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Constitutionalism in an Age Without Limits

The deepest threat to American constitutional order comes from our vanishing ability to rule ourselves.

(David Smart/Shutterstock)

We have heard about many threats to “our democracy” in recent years. The phrase most often appears when bewailing or denouncing ideas and people that are supposed to represent these threats. And, to be sure, it is difficult to disagree with worries that the American constitutional order is imperiled. But what, exactly, is the nature of the danger?

To understand the nature of the threat we must first have a right understanding of the nature of our constitutional order. At the risk of cliché, it must be pointed out that our system is not a simplistic democracy but rather a constitutional republic. Republicanism is a concept with a complicated history, but in our context it suggests a mixed regime premised on political liberty that incorporates elements of aristocracy, democracy, and monarchy, arranged such that the weakness of each is counterbalanced by the strengths of the others, and ordered according to a written constitution.


Recovering this truth goes a long way toward correcting the tendency in our political discourse to reflexively use “democracy” as a god term, such that its hypothetical expansion—both internally and externally—becomes the highest calling of the American regime. Willful ignorance about the true nature of our regime perpetuates mischief of all kinds, from calls to dismantle the Electoral College and undermine the deliberative checks in the Senate, to endless wars to spread “democracy” in places that have no interest in instituting democratic regimes, even if they had the cultural supports to sustain them.

The concept of democracy was first formulated in ancient Greece—as its name suggests, being a combination of the Greek words demos (“common people”) and kratos (“power” or “dominion”). In its most basic form, democracy is the rule of the demos, which is to say majority rule, which in practice turns out to be the rule of the common (and, typically, poor) people, with an eye to their own interests. Pure democracy places no restraints on the immediate will of the majority, subjugating both minorities and action based in sober reflection to the immediacy of the moment.

For ancient philosophers and statesmen, democracy tended to be a dangerous and volatile form of government that undermined the rule of law, promoted short-term thinking among citizens and rulers, and elevated demagogues and tyrants. They were, at best, suspicious of it—at worst, they were actively hostile.

For example, in Plato’s theory of the decline of regimes, laid out in Book 8 of the Republic, he places democracy one step above tyranny, and in fact argues that the defects inherent in democracy are what give birth to tyranny as passion overtakes virtue among the citizenry. Aristotle gives a slightly more sanguine assessment in his Politics; while he places democracy amongst the “defective” regimes—regimes that rule in the interest of their ruler(s) rather than the common good—he considers democracies to be the “best of the worst,” preferable to tyrannies and oligarchies but still fundamentally oriented toward the interests of the rulers.

As classically educated statesmen, the framers of the American Constitution were well versed in these ancient warnings about democracy, and they took them to heart. While they considered the “great body of the people” to be the firmest basis on which to rest the legitimacy of the constitutional order they sought to build, they nevertheless considered pure democracy dangerous—both to the stability of the new government, as well as to the existing order that comprised a number of diverse and quasi-autonomous colonies. The limited constitutional order they framed is explicitly designed to frustrate the ability of groups hostile to the common good from gaining power and driving the political agenda in their own interest.


But it goes deeper still.

While the Framers sought to construct a system of institutions that would withstand the strain of political competition, they did not simply rely on those structures to maintain the Constitution. None would have even thought it possible to create a system so perfect that it could self-perpetuate indefinitely. Rather, they looked to supports from beyond the political sphere—education, family, and, most of all, religion and morality—to sustain the liberties enshrined in the Constitution.

For the Framers, it was only through those supports that the moral and civic virtue necessary to be a citizen could be inculcated. These virtues provide the capacity for restraint and self-government that allow for the directing of oneself toward self-actualization aimed at the public good. These virtues, then, are the sine qua non of a constitution premised on liberty. As John Adams famously wrote to the Massachusetts militia, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In short, political self-government hinges on personal self-government.

Can American constitutionalism survive? Only, it seems, if we are able to recover the preconditions of its existence.

In his profound reflection on the trajectory of modernity The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis strikingly articulated the absurdity of the modern condition, which tends to undermine human agency. He notes that

[W]e remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

In a similar way, if our constitutional order is to survive, we must find ways to restore the functions—virtue, enterprise, honor, fecundity—that were presupposed by the Framers and on which, therefore, American constitutional order hinges.

In 1838 a young Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the question of “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” contended that “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Though his rhetoric is overstated—the Lord of History is author and finisher of nations—it is still worth considering his warning by asking whether a citizenry without the virtues necessary for self-government can hope to sustain the noble tradition of liberty under law bequeathed to us by our ancestors.

The fashionable fears about threats to “our democracy” notwithstanding, the deepest threat to American constitutional order comes from our vanishing ability to rule ourselves.

Interested in exploring these ideas further?  Apply for our Constitutional Fellows Program by January 31st for an opportunity to discuss these ideas and more with some of the top conservative thinkers of today.