Americans acknowledge their country is changing. Many welcome it with open arms, hoping only to increase the pace of the transition. Others feel left behind, disoriented, and increasingly reminded of their growing social and economic precarity. Even when it sounds like there is finally agreement on what the problems are, rarely is there a shared understanding of their cause.
Suffrage is more widespread than ever before, yet despite this, and the endless legal and social proclamations of political equality, government action still seems largely to cater to corporate and commercial interests. Economic inequality is at an all-time high, and a new aristocracy rationalizes their greater wealth and status on the grounds of merit. Having progressed beyond medieval notions of noblesse oblige, this new elite feels entitled to forego substantive commitment to the common good, believing they have earned their position in society by working hard.
Meanwhile, many in the working class, retaining hope in the country’s promise of equality, experience shame and despair in their inability to reach similar levels of respect and prosperity, even though it is often no fault of their own. The shifting labor market forces a new generation into the instability of leaving behind their families and communities. For them, the means of living that were once generationally inherited are now unattainable. Economists and well-meaning parents tell young lovers to push off their marriages, lest the premature creation of a family sentence them to a life of hardship relative to their more entrepreneurial peers.
Journalistic standards, too, continue to deteriorate as a sensational news culture fights to stay relevant and engages in what Walter Lippmann called the “manufacture of consent.” Serious constitutional jurisprudence has been replaced by a sophistry that merely works to further ideological or class interests.
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You would be more than forgiven for thinking this is simply America as we experience her today. Yet, it was also the nation of the late Orestes Augustus Brownson: renowned 19th-century Catholic convert, prolific writer, and the honorable namesake of this journal. In 1873, 150 years ago, Brownson wrote about what he saw happening to his country and printed his observations in his Quarterly Review in an essay entitled “The Democratic Principle.” His mind was never too far away from the literary geniuses of his day; it was the same year that saw Mark Twain publish the era’s titular novel: The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
With the Civil War over and the agrarian South thoroughly defeated, America barreled forward into rapid industrialization and economic change. Certainly, there was growth, but as Brownson noticed, with it came the above forms of moral and social decay. “Utility or expediency, not right or justice, is the standard adopted in politics,” wrote Brownson. He found that American democracy “operates practically, almost exclusively, in favor of those who command and employ capital or credit in business, and against the poorer and more numerous classes.” Bemoaning corporate influence over government in a way the modern Ohioans of East Palestine could still no doubt attest, Brownson wrote that the “great feudal lords had souls, railroad corporations have none.”
Noting that the “rich are richer, and the poor are poorer,” Brownson on the one end decried the decadence of a new economic elite, what he called “an aristocracy founded on business capacity and capital or credit, a thousand times worse and more offensive, because more exacting, more insolent and haughty, always afraid of compromising its dignity by mingling with the poor or unfashionable.” And, on the other end he lamented how a lacking appreciation for the dignity of the poor had led to a “universal struggle to escape poverty, and to acquire riches as a means of equality and respectability.” Moreover, Brownson saw the Constitution, not even a century old at the time, as having been “practically disregarded, and its wisest and most vital provisions are treated by the ruling people as non avenues.”
While the Progressive era of the forthcoming decades would offer its own explanations and solutions for America’s public woes, Brownson saw a deeper reason for the nation’s unraveling, and he offered an account that transcended momentary reformist movements. He saw that many Americans had come to view political authority as having a “purely human origin.” The idea that law and just government are simply derived from the will of the people was, for Brownson, a radical departure from a Christian tradition that understood authority as a participation in and obedience to the law of God, a ius gentium for all peoples. Far from critiquing the American constitutional system of popular representation and republican government, though, Brownson was rather condemning the mistaken belief that civil authority did not have to submit itself to the higher standard of the moral order, no matter the governmental form that civil authority took.
Such a fundamental departure from the Christian conception of the political was bound to have disastrous consequences with Brownson noting how it “excludes the divine order which alone has authority for conscience, divorces politics from ethics, substitutes utility for right, and makes it the measure of justice, fails of the end of all just government, the promotion of the public good, and is either no government at all, but a mere agency of the controlling private interests of the people, or a government of mere force.” The corrupt economic arrangement Brownson witnessed at the outset of the Gilded Age was not an unexpected contradiction to the exclusion of the moral order from the public sphere but was rather made worse by it. “By excluding the moral element and founding the state on utility, democracy tends to materialize the mind, and to create a passion for sensible goods, or material wealth and well-being,” he writes. Once again, just as Brownson was not condemning democratic practice, nor was he opposing material well-being itself. Instead, he was pointing out how a politics that neglects the moral order will tend to focus more exclusively on nonspiritual goods.
Brownson believed that when the people treat the government as a mere vehicle for the creation and protection of wealth, there are often only a small few, the new aristocracy he describes above, who are actually in a position to benefit from such an approach to government. Despite widespread political equality, the absence of a respect for the moral order and moral equality has the double effect of worsening material inequality while also making it socially unbearable for the lower classes. Indeed, Brownson points out that “democracy, excluding the moral order, can content no one with moral equality.” Lastly and most significantly, it removes the framework through which such injustices can be meaningfully challenged, and the common good effectively pursued.
Brownson was also rather pessimistic about the ability of the American people to charitably receive and make sense of his claim that a politics separated from the moral order poses a serious danger. He noted how even many of his contemporary Catholics—without fully understanding the implications—had come to accept the idea that human beings are the only source of law and authority, noting how “if they read us at all, they will not understand us, and will feel towards us only anger or contempt.”
Yet despite the resemblance between Brownson’s America and our own, I think it is here that we find a most important difference and a more tangible cause for hope. Far from applauding the change, ours is a time in which the latest NBC News poll records that 71% of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction. While I’m still sure that many will not understand what Brownson and his modern heirs are trying to say, I have reason to hope that ideas that once elicited only anger and contempt now spark curiosity and deeper reflection on what it is we’re missing.