Gay marriage is driving some social conservatives crazy. By “crazy”, I don’t mean opposition to gay marriage as such, but stubborn, even willful refusal to understand why gay marriage has gained so much support, so quickly. Rather than acknowledging the reality of the situation, victims of gay marriage derangement syndrome just make stuff up.
A majority of Americans now approve of gay marriage for two fairly simple reasons. First, most Americans understand marriage as symbolic affirmation of a dissolvable commitment between consenting adults for purposes of emotional gratification. Second, an increasing number of Americans have come to know gay people in their own lives as beloved relatives, respected colleagues, or honored authorities rather than icons of flamboyance or specters of perversion. If you understand marriage in this sense, which has been socially dominant for decades, there is no plausible argument for denying it to gay individuals one loves and respects. As Rob Portman has discovered, the rest is reasoning from the particular to the general.
Opposition to gay marriage isn’t crazy because there are serious reasons to favor a more substantive understanding of the marital union as a lifelong partnership for the begetting and rearing children. On the basis of such a “thick” conception, it is possible to justify the exclusion of otherwise upstanding people. As I argued in a previous post on natural law, however, there’s little hope of convincing a majority of Americans to give up easy divorce and, above all, technologies of reproductive control. These practices, which were embraced by heterosexuals long before anyone had heard of Adam and Steve, are the real threats to “traditional marriage”.
Christopher Caldwell is the latest conservative to succumb to GMDS. In a review of Michael Klarman’s From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage for the Claremont Review of Books, Caldwell argues that the recent wave of support for gay marriage cannot be understood as a predictable, if not predetermined, development from Americans’ existing beliefs and experiences. Instead, he suggests, it is the result of an unprecedented campaign of unjudicial usurpation and cultural intimidation. Caldwell concludes by citing Klarman’s own evidence that gay marriage has passed a tipping point:
In a decade, gay marriage has gone from joke to dogma. It is certainly worth asking why, if this is a liberation movement, it should be happening now, in an age not otherwise gaining a reputation as freedom’s heyday. Since 2009, if Klarman’s estimates are correct, support for gay marriage has been increasing by 4 points a year. Public opinion does not change this fast in free societies. Either opinion is not changing as fast as it appears to be, or society is not as free.
As Edmund Burke might say: not so fast. According to a Gallup poll, approval for gay marriage rose from 27 percent in 1996, the first year they polled the issue, to 53 percent in 2011. Although not as steep as the trendline over the last few years, that’s still a dramatic increase of 26 percent over a decade and half. But that does not suggest that the change be attributed to fraud or coercion. In fact, it is fairly consistent with shifts on other controversial issues.
Consider interracial marriage, which is the most obvious although in some ways superficial parallel. According to Gallup, in 1972 29 percent of Americans approved of unions between blacks and whites, which is similar to support for gay marriage in 1996. What did they think think after a comparable period of time had elapsed? In 1991 (Gallup also polled the question in 1978 and 1983), 48 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage.
Over the course of 15 years, approval for gay marriage rose 26 percent. Approval for interracial marriage, on the other hand, rose 17 percent over 19 years. Support for gay marriage, then, has increased notably quickly. But it’s not the kind of off-the-charts increase that requires a conspiratorial explanation.
But maybe interracial marriage is a bad comparison. So consider polling on another controversial issue: marijuana. In 1995, 28 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be legal–just 1 percent more than the number who supported gay marriage the following year. In 2011, however, 50 percent of Americans believed that marijuana should be legal, an increase of 22 percent. In the same year, as I mentioned above, 53 percent of Americans expressed support for gay marriage, an increase of 26 percent.
Over the almost the same period, in other words, support for legal marijuana started and ended in about the same place as support for gay marriage. Yet no one seriously suggests that we’ve conned by the pot lobby.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that John Cassidy (a former Murdoch empire business editor) penned an essay from the New Yorker predicting that Marx the thinker, the analyst of capitalism, would come into vogue once more. In fact it was nearly 16 years ago, before Monica Lewinsky, before 9/11, before the Iraq and Afghan wars—two large market crashes ago. When I first read it, it struck a tiny chord—yes, he may be right—and if I reread it, (which I will when my New Yorker subscription kicks in) I suspect it will resonate a bit more.
Linked to Marx’s appeal as an analyst of capitalism is the fate of societies which ruled in his name—that is, the largely failed and now defunct communist world. As I recall, Cassidy separates Marx from those failures, though not completely successfully. There is, of course, a related nostalgia for the USSR in contemporary Russia, and even for Stalin. It could be rather obviously understood as a longing for order and a fondness for Soviet great power status. But I wonder if there aren’t more subtle sentiments involved in such stirrings as well.
