The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate, With Arguments Pro and Con, and “The Anatomy of a Controversy” by Richard John Neuhaus
Edited by Mitchell S. Muncy
Spence Publishing Company, 288 pages $22.95
Review by John Coleman
In November 1996, the publication First Things ignited an intellectual firestorm with its apocalyptic symposium “The End of Democracy?” Lamenting what it termed “the judicial usurpation of politics,” Father Richard John Neuhaus’s magazine systematically attacked the judicial activism of the day (most vehemently decisions regarding abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality), and posed the question: Could this judicial usurpation, and our collective submission to it, signal the end of democracy?
The intellectual community responded instantly, and what followed was one of the most earnest discussions of judicial activism, democratic legitimacy, and the intellectual framework of America’s conservative movement in history.
Following the debate, Mitchell S. Muncy compiled the works of the symposium, a select group of responses, and one new essay authored by First Things editor Neuhaus entitled “The Anatomy of a Controversy” into one comprehensive work–The End of Democracy? And as recent Supreme Court decisions once again force us to confront questions of judicial authority, this compilation is essential to the debate.
The premise of the First Things symposium presented at the beginning of The End of Democracy? is essentially twofold. First is the argument, presented most fluently by Robert H. Bork, that the court has overstepped its Constitutional authority, or, worse, that problems with the judiciary might be inherent to the Constitution. In his essay, “Our Judicial Oligarchy,” Bork argues that at the hands of an activist court, “The most important moral, political, and cultural decisions affecting our lives are steadily being removed from democratic control.” In essence, he says that in extending their powers, the judicial “outlaws” on the Supreme Court have usurped the legislative process, and must be stopped through a series of legislative and cultural reforms.
More controversially, however, many contributors argue that decisions regarding abortion and homosexuality are illegitimate not only because they constitute the overextension of the judiciary, but because they violate “higher law” at base. Intellectuals like Charles Colson and Robert P. George present the case for illegitimacy on moral grounds, and the result is a symposium of controversial essays that call for everything from prayer to civil disobedience.
The debate then proceeds as a dialogue of the arguments themselves and as a running commentary on the anatomy of the very First Things controversy.
Many authors wholly or partially take up the questions of legitimacy issued by First Things. Intellectual giants like William Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, William F. Buckley, and George Weigel argue for and against legitimacy, and what arises is a preeminent discussion of the American judiciary in the last half of the 20th century. While thinkers on the right dominate the debate, the diversity of opinions reveals the vehement disagreement even within conservative circles on the depth of the problem and the tactics necessary to address it. The debate becomes so heated that it results in several First Things editorial resignations and accusations of radicalism and bigotry.
Which leads to the second theme of The End of Democracy?–a metacommentary on the First Things controversy itself. Responding to the string of resignations, allegations, and insinuations of a “conservative crack-up,” notable thinkers like David Brooks, Jacob Heilbrunn and Ramesh Ponnuru debate the tactics pursued by the First Things writers in propounding their theories and attempt to analyze their effects on the conservative movement and the sympathies of society. In his Commentary essay, Norman Podhoretz criticizes Neuhaus and company for what he terms “extremist hysteria” reminiscent of the 1960s, and many other conservatives criticize the writers for insensitivity to the “conservative temperament” and improper arousal of questions of “regime legitimacy.”
Rounding out this discussion, Father Neuhaus himself adds a nearly one-hundred-page recount of the controversy with his own recommendations for continued debate and judicial reform. The essay becomes predominantly a lengthy apologia for the First Things controversy, but, particularly in the third section, offers some of the most succinct and insightful solutions to the problem of judicial activism in the book.
The End of Democracy? ends as both a discussion of judicial usurpation and an analysis of the dynamics of controversy and of the conservative movement. Those interested in the rhetoric of controversy or these dynamics will find the entire work fascinating; however, if anything, the book does suffer from its sometimes excessive introspection. Readers unfamiliar with conservative intellectualism today are likely to become lost in the political infighting that tends to obscure the initial discussion of legitimacy and usurpation, and the casual observer may be inclined to abandon the work for a more concise discussion of judicial legitimacy.
However, The End of Democracy? claims to be a historical recount of the controversy and aptly fulfills its role. The problem, as noted by Father Neuhaus in his final essay, would seem to be that “the deepest questions engaged by the First Things initiative were generally ignored by critics and admirers alike.” Let us hope we can avoid the same problem in our current debate.
John Coleman is a senior at Berry College majoring in economics.