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The Necessity of Moral Communication in a Pluralistic Political Environment

Eric Voegelin’s 1956 essay “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy” is of tremendous worth to the careful analyst of 21st century American political thought. It sheds much light on the effect that communication styles may have on the character of a society, and it sheds further light on the true but concealed nature of pluralistic societies. Characterizations of such societies as bastions of toleration are misleading; instead, the types of communication that is prevalent in most pluralistic societies today conceal the rather vitriolic competition for power that occurs within them. By applying Voegelin’s essay to today’s environment, this chapter develops the thesis that If we seek to identify the reasons why America’s constitution has endured for so long, we would be better served to study the sprit in which America’s institutions were created, rather than the spirit which animates many of America’s political debates.

Voegelin distinguishes three types of communication in “Necessary Moral Bases.” Substantive communication that is used to foment the necessary homonia amongst society members regarding the philosophical truths of questions pertinent to the existence and well-being of a community. Pragmatic communication does not rise to concern itself with substantive truth, but rather “has the purpose of inducing in the human target a state of mind in conformity with the communicator’s intention.”[1] Such communicators have the “morally dubious position of [destroying] their fellowman’s order” because “the personal organization of a man’s life will disintegrate under the constant stimulation of anxieties and passions through the pragmatic propaganda aimed at him” (CW 11, 49). Finally, communication as an intoxicant serves the role of alleviating boredom. Intoxicating communication can be the most dangerous for it targets “the blackness that pervades the soul, the emptiness that results in boredom and ultimately in despair, when soul is not ordered by faith” (CW 11, 50). Voegelin argues that in our contemporary massive and highly secularized societies “a goodly bulk of movie-going, listening to radio, and . . .  looking at television has the character of a divertissement in the sense . . . of an intoxicating activity that will drown the anxiety of an empty life” (CW 11, 50). The problem for the cultivation of substantively truthful and thus moral communication is indeed that philosophically true and morally stimulating substantive communication is simply missing from society’s predominant discourse.

Voegelin argues that the veneer of social politeness in contemporary western “pluralistic” democratic societies can be misleading. Beneath the surface of an ostensibly rational and objective pursuit for philosophical truths, lies a plethora of forces competing for power within these societies; the true picture of the west is one of “the blood and stench of the war that is conducted now for four-and-a-half-centuries, with no end visible” (CW 11, 53). The succession of movements beginning with the Protestant reformation, and including the English, American, and French revolutions, culminating in the Russian revolution and its offshoots, produce a cacophony of pluralistic forces.  Voegelin notes that these revolutions proceed in the form of “movement, countermovement, wars, peace settlements” (CW 11, 53). In other words, the ostensibly polite and rationally presented arguments occurring within western democracies are anything but polite and rational; the medium of mass communication distorts the intoxicating and pragmatic elements of mass communication and provides instead the false sense that rational debates aimed at objective truths are the actual substance of mass communication. Voegelin’s analysis of modern mass communication thus contributes meaningfully and uniquely to the debates concerning the civility of western democratic societies. “Moral Bases” highlights the seriousness of this particular symptom of incivility; for this analysis shows mass communication to be the very battleground upon which is fought the pluralistic wars waged within the West.

A particular landscape feature tends to re-appear in the substance of mass communication; fortunately, Voegelin identified this feature as the “prohibition of questions,” and provided a satisfactory description of the term in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1960), which appeared during the same era as “Necessary Moral Bases.”[2] Voegelin presented the prohibition of questions as the technique used by Marx to provide the evidence needed to adequately present his notion that man’s nature was compatible with the ends of his communist theories. Essentially, a theoretician of Marx’s pay-grade will understand the philosophical uncertainty of his claims, as uncertainty is an indelible feature of our existence. Yet, in order to make a dubious claim appealing to masses who may empower the idea posed by said theorist, the theorist will distort or conceal the fact that his claim may or may not contain truthful claims. Hence, questions regarding the viability of the theorist’s ideas are discouraged in much the same way that a used-car salesman might distract potential buyers from potential issues with a car’s engine. Such politicians are particularly dangerous, for murder of political opposition is an obvious and comprehensive way of prohibiting questions that might hinder the movement.  Voegelin’s analyses of German and Russian totalitarianism focused on this particular theoretical maneuver.

In “Necessary Moral Bases,” the notion of the prohibition of questions is applied to pluralistic democratic nations. Here, the prohibition of questions appears in a subtle form when implemented politically; communication rather than violence is the tool of political prohibition. In the pluralistic context, confusion by individuals over the fundamental distinction between the rationality of substantive communication and the irrationality of pragmatic and intoxicating communication is the key to the rouse perpetrated by pragmatic communicators. Voegelin posits that an individual’s proclivity to resist conformist propositions is a function “of a soul that is essentially open toward God” (SPG, 58). Such a soul is produced through the education of the soul to love rational arguments. A soul cultivates a love for rationality through the experience of undertaking a common-sense study of our world through the Platonic method (SPG, 57). This disposition of the soul does not exist in a soul which does not undertake this basic experience of the soul. A society which does not present rational mass communications to individuals, therefore, may also subtly prohibit individuals from asking the questions that a rational person would ask:

“In order to achieve his purpose, the pragmatic communicator must therefore rely on the arsenal of psychological tricks – suppressio veri  and suggestio falsi, repetition, the “big lie,” and so forth – to create the emotional diversions that will prevent his target from questioning the substantive authenticity of the communication. For this reason, essentially pragmatic communication is inevitably forced in the direction of intoxication” (SPG, 58).

