Liberal democratic regimes, with their emphasis on pluralism and the free exercise of religion, face the difficult task of playing host to groups with fundamentally different cultures and viewpoints. How does a society maintain a well-ordered public square without either biasing the rules to favor a particular positive stance, or banishing all metaphysical claims from public discourse and enforcing a purely negative secularism?
In the U.S., two factors have helped mitigate conflict between rival belief systems and cultural commitments: first, the predominantly Christian character of the government and citizenry, including immigrants; second, American culture, which tends to infect immigrant populations soon after their arrival, dissolving cultural commitments and identities into the melting pot of economic pragmatism. In Europe, where the native populations tend to have stronger national and cultural identities and immigrant populations are often less diverse, the process of naturalization is less automatic. Immigrants generally maintain their own subcultures as open alternatives to assimilation, because the cultural cost of assimilating is higher, and the difficulty of sustaining a vibrant expatriate community is lower.
For most of the first two centuries of modern liberal democracy, most democracies were culturally homogeneous. Ethnic divisions were primarily among European groups, with non-Europeans making up small, often disenfranchised minorities. Whatever their religious differences, Europeans (and groups grafted onto the European tradition through colonization) share a Christian moral outlook and Latin cultural heritage, which serve as the foundation for political negotiation. Thus political disputes within liberal democracies have, with a few major exceptions, been settled with modest social and economic adjustments rather than the fundamental reinvention of the political order.
This common ground is essential to the stability and survival of liberal regimes. In America, the ambient political culture encourages us to believe that our system of government is stable mainly because of the excellence of our written constitution. But even supposing that’s true, the Constitution in its very nature is merely an instrument of popular political action. If it has worked, it has worked because conditions in society necessary to make it work have been present. And if the cultural conditions for that stability are removed, the Constitution will not be capable of sustaining itself.
David Hume outlined a vision of constitutional government based on his desire to eliminate political instability resulting from feuding political factions and crises of succession. His ideas about procedural neutrality formed the basis of modern liberal regimes: The state is organized not around specific conceptions of the good or beliefs about transcendent order, but around value-neutral mediating structures that provide a venue for rival factions and conflicting ideologies to work things out, or to exchange authority in periods of transition. The principle that constitutional governments should be designed to accommodate conflicts and cultural instability is one of the founding principles of the American Republic and is eloquently defended in The Federalist Papers.
Constitutional procedures are designed to function as a neutral framework that mediates political differences and allows for stable negotiation and transitions of power. Logically, then, any constitutional regime will cease to function properly when the arrangement that is its basis is somehow rejected by its member groups. This can happen in a number of ways, but I would like to consider two in particular.
If a given democratic regime survives long enough, an ancillary political culture will inevitably develop around it, based on the enshrinement of ideas related to its core institutions. As populations migrate in and out of a given territory, the consensus uniting the various factions thins, in order to accommodate the cultural compromises required for collective participation in republican government. But the one element that must be reinforced to guarantee the stability of the liberal constitutional arrangement is commitment to liberal democratic procedures. These procedures gradually cease to be thought of as practical mechanisms for the mediation of political differences, and are transformed into abstract moral principles. The constitutional preference against an established church becomes a principle upholding the secularity of the public sphere, the constitutional need to allow rival factions to exercise political functions is transformed into a doctrine of universal toleration, and so on. These ideas are not spontaneously invented; through the cultivation of civic piety and a strong tradition of liberal government, they become more compelling and more widely adopted. What is important here is the transformation of non-propositional procedural mechanisms into value-laden moral claims. What begins as a neutral playing field becomes the property of a particular ideological faction.
As the ideology of liberalism develops, its proponents cease to see themselves as subscribing to an ideology—after all, the thing they support is nothing other than the neutral middle ground, the very foundation of democratic compromise. Soon every faction other than the liberal faction is identified as anti-liberal, precisely because they have interests and beliefs distinct from liberal neutrality that they want to bring to the constitutional bargaining table. And the more dominant the liberal ideology becomes, the more easily the neutral procedures of constitutional government are co-opted by the liberal faction, so that the interpretation of constitutional provisions is adjusted to allow the exclusion of dissent from the public sphere. What is most bizarre about the resulting situation is that, in effect, the constitutional regime will have collapsed (after all, it no longer performs its mediating function), but it is not acknowledged as having collapsed, because the people who have destroyed it see themselves as its perfect proponents, and all its central traditional elements are preserved intact.
Non-liberals in liberal democracies today are faced with a scenario increasingly similar to the one just described. They may try to push back the rising tide of liberal ideology and reclaim the procedural neutrality promised to them by the constitutional arrangement, but it’s a losing battle. The conflation of liberal procedural commitments and liberal ideology is too easy, and in any stable democratic society the population will be primed to shift from one to the other without much mental effort. And liberals are ceasing to be willing to cooperate within a constitutional framework with people who do not share their convictions. Those who refuse to buy into liberal ideology lack sufficient political common ground for their participation in government to be allowed, and even if they are not forcibly excluded, compromise and political negotiation become more and more difficult to accomplish.
The liberal endgame teaches us an important lesson, one that many who stand outside the liberal ideological consensus in America have long refused to accept. The survival of a liberal democratic regime, and its flourishing, cannot hang primarily on the integrity of its constitutional procedures or neutral mediating structures. The Humean goal of creating a government procedurally designed to withstand cultural turmoil and regime change is admirable, and I think extremely useful in the contemporary world, with its gigantic states and massive populations. But Hume’s proceduralism is insufficient; it is not the primary stabilizing force in liberal regimes. Liberal democracies, republics of the American sort, stand or fall on account of the integrity and stability of the culture of the citizenry, their commitment to a common understanding of the good, and their disposition toward the divine.
Elliot Milco is deputy editor of First Things.