If 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?