Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
We are in the midst of a major political upheaval in the West. The recent World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California is just one of many left-wing variants of the populism that has also swept Donald Trump into power. Both claim to speak for the “people” when in fact they have diametrically-opposed understandings of who the “people” are and who represents them. What unites them is a deep distrust of global capitalism, liberal institutions such as constitutional government, and perhaps liberalism itself.
There are many oddities contained in this left-right tag team against liberalism. Some leaders of the Catholic Church claim to be against “all forms of human hierarchy,” never mind all the popes and bishops who have governed hierarchically the Church for more than 2,000 years. A former Goldman Sachs investment banker now advises Trump on the virtues of economic nationalism. It appears populists aren’t really against hierarchies as such; they’re just against the ones that aren’t popular anymore. They claim to represent the people as a whole, even when they are opposed by other populists.
On what basis can a single person claim to speak for everyone? Sometimes it’s elections, even those that are closely contested and very easily could have resulted with someone else in charge. No matter, the winner will proclaim “I am your voice!” Other times it involves prophecy and is therefore not subject to critical investigation: As Pope Francis said, “The word ‘people’ is not a logical category, it is a mystical category.” Either way, dissent will result in being labelled an “enemy of the people,” i.e. an elitist or a Pharisee sitting on the chair of Moses, which usually means trouble, even though it’s usually another elitist who’s calling you one. It is no surprise that such rhetoric has been a staple of totalitarian regimes both left and right.
So what’s a thinking Catholic liberal to do? Is there still a case to be made for a politically, economically and religiously free society or are we hopelessly resigned to sheer power politics where only might makes right? How easily and quickly we have forgotten what separates the West from the rest.
With the recent passing of our great friend Michael Novak, we can do him no greater honor than by thinking again, that is, re-examining the basis for the free society rather than simply assuming it will continue without massive effort on our part. If there’s one thing mobs don’t do, it’s think, so it will inevitably be a small group of capable individuals (rise up, fellow elitists!) that does this but in a way that neither flatters nor disregards popular opinion.
Not all elitists are equally capable of such a combination. It’s much easier to tell the “people” how great they are or simply equate one’s own will with everyone else’s. Ideology is a substitute for, rather than the result of, independent thought; yet ideology is also far easier to put into practice. So this experiment in re-thinking needs to have some real political consequences and not remain at an abstract or merely personal level. It will require us to think politically instead of ideologically.
Along these lines, I’m encouraged by the publication of a new journal called American Affairs. Some of those involved are friends who are Trump supporters, so I look forward to seeing how they can square this circle. At the very least their attempt to make sense of the Trump ascendency is very much needed and welcome. I’d be similarly impressed if the Catholic left were to do the same thing with Pope Francis and his style of populism. So far, however, it seems content with tired clichés about “building bridges not walls” and failed policies such as increasing the minimum wage when large numbers of working-class men are dropping out of the labor force altogether.
The political re-examination we need will have to focus on what makes for a “people” – is it an ethnicity, religion, or some other type of association? Humanity seems much too broad a category and likely leads to some form of global government, which no lover of liberty should support. The liberal solution looks to the nation-state as the political association that best protects the natural rights of life, liberty and property, even as the “people” is made up various factions and competing interests.
In a liberal constitutional government, the “people” rule, but not directly. They elect legislative representatives who are expected to exercise their own judgement and held accountable at the next election. They also elect an executive who has the “prerogative” to act on behalf of the people as a whole, even without consulting them or their representatives. Finally, they have judges who interpret what the law, not popular opinion, requires. Commerce, rather than politics, becomes the people’s business.
Executive power in government (such as that of a president or a pope) draws the most attention because we human beings tend to look to a single authority, whether out of obedience or in rebellion. “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” however, so we need a constitutional arrangement that separates powers, checks and balances the different branches of government so that no one faction can dominate the others. But out of these factions, the original question remains: what constitutes a “people” and who speaks for them?
The anarcho-libertarian answer, “nothing” and “no one”, is profoundly mistaken. Nothing in human history or human nature shows that we are essentially solitary beings who do not look to associate with others; we come together not only to achieve common ends but as a source of identity and belonging. This association may be voluntary but at a primal level rarely is. Tribal loyalties have traditionally ruled over individual desires for autonomy. Love of one’s own tends to dominate love of others or love of the good.
If the free society still has a future, it will have to make itself lovable and choice worthy. This happens to be one of the themes of a new book by Steven Hayward, “Patriotism Is Not Enough”, on the contribution of Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa to American conservatism. Berns and Jaffa died on the same day as former-friends-turned-rivals who nevertheless agreed on the importance of Abraham Lincoln in redefining and ennobling the American experiment in liberal government.
New York Times columnist David Brooks also writes of the need for another Lincoln to counter and refine the current populist surge. Alas, people like Lincoln are anything but common. But besides hope and pray, there is still plenty we can think about and do to finish the task he started.