Founding Principles Rhetoric Falls Flat

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 December 1, 2017|
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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.

About the Author:

Mike Sabo
Mike Sabo is a Mt. Vernon Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a recent graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He and his wife live in Alexandria, Virginia.
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15 Comments

  1. Everett Brunson December 2, 2017 at 9:33 am

    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.

    You speak of the concept of a return to duty, but your examples fall short. The problem of forensic’s bottleneck and the inability of society to properly punish youthful thuggery are disconnected examples of societal failure. The first is example of a lack of resources and manpower, the second reflects both breakdown of family and judicial abrogation. Both represent a very wide arc of issues for which there are no simple solutions.

    While government’s duty to protect is paramount, the direction should come from the citizenry not from the overlords. The solution for both will take buckets and buckets of money. It will take an overhaul of the judiciary and all of the current sociological dogmas that form its base. It will require the construction of more prisons (currently woefully inadequate–as the revolving door of prisoner release demonstrates). It will require the expansion of labs, the purchase of equipment, and an expanded source of trained technicians. It will require a vastly different solution to the problems in the inner cities–political, sociological, psychological and economical.

    AND ALL OF THIS only tackles just the two issues you’ve raised. But the politicians will not be the ones to cry enough. As long as they get re-elected using sound-bite simplicity the country will roll on as before.

  2. hamburgertoday2017 December 2, 2017 at 9:42 am

    ‘Principles’ are scaffolding, they are not the building itself. At some point, you have to take away the scaffolding to allow the building to stand on its’ own. ‘The building’ is the actual policies that are presented to the public for their consideration and support or rejection. What’s clear is that most ‘conservative principles’ do not create public policy that the public is willing to embrace. ‘Principled conservatives’ simply are unwilling to accept that the public is not interested in their proposals. For example, it has become a touch-point of ‘conservative’ economic policy that (a) globalized ‘free’ trade is good and (b) workers hurt by these policies should just suck it up: take low-wage jobs if they are available or move to someplace where there are jobs. How this kind of radical thinking came to be branded as ‘conservative’ is obvious: think-tank donors love to hear it.

    The problem, from a political perspective is that — as much as their money matters — the votes of think-tank donors are too small to affect the outcome of elections, whereas the votes of unemployed and underemployed American workers do. When a person is employed to ‘think’, they largely ‘think’ the way their employer prefers and the failures of ‘principled conservatism’ can be traced back to the differences in donor ‘conservatism’ and popular ‘conservatism’.

    Beginning in the 1980s, all kinds of policies that were of concern to ordinary citizens came to be defined as ‘liberal’. Those who opposed those policies came to be defined as ‘conservative’. Whether the policies were, in fact, ‘liberal’ and opposing position was, in fact, ‘conservative’ seems to have mattered little. My guess would be that the vast majority of people who self-identify as ‘conservative’ are not even aware of existence of National Review or The American Conservative, let alone actually read what ‘conservative’ thinkers say in these magazines. The popular conception of ‘conservatism’ that emerged from this process is more of a brand that a well-thought-out political position.

    The result is that Donald Trump — whose positions are considered so non-conservative that an entire NeverTrump conservative contingent emerged and continues to oppose — is considered ‘conservative’ by large numbers of American voters and supported on this basis. ‘Principled conservatives’ did not understand that their version of ‘conservative’ was not the electorate’s version of ‘conservative’ and, so far as I can tell, this remains the case.

    • Everett Brunson December 2, 2017 at 10:38 am

      “The popular conception of ‘conservatism’ that emerged from this process is more of a brand that a well-thought-out political position.”

      I don’t disagree with your observations, but would add that while popular conservatives (popcons maybe?) positions might not be well thought out–they are pretty tightly held. Whether they mentally take the time to condense then into a list to take them out for frequent review DJT seems to articulate them very well–even in his shotgun way. Despite the polls I think consensus is growing that the President is much better at this game than anyone (meaning the GOPe and conservative think-tankers) was willing to consider.

      • hamburgertoday2017 December 2, 2017 at 1:25 pm

        My view is that if you took 5 people who self-identified as ‘conservative’ off the street and ask them what ‘conservative’ means, you would not get the same answer, nor likely very many answers that would conform to ‘principled conservatism’. I do not think this makes ‘popular conservatism’ less important or ‘serious’, only that I think it emerged not out of any ‘intellectual’ tradition but as a reaction to something called ‘liberalism’.

        Saying such is not intended as a disparagement of ‘popcon’, only that ‘popcon’ is alot like the blind men describing an elephant: the description of the ‘conservative’ elephant vary depending upon what part of the elephant a ‘popcon’ is closest to. This is not a criticism, simply an observation. Personally, I would rather have an ‘incoherent’ but successful political philosophy than a coherent and unsuccessful one and I have tremendous respect for the way in which ‘ordinary’ people make sense of the world and make decisions about it. I’m not that big a fan of Wiliam F. Buckley, but I do agree with his statement that he would rather trust the Republic to the first 100 people listed in the Boston phone book than 100 Harvard professors.

        As for the President, I completely agree with you. He and Steve Bannon et al appear to have crafted positions that resonate strongly with the popcons sufficient form an electorally significant ‘conservative’ coalition. The President is truly a remarkable person, who, like many remarkable people who rise to high office, is precisely the person the country needs whether many like it or not.

