America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Post • The Constitution • The Courts • The Left

Finding the Next Justice Thomas Will Take a Gang, Not a Village

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David Brooks’ insightful account of “a self-consciously built” “conservative legal infrastructure” behind Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination raises more fundamental questions about the Court and contemporary political and academic trends. While this “infrastructure” is a work of many hands, Brooks really means to single out the Federalist Society.

The Federalist Society is better understood as a gang (MS-1787) rather than as a “community” or village or even “a cohesive band of brothers and sisters.” Sometime in the 1990s, The New Republic called “the Straussians” as the “one of the top-ten gangs of the millennium.”

Tom Sawyer, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, makes the commitment required of such an endeavor clear: “Now, we’ll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer’s Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood.” The contrast between the political effectiveness of the Federalist Society and other groups on the right founded at the same time in the early 1980s, including the politically less successful Straussians, is instructive. Even the good each has achieved may not be sufficient to meet the political crisis of our time.

I will not repeat the heroic tale of the rise and rise of the FedSoc but rather refer the serious reader to political scientist Steven Teles’s account in The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement. One must compare it with a 29 year-old Woodrow Wilson’s excitement at forming “a band of young fellows (say ten or twelve)” to dominate the public prints with their thinking—whose content he does not dwell on, other than its novelty. “All the country needs is a new and sincere body of thought in politics, coherently, distinctly, and boldly uttered by men who are sure of their ground.” Wilson, of course, became the first (and perhaps only) president to attack the Declaration of Independence, in the name of Darwinian novelty and against individual rights.

The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies originated as a debating society involving “conservatives and libertarians” who are committed to the principles of freedom and the separation of powers, and who believe “that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.” At least in their earlier years, they stood more for Judge Robert Bork’s legal positivism against the exotic or even toxic leftist faculty. But the group has also expanded its appeal, sponsoring its 2015 annual Rosenkranz debate between Robert George of Princeton, a new natural law scholar, and John McGinnis of Northwestern law school, an originalist and a positivist. Other groups have gone beyond the generalities of the FedSoc, such as Hadley Arkes’s James Wilson Institute and John Eastman’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, the litigation project of the western Straussian Claremont Institute. But the Federalist Society, with help from the Heritage Foundation and, most of all, White House Counsel Don McGahn, put together Trump’s list of potential judicial appointments.

The Prudence and Limitations of the List

The genius and limitations of the FedSoc can be seen in the cleverness of the Trump campaign’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees. The list has been expanded twice, indicating the first list of 11 judges was concocted in significant part to appeal to crucial states in the campaign, including Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The second list of 10 added two from Florida and doubled up on names from Colorado (including now-Justice Neil Gorsuch), Iowa, Michigan, and Missouri. Finally, the White House released a third list of five names in November 2017, which elicited a harrumph from the New York Times. It included a name some observers thought oddly omitted from the first, Judge Kavanaugh, who went through extended and heated confirmation battles before being confirmed in 2006. Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a finalist for this current nomination, was also on this latest list. The next list may be the true list.

It now seems clear that the first list was a trial to see whether a list in principle was a political success, so the campaign added the second list with Gorsuch. They saved the controversial Kavanaugh for the third list. (In the meantime, Trump promoted others named in the first list from State Supreme Courts or a federal district court to federal circuit courts of appeal.)

Trump both rationalized and politicized the selection of Supreme Court justices, to the advantage of both the Constitution and his own political interest. This contrasts with the blemished records of George H.W. Bush and his predecessors Nixon and Reagan (not to mention Eisenhower) and the avoidance of disaster with George W. Bush’s near-nomination of his assistant, Harriet Miers.

If they had been given the chance, would the Federalist Society have done the really right thing and have proposed Phyllis Schlafly, the woman who single-handedly stopped the ERA, to fill the woman seat on the Court President Reagan had promised in his 1980 campaign? After the Supreme Court’s role in the collapse of the separation of powers and the rise of the administrative state, nothing but a political challenge from within could restore it to its constitutional place.

But these disparate strands lead us up to the fundamental issue in thinking about the Constitution. It arose in the Elena Kagan confirmation hearing in 2010. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), not a lawyer but a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked her about her belief in natural rights and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. (Skip to 16:30 here.) Kagan reacted as though she had been asked whether she accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior and accordingly insisted her thoughts on the matter, whatever they were, had no bearing on how she would judge cases. No other senator on the committee asked about the Declaration or natural rights.

Would the judges on the FedSoc list answer this key question any better? In fact, Gorsuch would and likely Judge Barrett would, too—though I wonder about any commitment they may have to “new natural law”—but I have my doubts about the others. That of course is the fault of the legal education establishment, not the Federalist Society,  which has only crooked timbers to work with. There is work for many gangs.

The Declaration Anchors the Constitution

The first principle of American constitutionalism is the bond between the Declaration and the Constitution. The distortions of the Dred Scott case unmoor the Constitution from any dignity and purpose it has in an original understanding. American jurisprudence has never recovered from that case. In brief, if Americans can’t understand the injustice of slavery and why it was so difficult to extirpate it, what can they possibly understand about living in a free society?

It is not for nothing that the most radical originalist on the Supreme Court is Clarence Thomas, who grew up under segregation. His commitment to natural right is seen less in citation of doctrine, though he is quite adept at this. It is rather manifest in his radical originalism—his quest to find the roots or nature of the issue at hand.  In helping bolster that determination in him, the Claremont gang played a role.

Thomas has revived the legal world’s interest in basic questions about the Constitution.

There is no cloning a Clarence Thomas. But smart and influential people need to be able to spot such a one and let him exercise his virtues by connecting our crisis today with the founding, the Constitution and the Declaration together. A bold president is essential. Though the stage is set, it seems unlikely the Trump-Roberts Court will be able to perform this gargantuan task. Nonetheless, grounds for hope remain.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

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America • Americanism • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Europe • Immigration • Post • Progressivism • The Culture

Saving the American Dream

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It was winter and the streets of Vienna were covered with snow. The plows were busy for most of the night, and I watched them go up and down the street. I couldn’t sleep because earlier that day, I had had an interview at the American embassy that would determine whether I would be admitted into United States as a refugee. It was a long application process and it seemed like it was finally coming to an end in my favor.

The next morning, I bundled up and crossed the street to the nearest phone booth. I was making the call to find out the results of the interview. I was confident that I would receive a positive answer.

“I regret to tell you that your application has been rejected,” said the voice on the other end.

I didn’t answer back in hope that my silence would negate the words I just heard. Perhaps I was imagining it. After what seemed like an eternity, I said, “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

The man on the other line simply repeated the same sentence but this time his words were kinder and almost apologetic.

“You can always try to appeal the decision,” he continued. “You are allowed one appeal.”

“Thank you for letting me know.” It was all I could bring myself to say.  I held back the tears but I could feel them in my throat. There it was: that godawful lump that didn’t want to go away, a burden that descended upon me. I barely even looked at my mother and my four-year-old cousin, and I kept muttering,

They can’t do this. They can’t do this. Of course, they could and they did. But at the time, I really didn’t pay attention to practical matters. I became disoriented and preoccupied with the snow. What at first seemed like a romantic image of a postcard from Vienna became an impediment to my vision—a cold and miserable inconvenience.  

At that point in my life, I’d been living in a Czech refugee camp for three years. I’d survived the war in Bosnia, but as in the aftermath of any war, there wasn’t much hope of having a productive life in a country so broken apart by war and genocide. I was 16 years old and I was determined to come to America, almost to the point of obsession. Following the advice of the man who delivered the bad news, I wrote my appeal and sent it to the American embassy in Vienna. I didn’t have much hope, and I knew that if my appeal was rejected, it would mean the end of my hopes for coming to America. But the news that came back was positive and a few months later, my mother, my little cousin, and I made the long and uncertain trip to America.

I didn’t know what could possibly await me here. As much as I always had a healthy dose of realism, the idealist in me couldn’t help but think that all of my troubles would go away once I stepped onto American soil. But it was only the beginning of a great struggle, particularly in the first few years. My spirit was almost crushed when, not even a month after I came to America, my father died in Bosnia.

I was disappointed by my surroundings—the old and small apartment, dog pee stains and God knows what else on a worn out 1970s couch that should have been thrown out years ago, a mattress that was so worn out it could have passed as a water bed, and that awful scent of formaldehyde in the ancient kitchen cabinets. I yearned so badly to go back to my homeland. But I couldn’t. The plane ticket that brought me to America had to be paid off, and we had $100 to our name.

I suppose I could have given up. But there was something so inherently American in my being that giving up was not an option. In spite of being surrounded by Americans who lacked ambition and instead relied on the collective to give them some meaning or identity, I knew implicitly that this did not represent true American character. It could not.

When I arrived in the United States in the late 1990s, I didn’t notice any active hatred of America. My time in academia changed that. I couldn’t help but notice an ideological movement, the main aim of which is the assertion of Marxist ideology and the annihilation of American principles. Even so, the anti-American rhetoric seemed confined largely to the ivory tower, and I didn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) see the subversive character of leftism as clearly as I do now.

Today, a globalist ideology has greatly contributed to a persistent attack on American identity. This is what I see every day, whether in academia or in the public square, and this is what leaves me feeling somewhat despondent and confused. How can someone who is born American harbor so much resentment against his own wonderful country? It’s one thing to be a healthy critic who respects sober analysis about one’s country. But I am talking about something different—insidious, corrosive, and  ultimately destructive of the brilliant legacy of America’s Founders to say nothing of freedom itself.

Genuine exploration of American identity has become an occasion for the American Left not only to criticize America’s  founding principles of but also to label patriots as “nativists” and “nationalists.” Both terms, in the leftist mind, have negative connotations. According to the illogical principle of reductio ad Hitlerum, to have any national pride means that you’re a goose-step away from full-blown Nazism. In the irrational streams of consciousness of the American Left, to love America is to be a racist and a bigot. It seems that the only acceptable way to discuss what it means to be American is to reject America’s founding principles in favor of an inchoate and often incoherent idea of “progress.” The Left often likes to say  “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” but they never seem to want to ask or deliberate about what they are dissenting from. This so-called dissent is just subversive, Alinskyite agitation. No surprise then, that the fruit of their labor is chaos.

At the heart of American ethos is the American Dream: an expression of the call in the Declaration of Independence to honor our rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Yet the American Dream cannot be summed up in just those few words. Its particulars are different for everyone. Moreover, the Dream is not exclusive to those who choose to become American citizens, as so much of the propaganda today would have you believe. It is also, if not primarily, for American-born people. Whatever its specifics may be, we can certainly conclude that the Dream is an expression of individuality and freedom. The Left deny this Dream. They would call it an illusion. But in denying it, they take away the value of my choice to be here. Such a philosophy is no champion of immigrants. It makes a mockery of them.

For me, the escalating attack on America’s founding principles is a palpable and visceral experience. I reflect on my life, particularly the 22 years since I came to America. I reflect on the war and oppression that I experienced, I observe the irrational behavior of the Left, and I am firm in my belief that the uniqueness and greatness of America must be defended. For those of us who have felt the heavy hand of oppression and dehumanization, it’s clear that the restoration and preservation of American values is not only a philosophical but also a practical necessity, and that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”    

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Post • self-government • statesmanship • The Culture • the family • the Flag • The Left

God Bless America—Right and Wrong

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On our nation’s 242nd birthday, national holidays are increasingly an occasion for Americans to disparage patriotism. On social media, fringe and establishment voices on Left and Right spew outright cynicism or, at best, a paltry, half-hearted patriotism of sentiment, disconnected from any firm belief in national principle and purpose.

Disregarding the tired clichés promoted by the small-minded spite of our educational establishment and the irresponsibility of our dissolute elites, the truth is that habitual patriotism is better than intentional value-signaling; and even thoughtless patriotism is better than witless cynicism, as cynicism is not a virtue, but the default mode of decadence.

Apathy and snark about politics and political forms are the hallmarks of the worst tendencies of modernity; a sign of the severe decay of the corpse of western political thought. This current distaste for patriotism—made possible by a bloodless corporate globalism and the disgraceful lack of serious political thought in elite education—leads to much that could be called mere “silliness” if the results were not so harmful. And the hollow mainstream value-signaling of the virtue-less is not any worse than the hopeless dirges of the tiny groups of fringe traditionalists or leftists harboring utopian visions of unicorns and rainbows amidst their anger at “modernity” or “liberalism” or whatever.