Over the weekend I saw “Barbara” the Christan Petzold film about an East German dissident physician in her thirties who, for unspecified political reasons, is exiled from Berlin to a provincial hospital. She has a well-off boyfriend in the West, and is plotting her escape. The tension in the film revolves around her growth of a sense of duty and attachment to her patients, despite continuous surveillance and harassment from the Stasi, and the quite realistic prospect of much easier, safer, materially richer life on the other side of the wall. Read More…
In a series of posts for ThinkProgress, Ruy Teixeira urges the Left to recover its utopian imagination. While acknowledging the horror of Communism, Teixeira argues that progressive politics are hollow unless they are oriented toward a vision of the perfect society. The end does not necessarily justify the means. But:
…the idea of utopia can and should live on. Utopia is fundamentally an expression of man’s ability to dream of a better world. It provides inspiration to those seeking social change, providing a model for the society they seek to create. Without that inspiration, there is little long-term commitment to substantial change, which inevitably saps energy from reform efforts.
The post is supposed to be something of a call to arms for progressive activists. Actually, it’s an expression of intellectual exhaustion.
To begin with, Teixeira provides no clear account of what utopia means. By invoking the vision of a better society so generally, he conflates three very different ways of understanding that prospect.
What might be called conservative utopianism defines the philosophical tradition from Plato to Thomas More. While it articulates a perfect society, this approach reminds us that the “good place” (in Greek, eu-topia) is also “no place” (ou-topia). The implication is that perfection is always beyond our grasp. Although the utopian vision is useful for identifying the flaws in really existing society, then, it is also a warning not to expect too much from politics.
A second concept of utopianism derives from Jewish and Christian messianism. On this view, the perfect society is understood as a miraculous rupture of the order of things rather than the result of philosophical reflection on nature. We cannot plan or prepare for redemption. All we can do is wait in pious hope. Because the establishment of the righteous city is in the hands of God rather than man, this form of utopianism may point toward withdrawal from society. But it can also lead, as it did with the nihilists so memorably described by Dostoyevsky, to a politics of disruption that sees social disorder as a harbinger of the end.
It’s pretty clear that Teixeira has neither of these currents in mind. He’s really talking about orderly development toward a goal determined by human reason. The historical source of this form of utopianism is religious. Specially, it lies in postmillenial Christian theology, according to which human beings bear the burden of building up the Kingdom of God. By shifting responsibility from God to Man while affirming the possibility of a fundamentally different future, secular millenialism offers the consolations of revealed religion without the challenging demands of faith. That may be why it has been so popular among intellectuals.
The point in Teixeira’s initial post is that secular millenialism doesn’t work without a vision of its goal. What’s most striking about the sequel, however, is that it makes no effort to articulate such a vision. Instead, Texeira provides list of positive trends, including economic growth, scientific development, and increasing lifespan.
This is not utopianism, even of the specific variety to which Teixeira alludes. Rather, it’s banal technological optimism. Texeira presents no answers to hard questions about how wealth should be distributed, rights and responsibilities balanced, or finite resources managed. He simply assures readers that things are getting better all the time. But who cares that “exports as a percentage of GDP have tripled” since 1950, or that nanotechology is likely to place untold powers at our disposal? Severed from a concept of purpose, there’s no way to determine whether increasing material abundance is good or bad.
What accounts for the poverty of Teixeira’s normative vision? I suspect that the answer has to do with his rejection of the working class as the focus of utopian imagination. In the past, advocates of secular millenialism were able to describe a better world in detail because they knew for whom they were fighting: the workers. For Teixeira, by contrast, progress means improvement in the condition of a “diverse modernizing coalition: minorities, members of the Millennial generation, singles (especially women), seculars, socially liberal, college-educated whites and urbanized Americans, especially in large metropolitan areas.”
The problem is, these groups do not share the interests or demands that unified the old working class. Their increasing numbers make them components of a new Democratic majority in American politics. But theirs is an inherently fractious majority, unable to articulate a common political vision. Teixeira dreams of a new utopia that can inspire the now-ascendant McGovern coalition the way the promise the welfare state defined the New Deal and Great Society. He can keep dreaming: lifestyle liberalism is the end, not the beginning of utopianism.
