‘Remain Calm, All is Well’—How Not to Save the Republic

No philosopher, I suspect, ever returned to the cave with greater reluctance than I feel in being compelled to respond to Bill Voegeli’s combative critique of me in the latest Claremont Review of Books. Some long-time readers of the CRB may have noticed a pattern in the magazine’s editorial tone over the last several issues. It is hard to make out the editors’ precise trajectory, but Voegeli’s essay is the clearest indication yet that the new course of the CRB includes a willingness to engage in friendly fire.

I have no objections to rhetorical cannonades, or to spirited arguments in general. Solet Aristoteles quaerere pugnam (“Aristotle has a habit of seeking a fight”) was a favorite expression of Harry Jaffa’s, and it describes my outlook as well. But fighting, like all human activity, is good only under the superintendence of prudence. Though he does not use the word, Voegeli accuses me of imprudence stemming from an essay I wrote last year, “Conservatism Is No Longer Enough.” This is a grave charge I do not take lightly, especially since I consider him to be a thoughtful and morally serious writer, who has published many substantial articles in the CRB.

I wish this considerate sentiment were reciprocated. But Voegeli’s essay is not undertaken in the spirit of friendly and respectful disagreement. His essay treats me as at best a reckless and dangerous fool, at worst an anti-republican anarchist. (On that point, I think the charge of imprudence could more plausibly be laid at his feet. Surely such severe judgments are better delivered in private?) 

Before getting to that, it’s necessary to frame Voegeli’s understanding of conservatism, which apparently consists of a never-ending and rather circular process of holding back the tide of human fallibility. There is an intimation that the history of politics or human affairs is meaningless flux, which is corroborated by his assertion that “Sisyphus, it appears, was the first conservative.” At the same time, Voegeli insists that true conservatives must always believe “the situation” is “not presently hopeless.”

You can’t prevent something from being destroyed if it has already been destroyed. The conservative, then, believes that prospects are daunting but also that there is nothing irretrievable about the situation right now.

This is too ambiguous to be helpful. “Prospects” for what? What is this “situation”? How does it become “irretrievable”? What is this “something” not being “destroyed?” Perhaps all this is another way of saying political life is never hopeless. But who denies that? The only truly hopeless political situation I can imagine is a perpetual global tyranny—Alexandre Kojeve’s universal homogenous state given eternal life. Yet anyone who believes in God or Providence or nature would insist that rational thought and moral choice will always leave open possibilities for human freedom. Even for the most radical atheist or nihilist there is the indeterminacy of fortune or chance. 

Through these layers of obscurity, Voegeli seems incensed that I am not on board with his very definite views about good citizenship, which is more or less equal to being a Voegelian conservative. His motto might be described as reverse Obama-ism: Hope Without Change. He writes:

My Claremont colleague Glenn Ellmers wrote last year that the ‘basic fact’ is, ‘Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed’ (emphasis in the original). The ‘political practices, institutions, and even rhetoric governing the United States have become hostile to both liberty and virtue,’ he continues. Additionally, ‘the mainline churches, universities, popular culture, and the corporate world are rotten to the core.’ So, he asks, ‘What exactly are we trying to conserve?’ This is how Sisyphus would explain his decision to just let the goddamned boulder roll to the bottom of the hill and stay there. 

But then what? Despair generates consequences that vindicate despair . . .

There are two irresponsible ways to deal with the uncertainty [of our current predicament]. One is to treat a nation’s staying power as inexhaustible, justifying the heedless pursuit of policy and lifestyle experiments. In other words, progressivism. The other is to dismiss all encouraging or ambiguous evidence to conclude that the nation is already ruined. In other words, late stage Trumpism. Ellmers writes that because the ‘Constitution no longer works’ and ‘there is almost nothing left to conserve,’ it is time to give up on conservatism and accept that what we really ‘need is a counter-revolution.’

Voegeli infers that my low opinion of our current institutions translates to a rejection of the founders’ principles. Then in failing to provide what he thinks I’m obligated to provide—namely, new principles that improve on the ideas of Jefferson and Madison—he thinks I “show an indecent disrespect for the opinions of mankind,” and “vindicate fears that the counterrevolutionaries are no less enthused about chaos and averse to clarity about ultimate objectives than the revolutionaries they war against.” At least I think that’s what he’s saying. I have read the essay several times, but I confess to being somewhat confused by Voegeli’s concluding sections. 