These tribes are united in their essential impotence.

Claremont Review of Books editor and Claremont Institute senior fellow Charles Kesler opened the Institute’s annual Publius Fellowship program last week with readings that put these hollow voices in context:

“The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose,” wrote Leo Strauss in 1963. After leaving his native Germany before the rise of the Nazis, the Jewish professor spent the rest of his life helping American students read the great books and ideas of the western tradition, which American education had already begun to neglect.

Alongside this loss of purpose, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn,the famed Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize winner, told the 1978 Harvard graduating class, “[t]he Western world has lost its civil courage” and this loss is “particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite.”

Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, remained deeply concerned that the result was that “parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children” and warned us “of an eradication . . . of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

Our educated class is taught to use a wry aura arising from an  unconsidered and arbitrary moralism as a shield to evade dealing directly with the serious political questions that undergird the swirling currents of opinion. Paradoxically, they use this shield to avoid looking closely or for long periods at what is moral. As they hold to an ethics of simplistic assumptions about pure ideals, which they think are beyond rational or systematic consideration, they simultaneously develop a habit of political thought that simplistically savages the reality in which we actually live. Our collective ignorance and miseducation thus prevent any serious attempt to think about politics, never mind maintain a healthy political regime.

The net effect is to render cheap and easy cynicism a kind of civic virtue. The “news” becomes something best imbibed ironically through satirical comedic performances. But insofar as citizens deliberately cultivate this breezy ironic posture, we remain divorced from reality and unable to deliberate or evaluate deliberation over politics, thus perpetuating the very problem that caused our cynicism in the first place.

Cynicism is a never-ending, self-fulfilling prophecy of civic decay. What the critics of Trump fail to understand is that he is not buoyed primarily by gullible rubes fooled by carnival barking, but by a cynical public who has completely lost faith in the powers that be — by a cynical public that sees him as a visceral response to hollow, ineffective propaganda they increasingly recognize as such. Many do not wish to follow those they perceive as chestless, apolitical, unspirited pseudo-leaders anymore, but would rather follow Trump—in full knowledge of his defects—rather than follow those who mistakenly believe that they cleverly disguise their own defects.

Americans Are Tired of Being Pawns

Habituated to think that serious political thought is mere condemnation or deconstruction amidst a world of propaganda, we are unaware that this habit of thinking undermines and ultimately eviscerates our own political desires and aims, rendering us pawns in the game — leaving us at the mercy of forces, the existence of which we may be completely unaware. Yet, increasingly, at the end of television’s reign, amidst yet another era of new modes of media, we are all too aware that such forces are trying to manufacture our consent. And, like good Americans, we have begun to rebel.

This is not the kind of “unthinking patriotism” at which our elites are so ready to sneer. That sort of thing is rarer today than our pseudo-educated snobs believe, and, at least, it has the benefit of being a kind of necessary and normal sort of defect.

The intelligentsia loves to think that the many are simple idiots who adopt a “my country right or wrong” mentality even as the commoners generally understand political life in a much more realistic manner. Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, for instance, is a serious work of political philosophy, providing a better definition of politics and patriotism—for good and ill—than much modern political science. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is another great case in point. The intelligentsia loves to point out that such works are pure protest, and misunderstood by the poor, benighted, and common people who listen to them with some kind of patriotic feeling. These rubes just don’t get it, they jeer.

The idea that the people who actually had to fight in wars like Vietnam or who daily have interactions with worthless public schools and the bureaucrats who administer them believe in a simple “my country right or wrong” mentality is asinine on its face. They know more of what is “wrong” in the country than the elites who welcome self-criticism only when they think they are above it.

Poll after poll shows most Americans have little faith in their leaders and national institutions, and this faith has declined over time during the post-World War II era. The idea that those who are most affected by the decisions of their leaders every day—those who must live with those results—are simply sanguine ‘Merica lovers is absurd.

In fact, the common understanding you hear in both pieces of music is a bittersweet and nuanced one. You hear the whole of politics—good and evil together—set within the underlying realization that one can’t escape political life and ought not to try. It is a patriotism that understands we live in a painfully imperfect world and nation and yet it is ours, and we love it as we do our family, and it is sometimes painful, sometimes noble, sometimes ugly, but always serious and our love remains.

Love Looks Beyond the Warts

What the common man understands looking up from the ground floor of the regime is that you often can’t do much about the bad decisions of your leaders, especially after they happen, and you have to learn to live with them. But that’s life, which is naturally communal, or political.

Even more significantly, what the common man understands is that what makes the intellectuals possible is a politics that the intellectuals often do not understand—a community that sticks together and protects its own and deals with its many imperfections the best it can precisely because it loves its own. That this love—which is necessary, normal, praiseworthy and good—is often the source of pain when things, inevitably, go awry.

One ought to fight against bearing the weight of injustice, yes, but bearing this weight is also part of political life—and all of human life, really. The political community and its corresponding sentiments of this basic, communal sort are necessary and the ground upon which our increasingly apolitical (even if politically active) intellectual stands, and not only when it comes to tangible, material necessities.

It’s rarely “my country right or wrong” but rather an understanding, however inchoate, that “my country” allows for the basic ground of my existence and even to some extent moral judgment itself. Communal life is rife with imperfection, but it’s all we’ve got. This is why more people than you might think intuitively understand what Gilbert and Sullivan meant by the “idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/all centuries but this/and every country but their own.”

Charles Kesler puts it this way:

Courage never demands that one be perfect or morally pure, and [Trump] isn’t, so this virtue fit his rhetorical needs and strength. America does not have to be perfect for him to defend her wholeheartedly against her enemies. He does not have to be perfect to seek or to assert the privilege of defending her. Warts and all. It’s necessary only to love her.

Citizens and Intellectuals

The problem with “America First” taken literally without historical baggage is not that it is morally repugnant but that it is redundant. Like saying “Family First.” Far from being immoral, such sentiments are in some sense the basis of morality itself. It is true that we are called to love others: as we love ourselves. You can only love others to the extent you love yourself.

When the masses are asses, their problematic sentiment isn’t normally “my country right or wrong” but “what can we get away with” or “how can I avoid discomfort?” Then again, it’s the same problem for the experts.  Like all humans, they like to act as if they are simply humble lovers of the common good—mere retired investors living on a pension in Florida.

But if the masses are asses, the intellectuals are sophists. Any of the sophists, one gets the sense, would have taken up the offer of his friends and escaped from Athens if the city unjustly sentenced him to death. The city-state, he might say, was clearly decaying as a political form and good riddance to it and all its injustice. My country right, but not wrong.

Socrates, of course, did not do so. He let his country unjustly sentence him to death and willingly accepted the punishment. My country right or . . . wrong? But then again, thankfully for us, he was no intellectual.

We hear more calls from intellectuals for a change to the Constitution and witness a sad lack of confidence in—along with a lack of understanding of—our form of government. Those actively thinking about alternative options, however, should consider: the only way to re-form is through the existing form.

Perhaps we should be thankful that much of the idiocy on display during patriotic holidays is simply ignorance of the past and the positing of fantastical alternatives. You can’t blame them for what they do not know  and have never been taught to consider. It is easier to paint politics in black and white, and speak of intrinsically evil and intrinsically good regimes. It is easier to write it all off and throw it all out due to the growing cancers rather than perform difficult surgeries, especially when you don’t have the right tools or training.

Does anyone? Hell if I know. But we all must do what we can regardless. Sadly, the institutions that ought to provide us those willing to try and lead us forward have failed us. This is why the Publius Fellowship exists. It shouldn’t have to.

Neither should the American people constantly have to defend their own patriotism against arrogant friendly fire.

Don’t give in to the wry arrogance accompanying education and wealth that disdains patriotism. After all, it was your country which gave you that wealth and education. Don’t give in to the quiet whispers or the tortured qualifications that eat away at any real acknowledgment of the genuine good of this stunning land—qualifications based on abstract or romantic and childish assumptions about other times and places. If you want as bad or worse, look closer at history.

If you want better, look closely at our principles (start by reading the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech) and consider how we can better live up to them. If you love this country and your fellow citizens, persuade others, and thank the universe for the opportunity afforded you by your birth or your circumstance: a regime that still yet allows for the possibility that the force of persuasion rather than the force of arms can guide our communal human life.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

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America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post

Lincoln on America’s Founders: “They Were Iron Men”

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Abraham Lincoln delivered this address, which has come to be called “the electric cord” speech, in Chicago on July 10, 1858.

Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them.

We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us.

We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations.

But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

 

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America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • History • Post • self-government

Coolidge: “If All Men Are Created Equal, That Is Final”

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The following is an excerpt from Calvin Coolidge’s (lengthy) speech in Philadelphia on July 5, 1926, marking the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 

We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that it has been an infinite repetition reaching back beyond our vision, that only makes it the more wonderful. But how our interest and wonder increase when we behold the miracle of the birth of a new nation. It is to pay our tribute of reverence and respect to those who participated in such a mighty event that we annually observe the fourth day of July.

Whatever may have been the impression created by the news which went out from this city on that summer day in 1776, there can be no doubt as to the estimate which is now placed upon it. At the end of 150 years the four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine in grateful acknowledgement of a service so great, which a few inspired men here rendered to humanity, that it is still the preeminent support of free government throughout the world.

Although a century and a half measured in comparison with the length of human experience is but a short time, yet measured in the life of governments and nations it ranks as a very respectable period. Certainly enough time has elapsed to demonstrate with a great deal of thoroughness the value of our institutions and their dependability as rules for the regulation of human conduct and the advancement of civilization. They have been in existence long enough to become very well seasoned. They have met, and met successfully, the test of experience . . .

. . . About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

In the development of its institutions America can fairly claim that it has remained true to the principles which were declared 150 years ago. In all the essentials we have achieved an equality which was never possessed by any other people. Even in the less important matter of material possessions we have secured a wider and wider distribution of wealth. The rights of the individual are held sacred and protected by constitutional guaranties, which even the Government itself is bound not to violate. If there is any one thing among us that is established beyond question, it is self-government—the right of the people to rule. If there is any failure in respect to any of these principles, it is because there is a failure on the part of individuals to observe them. We hold that the duly authorized expression of the will of the people has a divine sanction. But even in that we come back to the theory of John Wise that “Democracy is Christ’s government.” The ultimate sanction of law rests on the righteous authority of the Almighty.

On an occasion like this a great temptation exists to present evidence of the practical success of our form of democratic republic at home and the ever-broadening acceptance it is securing abroad. Although these things are well known, their frequent consideration is an encouragement and an inspiration. But it is not results and effects so much as sources and causes that I believe it is even more necessary constantly to contemplate. Ours is a government of the people. It represents their will. Its officers may sometimes go astray, but that is not a reason for criticizing the principles of our institutions. The real heart of the American Government depends upon the heart of the people. It is from that source that we must look for all genuine reform. It is to that cause that we must ascribe all our results.

It was in the contemplation of these truths that the fathers made their declaration and adopted their Constitution. It was to establish a free government, which must not be permitted to degenerate into the unrestrained authority of a mere majority or the unbridled weight of a mere influential few. They undertook the balance these interests against each other and provide the three separate independent branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial departments of the Government, with checks against each other in order that neither one might encroach upon the other. These are our guaranties of liberty. As a result of these methods enterprise has been duly protected from confiscation, the people have been free from oppression, and there has been an ever-broadening and deepening of the humanities of life.

Under a system of popular government there will always be those who will seek for political preferment by clamoring for reform. While there is very little of this which is not sincere, there is a large portion that is not well informed. In my opinion very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes. We do need a better understanding and comprehension of them and a better knowledge of the foundations of government in general. Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.

 

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Post

A Revolutionary Day

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The American war began in April of 1775.

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today we commemorate the day the war that started at Concord became the American Revolution.

When exactly modern American conservatism began is hard to say. In the last two decades, however, conservatism changed.At some point, vast majorities—between 70 percent and 90 percent depending on the institution—of academia, the bureaucracies, the teaching profession, the legal profession, the sciences, the captains of high technology industry and finance, all came to hold the same opinions and then ceased to tolerate contrary opinions. At the same time the wealth of the nation concentrated in, or was administered and serviced by, this small number of hands.

