Like Peace, Consensus is Not the Absence of War

In Leviathan (1651), writing about the state of nature as war, Thomas Hobbes famously noted: “For War consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known….so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace.”

Of course, the influential English political philosopher, imagining a violent state of nature, is saying there can never truly be peace. The old saying from a Roman Publius displays better judgment: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” But Hobbes wants to use the horror of war to scare his readers into peace—the peace of an all-powerful state, or Leviathan.

Henry Olsen, like any reasonable patriot, wants to avoid civil war and thus has presented “a serious examination of the nature of existential conflicts and crafting a serious plan for victory.” He says his recent essays at American Greatness “were meant to draw attention to both issues.”

Victory, he assures us, is not just any peace or détente. But what are the principles showing we have real peace and not merely preparation for further war?

Olsen wants to forge a war-avoiding consensus by blending the strongest elements of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Adherents of one president have generally tried to deny the other. Aristotle’s genius in the Politics was to search for how virtuous citizens could be developed in less than virtuous political communities. I see Olsen valiantly attempting, as scholar and patriot, to weave together not just the strongest but the highest of FDR and Reagan. He writes:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt remade America by doing exactly this [coalition-building]. 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…. 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.

Roosevelt also persecuted political opponents, shut down Republican-owned radio stations, denounced conservatives as Nazis and Tories, and relocated ethnic Japanese in wartime. In the view of some, Progressivism already paved the way in principle for unchecked federal power, which Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society put into practice. When we on the Right make use of Roosevelt (and of Reagan), we need to be aware of what we are selecting. We do not, for example, highlight the Reagan who as governor signed into law abortion rights or no-fault divorce legislation.

More on the Left than on the Right would be happy to wield power in the manner of Roosevelt:

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.

Is this Olsen’s “Leviathan” move—to frighten Americans on the Right to a premature peace? But liberals are already succeeding in this strategy and not just through political correctness, virtue signaling, and outright censorship. Moreover, Olsen raising the specter of such tyranny by the right plays into the Left’s view of Trump. But the Left’s political uses of the IRS, FBI, EPA, EEOC, and Department of Justice, among others, all show a rougher hand than “soft despotism.”

My old friend Henry Olsen cannot be an advocate of unilateral disarmament. He seems to want a robust consensus, as it were—one that would acknowledge a “right-of-center friendly” regnant FDR-Reagan consensus. But what does this consensus exclude? Can this possibly be a consensus of principle rather than one of mere style? We might pursue these questions by looking to our teacher Harry Jaffa, whom Olsen begins his essay by recalling.

In a 1964 essay indispensable for understanding party politics today, “The Nature and Origin of the American Party System,” Jaffa set forth his view of critical elections that redefined the political landscape for generations. He concluded:

Jefferson’s rise of power like Lincoln’s, rested on the charge of a plot to overthrow the principles of the Revolution—a charge symbolized in the epithet “monocrats,” by which he characterized the federalists [cf. Trump’s charge of a “rigged system”]. And, of course, at the heart of the New Deal’s appeal was the charge that the money-changers had betrayed the people in their temple. The evangelical revival of the Revolutionary creed, however adapted to new circumstances, is the key to these great shifts in the structure of political power in the community. Indeed, it is the re-creation of the Revolution by a creative appeal to its principles which denotes the true function of the political party in those great moments when it restores the people’s faith republican freedom, and thereby earns the people’s confidence, not until the next election, but for generations.

Where are we today? Apparently, Ronald Reagan did not bring about the “realignment” that his partisans wished to see. The Bushes backed away from wanting to create one, and Barack Obama pushed leftist partisanship to its greatest political extreme, producing a candidate in Trump who denounced both party establishments. But is Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina right about the leaders of parties being far more partisan than the public as a whole? At this point, with narrow and possibly dissolving Republican majorities in the states and Congress, we ask which way are we headed?

In this light, consider Olsen’s moving conclusion of where we should stay:

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 [only to worship and not to freely exercise one’s religion?], 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.

This raises doubts about a consensus. There’s a culture and a notion of the rule of law that presupposes what Olsen suggests here. Even more, in relying on the First Amendment, he assumes a regard for reason. But for the Left, choice means the assertion of the will. After all, in the Left’s view, First Amendment rights don’t belong to racists, do they? (And racism becomes just an expression of disgust.) Finally, what is a constitution to the Left but FDR’s “second bill of rights,” with its promise of security and the eternal chase after government benefits?

Olsen emphasizes logos—and a free people can’t get enough of that—but there is not enough here about where and how people live, and even less about the American nation, with its place in the world.

By contrast, Trump’s political appeal to the FDR-Reagan consensus that Olsen put his finger on is based on an American greatness that goes back beyond them, through Lincoln and to the founding. Such greatness is based on a common appreciation of the elementary principles of political right. One might mischievously conclude, after Hobbes, that “In matter of Government . . .  when nothing [no other card] else is turn’d up, Clubs are Trump.”

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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9 responses to “Like Peace, Consensus is Not the Absence of War”

  1. There is alot going on in this essay and the essays to which it responds. So I’ll take a poke at one piece. The first philosopher of logos was Heraclitus who also said ‘Struggle (agon) is the Father of All’ and that logos is the result of ‘opposite tension, like that of the bow and the lyre’.

