A review of “Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes” by Steven B. Smith
(Yale University Press, 256 pages, $28)

Patriotic Bore: God and Country at Yale

This is a tough time to be a patriot. In “Conservatism’ Is No Longer Enough,” Glenn Ellmers’ charges that “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” Ellmers’ shocking yet compelling argument, further elaborated at American Greatness, is the sort of “extremism” that appalls Steven Smith, who also believes that patriotism is not enough and wants to save it from Ellmers as well as from those he deems the opposite extremes at the “1619 Project” and Black Lives Matter. The problem that haunts the book is whether Smith’s positioning himself in the middle reduces patriotism into a middling mediocrity, lacking passion, conviction, and persuasiveness. 

But Smith’s middle is the not-mediocre Yale University—the book is devoted to a recent past president of the university—where Smith has taught political philosophy for over 30 years. He laments that the inscription “For God, for Country, for Yale” is now but a “quaint reminder of a benighted past,” as is his former title of “master” of Branford College. Smith sees his challenge today as saving his readers at Yale and beyond from the regnant “dehumanizing” extremes of MAGA nationalism, on the one hand, and BLM, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism, on the other. 

In his view, neither extreme respects “the specificity of what it is to be an American and a patriot.” Since Yale is scarcely threatened by white nationalists—as much as some students there may fancy it is—one must understand his book’s mission to focus on cosmopolitan identity politics’ threat to patriotism and its repurposing of spiritedness and minds. He thus echoes the NeverTrump and establishment academic view of patriotism as reducible to belief in an American creed. 

“This book is for this moment,” the preface warns. Smith will conclude his book with “American patriotism is aspirational,” especially in the “enlightened” form on which his book is focused. He identifies patriotism as a form of loyalty, a feeling of care for others that all human beings need to display in order to fulfil their political and social natures. 

But loyalty tests the heart as well as the head. Such loyalty resembles that of a family, with “both good and bad” creating a distinct ethos—Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory.” Americans’ loyalty is to those twin principles of equality and liberty that make up the American creed. Yet at the same time loyalty also requires grounding in place and shared sentiments. Patriotism is thus both love of the Good and love of one’s own, it involves both philosophic striving and familial rootedness, meaning there will be both profound debates and irksome squabbles, a neverending odyssey and utter devotion to the homeland. Here the book dissolves into inchoate impressions, for it doesn’t consider America as embodying the best regime, as Harry Jaffa has urged: “The unprecedented character of the American Founding is that it provided for the coexistence of the claims of reason and of revelation in all their forms, without requiring or permitting any political decisions concerning them.” 

Smith’s endeavor was a failure from its start when it denounced half the country as extremists. “The new face of nationalist conservatism is no longer Friedrich Hayek but Martin Heidegger.” (More Gelassenheit for the Proud Boys?) A serious book about American politics cannot dismiss both public opinion and political philosophy and expect to enhance patriotism in its readers’ souls.

Such snootiness and blindness are to be expected from the book’s pedigree and the endorsements from the media and Washington establishment: David Brooks, George Will, Rogers Smith, and Bill Galston. But truly astounding is the incompetence displayed in understanding classic books of political philosophy—Aristotle’s Ethics, The Federalist, and Democracy in America—which in turn bring about his lukewarm patriotism, which serious readers and patriots would spit out with contempt.

Doubtless as a way of denigrating patriotism to begin with, Smith misleadingly contends that Aristotle “did not even include loyalty in his canon of virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics.” In fact, Aristotle devotes two entire books of the Ethics to friendship (philia), especially with regard to its political implications. Thus the Gettysburg Address should be understood as an Aristotelian presentation of political friendship as both a noble political virtue that perfects justice and a necessity. Political friendship is a crucial element of the ancient best regime.

And Smith is wrong as well about the modern view of political friendship. He misreads James Madison’s iconic Federalist 10 when he asserts that diversity of human faculties is the “most durable” source of faction—when in fact Madison plainly states that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” This is not a scholarly quibble, for Smith presents Madison as accepting and not merely tolerating factions—that is, unjust groups. 

The founders’ arguments are more complex. In brief, when Madison argues for controlling the effects of faction and not their cause, he was not dismissing the need for citizens having “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” once the founding was established and the republic required perpetuation. Certainly, George Washington’s Farewell Address makes this argument, as do Lincoln’s Perpetuation (Lyceum Address) and other great speeches. Such an anti-factious uniformity of opinion, passion, and interest is indeed the very definition of patriotism and required for there to be a “reason of the public.” 

Smith has misplaced esteem for Martin Diamond’s low, modern understanding of the founding and his disregard of Harry Jaffa (whose name does not appear in the book). Edward Erler and I explored Jaffa’s significance in a recent piece in the journal Interpretation. Although we honor Professor Diamond as a teacher, we also see major errors in his underestimation of America that have unfortunately enjoyed widespread acceptance among otherwise serious scholars, sometimes known as East Coast Straussians.

Just as Diamond tried to correct the founders—as he understood, or rather, misunderstood them—by turning to Alexis de Tocqueville, so does Smith. This further distorts his understanding of America. Tocqueville, despite his brilliance, has an historicist’s understanding of equality, which views it not as a moral-political principle but rather as an historical force. Thus he concludes Democracy in America with equality leading to “servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.” (Smith, by the way, cites the Library of America edition of Tocqueville rather than the Mansfield translation, so Mansfield’s name, like Jaffa’s, does not appear in his book.) 

Smith insists that for Tocqueville equality was “a recognition of common human dignity.” But does Smith really think that either the equality principle of the Declaration or his putative “equal moral dignity” of Tocqueville demands that we can no longer see boys and girls, men and women?

Despite Smith’s claim that Lincoln with his “perfectionism” is his model patriot, it becomes clear that Smith’s patriotism is that for the “republic of letters”—in other words, not a political one after all. He actually seems to have disdain for spiritedness, which for Aristotle is the source of friendship. Tocqueville’s revulsion at American braggadocious patriotism may somehow vindicate his contempt for Trump and his supporters. Or perhaps Smith just fears the old thumos may boil over.

“To be an American means to participate in a great centuries-long debate over what it means to be an American.” If he is serious, he will invite Glenn Ellmers to Yale to discuss his forthcoming book, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America

But for debate to exist requires a difference of opinion and then the willingness to speak about such differences—that is, a defense of politics. The consensus Smith appears to favor comes closer to John C. Calhoun’s means of suppressing the violence of faction than Madison’s. That consensus led to Progressivism’s assault on the separation of powers and ultimately on the politics of freedom. 

What may best express Smith’s apolitical patriotism is his illustration of “the highest form of statecraft”—“Odysseus having himself bound at the mast”—that is, “the regime of constitutional self-restraint.” His example for the politics of freedom is bizarre because Odysseus, that man of twists and turns, wanted to perform his duties (which included his own self-interest) but also enjoy and not be destroyed by a private pleasure of listening to the sirens. A true Lincolnian captain would form and inspire republican citizens through the most sublime patriotism reflecting the eternal encounter of philosophy and theology in the quest for the best regime. 

It is not merely out of private pleasure that I recommend that Yale restore the name of the old John C. Calhoun College and in addition establish a new college, Harry V. Jaffa (Yale ’39) College. Debates between Calhoun and Jaffa would signal a new birth of freedom and patriotism at Yale and throughout America.

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is 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.

Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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