Marshalling our forces: Politics in America today
I am sure Robert G. “Delegate Bob” Marshall is sick of bad puns on his last name, but full disclosure forces me to reveal that I’m a friend…so he’ll have to live with it. Happily, Marshall has just had a new book published by TAN entitled Reclaiming the Republic. Subtitled “How Christians and other conservatives can win back America”, this very readable 300-page book may sound like just another conservative screed hypothesizing the impossible. But it is not.
I will get to the reasons in a moment. First, however, I should admit what those who regularly read my work already know: My own bleak assessment of politics today. Still, many different visions of the relative importance of political activity in the United States are possible. Such visions are inescapably based on a prudential judgment about what is likely to be achieved through political effort compared with the good that is likely to be achievable in other areas. Since readers of CatholicCulture.org already know that I do not think much political success is possible without a broader cultural renewal, it would be odd for me to pretend now that my friend’s new book is the answer to my prayers. But there are good reasons to consider it exceptional.
Second, I have never found anything particularly grand or great about the “American experiment”. Were I alive at the time of the Revolution (or, better, War for Independence), I would have been very likely to side with England, since it is hard to frame a moral argument that the wrongs suffered by the colonies were sufficient to justify rebellion against their lawful rulers. Compared with the wrongs we endure today, they were morally trivial. With moral reservations about declaring independence and precipitating a war which would cost many their lives, I would likely have been stripped of my land and wealth (if I had any) and perhaps even murdered, either judicially or by a mob. Or perhaps I would have had to flee to Canada. I have very little patience in hindsight’s assurance that it was the morally correct thing to do to side with the winning cause. In any case, the odds of winning would have appeared at the time to be on England’s side.
The Constitution adopted by the United States, and the men who framed it, were by today’s standards well-formed philosophically and morally, but both the document and the men were still flawed. Nor has it ever struck me as a particularly powerful argument that we are in any sense morally bound to adhere to documents and precedents that were, in effect, made up on the spot, through fallible human deliberations and compromises, to meet felt needs in a different time and place. For all of these reasons, conservative rhetoric about the “founding” and the “founders” and the binding character of “the constitution” has, for more decades than I care to count, seemed nearly vacuous to me. These concepts are to me cultural factors to be taken into account when answering prudential questions, but little more.
Except when Bob Marshall writes that they are something more.
It is this last assertion that hones in on the genius of Marshall’s book, an assertion arising from the evident fact that Marshall does not think like a conservative politico. No, he thinks like a Catholic who knows how to use the tools of politics to serve ends that transcend politics. Moreover, he has a lifetime of experience, as both a legislative strategist at the Federal level and as a representative in the legislative branch of state government. Bob Marshall is deeply invested in politics as a career choice. I am not. But Bob is as committed to spiritual and cultural renewal as he is to political battles for the American republic. That is why, when it comes to these battles, I take my cues from him.
The critical differences in Reclaiming the Republic
The first thing to realize about Reclaiming the Republic is that its author understands the importance of the Natural Law. After setting the hook in the Preface by outlining our current national dilemma, Marshall uses his seventeen-page Introduction to explain that the one thing the American founders had in common was their profound awareness that human laws which contradict God’s law, as known through natural law, are null and void. Therefore, their constitutional efforts were largely aimed at preventing human government from easily overriding natural law, or the moral and religious obligations it imposed, or the rights which arose from those obligations. Whenever political tools are closely connected with the tradition of natural law, they acquire a moral relevance which transcends the particular political interests they may be seized upon to serve.
Natural law (in case you were wondering) is the foundation of Catholic social teaching. Marshall is comfortable in quoting popes on the importance of this principle. Precisely because the founders acknowledged the natural law, the American Constitution was (imperfectly) designed to make just government more likely. Eighteenth century European culture had already drifted a considerable distance from the ultimate sources of human goodness, but not nearly so far as Western culture has since. Marshall’s point in Part One of the book (“Think Like the Founders”) is that, if we really do think like the founders, we can still use the Constitution they created as an important tool for fashioning a more just government and society today.
The Constitution and its operational principles are, after all, a part of American culture, and the proper intended use of Constitutional powers still has at least significant moral and political resonance. In Part One, Marshall covers topics carefully dealt with in the Constitution—issues like religious liberty, rule by judges (and judicial bigotry), and the principle of toleration—to reveal the original constitutional mindset, and so to lay the theoretical groundwork for the more pragmatic main portion of the book that follows, “Part Two: The Playbook: Terms, Strategy, and Tactics”.
This brings us to the second thing to realize about Reclaiming the Republic, namely that the author has always been both an exhaustive researcher and a brilliant strategist when it comes to identifying the legitimate tactics that can be successfully used to attain political ends. In other words, this book actually outlines strategies that can and do work. In eight concise chapters, Marshall explains:
- How the power of the purse can be used by legislators to derail bad judicial and executive decisions
- A To-Do list to secure “the art of the possible” for legislators
- Effective legislative tactics at the State level
- Tactics that can be employed by citizens
- What we must understand about how things work in American politics
- The importance of sticking to principles instead of trading them for influence
- The importance of maximizing the right votes at the right time
- The precinct as the building block of American politics
Three appendices offer further reflections on the problem of judicial supremacy (this is an eye-opener), the nature of presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, and the urgent need to act now to effectively combat the threat to the social order posed by the self-serving transgenderism of our elites. There is also a very useful bibliography.
Again, I do not invest much time and energy in politics, beyond making sure I vote like Bob Marshall, but there are many who are called to do so, and one of the interesting things about politics is that we never know when the likelihood will arise of some new combination resulting in success. Even I insist that we must keep an eye on the political ball. Just when it seemed no such combination or permutation was possible, Brexit happened in England, along with a resurgence in several other countries of populisms which—despite the knee-jerk denunciations of our failed political and clerical elites—are often surprisingly rooted in, or at least open to, the kind of moral reconstruction that anybody with eyes can see is necessary to save the rapidly imploding social orders of the West.
So I will never say never. There is a reason that, for a number of years, Mr. Non-Political volunteered to provide data-processing support for Bob’s campaigns. And if you are even more hopeful, and want to be more politically involved, and expect to achieve at least some success here in the United States, then you would be a fool not to read and study and rely upon the book most likely to convert political incompetents and even political non-believers into effective agents of political change—Robert Marshall’s Reclaiming the Republic.
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