The controversies swirling around Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in recent weeks has further exposed a growing fault-line in the country. Not only are the current rifts in America about politics alone, fundamental considerations of morality, ethics, and worldview now are in play with the potential consequences both significant and catastrophic. The Northam scandals and, most important, the national reactions to them, are indicative of a growing national philosophical divide within which political discord is but one element of many.
Governor Northam, in a radio appearance in late January 2019, presented his positive views about late-term abortion. But his opinions went further to include “aborting” a newborn after birth. Per CNN, Northam provided this scenario:
“[Third trimester abortions are] done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s nonviable. So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” Northam, a pediatric neurosurgeon, told Washington radio station WTOP. “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Criticism from the center-right was swift. Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) responded via Twitter:
I never thought I would see the day America had government officials who openly support legal infanticide. https://t.co/VzM4FPO7QT
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 30, 2019
Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse described Northam’s statement as “morally repugnant,” emphasized that the Virginia governor’s position was supporting “infanticide,” and that perhaps Northam should “get the hell out of office.”
While shock, horror, and condemnation were quick to arise against Northam from critics in the political center and right, reaction from the left was essentially non-existent with many leftist mainstream outlets providing little or no coverage on the matter.
Less than a week later another scandal erupted involving Northam, this time with strident demands from the left including The Washington Post and political activists calling for his resignation. In this most recent public relations crisis, photographs from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook appear to show the governor wearing blackface and/or KKK garb. The governor swiftly apologized for the inappropriate and racist photographs and hunkered down for damage control operations. Despite calls for his resignation from many of his Democrat colleagues, Northam has promised, as of this writing, not to budge from the governor’s mansion. The present controversies and old personal failings involving Virginia’s governor hint at a much greater national problem.
In a 1798 letter to a Massachusetts Militia brigade, written from the White House during the height of an economic and naval conflict with revolutionary France later known as the “Quasi-War,” then-President John Adams wrote the following:
“Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by… morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition <and> Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The great lesson that most of the founders learned from the nightmare of the Jacobin revolution in France, with Jefferson one of the few exceptions, was that a direct democracy (without government to check and control it) was a recipe for bloodshed, disaster, and tyranny. This is the foundational concept behind the checks-and-balances system of government that they created; to protect the people (and the government) from themselves (and to protect the people from the government, too). To illustrate this point, the Electoral College was created specifically to disallow elections by direct democracy to avoid the concentration of political power in population centers. In such a situation of direct democracy, those who live in rural areas and smaller population centers will lose their representation. That many on the left, including the most recent Democrat candidate for president, Mrs. Clinton, are calling for the eradication of the Electoral College shows that this crucial lesson has been widely lost.
Adams firmly believed that it was a morally strong religious conviction that was the foundation of just governments, not structures or powers (or their limits), not elections, and certainly not congresses nor the sitters in presidential chairs. In the absence of such a moral foundation supported by moral codes fostered by religion of decency, compassion, and personal responsibility and duty, the constitution would be ineffectual and fail. A moral citizenry was required to support, defend, and uphold the constitution and all that it stood for—without such a polity, the constitution would be fated to be merely an oversized bit of parchment paper.
The unity and strength of the country was long understood to depend on a common identity: American. All other identities and allegiances were to be sublimated to this greater concept of the critical importance and value of being an American citizen under the constitution. This idea has been stressed by minor and major American leaders since Washington, with few exceptions.
Essential to any worthwhile and good morality is the belief in the inherent importance, value, and sanctity of life. In conjunction with this essentialist idea is the nurturing and protection of the innocent. There are none more deserving, nobody more innocent and vulnerable than a child in the mother’s womb or a newborn. Protection of such innocents is a core element of a true moral view of the world and of human existence.
