Now, what we are seeing metastasizing around us in the United States in recent months is a direct assault from the Left on the unity of peace, and thereby on the fundamental prerequisite of any just social order. The methods and goals of the left-wing mobs looting, rioting, burning, and harassing their way through American cities amount to a seditious assault on the peace of the community. The intention of some left-wing politicians to abolish the Electoral College, pack the Supreme Court, eliminate the filibuster, and in other ways secure indefinite one-party rule amounts to an attempt to impose a factional tyranny. These are extremely dangerous trends, and it is delusional to think that the faults of Donald Trump or the justice of the cause of opposing racism can excuse them or make them any less dangerous. In the name of social justice, the far Left is attacking the very preconditions of all social justice.
As always, the teaching of St. Thomas illuminates the darkness of our times.
Let’s go back to first principles. Why do governments exist? Well, again, to secure the unity of peace. But how are they to secure this? Aquinas’s answer is that of common sense. He writes, in the Summa Theologiae:
Since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws. Therefore in order that man might have peace and virtue, it was necessary for laws to be framed. (Summa Theologiae )
Similarly, in Summa Contra Gentiles, he says:
Since some people are not so disposed internally that they will do spontaneously what the law orders, they must be forced from without to fulfill the justice of the law… [T]his is done only from fear of punishments…
Since some people pay little attention to the punishments inflicted by God, because they are devoted to the objects of sense and care only for the things that are seen, it has been ordered accordingly by divine providence that there be men in various countries whose duty it is to compel these people, by means of sensible and present punishments, to respect justice. It is obvious that these men do not sin when they punish the wicked, for no one sins by working for justice. Now, it is just for the wicked to be punished, since by punishment the fault is restored to order, as is clear from our statements above. Therefore, judges do no wrong in punishing the wicked. (Summa Contra Gentiles III., )
Note two things about this teaching. First, it flatly rejects the proposal that police protections would not be necessary if only the right social services were in place, the notion that if only communism were achieved then the need for a coercive state would wither away, and all other such lunatic fantasies running contrary to all human experience. It is simply part of the human condition that some people will not be restrained from evildoing except by force, so that the need for and legitimacy of the police power of the state is a matter of natural law.
Second, the legitimacy of this police power is backed by divine providence. Aquinas develops this theme as follows:
Again, in various countries, the men who are put in positions over other men are like executors of divine providence; indeed, God through the order of His providence directs lower beings by means of higher ones, as is evident from what we said before. But no one sins by the fact that he follows the order of divine providence. Now, this order of divine providence requires the good to be rewarded and the evil to be punished, as is shown by our earlier remarks. Therefore, men who are in authority over others do no wrong when they reward the good and punish the evil. (Summa Contra Gentiles III.146)
Here Aquinas is recapitulating the teaching of scripture no less than of natural law. As St. Paul famously writes:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)
This is also the consistent and binding teaching of the Catholic faith. For example, Pope Leo XIII teaches in :
To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes willfully to destruction. “He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.” To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.
Of course, this by no means entails that governmental authorities and police are not themselves sometimes guilty of injustice. When they are, they must be punished accordingly and existing institutions reformed. But that is very different from opposing coercive governmental power as such. Hence, calls to “abolish the police” or “defund the police,” the claim that “all cops are bastards,” and the like, are contrary to natural law, divine revelation, and indeed (as St. Paul and Pope Leo teach) the divine government itself. They are not merely ill-advised, like this or that regulation or tax or foreign policy initiative. They are subversive of the very social order. Into the bargain, such rhetoric is gravely unjust to the majority of police officers, dehumanizes them and, predictably, has resulted in . And the citizens for whose sake the insane defunding proposal would purportedly be implemented would in fact be harmed the most by it, and .
Public officials who do not unequivocally reject such evil opinions, and especially those who positively sympathize with such opinions, act directly contrary to the most fundamental preconditions of a just social order. They are ipso facto manifestly unfit for office.
The leftist mobs who have, in the name of this anti-police position, been attacking governmental buildings and otherwise seeking confrontations with police are guilty of the grave sin of sedition. (Some among the mainstream press have tried to pretend that this mob violence has been exaggerated, but the pretense has by now gotten .) Contrasting sedition with war in the usual sense (which involves conflict between different countries) and strife (which involves conflict between individuals), Aquinas characterizes it as follows:
Sedition may be said to denote either actual aggression, or the preparation for such aggression… when, to wit, a number of people make preparations with the intention of fighting… Sedition, in its proper sense, is between mutually dissentient parts of one people, as when one part of the state rises in tumult against another part… [S]edition is opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peace of a people...
