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

What Has Been Forgotten About our Common Sense Founding

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To the extent that America may be said to have a central idea, common sense is the key to understanding it.

America’s Founders used the term “common sense”with regularity, and common sense operated at every level during the Founding Era, starting with the American Revolution itself.

Indeed, Common Sense is the title of that famous book by Thomas Paine. It was so popular before that Revolution that it was read by virtually every literate American at the time, and it was read aloud to most of those who could not read. In the book, Paine subjected the idea of rule by monarchs to a common sense scrutiny, ridiculed monarchy, and convinced enough Americans they did not need a king—which made the Revolution a practical possibility. It is no exaggeration to say that without Thomas Paine, there could not have been an American Revolution because Paine uncovered that common sense sentiment in the hearts of Americans that yearns for and believes itself capable of self-rule.

And for all of our troubles and the problems that muddle our confidence, we Americans remain convinced of that today—thanks to Paine and to that spirit of self-government that has dominated the American narrative since the Revolution. Paine won that argument. It changed the way we think in America. If someone were to propose tomorrow that what America really needs is a king to substitute his judgment for our own about how we ought to be governed, ordinary American citizens would dismiss the idea as ridiculous and its proponent as some kind of an eccentric.

We wouldn’t give up our right to self-government to a king today, but perhaps we might still be deceived into giving away that power in other ways.

It is important to remember that, at the time, Paine could not have gotten away with publishing his book anywhere except in America. Monarchs in those days were accepted as a necessity, publishing a book that challenged the idea of monarchy could result in a separation of head from body.

The common sense idea that Americans are capable of self-rule, however, was something that Americans already felt in their bones and experienced on a daily basis before Paine articulated it. According to the Founders, the same common sense that Paine used to show we don’t need a king also made it clear that we can, and should (!), rule ourselves. The Founders put their faith in the common sense of their fellow Americans and in the proposition that we would continue to be a people who valued that sense and had pride in our ability to govern ourselves.

If we stop and think about it, we would realize that we constantly rely on our common sense to guide our actions and to make our choices every day. The same common sense that lets us  function in everyday life also makes us capable of functioning as citizens. No human being is born so superior to any of us that he has a natural right to rule us. The best we can expect is the best that we can do. So in the American system citizens rule and we get the kind of government that we deserve.

Common sense was also was a key idea on the level of the formal philosophy that shaped the Founders’ thinking. Just as a book titled Common Sense powered the Revolution, the Founders’ understanding of common sense was formed by a brilliant philosophical tradition that also went by the name of common sense. It was called “common sense realism.”

According to that view, common sense is what enables us to make sensible decisions and take sensible actions in our daily lives, and it is also what allows us to know right from wrong. Reason sets us apart from the beasts and the gods. We are all equals before the one true God who is the only being superior to us, and equals in front of beasts who do not share in our capacity for reason. When we decide to put money aside for a rainy day or when we recognize a dishonest action for what it is, we are exercising common sense. Common sense, then, is the attribute of human nature that makes us capable of being rational beings and moral agents.

For the Founders it is self-evident that we have unalienable rights to life and liberty because we are rational beings and moral agents, beings that are capable of giving reasons and understanding reasons. Our unalienable rights are ours because those rights are part of what it is to be a rational and moral being. The argument is easy to follow: we know by common sense that murder is wrong. That means we have an unalienable right to life.

If by now you have guessed that the phrases “unalienable rights” and “self-evident truths” in the Declaration of Independence came from that philosophical tradition, you are right.

Because we have common sense, the Founders believed, we are capable of ruling ourselves and because of the kind of creatures we are, any other kind of government is illegitimate. Only a system of self-rule that recognizes our unalienable rights can be legitimate.

The Founders provided for self-rule by means of a government populated by fellow citizens we select with our votes. Those selected to serve are our agents, not our rulers.

“It is the plain dictate of common sense,” Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “and the whole political system is founded on the idea, that the departments of government are the agents of the nation.” Marshall nicely summed up the Founders’ view.

Our task as citizens is to select people for public office wisely. For the Founders, common sense is essential to that all-important task. Of course, we can make mistakes in the leaders we choose, but we make mistakes and we also make good decisions all the time in our daily lives. The Founders’ system is designed with this fact in mind. Elections to political office are for a limited and specified number of years so that we can correct a mistaken choice when we discover we have made one.

So, common sense shows up everywhere in the Founding and at every level; in justifying getting rid of monarchical rule; as the attribute which makes self-rule possible; and as the defining feature of the formal philosophy that guided the thinking of the Founders.

What has been forgotten is that common sense is the key to understanding the Founders just as it is the key to securing free government today. If we lose our belief in our capacity to govern ourselves and, instead, imagine that we need experts to replace the monarchs of old—people who “know better” about what our best interests are or should be—then we will be a long way toward rejecting the proud inheritance of our Founders. We should use our common sense to avoid that fate.

 

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Education • Post • The Constitution • The Culture

Common Sense and the Common Good

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The Founders’ gift does not demand much of us.

As citizen-sovereigns, we need to exercise common sense and hold dear the common good. Little more is required of us in the system America’s founders designed. That is remarkable, even astonishing because for most of us common sense and caring about the common good deeply shape our daily lives.

Because we take them for granted, it is easy to overlook common sense and love of the common good, but they leap to prominence when disaster strikes. On those occasions, we can count on heroic rescues and Americans spontaneously co-operating to deal effectively with the challenges they unexpectedly face.