Honor would be a sufficient reason to defend myself from these imputations, but there are also important political and philosophical questions at stake. A thoughtful writer is not necessarily a wise one, and Voegeli commits a number of serious errors in his essay. He misunderstands the political theory of the American founding, as well as what it means to be conservative or (what is somewhat different) to be on the political Right in the United States. The essay is also surprisingly uncharitable: aside from grossly distorting my views, it adopts an almost Bulwark-ian air of contempt toward Donald Trump and his supporters. (Voegeli repeats without demurral the claim of one journalist that “the entirety of Trump’s agenda now is to ‘restore his tarnished honor and make credible his belief in his own victory.’”) All these matters are tied together by significant departures from what the Claremont Institute has been attempting for 40 years to teach about political philosophy, natural right, and America. To the degree that the senior editor’s essay misinforms or confuses the CRB’s readers, the magazine undoes with the left hand what the Institute’s fellowship programs and scholarly publications attempt to do with the right hand. 

Voegeli’s essay aims to consider first “conservatism as such” and then what is “unique to conservatism in America.” American conservatism, we are told, seeks to conserve the American founding. We know this based on no less an authority than George Will—whom Voegeli rather strangely adopts as his guide in this matter. According to that eminent authority, American conservatives are therefore “custodians of the classical liberal tradition.”

This is not quite correct. Classical liberalism is a philosophical idea or intellectual doctrine. The tradition comprising that idea or doctrine is not identical to the political tradition of the United States, which is a particular political community, a regime. Far be it from me, a student of Jaffa, to deny the role of philosophical ideas in politics. It would be better, however, in this context to speak of the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution—neither of which say anything about the “classical liberal tradition.” This is more than a semantic quibble, as we will see below.

Voegeli repeatedly and respectfully mentions the achievements of 1776 and 1787. But it is hard to know whether he sees these dates as more than props or slogans. At the very least his conservatism of endless but subdued wrestling with human foibles—forever making the best of a bad situation—rests uneasily in a country founded on the right of revolution and proclaiming a Novus Ordo Seclorum, a new order of the ages. In fact, according to Voegeli’s own armchair psychology of “despair” one must conclude that the whole revolutionary era was an epidemic of chronic depression. 

When Sam Adams, Tom Jefferson, and the other colonial radicals concluded that further negotiations with Parliament were pointless and their only honorable course was to sever relations with the mother country, it could only have been despondency (presumably) that drove them to “let the goddamned boulder roll to the bottom of the hill.” Nothing but grim pessimism, in the Voegeli political psychology, could lead anyone to conclude that radical change may be necessary. Then, just a few years later, the same neurotics realized the Articles of Confederation weren’t working, and chucked out the whole thing in favor of a new Constitution. More despair! Let’s not even mention the Civil War. 

I’m having a bit of sport here, but these are serious matters. Let me try the novel approach of giving a Claremont colleague the benefit of the doubt, and putting his version of conservatism in the best, rather than the worst, possible light. 

During the Cold War, anticommunists were fond of deriding various Marxist democratic-socialist republics for their phony elections: “one man, one vote . . . one time.” Legitimate voting, of course, is an ongoing process of consent which must occur regularly. Revolution, on the other hand—notwithstanding some of Jefferson’s more unbridled effusions—can’t be a regular feature of any regime, invoked for “light or transient causes.” (Although it is never relinquished as a natural right.) Stability is indeed a very great virtue in politics. Thus, the sober or serious version of the anticommunist jibe, Voegeli’s conservative might suggest, is: “One revolution, one nation . . . one time.” That is, the American founders did not intend to legitimize revolution, as such, as a permanent mode of resolving political disagreements into perpetuity. The founders’ achievement, and the example of America, would establish for the whole world, and (ideally) for all time, the legitimacy and possibility of self-government. America’s violent rejection of feudalism and the divine right of kings was justified and even necessary. But once the principles of religious freedom, popular sovereignty, and equal natural rights were institutionalized in the Constitution, revolution would no longer be necessary or justifiable. Consent would thereafter be exercised in stable, orderly ways. Any future changes to the regime’s structure would be confined to cautious tinkering at the margins.

This, or something like it, I think, is the strongest argument for Voegeli’s ameliorist, Burkean conservatism applied to America. It is not one he makes explicitly himself, but I take the liberty of elaborating it here for the sake of clarifying the debate. 

