Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, has written a piece at Ethika Politika urging those upset by last week’s election results to be calm and take a deep breath. First, Lawler says we have to understand that there are small political parties and great ones.
Great parties are parties of high principle. Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life. They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war. So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable…
Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties. Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle. Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests. The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it. The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons. The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.
The problem, as Lawler sees it through Tocquevillian glasses, isn’t one party winning over another or one candidate leading by shining example. No, the problem is that America is now obsessed with individualism. We don’t care much any more what is best for all, but merely what is best for me. I want what I want, damn the consequences.
I think Tocqueville would conclude his observations by noticing what’s changed the most since the America he wrote about is the breakdown of the religious-based American consensus on the limits of self-obsessive individualism. His America was all about chastity, marital fidelity, what’s best for children, and common moral duties. This consensus has broken down, and the resulting devolution of marriage into a contractual entitlement devoid of real duties or even duration is the real cause of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. The question posed by gays is roughly this: Given how little marriage really means under the law these days, you have no right to exclude us from its benefits, which have become mainly symbolic.