Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right: Decius Responds to Damon Linker

By | 2016-09-22T11:49:10+00:00 September 19th, 2016|
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ag-inkwell-pen-colorIf I were to try to correct every misinterpretation of what I’ve written, I’d never do anything else. But some are worth addressing because they present an opportunity to explore larger questions or drill deeper into ones already on the table.

Damon Linker offers a case in point. In two columns at The Week, he claims I am a “reactionary,” which he defines as “someone who identifies a past golden age, posits a moment of historical rupture that led to steep decline, and looks for some agent to serve as a redemptive force to enact a new rupture that will restore history to its rightful course.”

If that is what a reactionary is, then I am not a reactionary. I do identify “a past golden age”; only not just one, but many, in different times and places. That just seems to me obviously correct. Periclean Athens was a Golden Age compared to Athens under the Thirty Tyrants or Roman domination. Britain in 1855 was—for all its faults and failures—stronger than Britain in 1955. Other examples abound, but you get the point. I don’t think even Linker would deny it.

The reason that there are Golden—and also Silver, Bronze,  Iron, and Tin—Ages is that all things of men are in motion and cannot stay steady; they must rise or fall. In classical political philosophy, this thesis is called the “cycle of regimes.” Linker—whom I know read the Journal of American Greatness, because he devoted an entire earlier column to insinuating a connection between us and the Nazis—should remember this point from that blog. I prattled on about it incessantly. I’m not saying he learned about the cycle from me—he presumably learned it in his studies—but he should have known from JAG that my argument is not, as he claims, Biblical: Eden, bad decision, expulsion, longing, redemption. It is, rather, cyclical.

“History” does not have a “rightful course.” There is rather a pattern or “cycle” that explains much of the observable rising and falling. The cycle can be guided and manipulated by statesmen and citizens but it can’t be completely overcome, despite philosophic attempts to do so, or to deny that the cycle even exists. It is still with us, which means that every regime—including constitutionalism in the United States—will eventually fall. The only questions are “When?” “How?” and “What comes after?”

Now, as a matter of personal preference, yes, I would prefer to live in a “Golden Age” or at least in a rising one—the upswing on the sine curve of the cycle. But that’s just me. Linker is of course entitled to his own preferences. In any event, as Gandalf wisely said, it is not for us to choose the times we live in, only to decide what to do with the times that are given us.

I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be. Furthermore, even if everything that I hope for happens, I don’t think a new Golden Age will dawn. But things will get better, and that’s good enough—really, the most one can hope for in any situation. A Golden Age will come again eventually because human nature remains more or less the same and the cycle still operates. I couldn’t say when or where it will come, but the chances that I will live to see it are small. I say that not to be pessimistic, only mindful of the length of the periodicity of the cycle.

Now to some of Linker’s specifics. He accuses me of not “consider[ing] the American political system … generally sound.” Note the sleight-of-hand here. What he means by “American political system,” but does not exactly say, is the way the machinery of government works now, after a century of “fundamental transformation” by liberalism and Progressivism.

In Linker’s view, all non-reactionary minds “whether liberal or conservative” accept that system as “sound.” Opposition is delegitimized and demonized in a few short sentences with nary an argument. Linker reinforces a point I made in my restatement: the definition of acceptable conservatism shifts ever leftward. If you have a problem with any of the Progressive or liberal changes to the American regime, you are a “reactionary.” The only role Linker allows for conservatives is to conserve liberalism’s mistakes. Except when Chesterton said that, he meant it as an insult. Linker means it as an exhortation.

Linker runs through a list of things that all sound people are supposed to agree upon but which don’t get to the fundamental regime questions I raised in my essay. I will, however, once again note that of the items in Linker’s soft-left litany (e.g., there should be “rules to protect individuals and groups from harm by market actors”), Trump basically supports of all of them. While I—the self-described conservative—support most of them, or at least oppose attacking them, in the current circumstances. But Trump and I remain dangerous and “radical.” (Does that make Trump a “reactionary,” too?) I don’t see how moving toward the center on economic policy and the role of government makes me (or Trump) “illiberal” and Linker doesn’t explain.

