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A Nation of Consenting Adults

The Democrats are the party of moral laxity, and the Republicans are the party of moral--what?

11:00 PM, Nov 15, 1998 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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.



The election was about sex even if it wasn't. It wasn't, because the Republicans failed to make an issue of President Clinton's escapades. They were following the polls, and in keeping with the idea behind the independent-counsel statute, they were letting Kenneth Starr do their work for them. It was only Democrats, though few of them (such as Charles Schumer in New York), who made sex an issue -- against intrusive Republicans.


In the event, the Republicans were caught in a classic half-measure. They were far enough committed to be exposed to blame, but they did not go far enough to have an effect.


Yet the election was about sex because the American people gave Clinton a pass. They did not make an issue of his misconduct; they silently consented to it. Our mostly issueless election was between consenting adults in politics, and what they consented to was the doctrine of consenting adults in sex. Silent consent is easier than making an issue; it comes and goes without involvement, commitment, or responsibility. Even in government by consent, we consent to the most important things silently.


When the Republicans failed to make an issue of Clinton, they gave him a pass. Morality always has to make an issue of itself. Morality is about praise and blame, and it cannot afford to fall silent because silence is abdication, and abdication is consent. The Republicans kept waiting for the morality of ordinary Americans to appear, and to give the presumptuous cad Clinton a mighty swipe. But they feared appealing to morality. Having taken the easy way out themselves, they should not be surprised that the American people did the same.


Not to make an issue of sex is to leave it in the private sphere, where it becomes a matter of private choice unsupervised by public authority. Our liberal democracy rests on the distinction between private and public, which means that the public is meant to serve the private, our common life protecting our individual rights. Even our public debates are about how to privatize our lives: The abortion question, for example, is whether fetuses should be safe or mothers should be sovereign. Our issues are about how to render our politics issueless.


Both parties try to privatize the economy, the Republicans by leaving it to the market and the Democrats in a manner not so obvious. They want the government to guarantee security through entitlements that go to private individuals. Such entitlements increase the size of government but, paradoxically, reduce the scope of the public. They do so by attempting to fix the expectations of beneficiaries on permanent, noncontroversial benefits and thus remove entitlement programs from the field of combat as political issues. Not the market but bureaucracy takes over from partisan politics. As FDR once said of his New Deal, "The day of enlightened administration has arrived."


Of course, the issues survive somehow. We argue about the right to life versus choice, and the market versus bureaucracy. We argue over the formulas for removing argument from politics. In the case of sex, the argument has been going on for quite a while -- since 1957, if not before.


The formula used on behalf of Clinton refers to "consenting adults": No questions asked about sex between consenting adults. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that phrase dates from the Wolfenden Report of 1957 in England on the attitude of government toward homosexuality. The report concluded: "We accordingly recommend that homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence."


Here was a great advance in toleration for homosexuals, who were no longer to be hounded by the law. Henceforth they would be much less exposed to blackmail or driven to suicide. But look at what has happened since. The doctrine of consenting adults has been expanded to include heterosexuals, who are not as such in distress or subject to prejudice or in violation of the law.


Heterosexuals are often married; so a spouse, a third party, is involved when a married person has a liaison. Is the spouse's consent to be invited? Obviously not. And with heterosexuals, children may be around. The phrase "consenting adults" applied to homosexuals denies legitimacy to homosexual behavior by those not of age, but when applied to heterosexuals, it does the opposite: It denies legitimacy to the interests of children. And what about the qualification "in private," which is now omitted from the formula? Now it has become the duty of the public to avert its gaze from sex between consenting adults, replacing the duty of the parties involved to be discreet, stay private, and not get caught.


Above all, those who are to be tolerant of consenting adults are now expected to wipe away their frowns and adopt a mellow attitude. The Wolfenden Report, a liberal document in its time, said on its first page: "Prostitution and homosexuality rank high in the kingdom of evils." Amazing! Today this would be regarded as proof of intolerance. But today the tolerant are expected not merely to tolerate evil but also to stop thinking of it as evil. You are not tolerant, we think, if you can be accused of "homophobia" (a phony clinical term invented to awe the ignorant and put an end to argument).


