Our Thin Institutions and the Possibility of Civil War

October 16, 2020 Updated: October 18, 2020

Commentary

More than 8,000 members of the Kappa Delta organization have signed a statement denouncing their sorority sister, Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

“This woman is no sister of mine. Her political stance does not line up with the values of our sisterhood,” said one Kappa Delt sister.

A few days later, 80 faculty members at the University of Notre Dame, where Barrett teaches law, joined in—adding their names to a petition that demands Barrett withdraw from consideration, because… well, because she just should. Trump is a bad guy, you see, and Barrett tarnishes the name of Notre Dame by allowing herself to be nominated by a bad guy.

Meanwhile, a group of graduates from Rhodes College, where Barrett was an undergraduate, have signed an open letter renouncing all of their fellow graduate’s works and pomps, insisting she is pro-life, pro-family, pro-common sense. Not a leftist Democrat, in other words. And thus she must be consigned to Gehenna. Or Coventry, at least.

By themselves, these… well, what to call them? “Irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” as Lionel Trilling wrote, will do as well as anything else, I suppose. In public life these days, that seems to be about the only thing on offer, and most of these gestural performances prove as short-lived and quickly forgotten as the renunciations of Judge Barrett by her fellows will be.

After answering well in her Senate hearings, she is likely to have her nomination confirmed by a mostly partisan vote. “Associate Justice Barrett” is the most probable outcome of the current political ruckus, a stumbling block to progressivism for years to come.

I know, I know: I’m letting my own partisanship show, since, like Barrett, I’m pro-life, pro-family, pro-common sense. Not a leftist Democrat, in other words, and so I can’t imagine anyone better for the Supreme Court than this woman. But what I really wanted to point out is something deeper and more revealing in these letters from Barrett’s fellows.

Not much apology appears. You might expect something along the lines of “We realize Amy Coney Barrett is our sister/colleague/fellow,” but you won’t find much of it. The writers of such letters tend not to think that there is anything robust and enduring—anything real—in the fact of their shared association. These are no longer true social bodies: the civic institutions that Alexis de Tocqueville described, the “little platoons” of society that Edmund Burke mentioned.

For their members today, things like Kappa Delta, Rhodes College, Notre Dame have no genuine weight: You aren’t made different by being a member; you aren’t changed in your being. These institutions lack ontological density.

That’s technical vocabulary, of course, which is usually unnecessary and often pretentious. In this case, though, it’s hard to find anything better. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies being and existence, and ontological density describes how real something is. The names in a phonebook form a good example of a human grouping with low ontological density: Geographical vicinity is all that the members share.

Family tends to run in the other direction. Through most of human history, we thought families had high ontological density: There seemed something real about the idea of family, and we were different because we belong to that group.

What institutions still have much of this density? In the absence of patriotism—the notion that, say, the United States has some independent reality that makes being a citizen a profound fact about the self—the nation decays into a phonebook: nothing but a list of people who happen to live near one another. If family is nothing more than a chance genetic mingling, then it has no density. Our families become thin facts about us, not thick ones.

To be alive these days is to watch far too many of our associations fade into ghosts. Think, for example, of the disappearance of Favorite Son candidates.

No resident of Wilmington is going to vote for Joe Biden because he is from Delaware and Delawareans have to stick together. No one from California seriously thinks that the people of Los Angeles will vote for Kamala Harris because she’s from California.

Our states have lost a good portion of their old ontological density—which is exactly why we now hear so many calls to abolish the Electoral College and even the Senate: the constitutional entities that exist because of the diversity of states, rather than the distribution of population.

Our small and ordinary social institutions have grown thinnest of all. Why shouldn’t members of the Kappa Delta sorority denounce their sister when she has politics that they don’t share? Because, down in their hearts, Kappa Delta isn’t real as an entity. In these women’s conception of themselves, the sorority has insufficient weight to set against their heavy sense of social activism. Political identity is thicker than Kappa Delta sisterhood.

Maybe that is as it should be. Never having been a Kappa Delt, I can’t say. But we have a name for the moment when political identity comes to outweigh all other small associations and social groupings that make up ordinary human life. We call it civil war.

That’s an awfully big thesis to build on the ephemeral fact of anti-nomination letters from members of the Kappa Delta sorority, Notre Dame faculty, and Rhodes College alumni. Maybe these denunciations of Barrett are nothing more than the bad manners they seem.

But maybe they do offer a little insight into our dire situation. As the institutions of civil life grow thin and ghostly—as they lose their ontological density—what remains? A politics imbued with too much fervor and too much weight to stop short of anything. Even war.

Joseph Bottum, Ph.D., is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is “The Decline of the Novel.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.