A review of “Crisis of the Two Constitutions: The Rise, Decline, & Recovery of American Greatness,” by Charles R. Kesler (Encounter Books, 488 pages, $34)

A Grave New World?

Recently, in Law & Liberty, Charles Kesler’s important book was given a shrill, tendentious review by Professor Shep Melnick. That review denied the main premise of the book—namely, that America’s original Constitution is no longer authoritative, and that we live in many ways under a different kind of regime. But it also claimed that Kesler, or his argument, was much worse than simply wrong. The very suggestion that there is a second, illegitimate regime—hostile to our original Constitution—was deemed by the reviewer to be irresponsible, scandalous, and possibly even insurrectionist. Of course, Melnick does not see the irresponsible mote in his own eye when he attempts to link the urbane and even-tempered Kesler—of all people—to the mob violence of January 6 and even (in a tirade that was almost quaintly delusional) to the bogeyman of Trump’s “Russian collusion.”

I am sure that when Kesler responds to that overheated review, it won’t have the slightest effect on Melnick’s ideological fixations. (Melnick had no problem, incidentally, writing many times in the past for the Claremont Review of Books under Kesler’s editorship). The attempt to reason with a man who remains in full thrall to Trump Derangement Syndrome months into the Biden presidency would be as pointless as trying to hold a free speech rally at Berkeley these days. Yet the presumptuous certitude of Melnick’s angry scolding is, in a way, both the point and the proof of Kesler’s enlightening collection of essays. 

In fact, I would go further than Kesler (an old friend and my former professor at Claremont Graduate School); if anything he is, as is his way, too reserved. 

The United States, I would argue, not only has two Constitutions today. We have become, in fact, two peoples—living in alternate realities. Kesler is not even within hailing distance of Melnick and his collusional fantasies. Indeed, in a wonderful irony, Melnick disproves his own argument: he denies that, as Kesler argues, America is “torn between two rival cultures, two constitutions”; yet he writes from an angry and distant perspective that exists in a different political universe than the one inhabited by Kesler and his intended audience of red state, and red-blooded, Americans. 

How can we have a country together, one might ask Melnick, when we can’t even have a conversation? 

One Big, Happy Family

The difficulty in simply talking about these matters can be seen in the fact that only those on the Right recognize our deep antagonisms as an obvious and undeniable truth that has been unfolding for decades. Liberals and leftists claim that this talk about “two Americas” or “two constitutions” is merely a willful and recent attempt to foment artificial divisions. 

Some on the Left even refer to any explicit analysis of these political differences as “fascist” rhetoric—an attempt (born of malice, presumably) to turn warm and loving fellow citizens into “friends and enemies.” From this rather odd perspective, it seems, the nation’s political health and the bonds of civic attachment would be perfectly fine were it not for these right-wing agitators. 

Thus, it is hard even to know how to engage this argument. For example, I wonder if there is any point in mentioning to the people crying “fascist” that they are being somewhat, er, divisive themselves. Of course, this is nothing new. Liberals—so alarmed about our harsh words—have been referring to conservatives as fascists (and Nazis) at least since Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. And since then, Democrats have labelled every Republican presidential nominee since—even milquetoasts such as Mitt Romney—an “extremist.” The Left’s bullying has now reached truly alarming levels: even before the Trump presidency, the ruling class had started its campaign of blaming conservatives/ Christians/white males (you know, the “deplorables”) for making America the systemically racist hellhole that it is. 

Yet, in an act of truly breathtaking cognitive dissonance, the Left periodically manages to put its obsessions about ethnic differences and racial classifications on pause for a nanosecond in order to denounce people like, well, me for pointing out that we no longer seem to be one nation (never mind one under God!) and suggesting that maybe those who keep telling us how much they hate America might properly be called something other than proud Americans. “You fascist,” I was told by several leftwing publications, “how dare you suggest our racist and oppressive society, which needs to be completely remade by us, does not constitute one big happy family!” 

