The Blog

Re-Politicizing American Politics

What a "living Constitution" really means.

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Editor's Note: Harvey Mansfield, one of America's leading political scientists and a widely published author, will deliver the 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 8, 2007. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. We have reposted these Mansfield classics from THE WEEKLY STANDARD archive in honor of that event.

How remarkable it is that Americans feel so dependent on government and at the same time so contemptuous of it! This is a political situation that gives hope to both Democrats and Republicans. The hope is conservative in each case. The Democrats stand for conserving the status quo; the Republicans stand for conservative reform. The debate is taking place within the bounds of conservatism, and so it is not surprising that the party of Big Government can survive, and may even triumph, despite the declaration of the White House's current occupant that "the era of big government is over."


Of course, Bill Clinton's words do not mean what they seem; Clinton has not abandoned the cause of Big Government. Quite the opposite. Every move he makes is in defense of Big Government, and every proposal he offers has a little bit of Big Government attached. But all the same, these were not words he was happy to utter. They were words he had to utter, and they indicate his belief, or his perception of the public's belief, that Big Government cannot continue as it has.


But they also show Clinton's confidence that Big Government itself will continue. All he said was that the "era of big government" is over; he did not say Big Government itself had come to an end. The era of Big Government was its period of expansion, when Democrats could be the party of progress because progress meant legislating government programs to give people security. Since those programs have failed, people no longer believe they constitute progress, and so it has been hard times, recently, for the party of progress -- most spectacularly in the congressional election of 1994.


Since 1995 Clinton has adopted the attitude of goslow conservatism toward Big Government. He has only the attitude because he does not share in the conservative hostility to Big Government. But the attitude is agreeable to him and seems to be succeeding because a certain conservatism is endemic to Big Government. Big Government supplies "entitlements," which are vested interests people will want to defend. Because entitlements belong to every individual citizen and are thought to be deserved but always endangered, people can become very defensive -- and very conservative -- on their behalf. This is no accident. Entitlements were set up by the New Deal and the Great Society, as Democrats always say, "so that no one can take them away from you. " Perhaps there will always be those who want to take them away: Republicans, from whom the American people will have to be defended by the Democratic party.


Even so, the Democrats have little to console themselves with, however well they may appear to be doing at present. They will not see their accomplishments disappear, but they must listen to them being maligned. And if they want to succeed like Bill Clinton, they have to join the chorus of denunciation. The Democratic party, the party of government, has destroyed the reputation of its favorite instrument. The government is now regarded with anger and dislike when it acts and with contempt when it fails to act. Though the public's ill feeling focuses on the evils of bureaucracy, it extends to the elected parts of government, especially Congress. Congress is despised because it fails to correct our situation with new legislation, as if we were lacking in that remedy. The judiciary, too, has provoked justified resentment by deliberately blurring the distinction between judging and legislating.


That Americans should think so ill of their government is a very bad thing. Their resentment is the major count in the indictment of New Deal and Great Society programs, for they have made Americans doubt the worth of their government. The American republic, the oldest and most powerful in the world, was called by Abraham Lincoln at the time of its greatest crisis "the last best hope of earth." Ours is a certain form of government, with a certain constitution, and it is by far our most valuable common possession. Without it, all our private possessions and liberties would become insecure.


Since the republican form of government is selfgovernment, the government is ours -- and not merely in the sense that it imposes itself on us. It's true, to speak as candidly as James Madison, that our government controls the people -- but only on condition that the people control the government. With Big Government, however, we no longer sense that we are in control; the government controls us, and there's nothing we can do about it.


American conservatives, therefore, are not simply enemies of government, and they should not present themselves as such. The main task of conservatism today, to which all other concerns should be subordinated, is to restore our self-government, to revive our sense that it is ours and that, within reason, we can do with it what we want. Doubt about our system of self- government easily becomes doubt about ourselves -- for who deserves the blame for Big Government, the politicians or we who elect them? Because Big Government is so pervasive, popular anger turns into frustration; one cannot put politics aside when the government is always there at your side, hovering over your shoulder with warnings and regulations. Our frustration with government's reach is quite justified. And the job of conservatism is to correct the circumstances that account for it.


The conservative goal is not to minimize the scope of government, as if government were a necessary evil. The stodginess of Big Government, the slobbering effusiveness of its good intentions, seem to justify populist revolts against it. But populist revolts lack direction; they can go left as well as right, attacking corporations as well as punitive taxation. They are also fitful, and have little staying power because they do not present an alternative to the system they revolt against. Although they shun political parties, they end up being used or absorbed by them. Conservatives are entitled to exploit populist resentment against government if they use it to educate the American people in the forms and habits of self-government.


For the hidden truth is that, despite its reputation, Big Government does not breed too much politics; it breeds too little. While it increases the scope of government, Big Government reduces the range of arguable political questions through the establishment of entitlements. By offering everybody in the country benefits in the name of compassion and security, Big Government has succeeded in taking what ought to be a controversial set of political issues off the table -- indeed, out of the political sphere entirely. This is a radical depoliticization of government, and conservatives should oppose it.


