How Could the Founders Have Done Better?

While I’m honored by the suggestion that I’m taking part in a renewed Jaffa-Bradford (or Jaffa-Kendall)-style debate, I make no such claim for myself. 

Paul Gottfried is a bit coy when he says that Brion “McClanahan and other paleoconservatives have not rushed to acclaim the [1776] commission’s work.” This is true but skips over the fact that McClanahan didn’t merely decline to acclaim the Commission’s report but, indeed, savaged it—a fact Gottfried acknowledges in his prior paragraph. Speaking only for myself, silence would have been met with silence. To repeat this point for the nth time, I have no wish to fight this fight—especially not now. 

But to repeat another point, to which I have yet to receive any kind of rejoinder, let’s remember that the 1776 Commission Report is a patriotic account of America deliberately published under the auspices of the president of the United States at a time when nearly every institution in our country—governmental, economic, societal—is fanatically anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-white. Try to imagine the Biden, or the Obama, or even the Bush Administration publishing such a document. It is impossible. Forest, trees. 

The message of the day from every commanding height in our society is that America is evil. The current president of the United States embraces that view openly. The man he served as vice president made some effort to hide his agreement while in office but, now safely out, vents spleen. The effectual truth is that attacking the Commission’s report, whatever one thinks of it, is therefore to side with America’s enemies. It may matter, on a theoretical level, that your reasoning is entirely different from her enemies’. But on a practical level it matters not a whit. The bright line of the current year is “America, pro or con?” I didn’t make the times Schmittean, though I do get blamed for noticing that they are. 

Regarding Gottfried’s point that paleos have been excluded from the Conservatism, Inc. reindeer games, I know this is true but (1) I didn’t do it; (2) the Claremont Institute has long been nearly as much an outsider to those festivities, owing to its continuous criticisms of official conservatism; (3) the Claremont-Hillsdale school now numbers among the leading critics of Con., Inc. and our criticisms of its present fecklessness and backstabbing are perhaps even more pointed than Jaffa’s artillery fire of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. 

The Key Disagreement

But all that is prolegomena. This, from Gottfried, is the heart of the matter: 

The pursuit of equality is always an unfinished project; even Lincoln through most of his life would not have pushed his ideal as far as did later egalitarians. Promoting equality with or without what are taken to be universal rights is like planting kudzu. The plant just keeps spreading until it devours entire gardens.

The claim that “even Lincoln through most of his life would not have pushed his ideal as far as did later egalitarians” is undoubtedly true. (I think one can even delete the phrase “through most of his life,” since Lincoln’s view on this point never changed.) 

But is the rest true? 

It’s a common paleo claim that, whatever the underlying truth of equality understood by the founders (and Lincoln), its effectual truth is rampant egalitarianism that lays waste to all else. Indeed, this notion has a pedigree much older than paleoconservatism and goes back at least to Tocqueville: 

The hatred that men bear for privilege is increased as privileges become rarer and less great, so that one would say that democratic passions are more inflamed in the very times in which they find the least nourishment . . .  When all conditions are unequal, there is no inequality great enough to offend the eye, whereas the smallest dissimilarity appears shocking in the midst of general uniformity; the sight of it becomes more intolerable as uniformity is more complete. It is therefore natural that the love of equality grow constantly with equality itself; in satisfying it, one develops it. (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part IV, Ch. 3; cf. Part II, Ch. 13.) 

The problem here—of which Tocqueville is well aware—is that the alleged claims to legitimacy from all actual aristocracies are, well, fake. One group of “nobles” may assert natural superiority, another inherited ability, and still another  divine ordination (or some combination). But examining those claims with a ruthless, exacting eye and mind is to see through them. God did not make the duke a duke. Some ancestor either asserted or was granted the title for some (actual or perceived, important or irrelevant) deed(s) or service. The original grant might have been somehow merited but how this merit transmits to his ancestors in perpetuity is hard to see. 

The Actual Case for Aristocracy

Hence the actual case for aristocracy, which Tocqueville more or less shares with the classics, goes something like this: There is vast inequality of talent and virtue among individual men. Hence in any society, some will be better and most will be average or worse. Naturally, things go better when the better rule. Mundane but necessary tasks such as preserving life, providing security and provisioning society will be more competently and consistently accomplished with the virtuous in charge. Also, non-necessities such as great deeds and achievement in the arts and sciences will develop much more fully and brilliantly (assuming the truly brilliant are the ones engaged in such endeavors). 

