This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at the September 2022 meeting of
the Philadelphia Society. 

What Does Fidelity to Our Founding Principles Require Today?

We’re all political people here, right? So we all know Senator Pat Geary? No?

He’s the Nevada senator portrayed at the beginning of “Godfather II. He tells Michael Corleone, “I intend to speak very frankly to you—maybe more frankly than anyone in my position’s ever talked to you.” He tries to blackmail a mob boss and later ends up in bed with a dead hooker. I believe he was also a Democrat. So just about the only thing I have in common with Senator Geary is that I intend to speak very frankly to you.

What does fidelity to our founding principles require today? Let me begin to answer that question with a quote—perhaps a familiar quote to some or most of you. But it’s apt, and there’s always a chance some of you haven’t heard it, and/or that others can use a refresher.

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

Those words were spoken by G.K. Chesterton, a Brit, in 1924. He was speaking of the British Constitution, not ours. But the words strike me as especially apt to our situation.

What have our conservatives conserved? But before we answer that—hint: almost nothing—let’s first ask: what were they supposed to conserve? What do they say they are conserving in all those fundraising letters they send out that have been netting them hundreds of millions per year for most of my lifetime?

First of all, the physical territory of the United States. OK, so far so good. That at least has been conserved. And given conservative support for the military and our posture during the Cold War, it’s at least plausible that conservatives had something to do with that.

Second of all, the people. Are they doing so well?

We actually have declining life expectancies in America. We’re the only nominally “first world” country that can say that. China, with a per capita income one-fifth of ours, recently passed the United States in life expectancy.

Birth rates here have crashed. Deaths of despair—opioids, alcoholism, and the like—are soaring. Religiosity is down. Marriage is down. Divorce at least isn’t up from its 1980 peak, but it’s still endemic.

You might say that conservatives are not at fault for all this—fair enough. But their stated purpose is to conserve—and it’s rather evident they’ve failed to conserve these aspects of decent human life. That’s before we even get to demographic transformation, one of those things that is both not happening, and it’s great that it is.

Third, I would say, is the American way of life. Some of that is covered in what I just said. But there are others, for instance the total unaffordability of housing, especially for younger people. It’s impossible for average earners now to buy, except in the very cheapest markets, which also happen to be where there are the fewest opportunities.

We may add to this deindustrialization, the decline of the middle class, wage stagnation, falling standards of living, and the increasing necessity of a college degree in the job market—at a time when colleges teach less and less, charge more and more, and vacuum up middle class wealth to enrich what are effectively hedge funds with bad schools attached.

Fourth—and certainly not least—is the American regime itself. Have we conserved that? Does it function as it was designed to do? As a political scientist, and as a historian of sorts before that, I find the question laughable. If any of you want to make the case that we still live in the founders’ regime, go ahead.

Meanwhile, I will tell you some of what I see. A giant, unaccountable, unelected fourth branch of government that does what it wants without input or supervision from the people, and that usurps executive, legislative, and judicial power. Rights are routinely trampled. Two-track justice—one standard for friends of the regime, another for its enemies—is now the norm. Just last week a man killed with his car a teenager for the “crime” of being Republican. He’s already out on bail. Meanwhile there are still dozens of January 6 protesters in pretrial detention for ridiculous noncrimes such as “parading.”

The Justice Department, FBI, CIA—all the security agencies—are out of control in attacking American citizens. The FBI is now doing SWAT raids for misdemeanors. Earlier this month, the president of the United States gave a speech calling half the American population enemies of the state. I could go on.

What is conservatism’s response to all this? What is the response of “the weasels, compromisers, mediocrities, and losers of the Republican-conservative-libertarian establishment”? Those are not my words, but I like them. They sum things up concisely, accurately, and vividly.

Conservatism’s response is to get angry. But not at any of these abuses or the people who commit them. No, rather it gets angry at people like Mollie Hemingway, Julie Kelly, and Heather Mac Donald (and others) who point out these outrageous abuses.

Conservatives have long believed that the noblest thing they can do is “police” their own side. The Left of course never does this. The Left works overtime to ensure that its people are excused of murder, arson, and rioting. Meanwhile, the conservatives eagerly seek the death penalty for their own over parking tickets.

Now, am I saying we should be like the Left? A little. We ought to be more loyal, for instance. I am not saying we should excuse arson and rioting—but that’s moot anyway since our side doesn’t do that, walking through doors held open by the Capitol Police notwithstanding.

