The Hollow Republic
From the August 13, 2012, issue of NR

Delivering the ‘you didn’t build that’ speech, Roanoke, Va., July 13, 2012 (Don Petersen/AP)


Yuval Levin

It is important to recall just what the administration did in that instance. The HHS rule did not assert that people should have the freedom to use contraceptive or abortive drugs — which of course they do have in our country. It did not even say that the government facilitate people’s access to these drugs — which it does today and has done for decades. Rather, the rule required that the Catholic Church and other religious entities should facilitate people’s access to contraceptive and abortive drugs. It aimed to turn the institutions of civil society into active agents of the government’s ends, even in violation of their fundamental religious convictions.

The rule implicitly asserted that our nation will not tolerate an institution that is unwilling to actively ratify the views of those in power — that we will not let it be and find other ways to put those views into effect (even though many other ways exist), but will compel it to participate in the enactment of the ends chosen by our elected officials. This is an extraordinarily radical assertion of government power, and a failure of even basic toleration. It is, again, an attempt to turn private mediating institutions into public utilities contracted to execute government ends.


When pressed to defend its constriction of the rights of religious institutions, the administration recast the basic definition and purpose of such institutions. The final HHS rule defined a religious employer exceedingly narrowly, as an institution that primarily serves and employs people of its own faith and has as its basic purpose the inculcation of the beliefs of that faith. This leaves no room for most religiously based institutions of civil society — no room for hospitals, for schools and universities, for soup kitchens and homeless shelters, for adoption agencies and legal-aid clinics. Religious institutions may preach to the choir, but otherwise they may not play any role in society. Especially when they disagree with those in power, they must be cleared out of the space between the individual and the state.

Indeed, the president and his administration don’t seem to have much use for that space at all. Even the family, which naturally stands between the individual and the community, is not essential. In May, the Obama campaign produced a Web slideshow called “The Life of Julia,” which follows a woman through the different stages of life and shows the many ways in which she benefits from public policies that the president advocates. It was an extraordinarily revealing work of propaganda, and what it revealed was just what the president showed us in Roanoke: a vision of society consisting entirely of the individual and the state. Julia’s life is the product of her individual choices enabled by public policies. She has an exceptional amount of direct contact with the federal government, yet we never meet her family. At the age of 31, we are told, “Julia decides to have a child” and “benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform.” She later benefits from all manner of educational, economic, and social programs, and seems to require and depend upon no one but the president.

A similarly creepy lack of boundaries can be found in a surprising number of the Obama campaign’s appeals to voters. On June 21, the campaign sent supporters an e-mail purportedly from Michelle Obama, which read in part:

For the first 10 years of our marriage, Barack and I lived in an apartment in my hometown of Chicago. The winters there can be pretty harsh, but no matter how snowy or icy it got, Barack would head out into the cold — shovel in hand — to dig my car out before I went to work. In all our years of marriage, he’s always looked out for me. Now, I see that same commitment every day to you and to this country. The only way we’ll win this election is if we can rely on one another like that, all the way to November 6th.

The nation is thus seen as one big woman married to the president. The family is nothing that the government cannot be.

This attitude toward mediating institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the progressive cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an “artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass.”

Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers precisely for creating such barriers, which can guard the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.