…many social conservative positions are buttressed on faith. But they also believe — and this is important, politically — that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue. And part and parcel of this is the assumption that our society is merely a short-term destination on the way to our heavenly home. This, of course, is in strong contrast to Y.O.L.O. (“you only live once”) worldview.
Here’s the problem: Not only do secular liberals reject this philosophy, but so do other elements of the conservative “three-legged-stool.”…Whereas social conservatives look to the Church for guidance, “classical liberals” (the Free Market, limited government ideology that values individuals) probably trace their fundamental beliefs back to Locke.
This is an important insight about the tensions in the conservative coalition. But it requires some elaboration and qualification if it is not to be misunderstood.
First, belief “that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue” is not distinctively Christian. Rather, it is main theme of the republican political tradition, the main elements of which were articulated by Cicero in and for a pagan society.
Some features of Cicero’s republicanism were adapted for Christian use by Augustine. In modern times, however, they have often been the vehicle for a critique of Christianity as corrosive of the military courage and concern for the common good necessary to a free society. According to Machiavelli and Rousseau, for example, Christianity is politically dangerous precisely because it encourages believers to seek their true home in heaven rather than defending their city on earth. In Europe, this neo-Roman argument rather than liberal individualism was the inspiration for the secularizing politics that emerged from the French Revolution.
Second, the individualism Lewis associates with Locke is historically derived from Christian sources. In fact, the whole point of Locke’s minimal definition of the state as a voluntary association for protection of life and property is that it leaves the individual free to relate himself to God as he sees fit. “Classical liberalism”, in other words, is historically based on Protestant theological arguments about the requirements for salvation rather than concerns about the market as such.
There is no necessary connection, then, between Christian faith and the politics of virtue or between secularism and theories of limited government. Rather than projecting contemporary categories into the past, we should investigate categories and concepts that were actually used in specific settings. The American Founding and early Republic, in particular, can be understood better in light of the Christian republicanism inherited from Calvinism than either conservatism or liberalism. But that is a story for another post.
In the current issue of National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru rebut Sam Tanenhaus’s description of the GOP as the party of Calhoun. They accuse of Tanenhaus of assigning guilt by association, and very loose association at that. According to Tanenhaus, Calhoun was “the Ur-theorist of a burgeoning but outnumbered conservative movement…” Goldberg and Ponnuru observe that there’s little evidence for this:
in George Nash’s universally respected book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Calhoun’s name appears twice…Calhoun is absent from the memoirs of the supposedly “Calhounist” William Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review. He is mostly absent from the writings of James Burnham, although Burnham does reject Calhoun’s idea of a plural executive in a brief discussion in Congress and the American Tradition. There’s no mention of Calhoun in Tanenhaus’s own biography of Whittaker Chambers. Perhaps more telling, there’s no mention of Calhoun in his more recent book The Death of Conservatism…And Calhoun’s infrequent appearances in Buckley’s writings betray no adulation.
Further, Goldberg and Ponnuru ask, of what was Calhoun guilty? Yes, Calhoun described slavery as a “positive good”, a landmark in the development of the ideology of white supremacy that dominated Southern thought for decades. But he has also been recognized from his own time until quite recently as one of the most brilliant expositors of the counter-majoritarian strand of the American political tradition. It is inconvenient when important historical figures hold reprehensible views. But we impoverish ourselves if we therefore refuse to learn from them.
Goldberg and Ponnuru are right about Calhoun’s direct influence and intellectual importance. (Additional considerations from Peter Berkowitz can be found here.) But they set the historical record straight without engaging Tanenhaus’s main argument.
Tanenhaus isn’t really arguing that the conservative movement was based on racism, although the article often reads that way. As Scott Galupo pointed out several weeks ago, it’s that some Republicans’ recent interest in electoral college rigging, gerrymandering, voter ID requirements that may keep people away from the polls, and procedural and legal obstruction of policies favored by a popular president echoes Calhoun’s counter-majoritarian politics.
It’s true that Republicans have taken a counter-majoritarian turn since the end of the Bush Administration. There’s nothing shocking about that: Democrats have used some of the same tactics when they’ve been in the minority. The more important question is: What’s wrong with counter-majoritarianism? After all, the Constitution contains extensive curbs on the power of the majority.
Identifying the problem with counter-majoritarianism requires some analytic distinctions. Counter-majoritarianism is not a single position, but group of tendencies with different sources and implications. Two of these tendencies are common in the American political tradition. The third is unusual—and problematic.
