How Liberal Civility Decays

Miguel Henriques/Man giving speech to a university crowd.

The concept of civility, and its critical importance to liberal democracy,  has lately become the subject of much public discussion as increasingly polarized politics have come with increasingly cynical behavior by politicians and active citizens. As America works through its latest era of crisis, an understanding of civility, what it is, its significance, its role in  society and politics, and the causes of its decline and restoration, will likewise become critically important.

The concept of civility is intrinsically tied to collective self-government based on voluntary association, defining good political and social behavior in a polity where power is a public thing shared between the members of the polity. This type of government, of which liberal democracy is one form, in turn existentially depends on standards of civility being maintained in order to keep its fragile political balance working. But private interests, litigious spirit, and identitarian factionalism of all kinds undermine the ethos of civility, and the autocephalous or self-governing state has no formal mechanism or legitimate power that can restore it. The future prospects for political stability in the present liberal democracies of the developed world depend on some kind of extra-constitutional intervention by a regime that will transcend the limitations of conventional public governance in order to stabilize political life and save liberalism from itself.

Let’s begin by clarifying the definition of civility and working through its implications. Most broadly, “civility” designates, within a self-governing organization whose members are bound to one another only through common membership in that organization, a set of attitudes, moral values, informal decorum, and official rules that regulate interaction within a self-governing organization, and whose voluntary adoption and observance by the members is indispensable to the cohesion of the organization, which would otherwise disintegrate.

We often think of civility as something that is natural and necessary for getting along with other human beings, regardless of social context or regime type. But it is in fact a feature of a particular kind of social organization that has become dominant only relatively recently in history. Other societies in other times and places in history have done things differently, and we can trace the historical development of civility and its general sociological milieu. Civility is a historically specific social technology that is embedded in specifically civic institutions and tailor-made to their special characteristics and needs.

Civility presumes voluntary association, with members individually as free to leave the organization as to join, collectively to make its rules as they see fit, or dissolve it. Hereditary or other obligatory associations don’t need civility as such, since their members don’t have to make as much strenuous effort to get along in order for the association to survive and thrive, and they have other standards  of good behavior. Belligerence, egoism, arrogance, stubbornness, and plain boorishness are all highly uncivil; but in, say, a tribal society, where membership is assigned at birth and the members are not at liberty to leave or alter the social structure, those same traits may well be considered manly virtues, and “civil” traits such as humility, agreeableness, flexibility, and mild manners regarded as servile. They can afford to think this way to the extent that the constant strife, drama, and violence this way of thinking engenders doesn’t seriously compromise their social solidarity and stability. A voluntary association, on the other hand, which can’t rely on the same depth of shared meaning and bonds, wouldn’t last a year with the same level of conflict.

Civility, then, is an impersonal ethos that requires the subordination of self-serving desires and interests to the good of the group, the subjective to the objective, feelings to formal principles, and personal opinion to official judgment. Nietzsche was right to see this as self-effacing, but wrong to deride it as “slave morality”. A slave acts only under external compulsion; civility, by definition, is something given voluntarily. The honor system is the apotheosis of civility; and the term honor discloses that civility is the preserve and proper dignity of the legally free. It is thus not only uncivil, but personally shameful, to fail to carry out a duty until threatened with sanction, and highly civil to do more than the minimum, to be the first to volunteer and the last to leave.

Civility thus places a premium on self-command. Subjecting ego to the good of the association and its laws, far from representing abject self-effacement, is a sign of strength and mastery, and above all, fitness for leadership. It is not pusillanimous, but magnanimous, to forgive and forget in the higher interest of getting the job done, and small to take everything personally, nurture grudges, and then act out of spite in a way that conflicts with the interests of the association.

A big part of self-command is applying the same standards to oneself as to others. Honor systems quickly collapse under free riders. And to pass judgment on others without applying the same standards to oneself  suggests the arrogation of unearned superiority to oneself in the form of a right to make rules and not be held to any of them. This is poisonous to civil association, and hypocrisy thus profoundly uncivil.

By that very token, those who play by the rules have every reasonable expectation that others will, too. Reciprocity is the very stuff of civility. Being civil doesn’t mean being a chump. It would in fact be abjectly self-effacing to be civil when others have no intention of reciprocating. The properly civil response to a slap isn’t to turn the other cheek, but to repel the attack and then have the offender punished. (But note how this response presumes a responsive higher authority to turn to; this is of decisive importance, as we’ll see later on).

