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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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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.