A seditious man is one who incites others to sedition, and since sedition denotes a kind of discord, it follows that a seditious man is one who creates discord, not of any kind, but between the parts of a multitude. And the sin of sedition is not only in him who sows discord, but also in those who dissent from one another inordinately…
Sedition is contrary to the unity of the multitude, viz. the people of a city or kingdom… Wherefore it is evident that the unity to which sedition is opposed is the unity of law and common good: whence it follows manifestly that sedition is opposed to justice and the common good. Therefore by reason of its genus it is a mortal sin, and its gravity will be all the greater according as the common good which it assails surpasses the private good which is assailed by strife.
Accordingly the sin of sedition is first and chiefly in its authors, who sin most grievously; and secondly it is in those who are led by them to disturb the common good. Those, however, who defend the common good, and withstand the seditious party, are not themselves seditious, even as neither is a man to be called quarrelsome because he defends himself. (Summa Theologiae )
Let’s note the various aspects of this account. First, sedition involves one part of a society putting itself into a state of war with another part, by attacking the unity, peace, law, and common good of that society. The left-wing rioters have done exactly this. They do not seek to work within the legal and institutional framework they share with their fellow citizens. Rather, they condemn that framework as inherently racist and therefore illegitimate, and anyone who upholds it as complicit in oppression. Hence they boldly violate the laws by destroying public property, looting, burning down businesses, and even taking over whole city blocks. They routinely resort to other forms of intimidation, such as forming mobs outside of private homes, harassing people in restaurants and other public spaces, doxing their opponents and seeking to make them unemployable, and so on. And in some cases they boldly attack governmental buildings and police themselves, not in the way ordinary criminals do (merely as a means of avoiding capture and punishment for other crimes), but precisely as acts of insurrection, as attacks on the state itself.
Second, Aquinas tells us that it is not merely those who actually engage in violence who are guilty of sedition. Those who merely prepare for such conflict are guilty of it too, as indeed are even those who simply “dissent… inordinately” from their fellow citizens. Anti-police activists who show up at protests armed with shields, helmets, bats, fireworks, lasers, pepper spray, etc. – and in some cases guns – are obviously preparing for violent confrontation. Aquinas’s term “inordinately” is a bit vague, but I submit that someone who thinks that the basic institutions of American society are so deeply and irredeemably evil that any fellow citizen who disagrees with that judgment is worthy of being doxed, publicly hounded, made unemployable, etc. “dissents inordinately” from his fellow citizens.
Third, as Aquinas says, those who “withstand the seditious party, are not themselves seditious,” any more than a person defending himself or others against attack can justly be called an aggressor. Now, it certainly does not follow that armed vigilantism is morally unproblematic or advisable. In general, it is not. But it is ridiculous to pretend, as some have, that those who have stood up to the rioters are themselves somehow morally on a par with them, especially in contexts where local governments have refused to suppress the riots themselves.
Now, Aquinas also goes on to say that armed resistance to a tyrant can be legitimate, and that “consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind” (Summa Theologiae II-II.42.2). Does that mean that left-wing violence is justifiable after all, given that Donald Trump has violated “democratic norms,” as his critics are always piously averring every time he tweets out some trash talk?
The very idea is preposterous on its face. Say what you will about Trump, he is not literally a tyrant. He has no more power than other presidents have had, and his will, like theirs, has frequently been thwarted by Congress, the courts, and the federal bureaucracy. He is in so weak a position that he will be lucky if he’s able barely to squeak out an Electoral College victory against a mediocrity in cognitive decline. You can criticize Trump as loudly, harshly, and frequently as you wish, will be widely and openly praised for doing so, and Trump himself will do nothing in response but send out a nasty tweet or two. Twitter mobs will not get you fired from your job, and in-person mobs will not descend on your home, harass you in public places, or loot and burn down your business. (The people who engage in and get away with this kind of thuggish behavior are all critics of Trump.) It is supporters of Trump, and not his critics, they have to keep their views to themselves for fear of retaliation. A tyrant would see in the coronavirus crisis and lockdowns an ideal “national emergency” pretext for increasing his power. Instead, Trump has resisted lockdowns and is constantly accused of minimizing the threat of the virus. A tyrant would use the riots as an excuse to impose martial law. Instead, Trump has mainly confined himself to photo ops and tweeting out the phrase “Law and Order!” Rather than doubling down on the federal presence in Portland in order to repel the lunatics who have besieged the courthouse there for months, his administration pulled the federal agents out. Some “tyranny”!