The civilian counterpart of the Golden Rule is this: do unto others as you have a reasonable expectation of them to do unto you—and failing that, as they do unto you. Mutual good faith is the lifeblood of civil association, and failure to reciprocate it a breakdown of civility that if unchecked imperils the association. In that event, the ordinary norms of civility must, in order to save the association from collapse, be suspended until bad-faith actors are either reduced to order or, if incorrigible, expelled.

What this means is that the civil association is an association of equals, among whom a single standard of rights, obligations, and expectations applies.

Civility applies to peers and equals who are peers and equals by virtue of common membership in an organization. All human beings who respect the rights of others, to be sure, deserve to be treated with due respect themselves—but not all such respect is properly considered civility. To protect strangers in one’s space isn’t civility, but hospitality; to be deferential to superiors, piety; to show kindness to subordinates, benevolence.

Civility, then, is unrelated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Civility is not predicated on human rights enjoyed by all, but civil rights, i.e. acquired rights enjoyed only by the members in good standing of a particular civil association, which cannot be a universal association. A global community administering universal human rights would by definition be involuntary, exercising a priori jurisdiction over every human being independently of their will. The members of a civil association are equal in their common humanity—but equal in the association only by virtue of the qualification that won them the privilege of membership.

Civility has a public character; it comprises a general standard of rights, obligations, and expectations that applies to every member. You must be civil to your fellow, whether you like him personally or not, but in turn aren’t obliged to like him at all. The members of a civil association are bound to one another through common allegiance to the organization, not direct person-to-person ties. The civil association is not just a social network or clique. And private cliques that form on the basis of personal extra-association interests, affinities, and identities are a disruptive presence at best. It is profoundly uncivil to exclude fellow comrades as though outsiders or social inferiors, at least from anything nominally public, and the snub may not be forgotten quickly.

More, any exclusive clique that becomes powerful eventually starts thinking of itself as an aristocracy and claims the right to special status and privilege, and moreover to rule the others. Since there is no way the clique can get this status legitimately within the civil association (whose constitution precludes such privilege) and since their loyalties are now divided, the door is opened to corruption; infighting, subversion, and ultimately, attempted usurpation or coup. The damage potential is limited only by the talent, resources, and strategic position of the clique, its ability to cohere, and above all, the willingness of the association’s officers to do whatever it takes to prevent and dissolve the clique before it either takes over or ruins the organization.

Finally, implicit in all the above is that the civil association is organized as a corporation: an entity with a fictive personality distinct from that of any individual flesh-and-blood member, created in order to pursue goals the members share in common, to administer the goods and affairs they hold in common, and to make general rules in order to regulate the relations and activities of members in their capacity as members. Civility entirely derives directly or indirectly from that:

  1.  In this formalism, decision-making power immediately belongs to the corporation, ultimately to all members, but must actually be exercised by public officers enjoined to an absolute fiduciary duty to wield that power on behalf of the organization and for its good alone, and to never use that power or the holdings of the corporation for their own enjoyment, as though they own it. The reality may diverge, but the ideal of civility regards this divergence as “corruption,” a grave evil to be avoided and rooted out.
  2. All members in good standing, including officers, stand equal before the organization, since they all have the same basic qualification of membership, and the same basic rights and obligations. The status and powers of officers is not inherent, but earned by appointment. Again, in practice, individuals may have more or less esteem, power, or informal authority, but the formal story and ideal is equality except through held office.

Since corporate power can never be a personal possession, and since the members, while they must submit to official hierarchies which can be downright militaristic, are equals, civility excludes the will to power celebrated by Nietzsche.

Unrestrained will to power that finds expression in unrelenting struggle to win power at someone else’s expense is sociologically sustainable only where: there is little or no civil association as such; kinship, religion, unquestioned traditional laws, and immutable social hierarchies make society resistant to being seriously destabilized by conflict; and political power is a form of transferable personal property that can legitimately be won as the prize of a contest, just like money at cards. Historically, this contest typically assumes the form of warfare, but the damage potential is relatively low in that it is private warfare, immediately concerning only the contending parties and their kinsmen and followers.

In the great territorial civil associations or states of today, there is no formal allowance for legitimately winning private possession of public power, and most residents are citizens. That means an attempted coup is everyone’s concern, a civil war with catastrophic society-wide consequences ranging from paralysis and destabilization of government to total warfare, with the losers possibly rehabilitated, possibly exterminated. It is therefore not only an existential precondition of all civil association, but modern society as a whole, that morality, as Nietzsche lamented, is censorious of will to power.