For “conservatives,” the most heroic act of the 20th century was not D-Day or the moon landing but William F. Buckley, Jr. purging the Birchers. Hence, they’re always on the lookout for more purges. Whole careers and institutions are now made of this. Think of the Bulwark and the Dispatch—of Bill and Steve and Jonah and David and Kevin. All of these “conservatives” are now character assassins out to destroy the lives of anyone even a click to their right, many their former friends.

One thing I’ve noticed is that conservatives really get mad when you point out that people who treat you like enemies are, in fact, your enemies. Finally, the conservatives find a backbone, and righteous indignation! To refer to someone libeling you, trying to cancel you, calling for your “extirpation” and even assassination as an “enemy”? How dare you! Civility in politics above all else!

What explains this? Let me give you another quote, this one from a movie. Try to hear this in your head with Robert DeNiro’s accent:

I’m sorry, but he knew about our gettin’ hit on three big machines in a row and he did nothing about it. That means either he was in on it or, forgive me for saying this, he was too dumb to see what was going on. Either way, I cannot have a man like that workin’ here.

The operative phrase here being “in on it,” i.e., part of the operation to ensure that the Right is forever feckless and useless, and to destroy anyone on the Right who scores real points against our anti-conservative, anti-liberal, anti-American and—brace yourselves, I’m just going to say it—increasingly anti-white regime.

Actually, this is what gets the conservatives most upset: noticing that the regime is all of the above. Quoting the Left’s own radical words back to them makes conservatives apoplectic. Not with rage, exactly. I don’t think they have enough thumos for rage. But with a kind of terror. Oh no! He said it! Now they’ll really get mad! Let’s not rock the boat! Peace above all!

Then, to appease the leftist god that’s just been angered, the conservatives go looking for another scalp to sacrifice on the altar of concord. Let’s see, what rightist can we disembowel next?

Anyway, either they’re in on it, or they’re motivated by a dedication to “principle” so perverse as to be self-negating. It is plausible—and we may say the explanation fits the observable facts—that the conservatives are the way they are because they have completely internalized the narrative of the Left.

They believe that America is irredeemably evil and racist. They believe that they are horrible people, burdened with a kind of original sin—not the one in the Bible but rather one cooked up by 20th-century academic leftists and intellectuals. They believe that “the white race is the cancer of human history.” And so they believe that they deserve to lose, and even to die.

So, to return to our stated topic, to the extent that the modern conservative takes his “principles” seriously, he must oppose the founding principles, which are not conceivable absent the American Revolution. But he must oppose the revolution—what with its friend-enemy distinction, its radicalism, its “instability” and “incivility,” its violence. Plus, of course, its racism, sexism, classism, lack of transgender bathrooms in Independence Hall (though, for all I know, they’re there now), and all the rest.

It’s ridiculous for the modern conservative to profess to admire George Washington. The real George Washington did things—many things—that the modern “conservative” cannot countenance in theory, much less in practice.

In the speech I referenced earlier, Joe Biden said, “There is no place for political violence in America. Period. None. Ever.” Leave aside the fact that his team commits such violence almost daily and with impunity. As a historical and theoretical matter, this statement is ridiculous.

It’s just a historical fact that violence birthed America. Granted, that violence was justified, organized, careful, and the furthest thing from indiscriminate. But the American Revolution was still a war waged against a government that considered itself legitimate.

Now, all governments consider themselves legitimate. The worst tyrants never concede for an instant that they are anything but ordained by God—or, if they are atheists, by some kind of natural order, or interpretation of “history.”

This only means that anyone invoking the right of revolution in practice had better carefully think through the circumstances, and know that he is right, not just theoretically or justified morally, but also that it’s the prudent course to pursue in the here-and-now. In short, he needs to be reasonably sure that he can win and do better than the present regime.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Conservatives who should know better reject all this. At best, they study the revolution out of historical curiosity. They claim not to be historicists—at least, those who know what historicism is, deny that designation for themselves. But they are all in fact Hegelians.

I would submit, further, that they all owe Francis Fukuyama a huge apology. Everyone remember who he is? Today he is a member of the regime in good standing, agitating for war with Russia, and every other item on the leftist agenda, under the heading of Our Democracy. But he blasted to fame in 1989 by declaring the “end of history.”

Oh, how the conservatives laughed! Every time some new event happened, they would chuckle “Oh, ho! How is that possible? We thought it was the ‘end of history.’”

