Political Rule or Procedure: The Case of Vinny Gambini

A critical moment has arrived in American politics. On cue, National Review has a take that is completely wrong. “In Defense of Proceduralism,” authored by Andy Smarick of the Manhattan Institute, argues conservatives should rally, as America burns, around a procedure.

[W]hen an issue of public significance arises, American conservatism encourages our leaders to consider whether authority is being vested in those proximate to the problem, whether the people and their representatives are driving policy, whether the wisdom found in diverse practices and traditions is respected, whether nongovernmental bodies are adequately engaged, whether we are responding to conditions judiciously and so on.

I am reminded of “My Cousin Vinny.” Vinny Gambini analogizes procedure to cars: 

It’s a procedure. Like rebuilding a carburetor has a procedure. You know, when you rebuild a carburetor, the first thing you do is take the carburetor off the manifold? Supposing you skip this first step. And while you are replacing one of the jets, you accidentally drop the jet, it goes down the carburetor, rolls along the manifold, and goes into the head. You’re f—ed.

Smarick elaborates: “By focusing on key matters of process with questions that suggest the right answers, American conservatism helps our public officials govern smartly and consistently.” 

Absent from “smartly” and “consistently” is “rightly.” It is missing, I suspect, because Smarick assumes any decision made smartly and consistently is made rightly. Indeed, Smarick believes smart and consistent government—and I assume obedience to smart and consistent government—shapes civic virtue, instilling “in citizens the rights and duties of individuals and communities.”

Smarick produces a laundry list of “isms” comprising the procedure. Federalism, localism, democratic-republicanism, textualism, liberalism, capitalism, volunteerism, and traditionalism work together in a way that mechanically inhibits change, while in the intellectual faculty, prudentialism, warns against “sudden, wide-ranging change to the existing order by hot-headed pundits and panicked officials.” 

See, just follow the procedure and the carburetor fixes itself. Otherwise, it seems, you’re f—ed.

If this leaves you cold, in our exceedingly hot times, you are not alone.

This sort of vacuous conservativism contributed to our crisis. The habit of decrying progressive initiatives and then embracing them later destroyed the credibility of establishment conservatives. As Michael Anton put it, “If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics.” Proceduralism is a page straight from the political playbook of the Washington Generals.

Conservatism is a pointless undertaking, unless you know what you are conserving and why.

The story of the United States begins in 1776 (not 1587, not 1619, not 1630) and with the Declaration of Independence.

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve . . . ”

Prior to any discussion of the nature of man in the Declaration, it is presupposed that man lives in societies or “peoples.” People have separated themselves from other people, and conversely, have joined together. There is no concept of individual men and women coming together or coming apart to make or divide peoples.

The American colonists furnish a reason for dissolving their ties, one that cannot be found in any English procedure, tradition, or legal right to do so. The foundation of their claim is that justice is rooted in the consent of the governed rather than the divine right of kings. And the claim of justice is going to be settled with a process called force.

The American Founding thus could not be further from Smarick’s proceduralism. The signers of the Declaration made proceduralism up as they went along, based on their political judgment about the basic conditions of man and just government, with a pistol tucked in their pants. 

The ground of consent of peoples to government is equality. Equality is also the ground of the morality of the people who consent. Just as it is a precondition to separation that there be two peoples, it is also a precondition that the people establishing a new government are good people (see Declaration, “the good people of these colonies”), lest they trade one tyranny for another. They have to have a certain ethos about political rule.

Political rule consists in ruling and being ruled in turns. While it is not strictly egalitarian, political rule cannot exist without some notion of equality.

For political rule to exist, a people must deliberate in speech about right and wrong, the just and the unjust. It is through speaking and acting on this subject that a human being is completed; it is necessary for his happiness. This means that the ground of morality is not tradition or process, but a certain habitual understanding of what a man is, that political life is necessary for the realization of his potential, and that deliberative government ruling for the benefit of the ruled is essential for his full happiness. 

This is why rule without deliberative consent, even decent rule, is degrading. The rule of the administrative state is degrading.

Smarick’s proceduralism, simply put, is terrible advice. He’s followed a procedure, but dropped the jet into the manifold and it’s rolled into the head. His ethos is scarcely distinguishable from that of the smart and consistent apparatus we know as the progressive administrative state. Opposition to this degrading ethos is precisely why Donald Trump was elected and has the support he has. 

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About Jay Whig

Jay Whig is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Whig practices law in New York and a resides in Connecticut, specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.

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