Of course a single phrase sent across the ocean to us by our revered mother country would have had little effect here if it had not ridden to power with our home-grown sexual revolution. We cannot much blame the Wolfenden Report for the way it has been misinterpreted today. Still, there's a connection between the original and our imitation. The doctrine of consenting adults, originally targeted to the proclivities of one group, is now generalized to all and extended to every practice that might gain the consent of an adult. In its logic the doctrine denies any reason why one should not consent, and in particular, denies any relation between sex and shame. This is the idea to which the American people have been led by their president to consent.


Yet things have not gone so far, one could say. Almost everyone still feels obliged to repeat that what President Clinton did is wrong or deplorable or at least "inappropriate," as he admitted. But most people add, and in the election they made clear, that his misconduct does not rise to the level required for impeachment, even when combined with lying. So they want to "move on." To move on means not to make an issue of it. It means lowering the standard as to sex and lying both.


The president is an accomplished liar in a certain sense. No one who saw the videotape of his grand-jury testimony could fail to be impressed by his artistry. It is not that he appears trustworthy; you know he's lying. But you can't catch him at it, or, like the frustrated Republicans, you watch him getting away with lying to others. His kind of lying depends on being in a context where lying is expected and cleverness is admired. When his kind of lying goes unopposed, and is not made an issue of, it helps to create and confirm the context in which it thrives. Some might call the context a growing maturity in the American people. Others would more reasonably call it corruption.


So there is a general tendency in our liberal politics to privatize the issues, to remove them from public argument. Not to make an issue of something is just what toleration means. But toleration has a general tendency too, that goes from withholding punishment while disapproving to giving approval after forsaking censure -- from frown to smile. The president's strong job-approval rating is distinct from his moral standing, but in a sense they are together precisely because of the difference. Job approval has been drained of its moral content with regard to sex and diminished as to lying. Toleration is not neutral. Whatever is tolerated in our politics tends to gain ground as the exercise of a right. If we don't keep up the standard of morality we will bring it down. Already those who defend the president have felt obliged to demean and defame other presidents to make their false point that everybody does it.


Soon we are likely to think that there was little or nothing to deplore in the president's misconduct. Not to be impeached will be a victory for him; victory brings vindication; and with vindication comes absolution -- nay, a certain admiration. What a man! In his shallow, ambitious soul, President Clinton combines the sensitive male wished for by feminists and the lowdown reaction to that type. Women sympathize with him, and males chuckle. What a rogue!


Taking sex out of politics will not focus more attention on the issues. In the first place, it is impossible to remove shame from sex. Never mind why, but the consequence is that sex will always be interesting: Count on that. It will particularly interest the sixties generation, and those of their successors for whom sexual liberation goes with inordinate honesty in self-expression. Those inspired by these kindred ideals are always on the lookout for lying and hypocrisy. They don't believe in truth, but they do believe in truth to oneself. Such people have a big appetite for scandal.


Beyond this circumstance lies a more general fact about our politics. To the extent that Americans distrust government and dislike politicians they are drawn to a politics of scandal. Such feeling is strongest among libertarians, but it can be found among other Republicans and Democrats too, for whom independence and vigilance are prized qualities. The non-partisan "moderation" so much praised by statesman-like pundits arises less from prudent reflection on the common good than from the habit of asking, What's in it for me? That attitude is averse to raising issues, an activity that requires one to think about someone besides oneself.


To raise an issue is to offer a general prescription for ruling: It reflects a desire to rule, not the wish to be let alone. The wish to be let alone is what leads people to seek little more than entertainment from politics. It's not that scandal breeds disinterest in politics as people become disgusted, but rather the reverse -- disinterest breeds scandal. All the mud our citizens watch being flung about does not shock them so much as confirm them in their belief that they can trust only themselves.


Our liberal politics alternates between privatizing issues and ruling. The first tendency is dominant, but the second is never suppressed. Although we are always seeking to settle our issues, we are also always arguing about how to do so. The tension between ruling and privatizing can be found in all parties and nonparties, but it is especially acute today among Republicans, who cannot decide between diminishing government (privatizing) and devolving it (ruling in a different way from the Democrats).


Even while evading the question of sex, the election confirms that it is an issue between the parties. The Democrats, having taken their stand with Bill Clinton, are the party of moral laxity, and the Republicans are the party of moral -- what? Not moral courage, not this time.




Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University.