May 4, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, May 4, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Crisis in American democracy: Indiana primary seals radical redefinition of political landscape
The challenge of government has been a human preoccupation ever since sinful humanity was cast out of the Garden of Eden. We have a responsibility to think through the question of government because as human beings we cannot escape that responsibility. An historical review helps us to understand that for most of human history, the basic question that human beings have had is how they will respond to a government that was forced upon them. This places us in a very rare historical moment. Those of us who are living in the West, especially in the United States, understand that we bear the responsibility of forming our own government and of electing our own leaders. In the span of history, this is a very rare privilege, and it is one that stands upon certain assumptions and foundations that are absolutely necessary. Most people in history only faced the question of how they would respond to the government that they faced, not the government that they chose, much less the leaders that they elected. But when we do have the privilege of being citizens in a representative democracy, the responsibility of undergirding and preserving that democracy then falls to us. The idea of a Republic of citizens is a very rare idea indeed. And it is based upon a series of ideas that emerged out of the Christian worldview, an understanding of the right of the individual, of human dignity, and human rights that were, as the Founders of the American Republic recognized, granted to all humanity as the gift of the Creator.Show Full Transcript
But now we come to understand that the big questions that have perplexed human beings for a very long time have now come with a certain urgency to Americans in this particular moment. We come to understand that the idea of a Republic of citizens, rare and recent as it is in terms of the span of human history, is something that has a certain pedigree the takes us through the city states of ancient Greece, the Republic of ancient Rome, that takes us to the Magna Carta in terms of Britain, and finally to the Constitution of the United States. We understand that there is a philosophical pedigree and there have been various experiments in government that have led to the great experiment in the United States of a limited government, of a representative democracy, and of a Republican form of government. The American Revolution, we should understand, followed both liberal and conservative impulses. The liberal impulses were to recognize the gift of liberty, therefore, the word liberal. And it was a radical idea in a world that was framed by history of tyranny and established monarchy. But the American Revolution was also, as historians note, a conservative revolution; it claimed nothing more and nothing less than a reset of the natural order that God had intended in terms of the recognition of human rights and human dignity.
The Framers of the American experiment understood that this kind of government would require certain virtues in its citizens, a certain temperament. These would include a restraint of passions and an honoring of certain moral virtues, moral virtues without which a form of democratic government would not be possible. Edmund Burke, one of the most important political theorists in Western history, pointed out that government was necessary because human beings are, in his words, “marshaled by a divine tactic.”
That is to say, we yearn for a certain form of liberty, but we also yearn for a certain structure of order. It is the responsibility of government to find the right balance between these. That balance was framed by the American Constitutional Founders in terms of a Constitutional Republic, a Republic that would be bound by the Constitution in order to make sure that as a limited government with limited powers it did not become a form of tyranny against the very citizens that had placed it into power. The separation of powers was essential to the American constitutional order, an understanding based upon the doctrine of sin and an affirmation of what Lord Acton described in terms of these words:
“Power corrupts, an absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The avoidance of absolute power invested in any single individual or even a single branch of government is what led the Framers of the American constitutional order to establish the Executive branch, the Legislative branch and the Judicial branch, in order to make certain that there would be checks on the power of one against the other, or even of two against a third. The Founders of the American experiment also understood, as we have said, that certain moral virtues would be necessary of a citizen who would vote in such a Republic. There would be a certain temperament that would include the fact that passions would have to be restrained, that a demagogue should be avoided, and the honoring of certain moral virtues, without which a democracy cannot flourish. The idea of limited government requires that citizens fulfill many of the responsibilities themselves in order to avoid government coming in with a tyrannical hand to do what only the citizens should be honored to do. Furthermore, the kind of limited government that is envisioned in our constitutional order requires an honoring of basic institutions as well as basic rights. Those institutions include family, church and community.
