De Tocqueville's Democracy in Today's America

Alexis De Tocqueville, 1848:

"Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. There is no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself or clothed with rights so sacred that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.

In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.

[....If] a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without necessarily being the slave of its passions, an executive so as to retain a proper share of authority, and a judiciary so as to remain independent of the other two powers, a government would be formed which would still be democratic while incurring scarcely any risk of tyranny.

I do not say that there is a frequent use of tyranny in America at the present day; but I maintain that there is no sure barrier against it, and that the causes which mitigate the government there are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country more than in its laws."

We are about to see some very bad manners. Brace yourselves accordingly.

The Family's Fair-Weather Friends, Part Two

I’ll begin with a proverb. Not from the Book of Proverbs. From me.

Somebody who only cares about the procedural rules by which your cause is overturned is a friend of procedural rules, not a friend of your cause.

This was blindingly obvious—truly blinding. Alliances were formed in the heat of cultural and legal battles, and it was easy to forget the basis of those alliances. Now that the smoke is clearing after the epic Battle of Obergefell, 2015, another sort of fair-weather friend is (or soon will be) leaving the field and issuing a hearty “good luck” to defenders of the institutional family.

It is the political ranks as much as ecclesiastical ones that are bound to thin out.

Political conservatives of a libertarian bent joined the fray, but their loyalties had little to do with what the institution of marriage ought to be. Always and ever, they stuck to their mantra with laser-like focus: “Let the states decide,” or “Get the government out of it altogether.” It was always about the political and judicial machinery, rarely—if ever—the substance. Although National Review’s Kevin Williamson contributed a number of devastating salvos over the course of things, he also took great offense at the notion that conservatism requires a defense of the family. (I attempted to set him straight here, But I don’t think he reads my blog.) Even the most cursory examination of the Twitter feed of another brilliant and talented member of the National Review squad, author of The Conservatarian Manifesto, Charles C.W. Cooke, reveals a man simultaneously outraged at the Supreme Court’s decision and totally cool with gay marriage and even polygamy. I suppose it’s possible this Tweet was a joke, but it illustrates my proverb beautifully:

As a final exhibit, National Review (notice a pattern?) published this piece by Jason Lee Steorts, which argues that conservatives should embrace same-sex marriage. But, he is careful to say, courts should not be the ones to do it. All it takes to remain in the conservative fold is to focus on the procedural machinery, you see.

So the question is: what happens with these brave defenders of liberty once the Supreme arbiters of all things procedural render final judgment? 

Surrender. And to those who don’t, a great big “You’re on your own now.” That’s what happens. They will say—well, I don’t have to imagine it. Reason’s Robby Soave already says it:

“First, to conservatives who oppose gay marriage, I say this: It’s over. You lost. Please, resist the urge to die on this hill. I understand the temptation to treat the Obergefell ruling as merely another battle in the culture wars—like Roe v. Wade was—but continuing to advocate against marriage equality risks permanently alienating the under-30 crowd. Millennials are more entrepreneurial and less loyal to the Democratic Party than most people think. Republicans—particularly libertarian-leaning Republicans—can reach them, but only if the party preaches both economic opportunity and social tolerance.”

One big loss. That’s all it takes to move on to the next purely procedural question—the electoral one. Don’t you dare risk being unpopular with millennials, those paragons of civic wisdom! You’ll ruin everything.

It is also worth observing that many politicians and pundits who, unlike Robby Soave, are true believers in the institutional family reflexively fell into the strictly procedural argument. One would have been justified in coming away from their analyses thinking that the only question of import with respect to Obergefell was the machinery of it all: states should decide, not the courts or the federal government. As though the question itself is neither here nor there. Look: this battle was lost and lost long ago precisely because the actual case for the institutional family had not been effectively made. When most * of those against same-sex marriage stopped even trying to make it, and started singing in unison about “judicial activism,” it was a sure sign that we’d lost and were left grasping for whatever straws we could get.

* I’d like to give special thanks to one prominent exception: Ryan T. Anderson (whom I’m honored to count a friend) was unwavering in making the procedural point, but in every public appearance I witnessed he always made a positive anthropological, biological, and social case for marriage as between one man and one woman. No one on the planet—I mean, no one—has been as courageous on this issue.

All that to say, the political coalition around the issue of marriage is now bound to fracture. Those fair-weather friends whose ultimate loyalties are to political procedures and electoral maps will now rush for the exits now that the tide has turned.