The most familiar form of counter-majoritarianism is the counter-majoritarianism of individual liberty. I mean the idea that there are some freedoms that the government cannot infringe, no matter how popular those infringements may be. This idea is at the core of the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a motive for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
Today, both right and left prize individual liberty counter-majoritarianism, although they apply it in different ways. The challenge to Obamacare was based on this brand of counter-majoritarianism. But so was the petitioner’s argument in Roe v. Wade.
A second form of counter-majoritarianism is based on the observation that the majority does not always recognize its own interest. It therefore suggests that the will of the people should sometimes be resisted and occasionally ignored, in deference to the judgment of those who know better what’s good for them. The original design of the Senate can be seen as counter-majoritarian in this sense. So can the authority of modern bureaucracies with independent regulatory authority.
In the late 18th century, Edmund Burke and John Adams argued that elected representatives should practice elitist counter-majoritarianism by acting against the wishes of their constituents when required to do so by superior wisdom. But that idea has mostly disappeared from modern electoral politics.
A third form of counter-majoritarianism focuses on structural minorities: long-standing groups or interests whose small numbers mean they will consistently lose under majoritarian decision procedures. Structural minorities have particular reason to fear oppression or persecution. Structural counter-majoritarianism aims to protect them by giving them effective veto power over laws or policies favored by a numerical majority.
This principle, too, has deep roots in American political thought. As we learn in Federalist 10, it’s one reason for the complicated division of powers that characterizes the Constitution.
A couple of weeks ago, David Bentley Hart published a critique of natural law theory in First Things. Hart argued, in summary, that arguments based on natural law are coherent, but not very useful for persuading members of a pluralistic modern society. The reason is that they rest on metaphysical (or “supernatural”) presuppositions that many people find implausible or explicitly reject.
…Hart is attacking straw men and simply begging the question against them. It also becomes evident that his conclusion—that it is ‘hopeless’ to bring forth natural law arguments in the public square—doesn’t follow from his premises, and that even if it did, if he were consistent he would have to apply it to his own position no less than to natural law theory.
Part of Feser’s response consists in somewhat pedantic (dare I say “scholastic”?) fallacy hunting. The real issue emerges about halfway through the long essay:
…if all Hart means to assert is that natural law theorists suppose that the metaphysical commitments crucial to their position are uncontroversial, then he is attacking a straw man. No natural law theorist claims any such thing. What they claim is merely that, however controversial, their position can be defended via purely philosophical arguments and without resort to divine revelation. And if its being controversial makes it ‘hopeless’ as a contribution to the public square, then every controversial position is hopeless.
This statement raises two important questions, neither of which Feser addresses explicitly.
First, what does it mean to say that a controversial position can be “defended by purely philosophical arguments”? Is Feser claiming that natural law cannot be conclusively refuted? If so, he’s probably right. But this means only that natural law is logically possible. Other and very different moral theories can boast the same. Read More…
Kenneth McIntyre has provoked considerable discussion with his review of Gene Callahan’s Oakeshott on Rome and America. And rightly so: Oakeshott’s critique of “rationalism” poses a serious challenge to cherished assumptions about our rhetorical tradition, Constitution, and contemporary political practice. From Oakeshott’s perspective, contemporary American political discourse is dominated by a priori deduction from first principles about liberty, rights, or the function of social institutions, rather than reflection on lived experience. MacIntyre counters:
I think there are two distinct sets of conclusions to take away from the book. First, the academic conclusion would be that a new approach to American political history and political thought is necessary. The first order of business will be to devise a more adequate periodization in which it is acknowledged that today’s U.S. constitutional arrangement has about as much to do with that of either 1785 or 1805 as the contemporary British constitutional arrangement has to do with its 18th-century “mixed constitution” ancestor. There have been at least four distinctive American republics, if not more, though, unlike the French, we don’t normally rip up our document and start over when we change constitutions.
Academic historians of American political thought should eschew hagiography and pay attention to what the participants actually say, why they say it, and how far what they say differs from the actual political and social reality of their time. Leave the hagiography to the journalists and focus on the historical meaning of various utterances and actions and the connection between such meanings and the self-conceptions (largely mythical) of Americans contemporary to the subjects of study.
These are reasonable guidelines for a non-ideological history of American politics. I am puzzled, however, by MacIntyre’s suggestion that academics are not already trying to satisfy them.