The Framers of the American Republic understood that it would be impossible to have a representative democracy, a limited government, much less an experiment in self-government, if the people did not first govern themselves and if they did not, when they went into the voting place, vote for those elected leaders who would also demonstrates the same virtues, the same restraint of passions, the same basic disposition, the same basic respect for institutions including marriage, family, the church, and the local community. It is the primacy of those basic institutions, what are rightly defined as pre-political institutions—that is, each of those existed before the formation of any government, the government coming into existence merely is to affirm and to respect them—the existence and honoring of those pre-political institutions also requires the honoring of a set of moral virtues, virtues of temperance, virtues of responsibility, a basic moral structure in terms of right and wrong, righteousness, and justice that would be required if a people could indeed govern themselves, rather than to be governed by some kind of autocratic or tyrannical power. Thus the Constitution called for not only a limited government, but also of a government that would operate by explicitly enumerated powers; that’s the language of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, that is to say that the government only had powers that were clearly and constitutionally assigned to it. Assigned before government were the responsibilities of a married couple, the responsibilities of a family, the responsibilities of the church and other civic organizations in society, and the responsibility of local communities, local communities that were understood, like the family, of necessity to govern themselves long before there would be a responsibility of a national government or even for that matter of estate government.
But the idea of a limited government requires an honoring of these institutions, and it furthermore requires the health of these institutions. When a civil society is weak, government becomes incredibly strong. When the family breaks down, government grows stronger. When the essential institutions of society are no longer respected, government demands that respect for itself. That is a recipe for tyranny.
All that I just said was basically understood by most Americans and affirmed, for instance, even in the curriculum of the public schools until the early decades of the 20th century. When what was called a progressivist agenda came into place, that redefined the federal government in terms of an activist and expanding role. At the head of that lineage was President Woodrow Wilson; but by the time you come to the middle of the 20th century, the two political parties, though still standing in fairly common terrain, are beginning to represent two very different visions of government. And when it comes to the Democratic Party, that party became more and more committed to an increasingly powerful government, a government that would expand in terms of its powers far beyond those enumerated in the Constitution.
In the name of a progressivist vision and in the service of that vision, the Democratic Party and those who style themselves liberals and progressives at the midpoint of the 20th century began to call for a far more activist government; and at the same time, we need to note, they called for a basic redefinition of the American social compact and of the morality that shaped our common culture. The institutions, including, we should note, most recently the institution of marriage, was redefined and the morality itself, especially as relates to sexual morality and the moral relations of people in the family, all those were redefined as well. By the time you get to the 1960s, the two political parties were growing further and further apart in the cultural cleavage of that crucial decade. The sexual revolution in various ideological developments, including feminism, landed on the American scene, and eventually the two parties grew further and further apart. By the time you got to the 1980s, it was clear that the two parties represented two very different arguments, and over time these were rather consistent and coherent arguments. There were two political parties; there were two basic visions of America. By the time you got to the 21st century it was increasingly clear that the predictability of these two parties was part of what appeared to be the enduring presence of the 20th century and the 21st.
But now all that has changed. We look to yesterday and the primary in Indiana and both political parties and face the cold stark reality that neither of these parties is behaving in a way that was predictable just a few months ago, and both of these parties are now representing a basic crisis in American democracy, each in its own way.
Yesterday in the Democratic presidential nomination, insurgent Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders defeated the expected front-runner in the Indiana Primary and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was a stunning victory for Senator Sanders, and not his first. It was also a basic announcement that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination will go all the way to that party’s convention this summer. It is still extremely likely, though now not inevitable, that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. And yet what we’re looking at is the fact that the Democratic Party has not settled on her as its candidate. Instead, it continues what can only be described as a populist flirtation with an openly Democratic Socialist candidate, something that even Democrats could not have imagined just a matter of a year ago in the year 2015.
