James Burnham, one of the great pillars of National Review’s early years, theorized that liberty emerges in a society only when there is a conflict within the elite.
In his book The Machiavellians, he wrote:
No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leader nor businessmen, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make of power. . . . Only power restrains power. . . . When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.
Heading into the next election, one of Republicans’ great strengths is that their voters seem to have imbibed Burnham’s dark vision of how power and liberty are related. These voters are willing to produce a united Republican government — across all three formal branches — because they sense that Democratic control will create a consensus between the state and our modern clerical class. One could say that voters choose Republicans because they are for the separation of church and state.
This modern clerical class is not actually composed of the ordained ministers of what’s left of the Christian church. It is made up of corporate boards, much of the media, and academia. It has its communions in ideas summits, and its occasional witch-burnings in social media. There is in the written Constitution a formal prohibition against the establishment of traditional religions. But this new clerical class understands that unprovable assertions about human nature and human society can be established, so long as they trade under the name of equality.
Why did Evangelicals vote for a thrice-married man who says he has never felt the need to ask God for forgiveness? Because they see what the unity of this new church and state produces.
They see it in the face of Apple’s Tim Cook, who does nothing for freedom of conscience in China, when he instructs a state governor that the normal conscience protections consistent with religious freedom and pluralism in America are impermissible and bad for business.
They see it in the legal harassment of Chick-fil-A, which is based on heaping opprobrium on the owner’s beliefs about marriage and sexuality, beliefs the owners think are required of them by God himself.
These voters see their liberties threatened when Silicon Valley companies, who now dominate the media sphere, appoint progressive groups as censors or have employees make snap judgments to exclude or hamper the operation of mainstream conservative organizations. That they do this makes no business sense; the popularity of major social-media companies depends on the desire of American citizens to communicate freely with each other, with less oversight and filtering from the clerical class. But business interests can easily be manipulated. Governments across the West have warned these companies that this free communication is producing the wrong electoral results. And so the policies used to govern them must be revised.
If conservative ideas and institutions are going to survive into the future, it is going to require not just a revival of interest in America’s founding Constitution, but a keener understanding of the way checks and balances — the restraint of ambition by ambition — work outside of the formal structures of government.
Our corporate clericalists are angry at Trump’s trade war with China. They are willing to deploy their powers against any fundamentalist Christian preacher getting too rowdy with a Koran on their platforms. But they say not a word about the Chinese government they are partnered with building concentration camps for Muslims. If Republicans retain their offices, it will be because one section of America sees that the deity Pete Buttigieg refers to as “my creator” is a jealous God, and will allow no other Gods before him.