In the same way, on those special occasions when we formally exercise our powers as citizen-sovereigns—when we vote to choose agents to carry out the work of government for us or when we serve on a jury—the Founders counted on our common sense and our love of the common good to carry us through.

And the most basic obligation of those in government is also to exercise common sense and love of the common good in what they do as our agents. Consequently, the soundness of the whole Constitutional system depends on us making good choices of those agents. James Wilson, one of only six signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution, wrote this about the Constitution in 1788:

If the people, at their elections, take care to choose none but representatives that are wise and good, their representatives will take care, in their turn, to choose or appoint none but such as are wise and good also.

It is our common sense and our love of the common good that equip us to recognize and to choose those who are “wise and good”—or in the instance of a choice narrowed down to two, the one who has the most common sense and the most love of the common good.

Just as we make mistakes in our daily lives, we will make mistakes about the representatives  we choose. These mistakes matter. As a general rule, the people in government oppress and abuse the people over whom they rule. The world abounds in examples, today as in the Founders’ day.

The Founders’ design addressed this hard truth in two important ways.

First, those we elect are to be kept on a short leash by fixed terms in office. Once elected, they soon have to face the voters again, to be turned out of office if they show themselves lacking in common sense or in love of the common good.

Second, and more important, the Founders’ design limited the powers those representatives could wield. Here is Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address:

Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…

By now, I suppose you have grown impatient. “What about education?” you ask. The Founders were also counting on the people to understand the American idea. It is certainly true that as soon as the people forget how the system works, they lose their ability to operate the system as it was designed to be operated. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that it was only after the American educational system abandoned teaching the American idea that our government ran amok.

But the requirement to understand the American idea is also no great challenge for us. Though the American system of government is the most radical design for a system of liberty ever conceived, it is readily understood by means of common sense because it was designed by common sense realists who were also astonishingly “wise and good.” Their amazing stories model for us the glory of the American citizen-sovereign whose task is worthy and whose burden is light.

Our current emergency is in some ways like a natural disaster. It may require heroic actions and Americans coming together to solve the problems that have emerged so that once again the burden of government can be light, as the Founders intended.

 

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2016 Election • Administrative State • America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Deep State • Democrats • Donald Trump • Energy • EU • Post • Russia • Terrorism • The Culture • The Leviathian State

Corruption, Globalized

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As long as there has been politics, there has been corruption. So the investigative hand-grenades which have been flying for the past year, first at the Trump campaign, now at Mrs. Clinton’s, are not exactly new in American political life. What is new, however, is the geography. Corruption used to be something American politicians did with other Americans. Now, it’s become something that involves other countries, and one in particular—Russia—which can’t be accused of friendly intentions toward the United States.

Curiously, at the beginning of the nation, Americans were confident that political corruption would never happen in their republic. Corruption was what occurred in monarchies, and (to judge by the long list of accusations in the Declaration of Independence) especially under King George III.

But once independent, American politicians proved to be just as short on virtue. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State under the first president, George Washington, put a journalistic hit-man, Philip Freneau, on the State Department payroll to dig up dirt on Washington and other cabinet members. Andrew Jackson frankly used his presidential appointments power to reward political cronies in what became known as the “spoils system.” Bribery and kickbacks were so notorious within the administration of James Buchanan (1856-60) that when Abraham Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860, his supporters made a bigger issue of Buchanan’s corruption than of slavery. And corruption almost became a way of defining the presidencies of Ulysses Grant in the 1870s and Warren Harding in the 1920s.

Surprisingly, there were few actual convictions for corruption before the 1940s. Politicos whose corrupt practices were exposed to public gaze simply resigned or, more rarely, were impeached. Only very gradually did Congress move to criminalize corruption through the Hobbs Act (1946), the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO, 1970), and the Federal Campaign Elections Act (1971).

Nevertheless, this has done little to stem the tide of corruption. Since 1986, five federal judges have been impeached on bribery charges; since 2000, five members of the House of Representatives have been convicted in corruption cases. In 1987 five U.S. senators—including John McCain—tried to intercede on behalf of Charles Keating and his failing Lincoln Savings & Loan after Keating made $1.3 billion in campaign contributions to them. Only one of the “Keating five” was officially reprimanded after a Senate investigation; the others were criticized for “poor judgment.” Bill Clinton, as president, brought the Democratic National Committee’s fund-raising activities under the White House roof, including 103 events which netted an average of $56,000 per person in contributions to the DNC. Yet, only one Clinton official, Ronald Blackley, was actually indicted and convicted.

Part of the depressingly relentless spread of corruption has to do with the size of the federal government itself—in an annual budget of $3.5 trillion, there are tremendous amounts of fruit on the federal tree to be picked illegally, and few places where it is liable to be noticed. Another part is the sheer variety of corrupt practices, which contort themselves into new shapes, from money-laundering to tax-exemptions, faster than statutes can criminalize them.

The newest beachhead, however, has involved corruption with foreign partners.  Starting in the 1980s, when Illinois Congressman Paul Findley was accused of receiving laundered contributions from Saudi oil interests, foreign money has exploited cracks in federal campaign legislation to make itself felt in federal elections. From 1994 to 1996, Johnny Chung funneled $366,000 in campaign donations to the DNC from 12 Chinese donors, with another $300,000 donated in 1996 from officials of the state-owned Chinese aerospace industry. In 2009, Louisiana Representative William J. Jefferson was charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (which was originally designed to prevent U.S. corporations from engaging in foreign bribery) for bribes he solicited from third-world governments to promote their business interests in the U.S.