Instead, he makes a serious mistake, accusing me of “want[ing] to eliminate the modern administrative and regulatory state entirely.” I’m quite sure I didn’t say that and pretty sure I don’t believe it. Even if I did, the prospect of that actually taking place is precisely zero, so what difference would such an unrealistic wish make?

Still, I’m guessing that Linker and I can find some common ground here. Surely there must be some part of the “administrative and regulatory state” that Linker finds too big, too expensive, too ineffectual or even downright counterproductive, that even he would get rid of or reform if he could. It’s OK to say so, since there’s no danger of it occurring. Or maybe Linker is happy with the whole gargantuan beast exactly the way it is, I don’t know.

Certainly, if political circumstances ever permitted, I would like to see the administrative state reformed, shrunk, and tamed. What rational person would not? In any event, that’s not the root of my argument. We can quibble all day about which departments deserve to exist and which don’t (do we really need 17 spy agencies?), which could safely be shrunk, and which need to be overhauled in order to do their jobs better. The more important question is: Who controls them and how are they controlled?

Case in point: I think we must have a border and it must be enforced. That requires means and personnel, which requires some kind of agency. Therefore, I cannot be anti-agency per se. But I want that agency to do what the people, through legislation enacted by their elected representatives, tell it to do.

Now, what follows is not an attack on our border agents, most of whom are honest patriots trying to do a good job. But it’s undeniable—they would be the first to tell you—that it’s near-impossible to do a good job when the rest of the administrative state, the executive branch, and elite opinion conspire against them. Administrative state auto-pilot is a real problem, not limited to border enforcement by any means, about which I wrote at length and Linker does not address.

Linker goes on to more or less accurately summarize what I said about the administrative state, but gives it a sinister interpretation. What about the more important question: Is it true? Were the original Constitution and regime “fundamentally transformed” by a century of Progressivism and liberalism or weren’t they?

In my view, the answer is undeniable. Linker is welcome to make a case that they weren’t. If he does, I will read it, though I will say in advance that I don’t expect to be convinced. But I don’t expect him to write it because I don’t think he believes it. I think he understands that and how the Constitution and regime have changed and believes those changes to be good. If that’s the case, I wish he would just say so.

I like the original design better. I want to see the branches of government operate the way they are supposed to operate; employing their enumerated powers and refraining from exercising arbitrary or un-enumerated powers. I don’t like it when the judiciary usurps legislative or executive authority. I don’t like it when the executive does whatever it wants under the legal patina of an “order.” And I don’t like it when agencies nominally under the control of the executive do what they want under cover of “regulatory discretion” and “administrative law.” Such actions are anti-democratic and anti-republican. I would be against them even if they were being done for conservative ends because I think they erode respect for law and constitutionalism, and sap the republican spirit of the people, who become more docile and less fit for living freely.

But these usurpations are never committed for conservative ends. Which points to the core reason why (I presume) Linker is untroubled by them: he is a liberal and he knows that the government only acts this way for liberal ends. As a liberal, Linker thinks this is right and just. Never mind that the constitutional political process has proved itself more than capable of rectifying genuine injustices on many occasions. In this view, there are too many in which it has not, or has not quickly enough for his taste, which is why the Constitution had to be circumvented. Linker can therefore respond only with horror to the suggestion that the people may regain control of their government and make this stop. Don’t we realize that “history” has a “rightful course” which is to move leftward? Similar to Islamic imperialism, once liberalism gains ground, revanchism by the other side is never to be legitimized for any reason, ever—including a reassertion of popular sovereignty.

Linker says that because the American people voted for Obama (twice—and he may as well have added all the other liberals), they (we) consented to this, so my complaint about the sovereign people losing control is just a gripe.

