by Glenn Ellmers
You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
~ Morpheus, “The Matrix”
Pop culture references go stale pretty quickly, so it’s usually best to avoid them. But when a movie made 20 years ago reveals a genuinely interesting and important truth, it’s worth bending the rule.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States by millions of people who knew – or sensed – that something in American political life was deeply wrong or broken; and that Donald Trump sensed this as well and wanted to do something about it. Most of these voters couldn’t fully articulate what was wrong (neither in many cases could Trump!), but they had begun to doubt the essential truth of what they were being told. The official narrative about our government, our public life, and our culture – the story told by Washington, Hollywood, Wall Street, and Harvard – was not quite a lie, perhaps, but many had become convinced that it was not quite the whole truth either. There was “a glitch in the matrix.” And people felt it – like a splinter in their minds.
These taglines, of course, are from the 1999 film, “The Matrix,” starring Keanu Reeves. In the movie, Artificial Intelligence has run amok and enslaved humanity by creating a false reality – “a computer-generated dreamworld.” Reeves as the movie’s hero begins to discover the truth and is offered the choice between staying in the real world – where a small band of humans are fighting to liberate mankind – or returning to the comforting illusion of the Matrix:
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Around 2016, the term “red-pilled” (which had bounced around subReddits and Internet chat forums for several years) became a popular, semi-humorous meme to describe people who had come to support Trump because they stopped believing in or accepting the legitimacy of what we might call the liberal consensus, or the uni-party status quo. By 2016, this status quo – and the myths supporting it – had become illegitimate in the eyes of much of the electorate.
John Marini’s profoundly important and illuminating book, Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century, explains how all this came to be.
Marini shows that despite a radical break both in theory and practice with the Founders’ constitutionalism, the progressive narrative that dominated the late 20th and early 21st centuries had convinced much of the public that American government was functioning more or less as it should do. To be sure, there was important work yet to be done: fine-tuning the proper distribution of benefits; empowering various disenfranchised or underappreciated groups; creating a society ever more free from racism, inequality, and misgendering. But in principle, government was on the right track.
The mandarins of both the Democratic and the Republican parties accepted this understanding and therefore, between them, represented the full range of acceptable policy options on trade, immigration, crime, culture, and foreign affairs. Perhaps most important of all, the narrative insisted that the experts running the various federal departments and agencies – as well those in charge of academia, the media, and the influential technology and social media companies – knew what they doing and not only could be trusted to remain in their positions of authority but should be obeyed. Who exactly had put them in charge of so much of our lives, and who held them accountable, however, had become somewhat unclear. (Such questions, by the way, never seemed to be raised by most “independent” and “objective” journalists or professors.)
In 2016, when these myths was no longer believable for many people, Donald Trump was able to capture the presidency on the promise to restore America’s sovereignty in the world, and the people’s sovereignty at home in their government. The old elites still don’t know what hit them.
To unpack this strange and astonishing story, Marini weaves together German philosophy of history, sociology, and demographic trends, institutional developments in Congress, the “politics of budget control,” constitutional jurisprudence, the classical teachings of Plato and Aristotle, federalism and separation of powers, and particularly the rise of the bureaucracy as a faction within the government. From this seeming wilderness of topics and ideas, Marini traces a coherent path toward the work’s unifying theme, most succinctly expressed by the book’s editor, Ken Masugi: “the administrative state represents a change in regime, an actual overthrow of the Constitution of 1787.”
Marini shows the contrast between the Founders’ intentions and a progressive ideology animated by a radically different conception of human nature and the human good:
That difference, both theoretical and practical, becomes apparent when comparing constitutionalism as it was understood by the American Founders and the modern administrative state as envisioned in theory by Hegel and the American Progressives in practice.
A peculiar kind of administrative state, distinctly American, was consolidated within the constitutional order during the past century. It did not appear to violate in any procedural way, the letter of the Constitution. The political branches voted for its establishment, and the courts upheld most of its provisions. Nonetheless, it has contributed to undermining the political conditions of limited government and self-rule. In attempting to provide administrative solutions to social, economic, and political problems, it undercut or destroyed those institutions within civil society that had established the foundations of self-government, including the family and the church.
Marini’s careful analysis offers little in the way of bumper-sticker slogans. The truths he teaches in this book would be hard to scrawl on cardboard signs for a rally. But his measured prose has a kind of patient, inexorable, deadly precision – not unlike the precision of a world-class surgeon skillfully removing a particularly advanced and complicated tumor. The operation Marini performs in this book, however, is more demonstration than cure; exploratory rather than excising. For the only surgeon who can root out this cancer is the people in their collective political capacity. Marini’s political medicine, then, is meant to be instructive about the healing powers of politics itself. His intention is to show his fellow citizens how they, or rather we, can restore the health of the republic.
“If the people are to understand themselves as sovereign, they must reestablish the political authority of the Constitution in a manner that makes it possible to restore the moral ground of civil and religious liberty,” he writes. This means taking up the duty to exercise thoughtful and responsible citizenship, informed and enlightened by the complex story Marini has meticulously uncovered:
American public opinion must be reflected in the creation and mobilization of national political majorities. Constitutional government is not possible in the absence of the mobilization of such majorities. They are indispensable for establishing the legitimacy of law in a manner compatible with the rule of law and the common good. That requires revitalizing the meaning of citizenship and reaffirming the sovereignty of the people and the nation.
Marini has devoted a lifetime to understanding and explicating these questions; the book is a collection of essays written over several decades of close study and careful reflection. This leads to what may seem to be a certain weakness in terms of coherence. Some readers may find Unmasking repetitive when read cover to cover. But the advantage is that each essay has an integrity or wholeness that allows it to be digested on its own. My suggestion is to read the book slowly. Start with a chapter that catches your interest. You will be sure to learn something new. Each essay is a vignette – a red pill, if you will – exposing an aspect of the real world that has been operating beyond or below the comforting liberal narrative. Even reading one will open your eyes.
A last word on “The Matrix,” which like any work of art or entertainment, is also a form of illusion. In this movie, as in most, the hero wins at the end. Life doesn’t work that way. In the battle to restore our constitutional government, the defenders of freedom may lose. The administrative state is powerful; its ideology seductive. It fights dirty. We cannot guarantee success, as the famous play says, but we can deserve it.
But to have any hope at all, we must understand what is at stake. We must clearly see how our country came to be detached from the Constitution. This is not an easy thing to grasp – though hardly impossible. Reading John Marini takes a bit of work; most worthwhile things do. Only by understanding the nature and origins of our predicament can we begin to know what success would look like, let alone how to achieve it. Courage, devotion, even patriotism – though necessary – will not be enough. This is a battle of ideas.
Marini’s book is the indispensable guide to understanding those ideas.
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Glenn Ellmers is a writer living in Washington, D.C.. He studied political philosophy at Claremont Graduate University.
Photo “John Marini” and image of “Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century” by The Claremont Institute.