The charges of Russian “collusion” which have now been hurled by both political parties are part of this disturbing new trend. On one hand, Paul Manafort’s ties to Ukraine and Jared Kushner’s conversations with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya look embarrassing, but have as yet turned into nothing illegal under federal election law or the FCPA. The rebound accusations which have emerged over the past week that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign hired a British intelligence officer and Fusion GPS (a Washington-based intelligence firm with ties to Russian interests) to create a foreign-sourced dossier on Trump are far more blatant, and thus far more serious than Trump Tower chit-chat.

The Clintons have been associated with foreign pay-for-play activities since the 1990s, and the Fusion GPS affair is, in many ways, simply an extension of that association. But both the Trump and Clinton campaign imbroglios with foreign players are tokens of the challenges posed by globalization. In a world of instant communications, where global interests aggressively over-shadow national concerns and where enormous sums of unregulated money can be moved at digital speed through various levels of concealment, foreign influences are only likely to become more threatening. Whatever the outcomes of the various “Russiagate” investigations, the real test will be in how vigorously the American people will demand—and Congress adopt—newer, sharper legislation to deter foreign-connected corruption.

Maybe a reading of the Declaration of Independence would be a good place to start that call.

 

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John Locke, Closet NeverTrumper?

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The fissures that led to the crackup of modern conservatism run deep. The most visible sign of this reality was the election of Donald Trump, which pitted certain elite conservatives against the majority of conservatives who make up the Republican base. Elite NeverTrump conservatives, who argue to this day about the president’s supposed unfitness for office, have made common cause with progressives to undo the results of the 2016 election. These Salon conservatives are united in their hatred of Trump and his voters and seem to agree with the progressive consensus of globalism, identity politics, and corporatism.

A majority of Americans who identify as conservative instead voted with independents and Democrats for Trump, seeing his agenda of restricting immigration, crafting fair trade deals, and championing an interest-based foreign policy as a vital corrective to the manifest failures of both parties over the past few decades. For this group, neither party has accumulated a record that reflects their priorities. Democrats have successfully forwarded their agenda of fundamental transformation in all areas of public life while Republicans watched impotently and even sometimes helped to advance the Democrats’ radical program.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Yoram Hazony contends these problems on the political Right are symptoms of deeper troubles. Trump’s election was the result of a centuries-long battle between classical liberals, whom Hazony sees as forebears of the NeverTrump cause, and Anglo-American conservatives, who are more Trumpian in their outlook.

Liberalism’s Crisis
Classical liberalism in Hazony’s understanding derives “from Hobbes and Locke,” whose “aim was to deduce universally valid political principles from self-evident axioms, as in mathematics.” In the 20th century, this “rationalist” view of politics supplied the foundation for Austrian economics practiced by Ludwig von Mises and the Friedrich Hayek. They argued for the spread of “individual liberty and economic freedom” not only in the United States but the world over. As Mises claimed in his 1927 magnum opus 
Liberalism, “Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.” This thinking in Hazony’s view eventually led post-Cold War neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol to argue for a foreign policy based on exporting the principles of classical liberalism abroad.

By contrast, Anglo-American conservatism—according to Hazony—comes to us from Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and other lesser-known figures. This “tradition is empiricist and regards successful political arrangements as developing through an unceasing process of trial and error,” Hazony explains. Anglo-American conservatives are “deeply skeptical of claims about universal political truths” and understand “the importance of traditional Protestant institutions such as the independent national state, biblical religion, and the family.”

As Hazony argues, from Iraq to the 2008 financial crisis to the “disintegration of the family,” deep concerns have emerged over the future viability of classical liberalism. Trump and a resurgence of nationalism around the globe represent “if not a conservative revival” then at least a potential return to a conservatism based on “experience” rather than “17th-century rationalist dogma.”

Misreading Locke
Hazony’s argument about the split on American Right is plausible enough. But his attempt to read history through our present time
obscures more than it clarifies.

For one, he misreads Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Far from being a progenitor of modern liberalism (and therefore NeverTrumpism), Locke should be a guide for anyone who wants to Make America Great Again. After all, which political philosopher did the American Founders cite most? Locke. Who was the source of many of their key insights? Locke.  Natural rights, government by the consent, and the role of government in securing the equal rights of all citizens? That’s Locke all the way.

Certain conservatives and progressives sometimes accuse Locke of dismissing the need for duty; that he’s concerned almost entirely with self-interest. In fact, his writings are replete with teachings about the duties we have to our fellow man, our families, and ultimately to God. In fact, Locke’s argument is built upon a law of nature that indicates, through the use of reason, what duties we have to ourselves and to others.

Reason is Not Enough
A concern for morality also animates Locke’s conception of freedom.
“Freedom then is not . . . a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws,” he writes in the Second Treatise on Government. Locke’s views, then, are diametrically opposed to the notions of radical autonomy and third-wave feminist sexual ethics that are in vogue today.

Hazony argues Locke “asserts that universal reason teaches the same political truths to all human beings.” But he overlooks the crucial caveat that Locke recognizes: while such truths are accessible to anyone capable of reason, not all men have an equal capacity to use their reason. Locke would have thought it preposterous to think that the use of human reason would be widespread throughout a single civil society, much less worldwide. This is why he argued that religion, civil society, and a public sentiment that supports reason are all crucial to the perpetuation of human life. Vague hopes that the proliferation of human reason alone is enough to maintain civil society are folly—and something Locke clearly rejected.

Curiously, Hazony also faults Locke for his supposed neglect of “the family.” But Locke devotes his First Treatise and Some Thoughts Concerning Education to the vital differences between paternal and political power and the importance of childrearing and having a stable marriage between one man and one woman. The family, Locke says, is important from a political standpoint because it is the only way civil society can be preserved for future generations.