When this happened, conservatism changed. The expression of an opinion in line with conserving the principles of the American Revolution became grounds for punishment.

American conservatism became dissidence.

Dissidence is something different from conservatism. A conservative shields something from change. Change is the aim of dissidents.

When 70-90 percent of the controlling classes of a regime hold the same opinions and tolerate no others, change—peaceful change—is revolutionary, not conservative.

If you believe America is a great country, you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you believe, as John Winthrop did, that America has been given a special commission as a city on a hill, you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you believe the Declaration of Independence is the best expression of free government ever written, you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you believe, as George Washington, did that “[a]gainst the insidious wiles of foreign influence . . .  the jealousy of a free people must always be awake,” you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you oppose endless, far-flung wars and believe as Jefferson did that the United States is “[k]indly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe,” you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you believe as Daniel Webster did that the federal government is “an agent of the people” and the “people alone can control it, restrain it, modify or reform it,” you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you swear, as Lincoln did, “by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others,” you are not a conservative. You are a revolutionary.

If you voted for Donald Trump, you are a revolutionary.

Long live the American Revolution.

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2016 Election • Administrative State • America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Identity Politics • Political Parties • Post • The Culture • The Left • the Presidency • The Resistance (Snicker) • Trump White House

Trumping Freedom of Association

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The owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because the proprietor and her staff did not want to serve someone who works for President Trump. That is an unpleasant thing to be sure, but there is a large silver lining to it. It offers a rare and substantial ground on which we should all stand together: the freedom of association. Rather than focusing on the growing animosity that divides us, perhaps we should seize this opportunity to agree.

Opportunity for Political Agreement

The opportunity for discussion arises from the obvious juxtaposition of the Sanders case and the thoroughly litigated incident involving a gay couple in Colorado and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. When news broke of Sanders’ ejection, people on the Left just couldn’t help but sneer. “See! This is what you get when you say the Christian baker can deny service to gays!”

What an opportunity!

Let’s set aside the question of right and wrong and focus simply on the legal question. (The two get confused all the time anyway.) For anyone concerned about whether a Christian business owner may legally act in accordance with his conscience, you now have  a perfect example of an objection from the other side. If acknowledging that the owner of the Red Hen had the legal right to ask Sanders and her party to leave, then let’s also agree that the baker has the legal right to decline to make a cake for a gay couple. Foiled dinner plans are a small price to pay for the political agreement that people should have a legal right to conduct their business as they choose.

Political agreement is, after all, what this is all about.

If we do not agree, then why would we associate with one another? While this case does not provide an example of citizens agreeing or associating, it does provide us a key element of what can keep us together: a better understanding of why freedom of association is both a fundamental right and indispensable to the common good.

If we can agree that government should stay out of both cases, and that freedom of association should prevail even if we dislike the reasons behind it, that’s a big deal. It would be a big step toward understanding liberty as a foundational element of our union.

The Freedom of Association

The freedom of association isn’t straightforward any more, especially after the civil rights movement. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. It is fairly simple, really; each of us has the right to associate with whomever we please, according to the edicts of our conscience. If we can set aside past questions of prudence in the civil rights movement, we can look at freedom of association as the foundational element that it is.

In the widely praised book The Political Theory of the American Founding, Tom West explains that the centrality of the freedom of association, or as he calls it, liberty.

Liberty means being left alone, not coerced by others. Being born free, all may do as they please, without interference from other people, subject only . . . to the laws of nature. Liberty in daily life therefore means that people are free to organize their affairs as they see fit . . . The right was so “self-evident” to everyone [in the founding era] that it was rarely mentioned. No one ever questioned it. On the few occasions when it was made explicit, it was typically in connection with religion . . . But this freedom was not limited to religious associations. Liberty includes the right of any self-selected group to “converse together,” to assemble, and to “govern itself according to its own voluntary rules” for any noninjurous purpose.

As I understand it, the freedom of association may not be as inviolable as the freedom of conscience, but it is so closely related that it should be nearly so. Without a clear understanding that we get to choose the people with whom we associate, it is hard to understand any freedom at all (any freedom of consequences anyway).

The freedom of association also includes the freedom not to associate with someone. Add property into the mix, and that means you have the freedom to ask—or even to demand—someone leave your property. This is true for bakers and restaurant owners, and we should embrace the opportunity to discuss it. We should all agree that neither being denied dinner nor a custom wedding cake is a real injury to anyone. Just as the owner of the Red Hen can stand on freedom of association, so, too, can the Christian baker.

Liberty Based On Equality

Agreeing that freedom of association protects the baker and the restaurant owner may be a good first step toward a shared understanding of the common good, but understanding its origin can truly unite us.

West treats this causation carefully in his book. Simply put, freedom of association emerges from human equality properly understood, and that is the thing that binds us together.

Though equality is no longer a straightforward proposition, it ought to be. It is one of the most obvious things on earth. If you put a tall, skinny, dark-skinned woman; a short, fat, fair-skinned man; and a pig in a room, even a child will immediately know that two of them are human and one is a pig. This “is the work of intuition that every rational creature performs instantly and without error,” writes Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who presents the case very well. Lots of “education” and training might help some people deny it for a time, but they cannot keep it up for long. Even Southern slaveholders, who worked so hard to justify their sin by dehumanizing their slaves, ultimately could not deny the slave’s humanity. As Lincoln pointed out, their own laws betrayed them. We are all different, but we are all human. And in that, we are equal.

Lincoln described how the principle of equality is more important than a common history or race. It is the “moral principle,” he said, that binds us to each other even though some of us are immigrants (the irony is not lost on me given the cause of our current predicament). “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is the foundation of both the freedom of association and the unity of our nation.

Focus on Our Better Angels

The Red Hen incident provides an opportunity to focus on what unites us. I understand the sentiment that is more and more common—the “you won’t like the new rules” warning. The vitriol against President Trump and increasingly anyone who voted for him is so staggering at times that it would be hard for any man not to look forward to a bit of revenge. Even the moderate men of Power Line have begun signing onto it a bit. And I am not blind to the fact that the Left cares little about consistency and entirely about control. But as Ryan Williams from the Claremont Institute discussed recently, “the cold civil war must not become hot.” We should take any opportunity we can to turn the discussion, if only among ourselves, toward unity.

Lincoln put it better:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Agreeing that we each have the right to associate with whomever our consciences permit might be a good place to start. Perhaps we can look back through this agreement to build a common understanding of what it means to be created equal. If so, we might be able to stay one nation under God.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Identity Politics • Post • race • The Constitution • The Culture

MLK’s Teaching Requires America’s Founding

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Americans commemorate days of birth and days of death of notable figures as a reminder of the contributions that they made to the nation’s history and, perhaps, of how we ought to think about our history and understand our place in it. This week we recall the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His murder denied the man the opportunity to see the nation respond to his call for ending the terrible discrimination and racism that plagued parts of American society in his time. His courageous words still ring out as a reminder that all must be ever vigilant in challenging behavior that conflicts with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Dr. King’s speeches and writings reminded all of truths that had been forgotten or had not fully been embraced. He sought to instruct his fellow citizens in the means to achieve the ends of just government under law for all. He gave hope and inspiration to those who had been unreasonably deprived of human dignity through legislation in conflict with our founding documents.

His speeches were profound, but also colorful and accessible in that the allusions he employed were to activities every American could understand.  In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, he said:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

The closing words of this same speech are immortalized in the minds of many and include what is perhaps his most moving and most universally appealing lines, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Earlier in 1963, Dr. King had spent time in the Birmingham Jail where he penned a uniquely thoughtful and now famous letter. He was responding to a group of clergymen who expressed many concerns including that the demonstrations King and others were leading might be “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King explained that he was in Birmingham because “injustice is here.” The letter numbers many pages. He remarks at the end that he had never written one so lengthy, but that the jail cell is conducive to “write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers.”

The letter is a tour de force, going well beyond responding to those clergymen, laying the religious and philosophical foundations for the civil rights movement that had spread throughout the South. Beginning with an explanation of the non-violent campaign, King displayed his deep learning by invoking Socrates, Jesus Christ, Catholic theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr, the religious figures of Amos, Paul, and Martin Luther, Paul Tillich, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, T. S. Eliot, and the American Founders to explain the foundation of constitutional and God-given rights.

The writings and actions of all of these thinkers who had gone before him, King demonstrated, were his teachers and available to him as to all men capable of rising above time and place and accidents of birth. As a rational man, and not merely as a black man, he was informed and guided by these profound thinkers in his efforts to lead the nation to fulfill the promise of America’s founding. He reminded us that there are just laws and unjust laws, and that we must look to the eternal and natural law for guidance. Rejecting the polarizing positions of both complacency, on the one hand, and bitterness and hatred, on the other, Dr. King advocated love and nonviolent protest. The birthright of freedom speaks to all men who will listen and the justice of the cause must be not ignored.

We would do well to pause and remember this towering figure on this somber anniversary, but also to read and reread his writings. I especially recommend his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” where he connects the actions that brought him notoriety to the foundations of America and implored that we look to America’s founding as the best hope for guidance. “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Photo credit:  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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America • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Greatness Agenda • political philosophy • Post • The Left • Trump White House

American Identity is Not Globalist

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In a column this week for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson laments the passing, at least in his imagination, of a time when America was interested in helping and cooperating with other nations. “Why is our political moment not just pathetic but also traumatic?” writes Gerson. He goes on to claim the presidency of Donald J. Trump has destroyed something precious and unique about the American character. Gerson draws upon the history of America’s involvement in World War II, backed by some beautiful words from former presidents to show what he understands as the immaculate diplomacy of Truman, Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, and to call out what he deems the complete mess Trump is making.

Gerson writes that we have always understood there to be a “practical and moral role for America in the global defense of free governments and institutions,” and to a certain extent, I agree. But Gerson is wrong to suggest, as he does later in the article, that this moral role of America is now dismissed as “globalism.” To make matters worse, he argues Trump is “staggeringly ignorant,” “unfamiliar,” and “unmoved” by the brilliance and moral fortitude of his predecessors. Trump, asserts Gerson, sees America as “a nation like any other nation, defined by ethnicity and oriented toward narrow interests.”

Gerson’s words echo today’s establishment and patronizing leftist rhetoric of “this is not who we are.” His language is reactionary and based in emotionalism rather than logic and reason. They appear also to be inspired by what has become known as “virtue-signaling,”—a conspicuous morality that attacks the opponent as uncaring and cold-hearted without ever bothering to understand one’s opponent as he understands himself.

One of the major problems in Gerson’s article is that he either misunderstands or misrepresents what his opponents mean when they attack “globalism.” He writes that America is “the nation that liberated death camps, rebuilt our enemies, inspires dissidents, welcomes refugees, secures the peace on every contested frontier…this does not make us ‘globalists;’ it makes us Americans.” But opponents of globalism have not voiced absolute opposition to any of these things as a matter of principle. They have only argued that all of these very worthy activities must be secondary to the primary task of securing the liberty and security of our own people. If America is not safe and free, we can’t be a beacon of hope to anyone.

But Gerson’s purpose in the article is not to entertain fine distinctions. It is, rather, to attack and discredit Trump and his administration. To do that, Gerson has made a meaningless connection between globalism and America’s founding principles. Since Trump and his supporters do not follow the faulty ideas of globalism or consider that America has duties to the far corners of the world that take priority over those here at home, Gerson wants to suggest that something is off with them. Something is wanting and inhuman in them, he seems to imply. He does this by equating globalist ideas and policies with the very foundation of America and, in effect, he has indirectly called Trump, as well as his supporters, un-American.

He’s wrong in his conclusions and wrong on his facts. America’s founding principles are not based on a care and concern with the liberty and equality of all the peoples of the world. On the contrary, America was founded to secure the liberty and sovereignty of the American people. Our Declaration of Independence staked a claim on behalf of the American people, which is rooted in their universal human equality, but depends upon them to actualize it. This is everything that globalism is not.

The globalist mind desires destruction of borders, elimination of American exceptionalism, the instituting of “global citizenship,” and ultimately, the annihilation of differences among cultures. At its core, globalism is collectivist and driven solely by an overarching ideology that does not distinguish between universal oughts and particular political realities. It does not allow for individuality, and just like Gerson’s rhetorical appeal, it relies on evoking emotions based on a deeply false perception of what can be accomplished in the here and now.

