A watershed election. A Weimar election?

The 2012 presidential election will be analyzed to death. Then, it will be commented on for years or decades to come. Before the election, we heard various hypotheses about its import: “The year 2012 will see the last ‘free’ election.” It will reveal a deeply divided people, divided over the most fundamental issues of right and wrong. It is a “Weimar Election.” That was the vote of the Germans in the 1930s about who would rule the country. They did not read the party leader carefully or watch what he did. “The majority in the country is not ‘white’ but ‘brown.’” They dance to a different tune. “No real unified Catholic vote exists.” Some even think that Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel, The Lord of the World, describes what next to expect.

The notion that some things, especially the important ones, should not fall within the jurisdiction of the state is no longer to be taken for granted. The state, with its main duties, the taking care of everyone, defines what is important from now on. One might say that our people coldly looked the Leviathan in its eyes. They did not flinch as he brought them into his body. These are dramatic observations, no doubt. We now wait to see what happens next. We have established who is in power. We will not pass this way again.

And in establishing who is to rule us, we reveal our own souls. The liberty to do whatever we want that Aristotle spoke of while describing democracies is now firmly rooted among us. No real opposition will be tolerated. Liberty means doing what state demands.

Generally speaking, we prefer a political system, the result of which is that either candidate could rule reasonably well. The vital principals of the regime would remain intact, even with disagreement. In Australia, a citizen has to pay a fine if he does not vote. This is a dubious law. It is much better to give a citizen the freedom to vote or not to vote. After all, when it comes to the crunch, a mandatory voting law doubtfully fares better than a less rigid one. A democracy can in theory produce a wiser ruler than other systems. But in practice it can do the opposite even if everyone votes freely with no worry about being fined.

This election was not an elections between two candidates whose vision of reality is the same or even reconcilable. The election was about whether a “new” idea of the state would replace the basic principles of the Founding of the country. Most of the directions of this “new” state—its nature and roots—were already described by Plato and Aristotle, but they knew them as disorders. The moral and political tendencies were visible in the first term for everyone to see. Now there is little reason to think such policies will not be carried out. The courts and the House may still be something of a counter balance, as well as the relative autonomy of the individual states. We can expect any new Supreme Court justice will be appointed by the same ideology that won the election. No one will ask if there are standards and principles that stand behind all government, including democratic ones.

We may need to be preparing for more direct persecution for religious doctrines and prudential norms. The state in effect has now consolidated its responsibility for all aspects of our lives from before conception to “helping” us to the cemeteries as expeditiously and conveniently as possible.  The Church will be deeply divided; those who voted for the president will now claim that they have been “protecting” the Church all along. But, in exchange, the Church will need to “downplay” (read, stop) its strident opposition to the now widely approved “rights” that justify these actions.  It will only be necessary on a few outmoded doctrines about sex to change things. In any case, those who gets any assistance from the state must conform to all the laws and mandates of the state, including ones that go against objective standards or subjective conscience.

The Acton Institute recently published a small book entitled: After the Welfare State. This election tells us that there is not going to be anything after the welfare state. Once it is set up, there is no going back short of revolution, and revolutions usually produce something worse. Government redistribution of wealth must now be the central moral feature of our society. Somebody is always responsible and that is the government. Government will define who gets what and who pays for it. Thus, ever increasing percentages of the citizens of the country will be directly dependent on the government. This is what this government has strived for. It prevents much dissent if all livelihood originates from the state. The state is not only in the business of distributing wealth but in the business of informing us what we must do or hold to receive this largess. Little discussion of producing wealth comes up because the new state realizes that its security depends not on production but on distribution. It is perfectly comfortable with shortages as they generate more power for the state.

The churches will have nothing to say outside church walls. Every religious institution will be required to deal with the public according to standards specified by the government. There will be no active dissent. Religion has long been looked at by modern politicians and philosophers as the cause of societal turmoil. The goal would be to establish a bureau or cabinet level secretary of religion in charge of forming acceptable dogmas and distributing what goods the government thinks the churches need. There will be a “parliament” of religion in which all legal religious bodies will be represented as equals, whatever they hold in private about themselves

Doctrinal or liturgical differences can go on so long as the church leaders and members accept the government definitions of anything outside the walls of the church. The older notions of charity and truth claimed by the churches as justifications for their activities will be absorbed by state institutions. In effect, we will have a new syncretic religion that can hold whatever it wants inside the churches, but all the other human things—education, aid, health, beauty—will be supplied by the state so that it will be seen as doing everything the older religions thought they were doing.

In the end, I must ask myself: “Will these things come to pass?” Many of them have already come to pass. What is left is the completion of the state as the sole provider of moral, economic, cultural, and even religious goods. We have just witnessed a watershed election. The earliest years of the 21st century are rapidly seeing the logic of political and philosophical ideas that, in their origins, were deviations from the truth. We witness not merely a voluntary acceptance of these ideas in the political order through election, but also an abdication of serious reasoning about them in the public order.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).