Parents are bound “under an obligation to preserve, nourish, and educate” their offspring. Locke rails against “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” and thinks that “easy and frequent [dis]olutions” of marriage would “mightily disturb” the very foundations of civil society. Today, Locke would be considered a radical social conservative and be targeted by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hatemonger.

Misunderstanding the Founding, Broadbrushing Liberalism
Though Hazony does not directly discuss the American Founding, by implication he would have to view it as partially suspect at best since much of the founders’
political theory comes from Locke. What would he make of the founders’ reliance on the laws of nature and of nature’s God and the self-evident truths—the “universal political truths” he argues have helped bring disaster upon our nation—on which they justified American independence? And how would he understand Lincoln’s statesmanship, which was based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and its central idea of natural human equality?

While founded upon universal truths, the United States is also very clearly a distinct nation with a distinct people. This is not an either/or proposition as Hazony’s argument seems to suggest.

It’s hard to argue, as Hazony does, that the term “liberalism” covers everyone from Locke and the American Founders to modern presidents such as Barack Obama. Locke and the founders thought government’s purpose was to protect natural rights. Obama thinks government should lift up the least among us based on race, class, and gender and hurt those thought to have gotten ahead at their expense. Consequently, government has the duty to ensure every person has an equal start in the race of life.

But what if modern liberalism is a phenomenon distinct from the political theory of Locke and the American founders? As Thomas G. West has argued plausibly, the “post-1900 transformation in the American understanding of justice is better explained by the rejection of the founding principles.”

Americans interested in advancing the American experiment shouldn’t have to be of two minds about our nation, even looking to re-found it on another set of principles. The attack of progressive elites on Western Civilization is as much an attack Locke, the American Founding, and our very way of life. All available resources that have supplied vitality to the West should be marshaled against the progressives’ determination to transform us into their warped and stunted image.

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 of our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

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We Need a Radio Free America on Campus

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Deep within the United States Code a dynamite charge lies buried. Once ignited, it could blow the current landscape of higher education to smithereens, replacing its monotonous ideological expanse with an alpine variety of competing views and perspectives.

Triggering the charge would require a willingness to overcome political reflexives that often serve conservatives well. But the hour is late, the need for action desperately real, and pragmatism sits proudly at the nation’s helm.

So let us strike the fuse.

The dynamite is a provision in federal law planted nine years ago. That’s when Congress created the American History for Freedom (AHF) program. It promised federal funding for university centers promoting the study of traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization.

But when Barack Obama was elected, the congressmen and senators who had pushed for the bill wisely decided not to seek a federal appropriation. Obama would have opposed it and the whole program would have come under withering attack. Those of us who had worked hard to get AHF passed in the first place decided to bide our time. It has been a long wait.

 

The First Ka-Boom

How good is this dynamite? It should be compared to the explosives that the radical Left brought to campus at the end of the 1960s: black studies, women’s studies, and environmental studies. These three were the leading edge of the Left’s attempt to politicize the university.

Each had its own agenda but those agendas overlapped in their disdain for America and in their rejection of the university as a place reserved for open-minded inquiry. The proponents of these programs pleaded for them as exceptions to the old academic standards, which they thought would continue to be upheld in English, history, the sciences, and so on.

That proved to be an illusion. The radical environmentalists adopted Barry Commoner’s “First Law of Ecology,” namely, “Everything is connected to everything else.” You can’t expect radical environmentalists to keep their eco-apocalyptic creed isolated in the Environmental Studies Department. It has to be integrated into all the other departments because, “Everything is connected to everything else.” The same principle applied to black studies and women’s studies. Identity politics moves like a blob of mercury. It doesn’t stand still.

The political doctrines first spread to other academic departments via missionaries who held “dual appointments”—for example, women’s studies and political science, or black studies and English. But soon the bridges grew more plentiful. We saw the rise of cross-listed courses, “History 305, the Antebellum South, also listed as Black Studies 309, Slavery in Pre-Civil War America.” And soon there were distribution requirements and major requirements that entrenched the “studies departments” as central to whole of undergraduate education. The faculty in these departments also found their way onto search committees and other university bodies and carried their political programs with them.

Instead of occupying a space set apart in the curriculum for political indoctrination, the politicized departments became the agent for politicizing whole institutions.

That was the dynamite planted by the academic left circa 1968.

 

The New Dynamite—and the Atolls

Our dynamite isn’t exactly the same stuff, but it is pretty potent, too. American History for Freedom would create funding for academic programs that push back against the new orthodoxies.

At most colleges and universities today, the humanities and social science curriculum do little more than marinate students in the story that they are hapless victims of hateful oppressors. Free institutions are dismissed as icing on the poisonous cake of privilege. And Western civilization had been marked down as Guns, Germs, and Steel, to borrow the title of Jared Diamond’s bestselling 1997 book, aimed at deflating the Western ego.

The politicization of the university is now settled fact—except that, here and there throughout the Great Barrier Reef of Leftist Indoctrination, there are these atolls of intellectual integrity and freedom. They are places where the old standards are upheld, where Great Books continue to be taught, and where respect for good argument and valid evidence holds sway over political correctness. They include UCLA’s Center for the Liberal Arts and Free Institutions, Boise State’s American Founding Initiative, and Colgate’s Center for Freedom and Western Civilization.

Like most atolls, they are resource poor. A hardy handful of professors keep them going despite a dearth of institutional support and the scorn of the up-to-date crowd. The AHF program, if funded, would change that.

