BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sitman, once a conservative Catholic, now is a liberal one, associate editor of the liberal Catholic journal Common Wheel. He also co-hosts a podcast. Know Your Enemy, tracking the intellectual drift of the Extreme Right, intently following the debates and the journals and elsewhere, which I suspect is why he named his podcast with some irony, because as he's observed over and over again, that religious conservatism, with the validation of its leading intellectuals, has migrated to Trumpism, where what was once the opposition is now the enemy, which must be vanquished now and forever. That enemy being political liberalism.
MATTHEW SITMAN Liberalism is not the partisan contemporary political meaning, but liberalism is a political philosophy grounded in individual rights, human equality, the rule of law, due process. Constitutional governments are what they're rejecting, especially the individualism and the equality of it.
When you take aim at human equality, that's also the basis not just of, say, a liberal judicial order, but the foundation of democracy. One person, one vote. That is what they're rejecting. They're saying that actually they know better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's from our conversation. Back in December, we were talking about a manifesto published in First Things called Against the Dead Consensus, The Dead Consensus, meaning the majority. Most of us who don't know better, which may be true, but couldn't the same be said of them?
MATTHEW SITMAN When they reject something like liberal proceduralism?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You used air quotes then.
MATTHEW SITMAN Right? What does that mean? If you're from the wrong group, you don't get your day in court. You don't have certain protections. You can be arrested and deported at the whims of a president. The ends justify the means. It's what you give yourself permission to abide by. It's what you're willing to overlook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can it justify the creation of an authoritarian state?
MATTHEW SITMAN I would hope not. If you are a believing Christian who believes in a highest good, that should determine not just the ends, but the means. But I think in practical politics, that gets lost. When you look back to recent conservative history, even a magazine like First Things under its former editor, Richard John Newhouse, who was a conservative Catholic priest, they ran a symposium in the 1990s about the judiciary and Democratic political life. They were extremely concerned that the judiciary was imposing liberal values. What was interesting about it was not that conservatives disagreed with liberal judges. That's to be expected. But what they did was say these liberal judges are thwarting democracy. The majority really does believe what we do. There is a moral majority. They use the language of democracy against liberal elites. Today, they are no longer speaking the language of a democratic majority of the people being with them. They are saying we must crush our enemies because we are right. We know what the highest good is. That move from democracy to simply saying we're right is the essential thing. You can see a situation arising in which Republicans keep trying to hold onto power despite not being a majority. And my concern is that these conservative intellectuals are creating the conditions, are giving themselves permission to go along with what amounts to authoritarian rule by a political party that doesn't have anywhere close to the support of a majority of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your podcast, you quoted from Damon Linker, who's a former editor at First Things as well.
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And now a moderate.
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He wrote, when social conservatives thought that they were the Moral Majority. It made sense for them to dream of exercising real political power when they recognized that they were a minority. It made sense for them to resign themselves, to adopting a defensive posture and preparing to live out their days in a country as dissenters from the arraigning liberal consensus. What makes no sense is for social conservatives to think that they can be both weak and strong at the same time. A minority that wields the power of a majority, unless, of course, social conservatives no longer care about democracy.
MATTHEW SITMAN He put it very well, and that's a apt summary of my concerns that I'm expressing. But the key is to implement the highest good to implement the order they think is true. And just and good. And the ways you get there matter less.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Given what's transpired in the last 10 months and given that Utah Senator Mike Lee is in lofty company in dissing democracy, we called Matt Sitton back to discuss the escalating project of applying their ideas by leveraging our least democratic institutions, the Senate, the Electoral College and, of course, the Supreme Court. But first, I wanted his take on the most anti-democratic thing I'd read lately, published back in March in The Atlantic. It was written by Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule calling on his ideological allies to rise from their defensive crouch and embrace what he calls common good constitutionalism. That quote does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy because it sees that law is parental. A wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits, just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of the subjects, if necessary, even against the subject's own perceptions of what is best for them. Perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches habituating and reforms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures possibly experienced at first as coercive. Encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common good. Now, Vermeule is a bit of a provocateur, but I wanted Matt Sitman's take on his formulation that says: common good constitutionalism is not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them. Its main aim is certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power, but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.