Inadvertently, Gerson manages to pose an important question: What does it mean to be American? In order even to partially answer that question, we first have to affirm there is such a thing as an American identity and that it is something unique and distinct from other identities. “Being American” has to entail some difference between a citizen who belongs to another nation, or is an apostle of the foundational principles of another nation. If Gerson wishes to protect and preserve American identity, since Trump is supposedly eroding it, then a good start would be to not speak in favor of globalism.

But this is the name of the intellectual game today: contradiction. The more theoretical contradictions you pile up, the more confused the consumers of media will be. The people will have a harder time recognizing a false argument, and the resulting confusion will only be appear to be untangled by an appeal to emotion, which may result in anger or sympathy. It’s an interesting strategy for a guy who also likes to accuse Trump of demagoguery.

Whatever may be the outcome of these faux debates, it must be recognized and acknowledged that we are facing a collective crisis of language. Every word means something other than what it claims to mean, and Gerson’s attempt to equate American ideals with globalism is just the latest example. As consumers of media, it is up to us to be vigilant and skeptical of what we see and read. And we have every reason to expect that in politics, especially, there is a massive effort underfoot to confuse and dupe us about the meaning of America.

It is perfectly fine to disagree with Trump and his approach to diplomacy. Arguments about the wisdom or the lack of wisdom regarding a particular policy are legitimate and fair. But such disagreements and the arguments supporting them have to be grounded in real claims about the meaning of Americanism. Gerson’s argument falls flat because of its misrepresentation both of Trump and of the meaning of globalist ideology.

More than an attack on Trump, Gerson’s article is an example of shoddy research, weak argumentation, and just plain bad journalism.

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America • American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • History • political philosophy • Post • Progressivism • Religion and Society • The Constitution

American Happiness, Divine Damnation?

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As Passover and Easter near, the heart and mind turn more intently to questions of the divine. How do we in the grubby business of politics relate to the most transcendent and the most high? A good place to start is Vice President Mike Pence’s tried and true response to questions about who he is: “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” Where is “American”? some critics sneered.

Pence could readily reply, America was there all the time—implicit in Republican at the least—for he’s surely not a Tory conservative.

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America notes that Americans confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds, while “religious zeal constantly warms itself at the hearth of patriotism.”

We live today in a different America, one which those who have preferred Tocqueville to the founders and Lincoln seem unable to grasp. Patrick Deneen’s recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, exemplifies how a dramatic change of worldview arises from what appears a mere academic dispute.

At the heart of this dispute is our regard for ourselves as Americans and as believers. It’s not primarily about Trump, though he does figure in.

An Ignoble Lie?
Deneen has just published a version of his provocative thesis in the April issue of First Things, “The Ignoble Lie.” Here he turns the current rage over inequality into a meditation on the absence of Christian understanding and charity. It’s readily evident from his writing and ability to reach into the souls of his students at Georgetown and now Notre Dame how marvelous a teacher he is. (I’ve known him over the years.)

The core of his argument can be fairly encapsulated in this paragraph:

So long as liberalism [meaning the Declaration of Independence’s “stress upon individual rights and liberty”] was not fully itself—so long as liberalism was corrected and even governed by Christianity—a working social contract was possible. For Christianity, difference is ordered toward unity. For liberalism, unity is valued insofar as it promotes difference. The American experiment blended and confused these two understandings, but just enough to make it a going concern. The balance was always imperfect, leaving out too many, always unstably oscillating between quasi-theological evocation of unity and deracinated individualism. But it seemed viable for nearly 250 years. The recent steep decline of religious faith and Christian moral norms is regarded by many as marking the triumph of liberalism, and so, in a sense, it is. Today our unity is understood almost entirely in the light of our differences. We come together—to celebrate diversity. And today, the celebration of diversity ends up serving as a mask for power and inequality.

America is a success, Deneen appears to be saying, because of its schizophrenia. Liberalism in its classical sense has finally been revealed as liberalism in its contemporary sense. He must concur with Judge Robert Bork’s incredible assertion in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), that “the street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made.”

In fact, Deneen’s argument refurbishes older ones by Thomas Pangle and Allan Bloom. Briefly stated: The inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, John Locke, was a student of Thomas Hobbes, and their nihilism, which rivals that of Friedrich Nietzsche, is what has exploded today. It took 250 years, but it’s here staring us in our looney faces.

Deneen adds the Christian element, but it’s the same old story about the anti-tyrannical Declaration and its talk of “the pursuit of happiness” leading to contemporary nihilism. The “lie” that Deneen wants to hold in contempt is not only the famous one from Socrates about souls of different metal but also the one about the truth and justice of the American Founding.

Moreover, Deneen cleverly turns his version of America into one involving current political controversies: “Elites denounce the ‘populists’ while denying that they have fomented a class war. They deplore the obnoxiousness of Donald Trump, perfectly obtuse of their complicity in his ascent.”

Deneen is not without his fellow Catholic critics. Robert Reilly has exposed his errors about the Founding in a series of essays. Though his most thorough treatment comes in the Claremont Review of Books, the most moving passage occurs in his two-part follow-up to Deneen’s reply:

My oldest son, now serving as a newly minted Marine Corps officer, had a course in American political thought in his last semester at a Catholic university. The exclusive point of view presented by the professor was the same as Deneen’s, though he was not mentioned in the course. My son struggled as best he could against this, but the professor prevailed in convincing the majority of students that the Founding was grievously, morally faulty….

How would [Deneen] like to tell a class of Marine Corps second lieutenants that the country to which they have just pledged their lives and honor is morally base at its origins?

Reilly’s bluntness should be contrasted with Eric Cohen’s eloquent review of Deneen’s book in the Weekly Standard. Cohen portrays Deneen’s horror at “the cultural depravations all around us, from collapsing birthrates to ecological deterioration, from broken communities plagued by opioid addiction to massive governmental and personal debt, from tween sexting to the collapse of liberal education.” Blame modernity and the American Founders!

Of note are where Cohen agrees and how he disagrees with Deneen: He chides Deneen for “perhaps miss[ing] an opportunity to contribute to the renewal of a realistic version of Burkean conservatism, which he rightly seeks and which this era sorely needs.” Reconstructing liberalism need not, joining Deneen, lead to “the false hope of Trumpism.”

What Cohen, with Deneen, has done is to expose conservatism’s current intellectual weaknesses: embracing Burke, renouncing Jefferson (going back to Russell Kirk); rejecting modernity but somehow still defending religious liberty, while suppressing discussion of slavery; and failing to see Trump’s patriotism as the best political means of preserving freedom and political virtue, disparaging political correctness, and repudiating a conservatism of sanctimony. These critics acknowledge nothing about the Progressive revolution that repudiated both the restraint of the founding and religious liberty. The political revival starts with speech that has been missing for decades.

As for religious speech, the Lord’s Prayer presents the tension: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . .” That is the earthly challenge for the Christian, which is captured in the American Founding. It still provides not merely the best but the only hope.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

Image credit: Thomas Jefferson drafting Declaration of Independence; painting by N.C. Wyeth/Bettmann

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Administrative State • Big Media • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Democrats • Education • Law and Order • political philosophy • Post • Progressivism • self-government • The Culture

A Serious Note on ‘The Monopoly on Force’

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This year in the United States more than 35,000 people likely will die and more than 2 million people likely will be injured or disabled in road crashes. Of the people killed in road crashes, nearly 8,000 will be killed in crashes involving drivers ages 16- to 20-years-old.

Despite the high cost in life and limb, few question the social utility of driving a car by the age of 16, although it is well documented that adolescent brains cannot assess risk or control impulses. Americans today highly value the mobility of teenagers. Most Americans, still prizing independence in young men and women, will bear the risk of that independence.

When it comes to the use of force, a good many people believe—or will signal the belief (which is not the same as actually believing)—that the state ought to have a monopoly on the use of force, leaving no room for individual gun ownership, except as an atavism.

These beliefs share a kinship with beliefs that the state is fundamentally about force, such as those expressed by John C. Calhoun or Noam Chomsky (who have more in common than meets the eye), and are alien to the consent described in the Declaration of Independence. These misguided people have inverted the conditions of freedom, thinking the arc of History bends towards justice, but consent could bend just about anywhere. They forget the principles of the American founding: justice—“just government”—is derivative of consent, not the other way around.

Most Americans have been taught the fundamentals of this wrongheaded idea by the time they finish elementary school. Most basic civics classes teach that a “monopoly on force” is a defining feature of a functioning state. The principle is reinforced by their experience, as their schools respond to security issues with “lockdowns” and the ubiquitous command to passivity in the face of danger, “shelter in place.”

The opinions of family and neighbors, grown in the fertile ground of a bourgeois life with a low risk of violence, augment this. Antecedents to H.G. Wells’ docile and naïve Eloi, they cannot understand why always trusting someone else to defend you is not a safe and common sense arrangement. Interestingly—perhaps an antecedent to Wells’ Morlocks, who turn out to be the smarter of the two human descendants—in tough neighborhoods across America, one of the first of life’s lessons is there is one person you can count on to defend you . . . you.

For those who share the homogenized and ossifying opinions of the elite institutions, the idea that government might not control itself seems farfetched. They are more worried that government might not control those for whom the opinions of elite classes are not catching on. When the permanent state shares your political beliefs on all fundamental issues, its monopoly on force feels like—but only feels like—your monopoly on force. This explains the stridency of gun control opinions. which are put forth as an insult: “Fuck your thoughts and prayers.” This is not an opinion that asks for your trust; they don’t plan on needing it.

Maybe another angle on the discussion—if you call what is going on “discussion”—is rather than to emphasize the hardware, the arms, emphasize the man. That is, emphasize the importance of the principle on which the right to bear arms is derived: consent.

One can’t make an agreement if one party has no means to enforce it. Similarly, a people cannot give political consent without retaining the right to withdraw consent, in the event that consent is irreparably abused. This implies the use of force. It is contradictory to consent to government—to ruling oneself—and not also to have the right to defend that consent, if necessary.

Tragically, there is a price being paid for the intersection of this principle of consent with the descent into madness of a society that in too many places has cut ties with civilization. It may be small comfort to people that it is a far smaller price than the price paid for the practice of teenage driving. People routinely exaggerate remote risks that are disturbing, and understate risks that while imminent they wish to be remote in their minds. Americans value self-government and consent, which they instinctively realize is tied up with the right to bear arms. We hear a lot about the NRA bending the legislature. Truth is, the NRA wouldn’t get far without the American people.

Americans know the risks, and are willing to mitigate them, but not at the expense of the principle.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • political philosophy • Post

None of Us is Conservative

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After the most recent and disappointing budget deal, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asked his fellow Republicans on Twitter: “Are we to be conservative all the time, or only when we’re in the minority?” His point is well taken. Republicans did not do well by their stated principles. But Paul’s comment, specifically the use of the word “conservative,” points to a deeper problem.

In one sense he is right; Republicans do not appear very conservative right now. In another he is wrong; they were not conservative when they were a minority either. The fact is, none of us is conservative today and we need to come to grips with this.

Regular readers of American Greatness know the uselessness of the word “conservative” is a common theme here. We tend to agree that “conservatism” today is intellectually bankrupt, ineffectual, and misguided. In fact, it is a large reason, if not the reason, for American Greatness. The editors made this clear in their “Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement.” Mike Sabo hammers the theme often and to great effect (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here among other places). Managing Editor Ben Boychuk has made the point in his regular column in the Sacramento Bee.

But while these arguments are good and well made, they differ from what I have to say here. It is not just that modern conservatives are weak, ineffectual, and misguided (though they are). To be conservative implies that one looks to history, not the future, as the firmest foundation upon which to stand in political life. It implies one is skeptical that change is always for the better and instead values the known quantity of tradition. While people differ about what they see conservatism to be conserving, conservatism implies that what one wishes to conserve is already in hand in some manner as part of the status quo. Progress is too forward looking for conservatives and revolution too uncertain. The word “conservative” is thus meaningless today because being conservative is impossible. As things stand, the status quo is progressive, which is not conservative, and the reaction to the status quo is revolutionary, which is also not conservative.