In the bizarre clown world of 2021 America, people like Kesler and me (and you, American Greatness readers) are the divisive ones for questioning the patriotism of flag-burners, and the civic loyalty of a party that thinks the Constitution is a joke. (Michael Anton coined the term celebration parallax to describe this Orwellian double standard.)

No Room for an Independent People

To rescue us from the dizzying effects of this rhetorical roller coaster, Kesler offers his readers a solid grounding in the theory and practice of American political life, from the founders (beginning with a fine chapter on the framers’ debt to classical Greek and Roman thought) up to the present day. Luminous chapters explore the philosophical premises of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln and the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and much else between and besides. 

Kesler’s story of America is a kind of anti-Hegelian account. In place of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis,” he describes the story of the American Revolution followed by the Progressive counterrevolution and our current regime—which blends, very uneasily, elements of both of the preceding ones. As the title suggests, these incompatible constitutions cannot be synthesized, which points to our current crisis. Lincoln, rather than Hegel, captures our dilemma: we must “become all one thing or all the other.”  

“Modern liberalism,” Kesler explains, “beginning in the Progressive Era, has done its best to strip natural rights and the founders’ Constitution out of the American creed. By emptying it of its proper moral content, thinkers and politicians like Woodrow Wilson prepared the creed to be filled by subsequent generations, who could pour their contemporary values into it and thus keep it in tune with the times.” But that was only the first step. Imitating Leo Strauss’ account of the three waves of modernity, Kesler shows the unfolding of liberalism’s alternative regime in three stages.

The old left had opposed American capitalism, the progressives had condemned American plutocracy, but not until the ’50s and ’60s did a significant faction of the Left begin to blame the American masses, not the elite, for the country’s sins. The people became the problem. They were racist, materialist, imperialist, sexist, and sexually inhibited, according to the original catalog of sins; later the phobias were discovered—homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, and so forth. Together these comprise pretty much the irredeemable sins Hillary had in mind when she condemned Trump’s voters as deplorable. . . . Far from being Trump’s authoritarian fantasy, the Left’s growing alienation from middle America, and hence from America, has been remarked and resisted in a series of major liberal books in recent decades.

Here Kesler mentions books by Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Rorty, and Mark Lilla—notable liberals whose critiques of liberalism’s excesses now seem evanescent if not quaint. 

Today, he notes, “there are fewer and fewer levers by which the governed can make their consent count, by which an indignant people can exert control over its own government. In the administrative state there is little room for populism because there is no room for an independent people.” This brings us to our present impasse, in which the “only escape would be somehow to revive the older political system, which limited government enough so that the people could responsibly control the government, directly via elections and indirectly through the Constitution. The only populism that could make a difference, in other words, has at its heart a return to constitutionalism.” 

This is a daunting goal, Kesler notes. Yet, figuring out how to get there “is just as daunting.”   

Too Conservative To Make a Clean Break

Part of the problem is that liberalism’s nominal but ineffective opposition never really offered or even contemplated a serious explanation of how our political regime should serve what Aristotle regarded as politics’ highest end: establishing the conditions for human happiness. 

Establishment conservatives, Kesler explains, had always believed (even without quite admitting it to themselves or to their donors) that “equality and justice are liberal causes, to be defined by liberals, defended by liberals, and implemented by liberals.” Most Republican politicians, he observes, were “too progressive because they were too conservative: they could never make a clean break, even in thought, with the progressive canons of popular leadership, ‘values’ and all, and with the progressive belief in a benevolent future. In other words, they didn’t know how to be founders.”

Thus, despite much grandiose rhetoric and ambitious promises from ostensibly conservative politicians, the effort to recover our original constitutionalism not only stalled but actually regressed from Ronald Reagan’s time. Donald Trump—whose ambiguous legacy forms the inconclusive ending of the book—both promised and followed through more than anyone since Reagan (and perhaps even more than Reagan himself) in an attempt to break the back of the liberal establishment. Partly (but only partly) through his own vices, Trump’s creative destruction succeeded in destroying some important illusions, but failed to foster or revive the republican habits and institutions would have been projects for a second term—and that was not to be. 