It’s not a bad argument. But it overlooks a key point: While the principles of the American founding represent permanent truths about human nature and justice, another permanent fact of human nature is the constant danger of tyranny. The American Revolution defeated King George; it did not defeat mankind’s lust for power. Nor could it guarantee that the American experiment in self-government would last forever. Now and always, liars and despots may sometimes prevail. And the habits of ordered freedom are demanding. Thus, the truths proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence are not contingent on the success or failure of the particular institutions the framers established 250 years ago. They were clear that the health of the regime had to be maintained by constant effort and even occasional alterations to their framework, which is why they provided for the constitutional amendment process. Simply because my essay argued that our current institutions, practices, and traditions have become badly degraded does not in any way mean that I reject the principles of the framers’ social compact theory. If I am given to despair on any point, it is over the failure of intelligent readers to grasp this basic distinction, which my essay makes repeatedly and emphatically.  

In fact, notwithstanding Voegeli’s alarm, there’s nothing especially novel about my argument for counterrevolution. Political mobilization against real or alleged enemies of republicanism, and rhetoric about “the revolution betrayed,” have been staples of American history from the beginning. Almost every great controversy in our history has turned on whether the United States squandered the founders’ legacy. Lincoln observed in the 1850s that Americans were no longer the men their fathers were. And indeed Voegeli’s own writings provide abundant evidence of our continuing degradation. So one has to wonder why he is so dismissive and even angry about my analysis.

As an aside, it is odd that Voegeli seems so uncomfortable engaging with this wing of conservatism, which might be called “critics of Trump from the Right.” He is far more at ease discussing “conservative” critics of Trump from the Left—i.e. the NeverTrumpers, to whom he devotes inordinate attention, despite his own admissions that a) they are not influential, representing only an infinitesimal number of Republican voters; b) are not intellectually serious or coherent; and c) can no longer be described as “conservative” at all, if they ever were. In spite of all this, the absurd Bill Kristol and his crew at the Bulwark get a far more nuanced and sympathetic treatment than Voegeli grants to “Trumpism,” “MAGA tolerant conservatism” or his “Claremont colleague.” 

In any event, Voegeli at one point comes close to saying literally nothing could persuade him that America is now irretrievably under the control of what Charles Kesler has described as our “second Constitution”—the progressive regime of bureaucratic experts. Voegeli writes at the end of his essay that in choosing between two possible mistakes, it is unquestionably preferable to “keep fighting to preserve a republic that turns out to be beyond resuscitation” rather than “give up defending one whose vigor might yet be restored.” Strictly speaking, to persist in preserving something that is beyond resuscitation may in fact be the more egregious mistake. At some point one has to acknowledge the irrationality of pounding on the chest of a corpse. But his point is clear enough.  

It seems to me that Voegeli’s near-obsession with conserving the status quo—no matter how bad things are—blinds him to a massive problem: maintaining the current regime means defending both the current practice of administrative tyranny, as well as the theoretical or rational legitimacy of the second Constitution’s progressive elites. And because he does not see this, Voegeli cannot understand what is most significant about Donald Trump. 

John Marini’s brilliant CRB essay in 2016 (building on a previous article by Charles Kesler) is less reflexively hostile and more insightful about why Trumpism caused a political earthquake:

Social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals may tilt liberal or conservative and may differ in their party preferences, but they are united in their dependence upon intellectual authority, derived from empirical science and its methodology, in their understanding of politics and economics. At the same time, historicism or (critical theory) has established itself as the closest thing to a public philosophy when it comes to understanding history, society, and culture . . .

Kesler focuses his defense of Trump on the observation that Trump alone has succeeded in making political correctness a political issue. Kesler knows that political correctness poses a problem not only for politics, but for intellectual life as well—that it is a problem for the university as well as for civil society. Regardless of his motives, therefore, Trump has gone to the heart of the matter and made a political issue of these intellectual and social crises. Trump has not attempted a theoretical justification for doing so. That remains to be made by the thinkers . . . 

It is possible that the Trump phenomenon cannot be understood merely by trying to make sense of Trump himself. Rather it is the seriousness of the need for Trump that must be understood in order to make sense of his candidacy. Those most likely to be receptive of Trump are those who believe America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption, and the inability to defend any kind of tradition—or way of life derived from that tradition—because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites. This sweeping cultural transformation occurred almost completely outside the political process of mobilizing public opinion and political majorities. The American people themselves did not participate or consent to the wholesale undermining of their way of life, which government and the bureaucracy helped to facilitate by undermining those institutions of civil society that were dependent upon a public defense of the old morality. This great crisis has created the need for a Trump, or someone like Trump, and only those who recognize it as a crisis can be receptive to his candidacy. To be clear, the seriousness of the need does not mean that the need can be satisfied, perhaps even by a Lincoln, let alone a Trump. Nonetheless, Trump has established his candidacy on the basis of an implicit understanding that America is the midst of a crisis.