For many on the political and cultural left, one’s view of one’s own identity and that of others is now of greater import than most anything else, and certainly supersedes the American identity. This conglomeration of membership in multiple identity groups is what, in their view, makes them who they are and is a way in which life and relationships are simplified—one can know and understand others based on the different identity groups to which they belong. Not so long ago this approach to interpersonal relations and self-identification was called “stereotyping” and was strictly frowned upon as morally and intellectually corrupt. There could be a new phrase that encapsulates this destructive viewpoint among the American left: “many within one.” This worldview in which stereotypes are embraced rather than condemned is a direct challenge to the American motto: E pluribus unum (“from many one”) or “out of many, one.” This central plank of the American idea, now challenged by the socialist/communist/utopian American left and its political party, is so fundamental that it appears on the Great Seal of the United States.
Ours is a time of the culmination of the concept of identity politics. Its hypersensitivity about race, origins, appearance, sexual preferences and practices, and gender identity trumps compassion for the innocent and vulnerable among us. It is a false humanitarianism built upon the politics of division, deconstruction, and confusion, and a dismissal of old ideas of respectfully approaching each person as an individual to be discovered rather than an easily pigeon-holed member of any given identity group.
This is a dangerous and unpleasant time of extraordinary revisionism and the rise of socialist/communist/utopian plans and views in the Democrat left, all of which have been shown to be destructive, cruel, totalitarian failures through the course of history. What can be said of a worldview and political ideology that denies the validity of the historical record?
That Virginia Governor Northam’s comments about late-term and post-birth abortion (i.e., infanticide) were met with silence on the left, but his 35-year-old inappropriate and racially charged yearbook photos resulted in such bitter, loud, and widespread condemnation—even to the point of calling for his resignation (but not for supporting infanticide)—hints at a much greater crisis than simply the fate of the governor of Virginia’s political career.
If a society’s morality is inverted, if the concepts that unify it are nullified, and if foundational documents are now considered passé and obsolete, the historical moment is both revolutionary and extraordinarily dangerous.
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” What happens when a sizable number of the country take this famous Vietnam War quote to heart and make it their silent mantra? Many cannot now comprehend the difficult contradictions of American history and have come to see the country as a failure rather than a challenging, extraordinary, and unprecedented experiment in freedom and limited government.
Nobody ever said that democracy would be easy; nobody ever said that difficulties and challenges would not arise and that mistakes would not be made. These are fundamental truths now ignored by many on the political left. And, in response to their belief that the experiment failed, old discredited ideas of a utopian/totalitarian stripe have been re-embraced as if people, a society, or a government can be perfected. That the experiment has failed then demands that it be transformed to something else.
There are now fundamental philosophical differences driving our dysfunctional culture, public, and political life. Rarely in history has the capability to rectify contradictions been so direly needed. Such things are not impossible: few things and people are all good or all bad; contradictions are everywhere and within us all.
Walt Whitman figured it out just prior to the Civil War. In the “Song of Myself” (1855), he wrote:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
When large blocks of the people do not share the same fundamental concepts of morality, a condition that Adams believed was necessary to sustain the Constitution, then the only thing supporting the Constitution is itself. In a scenario in which the laws are the only things that sustain individual freedoms —that is, the concepts upon which the laws themselves were constructed— the government may lose its character, its purpose, and finally its way. In such a dark future as suggested by Adams, the crisis becomes one or both of government dysfunction, abuse of power and, of course, much worse.
This is a time of political discord and division driven by a revolutionary crisis within the American left. The crisis in the left and in its leading political party is so ubiquitous and pervasive that a general national crisis is underway.
Ours is a national crisis of nothing less than both meaning and identity. The problems are essential ones that once had widely-accepted and commonly understood answers but no longer: What is the state? What is an American? What is the proper relationship between citizen and government? To what purpose do we put the events and people of the past, if any? What events and people of our history are worthy of commemoration and honor? What are the criteria of honor or exclusion? All of these important questions now asked constantly then create innumerable battlegrounds in which these conflicts are fought.
The political conflicts between Democrat and Republican are just one level of a much deeper rift, a philosophical and ideological war for the heart and future of the American experiment.
The great 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described war as “politics by other means.” In the United States, politics is not merely about legislation and policies, it is about philosophy. American politics is now philosophy by other means.