However, civil association, unlike Communism, does not require members to renounce all personal power and goods and give themselves to the association without reservation. They can legitimately enjoy patrimonial power (i.e. power based on personal property and means) within a domestic jurisdiction or private sphere outside the association. Here the member, relieved of the duty of constant altruistic suppression of self-interest, can rule like a king and accumulate as much wealth as he wants. This means the private household and capitalist marketplace, respectively.

Civic equality doesn’t auto-magically emanate from metaphysical constructs like natural rights. Its real-life foundation lies in a great number of people enjoying a small and similarly-sized slice of patrimonial power which confers a similar, modest dignity on its bearers, who are neither servile, nor haughty. Natural rights prove impotent to sustain civic equality once economic, political, or cultural means become concentrated in the hands of a few great families that accordingly come to think far too highly of themselves to check their ambition in the name of civility. This upstart patriciate wins followings of propertiless rabble eager to serve in exchange for handouts, and then leverages this support against the more modestly propertied families immediately beneath them to rule as an oligarchy.

Nobody is born an egalitarian. But those of modest personal means and social standing, entitled to give orders but obliged to take them as well, are more amenable than anybody to being content to enjoy their own rights and respecting rather than usurping those of others. They tend to hate being personally pushed around, but find it congenial to follow impersonal rules that apply to all. They have an inherent affinity for legal obedience rather than unthinking servility; they “internalize” public rules and makes them their own personal rules, which they follow voluntarily. They are also congenial to leaving most community-level decisions in the hands of responsible notables, as long as their rights and proper dignity are respected.

Civility, then, is the organic ethos of the modern middle class, which in turn is the historical product of civil association (as terms like “bourgeois” or “the common man” disclose), and knows no other form of social organization outside of the immediate “nuclear” family, and no other social tie outside the nuclear family, and those created by private contracts.

Material equality, however, is a sufficient condition of neither civil association, nor civility. Civil association is entirely artificial, a construct that appears infrequently and late in the development of human society, emerging only with urbanization, if at all.

Civility is thus something that rubs human nature the wrong way.

Selfless devotion to a faceless organization that exists only on paper comes naturally to nobody. The same goes for impersonal and impartial objectivity in matters where people have a stake. What comes naturally is incessant and very personal struggle for precedence over rivals by all efficacious means; shunning those you dislike personally and attaching yourself to exclusive social networks through which favor flows person-to-person and quid pro quo; being carried away by irrational fight-or-flight responses when insulted or personally offended; and finally, relying on an unaccountable outside final authority to step in and bring everybody to order when things get out of hand.

Not giving into these primal urges takes effort that is all the more strenuous in that it can only be rendered voluntarily. Civil association is fictive, existing only as a system of voluntary acts that are repeated over time, and thus only exists for as long as the members are profoundly committed on a personal level to making the organization work and getting along. Hobbes’ infamous image of a “war of all against all” delimits what happens in real life when mutual good faith in shared commitment to the association is breached and some refuse to play by its rules, triggering a cascade effect in which everybody else ceases to do so, too. That’s why traditional civic philosophy warns against the “corruption of manners,” which results in a no-holds-barred struggle between factions for supremacy, and an irreversible, painful decline of the res publica whose terminus is its dissolution.

A good gauge of the level of voluntary commitment that can be required is that able-bodied citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere are subject to being conscripted and made to expose their very lives for the public thing. Civil association, then, requires a degree of freely-willed commitment approximating the religious; civility thus comprises something very much like a religion, or even is one. Hence the civic cults of antiquity, in which a deity concretely embodies and consecrates the abstract personality of the community and the unity of its members; or more secular symbols ranging from the patches worn by the members of outlaw motorcycle clubs to national flags and monuments, which have exactly the same function, and are likewise sacred objects. This sacred center, which visibly manifests the invisible soul of the association, invests the association’s laws, values, and customs with a sacred character, elevating them above merely man-made and profane constructs.

Where it works the way it is supposed to, the sacred symbols of the association, and the mythological narratives of its ascendance make the public thing a sacred thing, an object of reverence and devotion that trumps all other loyalties and affinities, and unifies the members the way disparate particles coalesce around a magnet. The members ideally develop a consciousness, and a corresponding emotional sentiment, of themselves as brothers under a fictive parent embodied in the symbols.