I have identified a particular tactic in this essay that has been employed by mass communicators to prohibit questions. Pragmatic messages are communicated in particularly provocative ways that are intoxicating to the receiver of these messages. Generally, messages are presented which portray the opponent in a hostile and antagonizing manner. These messages solicit counter-messages that are similarly provocative and hostile in turn. This style of debate, though highly effective at riling the mass audiences, is by its very nature destructive of the homonia which cultivates the circumstances in which substantive messages might flourish. And, indeed, this type of prohibition of questions is most successfully implemented in that type of society in which substantive communication through the medium of classical philosophy and religious devotion have been whittled from the education and experiences of the citizens of a society. In other words, the more pluralistic a society becomes, the more dependent it will become on pragmatic and intoxicating messages, and the more difficult it will become for substantive messages to flourish.

In order to demonstrate that a subtle prohibition of questions can be fomented through the style of mass communication used in a modern, pluralistic and democratic society, this chapter will examine mass communications from several noteworthy eras from American history and from an era of English history that is especially pertinent to American political development.  I will look at pamphlets, sermons and newspaper articles from 1670-1680 England; from 1760-1776 America; from 1800 America; and from 2016-present America.  Pamphlets from each period, with the exception of 1760-1776 America, contain a strong element of pragmatic and intoxicating arguments which also tacitly prohibit questions about their premises through the manner in which they were presented. I will dwell on the features of the American Revolutionary era which made it unique from the others, and posit that the effects of the Great Awakening combined with America’s geo-political self-view provided the unique set of factors needed to produce a constitutional order uniquely situated to preserve factional conflict within a large pluralistic republic. Human nature being what it is, the benefit of the system derived during this unique and brief period in American history is not that is has produced over time a society of angelic men who do not fight with one another. Rather, the greatest benefit of this order is that it allows for and even encourages the conflicts which hallmark most other eras.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of this chapter is that the institutions produced during the American revolutionary era more deeply reflect the classical and Christian philosophical inspirations, and contain deeper substantive messages, than do the debates that persist throughout American history. In many eras of American history, the rationality of the institution operates in contradiction to the intoxicated nature of the debates that occur between the humans that made those institutions function. This analysis will allow me to comment in the conclusion of this chapter on the relationship between institutions and mass political movements, on the ways in which Voegelin was correct about the resilience of American institutions, and to speculate on the ways in which contemporary debates in American society portend any meaningful change to either societal or world order.

Communication in England between the Restoration and Glorious Revolution

Contemporary work on the seminal development of liberalism in Restoration England does indeed reveal that the arguments and language used to foment and further the protestant movement during this time had deep political motivations.[3] The religious language used to justify individual liberty in the era was employed to create voters for dissenting representatives in Parliament in the struggle for power being waged therein.

Samuel Parker’s, Discourse on Ecclesiastical Polity (1669) and A Defense and Continuation of the Ecclesiastical Polity (1671), both contained such profound attacks upon the Dissenters that they can both necessarily be characterized as prohibiting any questions pertaining to the fundamentals of Charles II’s political policies and motives. Ostensibly at stake in these documents was the reasonability or rationality of the dissenters; though in actuality at stake for King Charles II was no less than the consolidation of power for his regime.

Charles II intended to win the favor of the Anglican church through his persecution of dissenters in 1669 and 1670; the issue which had angered Anglican leaders was Charles’ promise to grant greater religious freedom “to tender conscience” as a component of the Restoration Settlement.[4] Thus Charles’ persecution of dissenters and the tracts aimed at justifying it turned on this issue of conscience. Charles intended later to win back the favor of dissenters by providing precisely those freedoms he had persecuted in 1669-70.

It was in this political context that Parker’s 1669 attack appeared. This was not a philosophical tract. It argued rather simply that dissenters constituted a “wild and fanatic rabble,” “pests and enemies . . . [of] the nation’s welfare,” and “rude and boisterous zealots,” who would be irresponsive to “calm and sober reason.”[5] Thus it was necessary to persecute them. The object being not to reason with but to “silence them.” He wished to “brand and punish” anyone who supported the idea of freedom of conscience, so that all who remained would be “scare[d] into better obedience.”[6]

The argument for both parties then turned on whether conscience could demonstrate to an individual that civil and religious authorities are incorrect about any specific issue. Much literature has focused on the intricacies of this debate, which side might have been advocating some form of Hobbesian thought, and which side is logically correct. I would like to focus instead on the structure of the argument as it developed between the rival parties, and what the consequences of this structure might be in this case and for any argument generally. By “structure” I specifically mean the ways in which the wording and language employed by one party to a debate may encourage or solicit this instead of that response from another party to a debate. My argument is essentially this: by responding to a tract which prohibited questions on the terms created by that tract, one is likely to respond in a hyper-defensive manner to the attack–one is likely to defend oneself from the charges made in the attack on the terms created by the attack itself. This makes sense in a military context–when Pickett charged up Cemetery Ridge, Meade moved troops from his flanks to atop Cemetery Ridge; the decision to respond to a specific attack instead of to retreat is a commonly made decision in rhetorical wars as well. This need not be done in a rhetorical war, as the battlefield is a rhetorical and imaginative work.

Ground need not be defended as it is when attacked physically. Rather, a counter-parry could more productively re-create the battlefield by re-defining the terms rather than responding to the narrative created by one’s opponent. By responding to the debate terms created by one’s opponent, one decreases the likelihood that the political debate will be reconciled respectfully or peacefully. In the case of the debate about conscience in 1670s England, the principled defense of individual conscience is made by Whig writers in a way which almost immediately divorced the concept of freedom of conscience from its more limited classical portrayals by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. For Parker, the directives of revelation through church officials are what is correctly truthful and real; only those individuals are competent to properly interpret affairs. For Locke and dissenters such as Ferguson, the insights of conscience are what is correct and truthful, and their arguments are forced by the argument employed by Parker and by the political context of their goal to argue that absolutely all individuals are competent in this regard. Importantly, they do not attempt argue that some consciences, such as the consciences of the consistently inept or those who are consistently wishing to harm others, should not be included in the lot of those possessing the capacity for rationality.