I have mixed metaphors. Dynamite or atoll?

Dynamite, in that well-funded programs in traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization would demolish the academic Left’s monopoly over the curriculum. Who knows? Maybe even some of the professors would get dual appointments and some of the courses would get cross-listed. Money changes everything.

Atoll, in that AHF would provision a small and isolated part of the college campus. The folks who are clinging bitterly (as someone once said) to their copies of The Aeneid and The Federalist Papers.

 

Building the Atolls

Steve Balch, my predecessor as president of the National Association of Scholars, was the prime mover behind the 2008 act. For more than a decade he had crisscrossed the country seeking faculty members willing to breast the tide of political correctness by proposing pro-Western and freedom-oriented programs at their colleges and universities. Some of these were slapped down fast by deans and provosts afraid of the intellectual contagion that they might spread. All the hard work of the multiculturalists, the diversiphiles, and the “critical thinkers” could be compromised by countervailing perspectives.

Yet Balch succeeded in launching the idea, and eventually dozens of programs were founded. But the initial idea that these centers would follow, although with genuine academic integrity, the footsteps of women’s studies, African-American studies, and environmental studies never materialized.

That was because the Left and the Right are not mirror images. While a good many institutions grudgingly allowed our programs to be established, few were willing to invest any significant resources in them. One of particular promise, the Alexander Hamilton Institute at Hamilton College was eventually expelled from campus. Another, the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, Austin, having been identified as a conservative program in the pages of The New York Times, saw its director dismissed and the provocative phrase “Western Civilization” stripped from its title.

Traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization thus became orphaned subjects. Even if a handful of scholars could be found to teach them, lack of institutional enthusiasm, or downright hostility, would likely keep them marginalized. Seeing this, the NAS decided to do something not usually found in conservative playbooks. We turned to the federal government in the hope of persuading legislators to create a special package of grants designed to provide the financial support institutions were unlikely themselves to confer.

It took us a decade, but we finally found influential congressional sponsors, and the bill was written into the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Congress needed to consummate the enactment of the program by appropriating funds for it, but at just this critical moment the election of Barack Obama supervened. The opportunity to have the implementation of the program designed in anything like the spirit in which it had been drafted vanished. We thus elected to leave it, temporarily at least, unfunded.

 

Exceptionalism

It is, admittedly, hard to push the case for any increased funding for American higher education. Nearly half of the $600 billion spent on higher education each year derives in one form or another from the public purse, and what do we have to show for it? Mostly intellectually mediocre instruction compounded with politically toxic indoctrination. The huge expenditures in the federal budget should be trimmed. But at least in this one instance, the federal government should spend more. Why?

The results of our colleges and universities turning away from traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization are plain to see. Mobs of American college students today shout down speakers whose views they deem unworthy of protection. Large numbers see themselves as “postnationalists,” or “global citizens,” unconcerned with the need to live up to the responsibilities of their actual citizenship. Colleges and universities offer “sanctuary,” and even scholarships, to illegal aliens in defiance of the law. The Obama Administration channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into teaching its version of “new civics,” which discarded learning about institutions of self-government in favor of preaching the virtues of activism, protest, and occupation.

We are not short of dubious federal grant programs for higher education. But if ever there was a worthy exception to these boondoggles the American History for Freedom Program is it. Now that Washington is under different auspices, let’s get it working, taking some of the money, if need be, from the programs that should be cut or eliminated.

For many students, these new campus centers are the only opportunity they will have to learn what made America great, free, and prosperous; and the only chance that college will ever give them to hear everything that the progressive Left has filtered out of the curriculum and campus culture. Think of them, collectively, as a kind of reborn Radio Free Europe, taking a liberating message directly to those behind the Iron Curtain of campus progressivism. American History for Freedom can make their message loud and clear.

 

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To Be Great the U.N. Must Defend Democratic Sovereignty

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“I’ve listened to countless speeches in this hall, but I can say this: None were bolder, none more courageous and forthright than the one delivered by President Trump today” –Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

 The wisdom of President Trump’s United Nations speech last week was nothing less than a demonstration to that dubious organization of how it might adopt the timeless political principles of the American founding—and a proclamation, in fact, that the international body must do so if it is to retain any interest at all for Americans. Against the sophism known as international law, Trump advocated the reality of the democratic politics of sovereign nations.

Trump’s stinging political language—e.g., Venezuela’s “socialist dictatorship,” “radical Islamic terrorism,” and of course “Rocket Man”—drew appropriate attention, but Trump went well beyond those jibes to expose the series of misconceptions upon which the U.N. is mistakenly  based.

For decades, the U.N. has presented the spectacle of its member dictatorships claiming to protect human rights or terrorist regimes speaking for supposed shared goals of a common humanity. It is a farce. Trump’s attacks, with his American alternative, exposed the twisted logic that led to these absurdities. They are the creation of Woodrow Wilson, who was both the prominent political scientist of his day and 28th U.S. president, a theorist who—unfortunately—was afforded the opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

In keeping with his distortion of American domestic politics, Wilson is also behind the fault in our foreign policy. The foundation of Wilsonian political science is  a repudiation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and a counter-declaration that the only hope for reforming America is in abandoning equal natural rights. According to Wilson, America had to be deconstructed—a task Wilson assigned to the rule of experts in an administrative state the objective of which was to replace constitutional government.

In foreign policy Wilsonianism attempts to replace low and unexceptional American national interest with the supposedly noble interests of “humanity.” His idea for a League of Nations was advanced to pursue this goal. Lurking behind the push for and support of this object  are the academic musings of the young scholar  Wilson, who argued that socialism was really the perfection of democracy.