I am not the first to make this point. Larry Arnn hinted at it last year at CPAC when he compared American conservatism to a fight to restore something that is in crisis. In other words, American conservatism, if it is American, must be revolutionary. When it isn’t marked by this revolutionary spirit, the kind of conservatism we get, as Julie Ponzi noted in her piece “Making Politics Possible Again,” is just a sort of low-grade progressivism:

Today’s conservatism indeed resembles the leftism of yesterday. It seems more dedicated to conserving the status quo or a kind of decorum than to conserving the American way of life. It seems dedicated to the preservation of even a status quo that took us (without consent) away from our original design of government. “Conservative” is then a muddle and a puzzle, and not even a very appealing word in the American context.

In essence, “conservatives” today are really attempting to preserve the progressive march of history.

Obviously, some well-meaning people still call themselves “conservatives,” but in so doing they reveal a certain naiveté about their method of approaching politics. As Frank Cannon pointed out recently,

progressives have successfully captured the vast majority of our nation’s institutions, distorting them to serve their own ends. Although many of these institutions—academia, the media, entertainment, legal and judicial—once stood above politics in serving all Americans, most have now surrendered to progressives’ relentless push to turn every area of civil society into a propaganda arm for their politics.

Everything I have seen supports this claim.

All of the institutions required for self-government have already been lost to progressivism. Our schools have been taken over by “critical pedagogy,” pushing a neo-Marxist, New Left view of the world and of God. Almost every government action is taken or influenced by a permanent, unelected administrative state. Most people in our government, elected or unelected, despise their deplorable countrymen. They have accepted the progressive view that the modern world is so complex that men are no longer capable of self-government. Expertise determines who rules, not consent. Our churches are largely full of social justice warriors, obsessed with “racial justice” and blessing abortion clinics. Heck, the Boy Scouts even accepts girls now.

What’s more, nearly every graduate of so-called higher education for the last 20 years has undoubtedly been conditioned to accept all of these things not only as normal but as a requirement of justice. Identity politics rules in the minds of almost all young people. In my experience, if you ask anyone under 35 today if we can view each other apart from our racial identity and sex (and sexual desire)—say, as individual human beings—they will look at you as if you are from another planet. Questioning expertise is akin to heresy. The idea that “all men are created equal” or that “governments are instituted among men to secure rights” is foreign to them. This problem is compounded by the twisted meaning of “equal” and “rights” in contemporary language. Most people have no notion of government by consent or separation of powers to preserve liberty. In short, there is hardly anything left of a republican regime to conserve in America today.

Other “conservatives” are not naïve to this. They know they are progressives. Like Woodrow Wilson, who acknowledged that he, as a progressive, was not substantially different from socialists except as a matter of pace, modern “conservatives” are just more timid and cautious progressives. As D.C. McAllister explains, the persistence of the NeverTrump movement exposes “certain established ‘conservatives’ as the progressive lightweights they’ve always been.”

President Trump seems to understand this. In a rather profound moment that horrified many “true conservatives” in 2016, he declared “this is the Republican Party; it’s not called the conservative party.” Elsewhere, he suggested if,

the United States of America is a land of laws, and Americans value the rule of law above all. Why…has our Congress allowed the president and the executive branch to take on near-dictatorial power? How is it that we have a president who will not enforce some laws and who encourages faceless, nameless bureaucrats to manage public lands as if the millions of acres were owned by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy?

In other words, America really isn’t a republican regime anymore. Our task now is to restore a regime that is not operative. It is a big and hard task, but we the people can do it. As President Trump put it, “To change these circumstances,” we must “bring to Washington a president who will rein in the federal government and get Congress to do its job.” Recognizing our circumstances and predicament is essential to this task. Thankfully we have a president today who is fearlessly attempting to “cut back that vast hedge” that is suffocating the form and purpose of our government.

But doing this—fighting the administrative state in Washington and the leftists in the broader culture war—is not conservative. It is revolutionary. And it is deeply American. It always has been and it always will be.

Some call it “counter-revolutionary,” and in a sense this is correct. If one understands that sometime between 1870 and 1920 an influx of postmodern German idealism invaded American political-thought and led to a second American revolution, this makes sense. That invasion was a revolution, too. The original American regime was replaced by another regime in which the material, form, and purpose of government was at odds with a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Whether a third, still more radical and anti-American regime won out in the 1960s with the march of the New Left is an interesting question, but for practical political purposes it is irrelevant. American government has not been republican government for a long time. To restore our liberty, America today needs a reactionary, counterrevolution. Today we need to counter the bad revolution in American political thought that took us away from the permanent principles of our original American Revolution.

But in another sense, American republican government is simply revolutionary, always. Lincoln once argued there is an “eternal struggle between…two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.” He said,

[These] two principles…have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

The administrative state and the tyranny of the upside down world of the Left stem from the same tyrannical impulse Lincoln references. Such tyranny has been the standard governing principle of most regimes for most of human history; it rules over many men today; and it will rule over most men again in the future. The ongoing war against it is the true revolution and the true American spirit. It is terrifying and dangerous, but it is also exhilarating and, above all, worth it.

When we speak of enjoying “the benign influence of good laws under a free government” it sounds deceptively peaceful. But, of course, such opportunities are born of revolution and with backbone and they require “our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.” Now, as before, it requires two great things: divine providence and “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

There is no way to be a “conservative” in our present circumstances if conserving the status quo means conserving principles that violate our inherent rights as Americans and as a free people. Would be “conservatives” are thus left with what I am sure is an uncomfortable choice for them. It is the same choice for all of us: acquiesce to the supposed progressive march of history, or risk it all and stand and fight to restore republican government and American greatness.  

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America • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Free Speech • History • Post • race • Republicans • The Constitution • The Culture

King for a Day: The Greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On this day, which is no ordinary holiday for no ordinary man, let us speak a truth: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great American. He loved America, not because of the rightness of America, but because of the rights that were (and remain) so absolutely American: the right to protest for right, the right of freedom of assembly, the right of freedom of speech, the right of the freedom of the press.

King died for those rights, because he was denied his birthright; because he was born in an America that was half-slave, in the South, and anything but free, in the North; because the freedom the Constitution guaranteed was no guarantee of the right of blacks to vote in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and no reason for them to vote in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And yet, King never lost faith in America.

He gave America the last full measure of his devotion.

To those for whom that is not enough, to those for whom Dr. King’s sacrifices will never be enough because of his acts of adultery and plagiarism, I ask: Is his murder not enough to mollify your hatred? When will you let this champion of peace rest in peace?

He was a sinner, like every man, but he was no Everyman. He was a servant of God, but a slave to no man.

Like Abraham Lincoln, King was a leader fluent in the foundational texts of liberty: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the works of William Shakespeare, and the writings of the Founding Fathers. And, like Lincoln, King had his own burdens to bear. He carried them everywhere without complaint, though he had a right to complain about what we had done to our souls and our soil.

We had, after all, darkened and stained our land with rivers of blood drawn by the lash and repaid by the sword. We had perpetuated America’s original sin, and we had never bound up the nation’s wounds, even after the assassins’ bullets had felled our secular Abraham and our American King.

If ever there was a man with malice toward none, and with charity for all, it was King. He endured the full might and fury of the state. The FBI illegally wiretapped his calls and sent the recordings—the ones between King and his lovers—to his wife. The Bureau told him to kill himself. Other law enforcement officials did their best to kill his spirit. They fired water cannons at his supporters and unleashed attack dogs against his most devoted followers. They jailed him, repeatedly, too.

In turn, King armed himself with the arsenal of democracy. He appealed to the courts not to legislate, but to arbitrate. He approached legislators not to speechify, but to ratify. He asked the president not to needlessly deliberate, but to act with all deliberate speed.

He was a man of the Word, with a passion for upholding the true meaning of the words of one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. He countered physical force with soul force, because he knew—and it is a testament to the greatness of America—that he could awaken the goodness within the conscience of America.

The daybreak did not, however, come without significant toil and strain. It did not shine without blacks having to shelter themselves against a long nightmare of servitude and shame. It did not reveal itself without all Americans having to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

This was King’s dream of reconciliation.

It was a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It was a dream about the better angels of our nature. It was, in some respects, no dream at all; because King believed in the power of goodwill to triumph against people of ill will; because he summoned the will to match hate with love, until his march became America’s long walk to freedom; because he knew we had the will to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

It was no dream, then, that one of King’s harshest critics would become one of his most impressive converts. Such was the decency of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.

Such was the content of Buckley’s character that in a 1979 column he called for a gesture of recognition of King’s courage, of the galvanizing quality of a rhetoric that sought out a reification of the dream of brotherhood consistent with the ideals of the country, and a salute to a race of people greatly oppressed during much of U.S. history.

By choosing conviction over consistency, Buckley did the right thing for himself and the Right.

I salute Buckley for his humanity because it takes a big man—it takes a good man—to acknowledge when he is wrong.

Mindful of King’s mortal limits, and reverential toward his immortal urge to do God’s will, we must continue his work and work to ensure the legacy of his short life has a longevity that will outlive us all.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Harry Jaffa • Michael Anton • Post • Republicans • The Constitution • The Culture • The Left

How to Win Our (Un)Civil War

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Ken Masugi, whom I have known and respected since we met while studying under the late Harry Jaffa during President Reagan’s first term, thinks my recent articles betray a lack of understanding of the current crisis. In “The Rescue of Flight 93,” Masugi contends America is at an existential moment, what Jaffa would have called “a crisis of the regime,” wherein its very existence as a genuinely liberal democracy is under assault. The only principled and spirited response, he says, is to fight. He supports Donald Trump primarily because Trump is a fighter and opposes, or at least seems to oppose, those who seek to destroy American values. He fears that my recent writings for American Greatness do not convey a similar understanding of what is at stake.

I think Masugi misunderstands my argument. I did not take issue with his assessment of the moment we are in. Recognizing the seriousness of that moment, however, should also entail a serious examination of the nature of existential conflicts and crafting a serious plan for victory. My pieces were meant to draw attention to both issues.

Existential conflicts always involve a choice between uncompromisable alternatives. To use the Civil War conflict as an example, slavery was either wrong, and thus inconsistent with an American regime founded upon the idea that all men are created equal, or it was right, and hence the idea of human equality was not an essential feature of America. The smartest warriors in this battle, Lincoln and Calhoun, understood this and argued in those terms.

This argument could be settled only by the elimination of the other within the context of democratic argumentation. Calhoun’s ablest descendant, Stephen Douglas, sought to do this by making democratic choice—”popular sovereignty”—the lodestar of the regime. By making choice a higher principle than equality, Douglas thought he could gain sufficient public support in the North to place abolitionist sentiment on the course of ultimate extinction, thereby preserving the Union and maintaining slavery. Lincoln sought to deny this, contending that democratic choice could only be right if understood against the backdrop of human equality, a belief which meant that slavery must be considered to be immoral.

Lincoln sought to avoid war, in part, by tolerating and even sometimes speaking to what is now considered to be race prejudice, seeming to agree that there was something intolerable, for example, in miscegenation—particularly when his audience was of the sort that was vocal about such racial prejudice. He also sought to assuage the South by reminding them that the Constitution prevented a democratic majority from abolishing slavery where it existed without a constitutional amendment. Given the fact that amendments require ratification by three-fourths of the states, that effectively meant that it could only be abolished with the South’s own consent. But once the expansion of slavery was halted by a popular majority, it would be clear that slavery had been placed on the course of ultimate extinction and hence increasingly ambitious politicians from the South would cease to make slavery agitation a part of their political platforms

I believe that supporters of the Flight 93, “we are at war” narrative have failed to grasp the logical consequences of that stance. War means war, and victory in war means one’s opponents can no longer contest the field of battle. To win in a democratic sense, as Lincoln and Douglas sought to do, one must define one’s argument in such a way so that the victory one achieves is both total and lasting. That in turn means creating a coalition broader than those who already agree with all, or even most, of your own principles. Lincoln and Douglas both sought to do that. I do not see advocates of the Flight 93 position always arguing in ways that demonstrate they are cognizant of that fact.

Both Lincoln and Douglas strove to attract the votes of men who did not see the existential nature of the conflict and sought, instead, to avoid it. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not see our politics as a fight between good and evil. Their votes will determine which side, progressives or conservatives, wins the conflict. If we are in a Flight 93 moment, if we do need to fight to preserve American ideals, then it behooves conservatives to try to attract those people’s votes rather than to denigrate them as “squishes” or as other sorts of undesirables whose company we deign to keep. That requires more than shouting our own principles more loudly and more clearly. It means speaking in such a way that can appeal to these voters and invite them to be a part of our coalition.