Hence, in both Robert Ferguson’s reply to Parker and in Locke’s various writings that address conscience we see a structure to their argument for conscience which rules out any in-between regarding whether all men are capable of rational and proper behavior and insights, or if what is rational may only be seen innately by the supremely qualified.  Ferguson writes that “no action can be moral that is not free . . .  freedom intrinsically belongs to every action, as it is a human action.”[7] He does not mean to endorse libertinism but rather couches this argument in creationism, along the lines that certain important “duties” such as “love and reverence” are “obliged to by the rule of creation.”[8] Ferguson argues very clearly that this capacity to correctly interpret the extent of one’s duties to others is universally achievable, declaring that “we are limited with such faculties” necessary to distinguish the complexity of consequences to an action and accordingly to weigh its morality.[9] He states this capacity to be inherent to “every man,” and his contemporary Richard Baxter proclaims that “every rational creature is endowed with” the reasonability to discern moral consequences in actions.

Locke also develops an argument for reasonability regarding morality in a similar manner. For Locke, conscience is “the sentence which everyone passes on himself.”[10] It is a judgment pronounced within a man’s head, concerning the morality of his own actions; in Locke’s words, “conscience is nothing else but our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions”[11]:

“It is not conscience that makes the distinction of good and evil, conscience only judging of an action by that which it takes to be [eternal] rule of good and evil, acquits or condemns it.  I call not conscience practical principles.  He who confounds the judgment made with the rule of law upon which it is made perhaps talk so.  Conscience is not the law of nature, but judging by that which is (by it) taken to be the law.”[12]

Conscience is a judgment, but it does not provide the basis upon which the judgment is rendered; conscience is only the voice that announces the decision. Conscience is the voice, but not the reason.  Locke affirms this in the Essays:

“I grant that some have undertaken to prove from the testimony of conscience that there is a Diety presiding over the world.  However, for the purpose of confirming the truth of our argument it suffices that man, by exercising the senses and reason at the same time, can attain to the knowledge of some supreme godhead.”[13]

Conscience, then, is the judgment pronounced as a result of man’s sense perception and reasoning faculty. Using his senses and faculties, man may arrive at judgments concerning the morality of his actions.

In the Second Treatise the judgments announced by conscience have political ramifications, affecting the decision to resist or to consent to political authority. Despite the significance of the term, it is not defined in the text. The critical question is whether or not the conscience of the Second Treatise means the soulful wonderment at final causes in a manner that is attuned to real order of things (what has been called the Logos or Divine Nous). In short, the answer to this question is no, it is a reduced, soulless version of conscience that may judge the propriety of retributive violence. If one attempts to understand Locke on conscience, solely from the text of the Second Treatise, one may do little more than operate from context clues in the few passages where conscience is either mentioned or ostensibly applicable. Undertaking such an exercise is profitable, for it reveals that Locke’s conception of reason indeed prompts man to pursue that action which is most personally advantageous from a materialistic perspective.

Locke suggests that the appeal to heaven resembles Jephtha’s appeal to heaven: “whether I may as Jephtha did, appeal to heaven.”[14] That is, we may appeal, as much as possible, “as Jephtha did.” Conscionable decisions resemble Jephtha’s decision. It is necessary to inquire as far as possible into Jephtha’s appeal if Locke’s view of conscience is to be garnered from the Second Treatise.  Locke writes:

“Had there been any such Court, any superior Jurisdiction on Earth, to determine the right between Jephtha and the Ammoniites, they had never come to a State of War, but we see he was forced to appeal to Heaven.  The Lord the Judge (says he) be Judge this day between the Children of Israel, and the Children of Ammon, Judg. 11. 27. and then Prosecuting, and relying on his appeal, he leads out his Army to Battle.”[15]

This evidence has been misconstrued by some scholars. Jacqueline Stevens, for example, argues that Jephtha’s appeal was made by the people of Israel, and was not a private decision by Jephtha.[16] Stevens concludes that, consequently, a right of resistance may only be made by the people at large, and not by private individuals.  Stevens’s evidence is Locke’s line, later in the text, “they may appeal, as Jephtha did, to Heaven, and repeat their Appeal.[17] Steven’s ignores Locke’s first reference to Jephtha, “I may as Jephtha did, appeal to heaven.” Taken together, the lines suggest that either an individual or the people at large may make such an appeal. It is true, as has been noted,[18] that the majority must at some point conclude that resistance is reasonable; but this decision must be reached by the independent people that compose the majority.

Stevens further argues that Jephtha’s decision to go to war against the Ammonites was decided by the “‘the people’ of Israel.”[19] A manner of reading the account in scripture affirms Stevens’s interpretation; Israeli people and elders decided to attack the Ammonites and to make Jephtha the military leader.[20] This argument, however, ignores the fact that we are dealing with Locke’s reading of Jephtha and not our own. Locke insists that Jephtha made this appeal as an individual act: “and relying on his appeal, he leads out his Army to Battle.”[21] Such an argument further ignores Locke’s position on individual action versus the action of a ruler. Locke distinguishes between the powers inherent to Princes and the powers inherent to the people given cases of interstate war: “the Resolutions of Peace and War, being ordinarily either in the People, or in a Council. Though the War it self, which admits not of Plurality of Governours, naturally devolves the Command into the King’s sole Authority.[22] Thus by Locke’s account Jephtha’s decision was ultimately made in his own conscience; that is, as a purely individual act. Locke later affirms, clearly, that single individuals may undertake an individual appeal to heaven:

“And where the Body of the People, or any single Man, is deprived of their Right, or is under the Exercise of a power without right, and have no Appeal on Earth, there they have a liberty to appeal to Heaven, whenever they judge the Cause of sufficient moment.”[23]

This point is consequential.  Locke’s justification for resistance is greatly expanded because it is countenanced in terms of the appeal to heaven – in terms of the individual conscience – and not in terms of majority rule, a theme emphasized elsewhere in the Second Treatise.[24] The first thing discerned from the use of Jephtha, then, is that conscience does not only countenance resistance when it is approved by a majority of individuals. A majority of the Israeli people may have supported Jephtha’s decision to confront the Ammonites, but it was not necessary for Jephtha to make the appeal, or to act on the basis of his appeal, which was a result of his action alone.

