All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological

In 1970, at the age of 82, Carl Schmitt published an essay called “On the TV Democracy: The Aggressiveness of Progress.”[1] By then his moral sense and spirit were hopelessly decayed by decades of self-pity and attempted self-exculpation without repentance, but his instinct for withering diagnosis of the pathologies of liberalism had not left him; and here Schmitt diagnoses the peculiarly restless and dynamic character of liberalism and its relentless quest for progress.

Schmitt argues that putatively depoliticized liberalism—the supposed overcoming of the friend-enemy distinction— rests on a “through-going wish for rest and peace and security and order.” This wish, however, is troubled by what liberalism unleashes:

This wish is now permanently threatened by that on which we live, namely, by progress. There is nothing more aggressive than industrial progress constantly driven ever further by science. This is aggressiveness in a monstrous form . . . This is the immanent contradiction of the compulsion to progress with the equally strong wish for rest, peace, security and order.[2]

I know some North Atlantic demi-intellectuals bridle at the very mention of Schmitt. On the other hand, Continental Europeans and Latin Americans, uninfected by intellectualized moral Puritanism, are systematically more open-minded and tolerant, one might say catholic, in this regard. Let me then offer a far higher authority who offers a strikingly similar diagnosis: the Holy Father, Francis. In his great encyclical laying out an integral approach to the environment and human societies, Laudato Si, Francis begins with the fundamental observation that there has been a “continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet,” and that “the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution” (Laudato Si § 18). Moreover, he notes, “the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet”—and this will turn out to be a crucial point about mass political psychology—“it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity” (Laudato Si§18). The consequence is something we see around us daily. As Francis puts it, “following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach” (Ibid. §19). We see this more critical approach to the incumbency of a restless, dynamic liberalism in almost every new election throughout Europe and the Anglo-American world, in academic theorizing about politics, and indeed in the entire outlook of the rising generation.

Schmitt and Francis, in their different registers, suggest the problem I want to identify and discuss here: the relentless dynamic of liberalism tends to undermine the “peace, security and order” that liberalism itself promises. What liberalism cannot obey are the natural principles or, if you like, natural laws of political rule that go under the label of Ragion di Stato, principles and laws that no ruler can forever defy without undermining the very conditions of his rule.

Minds more powerful than my own have argued that liberalism, in one way or another, undermines itself.[3] The mechanisms proposed to this end are numerous and various. My project is to add one such mechanism, whose claim to consideration is that it captures the distinctive nature of sacramental liberalism—an essentially religious movement and set of commitments, with a distinctive soteriology, eschatology and ecclesiology. To the extent this mechanism has been overlooked, it is because earlier theorists were oblivious to the categories of constitutional and political theology, to the theological and liturgical dimensions of liberalism, and to Cardinal Manning’s dictum: “all human conflict is ultimately theological.”

The central thought I will advance is that liberal agents behave irrationally in an instrumental-rationality sense, although not in a value-rationality sense.[4] They are compelled, by the peculiarly dynamic character of their faith and its accompanying sacramental liturgy, to violate a central precept of the natural art of politics. This is the precept to not unnecessarily disrupt the traditions, the mores and life-ways, of the broad mass of the population, or, where those traditions must be disrupted in substance, at least to preserve the outward forms of tradition. Liberalism is incapable of respecting this constraint because to do so would betray its inner nature, which is to publicly and conspicuously celebrate its great liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the dynamic overcoming of the darkness, superstition, and slavish authoritarianism of the irrational past. That is a benchmark which necessarily changes with each celebration of the liturgy, requiring new enemies to play the part of the villain.

Given this, the dynamism of liberalism is structural, not contingent. It constantly, and at an ever-increasing tempo, disrupts deeply-cherished traditions among its subject populations, stirring unrest, animosity, and eventually political reaction and backlash—whether expressed through the electoral process in democratic polities, through popular unrest and rebellions in nondemocratic polities, or through both. Put in terms familiar at the University of Chicago, in whose dark foundries I was apprenticed, liberal rule stands upon a sacramental political theology that creates a problem of incentive-compatibility.

I also believe—and this is the part in which evidence will be sorely lacking—that this process or mechanism accounts for some important share of the increasing conflicts between liberalism and various populist-democratic forces and movements in recent years. I will offer some stylized episodes as examples, but the main aim is merely to suggest a mechanism—to show that liberalism’s puzzling, compulsive departures from the benchmarks of political prudence supplied by the ragion di stato result from the distinctive character of its sacramental commitments.