While talent can crop up anywhere in a population, it tends to concentrate in the upper classes, for reasons of heredity, upbringing, education, “culture” and so on. Hence as a practical matter, if you want the “best” (or better) to direct society and provide its tone, a hereditary aristocracy is a not-unreasonable way to achieve that. 

Furthermore, owing to nature’s parsimony, most men, simply to survive, must toil for their bread. Only men free of this necessity have the leisure to be educated in affairs of state—to read histories, practice rhetoric, be exposed to elder statesmen—and thus be made fit for the rigors and duties of statesmanship. (This point at first seems to lose salience in the modern economy of plenty, but one wonders how much, given that mass affluence has led more to mass consumerism than to “mass aristocracy,” if such a thing can even be said to exist.) 

Such a regime will not be fully “just”: plenty of worthy people will find themselves trapped in the lower orders, while the nobility will not be free of undeserving dolts. Then again, no society is perfectly just and all societies necessarily have elites. The question is what kind and how are they made. At least in traditional aristocracies, the ruling families tend to be descended from founders, warriors, settlers and others who have done great service to their fellow countrymen. 

This mode, apart from being time-honored, has proven to carry certain advantages, such as continuity, a deep commitment from the ruling class to the regime and its way of life, and a kind of grace or nobility of expression that finds is flowering in those arts that tend not to thrive in more democratic or “flatter” societies. As Leo Strauss put it, channeling a “gentleman” responding to a commoner’s charge that their regime is unjust, 

if you insist that the social order should correspond with tolerable strictness to the natural order, i.e., that men who are more or less equal by nature should also be equal socially or by convention, you will merely bring about a state of universal drabness. But only on the ground of a narrow conception of justice, owing its evidence to the power of the ignoble passion of envy, must one prefer a flat building which is everywhere equally drab to a structure which from a broad base of drabness rises to a narrow plateau of distinction and of grace, and which therefore gives some grace and some distinction to its very base. 

The American Founders Rejected Aristocracy

The American founders were not unsympathetic to this argument but rejected it for several reasons (the following summary is not intended to be exhaustive). First, they knew that whatever the benefits of hereditary aristocracy and whatever measure of justice conferred to it by the initial services of the original aristocrats, that justice diminishes over time as those services recede into the past, while the injustice done to those families perpetually excluded builds. 

Second, they knew full well that the above argument is not one that any actual aristocracy employs. It is both too subtle and too direct: too subtle, in that its logic will appeal only to the most rational minds; too direct, in that it admits the arbitrary basis for the distinction between aristocrats and commoners. That there must, or inevitably will, be upper and lower classes is far more evident than any case for why this or that actual group of people naturally deserves to be in the upper while those people over there belong in the lower. 

Hence an attempt to found an aristocracy in the circumstances of 1776-1789 would have been impossible and would have produced conflict. A core reason the European aristocracies “worked” (to the extent that they did, and until they didn’t) was that their precise origins were mythologized, romanticized and/or lost in the mists of time. Trying to found a new one in broad daylight, in a country with a lot of printing presses, was to say the least not practicable. 

The founders also knew that the effectual truth of many aristocracies is not “rule of the best” (however defined) but rule by the most willful and violent. If the vast bulk of the common people want neither to be commanded nor oppressed, but a smaller faction wishes to command and oppress them, the latter can often bully its way into power simply from wanting it more. 

Finally, the founders had just overthrown a hereditary monarchy-aristocracy. Their chief weapon had been the feisty, independent spirit of the American people. In 1843, one of the last survivors of Lexington and Concord summed up the Revolution thus: “We always had governed ourselves and we always meant to.” 

The American founders thus faced a threefold problem. A new regime must have both a form, or formal ordering, and a basis, a claim to legitimacy. They had rejected monarchy and aristocracy. That didn’t leave many alternatives! Plus, any successful regime must fit the character of the people it intends to govern; form must suit matter. 

Equality, as the founders understood it, solves all three of these problems—indeed, it is the only solution that solves all three. It undergirds the form of the new regime (a republic based on popular sovereignty), it lays a grounding for that regime’s legitimacy (equality of natural rights and government by consent), and it fits the character of the American people (self-governing and independent). 

It doesn’t seem that Gottfried and I really disagree on this. Nor do we disagree (to say the least) on the monstrosity that is the present regime. 

