America Never Existed

"We are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are . . ."
— Leo Strauss

It is possible (not certain, but possible) that within the next 20 years or so, the United States will no longer exist. 

That would be a great setback for human liberty. The end of the American republic would most likely mean the end of self-government all over the globe—the beginning of a new dark age. The United States, even now, is the world’s greatest example of constitutional democracy, and if the cause of freedom fails here, it probably will not survive anywhere. More than that, however, the end of liberty on these shores would most likely mean the end of any memory of America. 

The United States would not simply cease to exist; it would never have existed at all. 

What I mean by that is not only the Orwellian idea of rewriting history. That theme has become almost a cliché nowadays. Certainly, propaganda such as the “1619 Project” and the daily efforts by the establishment media to shape the narrative, are essential to the woke oligarchy’s power. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell observed, “who controls the present controls the past.” What I want to explore, however, is something less obvious and more insidious. 

Public Sentiment 

When Lincoln said in 1856, “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government, practically just so much,” he wasn’t just anticipating modern-day polling and focus groups. He was commenting on the central paradox of republican citizenship. In a constitutional framework where the people are sovereign, the regime embodies the people’s rational or deliberate sentiment. But because that opinion can never be taken for granted—because it depends on what my teacher Harry Jaffa called “the metaphysical freedom of the human mind”—the founders’ achievement can only be understood as an experiment. The moment we claim to know with any certainty the ultimate outcome of this experiment, we abandon the centrality of public opinion and the role of human freedom. 

Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist 1, argued that “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country,” 

by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force . . .  [A] wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

If the American people act or decide wrongly, it would mean not only the failure of the United States; the triumph of “accident and force” would lead to the “general misfortune of mankind.” Nor did Hamilton believe the success of popular government could ever be settled in a permanent way. Two centuries of success enjoyed by the United States show that wise statesmanship (with God’s help) can indeed secure liberty and prosperity. But there are no guarantees; constitutional self-government will always confront “formidable obstacles” that imperil the experiment. 

What is the state of the American experiment in 2022? Let’s stipulate that virtually everyone on the Left rejects as outmoded 18th-century nonsense the founders’ arguments about natural rights, equality, and consent. You already know how this goes: “systemic racism,” “progress,” “changing values,” “science,” etc. 

What about the people on the Right? 

“It Had to Happen” vs. “It’s Not Happening” 

Most people on the Right who focus on politics can be divided, broadly speaking, as representing one of two distinct attitudes about our current crisis. Those I will call the pessimists believe America—insofar as it is part of the modern, Western, liberal world—was doomed from the start. (For academic and online readers, I include in this group Catholic integralists, the BAPist/#FrogTwitter universe of the dissident Right, and some Eastern Straussians.) For them, the current crisis had to happen. Just as the 1619ers on the Left think racism is in America’s DNA, the pessimists on the Right think moral degeneracy metastasized from America’s original genetic defect. 

Some scholars in this camp will make abstruse arguments about John Locke’s secret agreement with Thomas Hobbes that mankind is fundamentally egoistic, acquisitive, and driven by base passions. The American founding, therefore, was hopelessly infected with this low view of human nature, and the nation’s commitment to equality was bound to degenerate into a homogenizing egalitarianism. But this background in political theory isn’t really necessary. Many traditionalist Christians, as well as masculine, nonacademic young men, are viscerally disgusted by the stultifying degeneracy of modern life. They reject the incompetence and ethical bankruptcy of the establishment (not to mention the open hostility to heterosexual white men), which they equate with the whole liberal project of equal natural rights. 

The practical agendas within this group vary—ranging from strategic withdrawal to escape the cultural degradation, to a resigned but cautious “wait and see” attitude, to overt enthusiasm for violent conflict. 

The other major group—which is significant for its credentials and clout within the establishment—seems to hold a nearly opposite view. I will spend a little more time examining this position because I don’t think anyone else has really analyzed these arguments adequately. 

These people, whom I will call the optimists, tend to be moderate and respectable conservatives who were never thrilled with Trump. Although they are alarmed by the growing despotism of the Left, they are also repelled by what happened on January 6 and are fond of making “both sides are flawed” arguments. These people often insist—in the face of what seems to be strong evidence to the contrary—that America, while a bit shaky, is still basically healthy and functional. Our electoral system is still intact, according to this view, and what is called for at present is not reckless apocalyptic rhetoric but a renewed commitment to the unglamorous work of persuasion and grassroots campaigning. They think the United States is going through a rough patch—but not for the first, or last, time. We need to push on without succumbing to hysteria about the end of constitutional government and possible civil war, which is melodramatic at best, and a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy at worst. 

