The Demise of Legitimate Political Authority

Some forty years ago, in his groundbreaking study, Twilight of Authority, sociologist Robert Nisbet observed a disturbing trend in American culture. As respect for authority had declined among the population, he wrote, members of that population became increasingly willing to accept and actually applaud an increasingly powerful, albeit less legitimate, government

The notion of true authority, Nisbet wrote, assumes the strength of two essential social qualities—hierarchy, and privacy. Yet both are fading before our eyes.

For Nisbet, the egalitarian agenda of the elites—especially the liberal intelligentsia—is a driving engine of social collapse. It crushes a rich, varied, and multidimensional culture featuring an ­array of localities, organizations, institutions, and voluntary associations. The collapse produces a paltry pancake of “equality of result”—a result both fed and enforced by an ever more powerful government.

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The social, cultural, and political leaders of forty years ago have departed—only Mick Jagger still struts and sweats his weary hours upon the stage. Yet the trends Nisbet descried have marched on, swaggering and swollen, flattening everything in their path.

Without the moral and metaphysical limits of legitimate authority, the cancer of illegitimate power festers and grows, attacking and oppressing any resistance, both within government and without.

Especially striking is the willingness of not only the demos, but their formal and informal institutions, to acquiesce in the willful destruction of their autonomy and, yes, their authority. Among the elites, however, the embrace of egalitarianism for others seems designed to guarantee superiority for themselves. Thus they merit exemption from the promised equality of result that they advocate for everyone else. But the Leviathan’s price is high, as the elite’s permissible terrain shrinks to a tiny fashionable island crowded with Thought Police and narcissists.

It should come as no surprise that those possessed by Nietzsche’s Will to Power will lie to get it and kill to keep it. The perplexing feature of the landscape still visible during these last rays of twilight in our own time is this: why have those who guard the crucibles of traditional authority not more strongly defended the principles that made possible their flourishing for so many centuries?

Founders Keepers?
Consider the constitutionally-ordained central government. The Founders, more conscious of the libido dominandi than we are in our own time, both acknowledged fallen man’s desire for power and embraced it as a central feature to protect liberty. As Madison puts it in Federalist 51, “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.”

So Madison trusts the natural self-interest of the statesman to guard jealousy his power from encroachment, thus performing his constitutional duty.

The Framers placed the majority of constitutional authority in the Congress, since it would be judged frequently by an informed and virtuous electorate. But today’s Congress would be unrecognizable to them. A twofold phenomenon confronts us: vertically, the Congress has usurped from the states and the people powers that the Framers never dreamed of. And yet, horizontally, Congress has virtually abdicated its legitimate powers to the Executive and Judicial branches, which are much further removed from We the People.

To put it another way, Congress has allowed its Constitutional authority to dribble away, with scarcely any effort to sustain it. As a result, it has lost its legitimate power as well.

Today the “least dangerous branch”—the Judiciary—decides what laws the Congress can pass; in other words, what the powers of Congress are.

The only power that Congress retains is the power to tax—thus generously funding its executive adversaries.  True, with the blessing of the Courts, Congress has laid claim to manifest powers it does not have, ignoring the Tenth Amendment and intruding into every aspect of private life. But it then delegated those powers to the Executive branch—specifically, to the various departments of the permanent bureaucracy. The courts have affirmed the abdication, bestowing upon the various bureaucracies of the Executive Branch the authority to define for themselves the limits of their own powers.

Wherein another issue arises, described by Madison thus: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

True? On the contrary: In today’s Leviathan state, rogues throughout the government egg each other on in their mutual power lust. Their Hot Tub froths, flowing over.

And where are the virtuous people, the republic’s ultimate check on government power?

As things stand in today’s waning twilight, the people have abdicated their constitutional authority to control the government. In fact, they have ceded their power to the Leviathan in a most dubious deal: In exchange for their authority, grounded in liberty, they have been bribed first with money—their own, ironically—and the Leviathan’s paltry and prevaricating promise of egalitarian bliss. The money is worth less every day, while the promise is simply and utterly worthless.

You Can Only Quit Once
Until recently, the Leviathan blithely belittled those who identified the bureaucracy as an enemy of personal liberty. Even now, with the revelations from the IRS and NSA, no one is going to lay a glove on the Leviathan. It is too entrenched. Both of these agencies will continue their nefarious ways.

Illegal? As the paid liars like to say, “Hey, so what??!! That’s old news.”

In Washington you’re ethical unless you’re in jail. And alas, Dear Reader, no one from the IRS or the NSA is going to jail.

Nonetheless, one wonders: with millions of government workers and contractors, tens of thousands of whom have sensitive security clearances—why has it taken so long for one of them to tell the truth about the government’s bipartisan domestic spying program?

I learned the answer from a State Department official a quarter-century ago. Back then, certain bad apples in the Secretary’s office were doing their best to sabotage a key Reagan program. The official came to us on Capitol Hill, asking us to go try to stop the bad guys—leaving his fingerprints off our efforts, of course.

“You’re very highly regarded in the Administration,” I told him. “Why don’t you go public? It would stop this idiocy in its tracks.”

“Chris,” he said, “that would end my career. You can only quit once.”

How many honest bureaucrats (yes, it’s not an oxymoron, it’s just rare)—how many would dare tell an important truth if they knew that their careers, their pensions, their families, their kids’ educations were all on the line?

By the way, telling the truth is what Christians are commanded to do. That’s why the bureaucracy impales them. Just one more reason why the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed on public property.

But that’s another story.

Whistleblower “protection” is a farce. Truth-tellers in government are harassed, persecuted, even prosecuted, while liars are applauded and promoted.

Consider Edward Snowden. He revealed the massive NSA domestic spying operation. The operation is illegal, according to the author of the Patriot Act which allegedly “authorizes” it. Yet past and present government luminaries want Snowden, not the NSA, tried for treason.

It’s Wikileaks all over again: the atrocities are denied, downplayed, or ignored, while the whistleblower is Pearl-Harbored by those whose crimes he revealed. And it will always be so.

Consider: we hear every day about the killing of twenty children at Sandy Hook.

“Ban guns!”

Well, what about the burning alive of twenty-five children (and dozens of adults) at Waco under Janet Reno?

Did anyone demand we disarm the FBI and ATF whose government guns killed them?

Waco was a generation ago. Have things gotten better?

Unlikely. Today, by some counts, the federal government has more lethal ammunition stockpiled for domestic use than it has used in all of its wars abroad for the past ten years.

And not one armed ATF, FBI, TSA, DHS, DEA, CIA, or IRS agent will go to jail when the Leviathan decides to use that ammunition on us.

After all, they’ll “just be following orders.”

Is that really so “off the wall”? Consider this final warning from Nisbet: “Accompanying the decline of institutions and the decay of values in such ages [like ours] is the cultivation of power that becomes increasingly military, or paramilitary, in shape. Such power exists in almost exact proportion to the decline of traditional social and moral authority.”

Is it any wonder that today’s militarized domestic “security” forces are targeting—as terrorists!—groups that support “traditional social and moral authority”—including the Catholic Church?

Editor’s note: This column, first posted June 21, is sponsored by the Bellarmine Forum, and distributed by Griffin Internet Syndicate and FGF Books.


  • Christopher Manion

    Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

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