Where we disagree is whether the founder’s equality inevitably led to that monstrosity, and/or whether their understanding was deliberately corrupted. One can believe, as I do, that the founders’ equality was deliberately corrupted, and also conclude, as I do not, that equality inevitably led us here. For it’s at least theoretically possible that the founders got it right but that their argument, and the regime based thereon, were too fragile to survive for long because one or both were (are) eminently susceptible to corruption. I tend to think that’s not the case but I have to admit that it’s possible. 

Does the Founders’ Equality Spur Our Present Crisis?

Certainly, there was a deliberate corruption. Gottfried cites the Progressives’ ostentatious use of Lincoln to support his claim that the Progs were building on a foundation Lincoln laid. But the Progs were just using one of the oldest tricks in the book: cloaking a revolutionary innovation in the robes of an old tradition. 

The core Progressive innovation that concerns us here is the replacement of consent with expertise or “administration.” Consent is a requirement of equality and a core basis of the legitimacy of the founders’ regime. Expertise is a claim of superiority—hence, in effect, an aristocratic claim. It is thus the Progressives, not Lincoln, who began the transformation of the American regime into what we have now. 

Why does any of this matter? I’m repeating myself yet again, but I can see two reasons. First, one simply wants to know the truth—both the philosophical (is equality true?) and the historical (how was the founders’ regime lost?) truth. Second, the present monstrosity cannot last forever, and when it goes, whoever is still around will have to reorganize. On what basis? 

These questions are interrelated. Those with a certain caste of mind want to know the truth simply for its own sake. But the truth or falsehood has practical implications. If equality is false, then trying to build a regime based on its alleged truth is foolish. 

Is the founders’ equality false? I know of only two serious arguments against it: the classics’ and Nietzsche’s. 

The classical argument goes (more or less) like this. There is a distinction in nature between higher and lower types of men, but it’s not the one most assume nor is it reflected in any actual political order. The difference between the common people and the aristocrats or nobles or “gentlemen” is more one of degree than kind. Basically, all men want the same things: security, wealth and a modicum of distinction. What appears at first glance to be a great gulf between the common man’s desire for distinction or specialness is satisfied with mere freedom while the noble feels he must rule others in fact results from the same basic human passions, just manifested differently. Plus, while the individual commoner may not desire rule to the extent of the individual noble, collectively the common people do wish to rule; this wish is the root of “democracy.” 

We may note, for the sake of completeness, that the highest example of the gentleman—the magnanimous man, i.e., the man who possesses all the (moral) virtues—merely wishes not to be ruled by inferiors and wants his deserved honors. But even so, the magnanimous man still comes into sight as the perfection of those virtues that are, or should be, present throughout the population and thus ultimately as the highest type of common man and not a distinctly different type of human being. 

A close examination of the gentleman’s claim to superiority finds that it points to something above itself. The gentleman’s competence at ruling presupposes knowledge of how to rule, but the gentleman as such lacks such knowledge. The man who possesses such knowledge is the natural ruler par excellence; wisdom is the only natural title to rule. 

On one level, this is only common sense: a task should be entrusted to one who knows how to do it. Only a fool asks a man with no knowledge of piloting to captain his ship. But ruling is not merely scaled-up piloting; it is a separate, far more comprehensive art. To know how to be a pilot, one must understand ships, oars, sails, wind, currents, tides, etc., and enough about human nature to keep a crew working well together. It is well within human competence to master such knowledge. And the end of piloting—reaching one’s destination—is known and easy to know. 

The end of ruling by contrast is both more comprehensive and more opaque. It involves such fundamental questions as “How shall I live?” and “What is the good life?” The person who investigates these and other fundamental questions is not the gentleman but the philosopher. The philosopher must possess, in addition to moral virtue, intellectual virtue—indeed, the latter may be said to define the philosopher in contradistinction to the gentleman. 

The philosopher’s investigations reveal that there are no fully wise men, for the existence of a fully wise man presupposes comprehensive knowledge of the whole—that is to say, not of every detail within the whole (e.g., not knowledge of the digestive tracts of gnats), but of the most important parts of the whole, especially the nature of cosmos, the nature of man, and man’s place within the cosmos. 

The real natural distinction among men is therefore not gentlemen v. commoners but philosophers v. everyone else. The philosophers may not be “wise” in the sense of possessing complete knowledge but they are the “wisest” among living men and therefore the fittest to rule. 