Before I go on to say why that’s a bad thing, I need to say one more thing before I forget. I was just very hard on National Review (and they deserved every bit of it), but it is only fair for me to point out these significant paragraphs in their own post-Obergefell official editorial:

“The majority points out how marriage has evolved over millennia — though hardly beyond recognition — and suggests it now must encompass homosexual relationships. But marriage evolved as societies and governments did — not as the result of imperious court decisions. Until the last several years, capped by this decision. This sloppy, arrogant precedent should worry even Americans who rejoice at the result.

We, of course, do not: Same-sex marriage is not a good idea by judicial fiat, but it is not a good idea by democratic assent, either. The majority of Americans seem to have turned on the traditional, conjugal definition of marriage, but it is the wise one — indeed, the only coherent one.”

It’s a small thing, perhaps. But it meant a great deal to me, anyway, that the premier journal of political conservatism went out of its way to not just address the purely procedural matters. Here they say, in black and white, that it is not just judicially imposed same-sex marriage that is a bad idea, but that same-sex marriage is a bad idea, period. That’s a breath of fresh air, notwithstanding the rather awkward tension I imagine it exposes between the editors and their current roster of “conservatarian” writers.

So why is it a bad thing that a large portion of the conservative political constituency is heading for the exits? Why should we lament the departure of our fair-weather friends?

A couplet to explain:

We need them, and we’re sorry to see them go;

They need us, much more than they know.

The first line is obvious. Having more people engaged in your political coalition is better than having less. I wish the libertarian-leaning conservatives felt the gravity of the issue. I wish they grasped the significance of the cultural upheaval happening right now. I also wish I could automatically renew my passport—oh, sorry. I got distracted. It just expired. Now that I think about it, that’s something the small government “conservatarians” could get behind: a more efficient passport office. It’s all about greasing the wheels with those guys. Not sure how privatizing passports would work, though.

It’s the second line that needs explanation. Does the libertarian wing really need their totally embarrassing step-siblings: the social conservative, pro-family wing?

Well, let me ask another question: what is the difference between a Libertarian’s view on same-sex marriage and Justice Kennedy’s? None. Oh, they might ever so vehemently disagree on how the regime of same-sex marriage came to be institutionalized in America—again, the procedures—but on the matter itself, they are of one mind.

In a wholly ironic way, Libertarians are like Presbyterians, * dedicated to painstakingly managing the complete demise of their respective societies, but all “decently and in order.” Just so long as it happens by majority vote on a state-by-state basis according to The Constitution of the United States of America (Presbyterians prefer Robert’s Rules and the Book of Church Order). In principle, Libertarians are all for the vision of liberty Justice Kennedy first cast in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and reiterated ad nauseam last week in Obergefell v. Hodges: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If enough people define their own existence in the same direction, more power to them.

* I must be the first person ever to link Libertarians and Presbyterians.

My problem is that many of these pundits style themselves “conservative.” Now, if “conservatism” means anything, it means conserving something. What they want to conserve is the machinery, the procedures, our form of government. And that’s not nothing; I get that, and I’m grateful for their efforts. I read these people and share their insights all the time. But when it comes to the substance organized by that form, they tend to be as progressive as anyone. You want to redefine a millenia-old institution that has been one of the chief causes of human dignity and happiness in the world? If you can get it done by majority vote, you’re in like Flynn.*

* Wikipedia informs me this is a slang reference to the ease with which Hollywood actor Errol Flynn seduced women. Apropos!

So there’s little substance to their cause. Greasing the mechanisms by which others destroy civilization does not seem much to brag about. At very least, it lays a highly dubious claim to participating in Bill Buckley’s definition of conservatism: “Standing athwart History, yelling Stop!” In this case, they’re yelling “Go! Decently and in order, please!” If the “conservatarians” do not find the most ancient and widespread institution of human civilization something worth conserving, * they ought to reconsider the first half of the name.

* I now really just want to rewrite everything I wrote here and here, but that isn’t necessary. Check them out if you’re interested.

They need us for one more reason: they say they hate Statism and out of control government. But is it an accident that they refer to the civil government as “Paternalistic” and the “Nanny” state? Paternalism is what you get in a society without fathers. Nannies are what you get in a society without mothers. You’d think this might clue them in to a rather important principle: nuclear families are one of the chief means of limiting the state. They are the foundation of civil society, a buffer zone between the individual and raw power of the state. I have little sympathy when you’re blasé about whether children should have both a father and a mother and then complain when the state inevitably becomes one or the other. It’s almost like asking for it.

So the institutional family’s fair-weather political friends will—foolishly—abandon the very field they ought to care most about. It is unfortunate, because we could really use their support and they could really use our convictions.

Read Part One.