  2. The second American Civil War will happen not because of individual disagreements but because one side insists on extending its will on the other side, just as the first one.
    In the first one, the individual disagreement was over chattel slavery, and the South’s [correct] inference that, over time, a national Constitutional majority would outlaw slavery, hence secession, hence 600,000 Americans dead before the issue was permanently settled for all.
    In the second one, the individual disagreements are too numerous to enumerate, but take just one, abortion. The day before Roe v Wade, New York voters wished for abortion on demand, Texas voters wished to protect the most innocent and most defenseless. That was not acceptable to New York voters and others, who insisted that EVERY state have abortion on demand. Overturning Roe v Wade does not outlaw abortion, but it does return decision on abortion to the state voters, anathema to Democrat voters.
    Bottom line, absent a substantial diminution of Washington’s powers over all of us, si vis pacem, para bellum.

  3. “Apparently, Ronald Reagan did not bring about the “realignment” that his partisans wished to see. The Bushes backed away from wanting to create one, and Barack Obama pushed leftist partisanship to its greatest political extreme, producing a candidate in Trump who denounced both party establishments. ”

    This is where, as a liberal outsider to this argument, Masugi’s analysis failed me. Obama pushed “leftist partisanship to its greatest political extreme?”

    The healthcare act he pursued, long prized by Democrats, was originally proposed by a conservative thinktank and implemented by a Republican governor.

    He didn’t raise taxes so much as let some temporary tax cuts lapse, and only for the rich.

    As a president who ran on reversing his predecessor’s war policies, he *kept* his predecessor’s Secretary of Defense.

    He bailed out failing banks without prosecuting their leaders for malfeasance or ordering their breakup.

    He presided over an era in which US dependency on foreign oil subsided — he oversaw the largest domestic oil production increase during any presidency in U.S. history.

    My job here is not to convince you that Obama is conservative — he’s not. But he didn’t govern like a raging left-winger, except to occasionally mention that the police don’t always treat black men well. The assertion that this is “leftist partisanship to its greatest political extreme” is a critical failure of analysis, and suggests Mr. Masugi’s call to the ramparts might be ill-conceived.

  4. At this point, avoiding civil war is like deciding you can live with cancer.
    Time to cut the disease out, once and for all.
    If you’re not ready to die to defend Western Civilization, you’re as bad as a shitlib.

  5. There is no middle ground. Subservience without accountability or independence with accountability. One or the other. I have made my choice. I will not yield.

  6. We need to figure out a way to permanently debar the progressives from using power to crush liberty. We need some sort of restraining order and I have no idea what it might be. The denial of basic truths such as the existence of a biological sex, the total absence of any global warming whatsoever and that speech in fact isn’t violence does not bode well. The Left is simultaneously completely insane and hell-bent on absolute power.

  7. How do you deal with people wedded to evil (renamed as good) for its own sake and for personal advancement? Which niceties of civilized life, much less Constitutional life, do such people subscribe to?

  8. There is nothing original in Olsen’s piece, and it contains all of the usual contradictions inherent in trying to make each of two opposing principles (liberty and equality) simultaneously the highest principle.

    First, rendering the eternal majority versus minority struggle as “existential crisis” does nothing to advance understanding of how to contain the politics of that struggle. That struggle was no less intense and no less existential in 1787. The Founders carefully considered–far more carefully than all progressives and most conservatives today–how to erect an institutional structure that preserved the ability of the political minority, however it might be constituted at any given time, to carry on the struggle. The struggle never ends and the Founders knew this.

    Second, today, however, the struggle is to preserve the means that let us carry on the struggle. Those means–the Bill of rights and particularly the First Amendment–are under direct assault by progressives. They are able to be assaulted because the Supreme Court of this country has signally failed to preserve intact the First Amendment as the means by which political minorities are enabled to carry on the struggle. That Court, and various helpers like the ACLU, were quite vigorous in such preservation when it was progressives who were the struggling political minority. But today the federal judiciary has become an executive arm of political progressives and the Supreme Court refuses to stop it. Conservatives on the Court mewl about respecting precedent, a disability not recognized nor ever recognized by liberal justices. The liberal justices overthrow every precedent they can and then demand that conservatives refrain from tossing out those precedents!!!! It has reached the point where the Senators of the national progressive political party, the political that seems to represent the majority today, feel confident to introduce legislation revising the First Amendment!

    Third, this statement by Olsen–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–is neither moving nor cogent. It is just another variant of the thesis on liberty dating back to Mill if not before. It was fatally flawed when Mill wrote it and time and repetition have not corrected that flaw. The flaw is (obviously) the words of limitation–not deny the rights of others. The entire project of modern progressivism–in the academy, in law schools, in the op-ed pages of the MSM–has been precisely to expand the idea of what it is to “deny” the liberty or rights of others. So long as that part of the Millian definition is permanently under enlargement, it will eventually wipe out entirely the first part, the part about being allowed to “live lives of our own choice.” When the “life of choice” of the majority consists precisely in removing all choice for the minority, well, you can see the flaw in the idea behind Olsen’s words.