Human nature teaches that brothers shouldn’t fight, but also guarantees that they will. The antithesis and counterpart of the public religion of civility is litigation at private law.

In extra-civic private life, the citizen enjoys patrimonial power over his holdings, and exercises and augments this power by way of a diversity of private contracts just like great lords once did. Here private competition and strife can be just as cut-throat as it was among rival noblemen—even though the participants, unlike medieval aristocrats, are also bound together as fellow citizens.

Disputes between citizens are settled at private law in a radically adversarial process different from medieval private wars and judicial combats only in the means by which they are waged, i.e. judicial pleas and procedure. It is a war in which each side acts exclusively for itself with no altruistic obligation to the state other than to follow the judge’s instructions, and none whatsoever to the opponent, whom one confronts, not as a brother and fellow citizen, but an adversary, an enemy.

Litigation is thus the limiting case of civility. Nobody is obliged to be objective and impartial as a party in a lawsuit; that’s the judge’s job. It is commendably civil for two citizens to amicably settle a dispute without going to court; but once in court, neither party makes his case and then concedes that his opponent makes valid points as well, or that he shares in the blame.

Likewise, the litigant, who need only be committed to respecting the ruling, is free to take a wholly cynical and instrumental stance towards the rules themselves. Civility is about pious reverence for the rules; litigation, about cunningly exploiting the rules to get one’s way. It is shamefully uncivil to try to interpret official rules in a way that is manipulative, irrational, or which deforms their spirit and intent. The litigant, though, has an absolutely free interpretive hand to make any case he wants, no matter how spurious; the rest is the judge’s problem. And brazen shamelessness, always uncivil in a citizen, can be highly desirable in an attorney.

But, as Confucius observed, legalistically viewing the rules as purely external constraints to be gamed without shame entails losing the capacity for ethical self-government. In the case of civil association, that goes for political self-government as well.

The litigious spirit directly imperils civility and civil association in that the private litigator, who uses law to get his own way, is also a citizen who participates in the law as a voter, administrator, or legislator, and in that capacity is supposed to be impartially looking after the public good. But one can’t serve two masters. Civility, which altruistically acts on principle, finds itself competing with an amoral ethos which cynically weaponizes principle as the pretext for self-serving action, exploiting it to the exact extent that it is useful, and ignoring it when it isn’t. This irreverent stance inspires contempt for the principles thusly gamed, and for those successfully gamed by these insincere appeals, who appear as chumps.

A big difference between a court of law and the political arena is that the latter, of necessity, has fewer obligatory rules than court, or none, to the extent that the public sphere is where rules are made rather than applied. The litigant participates in the law as its pure subject; the citizen, as a share-holder in the very sovereign power by which the law is made. Since sovereignty acknowledges no authority above it, nobody can authoritatively moderate the political arena from an external position of superiority the way a judge presides over courtroom proceedings.

This more than anything else makes the voluntary self-restraint of civility existentially urgent to civil association, since laws are not self-enforcing emanations of pure reason, but a projection of human will, power, and fiat—and ultimately, raw force. It also marks its great vulnerability to abuse and dissolution. The bedrock civic idea of the “rule of law not men” presumes civic piety, namely in that those who make the rules will voluntarily act as though obliged to follow them—even though they could simply ignore uncongenial court rulings or have judges who issue them removed from the bench, expel members of opposition parties from the assembly, impeach any president at will, and invoke war or other emergency powers in order to persecute dissidents, and do it all for personal or party gain.

With no impartial final judge around to keep order and decide what comprises reasonable and fair conduct, the state is ultimately held together by only reciprocal good will, and protocols and etiquette of political civility based on traditional gentleman’s agreements and norms of good gamesmanship designed to keep the peace between the parties.

These norms are ordinarily taken as givens and go unquestioned, so that dispensing with them is unthinkable, in the literal sense: it just doesn’t occur to anybody. But under the intense competitive pressures of political contest, and the influence of the litigious spirit, which respects only those norms that are legally actionable and enforceable, and incessantly tests the limits of what one can get away with, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, and thence doable

Anyone animated by litigious or factious spirit will contemptuously disregard unenforceable informal norms of fair play while at once indignantly invoking them in order to manipulate others who actually respect and voluntarily abide by them.

