There is an old colloquialism amid the discourse in democratic political philosophy which holds that, most of the time anyway, a nation gets the government it deserves. Let’s spend a moment unpacking what this colloquialism means, and then another moment or two applying it to a pertinent case: the apparent reaction of the American people to the Islamic State, and how that reaction sheds light on who may become President in January 2017.
There is a certain moral poetry in the colloquialism, for it promises justice. If a nation is on the whole jealous in the protection of its liberty, it will get a limited government that respects its own democratically specified limits. This is the kind of republican government the Founders had in mind, and it seems to me that John Adams said it best: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In other words, social regulation must be vested organically in society itself if government is to be properly and effectively light-handed. Adams may have had Edmund Burke’s famous admonition in mind as he wrote:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon the will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
To punctuate the thought, then: If a nation is on the whole made up of individuals and families who are prudent, humble, modest, provident, and of a mind to be self-sufficient, it will get a government rich in such virtues as well. And if not, then not.
Things are not really so simple, of course. A benign social order can decay for…