Trump’s real accomplishment was a sort of myth-busting—exposing, for example, the hollowness of much of the conservative establishment, and the deep but previously hidden alliance between mainstream Republicans and Democrats, which favors open borders, globalist oligarchy and opposes working-class America. Trump’s partial success had the ironic effect, however, of enraging, energizing, and empowering the most vindictive elements of the Left, while neutering even further the token opposition of moderate or mainstream Republicans. 

The Left now seems to hold an utterly commanding position on our blue and red chessboard: rooks, knights, and bishops in academia, the media, and corporate America; pawns throughout the popular culture (including professional sports—even NASCAR!); and of course the queen of the presidency and both chambers of Congress. Still, at least we know where we stand now. There is a certain, though limited, benefit in the clarity that has emerged from our polarization: the triumphant Left has been increasingly open about its intentions to disempower, silence, and delegitimize all political opposition on the Right. 

A Professorial Rioter

This brings us back to the aforementioned Shep Melnick review. After a long string of half-hearted caveats about Kesler’s scholarly sobriety, Melnick lets go with a very pregnant nonetheless to expose what he sees as the dangerous Capitol rioter hiding beneath Kesler’s professorial robes. 

The very title of the book, Melnick claims, reveals the dark “political worldview that drives many of those who are convinced that our country is going straight over the cliff.” Then, putting the noose of what is becoming the official end-of-the-world account of January 6 directly around Kesler’s neck, Melnick writes that the “book can easily be read as a justification for storming the corrupted seat of power in hopes of restoring American greatness.” Sure, it can be so read. And in the eyes of tendentious ideologues will certainly be read that way. 

But so what? 

Something more significant is going on here than simply an overheated review of a respectable, if not exactly blockbuster, scholarly book. In part through his editorship of the Claremont Review of Books, Kesler (who received his Ph.D. at Harvard under the éminence grise Harvey Mansfield) is probably the most well-known and respectable academic to have supported Trump. Melnick’s review is a signal to the Right that no credentials, however spotless, and no unbroken record of personal and professional propriety, will now be regarded as a defense against being tarred with the “insurrectionist” brush. 

Melnick does not quite come out and say that Kesler is a white supremacist, but does make a point of asserting, “Like many others affiliated with the Claremont Institute, Kesler is quick to decry affirmative action and the ‘war on poverty,’ but reluctant to address the deeply rooted problems that those flawed measures seek to address.” Ah yes, those “deeply rooted”—one might even say systemic—racial problems that affirmative action benignly seeks to “address.” We get the hint, Shep. 

As a quick aside, I must note one shortcoming in Kesler’s book, which always threatens essay compilations such as this one. In the Introduction, Kesler explains that the book is a collection of reflections written over about 40 years, but that he has “revised, expanded, and updated them.” The result, however, sometimes falls between two stools: not quite a unified whole, and yet not quite a set of discrete essays representing different perspectives and time periods. Though a close student of The Federalist, Kesler may have underestimated the difficulty of what the framers achieved: successfully combining the one and the many, the old and the new. More revision would have been needed to create a seamless narrative. Better yet, he should have left the essays alone and simply added a few sentences at the beginning of each chapter or section to introduce and contextualize them. 

Notwithstanding this quibble, the book ought to be read by every thoughtful American, entirely on its own merits, as a guide to our current political derangements and their origins. More than this, however, the book should be purchased and studied with an eye to learning—perhaps to one’s astonishment—how this insightful examination of our two regimes is being proscribed as beyond the pale of acceptable discourse.

The recent delisting of Ryan Anderson’s book on transgenderism is certainly appalling, but perhaps not too surprising. If, however, the Left’s Overton Window now excludes Charles Kesler writing about, for example, “George Washington on Civil and Religious Liberty,” then we are certainly in a grave new world. Are we ready?

About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry Jaffa and the Fight for America, which will be released later this year by Encounter Books.

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

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