The second thing to be learned from Jephtha’s appeal is that the moral character of decisions rendered through conscience is not always self-evident. Jephtha’s appeal was: “Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the Lord the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.”[25] The Ammonites, however, insisted that the Israelis were the aggressors in the confrontation: “Israel took away my land . . . now therefore restore those lands peaceably.”[26] Jephtha argued that the Israelis had taken the land in question from the Ammonites three hundred years prior, and that the amount of time to have passed since implied the rightfulness of the Israeli claim to the land.[27] Scripture, therefore, suggests that the land was originally possessed by the Ammonites, taken and held for three hundred years by the Israelis, before being challenged by the Ammonites. It would seem, then, that the Israelis, not the Ammonites, were the aggressors in the state of war between the two parties. The circumstance would, given Locke’s typology of power, be a case of unjust conquest. In such an event: “the Conquered, have no Court, no Arbitrator on Earth to appeal to.   They may appeal, as Jephtha did, to Heaven, and repeat their Appeal, till they have recovered the native right of their ancestors.”[28]

Locke insists that the native possessor of lands is entitled to a right of war against unjust conquerors, regardless of the time to have elapsed since the conquering invasion. The puzzling aspect of the above quote is Locke’s suggestion that it is the Israelis, and not the Ammonites, who are granted this right of war. It was, after all, the Ammonites who had possessed the land first, and time cannot exempt them from this claim. This discrepancy can be explained in one of two ways. First, Jephtha’s actual appeal provided convenient scriptural support for Locke’s resistance theory. Judges 11:27, stripped from the context, is attractive in that regard, and this attractiveness is only watered down upon a close inspection of the full history between the Ammonites and the Israelis. Perhaps Locke thought such an analysis superficial, somehow inappropriate, or otherwise unlikely to be undertaken. Second, intentionally or not, Locke’s argument makes a subtle point regarding the nature of the appeal made by the conscience.  Jephtha’s appeal, in actuality specious, provides no moral foundation to the appeal. One may proclaim that one is a victim, that one is invoking one’s right of war, while one is actually introducing and aggressor in a state of war.

Locke’s writings on Jephtha, then, give us no more evidence that conscience will countenance the morally superior position than it gives us evidence that conscience will approve of morally deplorable propositions. The moral vapidity inherent to Locke’s “as Jephtha” is suggestive of the political stakes involved in Locke’s writings, and help us to see the Two Treatises as a work of propaganda relying on the medium of pragmatic and, it is possibly even fair to say, intoxicating mass communication.

So, Ferguson’s response and Locke’s writings on the topic both contain prohibitions of questions which, less vehemently articulated, are equally as prohibitive as was Parker’s original articulation.  Per Parker, all dissenters are incapable of rationality. So per Ferguson, all humans (which would include all dissenters) are capable of rationality. And per Locke, we see how such can be contorted to support either claim in a controversy. Of course, Parker’s purpose was indeed to persecute, and his language was effective. But Ferguson’s language was intended to defend.  I believe that he and his contemporaries feared that the more moderated and probably more accurate defense – “some or most of us are capable of rationality, even if some of us are not,” could not be articulated for at least two reasons of probably equal importance. First, this would not go over well with the lower class voting block the Dissenters were attempting to create. Secondly, this would cede too much of the battlefield to Parker – such an argument would provide fuel to the notion that unfettered individual conscience could err, that public welfare is more likely protected by demonstrating deference to the moral prerogatives of religious leaders. In other words, Parker had already claimed this turf by the way in which he structured his attack.  The only viable move in response was the one it generated, the claim that all individuals are capable of rationality.

The above evidence demonstrates a tendency for political discourse to quickly degenerate once some prohibition of questions is introduced. The stark nature of Parker’s attack solicited replies to it on the terms it had created. And, indeed, a counter-prohibition-of-question was created in the dissenters’ response to Parker’s invectives. Once both sides are adopting language which dismisses out-of-hand the possibility that the opponent could possibly be correct, or could be correct in some elements of his argument, it is highly unlikely that a conciliatory outcome will occur.

Communication in American before and after the Revolution

The decade leading up to the American Revolution, though producing a flood of politically charged pamphlets, produced very few arguments containing the rhetorical nastiness displayed in England during the 1670s and 1680s, despite the fact that many of them still employed polemics and satire as had the English seventeenth century pamphlets. Indeed, the revolutionary decade seems to fundamentally different from the revolutionary decades in England a century before.  As Bernard Bailyn notes:

“The American writers were profoundly reasonable people. Their pamphlets convey scorn, anger, and indignation; but rarely blind hate, rarely panic fear. They sought to convince their opponents, not, like the British pamphleteers of the eighteenth century, to annihilate them. For the primary goal of the American Revolution, which transformed American life and introduced a new era in human history, was not the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of political liberty . . .” [29]

Bailyn’s observation corroborates Voegelin’s view that there was indeed something special about the American Revolution. In the space allotted, I may only briefly expand upon Bailyn’s analysis of the reasonability of the pamphlets produced during that decade, by also pointing towards the prolific use of sermons as a medium to convey political messages throughout the eighteenth century. The sage words of Ellis Sandoz summarize the impact of the Great Awakening upon the sermons of the era: “This rhetorical form expressed the philosophical mean that free government is based on liberty, and liberty is founded in truth and justice as framed by eternal laws.”[30] This era is one of several flashes-in-the-pan of reasonable and substantively oriented mass communication in American history; it represents not the bulk but the vast minority of political arguments throughout our history.

