he Republic of 1776-89 is likely dead, I recently wrote, because government in America is increasingly uni-partisan, unchecked, and unaccountable. Those who oppose the ends it pursues and the means it employs have lost patience, and are demanding even more forceful government on their behalf. In short, all sides have abandoned restraint. Every new executive order, judicial decision, agency rule or policy, every successive imposition or insult by the well-connected and -protected, unlocks their targets’ theretofore repressed desires to “get back at the bastards.” As resentment breeds greater resentment, reviving the Republic grows even more improbable.
My article reflected on how much we know about how today’s Democrats would govern tomorrow—based on how they have been governing with the Republican establishment’s effectual (though not rhetorical) support—and how little we know about what the Trumpians would do. In other words, it posed the 2016 choice in essence: do we want to stay on the road we’re on, or do we want to chance another, undefined path?
In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf attacked my factual exposition, stating only in his last line that “voting for Trump is easily the riskier choice.” Otherwise, his article consists of amorphous CliffsNotes U.S history references, the point of which seems to be that the Republic has survived despite Americans having been divided before, and arguably worse things having happened. On that basis, we’re urged to be relatively pleased with being governed as we have been. Friedersdorf makes no comparison between what the current regime is doing to the Republic and how a Trump victory might modify that, so his piece doesn’t assess risks but simply endorses Democratic Party governance without saying so.
In fact, the Republic’s plight in our time is different from previous troubles. Even in the worst crises, all sides shared republican habits and a common civilization. After four years of civil war that had taken nearly one tenth of America’s able-bodied men, Lincoln found hope for the future in the fact that both sides “prayed to the same God.” And although the sides differed about the substance of constitutional procedure, both believed ardently in the Constitution. Even as they fought, they respected each other and took each other’s arguments seriously. But today’s bipartisan ruling class, including the Atlantic, treats ordinary Americans’ religiosity as a problem, and calls all who do not share its worldview racist, sexist, homophobic, any affected by whatever psychosocial disease the class happens to invents. How are citizens to react to being deemed irredeemable themselves, their opinions and interests unworthy of equal consideration with those of “protected classes,” their citizenship illegitimate, except by withdrawing legitimacy from their rulers?
Friedersdorf also accuses me of having given up on the American Republic and encouraging others to do so. In fact, I only described reality when, for example, I called attention to the fact that out of more than 20 presidential candidates this year only one, Ted Cruz, has constitutional restraint in his bones. All the others have held forth about what they would do for their constituencies, no matter what. The rulers’ absence of commitment to the rule of law negates the obligation of the ruled to obey. Hillary Clinton, personally offensive as she is, is less offensively minded than those whom she has to satisfy. Is restraint to be found in the pages of the Washington Post, the New York Times, or in any establishment media? Friedersdorf did all he could to exile it from the Atlantic.
Friedersdorf mocks my contention that presidents and bipartisan majorities’ practice of dispensing with recorded votes on all major items of government expenditure, now normal, is the most significant negation of republican practice and principle in the Republic’s history. I might have said: “in the history of constitutional government.” It used to be common knowledge that Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which requires appropriation by law of any and all expenditures, is neither more nor less than the essence of the Magna Carta—the principle that the government has no right to do anything unless the governed approve by giving their own money to enable the government to do it. The government’s mere existence does not give it any right to do anything. No republican principle is more fundamental. But now, ignorance having smothered concern for consequences, ravenous pursuit of partisan agendas has led our ruling class to roll all government expenditures into one bill determining whether or not the government will be shut down. Any elected official or voter who objects is an anarchist. But if you assent to a complex of provisions that you cannot possibly grasp and which, at any rate, consist largely of open-ended grants of power, then you agree that those in power may do whatever they want. Friedersdorf writes that this is the way it’s always been.
Alas, such tragically ignorant, partisan superficiality is all one can expect from the once profound Atlantic.