Our Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement

American Greatness aims to be the leading voice of the next generation of American Conservatism.

Divisions made evident during the 2016 Republican primaries made the need for a new journal of American conservatism undeniable. The soil of the conservative movement is exhausted. It needs fertilization, re-sowing, and diligent cultivation if it is to thrive again. And while we will always owe a debt to the giants of the movement who have gone before us, we cannot slavishly attempt to relive the politics of 40 years ago.

It is not just that other journals have become unmoored from the principles of free government or calcified in their thinking; it is that they were founded on principles that were either insufficient or in conflict with the timeless principles of the American Founding.

As time has passed the errors in their foundings have become more pronounced. They have now culminated in intellectual stagnation and a tiresome policy orthodoxy (passing mindlessly for principles) that does not permit growth within or of the movement. Today, movement conservatism offers the American people not a choice, but an echo of the Left. Because of this, American Greatness is not an alternative to movement conservatism; it is a refounding of a distinctly American conservatism based upon the self-evident principle of human equality and the rights that flow from it. Just government exists to protect and promote these rights and is therefore necessarily limited, constitutional, and republican in its form.

Again: this year’s primary fight is not the cause of conservatism’s divisions or its current crisis. Those causes preceded this political moment and have been clear to the creators of this journal for some time. No candidate or accidental turn of events promises to—or can—bring about the necessary salvation.  Any salvation or redemption that comes to American constitutional government must come by the virtuous action of the sovereign people of the United States, not from a sophisticated band of policy experts who arrive at answers they unilaterally deem “correct.”

What American Greatness Is Not

We are not political partisans. We hold no brief for any particular candidate or policy prescription. On electoral matters, the editors are agnostic. We do not exist to tell anyone else how to vote. We can be neither vindicated nor embarrassed by the personal successes or failures of any candidate or collection of them in this or any other election year.

Similarly, American Greatness does not advocate any particular policy orthodoxy. We insist on clear distinctions between principles (permanent and enduring understandings of justice and right) and policy (objects for the realm of debate and politics to be guided by prudence as well as by principle). It is likely, however, that even in our internal discussions, we will have disagreements about where, precisely, the one ends and the other begins. We do not see that as a cause for alarm.

The best policy to advance a principle at any given time is, by its nature, changeable. These are arguments that will play out according to the politics of the moment. But we know that when people become accustomed to doing something in a certain way, even when that way is failing, it is difficult to convince them that it is possible to accomplish the same goals in some other, better way. We think lively and spirited debate about these questions, therefore, is healthy, necessary, and liberating.

Finally, although American Greatness owes an intellectual debt and its inspiration to the Journal of American Greatness (henceforth, JAG) and to some of its contributors, we are not the re-emergence of that much-admired effort.

We regret the passing of that manful but anonymous project, which sought to come to terms with the meaning of our current political moment by considering what may be called  a “Greatness Agenda” for America. (The fact that the contributors to JAG felt that anonymity was necessary speaks to the enormity of the problem of our times.) We intend to pick up where the other journal left off, recapturing some of its arguments and expanding upon them.

But our real object is more comprehensive and our methods aim to be more expansive in their reach. We believe that American conservatism has lost its way and, as a result, it has lost much of its original appeal. The once-vibrant political movement that nominated Barry Goldwater, elected Ronald Reagan, and defeated global communism has become ossified and unthinking to the point that conservative intellectuals act like priests mediating unknowable truth to the masses and administering the sacraments of conservative orthodoxy.  Regular excommunications have sapped the life and urgency from a movement once known for its intellectual vigor.  We intend to offer guidance and clarity to a spent movement by reclaiming the ideas and traditions upon which this country and our system of free government is based.

There are clues to what’s gone wrong in our past, but a slavish attachment to the ideas and policies of the past is not a way to advance or conserve our principles. Indeed, it is–precisely–the problem. We do not, in fact, seek to conserve any principles. They exist regardless of our action or inaction. We can only hope to have intelligent debate about how best to explain and defend those principles and the constitutional regime based upon them.

What American Greatness Is

We hold that America—much like movement conservatism—has lost her way. The nation has succumbed to  division and faction, infected by the insidious and  foreign virus of identity politics which has robbed Americans of our true identity as one people. We’re undermined further by an ever-growing centralized administrative state, which robs us daily of the opportunity to participate in governing our own lives as free and equal citizens under the rule of law.

Government has grown remote, unresponsive, and increasingly unaccountable. While many movement conservatives acknowledge these problems, they have failed to persuade a majority of American voters. What’s more, movement conservatives remain stubbornly unpersuaded by voters’ plain rejection of their solutions.  To their credit, the American people have, through common sense and hard experience, rejected the lie that their opinions about their interests and the laws that govern their lives are irrelevant. Likewise, most rank and file conservatives are unimpressed by the half-measures offered by a conservative movement that is more about conserving itself than conserving the people’s sovereignty.

So we do not condescend to tell our readers for or against whom they should cast their ballots  nor do we collectively contend that we are in possession of some “special expert knowledge” about their interests or some speculative good that is beyond their own poor powers to understand or to reach. We seek a higher level of conversation than that and a readership capable of coming to its own conclusions about how to use its franchise. We seek a revival of real politics.