What is Liberalism?

We have to distinguish liberalism as a theory in the history of political thought from liberalism as a regime in actually existing societies (liberalism as a concrete type of political-theological order). I take liberalism as theory to be a family of doctrines, of which theological, political, and economic liberalism are the main branches. All these descend from a master commitment to the autonomy of the individual, of the individual’s reason and desires, implying that the main aim of political action must be an ever-greater liberation of human capacities from the constraints—political, social, economic, even biological—that hamper the maximum fulfillment of that autonomy, consistent with a like fulfillment for all.

But liberalism as theory is not my interest here—let alone the recondite academic versions of that theory, worked out to the nth decimal, with distinctions among perfectionist and anti-perfectionist liberalism and so forth. The latter is definitely not my topic and I will be impatient with complaints that I have not spoken to the latest minor paper on Rawlsianism or the latest argument for transhumanism.

Rather I mean to focus, in a sociological vein, on sacramental liberalism as a lived and very concrete type of political-theological order. Liberal orders have spread around the globe, yet are no longer as dominant as they were in their heyday. A majority of humanity has probably always lived under non-liberal forms of government, but recent years have seen a distinct recession of the liberal tide, especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America. They typically feature a similar array of institutions, including electoral institutions that select among elites competing for leadership in Schumpeterian fashion, and some version of economic liberalism more or less constrained by regulation and redistributive taxation. They also feature a similar array of public commitments and official rhetoric—public “secularism,” individual autonomy, and egalitarianism, “tolerance” except of the intolerant, and aggressive attempts to police non-liberal forces internally and non-liberal regimes externally, often by force.

Liberalism is also pervasively and, I believe, essentially sacramental. It has a critical dimension of political theology, and that the behavior of liberal agents often cannot be adequately understood without this lens. Liberalism, on this view, is best understood as an imperfectly secularized offshoot of Christianity, whose main features are not only a notorious “immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton,”[5] but an odd and distinctive mix of Pelagianism and Gnosticism—a mix that, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, seems much on Pope Francis’ mind and on the minds of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the recent Vatican document Placuit Deo, which offers a withering critique of both heresies and their effects on contemporary economic, social, and political life. Sacramental liberalism thus goes far beyond politics in the narrow sense of the struggle over control of public institutions. It both shapes, and is shaped by, a distinctive culture, even distinctive modes of dress, personal decoration, and speech, such that it is often possible to identify a believer in sacramental liberalism on sight, or after a few seconds of conversation.

Liberalism as a lived faith centers around an anti-liturgy, the Festival of Reason, which celebrates and re-enacts the dawning of rational freedom against the dark background of unreasoned, obscurantist tradition, equated with a system of oppression, or at best, idiotismus. If I may be forgiven a self-quotation:

Light is defined by contrast, so the Festival requires that the children of light spy out and crush the forces of darkness, who appear in ever-changing guises, before the celebration can be renewed. The essential components of the Festival are twofold: the irreversibility of Progress and the victory over the Enemy, the forces of reaction. Taken in combination, these commitments give liberalism its restless and aggressive dynamism.[6]

The Festival of Reason must disrupt settled equilibria of “rest, peace, and order” in order to fulfill its self-expression as an overcoming of entrenched, irrational structures of oppression and obscurantism.

Only this political-theological account, in my view, explains so many concrete puzzles of lived experience within a liberal order. Why, for example, is it possible to encounter people, even intellectuals of (by some measure or other) high intelligence, who say patently incoherent things like “I’m working for change”—as though change by itself were good? By the same token, why are the heroes and canonized saints of liberalism invariably agents who have produced social or political “change,” rather than those who have, say, fended off “change”? Where the celebration of disruption of the past, is itself the sacramental compulsion, however, this fundamental asymmetry is no longer puzzling. “Working for Change” is value-rational action. Whether or not it is an instrumentally rational action is a question I will turn to shortly.

Another puzzle involves the fact that liberal imagination has an ever-receding horizon. Whatever the question, whether race relations, women’s rights, gender identity, or what have you, the good liberal says “we have made some progress, but there is a long way to go.” But of course, even after more progress is made, the goal never seems to have come any closer. If the real aim is always to create a justification for fresh and ever-repeated celebrations of the Festival, however, this makes perfect sense.