MATTHEW SITMAN I saw that as Vermeule saying that judges should not get in the way of rulers coercing their subjects to behave according to the dictates of morality that they perceived to be correct. And that certainly aren't views that the majority of Americans hold. So I think one thing it indicated to me was the lack of regard for the general views of the population. But I would say even more the note about not deferring to the will of legislatures is really important, because I think another aspect of this so-called common good constitutionalism is the deference that Vermeule wants courts to pay, judges to pay to the executive branch and the administrative state. Vermeule is someone very influenced by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. And the executive power plays a similar role in Schmitt's thinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was really a Nazi?
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes, served the Nazi regime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mike Lee said, we're not a democracy and democracy isn't the objective anyway. How, since we spoke in December, have the Trump administration and the Republican Party been trying to implement a set of intellectual ideas?
MATTHEW SITMAN Most of all, there's just a hostility towards voting, the very bedrock of democracy. That's why they're undermining the Postal Service. Why Trump has told his supporters to monitor polling places, which really, as we saw in Virginia in early voting, include a kind of jeering at people going into vote. Trump has told his supporters to vote twice. Trump himself said they had to install Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court could be counting the ballots. Now, that's not exactly how it works, but it's totally possible that litigation could come before the Supreme Court that does settle the outcome of the election. He said again and again that voting by mail is fraudulent to prepare his supporters to not accept the outcome of the election. And even more, taint the outcome of the election, which would justify the litigation that aimed at overturning the outcome. And of course, this is a man that a majority of the country has never supported, installing someone on the most anti-democratic branch of the United States government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You didn't mention Trump declining to commit himself on the peaceful transfer of power.
MATTHEW SITMAN What Trump did when he told the proud boys to stand by, when he refused to condemn white supremacists, it was giving them permission to wreak havoc because he's casting doubt on the outcome of the election. It doesn't take a lot to connect the dots. That's a threat. I don't know what Trump consciously intends or not, but he said over and over that he doesn't really expect to win the election. Do you know anyone who thinks Donald Trump will win a majority of votes? It's the way it will happen will be through the Electoral College and possibly through this strategy of litigation, disruption, claims of fraudulence, and then a Supreme Court possibly deciding it. The kidnaping plot of the governor of Michigan, that's just proof that his rhetoric matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that within 20 to 30 years, it's possible that 70 percent of senators will be representing 30 percent of the country.
MATTHEW SITMAN By 2040, It's predicted that 70 percent of country will live in 15 states. That means that 70 percent will be represented by only 30 senators. That's a huge imbalance. And it is tricky because that number is actually not radically different than what has existed at other periods in our history. But what makes it so deeply troubling is that never before has our country been polarized the way it is. The difference between rural voters and urban and suburban voters is so great that the system's structural problems are running into the buzzsaw of polarization that it'll be balanced to kind of radically against the Democratic Party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's an irony here that in order to be utterly traditional and support what we always believed was majority rule, we would have to do things like add states and increase the size of the Supreme Court.
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes. And I think what you're seeing now, Brooke, is that the Republican Party knows that the situation is no longer tenable. It's been interesting that The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has commented on this recently, that we've seen these big fights over the court at moments when a kind of rising majority is on the cusp of gaining power at the expense of the old order. And that happened in eighteen hundred when Jefferson won the presidency and the Federalist Party was on the outs. They installed as many judges as possible to thwart Jefferson's incoming administration. It happened in the run up to the civil war. When you think of Dred Scott. I mean, that decision essentially outlawed the Republican Party's platform. Declared unconstitutional. And so what we're seeing now is this kind of inflection point where this minority party is trying to cling to power, even as it's very clear there's a rising majority that opposes it. And so this moment we're in, where Democrats could pack the court or disempower in various ways, change its jurisdiction, could add states like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. That would be something that in the short term at least, would start to rebalance our system in a more democratic direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW SITMAN Well, thank you very much, Brooke.