It didn’t take long after Mitt Romney announced his U.S. Senate bid for new digs at his personality to surface. As one critique goes, Romney is mismatched to America because it doesn’t dole out titles of nobility for excellent character like some Old World aristocracy. Rather, the American political system rewards plebian traits. So despite Romney’s being “wholesome, efficient, industrious, and faithful,” Michael Brendan Dougherty finds President Donald Trump better fits America’s bill by having a “fundamentally democratic personality and bearing.” Of all things, Dougherty supports this by noting Trump’s candor during an interview with Howard Stern after Princess Diana’s death. Stern asked the future presidential nominee if he could have “nailed” the princess. Trump gave what Dougherty called the “quintessentially democratic” answer: “I think I could have.”
Dismissing a man for his excellent character while highlighting another for his shameless vulgarity is puzzling if not outright disturbing. As tantalizing as it may be for the fire-bellied to diagnose and ship off the milquetoast Mr. Romney to a quaint aristocracy across the sea, the move is facile. First, it conflates nobility of character with nobility as an arcane system of peerage. Second, by looking to grossly crass talk as the measure of democratic bearing, it disregards the necessity of virtue to democracy in general and America in particular.
What seals Romney’s doom as a misfit in Dougherty’s view is Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, which reads in part, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” So even if Romney deserves to be rewarded for his excellence, he is tragically barred from being rewarded for it. But since American political elections are all about putting qualified candidates into public office, and being qualified means excelling in the virtues appropriate to the office, the idea that the Constitution prohibits rewarding excellence is absurd. The relevant difference between democracy and aristocracy is not the value of personal character but the nature of the reward for possessing it. Titles of nobility are hereditary and subject to the conditions of peerage, while democratically elected offices are temporary and their occupants are accountable to the people.
America’s founders certainly thought virtue was vital to the American electorate. Addressing officers of the Militia of Massachusetts in 1798, President John Adams observed that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Rather than discouraging excellence in virtue, the Constitution needs the electorate to be formed by it. The American project lives or dies on the gambit that commoners—the vulgar—can cultivate and exercise commonplace virtue.
Political philosophers understand the aspiration to nobility at the heart of modern liberal democracy. That tradition sees itself as expanding dignity from the small patrimony of aristocrats to the point of universality. Whereas once only nobles were expected to be capable of and responsible for self-rule, it is now expected of all subjects in the realm. The titled noble and the commoner alike become citizens with equal dignity and rights before the law.
In his Tanner Lectures delivered at UC Berkeley in 2009, legal scholar Jeremy Waldron describes dignity “as a quintessential aristocratic value, a form of self-command distinguished from the behavior of those who need to be driven by threats or the lash, or by forms of habituation that depend upon threats and the lash. But if it is an aristocratic value, it is one that the law now expects to find in all sectors of the population.” Because of equal dignity, liberal democracy doesn’t lower the bar for everyone, it raises it. To sustain itself and as a matter of aspiration, constitutional democracy doesn’t debase the people, it dignifies them.
Being designed to govern fallible and finite human beings, it is certainly possible for the American experiment to fail. Perhaps at some point, a critical mass of the vulgar really did lose interest in being virtuous. But from the standpoint of the Constitution and democracy, that would be nothing to celebrate. So it’s tough to make sense of why someone would want to figuratively exile a statesman like Romney while seeming to exult the match between America and the boorish side of President Trump. The current political moment of shrugging at, if not cheerleading for, crassness in American public life is inconsistent with and destructive of constitutional democracy. Patriots will pray, hope, and work for us all to move quickly past it.