A final puzzle, one I have touched on elsewhere:[7] why do liberal institutions and intellectuals react so much more aggressively towards Poland, Hungary, and Brexit than to Saudi Arabia or China, when the latter must be far worse on any measurable dimensions of interest to liberalism? The only answer is that the first group embodies, for liberalism, the horror of retrogression, which profoundly threatens the liberal soteriology of continual progress. From the standpoint of the Church of Liberty, what Saudi Arabia does is the equivalent of simply not attending Mass; but what Poland has done is the equivalent of disrupting the ceremony and trampling the Sacred Host.

In general, there is a disconnect between the official rhetoric of liberal orders, which speaks coolly of a depoliticized public sphere, and the experience of life within liberal regimes—the furious passion of liberalism’s vanguard; the Saturday political marches that seem in some obvious way an act of communal worship; the denunciations of politicians and corporate executives and celebrities for the grave sin of believing last year what everyone else believed last year; the abject confessions and repentance of those figures; and the signs testifying that “Beto is our Christ.” The disconnect arises because liberalism as an official theory denies, or at least downplays, its own political-theological commitments. This theoretical denial is, however, ultimately untenable, because liberalism as a lived regime destabilizes the conditions for its own persistence. The theory and the regime are systematically, not merely contingently, out-of-sync.

Liberalism and Progressivism

One final preliminary issue: should we make a distinction here between liberalism and so-called progressivism? Yes, but mostly no. Historically speaking, progressivism is an offshoot of liberalism, but it is not as though it is a betrayal or distortion of it, or as though one could return to a liberalism that does not give rise to progressivism. Progressivism is the child and heir of liberalism, its purified and logically consistent expression. Progressivism is just what happens when the Festival of Reason has overcome the most obvious villains—deposed the monarchs and slaughtered the priests—and then looks for new villains to play their assigned part in the great liturgy. Progressivism is what happens when one follows the logic of human liberation to its endpoint, overriding all the culturally contingent limitations and shaky conceptual barriers, like the public/private distinction and the distinction between state organs and the corporate form, that progressives like Robert Hale showed to be intellectually untenable.[8] When the arch-progressive John Dewey speaks in grandiloquent tones of “great movements for human liberation” it is because he takes himself to be carrying out the liberal project, not hijacking or betraying it.[9]

This is too large a point to demonstrate in a few pages, but let me simply offer one central proof-of-concept case. If anyone can be firmly classified as an Anglo-American liberal, it is John Stuart Mill; and if anyone counts as the sort of progressive-cum-Frankfurt School campus radical theorist that National Review loves to demonize, then it is Herbert Marcuse.[10] But it turns out that Marcuse explicitly takes himself to be carrying Mill’s project to its logical conclusion.[11]

Mill notoriously excepted “barbarians” from his general scheme of liberal arrangements, arguing that barbarians, like children, lack full “maturity” of their faculties and thus lack the capacity to participate in a liberal order:

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.[12]

Marcuse merely pursues this logic to its consistent endpoint, observing that even in advanced liberal democracies, there are many barbarians. On this view, background conditions in society— disparities of wealth, failures of public education, and other forms of unequal power—may infantilize the faculties and distort or cripple the rationality, of almost everyone, apart from (what Marcuse sees as) a ruling elite who enjoy genuine intellectual liberty. This is, in a deep sense, authentically Millian in spirit; it is exactly why Mill wanted to give extra votes to the highly educated.

Marcuse, obviously, proposes a different remedy. Given the background structures and conditions of intellectual heteronomy, true liberation—a faithful execution of the Millian project—itself requires dispossessing the monopolists of power, precisely so that the conditions for a wider liberation of humanity can be brought into being. The problem is to “creat[e] a society in which man is no longer enslaved by institutions which vitiate self-determination from the beginning.”[13] This is, of course, a restless, never-completed dynamic project: “freedom is still to be created even for the freest of the existing societies.”[14] And sociologically, the result is that a small cadre of the fully rational must assume the power to execute the vast project of liberation:

In Mill, every rational human being participates in the discussion and decision—but only as a rational being. Where society has entered the phase of total administration and indoctrination, this would be a small number indeed, and not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people. The problem is not that of an educational dictatorship, but that of breaking the tyranny of public opinion.[15]