Nor does Even if Trump had really meant to say that he will not give up power if he loses the election – which – there is zero chance that the federal bureaucracy in general, in particular, or even would support him. (Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s that Trump would try to “steal” the election and that if it is close Biden “should not concede under any circumstances” were not met with similar horror by the pearl-clutchers – even though what she meant was essentially the same thing that Trump meant.) for pearl-clutching lend any credence to the “tyranny” charge.
Furthermore, even if Trump really did have tyrannical designs, that would not justify the violence of the woke mob in the least. For one thing, as Aquinas writes, a tyrannical government can be legitimately resisted by force “unless indeed the tyrant's rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant's government” (Summa Theologiae II-II.42.2, emphasis added). Those whose businesses have been looted and burned down by rioters have suffered far more from them than from anything Trump has done. Nor can violent resistance to a tyrant be justified when there are peaceful alternatives – elections, recourse to the courts, etc.
Then there is the fact that, for the most part, it has not been federal agents that the rioters have been attacking but local police under the authority of left-wing local governments. It isn’t really Trump that these people are attacking. It is lawful authority as such that they are attacking. They are engaged in sedition pure and simple, and as a matter of basic justice such action should be put down by governing authorities with whatever force is necessary. Governing authorities and even these actions thereby facilitate sedition. That is, I submit, far more contrary to “democratic norms” than anything Trump has done.
When we hear the word “tyranny,” we are inclined to think of a single individual despot, but as Aquinas makes clear, that is by no means the only kind of tyranny, nor the worst kind. In De Regno, Book I, Chapter 2, he writes:
If an unjust government is carried on by one man alone, who seeks his own benefit from his rule and not the good of the multitude subject to him, such a ruler is called a tyrant... If an unjust government is carried on, not by one but by several, and if they be few, it is called an oligarchy, that is, the rule of a few. This occurs when a few, who differ from the tyrant only by the fact that they are more than one, oppress the people by means of their wealth. If, finally, the bad government is carried on by the multitude, it is called a democracy, i.e. control by the populace, which comes about when the plebeian people by force of numbers oppress the rich. In this way the whole people will be as one tyrant.
End quote. So, on Aquinas’s account, a faction within society, or even the people as a whole, could rule in a tyrannical fashion. Notice that he says that it is possible even for the common people to be perpetrators of oppression, not just victims of it; and that it is possible even for the rich to be victims of oppression, and not just perpetrators of it. No one can claim that he has justice on his side merely because he belongs to a certain group within society, and no one can be accused of injustice merely because he belongs to some other group.
Aquinas says more about the nature of factional tyranny, in particular, in Book I, Chapter 6 of De Regno. Indeed, he says that a “polyarchy” or equal rule of multiple individuals or competing interests is more likely to degenerate into tyranny than a monarchy is:
Group government [polyarchy] most frequently breeds dissension. This dissension runs counter to the good of peace which is the principal social good. A tyrant, on the other hand, does not destroy this good, rather he obstructs one or the other individual interest of his subjects – unless, of course, there be an excess of tyranny and the tyrant rages against the whole community. Monarchy is therefore to be preferred to polyarchy, although either form of government might become dangerous…
Now, considerable dangers to the multitude follow more frequently from polyarchy than from monarchy. There is a greater chance that, where there are many rulers, one of them will abandon the intention of the common good than that it will be abandoned when there is but one ruler. When any one among several rulers turns aside from the pursuit of the common good, danger of internal strife threatens the group because, when the chiefs quarrel, dissension will follow in the people…
Moreover, in point of fact, a polyarchy deviates into tyranny not less but perhaps more frequently than a monarchy. When, on account of there being many rulers, dissensions arise in such a government, it often happens that the power of one preponderates and he then usurps the government of the multitude for himself. This indeed may be clearly seen from history. There has hardly ever been a polyarchy that did not end in tyranny.
