VOL. 6, NO. 12 (December, 1996) PP.179-81

SLOUCHING TOWARDS GOMORRAH: MODERN LIBERALISM AND AMERICAN DECLINE by Robert H. Bork. New York: Regan Books (Harper Collins), 1996. 382 pp. Cloth $25.00. Reviewed by Richard A. Glenn , Department of Political Science, Millersville University, Pennsylvania.

William B. Yeats' classic poem "The Second Coming," written in 1919, is about the world disintegrating amidst a brutal force. It concludes: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" While Yeats could not have known it, that "rough beast" of decadence has reached its maturity in the last three decades and threatens to send the United States slouching not towards Bethlehem, but towards the depravity of Gomorrah. (Gomorrah, a city legendary for its intractable wickedness, was demolished by God in a cataclysm of "brimstone and fire" in the Old Testament book of Genesis.) Such is the thesis of Robert H. Bork's book SLOUCHING TOWARDS GOMORRAH: MODERN LIBERALISM AND AMERICAN DECLINE. Mr. Bork, a John H. Olin Scholar in Legal Scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1982 to 1988. He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. (His nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate.) In addition, Mr. Bork has been a partner in a major law firm, taught constitutional law at Yale Law School, and was solicitor general and acting attorney general of the United States.

According to Mr. Bork, the enemy within that brings about this corrosion is modern liberalism, of which the defining characteristics are radical egalitarianism ("the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities") and radical individualism ("the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification"). Modern liberalism differs from classical liberalism. Classic liberalism--the liberalism of Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, and Jefferson, for instance--has the twin thrusts of liberty and equality. But because liberalism has no corrective within itself, all it can do is endorse more liberty and demand more rights. This unqualified enthusiasm for liberty has trumped the need for order. In decades and centuries past, order took care of itself because liberty and equality were tempered by restraining forces in American culture--family, church, school, neighborhood, and inherited morality. Today the authority of those institutions has been eroded. As such, the concepts of liberty and equality have changed since their enshrinement in the Declaration of Independence. Liberty has become "moral anarchy." Equality has become "despotic egalitarianism." Rot and devastation follow. Such is modern liberalism.

According to the author, modern liberalism finds is roots in the radicalism of the 1960s. From the PORT HURON STATEMENT of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 (that he calls the "birth of the sixties") to the "sacking of the universities" (with vivid accounts from Cornell, Yale, and Kent State), Mr. Bork traces the attacks on American culture and bourgeois morals. But while the sixties has passed, modern liberalism has not. Modern liberalism is powerful because those formulations remain deeply embedded in today's culture. Today, student radicals of the sixties occupy positions of power and influence across the nation. Cultural elites dominate "the institutions that manufacture, manipulate, and disseminate ideas, attitudes, and symbols"--universities, churches, Hollywood, the national press, and the judiciary, to name a few.

The most excoriating chapter of this book is devoted to the morally illiterate Supreme Court, an "agent of modern liberalism." Calling the Court arguably "the most powerful force shaping our culture," Mr. Bork derides the transfer of democratic government from elected representatives to unelected ones. (This premise was the foundation for his 1990 best-seller, THE TEMPTING OF AMERICA: THE POLITICAL SEDUCTION OF THE LAW.) As a result, the courts govern us in way not remotely contemplated by the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution, inflating enumerated rights and creating new ones (such as the right of privacy, right to physician-assisted suicide, and right to same-sex marriages). The Court's intolerable assumption of complete governing power "disintegrate[s] the basis for our social unity [and] brings the rule of law into disrepute....We head toward constitutional nihilism." To counter this judicial despotism, Mr. Bork advocates (although he calls its passage "highly unlikely") a constitutional amendment making any federal or state court decision subject to being overruled by a majority vote of each chamber of Congress. Also derided is the twentieth century trend toward administrative rule-making. Increasing and extensive governmental regulations have led to greater bureaucratic authority, which makes the democratic process "increasingly irrelevant." (Mr. Bork is crashing through open doors here. This argument was initially advanced in 1969 by Theodore Lowi in THE END OF LIBERALISM.) Mr. Bork concludes:

Modern liberalism is fundamentally at odds with democratic government because it demands results that ordinary people would not freely choose. Liberals must govern, therefore, through institutions that are largely insulated from the popular will. The most important institutions for liberals' purposes are the judiciary and the bureaucracies. The judiciary and the bureaucracies are staffed with intellectuals....and thus tend to share the views and accept the agenda of modern liberalism.