One such exemplary sermon by Silas Downer, A Discourse Beneath the Liberty Tree (1768), is a careful examination of the principles of consent and representation in the English political tradition, at many junctures applying Whig resistance arguments reminiscent of Locke, going so far as to draw North America as a sort of state of nature.[31] But it is important to note that Downer‘s use of conscience turns on a basic and clearly classically derived understanding of natural rights and natural law, and does not rely on the radical notion implied by Whig writers of Locke‘s day, namely that all humans always possess a perfectly functioning conscience. Downer then uses this analysis to lament certain trade restrictions, such as the prohibition on the production of nails. His case is reasonably made that such a prohibition over distant colonies who find themselves in a state of nature and without representation is indeed tyrannical. Downer is not unlike other authors from this period – both Whig and Tory – who were able to develop rational arguments grounded in persuasively developed contemplations of natural human needs, and to restrain from name calling as a political tactic. This sermon is noteworthy in that it postures a defensive tone upon rational grounds. It is typical of writings in this era by portraying the colonies as victims of an aggression whose validity is empirically discernable by candid humans; it does indeed convey scorn and anger, but differs from the pamphlets cited during the religious debates of the 1670s in that it does not convey blind hate.

Pamphlets and newspaper articles produced post-revolution demonstrate that the rationally presented arguments of the revolution degenerated quickly into a competition for power in the early years of the republic. This era contained similar degenerative rhetoric to that which had characterized English political discourse in the decades prior the Glorious Revolution. Indeed, as tensions flared during the tumultuous Presidential election of 1800, the shape of the propaganda appearing in partisan newspapers during that campaign (the era’s equivalent of the pamphlets of the 1670s) exhibited the vitriol that characterized the 1670s pamphlets cited above. One New York Federalist newspaper characterized the choice between New York state legislature candidates in April, 1800 in profoundly oppositional terms. This passage serves to illustrate the general tenor of this era nicely:

“You who are for French notions of government; for the tempestuous sea of anarchy and misrule; for the arming of the poor against the rich; for fraternizing with the foes of God and man; go to the left and support the leaders, or the dupes, of the anti-federal junto. But you that are sober, industrious, thriving, and happy, give your votes for those men who mean to preserve the union of the states, the purity and vigor of our excellent Constitution, the sacred majesty of the laws, and the holy ordinances of religion.”[32]

Federalist and Republican newspapers both routinely and systematically partook of such inflammatory rhetoric. Presses at this time explicitly identified themselves as either Federalist or Republican, and often stories would emanate from the leading presses in Philadelphia, the Gazette and Aurora respectively, throughout the nation.[33] The rhetoric on both sides was identifiably designed to be intoxicating and so for politically pragmatic reasons. One commonly employed Federalist tactic was to compare the Republican Party to the French Jacobins. For instance, Federalist papers repeated the alleged though never proven and heatedly disputed claims that two white Frenchmen had helped to foment a slave revolt in Virginia in August, 1800-a claim made because “anything linking French Jacobins to domestic instability helped to justify the Federalists’ Alien Act and counter republican criticisms of it.”[34] It is worth noting that Federalists both believed and enflamed the French allegations (some historians now contend there is some merit to them, but that the evidence was destroyed by Governor James Monroe), and in some instances indulged in conspiracy theories regarding the revolt: “it was planned by Frenchmen, and . . . all the whites, save the French, were to have been sacrificed.”[35]

These quoted passages provide clear evidence of the nature of the political communication during this era, and the impact that such communication had upon those who digested it. Federalists did not shy away from indulging in theories which were not supported by evidence, and apparently did so because the indulgence in such narratives was fun for them. The Boston Gazette opined, with more than a little disgust for their political opponents, that “if anything will correct and bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves.”[36]

Common and regularly digested political communication during this era consistently showed that mass communication was designed to contain pragmatic messages presented in an intoxicating fashion, but to lack the unifying and soul deepening substantive communication that had hallmarked the Revolution merely two decades prior is absent. The tensions between Federalists and Republicans during this era were quite intense, and exemplified a competition for power between factions that was absent during the revolution. This is not surprising.  Much like era leading up to the Glorious Revolution, the Revolution of 1800 was characterized by two partisan efforts to out-wit one another. The era leading up to the American Revolution was markedly different, as the predominant factions in America became united against what evolved into a foreign threat as the 1770s unfolded. Though the similarities between the eras in terms of tyrannical behavior and natural rights defenses against that behavior has confused many scholars, including Voegelin (who saw the Glorious Revolution, though not Locke, comparably to the American Revolution), I believe that the most important variable in these eras is the combination of a natural rights awareness through some awakening movement with certain geo-political circumstances, particularly the recent victory over or immanent threat of a powerful foe.

Communication in Contemporary America

The dynamics discussed above, specifically the path dependent deterioration of civic virtue in societies whose political debates have begun relying upon prohibitions of questions, are evident in the current state of American society. The widening gulf between partisan attitudes in recent decades, noticed by some scholars, has provided for an atmosphere in which pragmatic and intoxicating political messages could be utilized prolifically for political and financial gain. Cable news and social media have undoubtedly accentuated the divisive social trends that can be traced to about the 1960s, as others have noticed.[37] Although it would be profoundly difficult to trace this particular skirmish back to volley that began it, it is quite easy to trace the ways in which a few arguments between President Trump and opposition voices expressed in the media have contained the elements discussed in this chapter: pragmatic and intoxicating messages that have had the effect of prohibiting questions from opposition on rational terms, which only serves to further exacerbate social divisions.