One of the ways they can do this is by accepting the need for partisanship. There will always be a party of the Left in America, because our principle that "all men are created equal" seems to promise more than it can deliver. There will always be moralistic materialists, or materialistic moralists, ready with schemes to deliver on the promise. Thus, conservatives will need a party to oppose and, when possible, defeat them. And that party can be none other than the Republican party.


Conservatives may not be identical to Republicans, but they can hardly be indifferent to the fortunes of the GOP. The Republican party's best representatives opposed Big Government from the first under the New Deal and at its flourishing in the Great Society. They made two arguments that were unsuccessful at the time but have proved to be true.


First, they argued that Big Government costs too much. Its overwhelming cost was not apparent at first, when benefits were low, but it was predictable that benefits would grow beyond people's capacity or willingness to pay for them. And indeed they have. Benefits are too easy to increase, because the increases are too easy to accept.


An entitlement is a benefit you have regardless of the budget, of available resources, which means regardless of the common good. But a budget is not merely a sum of income and expense; it is also a moral accounting to your fellow citizens. Having an entitlement, however, enables you to forget the common good and encourages you to think: "I have mine, the hell with you!" Your defiance of others allows you to think you are independent, when in fact you depend on the government.


Second, opponents of Big Government argued that because entitlements include everyone, and do so under uniform rules, they turn citizens into dependents. The opportunity to earn your own keep by your own labor is converted into a guarantee that you will receive your keep passively from a centralized power much greater than you. If you have only the opportunity, and no guarantee, then you have to get off your duff, develop dependable habits, show some initiative, and be able to work with others. In sum, you must show some virtue. The virtue shown is responsibility, that specially American and particularly democratic virtue. The case against Big Government is that it taxes your money and still doesn't leave you with your virtue.


Strangely enough, the Republican party is now the party both of money and of virtue. If you are uncommonly interested in money, you are probably a Republican; and if you are concerned for virtue, you are today even likelier to be one. This is true despite the fact that economists and moralists alike tell us that money and virtue are incompatible.


The Democrats, of course, do have their virtue, which is compassion. But their compassion does not discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy; it is a virtue that cares nothing for virtue. The Democrats even take the virtue out of compassion by making it compulsory. And they forget that no one wants to be an object of compassion, and that no citizen can be free while suffering the indignity of being patronized. Big Government crowds out virtue and freedom together.


The problem for Republicans is to find ways to bring together those who are interested in money and those who are interested in virtue without confusing the two. The party can start by making the point that earning money requires virtue as a means -- the virtue of diligence -- and by creating self- sufficiency it promotes the virtue of responsibility as an end. In this way, the love of money is not ennobled, but it is elevated above mere greed and selfishness. Meanwhile, the desire to acquire money forces us to come to terms with the self-interested character of a free society, and that in turn makes the pursuit of virtue less self-righteous, less hypocritical, more self- aware. And so the partisan combination of money and virtue can be good for the followers of each. Most of us want both, so the combination offers psychic harmony too.


Big Government essentially aims at eliminating risk from our lives. That goal inspires its intrusiveness. Big Government assumes the risks of taking care of you, your family, your friends, your community, your country, your environment. It will save you from every injustice arising from an inequality in which you are on the short end (and in so doing creates injustice to those of outstanding merit). But an aversion to risk puts freedom and virtue in jeopardy, for any investment of time or money or effort, no matter how sound, means you have to risk failure. Every politician knows this, because his business is one of the riskiest there is, what with its ups and downs, its sudden turns.


And that is why politics is the path of redemption from Big Government. I use the word "redemption" advisedly, because Big Government is a substitute for what men used to hope for from divine providence. Self-government, by contrast, requires and inspires self-governing citizens.


So our whole society should be repoliticized and made capable of politics. This politics should not have the aggressive manners of Big Government. It should expect to be instructed rather than instruct, and it should try to inspire the superior responsibility that lets others exercise responsibility on their own.


And to revive our politics, Republicans should return to being the constitutional party, the party that defends the limited government of the Constitution. Big Government, they should note, is unpopular, but the Constitution is not. The Democrats care little for the Constitution, and their attitude toward it is instrumental. They use it when it enables them to get what they want through judicial activism, without stopping to persuade their fellow citizens or going through the formality of winning an election. When the Constitution gets in the way, they ignore it, override it, or expand it.


It was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who was the first president to criticize the Constitution, and his fellow progressives invented the noxious notion of the "living Constitution" -- a phrase that really means the Constitution is dead. Defending the Constitution as the form of our self-government, Republicans can be led by conservatives. For conservatives know that the Constitution is the one thing most worth conserving in our society, the source of a government that can protect, instead of stifle, free citizens, institutions, and associations.



Harvey Mansfield is William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of government at Harvard University.