Politics & Policy

The Sins of the Elite Don’t Excuse the Sins of the People

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
The status quo is awful, but a revolution is only worthwhile if it offers something better.

One of the most seductive temptations in life is to assume that the sins of another person can justify one’s own failings. You see this in marriages where one spouse cheats and the other feels “free” to act out in response. You see it in the marketplace, when disgruntled employees use a litany of grievances as a pretext for doing maximum harm to their former employers. And you see it in politics, where “anger” or “rage” is used to excuse entire categories of misdeeds, from the politically stupid to the violently destructive.

I couldn’t help but think of this phenomenon when reading Jonathan Rauch’s lengthy Atlantic cover story chronicling “How American Politics Went Insane.” At the risk of over-simplifying his thesis, he posits that this American moment of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders was made possible through a series of comprehensive but ultimately misbegotten reforms that diluted the power of “political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees” — institutions that he claims “prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.”

While Rauch doesn’t claim that these entrenched interests were flawless, he consistently notes their moderating influence on American politics. These institutions, he claims, pushed extremists to the margins, preserved compromise as a value, and enforced political accountability. He compares the comprehensive grassroots attack on political parties to a body attacking its own immune system.

Here’s where Rauch is wrong. The political establishment faced withering attacks from left and right because it proved that it was actually the virus infecting our body politic. The much-vaunted system of internal party checks and balances gave us unsustainable debt, an immense regulatory state, and a comprehensive array of policies that help keep poor people poor.

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Even worse, the American cultural elite served up a ruinous sexual revolution, complete with anti-religious hostility that spawned and perpetuated enormous human suffering as families fractured and the fatherless multiplied. It launched wars without fighting in them, sought to help the poor without knowing them, and prospered in part by stacking the deck through a faux “meritocracy” that put a premium on credentialing over knowledge.

In other words, if there was any version of the American establishment that richly deserved toppling, this was it.

The revolution itself has to offer something better than the status quo.

But identifying the reason for a political revolution is only half the battle: The revolution itself has to offer something better than the status quo. Egyptian governor Hosni Mubarak was an oppressive autocrat, and his ouster during the Arab Spring fired imaginations around the globe — until it ushered the Muslim Brotherhood to power in his place. Western history is littered with examples of justified revolutions spawning even worse tyranny. Few people weep for Czarist Russia, but no moral human being believes that the genocidal Soviet Union was an improvement. France’s Ancien Régime was riddled with injustice, and the French Revolution initially inspired even some of our own Founding Fathers, yet the Reign of Terror was a nightmare. If one could sum up the distinction between the American and French revolutions in two words, it would be these: virtuous revolutionaries. Thank God we had Washington, rather than Robespierre.

RELATED: After Eight Years of Obama, America Needs Someone Better than Trump or Clinton

Here at home, it should surprise no one that a wrecked culture is spawning a pitiful rebellion. When a population is both angry and uninformed, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the result. Sanders’s socialism is laugh-out-loud insane. His economic proposals would combine the largest government expansion in history with the largest tax increase in history and the largest deficit increase in history. And the last thing our culture needs is an even greater sense of dependence and helplessness.

#related#As for Trump, his “burn it down” revolution has been replaced with a “bumble around” carnival sideshow. Nobody is doing more to preserve the establishment — the Democratic establishment, that is — than Donald Trump. As a “bonus,” he’s unleashed an unhealthy strain of white nationalism and taught us all a master class in deception, opportunism, and incompetence. Washington had Alexander Hamilton; Trump had Corey Lewandowski. Our cultural descent is nearly complete.

And, for now, there’s no real hope that things will get better. The sins of each competing “side” are so blindingly obvious and so thoroughly destructive that the combatants live with a perpetual sense of grievance. They never have to humbly reflect on their own virtue, or lack thereof, when the other side is so terrible. They will always have a reason for their rage, but that does not provide a justification for sin. In the war between the political establishment and the new revolutionaries, America can only win if both sides lose.

 — David French is an attorney, and a staff writer for National Review.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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