Whatever his many flaws, no other politician of our time has given such effective political expression to the sovereign authority of the people as the only basis for challenging the legitimacy of the expert ruling class. Even now, the establishment in Washington cannot comprehend what has happened. Consider how the attempt by the Biden Administration to delegitimize Trumpism with the new term “ultra MAGA” has backfired, with the Republican base (though not the leadership) gleefully embracing the term. 

Voegeli’s complaints about Trump’s character and misjudgments—though not necessarily wrong—are superficial and petty when contrasted to Marini’s searching analysis. But that is to be expected because (and I say this advisedly) Voegeli sees American political life itself as petty, superficial, and predictable. Let me explain.

At one point his essay touches on R.J. Pestritto’s writings on the progressives’ repudiation of the Declaration’s principles. Yet Voegeli suggests that this scholarship on Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and other progressive intellectuals is almost a distraction, because “sustaining a republic based on America’s founding principles would have been difficult, and always will be.” This is certainly true in one sense, but it’s crucial to see what exactly Voegeli means by this. He writes:

The problem that modern liberal democracy generates for itself, as Alexis de Tocqueville argued, is that its animating commitment to equality recognizes no limiting principle. Every breakthrough erasing a longstanding disparity moves a new item to the top of the egalitarian agenda. Some inequality, previously ignored or regarded as unproblematic, comes to be designated an intolerable inequity that must now be rectified . . . Liberal democracy imperils itself, and complicates the work of those determined to conserve it, when its unresting egalitarianism weakens the foundations on which its viability depends. [Emphasis added]

That statement perfectly captures the problem of equating the American regime—which is a product of practical statesmanship—with an abstract idea of liberal democracy. Earlier in his career Charles Kesler, the CRB’s editor-in-chief, made the astute and still valid observation that America is not just another chapter in the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy. Kesler’s reference was to a famous textbook edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, which illuminates Strauss’ argument that modern philosophy contains an inherent logic pointing toward radical skepticism or nihilism. But Strauss himself was careful to distinguish this theoretical tendency from the world of practical politics. 

This is particularly relevant because the error Kesler refutes goes to the heart of the dispute between so-called Eastern Straussians and their opponents on the West Coast—the students of Harry Jaffa congregated around the Claremont Institute. One of the most influential books guilty of this Eastern Straussian conflation of theory and practice is none other than George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft, published in 1983, which figures in Voegeli’s essay. Let me note that though he draws primarily on Will’s more recent book, The Conservative Sensibility, Voegeli’s misunderstanding of the founding seems to come particularly from the earlier volume. It is therefore worth taking a quick look at the review of Will’s Statecraft published by the CRB (under a previous editor, Ken Masugi) in 1985. 

The review by Dennis Teti agrees with George Will that every regime cultivates a certain moral character in its citizens. But, as Teti points out, Will believes that American politics

lacks an awareness of its capacity as soulcraft. In Will’s view, this lack derives from James Madison and the other Founders, who concentrated on a low self-interest as the basis for the American way of life, and thus undermined the American character and the ability to maintain our way of life.

Will wants to overcome the neglect and erosion of civic character by establishing a new kind of conservatism (p. 12). It would be of a ‘European’ variety; its paradigm is Edmund Burke (p. 146).

 Teti observes that “Will’s conservatism appears to be at furthest remove from the kind of revolutionary politics marking the era from the War for American Independence through the Convention of 1787.” Quite so. Teti continues:  

Will is not a friend of the American Revolution or the Founding Fathers. We might be tempted to praise his forthrightness in admitting that his ‘argument comes close to filial impiety’ in a nation notable for its reverence for its Founding Fathers (pp. 167-68) . . . Liberal democracy replaces the concern for virtue with a reliance on self-interest, and undermines the political community in the name of a radical individualism. Of the Founding Fathers par excellence, Jefferson and Madison, he says of the author of the Declaration that his ‘robust rhetoric of self-evidence . . . seems anachronistic’ (p. 50), and comes perilously close to calling the Father of the Constitution a fool (p. 156). If conservatism implies devotion to the Founders and the principles of the Founding, Will’s teaching is the opposite of any normal understanding of the term.

 As Teti astutely notes, one can’t properly conserve what is best about America if one doesn’t understand the meaning of America and what is best about it. Will’s disparagement of the founding—namely, that it is crippled by theoretical errors and ignoble in its neglect of virtue—is the standard East Coast Straussian line. Voegeli, by adopting George Will as his authority, lapses into many of the same mistakes that his source makes. Teti’s criticisms of Eastern Straussian dogma are considered ancient wisdom in Claremont circles. One might expect therefore that a CRB senior editor would at least devote a word or two to explaining why he invokes these arguments and sources to define American conservatism. I’m not suggesting Voegeli has to agree with the West Coast Straussian side of this old debate, but he ought at least to have demonstrated some awareness of it, which might even have given him occasion to offer reasons for his disagreement.