Yes—and no. Yes in that we, the American people, surely could (and should) have done a better job in the voting booth of preventing what happened to our republic. We could (and should) have thrown the bums out a long time ago and replaced them with people seriously committed to constitutional government. We didn’t do that, and that’s on us.

Why didn’t we? In part because of the cycle of regimes. The theory predicts that each regime has a principle or “spring” which intensifies and radicalizes over time, undermining the regime. (By the way, when Andrew Sullivan made the same point, referring to Republic VIII, liberals fawned all over him. But when I say it, it’s nuts.) This is the core reason why Linker is wrong to attribute to me an Eden narrative. This was all going to happen eventually. I merely tried to answer why and how it happened when it did.

Which brings me to the “no.” No, it’s not enough to say, with Obama, “I won.” When it comes to the larger question of regime transformation, liberals won in sneaky, underhanded ways. They won in part by changing the rules—above all by importing ringers to vote for them in massive numbers.

The most consequential change—the 1965 Immigration Act—may have been passed in a lawful way, but it was sold dishonestly. “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset,” Ted Kennedy promised. A whopping lie if ever there was one. It is interesting, for the “how times change” file, to note that 50 years ago, it was considered entirely legitimate even for liberals to be concerned about changing the ethnic balance of America—so much so that the defenders of the law had to deny that any such change would take place. There was a fulsome understanding that protecting the essential “American-ness” of the country was a legitimate and even vital end. Today, people—on both the right and left—simply denounce all who raise the question as “racist.” Similarly, Hubert Humphrey famously said that he would “eat” the 1964 Civil Rights Act if it led to quotas. How’d that work out, again? This is managerial liberalism’s way: get the camel’s nose under the tent by any means necessary, then shove the whole animal in and mobilize the Iron Triangle to fight like hell all attempts to push any part of it back out. Public opinion be damned. Obamacare anyone?

It’s been quite clear since roughly forever that the American people as a whole didn’t want any of this. You can say that their inability to stop it implies consent. But it’s a short ride down from there to saying that any people who does not overthrow a tyranny de facto consents to its rule.

Linker also accuses me of excluding from “the sovereign people” anyone who will not vote for Trump. No. What I said was that here is a chance for the sovereign people to reassert control over their government, including its administrative apparatus, which rightfully ought to be subject to the laws enacted by the legislative branch and administratively controlled, within the scope of those laws, by the executive branch. If they do that, then the whole people—including the ones who don’t vote for Trump—can go on to have a political debate about what and how much we want that administrative apparatus to do. Some—much, in my opinion—of what a Trump administration will direct it to do will be conducive to liberal ends. Others a Trump administration may not want but will have to consent to in a spirit of political compromise.

The point is twofold. Liberalism will survive, and perhaps even thrive, after a Trump victory. But constitutionalism will not survive a Trump defeat. Second, whatever we choose to have the government do—liberal, conservative, centrist, or technocratic—should be a genuinely political choice, enacted through constitutional means, by a genuinely sovereign people.

Or the people can vote the other way, in which case they will be voting to further erode and even surrender their sovereignty to the administrative state. Which, once it’s got it, isn’t going to give it back.

It’s a shame that the stakes in this election are so high. It’s certainly not something I wanted. Liberal design plus conservative fecklessness and accommodation brought us here. Why can’t we be honest about that?

About the Author:

Publius Decius Mus
Publius Decius Mus, or "Decius," is a Contributing Editor of American Greatness.
  • Douglas

    While i am with Decius as to his strong negative reaction to the development of the administrative state the past century, I am pessimistic that even a complete Trump victory would do much to stop its march. I became a convinced pessimist after reading the first 5 chapters of Murray’s new book, “We the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.” I recommend those 116 pages to Decius to chew on. Take a look and then convince us otherwise.

