The Structure of Self-Government: Round 2

In my last post, I argued that our governing institutions are designed to express and pursue particular political values, namely the foundational values of liberal constitutionalism. Thus, we see consensual governance, national security, the rule of law, the protection of inalienable rights, and the general welfare advanced in different ways by the three branches of government and across the levels of our federal system. Drawing on Dan’s insightful characterization of our government as temporally structured—with past-, present-, and future-regarding values—my basic point was that our political institutions are designed to promote certain political goods. (Incidentally, a different Dan recently explored this point on the New York Times Campaign Stops blog.)

So that’s where this post picks up. And it’s especially important to continue following this line of reasoning because the institutional expression of political values has profound implications. The first, and most apparent, is that we should expect our institutions to clash with each other quite regularly. The goods expressed by legislatures, courts, and executives at all levels of government, while equally central to the constitutional enterprise, are in tension with one another. Brief reflection reveals that national security and civil liberties often conflict and that consensual governance and minority rights at times present competing claims. In short, the things we want government to do—the very reasons we have the government we have—are incommensurable. And that is exactly why our institutions are structured as they are.

By institutionalizing the desiderata of self-government, we ensure that what we care about in the political realm will not fade away with passing political coalitions or be swept aside at the whim of individual leaders. This was James Madison’s point in Federalist 51, where he warned that because men are not angels we mustn’t put all of our trust in their rectitude or virtue: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Our political institutions are those auxiliary precautions.

But in order to function as auxiliary precautions, We the People living under the Constitution must not only countenance the conflict and disagreement that necessarily follows from the proper functioning of our political institutions. We must also expect it. Indeed, we must demand it. Precisely because the values at the heart of constitutional self-governance are in tension with one another we must demand that they confront one another in the context of inter-institutional interaction. For only when an argument can overcome opposition rooted in core constitutional values will the decisions we make as a polity benefit from the full measure of deliberation and legitimacy.

And that leads to the second implication: we must have a political culture, supported by a social order, that can produce and withstand this kind of disagreement and debate. This is a multifaceted and complex requirement, to be sure, but I’ll suggest just a few aspects I think are particularly important. First, there must be non-political institutions that can diffuse some amount of the disagreement that is naturally occurring in any polity. Put differently, while politics can channel and resolve some conflicts, we must have a robust civil society that can handle the rest.

Second, and related to civil society, we must have institutions, opportunities, and relationships that habituate us in the norms of civility. For all that politics is, it is rarely characterized as civil. Much of the incivility of modern politics, I believe, is rooted in a lack of experience handling contentious issues. Religious organizations, social groups, and networks of friends can all prepare us for the political conversations—and yes, disagreements—that a healthy polity must address.

And finally, we must have some common core of beliefs or commitments (a moral consensus, perhaps?) that will render politics productive. Beyond a certain degree of disagreement, politics becomes merely a contest for the power necessary to suppress the opposition, rather than a means of strengthening bonds of agreement and aspiration.

The inevitability of political conflict and the political culture it requires emphasize the importance of the pre-political, everything on which a healthy politics depends. A few weeks ago I questioned how much collaboration is possible with those who see government as the principal institution in communal life. What I’ve sketched out above intensifies that concern. When our political institutions presuppose a certain kind of individual and communal character—a respect, civility, maturity, and unity—any hope for a better life together starts with realizing where we must focus our attention.

1 Thought.

  1. Great post. I would add one more key element as necessary to sustain the socio-cultural-legal system you describe: we need to be comfortable with our disagreements, debates and (what is sometimes forgotten) those differences that don’t express themselves in propositional “debates” but nonetheless make us feel to some extent alienated from one another. “Civility” cannot be a club we hit people with for saying things that upset us. As I wrote in a comment on Karen’s last post, I’m not the free speech absolutist I used to be, but we can have no compromise with the heckler’s veto.

    Mark Steyn once remarked that we don’t need sensitivity training, we need insensitivity training. We need to let it roll off our backs when other people believe and live in ways that seem to us deeply wrong. And some amount of “incivility” is necessary to a real airing of differences.

Leave a Reply