But Bernie Sanders has clearly caught wind in the Democratic Party and, in one sense, even if Hillary Clinton possesses the head of that party, it’s brain, it is clear that Bernie Sanders increasingly possesses the heart of that party, in terms of its basic intuitions and motivating drives. That tells us that the Democratic Party, in following a candidate to this degree who is an openly declared Democratic Socialist, is throwing away the basic economic presumptions of that party, is throwing away the trajectory that it had followed back during the 1980s and 90s, and is now going in an unabashedly radical direction; and even if Hillary Clinton becomes the ultimate nominee, as is still likely, the process will drag her inevitably further to the left, redefining the Democratic Party right before our eyes.
But it would be one thing if we were witnessing this in just one of the two major American political parties, but it is happening in both. And if it is remarkable to see what is happening in the Democratic Party, it is absolutely shocking to understand what is happening on the side of the Republicans. The Republican Party had established a reputation for standing for limited government, for a certain set of principles that were understood to be consistent with the Framers of the American Republic. Those included the fact that, even as Republicans called for what was defined as energy in the executive—that is, an activist president—it called for restraint unlike what we have seen in recent years of President Obama and unlike, to say the very least, what is the platform in terms of personality of Donald Trump—now clearly, as Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee said last night, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.
In a very real sense, Donald Trump represents virtually everything the Republican Party for the last generation has defined itself over against rather than for. But this is a stunning development that tells us that as we are watching a crisis in the Republican Party, we’re also watching, as the Democrats are redefining themselves, a basic renegotiation of the American compact. This raises a very fundamental question. Can America’s experiment in representative democracy and limited government sustain this? That is not at all clear. The withdrawal from the 2016 Republican race of Texas Senator Ted Cruz last night comes as an emphatic affirmation of the fact that Donald Trump is almost certainly going to become the standard bearer of the Republican Party—a man who has never held elective office before and who has held positions even recently that are directly opposed to those historically undertaken by the Republican Party, a man whose very persona is the exact repudiation of what Republicans have called for in a presidential candidate, this points to the fact that Republicans are undergoing a huge process of redefinition.
A helpful way of understanding this comes out just on the threshold of the 2016 Republican race in a book by authors Henry Olsen and Dante Scala, they are both political scientists. The title of their book, “The Four Faces of the Republican Party and the Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination.” Now before going beyond this, I simply need to note that neither of these authors saw the candidacy of Donald Trump coming. What they did see is that the Republican Party, like every party, is made up of factions. They identify four. The first are the somewhat conservatives, the second liberals and moderates, the third very conservative evangelicals, and the fourth very conservative seculars. It’s an insightful presentation of what they call the four faces of the Republican Party. Some may be surprised that the second face was made up of those identified as liberals and moderates, but when you get to the northeastern states, that becomes more readily apparent—also, many Republicans who are registered in states such as California. Furthermore, you have a battle here between those identified as very conservative evangelicals and very conservative seculars. This distinction between very conservative Christians and very conservative seculars points to the fact that being conservative isn’t enough as a descriptor. The reason why one is conservative and the particular way that conservative worldview is framed is very important. Though both the seculars and the evangelicals may be described here as very conservative, they’re not conservative in the same way and they do not define the issues according to the same lines. There’s something very important here as well when these authors point to the fact that many people in the party are merely somewhat conservative.
So if you add these four factions together, the somewhat conservatives, the liberals and the moderates, the very conservative evangelicals, and the very conservative seculars, clearly one way to look at what’s happening in the Republican Party is that the somewhat conservatives and the liberals and the moderates and the very conservative seculars are now basically cutting out the very conservative evangelicals in terms of influence within the party. But it also points to the fact that the Republican Party might not be so conservative after all, not only in the future, but even in the present.
At this point, the morning after the Indiana primary, the unexpectedly important Indiana primary, we are now looking at a redefinition of the American political landscape. On the Republican side we see that voters have repudiated not only experienced politicians and not only those who are ideologically conservative, but they have chosen as their presumptive nominee a man who represents a return to a strong man vision of government, something that is not a part of the American experiment historically. Donald Trump sees himself as the head of an administrative state as president. He sees the state as a Corporation, the president as something of a CEO. Donald Trump has never spoken of respect for the other branches of government and just as he has operated in business, he is likely to see those other branches of government as mere impediments to getting what he wants done.
