A British officer, reflecting ruefully in 1781 on the colonies Britain had just lost, remarked that “these Americans are a curious, original people; they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them.”
Once spoken in the British tradition of good sportsmanship, the officer's observation tells us something important about us, not only about the first generation of citizens of the independent United States.
Why did Americans know how to govern themselves? They had learned the rudiments of democracy in town meetings and on congregational councils; they had formed legislatures, run courts, held elections; they had served on juries and done their time in local militias. They had made the mechanics of democracy work. But they had something else, something more: they had lived an experience of self-discipline and self-sacrifice.
No one made it in colonial America, economically speaking, without self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Society was also dependent on these virtues, as traditions like communal barn-raisings remind us. Colonial America gave a distinctive form to what Michael Novak would call, two hundred years later, the “communitarian individual” — yet, for all its American originality of form, the “communitarian individual” was the product of centuries of Christian European culture, in which men and women learned both their own dignity and their responsibilities to others.
The idea that a people can be self-governing only when they are governed “from within,” by the virtues of self-discipline and self-sacrifice, is not something Americans learned first from the Enlightenment; the idea's deepest taproots are in medieval Catholic political thought, which itself drew on the wisdom of the classical world. That linkage between virtue and democracy is now under assault from what imagines itself to be the ultimate guardian of American liberties: the Supreme Court of the United States.
And that is why the Supremes must be an election issue in 2004.
Arguments about the Supreme Court's rulings on abortion and homosexuality tend to focus on the results which are, to be sure, bad enough. Yet something else has been going on here. For forty years now, the Supremes have slowly, steadily advanced a new understanding of the freedom to which the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. The popular troubadour of this new understanding of freedom was Frank Sinatra, who summed up the Supremes' project in one soaring, lilting, witless refrain: “I did it my way.” What Old Blue Eyes took to the top of the pop charts, the Supremes enshrined in constitutional law, in the 1992 decision Casey v. Planned Parenthood: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Write that in any freshman philosophy course, and you'd likely get an F. Write it in a plurality opinion of the Supreme Court, and the next step is the suggestion (also in Casey) that any linkage between freedom and moral truth is an act of “compulsion” that denies our fellow-citizens the “attributes of personhood.” To take the obvious, and ominous, example: if you believe, on the basis of basic embryology, that the product of human conception is a human being; and if you believe that that scientific fact implies certain moral obligations to that human being; and if you try to persuade others of the legal implications of those truths well, you're denying the “attributes of personhood” to anyone who disagrees. Or so sayeth Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter.
When the Court usurps powers beyond the Framers' imagining and the people are forbidden to settle deeply controverted issues of public policy through their elected representatives, democracy withers, and so do the habits that make democracy possible. When the Supreme Court teaches falsehoods about the nature of freedom, it accelerates the process of democratic decline that its usurpation of power began.
And that is why Supremes have to be an election issue in 2004. The Supreme Court is not only taking the country in a policy direction most Americans reject. It is doing so in the name of a false idea of freedom: a falsehood that could be fatal to the self-governance of the Republic, because it is fatal to the self-mastery of its citizens.