Thus when Marcuse speaks of “repressive tolerance,” he does not necessarily mean to condemn it, as though he were writing a National Review essay on campus radicals—although his phrase is often twisted to that use by conservatives. Rather Marcuse is both condemning the repressive tolerance of the status quo of free-speech conservatism, in which radical movements for liberation of humanity from oppression are constrained by the false tolerance of the establishment, and praising a new form of repressive tolerance that will repress those forces that block the enterprise of liberation. Revealingly, Marcuse calls the good form of repressive tolerance “liberating tolerance,” precisely because liberation requires repression of the forces that would otherwise exploit background conditions of power (wealth, for example) to constrain the behavior and even the thought of the oppressed. For Marcuse, “freedom is liberation, a specific historical process in theory and practice, and as such has its right and wrong, its truth and falsehood.” It follows that “the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions, by which their very methods and concepts serve to enclose the mind within the established universe and discourse . . .”[16] Everything that the conservative mind here finds objectionable about progressive tyranny on campus, and wants to oppose with a reassertion of Millianism, is shown by Marcuse to flow precisely from a thoroughgoing execution of the Millian project.

Ragion di Stato

So much for preliminaries. Let me turn now to the core claim that liberalism’s sacramental dynamism tends to undermine itself by violating natural principles of rule embodied in the ragion di stato tradition—the great Catholic reaction to Machiavellianism that identifies the conditions under which, and techniques by which, regimes may preserve, or instead undermine, their own rule.

 Recall Schmitt’s reference to the “rest, peace, security and order” towards which depoliticized liberalism aims, yet which is undermined by the restless, dynamic urge to progress that is a hallmark of liberal polities. Given that he was a profound student of Hobbes, I suppose Schmitt had in mind here the liberal claim or advertisement to liberate mankind from the relentless conflict and insecurity of the so-called “Wars of Religion”—a largely bogus claim, but let that pass. Yet, Schmitt was also a profound student of the older ragion di stato tradition, whose aim was to elaborate natural principles by which a ruler could secure the threefold hallmarks of common good, “abundance, peace, and justice,” and thereby secure his own “firm rule over people”—Giovanni Botero’s famous definition of the “state.”[17] The ragion di stato tradition is essential here because it focuses us on the equilibrium conditions for rule—that is, the conditions under which rule will be self-sustaining, incentive-compatible, or will instead undermine the conditions for its own continuation.

Botero urges the ruler to adopt a stance of great prudential caution about disrupting the mores, traditions and life-ways of the people. “Nothing is more hateful in governments than to change things which have acquired esteem through their antiquity”[18]—where “hateful” means less “hateful in the eyes of God” than “hated by the mass of the ruled.” Crucially, the issue is not only change, but conspicuous public change, especially through the change of names and titles:

Do not make sudden changes, because such actions have something of the violent, and violence rarely succeeds and never produces a lasting effect. Charles Martel, aspiring to become King of France, did not want as majordomo of the King suddenly to usurp the title of king but took the title of prince of the French nobility. His son Pepin then easily obtained the title of king and the kingdom. The Caesars from perpetual dictators became tribunes, then princes, and finally emperors and absolute masters.[19]

As the last sentence show, the great example of prudenza on this dimension, for Botero and throughout the later literature, is of course Octavian, who, as Augustus, adopted the titles and forms of the Republican constitution, and “based his laws and ordinances as much as possible on examples from the past.” In T.B. Macaulay’s famous description:

The Cæsars ruled despotically, by means of a great standing army, under the decent forms of a republican constitution. They called themselves citizens. They mixed unceremoniously with other citizens. In theory they were only the elective magistrates of a free commonwealth. Instead of arrogating to themselves despotic power, they acknowledged allegiance to the senate. They were merely the lieutenants of that venerable body. They mixed in debate. They even appeared as advocates before the courts of law. Yet they could safely indulge in the wildest freaks of cruelty and rapacity, while their legions remained faithful.[20]

Octavian is more subtle than to rule openly by force. The legions by themselves are not enough; one of his less able successors learned that a policy of oderint dum metuant eventually produces so much resentment that fear is no longer enough to keep control. Rather a policy of preserving the decent forms prevents popular discontent.