I will dwell upon merely one issue area of importance throughout the second decade of the twenty-first century to exemplify the subtle prohibition of questions through intoxicating language. Immigration debates have been especially contentious and exemplify the path deteriorative rhetoric that exemplifies competing arguments in pluralistic societies. The first move in the most recent immigration gambit was cast by the Obama administration’s careful avoidance of the word “terrorism” in connection with mass casualty attacks perpetrated by Islamic radicals that occurred on American soil. This strategy was implemented, at least ostensibly, to avoid backlash attacks on American Muslims, but it also demonstrated Obama’s aversion to mostly rural Americans who opposed him politically, by suggesting that this demographic was fundamentally xenophobic and incapable of civility.

Such a strategy allowed candidate Trump to successfully play to the fears of these voters, who saw themselves not as xenophobic but as defending American interests. The murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant in June 2015 provided for an intoxicating setting for the pragmatic arguments on both sides to develop. This story, of an attractive young woman inexplicably shot to death on a pier while walking with her father and the subsequent acquittal on the most serious charges of the man who shot her, infatuated many because it painted clearly and provocatively the picture of illegal immigrants as dangerous and irresponsible and also of American liberals as hostile towards American citizens while protective of illegal immigrants.[38] Candidate Trump referred, shortly thereafter, to immigrants indiscriminately as “killers and rapists.“[39] One liberal journalist responded to this comment by proclaiming that “Donald Trump and his conservative allies twisted the facts of a deadly shooting to stoke America’s xenophobia.”[40]

The prominent features of the mass communication discussed above are evident here as well.  Individuals’ curiosity about this issue is subtly prohibited by the presentation of it by mass media. Arguments against illegal immigration are made in a flagrant manner-“rapists and killers,” which allows immigration advocates to claim that this argument itself is evidence of xenophobia. Likewise, the portrayal as xenophobic of the defense of American interests is equally if not more destructive. Rational arguments aimed at cultivating homonia amongst society members are unlikely to develop in an atmosphere in which homonia amongst society members is defined by one prominent faction of society as xenophobia.


This chapter has demonstrated that Voegelin’s analysis of communication styles in “Necessary Moral Bases” receives relatively robust support from an historical study. Indeed, the essential purpose of pluralistic societies appears to be, when viewed through this lens, to provide a civilized forum through which the ideological wars of our times may be waged. It is not surprising to discover that so much of our rhetoric is typically marked by an un-philosophical strategy that is also seen in totalitarian circumstances in a different form, the prohibition of questions. It is interesting to discover that the era analyzed in which more philosophical and substantive arguments did appear, the American Revolutionary Era, was also an era lauded by Voegelin in the New Science of Politics for producing political institutions of great longevity in an era of ideological warfare.[41]

This analysis and others have identified the religious factors which strengthened America’s spine for rational truths. The cultivation of rational discourse through the sermons and pamphlets of the 1760s and 1770s was rather evident, and is indeed among the factors which allowed America to develop a constitutional system designed around the supposition that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” Yet beneath the relative unity which defined the revolutionary decade, lay the inexorable forces of political power which would inevitably affect the American order. These forces indeed began to manifest in George Washington’s second term, and erupted by 1800 into a vociferous competition for power which quickly dilapidated the rational political discourse of the 1760s and 1770s. Absent the imminent and overwhelming threat by England to eviscerate Americans’ natural rights, the Americans’ religious attitudes were not sufficient to curb the types of pragmatic and intoxicating rhetoric which came to characterize the election of 1800.[42]

Greater displays of civility in communication reemerged temporarily during the Era of Good Feelings, and again, particularly, in the 1950s, at about the time that Voegelin was lauding the religiosity of the Americans. These time-periods, however, were distinctly affected by the dual forces of foreign competition and religious sentiment. During each of these decades in American history (1770/80s, 1820s, and 1950s) the American society was more unified by historical events than they otherwise were; it was effectively organized as a one-party system during these brief eras. In the 1770/80s and 1820s the Americans were gaining independence and then celebrating their victories over the English, French, and English again, setting the stage for the Monroe Doctrine (another unifying ideal).

During the 1950s, America was settling into post-War life, rebuilding Western Europe, and a general sense of euphoria and success temporarily characterized society. Despite the arms race, Americans saw the 1950s as an unchallenging and triumphant one: “A 1958 study . . . fretted that ‘the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure.”[43]   In each decade‘s historical circumstances, an evident geo-political reason explains why the nation was particularly unified and engaging in more rational discourse than at other times. Absent such unifying opportunities, political discourse aimed at dividing instead of unifying the nation is common, as the tendency for American factions to compete more intensely for power, and to see their interests as divergent, can be seen.

Ideas presented in religious messages may provide a medium through which substantive instead of pragmatic messages can be conveyed. When combined with the historical circumstances described in the preceding paragraph, religiously inspired senses of individual culpability may greatly encourage substantive and unifying political language. During each of these time periods, we also see an abnormally high level of Protestant activity that has been inspired by some sort of awakening movement, much as Sandoz described the impact of the Second Great Awakening:

“Republicanism and virtue were far from split apart by James Madison and his colleagues at the Federal Convention, as the clergy understood our constitutional system. For these preachers and their flocks, the two remained essentially bound together. The political culture of this country was not only all the things it is most frequently said to be (I think of Bernard Bailyn’s five items), but was deeply rooted in the core religious consciousness articulated above all by the preachers; theirs were the pulpits of a new nation with a privileged, providential role in world history.”[44]

Just as the Great Awakening of the 1730s had a down-stream effect on the political thought of the Revolutionaries, the Second Great Awakening provided this same rekindling in the Era of Good Feelings. Again, in the 1950s, when Voegelin writes about this theme, Protestantism and evangelicalism are at high-water marks in 20th century America. In short, the time period in which Voegelin offered the insights reviewed in this chapter uniquely resembled the Awakening movements which had caught Voegelin’s and Sandoz’s attention.