The Republican primary season this year began with 17 candidates, and now we’re down to two with John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio still in the race; but that’s merely a technicality. At this point there is little to stop Donald Trump from gaining enough delegates to win a first ballot victory at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Speaking to supporters as he withdrew from the race last night, Senator Cruz said that he had done everything he could to win the nomination. But “the voters chose another path.”
Indeed they did. It was a path completely unexpected. Just consider a year ago, when Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were discussed as the presumptive front-runners for the Republican nomination. Now all that has changed, and after Ted Cruz has withdrawn from the race the landscape is now cleared for Donald Trump to become the Republican presidential nominee.
Let’s step back for a moment and take measure. If indeed Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, it will be largely because of the so-called super delegates that were put into place in order to avoid a populist uprising in that party. If Donald Trump becomes, as is now expected, the Republican presidential nominee, it will be precisely because the Republican Party did not have any break on populism and, in the most unexpected way, populist sentiments, including some of the most dangerous sentiments set loose in America’s political system, will have brought Donald Trump to the forefront and gained him the Republican presidential nomination.
As I said in the beginning, the American experiment in limited government, in self-government by the people in a representative democracy in a constitutional Republic, requires the honoring of certain moral virtues and the honoring and respecting of institutions crucial to the functioning of society. Donald Trump has shown no respect for those institutions in terms of his own life or in terms of what he has presented as the vision of the good life. Christians in the United States are now going to face a very excruciating set of decisions. The predictability of previous American presidential races and the understanding of how the two parties operate, all this is now set on its head, at least in one party, perhaps in both.
We’re looking at a redefinition of the American political landscape that will require us to think through some very serious questions in terms of our political responsibility. And make no mistake; we cannot avoid that responsibility. Once we are granted the franchise, not voting is itself a vote, privileging everyone who does vote and increasing the value of every other vote. In truth, we bear a political responsibility that can’t be franchised away and can’t be delegated to others. Eventually we will face the responsibility of thinking through the issues in terms of the responsibility of our vote, and this is going to require Christians in the United States to grow up and mature rather significantly and rather quickly. Because after all, November will be fast upon us.
There will be many questions faced by American Christians, and these questions are going to be different than we have faced in terms of the balloting decision in cycles past. We’re going to have to be rethinking how character and conviction must be combined in terms of a candidate in order to gain our support. We’re going to have to rethink the political equation in terms of the choices that are presented to us once we enter the balloting booth when it comes to the question of electing a president. We’re going to have to think about both positives and dis-positives—that is, what we’re looking for in a candidate and qualities or a lack of qualities that would make it impossible for us to vote for a candidate. Many of us are going to be facing the reality that if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, we will not be able to vote in good conscience for either of the candidates and, furthermore, we will have to take responsibility for how our vote will matter and what it will say in terms of how we will actually vote in the 2016 election.
Before leaving this today, on the morning after the Indiana primary, we should recognize that headlines from around the world tell us that other representative democracies are in a similar point of redefinition and a similar moment of peril. Political turmoil now marks the United Kingdom and also nations including France and other key American allies. In reality, perhaps democracy itself is now facing a crucial hour of decision and a crucial season of testing. Maybe this harkens back to the last period of major testing in the early decades of the 20th century and before that in the period that would’ve included the American Revolution and the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. Democracy has been tested before, but we also need to note democracies have failed. It is not an exaggeration to say that as democracy is being tested around the world, it is certainly now being tested here at home. But we also need to note in conclusion, the ultimate issue here is not how democracy is tested, but how we are. It’s true that this election will be a big test for democracy, a big test for both parties, a big test for the American people. It is going to be a particular test for American Christians. We’re about to find out if Christians are up to this challenge.