  • Tony

    When your options are a slim chance for health, and certainty of death, why on earth would you not go for the slim chance? The one thing that Trump allows, a thing that is absolutely necessary though far from sufficient for regaining health, is that men can perhaps again speak their minds. If he did nothing else than to blow sky-high the whole campaign of the Language Police, it would be a signal service to the country.

    Liberals and pseudo-conservatives unite in horror at the prospect that — to take one crucial example — ordinary people will exert real oversight over their children’s schools. Hail, horrors! Hail, infernal world! I’m a true conservative — I want people to make their own mistakes, trusting that they will learn from them, and that in any case homeschoolers have proved by now that it is not hard to exceed the competence of the current system.

  • Dave Edwards

    The language of the Declaration of Independence is conclusive:

    It begins by declaring that,

    “[w]hen in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

    It then proceeds to say:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute that illegal aliens from Mexico were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration, for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted, and instead of the sympathy of mankind to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.

    Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men— high in literary acquirements, high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others, and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace illegal aliens, which, by common consent, have been excluded from civilized governments and the family of nations. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, and no one misunderstood them.

    This state of public opinion had undergone no change when the Constitution was adopted, as is equally evident from its provisions and language.

    The brief preamble sets forth by whom it was formed, for what purposes, and for whose benefit and protection. It declares that it is formed by the people of the United States — that is to say, by those who were members of the different political communities in the several States — and its great object is declared to be to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity. It speaks in general terms of the people of the United States, and of citizens of the several States, when it is providing for the exercise of the powers granted or the privileges secured to the citizen. It does not define what description of persons are intended to be included under these terms, or who shall be regarded as a citizen and one of the people. It uses them as terms so well understood that no further description or definition was necessary.

    We may here again refer in support of this proposition to the plain and unequivocal language of the laws of the several States, some passed after the Declaration of Independence and before the Constitution was adopted and some since the Government went into operation. As relates to these States, it is too plain for argument that they have never been regarded as a part of the people or citizens of the State, nor supposed to possess any political rights which the dominant race might not withhold or grant at their pleasure.

  • jack dobson

    It is a sad commentary on our crumbling empire/former republic that what passes for intellectualism often is nothing more than flacking for the status quo. There is no legitimate argument that we aren’t in a post-constitutional age and some change is necessary either to correct this reality, or more likely to mitigate its damage. Partial restoration of Rule of Law would be a good start. That’s hardly the ingredients of “reaction.” Your point about Plato’s Republic becoming a reference for cypto-fascists made me laugh.

  • Grouchy Oldman

    I’d just like to than Decius and the AmGreatness crew for the courage and energy they’ve shown in making this forum possible. This debate is very long overdue and necessary in the extreme.

    We are at a tipping point as Decius eloquently highlights and constructing a new intellectual platform for conservativism is of the utmost importance.

    Many Thanks for lighting the fuse and stoking the fire!

  • Don’t we realize that “history” has a “rightful course” which is to move leftward?

    Just last week I responded to a Progressive on Twitter once again proclaiming the “Right side of History” by saying: “History, like Nature, doesn’t pick sides. It doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about your agenda or ideology w/e it may be.” I was, of course, told: “This is the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

    What they don’t get is the Islamic Supremacist think every advance of Sharia Law is also “the right side of history.” One can think of any number of examples, of course.

  • Martin Nelson

    This article seems like a really verbose way of saying the system sucks. And that a vote for Trump would improve it. The system may suck for some depending on your viewpoint. But there is no reason for believing Trump will improve it or indeed anyone would.

    And when you get down to it, the US was a great place to live during Bush and Obama. People have food, security and opportunities. The differences are practically negligible at least concerning what matters to most people, food, security, etc. It isn’t clear at all what is so bad it needs to be replaced. In fact I am afraid that a replacement looks like the situation worsening. And that is what I think most voters think. Had Republicans run a candidate with fresh perhaps libertarian ideas to promote economic growth they might have won.