This is getting to be a commonly heard phrase. “The republic cannot stand with behavior like this in its highest offices,” the conservative commentators barked under the Clinton dadministration. “The republic is doomed with all these warmongers and invasions,” came the outcry from liberal elite after 9-11. “The republic will be bankrupt in a few short years,” the lounge-chair conservative economists cried as Obamacare passed. And now, from the Left, as we’ve come to expect: “the republic is a fascist state run by a giant orange!” At least they’ve found a taste for subtlety.
Well, the republic rendered itself unrecognizable long before Trump, Obama, Bush, or Clinton. In fact, it was made unrecognizable before Reagan, Carter, or Nixon. Even before Johnson, although the Great Society programs and the conservative movement’s purging at the same time helped to shovel the last bit of dirt over it all. Let’s go back—way back—to when the republic was recognizable: the 1820s. That’s six presidents and about thirty-six years into the Great Experiment, forty-nine since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
What makes the 1820s more special, democratically, then the 1920s? Or the 2010s? Well, some of it’s probably obvious: an utter lack of welfare programs, for one, coupled with the complete absence of any recognizable bureaucratic administrative state. The federal government’s daily activities were barely noticed by the commoner. Unlike today, the federal government lacked the means to financially pressure states into fulfilling national obligations, like building interstate highways, distributing billions of dollars in handouts, or creating disastrously-run healthcare exchange marketplaces. There was no income tax—either federal or state—and state expenditures were so small that they were most often paid for through property taxes or regulated tariffs.
But wait, you might say. “More democratic?” Slavery existed back then! And women weren’t allowed to vote! If freeing the blacks from bondage and extending suffrage to all living persons over the legal age means rendering the “republic” unrecognizable, then, you might say, go right ahead!
Or, you might say, hold on just a second. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Sure, the Twentieth Century had a lot of bad ideas, but we can’t just revert the entire system back to the model we had in the 1820s! The technology has changed. The size of the country has changed. Its influence around the world has changed–everything has changed! Modern problems need modern solutions. The modern world needs a modern state. A centralized one.
Ah, but there’s the rub. A modern state. That hasn’t been working out very well, has it? Let’s look at what the modern state has done for us, at the risk of repeating a rather humorous exchange from a Monty Python skit.
The President Was Supposed to Be an Administrator, Not a Ruler
The President is certainly a figure of authority. His most valuable title is, perhaps, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but that particular title has not had much importance until the last century or so. Aside from that, the office exists to be filled by a glorified but photogenic bureaucrat. He has no authority to make laws, and any he can try to make—called Executive Orders—can be undone by the next administration without consequence. He suggests the national budgets, proposes new laws (as any citizen can do), and has the power to veto the ones that don’t smell right. But his veto power can be overridden.
That’s about all he’s supposed to do.
Unless, of course, you have massive administrations of government employees and law enforcement officers standing behind him. Now he gets a whole lot more powerful. Until these agencies get so big and have access to so much information that they cease taking orders even from the Commander-in-Chief. Then we have shadow governments, internal espionage, and Tom Clancy novels.
But I get ahead of myself. What was the President’s stature as of 1825? That’s not hard to answer. He spoke to foreign dignitaries and was the duly elected face of the nation for foreign governments. Not that most US Presidents had to do much with foreign governments at the time—certainly there were negotiations with each of the major powers, but America’s place in the world was barely noticeable in comparison to what it has become today. In addition, the country still tried to follow George Washington’s strong suggestion to keep out of the affairs of Europe, which it managed to do with some success if we count the whole War of 1812 thing as a necessary exception.
During wartime, the President certainly acted as the Commander-in-Chief. But outside of wartime, the country barely had a functioning military to speak of. It could boast a small collection of boats and about as many military men as could staff some coastal and frontier forts. It did not have, as Britain did at the time, a navy that patrolled the oceans to keep the peace and advance its own interests. Without a standing army, the title Commander-in-Chief lacks some staying power.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that the President was unimportant to regular Americans. Quite the contrary—in fact, anyone who claims that the common people took little interest in the affairs of the national politic are woefully ignorant of historical reality. The press ginned up fervor from coast to coast, doing its best to elevate the election cycle into a vicious cycle of journalistic attacks. The mudslinging from the first Presidential election was not only legendary, but a mark of the elections to follow.
