I was in Washington, D.C. this past week—the talk-shop capital of the world. I attended a conference on the future of war and spoke at a conference on the future of energy. In between, I took in Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings on Capitol Hill—and even found time to binge on a season of West Wing. (In the 2000s, it was serious political drama. Now, it’s good comedy. What seemed scandalous for the White House fifteen years ago looks so cute today.)
Sucked Into D.C. Coffee Row
I’ve been trying to get my head out of politics for the last couple of weeks, but in D.C. that’s impossible. The first question everyone asks you is, “So, what do you do?” (Here, networking is a way of life.) Then there’s a mandatory 10-minute conversation about the last Trump-smacker: his latest Tweet, or the latest story to break on Politico or The Hill or NYT or WaPo. (This is a city that votes 90% Democrat.) Then they ask you your name.
Other than Zuck’s Facebook testimony, the biggest story on everyone’s lips in D.C. this past week was A Higher Loyalty, the forthcoming book by former FBI Director James Comey. Technically it’s an autobiography of Comey’s full career in law enforcement, but most people are only interested in the last chapter—his time with, and firing by, Donald Trump.
The title references the now infamous, intimate ‘loyalty dinner’ that Comey attended at the White House mere days after Trump’s inauguration. Trump allegedly asked his FBI Director to pledge his loyalty, and Comey, demurring, pledged ‘honesty’ instead.
A few months later, in May 2017, Trump fired Comey. That action prompted the Justice Department to appoint a Special Counsel to look into Trump’s Russia connections (if any), and here we still are, a year later, gobbling up every scrap of this story as fast as it emerges.
The release of Comey’s book this week marks another feeding frenzy. And while the talking heads on MSNBC and Fox News each push their particular narratives, the bigger question will be ignored completely: Is there something ‘higher’—higher to which all members of a society (even the democratically elected leader) owe loyalty? And if so, what is that thing?
This is a really good, really timely question.
The Constitution Isn’t High Enough
The obvious (but, I think, wrong) answer is ‘the constitution’. The U.S. constitution allows a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove a president who has committed ‘Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ Democrats in this town dream that one day Special Counsel Robert Muller’s investigation will find a smoking gun under Trump’s pillow, leaving the Senate—and the American people—no choice but to evict, and convict, The Donald.
More likely, I think, Muller’s investigation will find ‘evidence of wrong-doing’—something in between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. And everyone will be just as divided as before—or, more likely, present divisions will worsen—because the process and the law leave ample room for judgment and interpretation. Was the investigative process ‘fair’? Can we ‘trust’ the process? And even if we do trust the process, does the ‘wrong-doing’ rise to the level of a ‘High Crime’—high enough to overturn the voters’ choice from 2016?
If there is to be something to which members of a society owe a ‘Higher Loyalty,’ it must be something above a country’s constitution. It must be that high place upon which we stand when the constitution is read.
Sociologists talk about trust. Economists talk about social capital. Biologists talk about the evolutionary advantages of cooperation. Political scientists talk about civil society. Lawyers talk about the distinction between ‘ethical’ and ‘legal’. Comey talks about a ‘higher loyalty’. They’re all investigations of the same idea: a healthy society depends upon more than its rules. It also depends upon a shared sense of why the rules matter.
But in a democracy, what’s higher than the constitution?
This Is Getting Biblical
One answer is: the covenant.
Constitutions define states; covenants define societies. Constitutions define the political, economic and legal system; covenants define the moral context in which these systems operate. Constitutions are contracts; covenants are the relationships of social life—relationships that, like ‘family’, cannot be reduced to legal language and market exchanges.
Among this Readership are heavyweights in political theory, constitutional law and sociology, and I sent out a little survey asking a few of you for good books that dig deeper into this idea of ‘covenant’. The #1 recommendation I got back was The Dignity Of Difference, by Jonathan Sacks. At first I was unsure—Jonathan Sacks is one of the most senior rabbis in the Jewish world, and I didn’t want to confuse his religious idea of covenant with the public idea of covenant. But it turns out that Jonathan spends a lot of time thinking about the latter.
In A Higher Loyalty, Comey talks about a looming constitutional crisis. Jonathan would say: Comey is mistaken. America doesn’t face a constitutional crisis; it faces a covenantal crisis. The latter is different, and deeper. It is a crisis over the question: What are the values that govern our society?
The Best Things In Life Are Never Self-Evident
America’s covenant is not its constitution (signed in 1789), but its Declaration of Independence (signed in 1776). That earlier document famously begins:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The irony, of course, is that these truths are anything but self-evident. Throughout most societies in most of history, the social order has rested upon the idea that all people are not created equal. What the signatories of that Declaration really meant to say was, “Rather than rest upon the ideas of the past, we are going to build a new society upon the idea that each person (i.e., ‘white man’) is owed an equal measure of human dignity.” It took more than a decade of further debate to encode that social ideal into a state constitution.