The two distinct issues here—preserving traditional practices and preserving traditional forms—are equally important. Botero believes that the ruler should not disrupt practices unless it becomes imperatively necessary to do so, but that even where practices must be disrupted, forms— at least names or titles—should be preserved. Lawyers are familiar with the role of legal fictions as a means of changing the substance of rules while preserving a formal or nominal continuity with the past. Furthermore, even when necessary, disruption should be effected gradually, if at all possible: “If [rulers] have to make changes, it is necessary that they proceed little by little and, as it were, imperceptibly imitating nature, which does not move directly from winter to summer, nor from summer to winter, but places two temperate seasons between them.”[21] How much more elegant this analogy is than our cliché about the “boiling of frogs”!

In all this, Botero largely agrees with his great critique-object, Machiavelli. The latter observes that the Romans made the greatest show of observing traditional religious practices precisely when they were forced by circumstances not to observe them, and punished anyone who “rashly disdained” religion; and, more generally, that “if someone who desires or who wishes to reform a state in a city wishes it to be accepted and capable of being maintained to the satisfaction of everyone, he is under the necessity of retaining at least the shadow of its ancient modes.”[22] The agreement here is not total, because Botero sees the avoidance of flagrant disruption of tradition as important in the founding of new regimes as well as in their steady-state preservation (Octavian again), whereas Machiavelli thinks that in the founding of a new regime a brutal, conspicuous breach with tradition may be necessary—an anticipation of the original Festival of Reason that desecrated Notre Dame in 1793. Yet, the conservation and stabilization of existing regimes is Botero’s main concern, so their agreement covers the central cases for ragion di stato.

But why exactly are these counsels of prudence so important for the theorists of ragion di stato? Why exactly do populations react so badly to the ruler’s disruption of traditional practices, and why, even more puzzlingly, do they focus at least as much on forms and titles as on actual behavior and the actual power of offices? Machiavelli’s typically quotable, dismissive, yet nearly tautological explanation is that “the generality of men feed on what appears as much as on what is; indeed, many times they are moved more by things that appear than by things that are.”[23] This is highly plausible as a description, yet does not begin to explain the phenomenon. Botero’s emphasis on the need for low-visibility reform suggests a better explanation, one that has analogues in modern positive political theory models of rebellion.[24]

Imagine a silent, currently unorganized (super-)majority that is passive due to coordination problems. If all members of the (super-)majority, or some critical mass, could agree to rebel against the ruler, the rebellion would succeed by sheer force of numbers, but will otherwise fail; if only a subgroup rebels, the ruler will prevail. The problem, in other words, is to overcome the regime’s divide-and-conquer tactics. What is necessary for this widespread coordination to occur is a salient focal point, such that it becomes common knowledge among the critical mass or (super-)majority that a trigger has been activated.

How exactly large groups converge on focal points is too circumstantial and case-specific to generalize about very much, but it is very plausible that flagrant violations of traditional norms often amount to focal points of this sort. And because names and titles are the least costly for the public observe, this theory explains why change of names and forms are especially likely to serve as focal points. It is easier to observe whether Caesar accepts a crown and the name of “Rex” on a particular, salient, dramatic occasion in the Forum, than to observe the quotidian use Octavian makes of the venerable tribunician power. It is even more difficult to observe the silent operation of Octavian’s military power, a standing threat that is most effective precisely when it does not need to be visibly exercised. On this view, Botero’s advice to proceed through gradual, discreet change that respects forms and names is best understood as advice to the ruler not to commit actions that transgress highly visible focal points and thereby trigger coordinated public backlash.

Sacramental Liberalism

What has all this to do with liberalism? There is a standing structural tension between liberalism and the basic principles of ragion di stato, which we have been examining. Politics in existing liberal regimes—such as the United States, the European Union, and its member states—represent a case not squarely envisaged by the distinction in ragion di stato between the founding and the continuation of a regime. Liberal politics feature a continual dynamism, a putatively “creative destruction” of tradition, that constantly undermines and disrupts pre-existing practices among the populace; under liberalism, dynamic change is itself the steady state. Sacramental liberalism qua religion requires not merely an overcoming of the darkness of pre-rational tradition, but an explicit, public, visible overcoming. The community of liberals must see that the forces of reaction have been vanquished, see that the vanquished see that, and so forth. The triumph of liberty and the defeat of liberty’s foes must be common knowledge.