But it turns out to be extremely impractical, to say the least, to construct a regime based on this natural distinction, in which philosophers rule. In this case, nature sets a standard; it does not “enforce” or operationalize that standard as it does in the cases of, say, beehives or ant colonies. The “best regime” is therefore unlikely ever to exist. The best practicable regime is thus whatever can be done in a given set of circumstances, with a given set of people, to approximate what philosophic rule would do if it could be imposed. That usually turns out to be a hereditary, landed aristocracy whose elites, especially the younger ones, are friendly to philosophy and open to its benign influence.

To be clear, for the classical philosophers, the distinction between aristocrat and commoner or between gentleman and non-gentleman is always and everywhere conventional. The only natural distinction between higher and lower types of human beings is that between philosopher and non-philosopher. Yet they never state this quite so bluntly. Nietzsche on the other hand blurts it out: 

The Greek philosopher went through life feeling secretly that there were far more slaves than one might think—namely, that everyone who was not a philosopher was a slave; his pride overflowed when he considered that even the mightiest men on earth might be his slaves. (Gay Science I 18.) 

Nietzsche’s argument is hard to understand and, as far as I can make out, riven with at least one fundamental contradiction. It may be that this alleged contradiction is a mirage of my own invention; or it may be intentional and I just don’t “get” its purpose; or it may be fatal to his argument. I confess I don’t know which. 

In any case, his argument seems to me to go something like this. There is “nature” but there is no natural standard. Man creates himself; he wills “values” into being. Yet while there is no natural order from which men can derive guidance for their lives or their politics, the values which men will into being may be of a higher or lower character. Those of the higher sort support or affirm this-worldly “life”: growth, strength, daring, beauty, insight, etc. 

Man only really becomes man—that is, raises himself above the bugs and beasts—through such acts of creation or, for lesser men, by participating in the creations of their superiors. For only a few men are capable of creating life-affirming values and convincing (or forcing) others to follow and live within the new horizons they set. The peaks of humanity occur when great men do great deeds and create great art—e.g., the Greek Bronze Age. 

But not Periclean Athens. Philosophic investigation reveals the inherent falsity of all values, their conventional or “made-up” character. Philosophy demystifies life-nourishing myths. It is therefore life-sapping or even life-destroying. Worse, the philosophic turn to abstract “forms” or “ideas” is at root a turn away from the world, this world, the earth, which is man’s true and only possible home. The philosophers, far from being the highest human type, are corrosive. Their doctrines strip man of his unique dignity and rob individual populations of men—Greeks, Romans, etc.—of the values which sustain their ways of life. The fundamental inequality is therefore not between philosophers and non-philosophers but between value-creating horizon-setters and everyone else. 

Modern liberalism devolves into (or really, for Nietzsche, is from the beginning) an enterprise to provide those things most men most want (security and equipment) and is so successful that it strips man of all distinction and greatness. He is reduced to the “Last Man,” a kind of bug-beast, a mindless, sleepwalking slave to his bodily needs and desires. The only remedy for this degradation is radical inequality, the superiority of the Übermensch (most often rendered as “overman”), the man who wills into being new values. 

We first confront the question: are either of these alternatives true? The classical account seems at least plausible. Moreover, it avoids the contradiction intimated above. Nietzsche appears to want to have it both ways: there is no natural order from which principles of right action can be derived, and yet somehow certain values are “higher” and others “lower.” 

I certainly agree with Nietzsche that the latter is true, but cannot see, in his own account, any basis for making such a distinction. If, as Nietzsche says, “nothing is true, everything is permitted” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra IV 9, “The Shadow”), then it is, to say the least, not clear by what standard one set of “values” may be higher than another, or why the Last Man is so repellent. The classics’ answer to this difficulty would be: but there is a natural order which sets a hierarchy of ends for man. They would also ask, I believe, about Nietzsche’s Übermensch: how is this person any different than the man of outstanding natural ability who can and does crop up in many societies throughout history? We may recognize his enormous contributions without thinking it practicable or prudent to found an entire society on the (false) assumption that we can institutionalize his very great virtue into a hereditary aristocracy. 