The result is that these norms begin to fly out the window. Politics loses the character of competitive sport and acquires that of a total war. It dawns on some that, in public life, there is no law against telling outrageous lies, accusing opponents of fantastical crimes, and leveraging informal social pressure to hound them out of public spaces. It then dawns on some that many actions that are prohibited by law aren’t always swiftly or severely punished—especially when those who administer the law are more partial to the political goals of those who take such action than they are impartially committed to the law itself. Mobs and irregular paramilitaries, perhaps taking new forms not previously recognized as civic violations, then become standing actors in civic life. Finally, it dawns on everyone that both the Assembly and the Executive necessarily enjoy the right to judge or execute in cases to which they are parties. Self-serving fiat interpretation of the Constitution then progresses to the terminal stage of coup d’Etat and civil war cold or hot.

Attempts to cling to civility during this process are worse than useless. What gets the ball rolling to begin with is that the good will, good faith, and public spirit of the civil makes them easy prey for the manipulative and self-seeking venality of the litigious and factious. It turns out you can cheat an honest man, and cheat him easily. The honest see political deliberation as citizens coming together in an effort to dispassionately uncover objective truth about how to best secure the public good, and take all political arguments in good faith, judging them solely on their logical and evidentiary merits. They are no match for the litigious, who model politics on adversarial court-room proceedings in which the object isn’t to be right, but to win, and accordingly aren’t interested in objective truth and rationality, but suasion.

The political discourse of the civil assumes the form of an ideology: a doctrine that claims the status of science, and which elaborates, from general principles, a coherent system of public policy designed to maximize the strength and prosperity of the nation. The political discourse of the litigious, by contrast, is  a wholly results-oriented grab-bag of buzzwords, rhetoric, talking points, and above all, legal and quasi-legal ploys and manoeuvres that don’t comprise a rational system of thought and don’t aspire to. Their criterion of validity isn’t truth and consistency, but efficacy at winning over the audience to which they are addressed. This discourse isn’t an ideology,  but cynically weaponizes elements of existing ideologies in order to exploit public good will—typically through invoking broad social consensus values writ large but quietly re-defined in the fine print to suit the agenda of the day.

The litigious don’t respect the rights of opponents when nobody forces them to. All litigators dream of an adversarial process in which only their side may legitimately make a case. In the public square, they try to make it happen by seizing upon whatever institutional regulations and informal social norms that, through creative interpretation, can be tortured into pretexts to stop opponents from speaking. These grifter arguments are often very convincing to institutional administrators and moderators of informal social settings whose civic-minded good will is easily exploited, or who simply go along with demands they privately think unreasonable in order to keep the peace.

The more pious sort of citizens on the receiving end of what, to their way of thinking, are shamefully dirty tricks and unfair play often respond with extreme naivete. Failing to grasp that their adversaries are just that, the still-civil are genuinely perplexed by how anybody could claim rights and not extend them to others, act inconsistently with their own professed principles, or make preposterous and manifestly irrational claims. They don’t grasp that the ethical universalism of civility doesn’t apply here anymore, and that the name of the game isn’t to prescribe rules to oneself, but to accuse opponents of violating them while violating them yourself until ordered by external authority to stop.

If the order to desist doesn’t come, or can’t—the sky’s the limit.

The still-civil, at least at first, respond to incivility with more civility. Their sense of shame, which is not shared by their adversaries, is easily turned against them—sometimes by default where the still-civil are just too embarrassed to respond to incivility in kind. Or a failure mode of civil religion leads them to confound civility, which absolutely demands reciprocity, with divine laws that admit no exception and must be observed regardless of reciprocation.

So, they turn the other cheek—the worst thing they could possibly do. As we have seen, the litigious spirit derives from patrimonial power, which in politics is nothing less than the Nietzschean will to power. Any litigious spirit, no matter how harmless or ridiculous they may seem, has the predatory mindset of an aristocratic warrior. They can no more grasp the meaning of civility than the civil mind can adversarialism; they take respect as fear, good faith as weak-mindedness, and apology as surrender; there is no compromise that won’t have them back for more.

But the still-civil, who continue to have faith in the power of appeals to ethical universalism and objective reason seemingly believe that opponents will automatically desist once the unfairness and unreasonableness of their actions and positions are pointed out. This is met with mockery, or counter-accusations, now prosecuted with the fury aroused in a bully by whining.