The consequence is that it would be inconsistent with the whole essence and point of sacramental liberalism to follow the counsels of ragion di stato, to respect even the names and forms of tradition, let alone its substantive practices. It is not that sacramental liberalism necessarily is incompatible with tradition at any given moment or in any given instance. The suggestion here is for a standing tendency or causal propensity, not an immediate and automatic iron necessity. Yet, it remains true that the conflict is structural and chronic, not merely a contingent prudential mistake made by the rulers of liberal polities that could somehow be corrected with better advice, or an infusion of “reciprocity” between rulers and ruled.[25] The mechanism of self-undermining through sacramental dynamism occupies the space of structural propensity, lying between, and distinct from, the more simplistic modal categories of necessity and contingency.


Unfortunately for liberal rulers, those disrupted—the subjects (or should I say objects) of sacramental liberalism—have their own views. Where liberalism has made an uneasy alliance with democracy, as it did to varying degrees during the 19th century in most of its concrete instantiations, those views are expressed through electoral backlash. Even in relatively nondemocratic regimes, sacramental liberalism can stir widespread public unrest that imposes increasing costs on the masters of the liberal regime. Let me offer a few stylized examples of this backlash process. To be clear at the outset, if these examples capture anything, it is (merely) a causal mechanism: a stylized description of a causal process that explains or illuminates certain cases or episodes, without purporting to supply necessary and sufficient conditions for predicting when that causal process will or will not occur—without purporting to supply a social-scientific law.

First consider a pair of puzzles from the crucial period 2014-16 in American politics, when the tempo of liberalism’s sacramental celebrations increased sharply. In both cases, the puzzle is that political incumbents in a liberal regime—executive actors in one case, litigation groups and judicial actors in another—took actions that were flagrantly ill-advised from the standpoint of the ragion di stato, revealing deeper sacramental commitments and impulses.

The first was the Obama administration’s relentless attempt to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to either fund abortifacient contraceptives or, at least, to take action to pass the responsibility elsewhere. Commentators at the time criticized the seemingly inexplicable stupidity of the administration’s approach, which created a highly salient example of repressive regulatory secular liberalism and thus radically antagonized Christian conservatives, who proceeded to vote for Trump in large numbers. It is plausible to think that the voting pattern was partly caused by the example, although, in the nature of the case, it is extremely difficult to establish such things one way or the other.

But this criticism, while entirely valid from a ragion di stato perspective, does not quite reach the root of the matter, at least if we understand the inner dynamics of sacramental liberalism. The very point of the administration’s conduct, on my view, was not (or not only) to force one smallish order of nuns to provide contraceptives—indeed, the very fact the administration offered a “voluntary” opt-out underscores that the real objective lay elsewhere. Rather, the objective was ceremonial—to force the nuns to acknowledge publicly the liberal state’s just authority, even in matters of religion, the authority to require either provision or the exercise of an opt-out, as the state saw fit. The main point was to stage a public, sacramental celebration of the justice of liberal power and of the overcoming of reactionary opposition.

Another example involves the puzzle of Obergefell[26]including the administration’s rather chilling representation at oral argument in the Supreme Court that institutions not supportive of same-sex marriage might have to lose their tax exemptions as contrary to “public policy,” as did racist institutions like Bob Jones University.[27] The puzzle is not only why the administration would make such an inflammatory threat, but also why such a judicial decision was necessary at all, when the tide of politics was running in favor of same-sex marriage anyway. Simple nonintervention, by means of any of the standard techniques available to the liberal Justices,[28] would have attained the same policy ends with far less political conflict. As far as instrumental political rationality went, all that was necessary was to do nothing.

But a conspicuous conflict with the settled mores of millennia was, of course, the point. It was right and just to have same-sex marriage not merely embodied in law, but declared a requirement of fundamental justice, coupled with a conspicuous defeat of the forces of reaction. Obergefell’s radical and public dismissal of ancient tradition as unreasoned prejudice and animus, which also certainly contributed to Evangelical support for Trump, was no contingent mistake that the liberal order might have corrected by better appreciation of the ragion di stato. The dynamic sacramental commitments of liberalism are illuminated and measured precisely where and because it departs from the prudential benchmark of caution about the disruption of tradition.