A further problem with Nietzsche’s argument, it seems to me, is that he is quite plain that the new values to be willed into being by the Übermensch will not merely be false but known to be false. That is to say, Nietzsche was utterly confident that all prior life-affirming accounts of the world—from the Bible to Homer and beyond—were untrue. But their adherents believed them to be true. Philosophy, Nietzsche seems to say, has destroyed the possibility of such genuine belief in present times, if not for all times. Somehow, the Übermensch’s task is to create new values that are understood by all to be entirely man-made, but which are adhered to anyway. 

This is not the same as the classical position that the poetic account of the world contains genuine wisdom without being literally true in all respects. The classical position assumes that all (or most) non-philosophic readers of the poets believe the poetic accounts. To a non-philosophic Greek, Homer is both poetry and history. Also, the classical (qualified) defense of the poets presupposes a natural order which the best poetic passages reflect. That is to say, the Iliad conveys important, permanent truths about (for example) the nature of pride and anger even if the “wrath of Achilles” did not unfold exactly as depicted. Nietzsche, to repeat, denies such a natural order. 

Philosophers Prefer Equality Under the Law

As to the truth of the classical position, one may accept it and still wonder about its political relevance, which brings us back to the realm of the practical. Although the classics appear to teach that rule by philosophers is the best regime, they also teach that philosophers do not wish to rule (in Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors conclude that the philosophers must be compelled to rule). Anyone asserting his right to rule on the basis of his own wisdom is ipso facto not a philosopher. The rule of philosopher kings is therefore impossible or, at best, depends on the chance coincidence of philosophy and political power (e.g., when Antoninus Pious adopted Marcus Aurelius to make him the next emperor). 

Hence genuine philosophers will always prefer a regime of equality under the law. As Thomas G. West once wittily put it, “the classical argument for government without consent is refuted by the classics themselves, leaving us with the conclusion that the esoteric teaching, as it were, of the classics is that all men are created equal!” 

Leo Strauss said it this way: 

According to the classics, the best way of meeting these two entirely different requirements [for wisdom and consent] would be that a wise legislator frame a code which the citizen body, duly persuaded, freely adopts. That code, which is, as it were, the embodiment of wisdom, must be as little subject to alteration as possible; the rule of law is to take the place of the rule of men, however wise. (Natural Right and History, p. 141.) 

Is that not a near perfect description of the founding of the United States, specifically of the framing and adoption of our Constitution? 

As for the practicality of Nietzsche’s alternative, does much need to be said on that point? Or on the sheer terror even the attempt to actualize it would likely unleash? 

I expect someone is thinking, “Anton, you silly man, I don’t need either of these alternatives; I can simply return to the older, traditional understanding of aristocracy.” 

Ah, but as we have seen, you can’t. That is, not until and unless a total societal collapse makes the emergence of a new aristocracy possible. If we follow the most straightforward accounts of how aristocracies are born, then they emerge from man’s primal need for security. In rough, uncertain times, the majority turns to men “more robust and of greater heart” (Machiavelli, Discourses I 2, riffing off Polybius VI) who can offer protection. It is these men and their descendants who form the new hereditary upper caste. The majority will accept this imposition when they are rustic and terrified, and will believe it is part of the natural order only so long as they remain rustic. Trying to form an “aristocracy” in any other circumstance would just be LARPing—to say nothing of the fact that the convulsions necessary once again to make the founding of an aristocracy possible would not be such that anyone would choose to live through them, though some of us may someday have no choice. 

In any case, while that remains a theoretical possibility, it is also impossible to plan for it. It either will happen, or not, without our guidance. Hence this type of aristocracy is not a practical alternative that we could choose and build. And even if we could, it would still carry all the flaws discussed above; i.e., it would sooner or later (likely sooner) become fake. All aristocracies either begin as or devolve into oligarchies. Which is what we suffer under now. Does anyone really want to recreate that?

What alternative are we then left with? I can’t see any beyond Caesar. 

That still leaves us with the question of whether equality has in our case engulfed the host, as Gottfried says, and always will, as Tocqueville says. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this argument, but I wonder if that’s what really happened to America. 

Gottfried is on his strongest ground when he says that the founders’ equality has been perverted to mean equal outcomes, and especially equal group outcomes. That is certainly true. But Gottfried has to admit that this outcome was a perversion, not a fulfillment, of the original idea. It’s still possible that the perversion was inevitable, but this remains undemonstrated. 