Socialism denies that individual rights produce a private sphere safe from the control of government—so private property is always at risk, as is the individual conscience.

This corruption of democracy and lowering of the meaning of humanity sets the stage for the thuggish third world regimes who—without surprising those who understand the corrosive roots of the U.N.—seem to dominate it. This relativism is keeping, too, with Franklin Roosevelt’s conception that the U.N. would make Stalin’s Soviet Union a key member. Progressive political philosophy and economics saw increasing international order—irrespective of the means used to produce that order—as the inescapable goal of world history.

Eventually humanity would see a global administrative state that would produce human security by banishing famine, disease, and war. Of course, the elimination of war by a global entity would mean the snuffing out of “rebellions” (such as that of the Americans against the British Empire)  and the establishment of what amounts to a global tyranny. It would be the sole possessor of weapons and the master of the force required to use them.

In place of this parade of horrors, President Trump’s U.N. remarks recommended America’s unique version of sovereignty, a sovereignty of the people, all created equal, against arbitrary government.

Trump’s proposed reconstituting of the U.N. has the same purpose as his ambition to reconstitute American politics: to prevent tyranny and protect individual freedom. Trump repudiates the Wilson-FDR view of globalist order to reclaim the exceptional character of American sovereignty:

The greatest in the United States Constitution is its first three beautiful words.  They are:  “We the people.”

Generations of Americans have sacrificed to maintain the promise of those words, the promise of our country, and of our great history.  In America, the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign.  I was elected not to take power, but to give power to the American people, where it belongs.

Trump thus repudiated the language of the globalist foreign policy elites, both Left and Right, with their talk of “realism” and “idealism” and “the end of history.” Globalism affirms the Hegelian insistence that only the “rational is real,” making transnational rules—independent of citizen consent—the sovereign ones. Such rules, we are told, would serve to replace the “anarchy of freedom”—a power diminishing thing globalists appear to fear much more than straight up tyranny—as we see attempted in socialist dictatorships:

The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.

Here, Trump was denouncing not only the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela but also the reigning Wilsonianism in the United States.

In place of European distortions of Western Civilization, Trump wants Americans to appreciate the heritage of their revolution, both its religious and philosophic bases, which should be the model of the democratic revolutions throughout the world. One of the greatest American patriots, John Adams, wrote that the American Revolution was “effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.”

In other words, Trump brought to the world stage what he gave to America: blunt speech about political reality that defies the elites who blindly support international order over the national interest.

The U.N. speech makes clear that Trump’s version of sovereignty requires fundamental principles of natural rights in the formation of a social contract among citizens—equality, liberty, consent of the governed, and constitutional government. In deconstructing the administrative state at home, Trump is restoring borders, emphasizing political economy over international economics, and reestablishing American military power. As this promotes the common good, so all nations, each in its diverse ways, can promote the good of all nations by striving to be their own best version of themselves:

The United States of America has been among the greatest forces for good in the history of the world, and the greatest defenders of sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.

Now we are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.

The “first bond” of a nation, Trump noted, is to its own people: “This bond is the source of America’s strength and that of every responsible nation represented here today.” We do not advance the cause of “humanity” by surrendering our sovereignty to the amorphous goals of theoretic politicians governing Utopias that have never and will never exist. A sovereign nation has a duty to its actual citizens in the here and now if it seeks to preserve a future of peace and prosperity going forward. That is what Trump explained, in plain language, to the denizens of the U.N. and to their partisans at home.

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 of our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

 

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Obama’s America: That’s Who We Are

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During his presidency, Barack Obama was fond of hectoring the American people with the condescending refrain “that’s not who we are.” He would trot it out regularly to disparage as un-American anyone who disagreed with his predictably progressive policy views on immigration, refugees, health care, or Islamic terrorism.

Who we are, it turns out, is a statist country defined by whatever platitudes are found in the latest iteration of the Democratic Party platform. Who we are, pace Reagan, is an (almost) open borders country of hyphenated Americans with an unwavering faith that “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Obama’s America, lo and behold, is the real America.

Citizen Obama was at it again this week in a Facebook post slamming President Trump’s decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (never mind that while in office, President Obama admitted on more than 20 occasions that he had no constitutional authority to create a DACA-like program).

“This action is contrary to our spirit,” Obama wrote. “Ultimately, this is about basic decency. This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people—and who we want to be.”

Obama concluded his sermon by trying to define who it is that we are. The mistaken assumptions that inform his definition are common among elites on both ends of the political spectrum. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) probably could have offered the same definition (and has in the past come close). As such, his words are worth examining more closely as they are indicative of a particular mindset.

“What makes us American,” Obama first correctly observed, “is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray.” Indeed, America’s founding documents affirm the natural equality of all human beings, allow for the full naturalization of immigrants, forbid the establishment of a national religion and guarantee the free exercise of religion for all. In principle—though not in practice of course—anyone can become an American.

“What makes us American,” Obama then added, “is our fidelity to a set of ideals—that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation.”

As a statement of American national identity, this is partially true. It is true insofar as we are indeed a nation dedicated to certain ideals—the truths we hold to be self-evident. America, alone among the nations of the world, defines itself by a commitment to a set of universal ideas.

We are not, however, a mere “propositional nation,” defined only by abstract ideals and shorn of any ties to its past, its culture, its ancestors, its language, and its land. We are also a particular people bound by “the mystic chords of memory” and shaped by our way of life. Our Declaration of Independence, after all, does not begin with the self-evident truth of human equality, but with “one people”—that is, we Americans—assuming our separate and equal station in the world.