So far, I have mentioned two examples from the sphere of marriage and the family. Recall however that Schmitt focused his critique of liberal dynamism on “industrial progress driven ever further by science.” The contraceptive example actually fits this description well, but it is important to emphasize that free-market economics are as pervasively sacramental as social expressions of liberalism. The neoliberal celebration of “creative disruption” is just the Festival of Reason festooned with citations to Austrian economists or, in a form of soft obscurantism, with equations. As I have argued elsewhere, the claim that the invisible hand of the market will indirectly conduce to human goods is an imperfectly secularized notion that ultimately rests on a providentialist political theology.[29] The relentless celebration of creative destruction in the name of liberation—destruction of local industries, thick communities and their accompanying ways of life—has without question been instrumentally irrational even from the standpoint of the masters of the economy, a cause of widespread resentment and destabilizing political backlash, as many have observed.

Liberalism and Democracy

I want to conclude by eliciting one crucial assumption in the foregoing discussion. Consider the cases in which the backlash generated by sacramental liberalism is expressed through democratic means, in which liberal parties begin to lose elections and hence their grip on power. But there is an obvious way that liberal incumbents may react to this effect, which is to constrain the institutions of democracy itself. This is not to say, of course, that they can entirely escape the force of public opinion; even the Sultans had to worry about rebellion and assassination, as Napoleon observed.[30] But it is possible within reason to limit and slow the translation of hostile public opinion into formal legal and political power.

And indeed, as sacramental liberalism has induced ever-greater tension between liberalism and democracy in recent years, we have seen precisely this. Let me briefly mention some of the observable tactics:

Thick constitutional legalism. The Constitution may be interpreted so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Constitutional scholars pursuing this line will mock the simple-minded idea that a vote of the majority of the adult population could possibly be taken to have decisive democratic credentials. Rather, the voice of democracy is said to be embodied in a constitutional court, speaking for the enduring commitments of the people—a suitably abstract, idealized, and indeed silent people. Democracy is then sharply constrained, and is eventually “reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party.”[31]

Repeated votes and vote nullification: What of direct democracy? Sometimes, liberal incumbents are forced by public opinion to grant a referendum vote on the validity of liberal policies, or seek democratic legitimation by doing so. If they miscalculate badly, as did the major party leaders with the Brexit referendum in 2016, never fear—one can perhaps force the people to vote again until the right result is reached. This has been a serious possibility in the Brexit debates.

The main liberal tactic deployed after the Brexit referendum, however was to frustrate democracy through open-ended, indefinite talk. The “endless conversation” of liberalism here becomes a concrete means of sidestepping and thwarting a particular, focused democratic vote at a given place and time. Alternatively, one may simply ignore and nullify the result of the vote de facto, as happened when French and Dutch voters rejected the proposed new constitution for the European Union in 2005. Many of the important provisions were then adopted in the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 through a process that did not involve awkward referenda.

The politics of scandal, investigation and crime. Liberal control over legal and bureaucratic institutions, through professional and cultural networks, is often far stronger than the liberal position in electoral politics. Hence the resort to a legalized politics of scandal, investigation and criminal prosecution.

The cordon sanitaire. The most striking tactics is the cordon sanitaire, in which liberal parliamentary parties, of the social liberal left or the economically liberal right, enter into a cross-party coalition in an attempt to keep out of office parties who deviate from the liberal consensus on critical issues, such as—in the European context—immigration. So powerful is the cordon sanitaire that it can even override immediate political self-interest, as when liberal parties in Germany refused to cooperate with the AfD party that desired immigration restrictions, even though any of the liberal parties could have formed a government in alliance with AfD. When the liberal parties cannot themselves form a majority, even in combination, but can prevent anyone else from doing so, this can lead to extraordinary delays in forming governments, as occurred recently in both Germany and Sweden. The cordon sanitaire is to liberal politics as collusion by firms with market power to block entry by competitors is to antitrust law.

These tactics carry their own risks, however. Intended to ward off the threat of backlash, they may end up making the backlash all the more powerful when it occurs. If liberal parties use the cordon sanitaire to block entry into parliamentary coalitions by non-liberal parties, the result may simply be that pent-up public demand for the policies advocated by the non-liberal parties.

Here too it is plausible to think that liberal parties are actually departing from ordinary benchmarks of instrumental political rationality. Were liberal parties to include outsiders in parliamentary coalitions, adopting compromise proposals, it is plausible to think those parties would be domesticated and the public demand that fuels them would be dampened. The reason liberal parties so often refuse absolutely to do so, however, is a dynamic of purity and contamination, the fear of contact with heresy.

