The Corner

Liberal Illiberalism

Both the editors and Kevin Williamson have very ably highlighted some of the enormous problems with the constitutional amendment that Senate Democrats have proposed to end First Amendment protections of political speech. 

But it might be worth adding a word about one particular element of the text that really jumped out at me. The second of the proposed amendment’s three sections reads:

SECTION 2.Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.

This is an extraordinarily explicit form of an ambition that is implicit in a lot of the modern Left’s attitudes about society. What is envisioned here is a society in which only individuals and the state really exist. Groups of people joined together for a common cause are rejected as illegitimate actors in the nation’s public life, so that the only institutions that people can really join in together are government institutions. And the space between the individual and the state — the space in which most of society exists — is taken by the state to be empty of anything meaningful and worthy of protection or, worse, to be infested with vestiges of backwardness, prejudice, and pernicious self-interest that need to be neutralized or co-opted by the government. Those institutions do not have the democratic legitimacy that the government has, so their actions are by definition not public spirited. 

This kind of attitude applied to corporations in the marketplace is evident throughout the Obama administration’s economic policy. The same attitude applied to religious institutions is on display in recent battles about the HHS mandate. And with this proposed amendment we see it applied to civic institutions seeking to act in the public square to influence our politics. Such an assault on our mediating institutions is an assault on the very idea of a liberal society. But the people we now call liberals seem genuinely not to see that.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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