How to Win Our (Un)Civil War

By | 2018-01-12T17:10:56+00:00 January 12th, 2018|
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Ken Masugi, whom I have known and respected since we met while studying under the late Harry Jaffa during President Reagan’s first term, thinks my recent articles betray a lack of understanding of the current crisis. In “The Rescue of Flight 93,” Masugi contends America is at an existential moment, what Jaffa would have called “a crisis of the regime,” wherein its very existence as a genuinely liberal democracy is under assault. The only principled and spirited response, he says, is to fight. He supports Donald Trump primarily because Trump is a fighter and opposes, or at least seems to oppose, those who seek to destroy American values. He fears that my recent writings for American Greatness do not convey a similar understanding of what is at stake.

I think Masugi misunderstands my argument. I did not take issue with his assessment of the moment we are in. Recognizing the seriousness of that moment, however, should also entail a serious examination of the nature of existential conflicts and crafting a serious plan for victory. My pieces were meant to draw attention to both issues.

Existential conflicts always involve a choice between uncompromisable alternatives. To use the Civil War conflict as an example, slavery was either wrong, and thus inconsistent with an American regime founded upon the idea that all men are created equal, or it was right, and hence the idea of human equality was not an essential feature of America. The smartest warriors in this battle, Lincoln and Calhoun, understood this and argued in those terms.

This argument could be settled only by the elimination of the other within the context of democratic argumentation. Calhoun’s ablest descendant, Stephen Douglas, sought to do this by making democratic choice—”popular sovereignty”—the lodestar of the regime. By making choice a higher principle than equality, Douglas thought he could gain sufficient public support in the North to place abolitionist sentiment on the course of ultimate extinction, thereby preserving the Union and maintaining slavery. Lincoln sought to deny this, contending that democratic choice could only be right if understood against the backdrop of human equality, a belief which meant that slavery must be considered to be immoral.

Lincoln sought to avoid war, in part, by tolerating and even sometimes speaking to what is now considered to be race prejudice, seeming to agree that there was something intolerable, for example, in miscegenation—particularly when his audience was of the sort that was vocal about such racial prejudice. He also sought to assuage the South by reminding them that the Constitution prevented a democratic majority from abolishing slavery where it existed without a constitutional amendment. Given the fact that amendments require ratification by three-fourths of the states, that effectively meant that it could only be abolished with the South’s own consent. But once the expansion of slavery was halted by a popular majority, it would be clear that slavery had been placed on the course of ultimate extinction and hence increasingly ambitious politicians from the South would cease to make slavery agitation a part of their political platforms

I believe that supporters of the Flight 93, “we are at war” narrative have failed to grasp the logical consequences of that stance. War means war, and victory in war means one’s opponents can no longer contest the field of battle. To win in a democratic sense, as Lincoln and Douglas sought to do, one must define one’s argument in such a way so that the victory one achieves is both total and lasting. That in turn means creating a coalition broader than those who already agree with all, or even most, of your own principles. Lincoln and Douglas both sought to do that. I do not see advocates of the Flight 93 position always arguing in ways that demonstrate they are cognizant of that fact.

Both Lincoln and Douglas strove to attract the votes of men who did not see the existential nature of the conflict and sought, instead, to avoid it. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not see our politics as a fight between good and evil. Their votes will determine which side, progressives or conservatives, wins the conflict. If we are in a Flight 93 moment, if we do need to fight to preserve American ideals, then it behooves conservatives to try to attract those people’s votes rather than to denigrate them as “squishes” or as other sorts of undesirables whose company we deign to keep. That requires more than shouting our own principles more loudly and more clearly. It means speaking in such a way that can appeal to these voters and invite them to be a part of our coalition.

That does not mean abandoning principle. It does mean understanding how to talk with and attract people who do not necessarily share your core premises. That in turn requires some degree of toleration, some degree of kindness, some degree of inclusion. Is your neighbor who thinks abortion ought to be legal in the first trimester but not thereafter, your enemy or a potential ally? Is your co-worker who thinks everyone should have decent health coverage but doesn’t think the government should run the health care system a squish or a potential convert? These are the questions I want us to ask and answer, as I think these are the questions that answering can help determine victory or defeat.

The alternative is more frightening. A political minority (and ours is a minority) can win an existential battle, but only by recourse to legal means to suppress one’s opponents’ basic rights. That is the specter I sought to raise in my essay The Flight 93 Decade. If you do not want to win by creating a new democratic supermajority, then political victory will require eliminating one’s opponents’ ability to politically organize. That in turn means the proscription of certain types of speech, the removal of certain political disputes from the political process, and, when challenged, the arrest of people who defy these edicts. This is what happens in cities and in nations who cannot resolve existential disputes peacefully. One cannot avoid this conclusion if one is serious about waging a war over existential questions.

The Civil War’s aftermath shows us how this transpires. The South’s decision to secede and Lincoln’s decision to go to war to maintain the Union meant America’s existential question would be settled on the battlefield, with bullets and not with ballots. The South’s defeat was followed by Reconstruction, which prevented white Southern majorities from re-entering the Union with full political rights until they had sworn fealty to the new political order. The three Reconstruction Era amendments permanently removed the question of slavery from political debate. The North won the existential conflict by forcibly destroying the ability of its foes to contest the field of democratic battle.

I do not think that Masugi or most advocates of the Flight 93 viewpoint want to do this and most understand that the battles, if they are to be won, will be won through through democratic politics. This will require the skill of a Lincoln not just to mobilize the 30 percent of Americans who do see conservative and American values under assault, but to add to them another 25 to 30 percent who may not see this conflict clearly but can see their values more clearly upheld by a conservative supermajority than by a progressive one.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt remade America by doing exactly this. He cunningly crafted a public New Deal that told conservative Democrats and once-Republican working-class voters that he was simply restoring the republic they always had supported. They believed him and gave him sweeping landslides in the 1932 and 1936 elections. After those elections, every ambitious politician knew that to relitigate the question of federal power was to court political annihilation. To this day even the most conservative politicians, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, will deny they seek to undermine the core regulatory and spending programs that the New Deal and its aftermath ushered into existence. That’s how you win an existential conflict through democratic means: even opponents who in their hearts might seek to overturn your order cannot say so openly.

I am an American and a conservative. I believe that all men, meaning all human beings, are created equal. I believe that this means all people ought to be able to live lives of their own choice, subject to the requirements that they do so of their own effort so far as possible and so long as they do not deny the rights of others so empowered and so limited to do likewise. I believe that the freedoms of the first amendment—the freedom to speak what you believe, to print what you believe, to worship God according to the dictates of your conscience, to organize politically to advance your views, and the right to petition your elected representatives to enact laws based on such views—are fundamental to a regime dedicated to freedom and human equality. I stand ready to fight to preserve that regime and those ideals for so long as I live. Everything I write should be understood against these fundamental beliefs.

Aristotle begins his classic work the Nicomachean Ethics by noting that every act aims at some good, and that the aim of strategy is victory. I hope by my writings to help Americans and conservatives to craft a strategy that not only aims at victory but achieves it. And I view Ken Masugi as I hope he views me, an ally in that battle.

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About the Author:

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).