Our editors, contributors, and writers agree that the staleness of the movement came about as a result of too much focus on the word “conservative” and not enough focus on the word “American.” Conservatives have suffered from a kind of elite insularity that pulled their focus away from broader, more American, interests and instead zeroed them in on the interests of their movement, its leaders, and its financial backers. In essence, it has become a kind of faction and has lost the ability to make an appeal to those who are not born into its concerns. It became a movement of conservative Americans instead of a movement of American conservatives.

Our object is a rediscovery of the American part of conservatism’s efforts. What, in other words, are we trying to conserve? And what are our prospects in this present political moment for conserving it?

As our name suggests, we understand the current dissatisfaction with our political institutions and the political polarization of our times to be a direct result of the failure of both political parties and the intellectual movements that direct them to advance an agenda for American greatness. Moreover, it is a failure to understand why such an agenda is so sorely needed.

A proper care and attention to the principles of America requires a serious effort to discover effective means of advancing, not just of conserving, those principles. America is a nation born in and of revolution. It is a radical appeal to a universal standard of justice and right, but it is also a limited appeal on behalf of one people who exist in this one place. As such, America’s principles have always taken the form of a proposition that needs constant affirmation and defending in every generation.

Americans are born but they must also be made. This means a diligent attention must be paid to the opinions and interests—expressed or implied—of the American people in its totality and as it actually exists.

In understanding that the American people are the rightful and sovereign rulers of their country, we cannot forget,as Lincoln reminded us, that in America “public sentiment is everything.”

“With public sentiment,” said Lincoln, “nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” Molding the beliefs of a free people is necessarily more difficult than dictating from above. It requires education, habituation, and time. But free government cannot be sustained without a healthy public sentiment. So those who would hope to keep it healthy must, above all, actually engage with it and attempt to understand it as it exists and understands itself in reality, not just in the hopes and wishes of the would-be molders.

What is a Greatness Agenda?

When it comes to explaining what a “Greatness Agenda” might look like, we at American Greatness accept the definition of terms as laid out by our predecessors at JAG. The specifics are matters to be determined by real and actual politics that engages the consent of the sovereign people of the United States. But the issues that are paramount at this particular political moment, as we see it, are wrapped up in understanding more fully the American principle of sovereignty and what Harry V. Jaffa called the “conditions of freedom” (in other words, the things that allow us to preserve our sovereignty).  These include, especially, our fitness for liberty and our strength on the international stage.

The sense that we are in danger of losing our sovereignty as a free people is at the heart of the reason why questions of trade, immigration, and foreign policy have become so prominent. American conservatives need to pay closer attention to these issues and to respect (we do not say bow to) the will of the people on them.

Why is movement on these issues necessary? Let’s begin with trade. Conservatives have betrayed a lack of concern with the opinions and interests of significant numbers of their base and borrowed voters (think Reagan Democrats) when it comes to trade. We believe in free trade and free markets in the abstract, but the actual liberty and security of the American people cannot be sacrificed on the altar of a purely notional concept of free trade that rarely exists in the the real world.  

Free trade between free people is a principle of justice. It is why we can accept nothing less than a free market within our borders.  But truly free trade between nations, even when the two nations in question are relatively free and well-disposed toward one another, is more to be hoped for than expected. Freedom goes both ways, and should  serve American interests broadly speaking, not just economically speaking. The government should advance specifically American interests in trade deals with foreign powers. Interests sometimes change. The character of those interests is a matter for politics, not just for experts.

Immigration, too, is wrapped up in the question of the sovereignty of the people who, after all, have something to say about who their friends and neighbors should be. We hold that it is necessary to prioritize the American character of our culture. Obviously, we do not believe that it is impossible for the foreign born to become good Americans. Indeed, there are many instances where a foreign-born person has proven himself an even better, more truly American, citizen than the average native born one. This has nothing to do with ethnicity or race. It has everything to do with character, culture, understanding, and habits.

Importantly, promoting the American character  involves an implicit and cultivated understanding of what Lincoln called our “political religion” which is something we, today, in our collective shame for past sins and imperfections, refuse to understand or appreciate. We no longer effectively assimilate even highly motivated immigrants to the ideas that make freedom a condition we can preserve. Instead, we leave immigrants to adopt the elements of decay and cultural rot that make preserving liberty so much more difficult. An immigrant may come to America thinking that Washington and Lincoln are heroes, only to discover that our schools and our media teach that Washington and Lincoln were irredeemable racists and bigots. Our high levels of immigration are probably not sustainable at all, but they are certainly not sustainable with an education system that undermines the qualities necessary for self-government by encouraging strife among Americans.

Finally, while conservatives can and should be cheerful about positive democratic developments in foreign lands, we need to move away from the idea that seeking to spread democracy is a necessary objective of America’s foreign policy.

Our defense forces and vast national resources shouldn’t be deployed as political missionaries. We have legitimate national interests abroad that need defending, but the first object of any American foreign policy should be to maintain our national strength for our own sake. If, as part of that objective, democracy and good government are spread abroad, so much the better. We cheer it but do not demand or prioritize it over and against American interests.

This brief description of what we are calling the “Greatness Agenda” is not meant to be exhaustive.  It is meant only to introduce the need for debate and consideration about these matters as part of a legitimate and necessary political conversation grounded in truly American concerns for the preservation of liberty. This is exactly the kind of forum we strive to provide.  We will defend the principles of limited, constitutional government based on the consent of the governed and of the American constitutional order as the best means for securing the rights inherent to all mankind.  

—The Editors

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