What makes us American is not just “our fidelity to a set of ideals”—but also that we speak English; that we honor our war dead; that we inhabit a land that stretches “from California to the New York island; from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”; that we naturally love our country and our countrymen more than we do the foreign nations and foreign peoples of the world.

Our dedication to the idea that all men are created equal does not detract from our rootedness in our own history and land. Nor ought it to weaken our attachment to our fellow citizens or erode our national sovereignty.

America, in other words, is both particular and universal. We are particular in our own way, just as Lesotho, Lithuania, and Laos are particular in their own ways. But we are exceptional in making certain universal ideals a constitutive component of our national identity (many countries today affirm these ideals too, but only we make them an inextricable part of who we are).

For some reason, intellectuals on the Right and the Left are uncomfortable with recognizing these two dimensions of Americanness. The neocons and the progressives would reduce us to a propositional nation; the paleocons and the traditionalists to a particular nation. The Founders, by contrast, did not see the need to choose between the two.

By excluding America as a distinct and sovereign country from his definition of America, Obama can suggest we should admit as citizens all those who subscribe to our creed. By his definition, they already are Americans in all but legal status. The distinction between Americans and non-Americans who share our ideals is but accidental.

America the idea has no borders. But America the country does—and must. And it has the sovereign right to control its borders. Regardless of what one thinks about immigration, DACA, and the so-called “dreamers,” there is nothing un-American about upholding the rule of law or affirming the fundamental political distinction between one’s fellow citizens and foreigners—no matter how long they have lived in our country.

In this regard, it is telling how Obama’s definition of who we are does not include the idea that we are a law-abiding people. However difficult it may be to define America, it should be readily apparent that the rule of law is embedded in our DNA. It undergirds our Constitution, it forms our character and it allows for the extraordinary levels of prosperity and freedom we enjoy. As President Trump noted in his statement explaining his decision: “We must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”

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‘Party of Lincoln’ No More

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One of the most prominent clichés that passes for wisdom among the GOP Establishment and conservative intellectual elite is that the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln. But Donald Trump, as we are told ad nauseam, is doing his best to sever the electric cord that ties the Republican Party to Lincoln’s political principles. 

Former U.S. Senator John Danforth wrote recently in the Washington Post that the Republican Party is “the party of Abraham Lincoln.” “Now comes Trump,” Danforth argued, “who is exactly what Republicans are not, who is exactly what we have opposed in our 160-year history.” Mona Charen, a contributor to National Review who now apparently enjoys echoing the Left, claims, “The Republican party under Donald Trump has regressed from the party of Lincoln to the party of Lee.”

The glaring problem with this overheated analysis is that it has been quite some time since the GOP was, in any discernable way, the party of Lincoln. And Trump had nothing whatsoever to do with it. In fact, Trump is trying to drag the party back kicking and screaming to its Lincolnian roots.

An obvious example of the modern GOP’s dismissal of Lincoln’s politics is the free trade absolutism it has embraced. While theoretically sound, in practice this slavish devotion to free trade has hollowed out the middle class and benefited hedge fund managers and other professional elites who stand unequally to gain from our knowledge-based economy.

Lincoln, by contrast, was for high protective tariffs throughout his career. For instance, after his election to Congress in 1847, Lincoln noted that the

abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government, must result in the increase of both useless labour, and idleness; and so, in proportion, must produce want and ruin among our people.

In his support of tariffs and other measures designed to help Americans citizens over those of other countries, Lincoln was well within the mainstream of the American political tradition. From Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 “Report on Manufactures,” which outlined the nation’s first industrial policy to support America’s burgeoning manufacturing sector, to Ronald Reagan’s imposition of a 100 percent tariff on certain Japanese electronics in 1987, tariffs have served as a traditional tool of American statecraft.

Lincoln understood that an American isn’t simply what the philosopher Roger Scruton has termed a homo economicus—an individual “who acts always to maximize his own utility.” Instead, Americans are members of families, churches, communities, and their nation, whose good includes but ultimately transcends economic considerations.

Lincoln also wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party’s foreign policy of the past few decades. Republicans are largely beholden to a neoconservative foreign policy whereby the United States spends its blood and treasure on making the rest of the world safe for democracy, while very often neglecting our own. In practice, this has translated into nation building abroad. To overstate for the sake of clarity, the question before GOP hawks is which countries we should invade next—not whether it is just to think in such terms in the first place.

Lincoln would have been appalled at such a foreign policy. In early 1852, he helped draft a resolution praising Lajos Kossuth and the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1848, which contained principles diametrically opposite of those the modern Republican Party has adopted.

While the resolution states the right of the people of Hungary to “throw off” their “existing form of government,” it makes it clear that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.” Yet Lincoln and the drafting committee did not see any probable violation of our “own cherished principles of non-intervention” should the United States be called upon to help fend off an intervention of any other foreign power into Hungary’s affairs, should prudence allow for such a response.

Lincoln and his compatriots held true to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature and of nations”—principles of a social compact of a free and equal people who justly may determine their own nation’s course of affairs internally and externally.

The Republican Party’s general policy of arming “moderates” in nations such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria, for example, runs exactly counter to the traditional principle of non-interference that Lincoln followed. And such policies have predictably led to disastrous consequences for the United States abroad and have weakened our nation at home as well.