The Declaration of Independence was a declaration of the moral objective toward which American society should strive. It’s echoed in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…
These blocks of text thrum with shared moral meaning. They are among the best-known sentences in the English language. What has happened to throw this covenant into crisis?
And again, the obvious answer that many people give (‘Donald Trump’) is wrong.
For A Covenant To Hold, We Must Dignify Difference
I think Jonathan would say that the warring narratives between Fox News and MSNBC, between Trump advocates and Trump haters, are a reflection of what ultimately happens when we erode the boundary between politics and religion.
For a society’s covenant to remain strong and healthy, Jonathan argues, these two spheres of social life each need a separate space to play their respective roles. Religion (and by ‘religion’, Jonathan really mean all forms of deeply felt group association) is supposed to be the space in which we build identity, community and solidarity. Politics is supposed to be the space in which we work out the differences that inevitably develop between these groups.
We need both. We are social beings. We are meaning-seekers. Group association is an important part of how we become ourselves—and become good citizens. (‘The universality of moral concern is not something we learn by being universal but by being particular.’ – Jonathan Sacks)
But we also need politics. Precisely because so much of our meaning and identity arises from experiences within our particular group, our own meanings and identities will never be universally shared. Living together requires a layer of cooperation that straddles these differences.
Society starts to get ugly whenever these two spheres of social life (the space where we belong, and the space where we cooperate) collapse into one.
When religion is politicized, God takes over the system. When politics turns into a religion, the system turns into a God.
Either way, Jonathan explains, respect for difference collapses. When religion is politicized, outsiders (non-believers) are denied rights. The chosen people become the master-race. When politics turns into a religion, outsiders (non-comformers) are granted rights if and only if they conform (and thus cease to be an outsider). The truth of a single culture becomes the measure of humanity.
Progressives vs Reversers
These concepts (thank you, Jonathan) offer us a fresh way of thinking about what the heck is going on in U.S. politics at the moment.
Is it possible that Democrats have been guilty of turning politics into a religion that demands conformity? Yesterday a New York Times op-ed talked about how many Democrats have stopped talking about themselves as ‘liberals’ (because it now carries tainted connotations in U.S. discourse), and substituted the word ‘progressive’ instead.
The distinction matters. Says the op-ed writer, Greg Weiner:
‘Progressives’ are inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it. For ‘progressives’, compromise (which entails accepting less progress) is not merely inadvisable but irrational. The critic of progress is not merely wrong but a fool.
Because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents.
This is one reason progressives have alienated moderate voters who turned to Donald Trump in 2016. The ideology of progress tends to regard the traditions that have customarily bound communities and which mattered to Trump voters who were alarmed by the rapid transformation of society, as a fatuous rejection of progress.
Likewise, is it possible that Republicans have been guilty of turning religion (be it guns or Jesus) into a test of citizenship—a test that demands conversion?
I think maybe yes. And if so, that’s the fundamental problem, because both sides are doing something to denigrate difference. Unless we all dignify difference, no social covenant can hold. Says Jonathan:
‘Covenants exist because we are different and seek to preserve difference, even as we come together to bring our several gifts to the common good.
…This is not the cosmopolitanism of those who belong nowhere, but the deep human understanding that passes between people who, knowing how important their attachments are to them, understand how deeply someone else’s different attachments matter to them also.’
Having just spent a whole week in Washington, D.C., I can breezily say that the best way to heal America’s divisions is for everyone to go back to Philadelphia, hold hands together, and rededicate themselves to their shared moral project: to recognize human equality and oppose sameness.
Of course, I doubt either side is ready to lay down arms and make a new covenant just yet. War is clarifying. It divides the world into us and them. Peace is the confusing part. It provokes a crisis of identity. In order to make peace with the other, we must find something in common between us, worthy of mutual respect.
Right now that’s a tall order—not just in U.S. politics, but in the domestic politics across the democratic world. (‘Populist’ isn’t a label that’s intended as a sign of respect.) But maybe all of us can start asking some good questions, wherever we are, that (a) make us sound smart, but also (b) start the conversation in our community about the covenant to which we all owe a ‘higher loyalty’:
1. Tribalism (i.e., my particular group’s ideas dominate) won’t work. Universalism (i.e., one human truth overrides my particular group’s ideas) won’t work either. So what can?
2. ‘Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.’ (Jonathan Sacks) Are we feeling threatened? Other than attacking the other, is there another way to restore our confidence?
3. Is all this week’s coverage of James Comey’s new book helping to bring people closer to his main message (‘There’s something higher that spans our differences and makes us one society’), or drawing us further away?
Admittedly, that last question is purely rhetorical—we all know the answer—but somehow a list feels incomplete unless it has three items. 🙂
Brave voyages, to us all,