In times of relative geo-political stability in which some time has passed since some awakening movement and that movement’s momentum has slowed down, therefore, we might expect to see a greater degree of domestic instability in pluralistic societies whose institutions provide for open opposition. Because the factions that are competing for power within such a society are not unified by some external event, they are provided with an opportunity to compete for power under the guise of pluralistic debate. But competition for power is what it is, and the essentials of force and power do not change just because the society’s laws are democratic.  Such laws do, however, obscure the true nature of power within a democracy. Liberal democracies uniformly discourage the murder of political opposition, but the strategy of prohibiting questions remains, only now through the substance of the mass communications presented to the society.

There is probably little utility in recommending various changes that might alleviate the tendency to engage in the prohibition of questions in a competitive political environment. This analysis has shown that human beings are inclined to indulge in such techniques-it is a strategy which has been relied upon in various types of societies, at various times, and in various different ways. Human beings within a society will compete for power over it, and it would be unrealistic to expect that such competitions would be hallmarked by some angelic standard of civil debate, in even western liberal democracies that have a historical cultural affinity for Christianity or who presently profess a high standard of toleration.

There is utility in recognizing bluntly the effect that competing for power has on pluralistic societies. Absent an awakening movement that coincides with some unifying event that might induce rational debate, it is likely that a society will fight among itself, and will rely on the strategies of pragmatic and intoxicating messages in order to wage such a fight. An historical analysis of the manner of conduct such as the one conducted above only affirms that “men are rascals,” and human nature “fallible.” To make such an observation is to conduct the modest exercise of political science. When we encounter recommendations based upon a desire to escape this type of ostensibly dilapidated social rhetoric, we should be dubious.

Indeed, Voegelin’s own concluding remarks in “Necessary Moral Bases” are appropriately ambivalent on this point. He does argue clearly that pragmatic and intoxicating communication is unhealthy for individuals, and I agree with him on this point: “A man who is confused about the essentials of his existence is incapable of rational action; and if he is incapable of rational action, he is incapable of moral action,” therefore “communication will not be formative but destructive of personality if the conception of order it communicates moves on one of the levels of ontological reduction” (CW 11, 57). Voegelin does not make any societal recommendations which should be used to rectify this situation, and he does not make any specific recommendations for changes to the style of media communications in light of the unhealthy circumstances he detected.

Perhaps this is because, as Voegelin has elsewhere indicated, the ultimate culpability for action is an individual one; cultivating a love of wisdom through persuasion cannot be achieved through societal programs. Or perhaps this is because Voegelin understood the work of science to be an observational and not an activist role; his work very rarely concluded with advice. Though this editorial decision speaks plenty of advice for itself (and, of course, Voegelin did have plenty to say in other works regarding how a love of wisdom and rational behavior may be cultivated within a society through classical science).

Communitarian theorists, by contrast, often offer recommendations to improve American culture. Robert Bellah’s recommendations, for instance, to improve the American society seek “the transformation of our culture and our society.”[45] He insists that ”personal transformation among large numbers is essential, and it must not only be a transformation of consciousness but must also involve individual action . . . With a more explicit understanding of what we have in common and the goals we seek to attain together, the differences between us that remain would be less threatening.”[46]  Such recommendations are not grounded in the nature of the human experience.  Bellah claims that “courage to face our deepening political and economic difficulties” would produce this change, but courage in politics very rarely means anything other than courage to be more of a rapscallion than the competition. He may be correct that some sort of courage could produce this concord, but we have seen that the historical coincidence of an Awakening movement and of national geo-political triumph is what is truly needed to only temporarily produce this type of homonia. Instead, we find Bellah offering under this guise of courage an explicitly partisan and liberal-abandoning proposition:

“one critically important action that government could take in a new political atmosphere would be . . . to reduce the “punishments of failure and the rewards of success.” Reducing the inordinate rewards of ambition and the inordinate fears of ending up as losers would offer the possibility of a great change in the meaning of work in our society and all that would go with such a change.”[47]

Bellah’s recommendation to escape from the problem of human nature is to impose a transfiguration of human nature itself through the impositions of government. Even a cursory reading of the Federalist Papers demonstrates that the Union was formed with the understanding that profoundly antagonistic political debates would arise; the hostile atmosphere surrounding the 1800 election, a mere thirteen years after the Constitution was drafted, only affirms how correct the Founders’ understanding of human nature was. The success of our political system is that it allows human beings to fight like real human beings without killing each other; we have built a city of sows and we meant it to be one. We are not in Rousseauvian chains here. Our high fever is precisely the diseased state in which we should expect to find a thriving regime.

In this vein, Robert Putnam’s plea “to create new structures and policies (public and private) to facilitate renewed civic engagement” is likewise a well-intentioned but unrealistic sentiment.[48] His comments regarding an awakening movement are particularly ill-advised:

“From a civic point of view, a new Great Awakening (if it happened) would not be an unmixed blessing . . . Proselytizing religions are better at creating bonding social capital than bridging social capital, and tolerance of unbelievers is not a virtue notably associated with fundamentalism.”[49]  

This may perhaps be true, but the goal in an already pluralistic society is not to bridge but to bond.  He criticizes precisely the element of awakening movements which are therapeutic for diverse societies. Again, a cursory understanding of the antagonistic spirit which animates pluralistic societies dispels the idea that a deep sense of homonia should characterize America. It was precisely the notion that prolific social capital would be facilitated through a small republic which was rejected by the theories of Federalist 10 and 51; implicit in that rejection is a rejection of the need to create prolific social bonds throughout a large and diverse continent. The insinuation that American society must be saved from the hostile manner in which we view our competitors in society is based upon the illusory view of civics created by Tocqueville and clung to by progressive theoreticians ever since. The constrained fighting facilitated by our political institutions is what makes us Americans who we are; the rare moments of civically minded unity are historically important exceptions which do much good for us, but they are exceptions. With these thoughts in mind, a few remarks on America’s current politics is warranted.