That does not mean abandoning principle. It does mean understanding how to talk with and attract people who do not necessarily share your core premises. That in turn requires some degree of toleration, some degree of kindness, some degree of inclusion. Is your neighbor who thinks abortion ought to be legal in the first trimester but not thereafter, your enemy or a potential ally? Is your co-worker who thinks everyone should have decent health coverage but doesn’t think the government should run the health care system a squish or a potential convert? These are the questions I want us to ask and answer, as I think these are the questions that answering can help determine victory or defeat.

The alternative is more frightening. A political minority (and ours is a minority) can win an existential battle, but only by recourse to legal means to suppress one’s opponents’ basic rights. That is the specter I sought to raise in my essay The Flight 93 Decade. If you do not want to win by creating a new democratic supermajority, then political victory will require eliminating one’s opponents’ ability to politically organize. That in turn means the proscription of certain types of speech, the removal of certain political disputes from the political process, and, when challenged, the arrest of people who defy these edicts. This is what happens in cities and in nations who cannot resolve existential disputes peacefully. One cannot avoid this conclusion if one is serious about waging a war over existential questions.

The Civil War’s aftermath shows us how this transpires. The South’s decision to secede and Lincoln’s decision to go to war to maintain the Union meant America’s existential question would be settled on the battlefield, with bullets and not with ballots. The South’s defeat was followed by Reconstruction, which prevented white Southern majorities from re-entering the Union with full political rights until they had sworn fealty to the new political order. The three Reconstruction Era amendments permanently removed the question of slavery from political debate. The North won the existential conflict by forcibly destroying the ability of its foes to contest the field of democratic battle.

I do not think that Masugi or most advocates of the Flight 93 viewpoint want to do this and most understand that the battles, if they are to be won, will be won through through democratic politics. This will require the skill of a Lincoln not just to mobilize the 30 percent of Americans who do see conservative and American values under assault, but to add to them another 25 to 30 percent who may not see this conflict clearly but can see their values more clearly upheld by a conservative supermajority than by a progressive one.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt remade America by doing exactly this. He cunningly crafted a public New Deal that told conservative Democrats and once-Republican working-class voters that he was simply restoring the republic they always had supported. They believed him and gave him sweeping landslides in the 1932 and 1936 elections. After those elections, every ambitious politician knew that to relitigate the question of federal power was to court political annihilation. To this day even the most conservative politicians, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, will deny they seek to undermine the core regulatory and spending programs that the New Deal and its aftermath ushered into existence. That’s how you win an existential conflict through democratic means: even opponents who in their hearts might seek to overturn your order cannot say so openly.

I am an American and a conservative. I believe that all men, meaning all human beings, are created equal. I believe that this means all people ought to be able to live lives of their own choice, subject to the requirements that they do so of their own effort so far as possible and so long as they do not deny the rights of others so empowered and so limited to do likewise. I believe that the freedoms of the first amendment—the freedom to speak what you believe, to print what you believe, to worship God according to the dictates of your conscience, to organize politically to advance your views, and the right to petition your elected representatives to enact laws based on such views—are fundamental to a regime dedicated to freedom and human equality. I stand ready to fight to preserve that regime and those ideals for so long as I live. Everything I write should be understood against these fundamental beliefs.

Aristotle begins his classic work the Nicomachean Ethics by noting that every act aims at some good, and that the aim of strategy is victory. I hope by my writings to help Americans and conservatives to craft a strategy that not only aims at victory but achieves it. And I view Ken Masugi as I hope he views me, an ally in that battle.

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America • American Conservatism • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Elections • History • Identity Politics • Political Parties • political philosophy • Post • Progressivism • self-government • The Culture

The Rescue of Flight 93

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Henry Olsen is in the front rank of American political analysts. His involvement in practical politics plus the depth of his scholarship allow him to see and grapple with questions other conservatives overlook. His spiritedness and defiance of conventional thinking earned him a regular column at American Greatness, where his insights should be as appreciated as they are prescient.

To highlight one major Olsen insight: For years, he argued that Republicans needed to appeal more to working men and women, those who lack college degrees but are every bit as able—in many cases, perhaps, even more able—to understand their interests and govern themselves. For years, he rejected as politically tone-deaf the cookie-cutter, checklist conservatism that prioritized tax cuts and benefits to business. A recent C-SPAN conversation surveys his major views. His 2017 study of Ronald Reagan, “The Working Class Republican,” argued that Reagan was the first installment in the kind of transformed Republican Party America needs. Olsen’s Reagan is a far cry from the ideologue favored and parroted by many activists on the Right, whether social conservative, libertarian, or globalist.

Given these views, one might think that Olsen would welcome Trump as the Republican Party savior, but the facts are quite to the contrary. Olsen earlier this month expressed great skepticism for the “Flight 93” case for electing Trump: “We did not just have the Flight 93 Election. We are at the beginning of the Flight 93 Decade,” one as fraught as the violent 1850s before the Civil War.

Olsen is judicious (and imprecise) in assessing blame. “Neither side is wholly right about their wildest charges, but neither are both sides wholly wrong,” he writes. We can avoid a second Civil War if we can hope to find a bipartisan moderation—yet, he regrets, Democrats will not collude with Bill Kristol! (Kristol and former President Clinton adviser Bill Galston are already at work on an independent, “no-labels” approach that advances the value of results.)

Has Olsen painted himself into an apolitical corner? Is he a partisan of Stephen Douglas (not that Douglas lacked virtues), at a Lincolnian moment? In other words, is he looking for compromise where none can be made?

Misinterpreting the Declaration
The 1850s comparison is misplaced because Lincoln made the Declaration of Independence indispensable. He was willing to compromise on everything but that. Policy could be disputed, but the foundation of American politics is, and must remain, the
equal human dignity of all men, which is the foundation of self-government and the sovereignty of the people. Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, eagerly tried to discard it. But FDR was more clever and instead interpreted (or, rather, misinterpreted) the Declaration to co-opt it for his purposes of making Americans look to government to make them feel secure.

By trying to put contemporary politics in a broader context, Olsen ends up moderating not only Reagan but also Franklin Roosevelt. Americans’ fondness for FDR and their continued appreciation and acceptance of what Olsen calls “the public New Deal” is indisputable. It is visible even in such classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The FDR coalition at movie’s end rescues George Bailey (whom the heavens honor as the descendant of Tom Sawyer), “the richest man in town.” And FDR also appears at the end of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” though it is hard to imagine today’s liberals feeling such affection and admiration for the American flag.

The real Roosevelt (as opposed to the idealized version of Reagan and the movies) whatever you think of his policies, had a partisan mean streak in him that makes Trump’s self-aggrandizing ways look humble by comparison. FDR in his First Inaugural address compared himself to Jesus Christ and anointed himself as commander in chief, with citizens as conscripts in his personal army. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt characterized 1920s Republicans as fascists. But Olsen, like Reagan (and maybe Trump), wants to work with winners and shuns trying to make something out of the underappreciated Calvin Coolidge or the misunderstood Herbert Hoover.

Olsen embraces FDR for his practical compassion, which he claims is Reagan’s as well. That’s what shapes Olsen’s sensible view of Reagan’s political touch. In his review of Olsen’s book, Steven Hayward quotes Reagan from a speech in October 1988:

You see, the secret is that when the Left took over the Democratic Party, we took over the Republican Party. We made the Republican Party into the party of working people; the family; the neighborhood; the defense of freedom; and, yes, the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to “one nation under God.” So, you see, the party that so many of us grew up with still exists, except that today it’s called the Republican Party. 

The Current Crisis
Finally, Olsen is oddly at his weakest in the way he uses current controversies. In addition to the evidence of division from his Pew Poll observations, Pew offers evidence of agreement, as well: “
A majority (54%) of white Americans and four in ten (40%) Hispanics believe Trump is looking out for them at least somewhat well, but only 11% of black Americans agree.”

He derides the new tax law as “Romneyism unmodified”—as though this piece were the whole of Trump’s agenda. On the candidacy of Roy Moore (someone who did not meet my expectations when I heard him speak, decades ago) he appears stuck in conventional views when he maintains, “there was a time when his rhetoric alone would have pushed him out.” But why is Moore speaking at all? About the Reconstruction amendments that are now interpreted to protect abortion and gay rights, about falling monuments to Southern generals that earn significant public support across the board, about dizzying changes on fundamental moral issues?

The crisis that confronts us today differs from those facing FDR or Reagan. The political issues raised by the Left rest on the advancement and honoring of private passions that were previously left private and were never intended to be the subject of democratic politics. That radical shift accounts for political divisions becoming unbridgeable. To counter, Roy Moore (among others) advances private religious belief. Against such deep-seated private passions, Olsen’s call for moderation is unpersuasive.

The Trouble with Tolerance
Olsen repeats this confusion in his more 
recent appeal for tolerance. Would that more Americans agreed that the first three of the four American character virtues he calls upon us to reinvigorate are virtues worthy of emulation: self-reliance, risk-taking, and “community-mindedness.” The fourth virtue he calls us to support is a robust tolerance, which is more an intellectual virtue than a virtue of habit. “We must remember,” he writes, “that America was never, and today definitely is not, a people bound together by shared blood, common cultural customs, or even religious beliefs. Of course, we should hold things in common, most especially our devotion to our ideal of measured liberty, but there are many that we do not share. Tolerance of different viewpoints or views of the good is difficult: ‘everyone is orthodox unto themselves,’ said Locke.”

But Olsen begs key questions here: self-reliance, risk-taking, and “community-mindedness” all have a basis in Tocqueville’s “Anglo-American” culture, which contains the twin principles of Western Civilization: philosophy or reason, and revelation or Scripture. That means there are limits to what we should tolerate. Moreover, toleration follows naturally in a country that rejected a crabbed interpretation of Olsen’s other virtues. This has been to an astounding degree a live and let live country. Up to a point.

In his “Time for Choosing” speech, which Olsen quotes, Reagan responded to an earlier version of this challenge during the Cold War under the threat of nuclear destruction and soul-destroying Communism: “Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.’”

At the heart of today’s crisis is the failure to see the connection between our spiritual side and our American side. In place of such a fundamental question, we have instead the dogma of sex, race, and ethnic identity politics. Mere toleration is insufficient for these partisans. It is true but insufficient to say that “American citizenship is ultimately based on shared ideals.” (And, as Olsen knows, they are shared because they are true, not true because they are shared.) Olsen is rooted in the Reagan California we both knew in the 1980s. Back then, waving a Mexican flag at Dodger Stadium when Fernando Valenzuela pitched a game exhibited pride, not provocation. We are no longer in Reagan’s America—betrayed, I would say, by his successors both Democrat and Republican.

By making the debate between Democrats and Republicans, Olsen has simplified the conflict, which really is between the establishments of both parties, on one side, and Trump. To revert to Madison’s language, watch out for the faction, the majority faction. Who will defend the people’s rights against uncontrolled majorities, in particular, those who pursued disastrous trade, immigration, and war policies, enforced by an ever more stifling political correctness that threatens to stamp out their sovereignty in the name of tolerance?

Exposing the majority factions at hand, along with the need to redefine what an American is, lay at the heart of critical periods in American politics, the 1790s, the 1850s, and it seems today: So we hear monocrat, mobocrat; tyrant, traitor; elitist, deplorable. FDR referred to the most stubborn of his opponents as Tories. Harry Truman asserted a conspiracy of Nazis, racists, and plutocrats hid behind the Republican Party’s banners. No Republican presidential candidate has come close to offering such denunciations of their Democrat rivals.

“One Allegiance That Unites Us All”
Trump is the first modern Republican to return partisan fire in kind—and then some. No wonder those accustomed to GOP pushovers are shocked. But isn’t Trump, besides his remarkable winning coalition, in the best position to satisfy Olsen’s demands for real toleration and consensus? After all, he is the least conservative Republican presidential candidate since Gerald Ford, with his ambitions to renew infrastructure and health care. With a cabinet as conservative as his, he can compromise from strength when pressed.

The amazing candidate Trump is not out of surprises. The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker,” the president told an audience of conservative activists earlier this year. “There is one allegiance that unites us all, and that is to America. America—it’s the allegiance to America.”

In this, Trump echoes Abraham Lincoln: “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”

As for those who have a visceral disdain for the 45th president: Can Americans be this frivolous in choosing their future?