“Push through” for this group means much more than a temporary, tactical accommodation with the status quo. While those with a more radical outlook might stipulate that working within the system is the most prudent course right now, the optimistic conservatives act as if this is not only necessary, it is the only necessary and sufficient option.

As near as I can tell, they refuse to admit the possibility that liberal democracy can fail. They seem to assume that the United States can and will carry on, almost as a matter of metaphysical necessity—though you won’t often hear them say that explicitly. But having engaged in quite a few conversations with these “normies” (including several friends), my experience is that they are unwilling to entertain, even hypothetically, any plausible scenario in which our political institutions must be abandoned because the founders’ constitutionalism has become defunct. 

Yet, the question immediately arises, why not give this approach the benefit of the doubt? On the surface, it might seem that there is no downside to this can-do optimism. Why not just contribute, as far as we can, to keeping the system wheezing along? That’s a fair question. To answer it, we have to understand a theoretical incoherence at the heart of this position. 

For most of these optimists, talk about America’s collapse isn’t merely wrong at the moment; they reject it as irresponsible in principle. There is, they seem to say, never a right time to abandon the constitution’s nominal framework. But this reveals an underlying dilemma about why political organizing and good-faith persuasion are necessary.

Under the constitutional system crafted by the framers, we participate in political rhetoric and campaigning because we think elections matter and their outcomes are not predetermined. This must logically mean, however, (and did mean for the founders) that several bad electoral outcomes can weaken and ultimately—at least in theory—destroy the regime. The alternative is to believe the system is so robust that it is structurally immune to errant choices. But in that case, consent becomes effectively meaningless, and we might as well just embrace the bureaucratic rule of experts. Civic gestures like voting would then become merely performative—which, by the way, is exactly what the woke oligarchy wants in order to maintain the fiction of popular sovereignty. 

The defenders of our “constitutional guardrails” could acknowledge that we are in dire straits and that the United States might be only one or two critical elections away from collapse. But in that case, there wouldn’t be all that much separating them from the radicals who say “it’s over.” Some of the most acrimonious debates on the Right arise because, when pressed, the optimists usually won’t admit that we may, in fact, be only a few steps from disaster because—again—they refuse to acknowledge that total collapse is possible.

But then what is the point of campaigning and speechifying if the republic will survive regardless? To proceed as if the perpetuation of our political institutions is inevitable is to deny that American constitutionalism is or ever was an experiment

Freedom and Necessity 

Just as much as the pessimists, then, the optimists seem to believe in a pre-ordained America, which doesn’t so much pose a question about mankind’s capacity for deliberation and choice as supply a definite answer. Whether doomed to fail or destined to carry on, the United States ceases to be—in the eyes of both groups—a community of free individuals making good or bad choices that shape its future. Rather than see America’s fate as an open-ended product of moral and intellectual freedom, along with luck, the dogmatic pessimists and doctrinaire optimists both reduce the United States to an equation with a certain solution. In both cases, it becomes hard to justify any civic engagement. 

Yet the practical dangers of resignation, on the one hand, and complacency, on the other, share an intellectual root: the belief that political legitimacy is determined by some kind of logical or historical process. What works is what succeeds, and what succeeds is what is right. We may argue about particular policies, and accept that there can be temporary gains or losses in achieving our preferences, but the regime—the political order or system that defines the modern world—exists by a kind of moral-political-historical necessity. Liberal democracy and the global financial system, which together might be called neoliberalism, along with its supporting technologies, all evolve together according to an inherent logic. This is simply the nature of the modern world, a world we did not create and which we cannot really repudiate. Nearly everyone in America believes that this world establishes the limits of our political freedom. 

In that case, however, we have become spectators to our own fate. To the degree that most leftists are already quasi-Marxists or postmodernists, and most on the Right are invested in either the pessimistic or optimistic dogma, then nearly all of us are in the grip of an ideology that subordinates popular self-determination to the impersonal forces of the modern world. 