The vitriolic nature of the arguments presented against Donald Trump by the American mass media machine, and towards the mass media machine by Donald Trump and his surrogates, indicates only two things. We have not experienced an awakening movement of any true meaning in recent years, and we have not overcome a significant geo-political or existential threat in recent years. The incendiary attitudes displayed in our politics are neither unnatural nor unhealthy for our society, despite the countless pleas for civility from both academics and activists.

The religious attitudes of America, especially during our Founding Era, have surely helped to create the institutions which have survived America’s tumults. Indeed, the basic ideas which animate America’s institutions, though not always our political debates, were created during a time when religious attitudes that were particularly conducive to individual responsibility were prominently displayed. Surely the Christian views regarding the imperfectability of man, along with the classical political philosophies of especially but not exclusively Aristotle, are deeply etched into the functioning of our institutions. It is important that these attitudes remain alive within our culture, in some form or another. Should our institutions ever cave against the unrelenting ideological warfare that exists in our society, we would need some light from someplace to guide us.



[1] Eric Vogelin, “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in Democracy,” in Published Essays 1953-1965 (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 11), Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 48. Hereafter CW 11.

[2] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 17-21. Hereafter SPG.

[3] See Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 23, 42.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 56.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature and Associated Writings, Peter Laslett, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117.

[11] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Alexander Campbell Fraser, ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), I.ii.8.

[12] Ibid., 71n1.

[13] Locke, Essay on the Law of Nature, 155.

[14] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), II. §21, c.f., I §163; II §109, §168.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jacqueline Stevens, “The Reasonableness of John Locke’s Majority: Property Rights, Consent, and Resistance in the Second Treatise.” Political Theory 24 (1996): 423-63.

[17] Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II §176.

[18] Robert C. Grady II, “Obligation, Consent, and Locke’s Right to Revolution: “Who Is to Judge?”  Canadian Journal of Political Science.  9/2 (1976): 277-92; Donald L. Doernberg, “We the People: John Locke, Collective Constitutional Rights, and Standing to Challenge Government Action,” California Law Review 73/1 (1985): 52-118.

[19] Stevens, “The Reasonableness of John Locke’s Majority,” 461.

[20] C. I. Scofield, The Old Scofield Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Judges 10:18.

[21] Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II §21.

[22] Ibid., 108.

[23] Ibid., 168.

[24] Ibid., 95-96.

[25] Judges 11:27.

[26] Judges 11:13.

[27] Judges 11: 26.

[28] Locke (2003), II §176.

[29] Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Founding (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 1992), 18-19.

[30] Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding.  (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991).

[31]  Charles Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, Political Writings of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1983), 87-108.

[32] Cited in Edward J. Larson, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumumltous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.  (New York: Free Press, 2007), 93.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Larson, A Magnificent Catastrophe, 196.

[35] Ibid., 197.  Republicans gave as good as they got in this propaganda battle. A prime example of this would be the incendiary work of James Callendar. His May 1800 pamphlet The Prospect Before Us and his Richmond Examiner columns later that year (the latter of which were written from a jail cell, as Prospect had resulted in his prosecution under the Sedition Act) provided equally inflammatory rhetoric against the Adams administration. Callendar preyed upon this proclivity throughout the era and without partisan discrimination. A few years later it was Callendar who published a story alleging a sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson, the man he had just helped to elect, and a slave named Sally Hemmings.

[36] Ibid., 196.

[37] For instance, see Paul Passavant, “Political Subjectivity and Presidential Campaign Ads,” PS: Political Science and Politics. 49/1 (2016): 36-41.

[38] Ron Hosko, “Kate Steinle’s Tragic Death Shows Why the ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Movement Threatens the Safety of All Americans.”  Fox News. December 3, 2017. Available at

[39] Ibid.

[40] Jeremy Stahl, “The Exploitation of ‘Beautiful Kate.’” Slate. August 2017. Available at:

[41] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 187.

[42] The partisan fighting over which ostensible threat, England or France, was the gravest, is only evidence that neither posed a threat that was perceived to be as imminent or as dire as the threat posed to the colonies during the Revolution.

[43] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, Simon and Schuster: 2000), 16. Putnam found this to be “a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb” (16).  Despite the historian’s surprise, this does convey that the danger sensed in the later years of the Cold War did not characterize American sentiments in the 1950s.

[44] Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding.

[45] Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 286.

[46] Ibid., 286-7.

[47] Ibid., 287.

[48] Putnam, Bowling Alone, 403.

[49] Ibid., 410.


This is from Eric Voegelin Today: Voegelin’s Political Thought for the 21st CenturyAlso available are the “Introduction“; Grant Havers’ “Voegelin, Rawls, and the Persistence of Liberal Civil Theology,” Nathan Harter’s “Eric Voegelin’s 1944 ‘Political Theory and the Pattern of General History’: An Account from the Biography of a Philosophizing Consciousness,” and Lee Trepanier’s “The Comparative Politics of Eric Voegelin.” Our review of the book is available here.

Scott RobinsonScott Robinson

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView, Assistant Professor of Government and Assistant Director of the Center for Law and Liberty at Houston Baptist University. He is currently working on a book on John Locke’s political rhetoric and its long-term impact on American political thought.

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