        • Everett Brunson December 2, 2017 at 1:56 pm

          You are probably right in that, but I would offer if you asked the same 5 what their five biggest expectations from the government would be I venture each would express the same five–just in different orders.

          Shucks, even I have difficulty in expressing exactly what conservatism means to me–as the deeper I delve into MY personal meaning the more my libertarian streak begins to appear. BUT I’m beginning to believe that having the smallest government possible is no more than a pipe-dream. So do I take that off the table or do I continue to hang on to it like a useless appendage?

          My deep questions with shallow answers for all the world to see. Chuckle.

        • Eric Johnson December 2, 2017 at 5:59 pm

          Conservatism is so simple only an intellectual could fuck it up. If you asked those aforementioned five conservatives that you pulled off of the street, the most likely answer would be along the lines of “low taxes, safe neighborhood, and no pencil-necked bureaucrats pushing me around.” Just like how Orwell described a coal miner from north England being completely piss ignorant of Marx, yet having a better understanding of socialism then the intellectuals of his time, so too does our redneck voters have a better understanding of what conservatism means without having read Burke or the editorials of Bill Kristol.

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  3. DejaniArlinda December 2, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    “The popular conception of ‘conservatism’ that emerged from this process is more of a brand that a well-thought-out political position.”I don’t disagree with your observations, but would add that while popular conservatives (popcons maybe?) positions might not be well thought out–they are pretty tightly held

    • Everett Brunson December 2, 2017 at 1:57 pm

      Dejan–did you lift that for a reason or are you just holding it up for universal scorn?

  4. Wayne Lusvardi December 2, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    While I am sympathetic with Mike Sabo about his misgivings of conservative (and liberal) principles, trying to push back “suffocating individualism”, the feminization of men while masculinizing women and trying to achieve equality of results, a call for a focus on duties won’t do the trick.

    All of the above trends are part and parcel of the social force of modernity (the loosening of the institutional hold on individuals by tribes, clans, castes, cults, and rulers ruling by divine right). Calling for duty, honor, and service to country won’t do much to reversing such an enormous social force as modernization unless some sort of institutions replace the old ones. Socrates called a society run by the rule of the honorable at Timocracy.

    As the sociologist Peter Berger once wrote: “Honor (and duty) occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity”. Intellectuals are not likely to admit to being honorable or chaste. They are ideological leftovers of ancient military culture or ethnic aunts and grandmothers. Honor and duty are hardly recognized in modern law (witness Bo Berghahl) although military courts are perhaps the last vestige of such values.

    What Sabo is calling for is a return to pre-modern values of honor, duty, chivalry. Or as Berger also wrote: “The concept of honor implies that identity is essentially, or at least importantly, linked to institutional roles. The modern concept of dignity, by contrast, implies that identity is essentially independent of institutional roles”. Thus any appeal to forsake the individual, and individualism, is going to fall on deaf ears.

    Neither the “liberation myth” of the Left or the “nostalgia myth” of the Right will restore an intact world and institutions. A return to duty, honor, country will thus have to be a return to a certain set of institutions that, for the most part, no longer exist except in marginal spheres of society. Sabo doesn’t tell us what new institutions he would propose to bring about human dignity, not necessarily old fashioned honor or duty. How would he compel such institutions on those who are anti-institutional by their socialization?

    Evangelical Christians, perhaps, have a partial solution to this dilemma. They call it “being born again”. They place emphasis on choice not fate or ascribed (instead of achieved) social roles. Choice is a very modern concept that implies an emancipated individual who can choose. And contrary to modern notions that Evangelicals are backward hicks (“deplorables”) or fascists, Evangelicals are very modernized. And the value of the individual is a very conservative (and modern) notion. Evangelical Christians compartmentalize their lives and thus are somewhat able to transport their values into the secular and modernized culture. I am not writing an apology (defense) of Evangelicalism but merely describing an empirical fact.

    For Mike Sabo: don’t throw the baby of individualism out with the bathwater of “suffocating individualism”.

  5. Milan December 3, 2017 at 4:32 am

    While I am sympathetic with Mike Sabo about his misgivings of conservative (and liberal) principles, trying to push back “suffocating individualism”, the feminization of men while masculinizing women and trying to achieve equality of results, a call for a focus on duties won’t do the trick.All of the above trends are part and parcel of the social force of modernity (the loosening of the institutional hold on individuals by tribes, clans, castes, cults, and rulers ruling by divine right)

  6. Moritz Thomas December 3, 2017 at 5:42 am

    ‘Principles’ are scaffolding, they are not the building itself. At some point, you have to take away the scaffolding to allow the building to stand on its’ own. ‘The building’ is the actual policies that are presented to the public for their consideration and support or rejection. What’s clear is that most ‘conservative principles’ do not create public policy that the public is willing to embrace

    • illegal_joe December 4, 2017 at 2:31 pm

      “What’s clear is that most ‘conservative principles’ do not create public policy that the public is willing to embrace”

      Of course not, that’s why liberals suffered epic loses during obama administration and that’s why trump was elected.

  7. STAR_ December 4, 2017 at 2:42 am

    My view is that if you took 5 people who self-identified as ‘conservative’ off the street and ask them what ‘conservative’ means, you would not get the same answer, nor likely very many answers that would conform to ‘principled conservatism’. I do not think this makes ‘popular conservatism’ less important or ‘serious’, only that I think it emerged not out of any ‘intellectual’ tradition but as a reaction to something called ‘liberalism’

Comments are closed.