End quote. Now, Aquinas suggests that “dissension” between the people of a society and “abandon[ment]…of the common good” are more likely with polyarchy than with a single tyrant. Why would that be? Here’s a way to think about it. The classic individual despot is primarily concerned simply with staying in power for its own sake. He will interfere with any actions among the citizenry that might pose a threat to that power. But once it is secure he may be willing to advance the common good, even if only because it will facilitate his staying in power. He may well rule pragmatically rather than ideologically, and in a way that is neutral between the interests of the various groups subject to him.
By contrast, a faction is typically concerned to secure power not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of advancing the interests of some group – a cabal of ideologues, an economic class, a tribal faction or ethnic group, a party, or what have you. And such interests naturally tend to conflict with those of other groups. Thus the dissension and abandonment of the common good that Aquinas speaks of. And thus the greater tyranny. It’s bad when some despot refuses to give up power, but leaves you alone as long as you don’t challenge him. But it’s much worse when a one-party state wants to impose its ideological vision on the whole of society, or a tribal faction or ethnic group gains control and seeks to avenge its grievances against other such groups. In the nature of the case, the common good is abandoned, and one faction simply attempts to impose its will on the others – not “from below,” as in sedition, but “from above” by way of the apparatus of state power.
Now, proposals that have become mainstream within the Democratic Party – including abolishing the Senate filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, and eliminating the Electoral College – would, if implemented, Certainly they too entail far graver violations of “democratic norms” than anything Trump has done. and thus a factional tyranny.
Court-packing amounts to an abandonment of even the pretense of interpreting the law rather than creating it by fiat. True, both parties have increasingly tried to get onto the court people they hope will rule the way they want them to. But because the parties have respected the precedent that the Court has no more than nine justices at any time, chance has played as much of a role as which party happens to hold power in determining who those justices will be. If by chance a seat on the Court happens to be vacant because of death or resignation, and if a party holds the presidency, and if the president can get the Senate to confirm his candidate, only then can that party can get its candidate onto the Court. Being neutral between the parties, chance has kept either party from being able entirely to make the court its plaything.
Court-packing would eliminate that first, crucial element of chance. It would allow the party that controls the presidency and the Senate to appoint as many justices as it needs to in order to ensure that the Court will decide that the Constitution says what the party wants it to say.
The remaining elements of chance would be removed by the abolition of the Electoral College, along with other left-wing schemes in play, such as granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The Electoral College is a bulwark of subsidiarity and political moderation, and an obstacle to the tyranny of the majority. It requires presidential candidates to take account of the diverse interests and circumstances of rural and urban localities, states with large populations and those with small ones, more traditional communities and more modern ones, and so forth. Now, if presidential candidates had, for example, to appeal to mostly rural voters, it would be very difficult for a Democrat ever to win; whereas if they had to appeal to mostly urban voters, it would be difficult for a Republican ever to win. But abolishing the Electoral College would create exactly that latter sort of situation, allowing the Democratic Party to win presidential elections and formulate policy by appealing primarily to the high-population urban centers where it is at its strongest, while largely ignoring the concerns and interests of the rest of the country. That is a recipe for factional tyranny.
As Marc Thiessen points out, the Democrats could, through apportionment, effectively “pack” the House of Representatives as well, and thereby realize a one-party state by increasing their strength in the Electoral College (since the number of electors reflects the number of representatives) rather than abolishing it. Granting statehood to D.C. and/or Puerto Rico, which would be Democratic strongholds, would also make it difficult or impossible for the Republicans ever again to control the Senate.
And this is to say nothing about the intolerant and indeed totalitarian woke ideology that is sweeping away more sober and liberal elements on the Left – the ideology that will determine how a Leftist one-party state will govern.
Again, these departures from democratic norms have become mainstream within the Democratic Party – so much so that, whether out of fear of alienating his base (who favor such proposals) or out of fear of alienating most voters (who don’t favor them), Joe Biden refuses to tell us whether he will try to pack the Supreme Court or abolish the filibuster. Without any protest from the mainstream press. While they all accuse Trump of having dictatorial inclinations.
Hammer and anvil
The toleration of sedition and Distracted by the manifest failings of the sitting leader, the people do not see the greater evil that is coming down upon them once he is gone. . are like an anvil, and the move toward ideological one-party rule like a hammer.