One manifestation of this deterministic paralysis is that no one in Washington, D.C. is ever held accountable for anything—in part because the idea of personal accountability no longer makes sense within a bureaucratic state. Thus, even after a trillion-dollar, decade-long disaster in Afghanistan, not a single general or State Department diplomat resigned in disgrace. And after two years of COVID-related incompetence and lies, along with psychological, social, and economic damage beyond calculation, neither Anthony Fauci nor anyone else will face any consequences.

The vulgar variation on the common expression “stuff happens” is a perfect motto for the ruling class and its operating principle. Stuff happens, and some process—a mysterious combination of technology, global markets, and bureaucratic procedure—exists to sort it all out. Subordinate to this process, the people are allotted a narrow band in which to express their popular preferences on secondary matters—an ersatz “democracy” that underwent critical analysis decades ago by postmodernist thinkers such as Noam Chomsky. (Although as the deeper postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault, pointed out, the arbitrary power deployed by the modern state denies the very rationality that supposedly justifies it. But that is a topic for another essay.) 

My argument is that this surrender to historical fate not only animates our ruling experts but has captivated most conservatives as well. The optimists are especially blameworthy here—viewing our current anti-constitutional apparatus with far too much equanimity, while reserving their greatest disdain for Donald Trump. The pessimists may think they are exempt from this criticism, but while they see the corruption of the global elite clearly enough, they mistake cynicism for intellectual clarity. Insofar as they believe that our current political crisis has disproved Hamilton’s hopes—that history has weighed the founders’ principles and found them wanting—then they also reject the metaphysical freedom of the human mind. The laws of nature and nature’s God, according to the Declaration of Independence, are either true or false on the basis of metaphysical reason. The pessimists, however, believe that self-evident truths can be disproven by historical success or failure. It is not clear, then, why they assume their own solutions to modernity can overcome “accident and force.” (The fact that many of these alternatives are frankly silly—Become a pirate! Retreat to monasteries!—demonstrates how completely the modern rational state dominates our political horizon.) 

We are in danger of losing not only the habits and institutions of republican self-government, but our very ability to remember and understand them. In that case, America would not only cease to exist as a living nation, but at the level of human consciousness it would be as if it never existed

Memory and Duty 

In a fascinating lecture at Rosary College in 1980, Harry Jaffa said, “my feeling is that today we are somewhere near a terminal process in the history of Western civilization—not just in the history of this republic—in which a dark night of the soul could very well be the fate of the world if certain cataclysms with which we are threatened come to pass.” He mentioned in particular “the tyranny of the universal homogeneous state”—a concept derived from Hegel and Marx—which would result in “the extinction of the memory of the past.” 

There will always be a fictitious memory of sorts, which will call itself a memory. But the idea of the leap into freedom—which is essential for the self-justification of Marxism—implies the radical superiority of the future over the past in all fundamental human respects. Any memory of the past, any genuine memory of the past, destroys the illusion of that superiority and hence would have to be ex­tinguished. Remember: our identities, whether as indi­viduals, nations, or cultures, depend on memory.

When we are robbed of our heritage and our memories as a people, we are “deprived of our identities, without which I think there is nothing in our lives which would be essentially valuable.” We are, Jaffa said, “reduced to mere subhuman animals in our relationship to nature and to each other. And even if we were animals in control of sophisticated machinery, we would have no human characteristics, no recognizable characteristics.” All totalitarian regimes reject the freedom of the mind and the soul; they rest on a form of historical determinism. This “is the problem we have to face and encounter.”

Jaffa then remarked that in the face of this threat his duties as professor or intellectual were not different from his responsibilities as a citizen. “I see no fundamental conflict in our duties as scholars in fighting the false theories of determinism which underlie all our relativism, and our civic duty to oppose the totalitarian political conse­quences of that determinism and relativism,” he said. “I think that our responsibilities as scholars and as citizens are ulti­mately one and the same.” 

Jaffa was famous during his lifetime for attacking his fellow conservatives as much, if not more, than liberals—mostly because he thought the only hope for America was within the conservative movement, and yet that movement neither understood nor believed in the principles it supposedly wanted to conserve. 

Today, the twin dogmas on the Right, deterministic pessimism or optimism, offer a Hobson’s choice. Neither can save the American regime, because both have succumbed to the overwhelming authority of “the modern world” as the embodiment and guarantor of neoliberalism. To save our republic, or even to save the memory of America, we must first recover within ourselves the authority and ground for reflection and choice: the moral and intellectual freedom of the human mind.

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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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