion. A decade earlier, during the War of Independence, American leaders had deliberately avoided creating a strong national government, fearing that it would encroach on the independence of the states and circumscribe the rights of the people. By 1787, they had begun to reconsider that decision.
The new Constitution empowered the national government to levy and collect taxes, to regulate interstate commerce, to manage the currency, and to pass such laws as were deemed “necessary and proper” to carrying out its other responsibilities. The Constitution, nevertheless, still left important powers to the states, since nothing so frightened its authors as the prospect of creating a tyrannical government. Anti-Federalist criticism resulted in the late inclusion of a Bill of Rights, which attests that the framers of the Constitution did place numerous restraints on the operation of government lest, exceeding its present confines, it imperil the very liberty that they had designed it to preserve.
As a consequence of the Civil War, a second definition of freedom emerged, soon to assert its dominance. This new conception transformed the nature and meaning of the Constitution and the role of government in national life. Freedom and power were no longer at odds. Beginning with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery and extended equal civil and political rights to the freedmen, the Constitution ceased to limit the power of the national government. Instead it showed that the government could use its power to benefit the American people, especially the downtrodden and the oppressed. Abraham Lincoln understood perhaps better than any of his contemporaries that the Civil War had inaugurated a revolution, which irrevocably changed the United States. The war and its aftermath made the power of government the chief instrument in establishing justice under the law and in guaranteeing freedom for the individual. These incompatible visions of freedom have given rise to some of the most significant and vicious political disagreements of our time.
The withering of civilization, the descent into barbarism, and the confusion and malaise that have arisen during the last forty or fifty years have not been the results of policies or actions comparable to the reigns of terror over which the likes of Stalin, Hitler, or Mao presided. Rather, they, and the ideological stridency that has often accompanied them, are the work of politicians who for the most part no longer understand how to govern or what to do about a world that has moved rapidly beyond their control. Those in power today are uncertain, insecure, and afraid, or they ought to be.
Like others in the past who have faced similar conditions, many have responded with anger and intolerance. They cannot abide differences, whether personal or political. They will not consider other points of views. They will neither negotiate with, nor even talk to, their enemies. They display what the sixteenth-century French writer Montaigne identified as a tyrannical disposition. “It is always a tyrannical ill humor,” Montaigne proposed, “to be unable to endure a way of thinking different from your own.”[vii] To deepen the irony, politicians and citizens alike now tolerate as a matter of course what ought to be, and what once was, intolerable. No statesmen, no citizen, no government anywhere in the world ought to countenance or acquiesce in unlawful detention, the humiliation and torture of prisoners, the abuse of refugees, the murder and execution of innocent men, women, and children, or any of the host of atrocities that helpless and unfortunate persons in this country and around the world routinely endure. We accept the abridgement of human rights, dignity, and freedom. We have inured ourselves against human suffering, particularly if we feel little sympathy for the victims. What, after all, can we hope to do to alleviate these miseries? In Hobsbawm’s stark assessment, “we have got used to the inhuman.”[viii]
Those who today challenge the power and reject the authority of the state look forward with confidence to the rebirth of freedom when at last the state is curtailed. Their complaints about the encroachment of government where it does not belong are often legitimate. But they should also consider the possibility that with the decline of government anarchy may be unleashed upon the world, and society degenerate into a vicious tribalism that, in the end, will destroy the foundations of civilized life. In various places around the world this devolution is already occurring and is, indeed, well advanced. Where government has become ineffectual and society has broken down, tumult reigns. The debility of the state may not after all enhance the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, but on the contrary may herald the beginning of a long and remorseless age of instability and terror.
What can we do to prevent such a future for the United States—a future in which government is both intrusive and ineffectual?
First, Americans must temper their commitment to individualism. Few prospects are more harrowing, for Americans have long thought the only alternative to individualism is some variety of socialist collectivism. Nothing could be further from the truth. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville declared:
In a community in which the ties of family, of caste, of class, and craft fraternities no longer exist people are far too much disposed to think exclusively of their own interests, to become self-seekers practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good. Far from trying to counteract such tendencies despotism encourages them, depriving the governed of any sense of solidarity and interdependence; of good neighborly feelings and a desire to further the welfare of the community at large. It immures them, so to speak, each in his private life and, taking advantage of the tendency they already have to keep apart, it estranges them still more. Their feelings toward each other were already growing cold; despotism freezes them.[ix]
Americans must begin to think less of themselves and more about each other in the ways that Tocqueville suggested, for the despot sees nothing but opportunity in their isolation. “A despot,” Tocqueville had earlier observed, “easily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided that they do not love each other.”[x] Americans, in short, must become less selfish and more sociable. Society, manifest in families, friendships, churches, and other civic organizations, functions as an intermediary between the individual and the state, thereby limiting the power of government. The eighteenth-century French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood as much when, seeking to restrict such freedom, he aspired to render every citizen “perfectly independent of others and excessively dependent upon the city.”[xi] Society, by contrast, encourages the free association of citizens, operating to preserve the independence of all from the shared equality of oppression. It is thus society, and not the state, that is the locus of self-government.