But maybe I’m splitting hairs. How much does a man of authority who represents the Union differ from a ruler? Where does the power come from? To what is allegiance owed? In a republic, the answer to both is the office itself; different men wield the pen of that office, but the office carries a dignity that alone accounts for the authority involved. Laws and political checks exist against this authority so that it does not get out of hand or turn too easily into a dictatorship. Monarchies, however, differ in fundamental approach: the office of the regent is certainly owed a certain gravitas, but the monarch himself, due to rights of primogeniture, is also a source of legitimate authority. Aristocratic and monarchical regimes did not have the same sorts of laws and checks against absolute power because, for the most part, they did not need them; abuses of authority were typically minimized by the presence of an ethical backbone in the aristocracy that is utterly alien to modern sensibilities. Checks and balances existed, but they were de facto checks rather than legislated ones.
Much more should be clarified on this subject, but for the purposes of this point, enough has been said. The office of the President today does not resemble the Presidency of republic first established in 1789. The military might of the American government, the degree to which it is mixed up in foreign affairs, the over-reliance upon executive orders, the rampant spread of bureaucratic offices all indicate the explosion of the so-called Administrative branch into powerful force through which authority is derived by might, rather than by legislation. The will of the people maintains power only inasmuch as the republic can maintain civilian control over the military apparatus. Which, of course, becomes more and more unlikely as an imperial power expands.
I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with building an empire. In general, it seems the natural state of complex civilization is some form of empire-building. Not only were most civilizations in history that were worth studying empires, but much of the late-antiquity and medieval kingdoms resembled empires in most respects other than scale. Liberal democracies are not the norm; they are in fact the exact opposite. They are aberrations.
That said, it’s somewhat striking that the formulation of empires indicate the peak of a complex civilization that lasts long enough get there. Unfortunately, as these things go, once it’s established, it’s all downhill from there.
If the model is correct, then the American empire has been downhill since about the late-19th Century. Sweeping reorganization of federal powers occurred during and after the Civil War, and those affected the common person’s understanding of government and order. Rule-by-common-consent was effectively abolished by the use of military force to keep the Union together. The only reason the South didn’t allow itself to be even more destroyed was because they were able to acknowledge that hey, maybe independence from the Yankees was a little overrated, and meanwhile, the North acknowledged that hey, maybe they went a bit too far in some places. Both sides readily admitted that there wasn’t any other way to resolve the problems that sparked the war in the first place: confusion over the definitions of statehood, individual rights, and how sovereignty can be expressed at both a national and personal level. But nobody questioned the fact that the North invaded.
These were questions that were built into the Constitution upon its founding. Slavery went unspoken of before the Enlightenment talk on the equality of all men. The complex political systems of checks and balances and the emphasis on local governance placed major roadblocks on the national government’s ability to integrate newly-acquired territory into the Union. Both of these required solid, coherent answers before the United States could really develop into adulthood, even if those answers meant implicitly rewriting parts of the founding documents and buying a little less into the notion of republicanism and democracy.
Which is the position Britain found itself in during much of that century. Britain, however, had a system of government and social order that not only had a place for imperialism, but actively embraced it. Their entire history revolved around it. Self-rule and provincial jurisdiction were assumed foundations of a stable society, and being thus taken for granted, were never enshrined within a complex set of contradictory documents shrouded in the language of autonomous rights and collective responsibility. Unfortunately, Britain has found out the hard way that such expectations of moral integrity cannot be left unsaid and assumed in a Modern world; everything that isn’t nailed down by the tedium of explicit description will be swept away by the Modern gales of doubt. We’ll leave aside the sinister name that those winds always carry, for now.