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

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America • American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Elections • Harry Jaffa • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post • Republicans

Be Better Than Evan McMullin

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Making failed presidential candidate and radical NeverTrumper Evan McMullin look like the smart guy in the room is quite a trick. But commentators on one of McMullin’s recent tweets have done just that.

Defending his pal Jennifer Rubin, McMullin offered his definition of conservatism:

There is a lot to criticize here—a general imprecision in language and the promotion of principles unconnected to present realities are all fair game. But in their zeal to reject McMullin’s epic levels of pomposity and ignorance, some of his critics have gone too far.

The conservative site Twitchy pounced on McMullin’s tweet, arguing that he has mistaken America’s Founding principles with those of Revolutionary France. How so? Because McMullin mentions “equality” and “liberty,” which are supposedly alien to the American political tradition.

Here are some of the critiques:

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” after all was the motto of Robespierre and the Jacobin revolutionaries, right?

In fact, this is a complete misreading of the American Founding. Equality and liberty and the relationship between those two principles are central to understanding America—before, during, and after the American Revolution. Rejecting these principles because some people have misunderstood or misapplied them is exactly the wrong thing to do. Why cede such noble ideas to the likes of Evan McMullin?

Just take a look at the Declaration of Independence, whose first “self-evident” truth is that “all men are created equal.” In fact, eight state constitutions at the time of the founding featured similar language on equality. It is impossible to make sense of our revolution without grappling with the importance of this idea.

The Founders understood that whatever our particular differences may be—race, talents, religion, intellectual potential—all human beings, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings, are equal in that sense of being like creatures. It is unequal to the dignity of adult human beings that they should be ruled without their consent, so their equality demands government by consent.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter shortly before he died: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” The divine right of kings and rule by an unaccountable administrative state are both affronts to our natural equality.

Reconciling Equality and Liberty
Once we understand equality in this light, we cannot escape the importance of liberty in the philosophical and moral architecture of the American Founding. After all, the central “unalienable” natural right listed in the Declaration is “liberty.”

The Founders’ conception of liberty, as Thomas G. West has argued, was bound “within the moral limits of the law of nature”—a law that man cannot transgress without penalties that will be meted out by his Creator in the next world.

Modern sexual ethics based on a radically autonomous view of human action and the idea that we have the “freedom” to do whatever we wish as long we don’t harm anyone else—the “no harm” principle that is a cornerstone of libertarianism—are equally rejections of the Founders’ teachings. The difference between liberty and license is a difference in kind, not in degree.

Compare this to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. While the French Declaration also deals in universal principles, in contrast to the American Declaration of Independence, those principles are largely unconnected to man as he actually lives. They are not drawn from observations about the nature of things as they are.

The French Declaration casts aside prudence (asserting that “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments”), seeks to obliterate all of the people’s traditions, bases the authority of law on “general will” rather than seeking to draw out the enlightened consent of the governed, and rejects liberty rightly understood (“every citizen summoned or apprehended in pursuance of the law must obey immediately; he renders himself culpable by resistance”).

It’s no wonder that the American Founders were generally skeptical of the French Revolution. Even Jefferson began to have doubts as the guillotines continued to fall without any sign of stopping.

Abandoning—and Recovering—First Principles 
However much traditionalists, paleoconservatives, Southern Agrarians, and other types of conservatives continue to argue that appeals to natural rights are 
the great evil to be avoided, these principles are not the problem. They do not account for the rise of our current crisis of liberalism or for the wrong turns our nation has taken.

Instead, our problems arise from a failure to defend equality and liberty as our Founders understood them. Our problem is that we have permitted the invoking of incoherent notions of rights that make no room for prudence. In this general thoughtlessness, we come dangerously close to demanding principles that resemble those of the French Revolution.

Human beings cannot function barring appeals to universals. Think of the miracle of the common noun, for instance. What does it mean to say one is sitting in a “chair” if there is no such thing in the abstract as “chairness”? We only understand each other because of observed reality and the necessity for a universal concept of chairs upon which humans can sit. Chairs may come in many shapes and sizes and varieties of luxury, but in their essential nature, they all share the purpose for which they were created.    

The Evan McMullins of the world are not wrong on the face of it in their appeals to liberty and equality. They are wrong about what those principles are and what they mean for us today.

Supposing that a caricatured version of the 1980 Republican Party platform filtered through John Rawls’ teachings is the embodiment of these central American principles is an embarrassing failure to grapple seriously with American ideas. To toss a favorite phrase of theirs back at them, “It’s not who we are.”  It has never been.

To defend the principles of the American Founding, we must first know what they are and then connect them to policies that speak to the circumstances we are facing today. Evan McMullin decidedly does not. Sadly, neither do many of his critics. We have to be better than both.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Law and Order • political philosophy • Post • self-government • The Constitution

Founding Principles Rhetoric Falls Flat

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A common solution politicians and intellectuals on the Right offer to fix what ails our politics is to return to the principles of the American Founding. But the rhetoric the Right usually employs falls far short of this lofty goal.

Small-government rhetoric that has taken over the Right in recent decades, as I have written before, confuses the tenets of anti-statist libertarianism with the Founders’ project of instilling a robust republicanism designed to secure the common good.

A related problem is the lack of concern for the political. There is a marked tendency on the Right to confuse politics with the academy, thinking that a coherent professorial presentation of principles (which itself is rare) is sufficient. But blackboard “conservatism” just won’t cut it.

Citing principles without considering our political-psychological conditions—our increasing individualism, our lust for equality of conditions, and the feminization of men—is useless at best and can even help to secure the ultimate victory of modern liberalism at worst.

We need to be aware that we live in an age defined by a neglect of duties and a suffocating individualism in which we tend to cut off all connections to the world outside our heads. Think of the growing number of single Americans who work from home, have Amazon deliver groceries to their front doors, binge watch Netflix over the weekend, and don’t attend any religious services.

Being mindful of our present discontents would alter the Right’s current rhetorical tactics in significant ways. Take the principle of equality, which is the foundational moral and political principle upon which the American regime rests. Equality rightly understood means that since God has not appointed natural rulers over men, just political authority rests only upon the consent of the governed.

But making a straight appeal to the principle that all men are created equal today can too easily devolve into a lust for equality of conditions.

From gay marriage to having women serve in frontline positions in the military, liberals on the Left (and those ostensibly on the Right) wrap every new radical initiative in the democratic cloak of equality. As Barack Obama said on the heels of the Obergefell decision, the “bedrock principle that we are all created equal” was vindicated with the Supreme Court’s recognition “that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality.”

With this in mind, we should talk about equality instead as the duty government has to extend the equal protection of the laws to everyone who falls under its jurisdiction.  

The principle of equal protection, after all, is ensconced in two separate places in the Constitution—in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Though some on the Right mistakenly think that equal protection is about anti-discrimination, originally understood the clause is about protecting all persons from the unequal treatment of government. In other words, government has an obligation to protect all citizens equally. As law professor Christopher R. Green has argued, equal protection “imposes a duty on each state to protect all persons and property within its jurisdiction from violence and to enforce their rights through the court system.”

From the tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police stations across our nation to the epidemic of groups of violent teenagers roaming the streets in many of our major cities, speaking of equality as the obligation of government to do its job and protect all citizens equally would be a welcome response to the negative trends in our society.

Just consider the ridiculous acquittal of the illegal immigrant who shot Kate Steinle to death in the sanctuary city of San Francisco and the response that case generated. The failure of the Left to uphold equality under the law is an indication of the flippant disregard of the good of the communities many of them represent. Quite simply, we live in an age defined by the lack of concern for the rule of law.

It is imperative that the Right correctly diagnose our present maladies. They cannot simply make blanket appeals to principles without an awareness of the political circumstances of our times. Empty appeals to another “Morning in America” won’t do the job.

They need to follow the example of past statesmen such as Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln, who understood the tendencies of their times and spoke with a view to combating and not inflaming them.

In the Declaration of Independence the Founders focused on securing rights rather than detailing duties not because they were radical egalitarians preparing the way for modern liberalism but because George III was guilty of violating their right to self government. Duties to family, country, and God in their time were taken for granted. Being “morally and politically wise men,” they needed to lean heavily on the side of rights because that’s what the circumstances dictated.

Today a focus on duties is as important as it was for the Founders to focus on rights in 1776.

As Winston Churchill once wrote, “The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” The Right should follow Churchill’s advice.

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Hollywood • Movies • Post • the family

The Tension Between Family and Natural Rights in “Coco”

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“Coco” is the kind of family film that ought to cause even Hollywood skeptics to fall in love with the movies again. It advertises that it’s a family movie from the trailer all the way to the conclusion—after a climax that will make more than a few people cry.

The animated feature is already a big hit and its commercial success is only growing. Its popularity probably speaks to certain anxieties and fantasies about the future of the family, which is endangered in ways we’re still not ready to acknowledge as a society. And that’s all to the good—the movies are our primary form of coming to grips with fears and ideas as a society.

We should praise the film, but in so doing, let us not forget to also examine its ideas. Let’s start with the obvious and the startling.

“Coco” is the adventure of one Mexican boy and his family on the feast of the Day of the Dead, when the the living are said to commune with their dead relatives. This emphasis on the pull of family extending over generations and even reaching back into a past before our birth, recalls an American innovation of Christianity, the Mormons. In both cases, family is said to be so important that it’s forever. The afterlife is family life. Is there something about a relatively rootless America that makes us yearn for some transcendental connection to our past?

This recalls another Christian idea, that marriage is, as the priest would say, “ ’til death do you part.” Today, in America as well as in other prosperous Western countries, that’s also becoming a thing of the past. Easy divorce is ubiquitous. But in “Coco” not even death can part the family. The film also boasts some heroism, and tenderness about marriage as the foundation of family. When it comes to extreme cures for loneliness, it’s hard to get more serious than this kind of permanent and timeless connection as expressed in “Coco.”

Even the title serendipitously furthers this end. Disney-Pixar must have known it could not trademark the Mexican feast of “the Day of the Dead,” so the megacorporation chose something else—the trademark being essential to its interest in making money from film merchandising until kingdom come. Hence the easily trademarkable “Coco,” which is also the name of our protagonist’s dying great-grandmother. The whole family has to learn about its past in order to stay together. And thereby the title emphasizes yet another urgent need in our increasingly rootless and transient society: the need to learn to come to terms with death.

As for the family itself, remember, folks, this is south of the border, where everyone seems to take a matriarch for granted. Multiple generations live together under one roof. Though uncommon in America, this speaks to an irrepressible human longing: to live in the element of love.

The plot of “Coco” is simple, but it presents the tension that besets our desire to live in the element of love in a free and open society. Miguel, the protagonist of this family of cobblers, wants to follow his own particular dream of becoming a music star against the strenuous and uncomprehending refusals of the family matriarch. Eventually he comes to appreciate her warnings as he comes to learn his dream is actually a nightmare. Unlike most Hollywood family comedies, this is not the predictable story of parents apologizing abjectly to their children for refusing to see the world as the young generation wants to change it. Nor is it about independence understood as abandoning family.

Instead in “Coco,” family is genuinely authoritative. The film depicts as dangerous the freedom to chase one’s dreams. This brings us to something obvious even in the trailers, but not readily noticed in most of the commentary: the American elements of the story come in for great criticism as hedonism. The boy gets himself into an adventure that threatens to kill him because he wants to imitate a music star, who also starred in movies, and who spends the afterlife in a very modern club, perpetually partying and doing concerts. This kind of immortality is shown to be specious and to advertise a paradise that does not exist except as death. When’s the last time a movie even suggested anything like that?

So far, so good, but in this process of making the family holy, what we used to call natural rights were forgotten. This is where we move from sociology to mythology. The moviemakers have stumbled onto something strange. Their political community functions as families who own their dead, such that anyone forgotten or without family is said to “die another death.” Suddenly, the immortality of the soul is lost and it’s not clear that all people are on an equal footing in terms of inherent dignity—dignity being something reserved or, even, “earned” only those who are not swallowed by oblivion because unloved.

That’s one form of justice. But is it a form of justice compatible with our own? This is a political understanding of the soul that cannot work within a modern society, but the moviemakers may be right that this is the extreme that our movement to another extreme has caused many people long for. The community gathers as a series of families, each caring for its own; whoever has been disowned or had no family is forgotten. The implications are not lost on the moviemakers, who include a joke about the problem of divorce—it will be embarrassing to the dead to visit several shrines for several families. American practice puts limits on this holiness of the family.