From the emphasis on revitalizing civil society and restoring the common bonds among citizens, it follows, second, that Americans must become more readily occupied with public affairs. To varying degrees for the last 500 years, governments throughout the world have steadily accumulated the power to control the activities and the destinies of their people. According to the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, among the most important consequences of this development has been “the gradual disappearance of the intermediate authorities which had formerly stood between a then weak central government and the subjects, leaving them naked before a power which in its magnitude was becoming comparable to a force of nature.”[xii] Society, not the individual, is the foil of government.
American citizens must stand and act together. They must learn to compromise and to cooperate. No one gets everything they want all the time, nor should they. A little deprivation is good for the soul. Human beings discover happiness in the struggles of life, not in the satisfaction that comes at the expense of living. To quote those now ancient English philosophers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might find, you get what you need.” This is not socialism. It is common sense and common decency, and may also be the essence of Christian social ethics. Ideally, Americans should advance the proverbial common good—the good that all, not merely a select few, can pursue and enjoy. At the same time, they should entertain no illusions about human nature. No person, no group, no corporation ought to have access to government to further their private interests at the expense of the common good. Nor should government ever become the plaything of those in power; government does not exist for the benefit of the rulers.
There is, then, an obvious danger associated with any appeal to the common good. Just as men have justified cruelty, violence, and evil in the name of God or country, they have similarly done so with the pretense of realizing the common good. Permit me to restate my earlier formulation. If Americans cannot distinguish or secure the common good, if, indeed, knowing the perils, they forebear making the attempt, they should at least recognize our common humanity, and not only that of their countrymen but also of foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Such acts will solve no problems and will bring no tragedies to a happy ending. But they are the right thing to do. They rest on the acceptance of, and the respect for, human diversity, and a confidence in the goodness of others.
At their finest, Americans are a sympathetic and generous people during times of crisis. Yet, even under those circumstances, they tend to keep the victims at a distance. Along with sympathy and generosity, Americans ought perhaps to cultivate magnanimity, or greatness of soul. They must give not only of their possessions and their wealth but also of themselves. Americans may foster their individual pride. They may assert their individual rights. They may advance their individual interests. They can only preserve their freedom, to say nothing of their civility, in common.
It is an old prejudice of the elite, whether political or intellectual, that the common people are stupid, graceless, and inferior, in need of guidance, reform, and discipline. It is an even older habit to seek power, to dominate by force those who are weaker and more vulnerable. In my imagination, I entertain the hope (perhaps it is a mere fantasy) that those who aspire to freedom will one day wish neither to command nor yet to obey. They will have come to depend on, without also subordinating themselves to, one another. They will understand that power, however long it may abide, is extraneous, accidental, and temporary to those who wield it. Rather like those whom George Orwell described as “patriots,” they will be devoted “to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.” [xiii] They will enjoy what they already have without incessantly wanting more. They will not deceive themselves that everything, including other persons, is disposable when it becomes tiresome or inconvenient. They will forgive injuries, insults, and even injustices, or better, they will not presume to suffer them when they have not. They will learn from experience, submit their private judgments and their public statements to the interrogation of reason and reality, and welcome the verdict. They will not despise the world as it is because it is not the world as they think it should be. They will, instead, recognize that all they have and all they love, all they cherish as good, is itself impure and imperfect. They will thus live quiet lives of gratitude and humility, ever mindful of that discipline of the soul which will fortify them against the temptation to envy, hatred, and despair.
An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the Shepherd’s Center in Richmond, Virginia. The author wishes to thank the participants.
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.
[iii] Ibid. Taylor estimates that before 1914 the English government derived “rather less than 8 per cent of the national income” from taxes, though the percentage was increasing even before the First World War began.
[vi] Eric Hobsbawm, “Barbarism: A User’s Guide,” in On History (New York: The New Press, 1997), 265.
[viii] Hobsbawm, “Barbarism: A User’s Guide,” 265.
[x] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 4; Volume III of the Liberty Fund edition, 887.
[xii] Michael Oakeshott, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism, ed. by Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 49.
Editor’s note: The featured image is by Martin Falbisoner, and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.