Perhaps no concept in American politics is more familiar and appealing—yet more vacuous of meaning—than “the rule of law.” A close rival might be the equally indispensable but ambiguous word “constitution.”
While rhetorical ambiguity sometimes proves useful in politics, sustained disregard of the meaning of these fundamental ideas has a demoralizing effect on republican government. Notwithstanding the pragmatic, if not providential, ability of the American people to select worthy leaders through most of their history, to misunderstand or ignore fundamental principles of law and constitutionalism is to begin to undermine what Abraham Lincoln identified as “the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours”—namely, “the attachment of the People.”
Commenting upon the associative life of Americans in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite,” associating in pursuit of large and small common aims. The robust associative life that so struck Tocqueville was, in his view, a direct consequence of the democratic social state: Because each democratic citizen feels weak and powerless as one among many disconnected equals, joining together links atomized people together and produces in them the sense of being powerful enough to achieve their own shared ends. Composed of many who only feel their strength collectively,…
I have returned to the mothership after a great trip to Worcester, Massachusetts earlier this week to speak at Assumption College for its Constitution Day event, albeit a few days after September 17th. The students and faculty at the event were excellent. I thought it worth mentioning that the students in attendance were fundamentally sound in mind and not overwhelmed with ideological convictions, which proved excellent for the talk I delivered. In short, there’s a solid liberal arts tradition at Assumption. And that’s all to the credit of the faculty. If you’re looking for an education in the Humanities for yourself or for a son or daughter, then I would urge considering Assumption. They also permitted me to indulge in a bit of an off-road lecture on Orestes Brownson’s case for political loyalty as the crucial underpinning of our constitutional order. Many thanks to Prof. Bernard Dobski, Chairman of the Political Science Department, for the invitation and to Brother Greg for a wonderful introduction. My talk is below:
Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, a dear friend and one of the nation’s most insightful and thoughtful political observers, explains in a provocative Atlantic piece “How American Politics Went Insane.” The short answer, more fully elaborated in Jonathan’s earlier e-book, is disintermediation—that is, the demolition of political structures and mechanisms that, in a system of divided powers, make politics work and enable “middlemen” and power brokers to protect the system against crazies. Primaries and campaign finance reforms have weakened the parties. The destruction of the seniority and committee system has disabled Congress from legislating even when a (latent) consensus does exist. “Open government” reforms have constricted the space that is needed for political bargaining. The “pork” that once greased the system has mostly disappeared. Over time, the institutional immune system has collapsed. The ensuing chaos has produced further public disaffection and populist agitation against “the establishment.” It’s a feedback loop, and not a good one.