Well, these days if you even suggest that the United States might be trending in a bad direction, here come the conservative enforcers. It’s not merely that they think our constitutional system is, or ought to be, sacrosanct. On that, I agree with them.

It’s that they believe—against the Founders, and against all experience of history—that once implemented, it can never be lost. They defend every perversion, distortion, corruption, and topsy-turvy reinterpretation of that system as if it were the system itself.

Do they not see the change? Do they see it but favor it? In any case, they lie about it. They deny it’s happened, or happening—the better to lull into somnambulant silence those who might otherwise worry. And then they praise that it’s happening because it’s all to the good. I guess this is how they stay in the good graces of the Left.

But if historicism is false, then the American system can be lost. Tyranny can recur.

Remember George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural? He made it the policy of the United States to “end tyranny in our world.” A “conservative” should regard that goal as utopian and impossible. Our conservatives do not.

It’s funny. A consistent meme of the Left over my lifetime has been “it can happen here.” By “it” they mean Nazism. America in the leftist imagination is always one millimeter away from Hitler. There must be dozens of novels, movies, and TV shows on this theme.

Conservatives have their own version of this: it can’t happen here. Human possibilities that have bedeviled the world since there have been humans not merely will never recur here, they can’t. We’re somehow immune.

Personally, I think that’s ridiculous, as a matter of theory, history, and observable experience.

So, returning again to the beginning: What do the founding principles require of us today?

First, they require an honest assessment of where we are, of the present regime, of how it operates, and toward what ends. Let’s do an honest reading of the 18 (or 27, depending on how you count) charges against George III in the Declaration of Independence and compare them to our situation.

Second, once we have a clear-eyed grasp of our situation, the founding principles require us to deliberate about what to do. Here’s where the conservatives lose their cookies. What does that mean, “what to do”? Are you calling for armed revolution? 

Director Wray! Over here! I found one! I found one!

Rather than play along with the conservative desire to get me to, as the kids call it, “fedpost” so that I can be served up to the security state’s wolves, I’d rather turn it around. I have a question for the conservatives—actually several. Which I know they won’t answer. So, really, the questions are for you, the reader, to ponder.

Is the right of revolution ever justified? Was it justified only that one time, in 1776, but never again? If so, why was it justified then and what makes it unjustifiable ever again? Because of historicism? Because the American Revolution was somehow an irreversible leap forward?

Is it that you think things can’t ever get bad enough to justify recourse to this right, or merely that they won’t? Is there some deep structural reason for America’s privileged position, or is our miraculous continued good fortune merely your expectation? If the latter, then you are implicitly admitting, at least in theory, that the right of revolution might, at some point, be justified—and that it has not been obviated by “history.”

Now, we should all hope that this remains merely a theoretical discussion. And, in the terms of that theoretical discussion, I maintain it as axiomatic that you can’t have natural rights without a right of revolution, just as you can’t have the founding without an actual revolution, and since you can’t have the regime of the founders without natural rights, you can’t have the founding principles or the founders’ regime without a right of revolution. Each piece is integral to the machine. Remove one, and the whole thing collapses in self-contradiction.

Finally, what does the denial of this right entail? What would it force us to do or accept? Anything and everything? Where are the limits?

The Declaration of Independence says “while evils are sufferable,” clearly implying that at some point evils cease to be sufferable. But are we to understand that insight to be wrong? Are we to accept all evils as sufferable—forever? Are we required to suffer them? God commands us to accept a certain amount of suffering as the price of living in His creation. Does He also command us to accept eternal torment from the hands of wicked men?

The implicit—and sometimes explicit—conservative answer appears to be “yes.” Turn the other cheek. Bend the knee. Endure your beatings. Forever. For if there is no recourse to a higher principle or law, then there is no other choice. To borrow from Machiavelli, the “effectual truth” of conservative pusillanimity about the right of revolution is perpetual self-subjugation to tyranny. “Weasels, compromisers, mediocrities, and losers” indeed.

The conservatives justify this counsel of perpetual passivity with the observation that things can always get worse. But things can also be made better, by the actions of men. It is the office of prudent men to discern when things are bad enough that action is justified, or even obligatory, and to devise a plan propitious of success. It is the office of the conservatives to ensure that such thoughts are never thought, and punished when they are.

To be fair, the conservatives can muster strength when they see a real threat to their position. You can be sure that, if you so much as glance in the direction of wondering if the right of revolution exists—even in theory—there a conservative will be, armed and ready . . . to shoot you in the back.

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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.

Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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