You might be asking: remembering the dead, souls in the afterlife, oblivion—where is God? That’s the other problem—this is an afterlife with no judgment. In a sense, that’s what we all want these days—not to be judged and found wanting, not to have to say the word “damned.” It’s hard to tell Christian stories—and it’s not much tried—but here we see the sociology and mythology clash in a failure of imagination. The afterlife is a resort, with some slums and some Vegas thrown in. Why bother dying?

Maybe this longing and this drive to make the family holy will lead us in a bad direction. This afterlife with no judgment leads us to learn some further things by implication. One is, this view of family belongs to a place with no civic culture; to a place where all you have, in Tom Wolfe’s phrase, is the call of family, of “going back to blood.” The writers seem acutely aware that in such a place artists, especially, would be punished—they’re naturally dubious inasmuch as they’re not primarily family men. That’s because myths as much as politics offer a public space away from the private space of the family. “Coco” glosses over and abstracts from that.

This exclusively private space where the adventure is set is also a place dominated by women. The musical and mythical parts of the story are dominated by men. Either way, the boy’s rebellion and his adventurous quest for music is insoluble in these terms. On the one hand, he voices an all-American opinion: family should support you. That’s love without conditions. Here the movie is quite astute about the real conditions of freedom. But is there really no limit to what family could plausibly support?

On the other hand, the family’s claim to being harmless and good, which we want to believe, leaves no room for human wickedness, except to blame male evil and disobedience. Notice that in the story females err only by loving and protecting too much; males, on the other hand, err only by rebelling against the women—rejecting home, ultimately. But the two things cannot be true at once. If a male must ever be obedient to the matriarch, what happens when she is in error through an excess of love? What can correct her?

The plot manages to save family, without damning unreliable men, by admitting that there is evil within family itself, in the form of forgotten secrets. What we get in disturbing the dead, so to speak, cannot be all good. We love our departed ones, but we cannot sanctify them. So this is the highest theme of the story, what the boy learns about his dead ancestors and therefore about how to become a man. It is woefully neglected, because it could not be solved in the terms of a love that is suffocating.

With “Coco,” Hollywood seems to have moved in a laudable direction, making it possible for a family film to have real depth and hold the attention of intelligent adults at the same time as they give pleasure to children. But it also reveals a radical problem. We love family and, in a regime whose institutions don’t seem to work, we ask too much of it. We’re tempted to abandon our natural rights and our immortal souls for a love that’s more visceral and more binding than the abstractions that fill up our public discourse.

We’re returning to an ancient warning, that love and law might turn out to be enemies, that family and citizenship are irreconcilable. Movies that show us these things are a public service—but only a first step. We need to figure out how to deal with these problems.

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • History • Post

Without Thanksgiving There is No July 4th

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The rituals we observe, the company we keep, the memories we honor—these are the things that bind a people together and give them a sense of themselves. Our public holidays make the present a link between the past and the future. They are public displays of what a people values.

In America, we value gratitude. From our earliest days, Americans have taken time to give thanks and to do so publicly and together. We’ve done this since before there really was such a thing as an American. The earliest people to celebrate a day of thanks in the new world were barely even colonists, just settlers clinging desperately to an unforgiving shore, trying to scratch out a better life.

Some, such as the Puritan settlers of the Plymouth colony came fleeing persecution and eager to build a better, freer, more just society. Others, such as the early 17th century settlers of Virginia and Florida came for profit. But they all set aside public holidays when they ceased from their toil and gave thanks with one voice. Though Thanksgiving has strong religious roots it is not sectarian, it is American. And as such, the sharing of meals and declarations of gratitude promote civil harmony and national unity. It not only makes us who we are, it formed the national character that made America possible.  

It is worth noting that the first day of thanksgiving by settlers on these shores dates to 1607, nearly 170 years prior to the nation’s birth on July 4, 1776.  That is no coincidence. Giving thanks developed our culture of gratitude and responsibility, and it made the American Revolution not only possible but worthwhile.

The independence won was good and self-determination even better, but the Founders had more than that in view: their goal was a just regime. And a just regime requires as a precondition a moral people with a sense not only of rights but of responsibilities. Thankfulness creates a sense of duty and responsibility that is necessary to sustain a self-governing people. Any notion of rights that ignores or deemphasizes duty will degenerate into the grasping, self-regarding entitlement that is the enemy of free government—and thus of the very rights government is instituted to protect.

It is one thing to assert the importance—the self-evident truth—of mankind’s natural rights. It is quite another to assert the duty of the state to protect those rights. The Founders did both.

George Washington expressed this sentiment beautifully when he wrote to the Jewish Congregation at Newport in 1789 saying, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Americans are not defined by the particulars of their religious faith, but by their efforts at being good citizens. Gratitude and the concomitant sense both of duty and humility are essential. When we come together as a nation to give thanks we confess our dependence on God the creator and sustainer, and on each other as fellow citizens who together maintain our republic.

A national day of thanks is also a welcome balm to the alienating individualism that is endemic in our culture. This is because giving thanks necessarily points to something outside of, and above, ourselves. Thanks must, after all, have an object lest it become mere self-satisfaction. By separating one day each year on which we, with one accord, give thanks we proclaim what binds us together.

Simon and Garfunkel famously boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, hitchhiked to Saginaw, and counted the cars on the New Jersey turnpike looking for America. It turns out you don’t have to go that far—it’s here, it’s all around us, and it starts with thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a time when we remember and live out the mystic chords of memory that Lincoln evoked when he said to the country: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

We’ve been doing this for over four centuries. As we pause again this year to give thanks let’s  renew our own devotion to the great cause of America.

 

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Education • Greatness Agenda • political philosophy • Post • The Constitution • The Culture

Donald Trump and the Meaning of Com-Promise

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This week marked the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and it reminds us that the liberty we enjoy has purposes that transcend the things we desire for ourselves. Biblical, philosophic, and political yearnings join in American public life. Our sacrifices, our duties today, unite us as Americans to the heroes of 1776, four score and seven years before Lincoln immortalized the purpose of the Civil War.

Trapped as we are by the partisan and petty outbursts from politicians and media alike, we today often forget the enduring duty of Americans to safeguard and perpetuate the “new birth of freedom” that is our sacred inheritance.

One stalwart guardian of this legacy is the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University, Ohio, where I taught full-time 1994-1996 and where I have continued intermittently to teach. Ashbrook achieves this honor by providing a rigorously selected group of undergraduates a liberal arts education which emphasizes a serious attention  to politics. Graduates go on to careers in public service, education, law, media and a variety of important fields where this kind of knowledge is indispensable. One of these graduates is even Senior Editor for this publication.

In addition to a superb faculty of teacher-scholars, the students engage with leading academic and political figures who come to campus to share their insights. Past speakers have ranged from luminaries such as President Reagan, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to state and local government and business figures.

And these are just the undergraduate student-focused programs; other Ashbrook programs aim at high school history and government teachers, high school students, and at civic-spirited citizens in general.

All of this came into focus for me when I recently visited the Center, engaging with senior Ashbrook students on their theses and studies. When I gave my Colloquium talk on “Trump’s Coarse Correction of American Politics,” I knew they would test me, and I was not wrong.

Moreover, I was startled to discover that I was following one of the leading authors and teachers in American higher education, Eva Brann, a long-time favorite of mine, whom I had invited decades ago to speak at the Claremont Institute. She is the author of numerous books on Greek philosophy and the theory and practice of teaching college students. The former dean of the “great books college,” St. John’s, Annapolis, she is still going strong at 88. It is well worth your time to listen or to watch the talk at this link.

It is incongruous to pair the German immigrant classicist who grew up in Brooklyn with the bombastic billionaire President from Queens. But Brann’s beguiling presentation, “On Compromise,” in fact illuminated many features of Trump’s political aims, not the least as author of The Art of the Deal.

Brann proposes to clarify the meaning of a compromise—or “com”- “promise”— mutual promising. She asks us to consider the different compromises over slavery that preserved the Union but eventually failed to halt the Civil War. In returning to a political career, Lincoln denounced the compromises in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 by emphasizing the moral compromises these policies produced.

It seems that beneath their ordinary, easy-going, live-and-let-live ways, Americans have depths of being, which discerning statesmen like Lincoln are able to call upon at crucial moments. By appealing to the deeper wellsprings of the American soul, in their Christianity and in their enlightened political principles, such statesmen are able to recall to Americans their capacity to realize when they are being compromised and, upon realizing this, to choose a more uncompromising, if terrifying course.

In concluding her elaborate labyrinth of dilemmas and dead-ends, Brann surprises: “[O]ur compromises of convenience practically always compromise us in our principles—a condition best described as a secular original sin.” She sees a contradiction that, by contrast, liberal education must press: “Now is the time to go deep….” For “We are shallow. I think it’s an American blessing. We are un-mired.” She concludes, “Now is the time to descend—or maybe ascend—to those realms where the very compromises that make life livable leave the soul compromised.”

Is Brann, following a Southern trope, saying to Americans, “Bless your heart”? Or, more coarsely, “You can’t handle the (deep) truth?” (Not to suggest that other nations could, either.) But, we might ask, what was the Civil War then? Transcending the Democrats’ appeals to group interests, the first Republican President appealed to individual consciences, which alerted citizens to the ugly side of compromise. America could not forever avoid a civil war over its founding principles when they were so compromised.

American greatness requires energizing an inert America. Men and women need to feel like citizens again, having both rights and duties. We need to exercise rights to fight lethargy, government excesses, and the debilitating effects of political correctness.

Donald Trump makes for a good test case of Miss Brann’s meditation on compromise and her conclusions about the American surface and the deeper realms of the uncompromised soul. Consider this 30-year-old appreciation: “Trump, who believes that excess can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary.” This is now Never-Trumper George Will, as quoted in The Art of the Deal (1987). Never known as a deep person, Trump prizes the realm of what strikes the senses, but he “goes deep” as well.

As the most casual observer should realize, at the core of Trump’s ambition is the desire to “make America great again.” Greatness is not always visible, and as Aristotle remarked, “it is not so easy to see the beauty of the soul as it is with that of the body.”  

American greatness requires energizing an inert America. Men and women need to feel like citizens again, having both rights and duties. We need to exercise rights to fight lethargy, government excesses, and the debilitating effects of political correctness.

Indeed Trump became a politician to fight the compromises produced by bad deals and a “rigged system.” He denounced the compromises of both parties that excluded a great swath of Americans: open borders , trade deals that benefited one sector of the economy over others, and futile wars enjoying a bipartisan consensus (or, compromise). These bad compromises produced what the American founding generation knew as “majority faction”—a trampling of rights and an attack on the common good, in the name of the majority.

Such a majority is a kind of tyranny and it defeats the purpose of American government. An unjust majority would subvert individual liberty and the institutions of the government and all other authoritative institutions of American life—religious ones, businesses, unions, universities, and the media.

Just as Lincoln saw a growing “slave power” that would destroy America’s heart and soul so Trump denounces a “rigged system” that would make one part of the nation serve the other—signaling the overthrow of republican government. His inaugural address stated this injustice most frankly in a series of contrasts:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost…. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country…. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.

All his brash behavior (his conduct at the annual Al Smith dinner) and name-calling (“Crooked Hillary”) have the purpose of restoring this republicanism, even if in a crude Andrew Jackson sort of manner. Our constitutional separation of powers is not based upon compromise but on the transcendent political principle that ambition should be “made to counteract ambition.” Trump looks upon the Capital has a city filled with shrunken souls, who have nothing left to compromise. They no longer have any proper ambition, in other words. They all serve the same interest.

With the House and Senate in control of those who served “the Establishment,” Trump speaks directly to the people about football players and their unpatriotic gestures, about the preposterous “Rocket Man,” and about the duplicity of the media. In horror, many people have retreated to the more comfortable compromises called out by Brann. But in attacking the political compromises compromising America is Trump not engaged in Socratic civic education, albeit at a different level than that of Brann?

Whether President Trump has anything like Lincoln’s ability to draw out the greatness of the American soul still remains to be seen. The idea that he has depths in his own soul seems so shocking as to be repugnant, to many observers of politics. But it is absolutely clear that for many other Americans there is no return to those earlier quack nostrums of living within a compromised nation.

 

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