Seized by the Political Spirit

“What do they know that I don’t know about you?” Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) reportedly asked John Roberts, suspicious as to why the Religious Right would throw their full political weight his way. Durbin suggested to Meet the Press’s Chris Matthews that Roberts’ failure to answer posed a serious concern. But he might as well have addressed his question (“What does the RR know about you that we Democrats don’t?”) directly to the American people. Evangelicals, after all, have lately seemed eerily successful at mobilizing voters to the polls, to the phones, and into the streets with blown-up photographs of fetuses.

What’s less clear is how or why. What do Evangelicals know that the left doesn’t? If there’s a consensus on the left, it’s that what they know is simple: how to lie. The right hoodwinks voters into voting on “values,” and so these voters, misjudging their interests, choose religion over economics. They actively harm themselves through their allegiance to a Republican Party that happily absconds with their votes and pushes through regressive economic policies.

Thomas Frank, whose What’s the Matter with Kansas did much to push the Democratic position beyond the hand-wringing stage, argues that American politics is all about “people getting their fundamental interests wrong . . . this derangement has put the Republicans in charge of all three branches of government.” Frank calls this the “backlash,” in which Middle Americans are repeatedly misled by Evangelicals and Republicans into believing that an ever-incipient culture war is on the verge of destroying their cherished way of life.

Accusing one’s political enemies of lying is certainly an old tactic, and often enough an effective one. But as an explanation for the Republicans’ recent success it falls short of complete. Sure, the Republicans are lying—but this line of argument forgets about voters and discounts their reasons for voting. It assumes that economic self-interest always trumps other concerns, and that voting based on “values” is just so inexplicable or weird that it must be product of Republican lies. And this, I think, is wrong. The Republicans have succeeded, in part, by understanding the appeal to voters of an ancient ideal of political freedom, an ideal considered obsolete by the early 19th century.


In 1819, the political theorist Benjamin Constant gave a speech to the Athénée Royal arguing against the Enlightenment’s emphasis on political over economic freedom. Constant believed that the leaders of the French Revolution had read a little too much Rousseau, looked at the destitution of the French people and thought, “Why, they must be free.” That’s all well and good, Constant thought, but the freedom the leaders had in mind would do little to feed or clothe the peasants. Their mistake was a general failure to delineate between what he referred to as “the liberty of the ancients” and “the liberty of the moderns.”

In the modern period, Constant argued, our understanding of liberty relates to individual freedoms, the rights of citizens to “express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings.” For the citizens of ancient republics, this would have had nothing to do with freedom. To them it was a matter of public deliberation and collective rule, “in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.” The most important difference lay in the vast importance the ancient citizens placed on the public lives of citizens, and the complete lack of institutional safeguards against restrictions on their private actions. What mattered was the whole, not the individual. But Constant noted that in Sparta, in Rome, and in Athens itself, the citizen was sovereign, in a way that cannot be observed today:

“Among the moderns, on the contrary, the individual, independent in his private life, is, even in the freest of states, sovereign only in appearance. His sovereignty is restricted and almost always suspended. If, at fixed and rare intervals, in which he is again surrounded by precautions and obstacles, he exercises this sovereignty, it is always only to renounce it.

It’s important to understand what Constant meant by ‘sovereignty.’ To be sovereign in this sense is not merely to vote, or to affect the rule of law to one degree or another. It is to rule: to dictate to one’s fellow-citizens what actions and conduct are acceptable and which are not; to make a claim about the course of one’s country and push for changes in that direction. His point was that citizens of modern states are, or at least should be, more concerned with their private interests than the level of sovereignty they enjoy.

The modern left would agree. ‘Freedom’ is taken to mean the pursuit of self-interest—the ability to act unimpeded in favor of one’s goals. And when speaking of political participation, we are again thinking of citizens’ self-interest first: It’s the economy, stupid. As Constant would have it, “The aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures; and they call liberty the guarantees accorded by institutions to these pleasures.” To vote on the basis of the culture war, on “values,” therefore, is to vote against one’s fundamental interests.


