As we continue to approach the November elections, political ideas (mostly incoherent and ephemeral) whiz by us at speeds beyond comprehension. The internet has helped encourage this speeding up process, but it has also allowed many of us to find some breathing space, a haven of sorts in which we can digest the ideas, find a better vocabulary and line of reasoning, and re-emerge in the whiz-bang debates armed with better information (at least this has been the case for me). Unfortunately, by the time we come back from our brief haven, the political debates have moved on to something else entirely, and the question we originally needed space from has already been solidified into some kind of temporary orthodoxy, the issue having exhausted the patience of a restless public.
What are the real debates about? The media, not surprisingly, focuses on the most trivial of things, especially on the slips of the tongue and poorly-worded but honest answers given by the just if overly earnest of those running for office.
If there was ever a time in our history that called for a re-examination of the First Principles of the western tradition, it is now. As I’ve mentioned before on The Imaginative Conservative, I’m not entirely sure that our republic is going to weather this current storm. Even the election of a Republican will probably only allow for a holding action rather than a reverse toward what is most needed. And, my guess is that a Republican administration will keep civil liberties in their decayed state (Mr. Obama, from his track record, at least, would encourage their erosion even further), but it will also expand America’s military presence in the world. Thus, no one who believes in liberty will really gain from this election. Our votes will either help slow the decay of civil liberties or advance them more quickly.
In 1776, just before he departed on a diplomatic mission for Canada, Charles Carroll of Carrollton made a call for a complete reform and purification of the colonial governments. The English, he noted in concert with many Americans, had become corrupt beyond redemption. But the colonists had built civilizations out of the wilderness, armed with the Judeo-Christian tradition of ethics and morality, the Greek and Roman understandings of the mind and the commonwealth, and the English common law. Now, he argued, it was time to reform and purify what had been inherited, to take the country back to its dearest principles, possessed not by Americans alone, but by all women and men of good will.
Those principles shine forth, of course, in the founding documents: the ultimate dignity of the human person (in the Declaration and Northwest Ordinance, the words called for a universal understanding of such dignity, even if the practices of the time did not); the right to live in community and associate the right to practice religion freely the right to educate our children; and the right to defend ourselves against the arbtrary will of man.
It’s impossible to understand how an American people built upon such foundations can allow for the growth of empire, the murder of innocents abroad by drones, the permanent internment of Americans without trial, the groping of citizens in the airports.
Yes, we need to think about parties and elections. We need to follow the debates. But, we also need action, protest, assembly, and demonstration. It’s not enough to wave around our Cato or Heritage copies of the constitution. It’s time to live the constitution and defend it with all the power given us by He who makes, blesses, and sanctifies all things, He who will bring all things back to right order.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.