And, still, if so: what’s the alternative? Even if we could impose one of the aristocracies discussed above, we eventually would face the problem that its arbitrary basis—you here are upper class, but you over there aren’t and never will be—in addition to being unjust, over time will build up resentment that will bring down the regime. One might counter, I suppose, that the cycle of regimes is real and this too shall pass away, etc., therefore longevity is not a valid test. This seems to me wholly unreasonable, for political instability is the cause of a great many ills, many of them terrible. Longevity therefore is a valid test of political success, at least for a good regime, even if no regime can last forever. The stronger argument, then, would be to assert that, assuming two equal lifespans, aristocracy is preferable to equality because of the distinction it affords the whole society. Maybe. But that still leaves the justice question, plus, the founders’ equality does not prevent excellence from reaching its natural level while an aristocratic regime must of necessity hold down any excellence that emerges in the lower orders. 

One may also ask: even if the equality principle is eminently pervertible, is it the only political principle that is? What about the principle of inequality? What begins as reward-for-outstanding-service combined with noblesse oblige easily degenerates into “We’re superior, deserve everything we have, and owe you nothing. Eat dirt, serf.” Sound familiar?

The presupposition of Gottfried’s argument, it seems to me, is that the founders screwed up. But I don’t see how they could have done any better. Is it reasonable to suppose that simply deleting one line from the Declaration of Independence would have spared us all our current problems? Would it have changed the fact that Americans of the founding generation all believed themselves to be equal and said so, elsewhere, with remarkable frequency and consistency? 

“All men are created equal” may be restated in language that any ten-year-old can understand: “You’re not the boss of me.” As such, it is a foundation of Americans’ revolutionary, republican fighting spirit. It will, I expect (or hope), inspire and form resistance to what the present regime has planned for middle America.

Gottfried seems to see only a levelling aspect to equality and not its spirited, self-assertive side. If, or when, the Biden Administration decides to force not just new lockdowns and mask mandates but mandatory vaccination for all Americans whether they like it or not, what is more likely to fuel a backlash? A sense of inherited inferiority? Or Americans’ innate, birthright belief that we are all equal and so will not tolerate top-down, arbitrary rule?

Regime Strength Under Equality

As much as aristocracy can lend dignity to a whole society by investing its upper caste with distinction and grace, we must admit that this same arrangement to some extent robs the common people of their individual and collective dignity.

Equality properly operationalized by contrast protects everyone, common man and “gentlemen” alike, from the humblest laborer up to the bravest warrior, noblest statesman, and greatest artist. In a regime of equality, excellence and superiority are allowed to thrive while the ordinary virtues of frugality, industry, piety, and fidelity are protected. Genuine virtue is not held down within a caste system, its possessors denied their due, its country deprived of its benefits. Less deserving worthies born to privilege are allowed to sink to their natural level.

That at any rate is, or used to be, “who we are.” This may be the crux of my disagreement with the paleos. They admit that the equality principle is there—how could they not, as it is written down in plain sight, and not just in the Declaration of Independence but, as it were, everywhere?—but want to treat it as somehow alien, an embarrassment, an obstacle, a parasite. Whereas I think it is part of the American character, and a salutary one. Even if it weren’t the latter, it would still be the former, and getting rid of it would be like trying to strip garrulousness out of the Italians, precision from the Germans, or politeness from the Japanese.

And, I raise this point gingerly, not intending to give offense, but knowing full well that I might . . . Even if the paleoconservative account of America were 100 percent true (and, needless to say, despite the many truths I find in it, I also think it gets a lot wrong), it would remain a fact that their account is not held by anything close to a majority of self-identified Americans. Patriotic American public opinion loves the Declaration, Constitution, Bill of Rights, the founders, the Revolution, the Fourth of July and all the rest. Yes, there remains a division over the meaning of the Civil War. But the vast majority of those who take the Southern side nonetheless salute the American (i.e., Union) flag. Southerners still disproportionately volunteer for our armed forces, and for the combat units within those forces. Leave aside for now the question of whether they should; the point here is the fact that they do demonstrates where their loyalties lie. The paleo view is a niche product, without mass appeal even to descendants of the Confederacy. 

A Rhetoric with Broad Appeal

For us to win—that is to say, for my friends and I of the Claremont-Hillsdale School, as well as the paleos centered around Chronicles and the American Conservative, to get what we want in the way of public policy—will require a rhetoric with broad appeal to American public opinion. I do not believe that any rhetoric which writes off huge and central parts of the American story will accomplish that end.