The United States, to its credit, did list out with tediousness the so-called rights and responsibilities of its citizens. And, try as it has been, Modernity’s assault on the fundamental structure of the American experiment has been slower than upon the family tree still stuck on the Continent; the ancient regimes that once thrived across Europe have all been swept away, their borders fractured, their peoples dispersed, and their monarchs deposed or otherwise rendered unrecognizable. Only Britain retains its monarchy, but that comes at the expense of its Lords and its borders. The United States, although its republican virtues are obscured, is still republican in character, even if the political republic itself can be understood only in rudimentary explanations of suffrage. Whether the Founding Fathers helped to usher in this new age of Enlightenment tedium, or whether they were simply ahead of the curve, is a difficult call to make.
What can be said, however, is that the sinking ship we’re on was engineered according to the principles and failings that have caused it to take on water. It’s not a fluke that this country is mired in seemingly irreconcilable political and social conflicts. It’s not a fluke that immigration into America is now considered a human right comparable to breathing oxygen and drinking water. It’s not a fluke that hard-Left socialist programs are rammed through our media and government with only a small minority of people bothering to bat an eye. Some commentators prefer to chock this up to America’s success—“we’re just so successful and bored with the world that we have to invent our own enemies and attack our own culture!” But that’s just Freudian nonsense. The United States has enemies abroad just as it always has. One of them has even been flaunting its nuclear capabilities and threatening an American military base. American values aren’t falling apart because we’re somehow too good to believe in them anymore. They’re falling apart because what made them good is disintegrating.
Liberty and freedom. Conservative commentators announce their faith in these things almost as much as they loudly declare their belief in the principles of the Constitution. But there’s always that question that’s left unsaid: the liberty and freedom to do what? Anything you like? That’s obviously not the case.
Conservatives will tell you that it’s the liberty to do what you want, but within reason. That almost sounds like it’s the freedom to be moral, unimpeded by governments that would force you to be immoral. That’s all well and good, but that then introduces morality into the sphere of public discourse. Maybe the centuries of religious teachings are all wrong, and maybe it’s necessary to start from the ground up and reengineer a morality for people to follow. Maybe morals aren’t set in stone. Maybe God was just being coy when He told us some things that we should probably be doing before we went and crucified Him. But whatever the problem is, an objective morality must be adhered to according to a secular government.
Many of these commentators would readily bow their heads before an altar to the Lord, no doubt. And yet, abstract concepts of liberty and freedom remain at the front of their tongues sometimes more readily than praises to God. The freedom to worship is an admirable liberty to champion, but that does not require a secular state that advocates a leveling doctrine with regards to religious worship. Liberty, properly defined, presumes the existence of an objective moral code—indeed, the Founding Fathers said as much at the onset. Religious liberty was ratified in the Bill of Rights to ensure that the sort of violence that occurred during England’s Civil Wars did not repeat itself in the colonies, particularly when the religious quilt of the colonies included representatives of Quakers, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Catholics. Yet, with few exceptions, these varying denominations all kept the sphere of their morals to within the same general boundaries.
The problem is that the assumption of religious liberty reduces religion to a mere private affair. A democratized religious fabric—a free market, if you will, of religious choice—is not a more liberated environment to worship in. Not in any meaningful sense, anyway. In fact, all it typically does is make the public discourse of religion a confused and unhappy experience; as a result, faith in God is sidelined out of a shared, cultural sense of common decency. No one, after all, wants to be found suggesting that another person’s faith is somehow in error, and remarking seriously that you believe your neighbor is going to Hell for his behavior is quite a social taboo. Those that proselytize, spreading the faith they believe to be true, are looked at as obnoxious disturbers of the peace—which is a greater offense to secular modernity than whatever the ideas and religion that they specifically proselytize.
Now, for a while, things in such a society can remain stable. Religious belief does not go away overnight, especially if the secularism insidiously absconding with the public space isn’t going overboard with mass executions. And as we saw in the early American nation, the free practice of religious congregations helped keep small towns together, especially in cases where there was only one church in the entire settlement. As people moved westward into the frontiers, taking their bibles with them, congregations became more eclectic and more democratized, but communities persisted nonetheless.
