To function well, the institutional structures of modern constitutional democracies require a type of categorical commitment from its citizens. Citizens must treat constitutional norms and procedures as providing good reasons for action independently of any particular preferences or desired policies. Trump’s comments at the recent debate – “I will tell you at the time; I will keep you in suspense,” – when asked whether he will accept the outcome of the election puts this required commitment in question. But arguably Trump is merely a symptom, albeit a very disconcerting symptom, of an increasing tension felt within the electorate itself.
Martin Rhonheimer, a philosopher and Opus Dei priest, describes this type of commitment as an “institutional ethics.” Though a leading proponent of Thomist moral philosophy, Rhonheimer does not follow MacIntyre, among others, in adopting, what Patrick Deneen has called, “a more radical Catholicism” that rejects its compatibility with liberalism. Instead Rhonheimer argues that liberal states, through the establishment of the rule of law, institutions for sharing power, and the protection of citizens’ rights, possess sufficient moral substance for Catholics to commit sincerely and categorically to their preservation.
An institutional ethics, as envisioned by Rhonheimer, is an authentic but restricted ethical commitment to the preservation of the constitutional state as the best political arrangements available in the presence of widespread moral and religious disagreement. Rhonheimer charts familiar ground by noting that modern liberal democracies are the result of the widespread violence that erupted as a result of the Reformation, a point also made forcefully by Brad Gregory, if not for the same purpose.
In a long passage that could apply to Trump as easily as it does to Caesar, Jeremy Waldron, a professor of political theory at Oxford and NYU, captures well the dangers posed by the rejection of Rhonheimer’s institutional ethics:
“Max Weber spoke of an ethic of responsibility in politics. Part of that is the duty of respect for the structures and procedures that frame the political enterprise and that make deliberation and action with others possible. Since the invention of politics, some politicians have thrived on institutional irresponsibility. In a remarkable biography published originally in 1982, German historian Christian Meier wrote this about Julius Caesar: ‘Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate.… Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities.… He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions … but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them.… In Caesar’s eye’s no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game.… The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight.’ Meier’s judgment of Caesar is complicated by his understanding that other participants in Roman politics had the opposite vice. They failed to grasp that the decrepit institutions of the Republic did need to be to grasp that the decrepit institutions of the Republic did need to be seen and maybe even “seen through” in a way that would permit the question of their restructuring to be raised. But the point I want to make is that there is something reckless, even pathological, about a mode of political action in which the walls and structures intended to house actions of that kind become suddenly invisible, transparent, even contemptible, to the actor. Such drastically unmediated proximity—’ Now there is just you, and me, and the issue of my greatness” or “Now there is just you and me and our interest in justice’— is alarmingly like the press of millions of bodies against each other that Arendt associates with the destruction of thought and deliberation in mass society.”
But the danger posed by Trump, like that of Caesar, does not arise ex nihilo. Rod Dreher has captured much attention with his discussion of the Benedict Option, which he has described as an “anti-political politics” that is focused more on local community rather than the state. It should be noted that Dreher rejects Trump’s disregard for our existing political institutions in no uncertain terms. But while it is absurd to argue that the Benedict Option is somehow responsible for Trump, support for the Benedict Option, like Trump’s disdain for democratic institutions, does seem to evidence a mounting dissatisfaction among the electorate with the current status quo.
This status quo can be captured in terms of two primary categories: economic policies that have benefited the wealthy, at times, at the expense of average Americans; and social policies that have served to delegitimize Christianity. The first category includes trade policies that have prioritized economic efficiency but disregarded the palpable negative impact of such policies on people who are faced with difficult periods of adjustment on the so called path to “equilibrium.” It also includes a failure to adequately regulate the financial sector as well as a bailout that needlessly favored financial institutions over average Americans, as was persuasively argued by Mian and Sufi. This category also includes the failure to make necessary changes to ensure that all Americans have affordable healthcare, bringing costs and outcomes in line with European systems, and changes to the education system so that students are not burdened by excessive debt.
The second category is not limited to the disregard of religious freedom but also includes the general delegitimization of traditional Christianity among American elites. Increasingly, average Americans have grown unable to recognize themselves in existing public institutions whether it is the judiciary, regulatory agencies, or the federal government more generally. This may partially stem from the corrosive influence of extreme forms of libertarianism but it is also a product of elites’ legal and cultural repudiation of Christianity and especially traditional Christian mores as an especially repugnant form of bigotry, no better than racism. At times, commitment to same sex marriage has been treated as a sort of ‘religious’ test with dissenters marginalized by employers, the media, and the government
Regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, the stability of our political institutions requires a widespread commitment to an “institutional ethics” that acknowledges the values of existing arrangements without overlooking their limitations. To promote this type of institutional ethic among the electorate, lawmakers from both parties must make every effort to reform the education and healthcare systems while implementing economic policy that is not myopically focused on efficiency at the expense of the impact of such policies on average Americans. Likewise religious liberty must be continually renegotiated, making sure that we do not “festishize our historical arrangements,” which, as Charles Taylor notes, may needlessly limit religious freedom. This means that creative responses from judges and legal scholars are needed to adapt existing frameworks to current needs, always with the aim of respecting religious traditions to the fullest extent possible. Likewise administrative policies and regulations that impact cultural perceptions of religion must be developed in a way that ensures that members of religious communities are not marginalized or treated with a lack of dignity or respect for rejecting elements of liberal culture while equally protecting the rights of other minorities.
The fragile ethos needed to preserve existing political institutions was dangerously challenged by Donald Trump. But it is also threatened by the growing discontent of ordinary Americans who have both faced economic difficulties, as well as the scorn of legal and cultural elites who view them as little better than bigots. Preserving this institutional ethic will require law and policy makers to craft economic policies that promote both efficiency and equality; to establish social welfare programs that ensure the widespread availability of healthcare, higher education, unemployment; and to establish legal and cultural precedents that respect traditional Christians and preserves the legitimacy of Christianity while protecting the rights of all of citizens.
Caleb Bernacchio has a B.Phil from the Angelicum, an MBA from LSU, and is a PhD candidate in management and business ethics at IESE Business School.