Abortion And The Demise of Legitimate Political Authority

Steven Mosher
written by Christopher Manion
February 23, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Population Research Institute

Some fifty years ago, in his groundbreaking study, Twilight of Authority , sociologist Robert Nisbet observed a disturbing trend in American culture. As respect for authority had declined among the population, he wrote, members of that population became increasingly willing to accept and even applaud an increasingly powerful, albeit less legitimate, government.

The notion of true authority, Nisbet wrote, assumes the strength of two essential social qualities--hierarchy, and privacy. Yet both are fading before our eyes.

Hierarchy refers to the role of the family, the importance of fatherhood, the indispensable local community of churches, schools, neighborhoods, and civic and charitable groups.

In each of these "mediating structures," a shared moral sense and civic virtue prevail without needing the government to impose it. The larger society doesn't object to this, much less attempt to pervert it; rather, the broader community's freedom and flourishing depend on our harmonizing our lives with those fundamental objective realities.

Long before today's ideological confusion of "equity" with "equality," Nisbet recognized the egalitarian agenda of the elites--especially the liberal intelligentsia--as a driving engine of social collapse. It crushes a rich, varied, and multidimensional culture featuring an array of localities, organizations, institutions, and voluntary associations. The collapse produces a paltry pancake of "equality of result"--a result both fed and enforced by an ever more powerful government.

The social, cultural, and political leaders of fifty years ago have departed-- even Mick Jagger finally abandoned his weary hours upon the stage for an island in the Caribbean. But the trends Nisbet described have marched on, swaggering and swollen, flattening everything in their path.

The moral and metaphysical limits of legitimate authority have been taken for granted by most Americans for years. These include the sanctity of life and the family, the innocence of children, and the central role of religious communities. And they had nothing to do with politics. They were "pre-political" -- as one writer of the colonial period put it, "government should be so small that it doesn't matter who wins."

But that works only with a moral people that disciplines itself.

And these were indeed a moral people. In their communities, abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity pornography, and even vulgar language existed, to be sure, but they were condemned without any government having to write about it. Some states even had no specific law against abortion. They assumed that it was murder, and so merely prescribed the legal penalty for it.

These habits of a free people were the essence of community, but they depended on a broad understanding and acceptance of the limits of political power. In fact, until the decade of the First World War, Nisbet observes, most Americans had little need to pay attention to the federal government at all. Their state and local laws reflected the beliefs they held in common. The terms "community" and "communicate" reflected those shared truths. If words have no meaning, then communicating with logic, argument, and reasoned persuasion is impossible; at that point, in Mao's words, "power flows from the barrel of a gun."

And the rebellion against those moral truths didn't begin with the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. Already half a century before, President Woodrow Wilson was demoting black people in government positions to make room for white people, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was working with groups like the Ku Klux Klan to limit the growth of the "black and brown" populations.

Sanger acknowledged the central role of religion in community life, even as she worked to destroy it. "We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don't want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members." [ Woman, Morality, and Birth Control. New York: New York Publishing Company, 1922, page 12; emphasis added]

PRI has documented the history of the American medical field's efforts to legitimize birth control, and ultimately abortion, long before the "Sexual Revolution" of the 1960s. In fact, those efforts began over a century ago.

But, in the past sixty years, the foundations of community have been the target of a sustained program of extermination. Supreme Court decisions on Bible reading, the Ten Commandments, abortion, marriage, and "gender" have methodically eroded the moral foundations of community. And Nisbet was troubled by this growing menace: "As respect for authority had declined among the population," he wrote, "members of that population became increasingly willing to accept and actually applaud an increasingly powerful, albeit less legitimate, government."

Today, the cancer of illegitimate power festers and grows, attacking and oppressing any resistance, both within government and without. And in the past two years of rule by pandemic "necessity," governments have made a historic " great leap forward " towards obliterating community altogether by virtually banning it in the name of "keeping us safe." As communities finally emerged from under the rubble of the virus, governments attempted to perpetuate the public habits of blind obedience by randomly imposing countless rules, the more mandatory the better.

Nisbet saw this coming fifty years ago. In reading him, one is struck by how keenly he describes the willingness of not only the demos, the people, but their formal and informal institutions, to acquiesce in the willful destruction of their autonomy and, yes, their authority. Among the elites, however, the embrace of egalitarianism for others seems designed to guarantee superiority for themselves, as they have repeatedly shown in refusing to follow the very China Virus diktats that they have showered upon the rest of us.

Today, the efforts of the destruction of our common moral sense focus on the family. It is no mistake that the Justice Department of Attorney General Merrick Garland has targeted parents as potential "terrorists" because they have dared to defend their children's rights. Community schools play a central role in Nisbet's array of community institutions that should be "pre-political."

But today, the issue of children's rights focuses on the unborn. The Supreme Court's current consideration of challenges to Roe v. Wade has intensified the efforts of the pro-abortion lobby. Proposals to "pack the Court" are floated to intimidate its current members. Similar threats to alter the Senate's rules on debate -- and in some cases to eliminate the Senate altogether -- all aim to legitimize the killing of the unborn. That goal is common to tyrannies everywhere, because, if the government can sanction the killing of the most innocent, it can kill anybody.

To pursue that goal, Senate Democrat Leader Chuck Schumer announced last Thursday that the Senate will vote February 28 on the "Women's Health Protection Act," an attempt to make abortion up to the moment of birth the law of the land in every jurisdiction in the country.

As the coming weeks unfold, we should keep in mind the observations on community of John Adams, whose words resonate in the mind of the members of our Founders' generation: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Every moral and religious people has the right to defend itself against illegitimate power.

Robert Nisbet would agree.