Liberty Matters

Something Is Missing

When Jacob Levy says that "France completed the transition to a broadly inclusive democratic republic relatively early, and once it did so, it did so pretty well once and for all," he is referring to the period after the establishment of the Third Republic. Constant, of course, was long dead by then, and he had good reason to think of France as having had a particularly unstable political history for several decades or more, a politics whose historical decline into instability seemed to mirror the historical decline of religious belief among the elites. He was not the first or the only one to notice this, even among liberals, but he had a lot of reasons to take it seriously. Untying his work on religious and politics, as Levy suggests, does not make a lot of sense in context.
Out of context? Since the death of Louis XV, France has not had a regime that survived defeat in war. Even Austria-Hungary had a better record than that. It is true that universal male suffrage (unlike female suffrage) arrived unusually early in France, in 1848, and aside from brief and usually ignored tribulations in 1851, it has never gone away. Democracy has been, in this sense, stable. Constitutions have not. And although Lamartine said that suffrage laws are the dynasties of modern politics, there is more to politics than who gets to vote. The history of the separation of Church and state in France in 1905, the Dreyfus Affair, and the ralliement of Leo XIII would doubtless be grist for Constant's mill.
But Levy's larger point remains: do modern societies really need religion or an equivalent to keep their character and morals up? Well, in C.E. 2018, it sure seems they need something they haven't quite got. Maybe that something is not high aspirations in and of themselves – lots of Nazis, fascists, and communists had high aspirations, as did the Spanish Inquisitors. Constant is the spokesperson for a liberalism that says you can have the aspirations without the Terror; in fact you must have them, if you want to keep a liberal, as opposed to a merely democratic, state. The problem is not passé.