The proliferation of special-interest advocacy for new laws and policies intended to benefit a narrow slice of the citizenry is the chief disease vector by which the methods and ethos of adversarial litigation infect public life.

The civil association is a jealous God mindful of rival loyalties in the form of extra-civic particularities (e.g. religion, race, class, subculture, economic or other interests) that inspire in those who share them a sense of comprising communities in their own right distinct from the civil association and the rest of its members. Like cliques, communities with exclusionary group consciousness compromise civic unity just by existing, and become a grave danger once they begin to demand the immediate, and then exclusive,  loyalty of their members, resulting in conflicts of interest at best and treason at worst. They can be tolerated, if at all, as purely private phenomena the public power takes no cognizance of. Extra-civic particularities must be left at the door of the public sphere, where everybody stands equal before the sacred symbols of the association, and only what everybody shares in common counts.

Civil association cannot in practice altogether efface the diversity of interests and differences that divide members otherwise united, and defeats itself if it tries. This creates a dilemma modern political thought seems unable to resolve.

Totalitarianism is a disease of civil association that seeks to efface the boundaries between public and private, eradicate all difference within the citizenry, and hyperextend central power so as to abolish local jurisdictions and encompass every aspect of life, all in the name of suppressing private interests and rival loyalties and securing maximum citizen commitment. But totalitarianism destroys civil association in the process, turning it into a compulsory organization whose members have no independent power or means of their own, and are thus no longer citizens, but slaves of their own state. And totalitarianism fails in any case once the population grows too complex, and the techno-economic division of labor too specialized to prevent the emergence of divergent interests.

Liberalism’s answer to totalitarianism is pluralism. Under pluralism, the proliferation of particular interests and social segmentation is encouraged in the belief that civic unity will spontaneously “emerge” as though by magic from the interplay of diverse and antagonistic interests and identities, without anybody having to make any effort or commit to anything. The hope is that adversarialism will do the opposite of what it intends to, and produce civic unity as an “unintended consequence.”

A Pandora’s box of evils in the form of special interests at the level of civil society beyond the state is thus opened and unleashed into public life. These special interests are organized as civil associations, funded by their members or by outside donations, and thus able to employ full-time salaried agents to advocate for them. The immediate fiduciary duty of this agent is to the special interest, not the state; like a lawyer, he would be ethically derelict if he didn’t put the private interest of his principal first. This means seeing the state as a resource to be plundered, with absolutely no regard for the public or any other good beyond whatever rhetorical utility these concepts may have.

Full-time functionaries of dedicated organizations can give their principal’s cause their undivided attention. Political parties, which must tend to the full complement of national affairs, are accordingly terrified by these organizations. Likewise, unspecialized individual citizens who try to speak out against them soon learn that perpetual corporations bureaucratically routinized in their workings make formidable enemies that neither forgive nor forget as an individual might, and won’t hesitate to unleash their combined resources in order to ruin critics armed with nothing but civic spirit.

It is thus impossible for anyone to effectively oppose them without being likewise organized as yet another special interest. Interest and counter-interest then clash in a notoriously bitter and socially divisive way (e.g. “culture wars”). These conflicts become all the more dyscivic in that those who share the special interests are radicalized by fundraising rhetoric into thinking of themselves as members of exclusive communities under imminent existential threat from counter-interests. This rhetoric gratuitously invokes the terminology of warfare, teaching militants to see fellow citizens as mortal enemies, and that their very survival, or the survival of some other vulnerable ally, depends on commandeering political power and unleashing it against the opposition.

The apotheosis of special-interest politics is reached when compatible interests form en bloc coalitions capable of infiltrating and commandeering major political parties.

Historically, the danger posed by cliques and factions in the state was contained by the transformation of what were originally patronage networks into mass political parties which claim to embody the interest of the whole nation. The party thus avoids appearing as a clique out to plunder the state for its own gain, and instead as pursuing the good of all, opponents included. Each party takes this claim very seriously, even as it continues to comprise a conduit through which public resources are siphoned off to the network. Hence the damage potential is self-limited to sustainable levels of corruption, and complete ruin of the state averted.

But the ethical universality that subsumes and contains particular interests is lost if the Party becomes a mere flag of convenience for organized special interests who aren’t merely unethical or corrupt, but on the contrary ethically duty-bound to look after themselves first, foremost, and exclusively. The Party accordingly no longer even pretends to look after the public good, instead openly proclaiming its intentions to use the power of the state to reward friends and punish enemies—a message broadcasted in taunting rhetoric guaranteed to polarize and inspire backlash. Once again, partisan politics increasingly and uncomfortably acquires the character of civil war.