Judicial and bureaucratic government, which may be well-intentioned, cannot, by definition, be democratic. Yet, in this sense, Mr. Bork's criticism is less an indictment of the judiciary and bureaucracy and directed more appropriately at those who permit the abdication of lawmaking responsibility to institutions that are largely insulated from the popular will.

The bulwark of the book is a well-organized and clearly written critique of the collapse of American culture since the 1960s. (As such, this is NOT a book about government.) No institution of that culture has remained untouched. To hear Mr. Bork tell it, nothing positive has happened in this country since the glory days of "I like Ike." This book reads like all-out assault on American culture in the past four decades. Perhaps Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole used this text as a basis for his "bridge to the past" metaphor. Yet in comparison to Mr. Bork, Mr. Dole may well be "optimistic."

Mr. Bork equates popular culture with "unrestrained hedonism." He advocates censorship ""for the most violent and sexually explicit material" easily available through popular music, movies, and the internet. ("The very fact that we have gone from Elvis to Snoop Doggy Dogg is the heart of the case for censorship.") Crime has proliferated. The war on drugs has failed. Abortion has led to a lack of respect for human life--"killing for convenience." Physician-assisted suicide will spiral into euthanasia. ("It is entirely predictable that many of the elderly, ill, and infirm will be killed, and often without consent.") Feminism, the "most fanatical and destructive movement of the 1960s," is an attack on hierarchy, family, religion, and national security. Racial tensions have escalated. Affirmative action "was a serious mistake....Continuing it would be a disaster." Education has become politicized to the point that competency has decreased. Teachers do not teach; students do not learn. Religion, "essential to a civilized culture," has become marginalized. (However, Mr. Bork calls the rise in religious conservatism "most promising.") Multiculturalism is a lie because all cultures are not equal. It has fragmented America. A culture of chaos persists. America heads toward moral decline and spiritual decay.

While the data presented are solid and the analysis penetrating, the latter is incomplete. Mr. Bork never addresses the major criticisms directed toward his agenda. He ignores the dangers of censorship, the successes of affirmative action, the arguments in favor of assisted suicide, the perils of a union between church and state, and the pitfalls of cultural gerrymandering. On no issue does he offer a balanced analysis. Legitimate discussion is replaced with bold assertions: modern liberalism "is intellectually and morally bankrupt;" modern liberals are "today's barbarians;" Bill Clinton is "the very model of the modern liberal;" etc.

Moreover, while Mr. Bork attacks each component of American culture, he fails to offer much in the way of a solution. His book is heavy on description, light on prescription. Only the last chapter (a total of 13 pages)--entitled "Can America Avoid Gomorrah?"--is forward looking. Mr. Bork advocates a revival of conservative culture--a self-confidence about the worth of traditional values. There are signs that this is happening (i.e., the conservative political climate of the last fifteen years, President Clinton's move to the "vital center"). But the courage to resist Gomorrah is ultimately "the optimism of the will." This first requisite is knowing what is happening to us (the stated purpose of this book). The second step is resistance to radical individualism and radical egalitarianism in every area of American culture. Resist radical individualism? America has always been headed to hell in a handbasket. (See calls for censoring Elvis.) Radical egalitarianism? A simple look at economic outcomes would suggest that, particularly in the decade of the eighties, wealth and income have become more disparate.

While the diagnosis may be correct, the cure may be unacceptable and unattainable. Mr. Bork appears to assume that America holds to a commonly-agreed upon moral core. Such moral consensus is difficult to find today. It remains doubtful that America will be willing to swallow the medication that Mr. Bork has prescribed for a return to normalcy and health. After all, "popular culture" is "popular" for a reason. And, most of us would agree, the courts are not to blame for that.

Copyright 1996