I believe that there is, ultimately, no escape from this dynamic, that liberalism cannot ultimately escape its systematic conflict with natural principles of rule, and that—sooner or later, perhaps in our lifetimes—it will become obvious that liberal-democratic orders can no longer sustain themselves in the face of their internal contradictions. They will have to become systematically undemocratic in order to remain liberal and, even where they do so, that will be but a stopgap measure in light of their systematic self-delegitimation. I will give Schmitt the last word: “No political system can survive even a generation with only naked techniques of holding power. To the political belongs the idea, because there is no politics without authority and no authority without an ethos of belief.”[32] Liberalism’s dilemma is that its anti-authoritarian ethos of belief, its compulsion to celebrate the overcoming of political rule, is ultimately inconsistent with its own claim to rule.

EDITORIAL NOTE: A version of this essay, "Sacramental Liberalism and Ragion di Stato," was delivered as the 2019 Annual Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture on America’s Founding Principles at Princeton University.  

[1] In The Tyranny of Values and Other Texts (New York: Telos Press, 2018).

[2] Ibid., “On the TV Democracy.”

[3] The classics of the tradition would have to include de Maistre, Considerations on France; Schumpter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy; and, in certain respects, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. For a powerful recent explication in the Tocquevillian tradition, see Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed. I believe that this last work, although offering an excellent account of the failures of the liberal order, fails to identify the essentially theological commitments of that order and (thus) stops short of fully carrying out the logic of its own critique. See Adrian Vermeule, “Integration from Within,” American Affairs.

[4] See Jon Elster, “Rationality, Economy and Society” in The Cambridge Companion to Weber.

[5] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 120.

[6] Adrian Vermeule, “The Liturgy of Liberalism,” First Things.

[7] Adrian Vermeule, “Liberalism’s Fear,” The Josias.                                         

[8] Robert L. Hale, "Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State," 38 Political Science Quarterly (1923): 470-478.

[9] John Dewey, “Liberty and Social Control,” in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953 vol. 2 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois, 1987) 360, 362. An excellent distillation: “Though American conservatives often speak of the Progressive movement as a corruption of liberalism, it is a natural, even correct outgrowth of the liberal achievement in a democratic context to be concerned with identifying and expanding the conditions of liberty (health, security, etc.)—and this expansion was precisely what the Progressives attempted to bring about.” Gladden Pappin, Towards a Party of the State, American Affairs (2019).

[10] Thanks to Vincent Philip Munoz for persuading me of the importance of Marcuse (although Munoz is not responsible for the claims I make here).

[11] See Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” 81-118, in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse (eds.), A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).

[12] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), Chapter 1.

[13] Ibid., 87. Emphasis in original.

[14] Ibid., 87

[15] Ibid., 106.

[16] Ibid., 100-101.

[17] In the famous first sentence of the 1596 edition of Della Ragion di Stato: “Stato e un dominio fermo sopra popoli.” See Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State (Cambridge: CUP, 2017), 43.

[18] Ibid., 50.

[19] Ibid., 43.

[20] T.B. Macaulay, Burleigh and His Times.

[21] The Reason of State, supra note, at 51.

[22] Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 60.

[23] Ibid., 60.

[24] See, e.g., Barry Weingast, The Political Foundation of Democracy and the

Rule of Law, 91 American Political Science Review, 245–263 (1997); Eric Posner, Adrian Vermeule & Kathryn E. Spier, Divide and Conquer, 2 Journal of Legal Analysis 417 (2010).

[25] For this forlorn hope, see Samuel Scheffler, “The Rawlsian Diagnosis of Donald Trump,” Boston Review.

[26] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. —- (2015).

[27] Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983).

[28] Alexander Bickel, "The Least Dangerous Branch," Oregon Law Review 42 (1962): 83.

[29] Adrian Vermeule, “Liberalism and the Invisible Hand,” American Affairs.

[30] As quoted in J. Christopher Herold, The Mind of Napoleon, 76: “There is no such thing as absolute despotism . . . If a sultan has his subjects’ heads cut off because of some whim, he is likely to lose his own, and in the same manner.” J. Christopher Herold, The Mind of Napoleon (New York, London: Columbia University Press, 1961).

[31] Liberalism’s Fear, op. cit.

[32] Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 17.

Featured Image: Jan Matejko, Battle of Grunwald, 1878; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Adrian Vermeule

Adrian Vermeule is the Ralph S. Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. He is the author of several books, most recently Law’s Abnegation From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State.

Read more by Adrian Vermeule