The obvious danger to a liberal polity of special interest and identity groups acting without the internalized constraints of civility spurs the development of a partially effective countermeasure: the state and its extended power structure find ways to defang and hollow out the groups. Rough edges and incompatibilities are filed off,  and alternate interpretations sponsored, until membership in the groups becomes, for public purposes, only a performance of pluralistic freedom, without deeper political significance. The problem of particularity is thus reduced, but not eliminated, at the cost of subverting the initial promise of pluralism. Complicating matters, paranoia about any genuine resurgence of particularist interest introduces a powerful exception to the hands-off liberality of the state that can itself be cynically manipulated by the more entrenched cliques against their less-organized adversaries.

American politics has already reached this point. The question is what happens next.

Liberal social scientists have long argued that, beneath the sound and fury, new, post-civic solidarities are quietly taking shape. The putative ace in the hole is that all the interests that clash dramatically in politics also comprise an interlocking and inescapable web of mutual dependency in the hyper-specialized technologico-economic division of labor; if civil religion is declining, the argument goes, that is because it is becoming obsolete and irrelevant in a process of social evolution analogous to structural-functional differentiation in the biological organism.

But this conception simply assumes that the state, as the master coordinator of these interests, will be helmed by a professional caste of technocrats standing far above the fray and impartially administering the nation’s affairs according to objective scientific principles. In other words, it presumes, in the governing class, the very values it deemed irrelevant.

The solution in terms of technocracy, then, itself contains a problem: the process of social evolution along these lines will need to find some functional equivalent of civility in another value-system that prizes objective impartiality and the public interest of the polity itself, over and above any particularist interest. It will also need to find a source of outside third-party authority empowered to overrule the citizenry’s elected officials as they become overly involved in the particularist fray, and no longer able to represent the whole.

This is a bitter pill to swallow. But when civility based on voluntary ethical reverence for the rules of social life is replaced with an adversarial ethos, full democratic self-governance becomes impossible. Judicial proceedings can only be resolved by a judge whose authority does not depend on the contending parties, and the same goes for political relations modeled on judicial proceedings. As John Locke, the doyen of liberalism said, wherever contending parties can judge their own case, there anarchy, not democracy, rules.

Locke, and the American Founding Fathers, were painfully aware that the decline of civility necessarily entails a corresponding decline of self-government. As John Adams warned, the American Constitution is “made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Thus, any actual process of social evolution will, in the absence of civic morality and religion, see this Constitution evolve accordingly, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not.

One branch of the present state, although the very pillar upon which the rest of the edifice rests, is almost altogether invisible to the public eye, segregated from the rest of the visible goings-on, and seemingly immune from the spirit that infects the rest. There, a relative state of discipline exists; personalities vanish before duty and esprit de corps; all activity is shot through with objective rationality, reflected in a vernacular drawn from the most precise technical languages available; and there is no litigation. I am of course talking about the military.

Subordination of military to civilian authority has traditionally strictly limited the military’s involvement in political decision-making. But if present trends continue and escalate into destabilization of the state, the military will be drawn into the political orbit and see its role expand precisely because of this subordination. Struggles for supremacy between the legislative and executive branches, contested elections in which one or both sides reject judicial rulings, or other constitutional crises that the courts, lacking an enforcement arm, prove impotent to resolve will leave the military with decisions to make as to just who lawfully gives its orders: pope or anti-pope.

The military will thus be forced into making judicial determinations of the most fundamental sort, and will do so of its own authority. It will increasingly come to serve as a neutral final referee in the most serious political disputes, accepted as such without too much fuss inasmuch as the litigious submit readily and unconditionally to the decisions of arbitrators they know can’t be appealed or defied.

The process by which the military comes to serve as the final arbitrator of political disputes will, no doubt, occasion vast choruses of indignant citizen protest across the ideological spectrum on grounds that civilian and not military authority should be supreme. But it will have been the ethical corruption of the  citizenry—its elites in particular—that left the military in a position where the role was thrust upon them by logical necessity. If civilians object to a political role for the military—let them be reminded that you can’t spell civilian without civil, and learn to behave themselves accordingly.

K. Christopher Dahlke is a writer based in Montreal.