Pondering a Once Shared Covenant, Preaching Limitless Individualism

I was fascinated recently by New York Times columnist David Brooks’ essay arguing that our nation is now witnessing the evanescence among millions of its citizens of the idea of covenant. Brooks focused on the falloff, ironically among those in the working class most dramatically, of a belief in the covenantal character of marriage.[1] This contention is not new. Conservatives, and Brooks is surely a respected voice of the Right, have long argued that the decline of traditional marriage in favor of individualism has both reflected and quickened a larger decay in public morality and American politics. However, very few such commentators, including Brooks, have grasped the irony of their criticism. That is, few have noted that as they have lamented this shift in beliefs concerning marriage in recent decades, they have simultaneously attacked the legitimacy of self-governance while embracing an ethic of unfettered individual choice via the market as society’s principal vehicle for social and political action and interaction. The two trends are surely intimately intertwined. Here is Brooks (quoting Polina Aronson) on the question of the covenantal character of marriage versus that of what he calls the “Regime of Choice:”

 

The Regime of Choice encourages a certain worldly pragmatism. It nurtures emotionally cool, semi-isolated individuals. … ‘The greatest problem with the Regime of Choice stems from its misconception of maturity as absolute self-sufficiency,’ Aronson writes. ‘Attachment is infantilized. The desire for recognition is rendered as ‘neediness.’ Intimacy must never challenge ‘personal boundaries.’ Indeed, a lot of our social fragmentation grows out of the detached, utilitarian individualism that this regime embodies.[2]

Brooks and others may be correct that the decline of marriage as covenant constitutes an important social problem for American society and one, as I note above, that now is obvious among America’s working and lower middle classes at worrisome rates. But I wish to concentrate here on a manifestation of the idea of covenant in our nation that Brooks did not treat, and that seems also to be very much in retreat: its role as the foundation of what political scientist Vincent Ostrom has called the “shared community of understanding” that underpins our national experiment in self-governance.[3] The origins of that sense of common purpose and obligation extend at least to the Mayflower Compact, which found the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock establishing their new society as they had previously always created their congregations, on the basis of a social covenant among their number:

            Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these Presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better Ordering and Preservation and Furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by Virtue thereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and officers, from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.[4]

 

While much could be said about this agreement and of the covenantal character of America’s major founding documents, I highlight here the fact that the Pilgrims looked to God as the ultimate arbiter of their compact and they pledged a profound mutuality to secure their community’s sustenance in the name of that Divinity. The U.S. Constitution sought to place that oversight responsibility squarely with the people collectively as sovereign, rather than God, although the Founders also invoked the idea of a Supreme Being as nonetheless an ultimate arbiter of sorts. Our country’s Framers’ envisioned that the demos would exercise its sovereign role via its elected representatives, who would themselves embody and honor the covenant that placed them in their positions of trust. Nonetheless, the Founders did not assume that the compact would sustain itself, and they therefore looked to the virtue of elected and appointed leaders as well as to separate institutions sharing power, including federalism, to prevent its ready usurpation by those seeking power for its own sake and/or seeking to undermine the people’s rightful role in governance.

It was to this profound belief in the sovereign bonds of a covenanted citizenry that Abraham Lincoln pointed at the moment of a grievous breakdown in the American compact, in his speech honoring the nation’s dead at Gettysburg,

 

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[5]

 

Lincoln brilliantly and succinctly pointed to the covenantal character of the United States and to the popular sovereignty it embodies. He stressed the rightful role of America’s citizenry in its governance and the bonds of mutuality that must sustain that body politic as it addresses that august responsibility. While Lincoln was well aware of such a possibility, he did not highlight the fact that democratic citizenries can come to exhibit so little understanding or willingness to serve as sovereigns that they can be manipulated by demagogues and charlatans. And yet, a curious combination of largely self-imposed factors may indeed have brought our country to just such a pass. Consider the following incidents that have occurred in American politics in recent days as examples of our current collective situation:

  • By all accounts, based only on a conspiratorial rant by a talk show radio host, later highlighted by Breitbart, President Trump accused his predecessor of tapping his phone line during the recent campaign. He did so offering NO evidence and providing none thereafter, as matters evolved. His behavior was heedlessly and ignorantly fatuous and crude and bordered on slander.[6]

 

  • One-time GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, now the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), labeled slaves brought to the United States in chains, as “involuntary immigrants,” who longed for a better life for their progeny, in a speech to his colleagues at HUD. The ignominy of that description speaks for itself. [7]

 

  • GOP congressional leaders virtually ignored President Trump’s scurrilous attack on former President Barack Obama in favor of publicizing a proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act with another statute, which would provide large tax breaks to the wealthiest in America while denying or strongly limiting access to health care for millions of their Party’s principal supporters.[8]

 

In each of these examples, the actors profiled, now in power in the United States, lied to their audiences, and thereby to the nation’s citizens, in support of outlandish claims and accusations and the interests of favored constituencies. Trump and Carson’s remarks were egregious on their face, while the Republican congressional leaders’ actions were more adroitly circumspect, if no less cynical and potentially injurious to millions of citizens.

Nonetheless, if recent polls hold, roughly 70-80 percent of Republican-identifying voters ultimately will rationalize all three actions and support the lies they represent. They will do so in no small part because they no longer appear to trust popular sovereignty and have chosen instead, for an array of reasons, to embrace a demagogue willing to play to their fears and to scapegoat anyone he can to address his insecurities and to cement his personal power and standing. Meanwhile, that leader, President Trump, has placed individuals in power who are willing to deny reality and history and to impose heavy social, political and economic costs in the name of that denial, as they press their ideological claims in politics and policymaking. Meanwhile, too, Trump’s fellow Party members in Congress, who should be working to hold him accountable for his lies and outrages, have either rationalized his malfeasance or sought to ignore it in the hope of later attaining their desired policies or of maintaining their current grip on power, or perhaps both.

None of this sounds like Lincoln’s Republic and it surely is not. Substantial shares of the polity now appear willing to believe and support any outrage in the name of their alignment with a demagogue and his Party. At the same time, that Party’s official denizens now seem willing to countenance any undermining of the collective good in the name of the preservation of their political power or reigning ideology. The upshot of this juxtaposition of circumstances is a situation of grave peril for the nation, in which many of the country’s political leaders are now tearing at the sinews that bind citizens to one another in a common covenant of shared sovereignty in support of a polity in which the favored receive much while the remainder are ignored, denied their civil rights or worse. The American birthright of freedom now lies in the balance. Those who countenance and rationalize hatred and the despoiling of self-governance to retain power will be judged harshly by history. No less an ideal than the American covenant itself—the idea of the United States as a nation ruled by its people as sovereign—is now in danger.

Notes

[1] David Brooks, “What Romantic Regime are you In?” The New York Times, March 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/opinion/what-romantic-regime-are-you-in.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavid-brooks&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection Accessed, March 7, 2017.

[2] Brooks, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/opinion/what-romantic-regime-are-you-in.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavid-brooks&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection

[3] Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 19.

[4] Cited in Vincent Ostrom, The Idea of Federalism: Constituting a Self-Governing Society, San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1994, pp.57-58.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, (Bliss Copy), https://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm Accessed March 7, 2017.

[6] The New York Times, March 7, 2017, “Carson calls Slaves, ‘Immigrants,’” (video) https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000004974502/carson-calls-slaves-immigrants.html?emc=edit_th_20170307&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534 Accessed March 7, 2017.

[7] Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, “A Conspiracy Theory’s Journey from Talk Radio to Trump’s Twitter, The New York Times, March 5, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/05/us/politics/trump-twitter-talk-radio-conspiracy-theory.html?_r=0 Accessed March 5, 2017.

[8] Scott Wong, “Republicans Shrug Off Trump Wiretap Claims,” The Hill, March 6, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/house/322567-republicans-shrug-off-trump-wiretap-claims Accessed March 6, 2017.