The Causes of Steve King’s Moral Relativism

In the course of their public responsibilities and acting on concrete political problems, Congressmen should know better than to ask abstract questions—particularly when in the company of New York Times reporters with no inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt. At best, this from Steve King, seemed another provocation: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Steve King, once again, just could not help himself.

The jumbling together of white nationalism and Western civilization seemed appropriate for many a leftist critic of Western civilization, but not a purported defender of it, as King is. (While I don’t know King, I do know some of his former staffers, all of whom display both intelligence and good character.) Thus, a similar utterance from a Democratic member of Congress might well have gone unnoticed or even produced solicitation for an op-ed for the leading establishment press.

But why, it must be asked, would anyone throw together three such unrelated terms in defense of Western civilization? This is the form some intelligence tests take—which of the following items doesn’t belong? King’s defense has been that he meant to disassociate the first two terms from the last and the Times erred in its punctuation of his quote. The bipartisan answer to his explanation has been to disregard it and proclaim that Steve King doesn’t belong in Congress.

But the more revealing fact about the reaction to King’s statement, reported without any context, was how it displays the creeping moral relativism that infects all our political discourse—on both the right and left.

Fortunately, a just-published book correctly diagnoses this modern disease—Harry V. Jaffa’s, The Rediscovery of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The 10 chapters—including long sections which have never been published—come from the writings of the late professor from the Claremont Colleges. Written between the late 1980s and 2010, the essays are striking for their insight into our times and current crises, because Jaffa had his eye on eternity and how the present might be illuminated by it.

Because of modern skepticism’s “passionate rejection of all ‘absolutes’” the educated, especially, are prone to make passionate instead of rational judgments about alternatives—turning the university into a “seminary of intolerance” rather than a place to grapple with the eternal questions.

The Left might rely on racial or “gender”-inspired passions, the Right—as apparently it did in King’s case—on the emotive catchwords of the day that they fear will blow back and taint them. Thus, moral relativism produces moral fanaticism, because reason, especially among the young or immature of any age, has little power. Jaffa illuminated this well in his essay provocatively titled “The Reichstag is Still Burning,” which takes on the student radicals and weak administrators of his day and recently has been the subject of a forum over at the Claremont Institute’s The American Mind.

Whatever his immediate subject, Jaffa’s “rediscovery of America” calls for the “sophisticated” to return to their citizen roots. But is it too late for such sentiments to move Americans who have become the kind of self-centered beings our universities seek to produce? Jaffa’s patriotism, indeed his nationalism, is based on the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to reason. Significantly, we Americans celebrate not the political act of our independence (which took place on July 2, 1776) but rather the declaring of that independence. In other words, we celebrate the reasoned argument for it.

Jaffa’s chapter “The End of History Means the End of Freedom” in The Rediscovery of America demonstrates how he proceeds against the relativists and nihilists, with an emphasis on those on the political right. (Earlier in his career he had emphasized his difference with scholars and politicians of the left.) Jaffa’s sobering point is that both the left and the right share in the moral relativism that many Americans sense and dread. The elites do not respect the most profound voices of the American political tradition, preferring instead the intellectuals who flatter each other.

As he does in his review of Allan Bloom’s best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, Jaffa argues that American political documents, in particular, the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, provide the philosophic grounding and moral teaching to guide Americans today. Francis Fukuyama, his teacher Bloom, Irving Kristol, and virtually all the heads of our universities could never agree with Jaffa on this point and offered only more versions of the same relativism.

In this way, Jaffa takes on one of the most commonly cited works of political science in the last 30 years, Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument, whose jarring 1989 article was expanded into a book. By “the end of history,” the now-Stanford professor and former member of the George H.W. Bush State Department, means not that events cease to happen but that the fundamental human choices have been made—liberal democracy and capitalism have won—and that all subsequent choices will be subsets of those. Perhaps a great man or political movement (like Islam?) might upset this consensus.

Jaffa poses this objection: “If, as Fukuyama … contends, philosophy ends with the ending of history then politics also ends. Politics can subsist only so long as it is thought reasonable for men to differ as to what they ought to pursue.” But if the quest for wisdom ends in the Wisdom of History, then philosophy as skeptical inquiry is no longer honorable or necessary.

And the same holds for faith in God. For those who seek to live by “an eternal and unchangeable order . . . recognize that democratic politics, philosophy, and religion all stand or fall together.” To believe in the end of history is to renounce all three and thereby pull down the heights of Western civilization and yoke them to one’s will. Once again relativism (historically conditioned knowledge) produces a dogmatism (the end of history) that justifies extremism (the claim of Wisdom and thereby tyranny).

All this is a mere warm-up for the most intriguing chapter of the book, an exchange of about 120 pages involving the distinguished Harvard political theorist and conservative, Harvey Mansfield, Jr., titled “The Decline and Fall of the American Idea: Reflections on the Failure of American Conservatism.” The Rediscovery of America signals the rediscovery both of philosophy and politics and thereby the refutation of relativism and its evil brother, fanaticism. At the heart of this endeavor is a recovery of the spiritedness essential for both love of country and love of wisdom.

This absence of this kind of spiritedness among so-called “conservative” intellectuals is what explains their horror at attempts to reinvigorate our politics. They should recall that without such politics, philosophy, and morality will suffer a similar decline.

Photo credit:  Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

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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.