Election night 1992—a night of jubilation for the victors, despair for the losers, and relief for us all. One could almost hear the collective sigh of 250 million Americans when the shrill conflict was over. I found myself reflecting on Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that politics has become “civil war carried on by other means.”
Politics has always been a rough-and-tumble affair, of course. But never before have I seen voters so disenchanted. Never before have I seen such a deep vein of anger running through the body politic.
It defies any simplistic explanation.
No doubt there was anti-incumbency fever. But we knew the solution to that was to toss the rascals out—which is what we did to hundreds of public officials. No doubt there was worry over the economy—something very real to men and women out of work. Yet compared to other industrialized nations, our recession was mild. Inflation and interest rates are at 40-year lows.
And the international front gave reason for rejoicing. The cold war is over; around the globe nations are racing to adopt Western-style democracy.
The Embrace Of Despair
So why were voters so frustrated?
The real explanation lies deeper, in our loss of a moral vision. The American experiment in limited government depends on a pre-existing moral order, on shared convictions about what is true, right, and just. As Aquinas said, there can be no law without moral consensus.
Historically in the West, that consensus was informed by Christianity. But Enlightenment thinkers, intoxicated with human autonomy, sought a new basis for morality in Reason alone.
It soon became clear, however, that Reason does not speak with a single voice. What one philosopher confidently pronounced as the dictates of Reason, the next just ...1
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