Founding Principles Rhetoric Falls Flat

A common solution politicians and intellectuals on the Right offer to fix what ails our politics is to return to the principles of the American Founding. But the rhetoric the Right usually employs falls far short of this lofty goal.

Small-government rhetoric that has taken over the Right in recent decades, as I have written before, confuses the tenets of anti-statist libertarianism with the Founders’ project of instilling a robust republicanism designed to secure the common good.

A related problem is the lack of concern for the political. There is a marked tendency on the Right to confuse politics with the academy, thinking that a coherent professorial presentation of principles (which itself is rare) is sufficient. But blackboard “conservatism” just won’t cut it.

Citing principles without considering our political-psychological conditions—our increasing individualism, our lust for equality of conditions, and the feminization of men—is useless at best and can even help to secure the ultimate victory of modern liberalism at worst.

We need to be aware that we live in an age defined by a neglect of duties and a suffocating individualism in which we tend to cut off all connections to the world outside our heads. Think of the growing number of single Americans who work from home, have Amazon deliver groceries to their front doors, binge watch Netflix over the weekend, and don’t attend any religious services.

Being mindful of our present discontents would alter the Right’s current rhetorical tactics in significant ways. Take the principle of equality, which is the foundational moral and political principle upon which the American regime rests. Equality rightly understood means that since God has not appointed natural rulers over men, just political authority rests only upon the consent of the governed.

But making a straight appeal to the principle that all men are created equal today can too easily devolve into a lust for equality of conditions.

From gay marriage to having women serve in frontline positions in the military, liberals on the Left (and those ostensibly on the Right) wrap every new radical initiative in the democratic cloak of equality. As Barack Obama said on the heels of the Obergefell decision, the “bedrock principle that we are all created equal” was vindicated with the Supreme Court’s recognition “that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality.”

With this in mind, we should talk about equality instead as the duty government has to extend the equal protection of the laws to everyone who falls under its jurisdiction.  

The principle of equal protection, after all, is ensconced in two separate places in the Constitution—in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Though some on the Right mistakenly think that equal protection is about anti-discrimination, originally understood the clause is about protecting all persons from the unequal treatment of government. In other words, government has an obligation to protect all citizens equally. As law professor Christopher R. Green has argued, equal protection “imposes a duty on each state to protect all persons and property within its jurisdiction from violence and to enforce their rights through the court system.”

From the tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police stations across our nation to the epidemic of groups of violent teenagers roaming the streets in many of our major cities, speaking of equality as the obligation of government to do its job and protect all citizens equally would be a welcome response to the negative trends in our society.

Just consider the ridiculous acquittal of the illegal immigrant who shot Kate Steinle to death in the sanctuary city of San Francisco and the response that case generated. The failure of the Left to uphold equality under the law is an indication of the flippant disregard of the good of the communities many of them represent. Quite simply, we live in an age defined by the lack of concern for the rule of law.

It is imperative that the Right correctly diagnose our present maladies. They cannot simply make blanket appeals to principles without an awareness of the political circumstances of our times. Empty appeals to another “Morning in America” won’t do the job.

They need to follow the example of past statesmen such as Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln, who understood the tendencies of their times and spoke with a view to combating and not inflaming them.

In the Declaration of Independence the Founders focused on securing rights rather than detailing duties not because they were radical egalitarians preparing the way for modern liberalism but because George III was guilty of violating their right to self government. Duties to family, country, and God in their time were taken for granted. Being “morally and politically wise men,” they needed to lean heavily on the side of rights because that’s what the circumstances dictated.

Today a focus on duties is as important as it was for the Founders to focus on rights in 1776.

As Winston Churchill once wrote, “The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” The Right should follow Churchill’s advice.

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