Gottfried’s rhetoric is at least careful and erudite. McClanahan’s I find simply disastrous, full of Twitter-style heedless bravado. The argument that they’re going to call us racist anyway, so we may as well say any damned thing, is self-destructive bilge. First, because we still have a real world to navigate, and making it easier for our enemies to cancel, demonize, and deplatform us will not improve our chances of success. Second, because those chances depend decisively on appealing to those whom Sam Francis called “Middle American Radicals,” the same people kids today call “normies.” Does anyone actually believe that the way to win over normies is with paeans to the Lost Cause rather than appeals to America, Americanism, and the American way of life?

Which points to another question I’ve raised several times and to which I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer. Paleoconservatives claim to love tradition (I believe them!). But what about American tradition? The documents, phrases, symbols and ideas they attack are irrefutably part of our tradition. It’s as if the paleos want to excise and amputate disliked aspects of American tradition—and not just tonsils and appendixes but vital organs and limbs—and then call the remaining disfigured body, and only that, “America.” Why do they think such radical surgery appeals to heartland normies? I, on the other hand, think it’s both truer and more rhetorically effective to appeal to the whole of American tradition and make clear we cherish all of it.

I can hear someone snickering “pot, kettle,” but is it really true that my school cherrypicks? Granted, we oppose slavery and we’re glad the Union won. I suppose someone could dredge up a quote from some Claremont-adjacent scribe from years back calling for Stone Mountain to be sandblasted or something; but if such exists, I’m not aware of it and would disavow it. Jaffa himself was no anti-Southern iconoclast; he went after Confederate arguments, not their statues. The Claremont Review of Books just published a lament of the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s reputation and this magazine has published several pieces condemning such iconoclasm. And we’re the ones, in the present emergency, trying to make peace.

I am not accusing Gottfried of the following, but it seems to fit some paleos, and certainly McClanahan. The narrowness I identified above is not confined to interpretations of 1775-1789 but often extends to the wish endlessly to relitigate 1860-1865, from a narrowly Southern perspective. But “Middle American Radicals” are hardly confined to the South. They are, by definition, in Middle America (which emphatically includes former Union strongholds), and also in the West, the Southwest, the Plains, the Upper Midwest and even in the North. They can be found, roughly speaking, in every corner of this country that is not a Blue city, university campus, or posh resort. How is attacking the Declaration of Independence in the name of the Confederacy supposed to unify and rally such a coalition?

I would note, as well, that McClanahan ought to think through his apparent wish to keep alive the dream of secession along the lines of 1860-1861. Leaving aside the fact that he’d be cutting himself off from a potential source of strength in the form of his fellow Deplorables outside the South, he’d best keep watch on the changing demographics of his own region. Georgia went for Biden and then sent two Democrats to the Senate. North Carolina voted for Obama twice and last year went for Trump by only a point. McClanahan might recreate the CSA only to see it elect Stacey Abrams president.

In sum: did equality produce the present monstrosity? I don’t see how. In what sense does the present regime even recognize and honor equality? It in no way treats American citizens as if we are equal. It favors some and punishes others. It operates a caste system based on race, sex, sexual orientation, immigration status and other demographic categories. In an America that respected equality, January 6th protesters would not be rotting in jail, denied bail, or brought up on trespassing charges for spending all of ten minutes in the Capitol after having the doors held open for them by Capitol Police, while thousands who last summer burned and looted 220 American cities walk scot-free.

Beyond this, to show that equality led us here, one would have to explain why the whole West—including many nations that never pledged themselves to equality—is undergoing, at the same time, a near-universal crisis of spirit. It seems to me far less likely that America is being consumed by equality than that an exhausted West is succumbing to the “cycle of sects.” This is not, to be sure, an encouraging thought. 

But this is, or is meant to be: Whatever happens, humanity will still be around. When what comes next arrives, we will have to reorganize. On what basis? If your answer is “Not equality!” then what? Who gets to be on top and who on the bottom? How, and whom, do we choose? How do we make those on the bottom accept their inferiority? How do we ensure that those on the top remain, in the generations to come, worthy and good? What do we do about the talent born into the bottom and the dullards born at the top? How do we make the regime stick and how do we make it last? 

It does not appear to me that these questions have been thought through, nor that, if and when they are, anyone will be able to come up with better solutions than those of America’s founders.

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About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

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