President Bush and the Republican Party have—in their rhetoric, at least—rejected this restricted view of liberty. This is how they drum up their base. Their recent push against the federal judiciary may seem like a cynical misinterpretation of the separation of powers, but declaiming “activists in robes” is also a way of pumping up the citizenry over their own power to rule. When Tom DeLay tells the audience of Justice Sunday II that recent Supreme Court cases overturning sodomy or obscenity laws represent a threat, it is because “That’s not judicial independence. That’s judicial supremacy, judicial autocracy.” The implied menace is that the democratic right to affect government is being trampled.

Others echo the theme. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, states, “We’ve seen a conservative president get re-elected, the conservative Congressional base expand. The [Supreme] Court is part of a cultural problem”—in other words, conservative citizens’ ability to rule is endangered by judges who strike down too many federal laws.

This appeal is not limited to judicial or cultural issues. When arguing for his first round of tax cuts, President Bush made a stridently political appeal. His claim was that “government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf, I am here asking for a refund.” This got him a standing ovation from Congress. The argument was moral, and the economic consequences seemed almost an afterthought. (Maybe wisely so: all Dick Gephardt got for saying “President Bush’s numbers don’t add up” was page 14 of the Times). Notably, Bush did not ask voters to look at their pocketbooks and determine whether tax cuts would benefit them. Instead he championed the policy on principle—he argued that it is right for Americans to save what they earn.

The overall result is that the Republican Party consistently makes both religious and secular claims about how all Americans should live and act, even in their own homes. This fits neatly into the ancient definition of liberty, where privacy rights take a backseat to popular sovereignty, and the basic political impulse is about how all Americans should act, not just how individuals benefit. Not all of us are Libertarians, so we ought to admit the truth: listening to James Dobson, going to the polling booth and declaring that, this act is wrong, and I will not have it that I, or any American, is allowed to commit it, is just about as political and democratic as it is possible to be. The difference between Evangelicals and the Athenians who listened to Pericles (and executed Socrates) is one of belief, not of spirit.


Evangelical Republicans have succeeded not just by being the best or wealthiest or most repetitive liars in the political arena, but because they have taken note of the current political spirit of America. They have intuited that American voters often reward the political party that appeals to their political spirit, no matter how dim the economic future might be.

There is nothing crazy about voting on non-economic grounds. Many voters make this choice; to be a wealthy liberal would be otherwise hard to understand. What does seem downright inexplicable are voters whose jobs have been sent overseas, whose towns have been decimated by urban blight, who are harmed in a very tangible way by Republican economic policies—and continue to vote for Republicans. What is weird is not the choice to share in the social power of America; it is doing so when economic survival would dictate making a self-interested choice.

Frank has argued that the solution to the Democrats’ electoral problem, and the way to help the voters who seem to be harming themselves, is to talk more about economics, or, ideally, class warfare. He’s right to reject the rules of the game as set up by the Religious Right. No matter how often John Edwards and Jim Wallis argue that helping the poor is a Christian value, the slightest whiff of Jesus-speak leaves the Democrats playing catch-up. But Middle Americans aren’t voting according to economic self-interest, and they aren’t likely to any time soon. Any party that wishes to unseat the Republicans will probably have to tap into that same ancient spirit of political liberty, the will to affect the general rule. These days, it’s not just the economy, stupid.

Related Articles

December 2, 2009

When the coup came, the only surprise was that the US did not have a direct hand in supporting it.

August 12, 2013

A mass of protesters crowds in from behind, chanting, “We won’t stop until we stop stop and frisk!”

February 6, 2006

BHL is at his best at moments like this, when he clings to the surface and is accidentally caught in a reflection.

March 25, 2013
Gold Rush Alaska

More by this Author

May 13, 2005

The US should act not only in the interests of its soldiers, but should also take into consideration all the lives involved.

May 31, 2009

It is neither Iran nor Turkey that dominates Inside Central Asia, nor the region itself, but rather Russia.

February 6, 2006

The Bush Administration doesn’t explain when, or how, or why—just that it could be happening.

May 11, 2009

The opposition I encountered to my attempts to go beyond basic English education should not have been surprising.