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.”