First, there’s nothing novel about the idea that America has experienced periodic “refoundings”. On the contrary, it’s something of a commonplace among scholars of American political development. Consider the standard textbook, The Presidency and the Political System. In Chapter 3, Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis argue that Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR each introduced revolutionary interpretations of the Constitution, particularly the role of the executive. So the Oakeshottian criticism of “constitutional fundamentalism” may be right. But there’s little evidence of that view in contemporary history or political science scholarship.
Similarly, I see little hagiography in the recent literature on specific figures. On the contrary, the great achievement of Bernard Bailyn was to inspire a generation of students who have attempted precisely to “pay attention to what the participants [in American history] actually say, why they say it, and how far what they say differs from the actual political and social reality of their time.” Even popular studies, such as Richard Brookhiser’s James Madison (see my review here) make a point of presenting the founders as practical politicians working in specific contexts, rather than as quasi-divine oracles.
Admirers of Oakeshott should welcome these developments. So should critics of his political philosophy who care about historical understanding. Fortunately, the intellectual prospect is much more favorable than MacIntyre indicates. The real challenge is to move effectively from the world of ideas to empirical politics.
The Pope has resigned. He has not died, or been taken up like Elijah, but resigned because “both strength of mind and body are necessary” for his work and he is running out of one, the other, or both.
The history books will likely see this as an emblematic moment of an old dilemma with profoundly new reach and seriousness: we are starting to outlive our competency, outlive our health. What makes the Pope such a particularly compelling example is how his office aspires to permanence and timelessness, for he gives us a very public display of our nature as finite, limited creatures endowed with that transcendent, troublesome ability to participate in the infinite. For millions beyond the Catholic Church itself, he is the man most associated with the quest to stretch ourselves beyond our sins and earthy limitations, towards a higher calling. Ross Douthat wrote in the immediate aftermath of the announcement that:
“There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.”
And yet Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Instead of waiting to be called heavenward he exercised his own judgment (profoundly informed by long and searching prayer, doubtlessly) that he was no longer fit for the office to which he had been called. What does it mean to outlive a post meant for a lifetime? Read More…
In an event noticed by few and mourned by none, the journal Policy Review ceased publication last month. A product of the Hoover Institution, Policy Review was, at least in its final years, always serious, often well-written, and rarely interesting. As Reihan Salam observes, the problem was not the selection of authors or subjects. Rather, it was the blandness of the content, much of which repackaged the conventional wisdom of the conservative establishment at greater length and with more erudite footnotes.
The farewell essay by editor Tod Lindberg in the final issue suffers from the same defect. Titled “Left 3.0″, the piece traces the rise of American progressivism from its nadir in 1972 to Barack Obama’s triumph last November. The bottom line:
…the Left differs from the Right in knowing where it wants to go: in the direction of more equality. Conservatives mostly know where they want to stay: in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity. Since the push in the direction of equality will sometimes impinge on liberty and on the market in ways that people will notice and object to, conservative reform will once again have its day. But today belongs to Left 3.0.
Lindberg gets some important things right, including his argument that the counter-culture of the ’60s is now simply the culture–and that political resistance to the sexual revolution is therefore doomed. The trouble with his analysis is that it operates almost entirely on the level of ideas. In consequence, it misses the main strength of the contemporary Left: the evident failure of (ostensibly) conservative government under the Bush Administration.
According to Lindberg, conservatives want to “stay in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity.” That’s certainly how establishment conservatives see themselves. But who else believes that they actually live under such conditions, or at least did until recently?
Most Americans remember the Bush years as a period of expanding government, ruinous war, and economic collapse. They voted for Obama the first time as a repudiation of those developments. Many did so a second time because most Republicans continue to pretend that they never happened.
Yet Lindberg’s essay contain only oblique references to the growth of government spending in the 2000s, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the housing bubble, or to the long-term stagnation of wages. And, as far as I can tell, there’s no acknowledgment that self-proclaimed conservatives played any role in these calamities. It’s simply not credible to argue that conservatives want to preserve liberty and prosperity when neither has flourished under their favored politicians or policies. No analysis of the strength of Left is complete unless it is combined with an account of the implosion of the Right.
Wednesday night the New America Foundation hosted a debate on the resolution “Your Smartphone has Hijacked Your Life.” It was a rich discussion and very well moderated, wide-ranging over a number of the social and personal costs and benefits we derive from these miraculous devices, so well worth watching. Say, on the ustream app on your phone.
Throughout the discussion, though, one particular thread of an idea seemed to reemerge from time to time in various forms, and understandably so, as it is perhaps one of the distinguishing features of life in the smartphone era.
Smartphones are always, and they are everywhere. Read More…