 In part because Voegeli doesn’t seem to know, or doesn’t agree with, Jaffa’s defense of the founding against the Eastern Straussian denigration of it, he seems unable to explain why the republic is worth preserving—other than to satisfy his own aversion to radical change. Does he think the principles of American constitutionalism are admirable or noble? He wants to conserve the republic, but can he really believe this is simply a matter of telling everyone to calm down? Even his hyper-cautious conservatism—“don’t break anything valuable”—can’t seriously maintain that our natural rights somehow vindicate and guarantee themselves. So what is he willing to fight for, even at the risk of some chaos and discomfort? 

 Voegeli clearly dislikes the woke ideologues, and writes elegantly about their bullying imposition of smelly little orthodoxies. His Sisyphean conservatism, however, seems to consist in nothing more than maintaining permanent trench warfare between Left and Right. My arguments for rejecting our current institutions as corrupt, and proposing a counterrevolution, appall and offend him because he thinks they upset the relative stability of eternal stalemate—which is the best one can really expect from politics. Voegeli’s monotone historicism doesn’t even have the advantage of variety: it’s just the same “goddamned boulder” century after dreary century. Now that’s depressing.

 Yet his argument is actually worse than that. Because according to Voegeli’s own narrative, it is the Left that should, by all rights, win the war of attrition. They are on the side of radical egalitarianism—the seeds of which were planted in the founding because they are planted in liberal democracy, and therefore in modernity itself. The progressives are correct, according to his argument, in their belief that history is on their side: radical egalitarianism truly is the regime’s endpoint. So Voegeli’s circular conservatism is revealed to be not only pointless but irrational, since only a fool (and an un-Burkean fool at that) would oppose what is historically inevitable. 

 I might go so far as to suggest that it is Voegeli who has yielded to despair, as well as passivity. Consider carefully the necessary implications of what he says in this statement: 

[T]he modern conservative mission has become a dilemma: how do those who cherish liberal democracy—who see no decent, feasible alternative to it—conserve that sociopolitical order from its own self-destructive tendencies? What is to be done when the unfolding of liberal democracy’s logic undermines institutions, practices, and dispositions necessary to liberal democracy’s survival?

 Because he mistakes the American regime for a theoretical construct, Voegeli falls into the historicist error of seeing its fate as pre-ordained. What else can it mean to speak of America’s “own self-destructive tendencies” resulting from “the unfolding of liberal democracy’s logic”? This is why he never answers his own question of what is to be done. The only answer, according to his premises, is that nothing can be done. It is he, not I, who is driven to hopelessness because, whether he realizes it or not, his argument points to a denial of human freedom. 

In 1985, the same year that Dennis Teti published his review of Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft in the CRB, a young Charles Kesler published his own critical appraisal of the book in National Review. I highly recommend reading the whole thing (which someone has uploaded here). Let me conclude this long rebuttal by quoting what a more spirited Charles Kesler wrote almost four decades ago. Kesler notes that Will’s book, and the Eastern Straussians generally, contend “that the American regime—the constituent ideas and institutions of American politics—is radically defective” in just the way Voegeli suggests. In all the long years since then, Harry Jaffa and his students have been battling this misinterpretation, with mixed success. Like a weed, this dogma is not easily extirpated. (Indeed, even within the Claremont Institute itself, one may find it sprouting up between one’s feet.) 

What, Kesler asked in 1985, would be the long-term effect of this malicious error?

It may be difficult to see now, but I believe the result will be increasingly to demoralize America, to debunk its principles and dethrone its heroes. Not as Charles Beard and the Progressive historians tried to do, by showing that the Fathers were moved by greed rather than public spirit; but, perhaps more perniciously, by asserting that the Founding Fathers did not know what moved them, because they did not quite understand what they were doing. Which is the equivalent of saying that they were not free themselves, but were in fact determined in their actions and thoughts by forces or causes extrinsic to them . . .

But if American conservatives seek to summon ‘the better angels of our nature,’ we must first study, and speak to, our nature. If we do not, the unhappy result will be a conservatism that can never truly be American, and an America that can never truly be conservative.

 If I read him correctly, Kesler’s conclusion proposes a hypothetical, but not an impossibility. Is it conceivable that, nearly four decades later, something approaching this lamentable state has now come to pass? At the very least, I think the CRB editors owe it to their readers, and to themselves, to give this question more serious and more thoughtful consideration. 

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