Leave it to a comedian to state plainly that Truman’s use of atomic weapons was a war crime, only to backpedal out of political expediency faster than you can say Arlen Specter. This short-lived moment of lucidity has occasioned a lively discussion on the topic, by no means confined to the political left. Although many paleoconservatives in Truman’s day and beyond expressed horror at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conservative opinion today generally favors nationalism over morality, and we are invited to examine the supposed moral complexity of the issue. In today’s political right, only a few social conservatives and libertarians are willing to state the obvious moral truth that mass incineration of civilians is not justified by military expediency.

It would be easy to argue that the callousness of mainstream conservatives toward the rights of foreign prisoners and noncombatants is a major cause of its recent decline in popularity. It would also be wrong. Sadly, most Americans are willing to hedge basic moral principles for the sake of security. To the chagrin of the liberal news media, a majority of Americans polled in favor of the recent NSA phone surveillance program, even well after details of the program were leaked by the press. A strong majority of the public has supported keeping the Guantanamo prison open, and slim majorities have favored the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics. As for pre-emptive wars of choice, public support of the Iraq war from 2003 to 2007 closely matched the perception that the war was going well. It would seem that we support illegal wars in the short term as long as we appear to be winning, though the perceived success of the 2007-08 surge did not restore the war’s popularity.

Unprincipled compromise of moral values can be found even among academics, who are supposedly more thoughtful. Although the vast majority of American historians are politically liberal, their vaunted concern for human rights diminishes when discussing Truman’s use of the atom bomb. Indeed, the man who wiped out two cities and later led the nation into the disastrous Korean War is cited by most historians as an example of an unpopular president who was later vindicated by history. This supposed vindication consists only in the approval of liberal historians, who are evidently as prone to place partisanship over principle as their conservative counterparts. We can only imagine what they would write if a Republican had dropped the bomb.

The general coarsening of morality, even among the educated and among those who claim to preserve traditional social values, is a worrisome development. Some paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan have adduced from this reality that the left has won the culture war, through their domination of academia and the entertainment media that shape public opinion. Those who would defend the classical virtues must find themselves in a constant struggle against societal tendencies, and they must risk ostracism and ridicule for merely holding what has been held by practically all the great moral philosophers in history. The tyranny of the majority of which Tocqueville warned is evinced in the perception that the rectitude of same-sex “marriage” can be determined by persuasion of the majority. The majority, as we know, is notoriously fickle. Fifteen years ago, even liberals shrank from same-sex “marriage”; now, the propaganda machine would like to portray any opponent of such unions as a Neanderthal.

All too often, shifts in opinion on moral matters (and associated historical, sociological and anthropological judgments) hinge upon nothing more than emotion and propaganda. A thing becomes right or wrong simply because the current majority says it is. Such a hermeneutic is utterly unworthy of an adult human being, yet democratic culture makes it seem natural. Few even among the paleocons will go so far as to identify democracy as the root of moral relativism. Most have held some form of the naive view that the majority would freely accept virtue if only it were presented to them clearly. In actual experience, the morality of the masses, when uncoerced, gravitates toward mediocrity. We can see this with the gradual shedding of social constraints and the coarsening of mores over the last forty years. This coarsening is expressed in dress, diction, and bearing, as well as more quantifiable sociological phenomena. On the Internet, the more popular sites invariably attract cruder and more degenerate discourse. While democracy romanticizes the virtue of the masses, reality teaches that we can hardly expect great virtue from a people fed a steady diet of mind-numbing television and Twittering.

The ancient Athenians recognized that democracy, or indeed any form of government, could work only if it was governed by laws, which they called nomoi. The nomoi were not the acts of a legislature, but basic moral precepts that defined the legal principles of society. Even the popular assembly did not presume to have direct authority to change the nomoi, though they sometimes appointed a committee of jurists to recommend additions to the laws. Even this limited power was too much in the eyes of Plato and Aristotle, who emphasized that nomoi, especially those that are unwritten, must bind even the people as a whole. For this reason, they posited the necessity of founding a polity with a lawgiver such as Solon, a man (or men) of eminent ability, whose superior wisdom would establish basic laws that are better standards than most would choose for themselves.

When basic moral principles are considered immutable, or at least not subject to popular sovereignty, the nomoi rule, and people only implement them. They are to be amended only after grave circumspection by the most competent men. The basic morality of society as a whole is shaped in large part by the excellence of the lawgiver. If, on the other hand, people are given full sovereignty even over right and wrong, we will invariably gravitate toward social mores that reflect the moral mediocrity of the majority. Few would work if there was no need, and few would strive for excellence unless they were constrained to do so. We should expect a society just moral enough to keep the economy functioning, and indeed we increasingly expect our statesmen to be little more than business managers.

When a political or religious institution commits some crime, demagogues like to say that the institution has lost its moral authority or credibility. What, then, shall we say about the moral authority of the masses? Most of the great crimes of powerful institutions were committed with popular consent, and even when the people are sovereign, they seem to be unable to discern whether it is moral to exterminate hundreds of thousands of unarmed people, or to invade a nation without provocation. Given this dismal track record, I should not like to entrust any of our civilization’s most revered values to the whims of popular sovereignty. To quote Horace, Quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt? Modern political society seeks in vain its salvation through statutes and policies, as long it pursues moral mediocrity. The notion that the people are sovereign even over morals has led to the enshrinement of our baser instincts as rights. Those on the political left wallow in the sins of eros while those on the right commit those of thanatos. If society exists for something more than the fulfillment of animal impulse, it ought to strive for something better than the natural human condition.