This confuses the greater point, however. Religions are larger than communities, governments, and societies; they form the beginning point of culture. It is from religion that moral doctrines can be derived, because religions offer up, through a standardized dogma, notions of Man’s being, the universe’s existence, and the relationship men have with a transcendent reality. Philosophy builds upon these notions, but at philosophy’s heart is the germ of faith that religion fosters. A free market of ideas, where philosophy is freely discussed and differing viewpoints are addressed, is in general a very good thing among learned peoples. But a free market of religious doctrines, where picking and choosing between various faiths is common practice, results only in the destruction of those faiths. Moral codes become irrelevant and presumed to matter only to individuals, never to the community. Don’t like the rules your parents live by? Secularism’s answer is easy: find a new religion. Don’t struggle to make your present moral code work for you, just change those morals. Secularism’s answer is easy: you have the power to decide what’s morally right and wrong—you have the power to decide, then, what is true and what is false. What need then have you for God, if you can simply walk across the street and be serviced as a religious consumer at a rival church? Shop around a bit. Find a religious doctrine that’s convenient to follow and doesn’t offend whatever sensibilities you’ve absorbed by osmosis from the contemporaneous secular culture. In an Enlightened Liberal Democracy™, old-fashioned things like morals play second-fiddle to individualistic desires.
But, I get off track. Unqualified ideas like a secular appeal to liberty and freedom are luxuries that can exist only in societies already stabilized by very specific religious and philosophical frameworks. Only in a society that does not automatically stone outsiders to death is it possible to permit outsiders to walk among the inhabitants. Only in a society that does not automatically burn heretics at the stake is it possible for competing religious peoples to intermingle. But there’s a problem with this: it’s wishful thinking. Secular conceptions of liberty and freedom intentionally undermine the very moral foundations that allow it to exist in the first place. It needs a common morality in order for the society to function, and yet it attacks the very idea of objective morality by suggesting that everyone is free and at liberty to do as they please. It needs a common conception of Man and his place in the universe in order to make sensible advancements in science, technology, medicine, government, and economics, and yet defending a particular metaphysic is looked at as a matter of faith that’s best left to fireside chats rather than public discourse.
Now, I’m willing to grant that the Founding Fathers of America did not expect secularism to be as insidious as it turned out. Modernity, to many of them, was a step forward. Since religion was so ever-present in the social fabric of the time, it seemed inconceivable that atheism would become a defensible position to hold in public and to advocate. Meanwhile, the ethnic makeup of the United States remained distinctly European, and predominantly English at that; the influence of foreign religions, if any, remained an unforeseen possibility that would not become a reality until after a century of the nation’s existence.
And yet, given the exactness with which the founding documents were written, the lack of respect for the traditions that America was founded in retaliation against, and the general Enlightenment principles of attempting, unsuccessfully, to attribute to deliberate actions all the myriad things Man is often incidentally capable of, it should be no surprise that the house of cards would come tumbling down.
The American republic is unrecognizable. It has, for the past century or so, elected rulers and leaders rather than the administrators that the Framers of the Constitution had made allowances for. It has developed and maintained a standing army in defense of its own national borders as well as command of the high seas, becoming an imperial power the likes of which the world has never seen before. Both of these things suggest that America is more an empire than it is a republic.
This essay has not been to condemn or critique empires, much less the American one. In fact, the creation of empires and the requirement of strong men to lead them are both completely in line with the development of human history to date. While the brutality of empires ruled by bad men can hardly be denied, the brutality of modern dictatorships has proven itself regularly to be even worse, both in the scope of atrocities and their severity. Meanwhile, empires ruled by good men have generally resulted in some of the greatest achievements the Western mind has made possible. Exceptions exist here and there, no doubt. But it cannot be said that the Enlightenment principles upon which America was founded could have remained as they were in order for America to become what it is today. It was the manner in which those principles failed what sustained them which facilitated the growth of America from a pseudo-Modern republic into a fully Modern Liberal Democracy. Its status as a fully-fledged empire awaits inauguration, but it’ll probably come sooner rather than later. And if it is to come at all, I’d prefer it to come at the hands of a good man rather than a crypto-Stalinist.