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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.