In this year’s presidential campaign, it would be a wonderful contribution to the republic and perhaps a winning move to run credibly on a rule of law platform. This kind of platform is to be distinguished from a “law and order” one, because it emphasizes that in a well-ordered republic that government must enforce order only through law. And this slogan also underscores that the problem we face is not simply or indeed mainly lawlessness on the streets, but lawlessness in government. Respect for law must begin at the top.
Progressivism was born in no small measure from opposition to the rule of law, because it wanted to overthrow the Constitution by means other than the amendment process, if necessary. But today progressivism’s opposition to the rule of law is not confined to the Constitution.
The latest example comes from Yale, a bastion of progressivism. There a dining hall employee purposely destroyed a stained glass window that depicted African Americans picking cotton, because he found it offensive. Initially, Yale fired him and referred him for prosecution. But after protests from professors and students, Yale declined to prosecute and is in negotiations to reemploy him. The protesters celebrated his act of “civil disobedience.”
The support for this act of vandalism and Yale’s pusillanimous climb down are misguided on many levels.
Many people are concerned about Donald Trump’s commitment to the rule of law, a concern I share. But the other choice in this election is a Progressive one, and Progressivism by its nature lacks that commitment. Moreover, its history shows that it permanently damages the constitutional foundations of the United States. And the United States suffers from the fevers of progressivism more than any time since the 1960s. Thus, this election pits a candidate lawless by virtue of temperament against one lawless by virtue of ideology and emboldened by the spirit of the times. The rule of law is under threat, whoever wins.
Progressivism has proved a greater long-term danger than any single individual, because it is born in part out of systematic rather than personal hostility to the Constitution. Federalism and separation of powers are obstacles to the social engineering at the heart of progressivism, and thus progressivism has tried to eviscerate these restraints. Packed with FDR appointees in the 1930s, the Supreme Court gutted the enumerated powers. The administrative state has eroded the separation of powers, making the executive ever more powerful in domestic affairs. The theory used to justify these departures from the original constitution, living constitutionalism, is itself a threat to the rule of law, because it devalues the formal rules laid down by the Constitution.
And today we see all across a society a renewed progressive disdain for the rule of law.
To review Stephen M. Griffin’s new book, Broken Trust: Dysfunctional Government and Constitutional Reform, is to envy his comfortable life within the academic university cocoon, a place where dissenting views fall safely within a very narrow range of well-mannered and moderate Progressive reasonableness.
Ilya Somin has disagreed with me that Trump is likely to be better for constitutional jurisprudence than Clinton. But his arguments rely on the implausible premise that Trump is likely to change the jurisprudential commitments of the Republican party. Even more importantly, he does not address the elephant in the room: Clinton’s appointments would likely return us to a Court unconstrained by our fundamental law.
Ilya is right that if Trump could change the Republican’s basic philosophy of judges from originalism to something else, that would itself impose long-term harm to nation. But Trump’s election is unlikely to have this effect. Trump is not coming into power with a parliamentary majority and or even at the head of a well entrenched ideological movement. The way to think of Trump is that has rented the party for his own ambitions and that he will be forming a coalition with orthodox Republicans who will make up the vast majority of Republicans in the legislature. He is thus going to have to deal with the Republicans who have an independent power base and who hope to be there long after he leaves. That not only includes legislators but the Republican establishment. And as in coalitions generally, he will focus on the issues most important to him where there is least resistance from his partners.
This edition of Liberty Law Talk welcomes back Yuval Levin to discuss his latest book, The Fractured Republic. Levin notes that our decentralizing republic, as observed in the decades long trends in social, economic, religious, and cultural diffusion, provides both opportunities and difficulties. America's ongoing deconsolidation from a nearly unprecedented period of national cohesion after World War II has led to numerous benefits for individual freedom and economic prosperity. However, if we are more free than ever, we may also be more alone than ever and bereft of the contexts for a responsible freedom and citizenship. And this has sparked a…
Anyone who has clerked for an appellate judge knows that assisting in writing a dissent is one of the better parts of the job. While a majority opinion, however important it is, almost always involves compromise, a dissenting opinion allows a judge the full range of rhetorical devices, unhindered by the need to cobble together a majority or to convince colleagues to vote the same way.
The budget deal last December was notable for its neglect of any reform to entitlements. The Obama years will likely be remembered for the utter failure to come to grips with our burgeoning unfunded obligations, which remain the greatest threat to our future. But don’t take my word for it. Here is the eloquent economist Caroline Hoxby:
Programs such as Social Security, Medicare and disability have needed reform for many years because they are not fiscally sound. They will predictably impose an increasing burden on the economy. Today’s young Americans will have to be heavily taxed when they are adults to pay for benefits mainly enjoyed by previous generations. This will discourage them from working and upgrading their skills, causing future growth to slow. Most economists have agreed year after year that these programs need attention, yet reforming them always takes a back seat to agonizing about the latest crisis—even when we know that such agonizing cannot help much and that we must let the economy re-equilibrate.
Sadly, reform seems further away than ever, as Republican presidential candidates are largely silent about the issue and Democratic candidates want to add to entitlements by increasing social security benefits. One reason for less serious talk about reform, let alone action, is simple: the baby boomers are either now collecting old-age entitlements or getting ever closer to the day they will do so. Politicians are leery of annoying this massive, aging voting bloc.
This issue highlights a little discussed danger for democracy—its last period problem.