Finally, the Republican Party has spurned Lincoln’s appeals to natural human equality in favor of the allure of the Rawlsian trinity of race, class, and gender—the same categories Democrats use to divide the American electorate.

Finally, the Republican Party has spurned Lincoln’s appeals to natural human equality in favor of the allure of the Rawlsian trinity of race, class, and gender—the same categories Democrats use to divide the American electorate.

After Mitt Romney’s ignominious defeat in 2012, the Republican Party issued its famed autopsy, which infamously put forward “comprehensive immigration reform” in order to win the “Hispanic” vote. The autopsy noted also that Republicans needed “to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.”

Clarence Thomas pointed out the problems inherent in this approach in a 1987 speech to the Heritage Foundation. He noted that such a pandering strategy utterly failed regarding blacks because it treated them as a priori off limits to conservatives.

“The political Right . . . concedes that blacks are monolithic, picks up a few dissidents, and wistfully shrugs at the seemingly unbreakable hold of the liberal left on black Americans,” Thomas said. “Everyone was treated as part of an interest group. Blacks just happened to represent an interest group not worth going after.”

Blacks, just as other races or groups, were being assessed solely upon the basis skin color or some other perceived distinguishing feature of victimhood, an obvious break with the colorblind principles of the American Founding. And this was during the halcyon days of the Reagan Revolution!

Lincoln, by contrast, appealed to Americans as citizens who had “the father of all moral principle in them”—namely the belief in the equality of men in their natural rights and the concomitant principle that just government can only spring forth from the consent of the governed. The principle of liberty born of equality before God—the “central idea” from which all “minor thoughts radiate” in America—is the philosophical grounding of American citizenship rather than accidents of birth such as race or ethnicity.  

Trump has harkened to Lincoln’s teachings in his appeal to American citizens who are bound together by a patriotic friendship instead of the false idol of identity politics.

“America was a land for individuals,” Ken Masugi has written, “not of, by, and for castes, whether of class or race, and thus it was a land of opportunity for those who cherished work, character, and faith.”

Lincoln’s statesmanship provides a way forward for the GOP if they are willing to listen. Donald Trump has harkened to Lincoln’s teachings in his appeal to American citizens who are bound together by a patriotic friendship instead of the false idol of identity politics. As Trump stated in his first inaugural address and again soon after the Charlottesville unrest, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”

In order to become the Republican Party Lincoln would recognize, the GOP would do well to strongly condemn the scourge of identity politics, reassess its foreign policy in light of our national interests, and put forward trade policies that do not put abstractions above the common good of the American people. A party that is defined by these principles—principles that Donald Trump has championed—will once again deserve to carry the mantle of the party of Lincoln.

 

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Administrative State • America • Americanism • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Deep State • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Greatness Agenda • self-government

Common Sense Trumps the Experts in War and Peace

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What is common sense and why does it seem to be so uncommon today?

Our country was founded on the basis of the self-evident truths that all men are created equal in their essential nature and, therefore, in their rights before God. But America’s founders understood that in order for these rights to have any political operation, a people must have the common sense required to be able to discern what is self-evident. The world has always been full of people who deny the self-evident truths upon which we founded our regime. So clearly self-evident and obvious do not mean the same thing anymore than common sense means that it is a sense common to all people. Things that ought to be clear to all right thinking people sometimes are not, even—or especially—among those commonly considered today’s “thought leaders.”

So it is worthwhile to pay attention when prominent examples of common sense emerge. I am keen to draw your attention to two brilliant recent articles, one by Daniel Pipes and the other by Angelo Codevilla—textbook examples of the common sense thinking the American Founders had in mind for us, and two great lessons in how to think like a founder while avoiding the convoluted thinking of our ruling elite.

Nowadays it is a commonplace to observe that Washington has become fantastically corrupt, the brazenness of the corruption of the Clintons being among the most obvious examples. Less remarked upon is the astonishing intellectual corruption that surrounds the Washington elite. The founders would be as horrified by the latter as they would have been by the former.

At the heart of our elite’s intellectual corruption is their abandonment of common sense. The Founders were counting on common sense. In their wisdom they put the American people in charge of our federal, state, and local governments. The Founders believed that the American people would be capable of political self-rule by virtue of our common sense. But despite the shining example of the Founders, common sense has gone missing from American politics. In day-to-day politics arguments are no longer advanced by appeals to self-evident truths knowable by common sense, as the Founders intended; with political debates featuring a bewildering torrent of policy studies by supposed “experts.” And, interestingly, those “experts” keep getting it wrong.

Daniel Pipes makes this clear with his piece “The Most Embarrassingly Wrong Book Ever on the Middle East?” Pipes, a Middle-East expert himself, writes of the specialists who “lack the common sense to see what should be self-evident.” Pipes earns a special commendation because his use of the term “common sense” is analytically precise; common sense is the ability to discern what is self-evident. In addition, Pipes deserves our special notice for subjecting the output of one of those experts who is a member of the ruling elite to a common sense review.

The academic Pipes takes to the woodshed in this instance is David W. Lesch, the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University. His 2005 book, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press), was met at the time of its publication with a cascade of praise from fellow academics.

New Lion is now, as Pipes writes, “a monument of scholarly humiliation.” It is out of print and has vanished from the YUP website. The passage of a dozen years, as Pipes shows, has demonstrated that the book got nearly everything wrong.

But here is perhaps the most astonishing part of the story: in 2012 Yale returned to Lesch for another masterpiece, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.

Whether or not you find it astonishing that Yale returned to the academic who was swiftly proven utterly wrong about Syria for another book on Syria depends upon how aware you are of just how insulated the members of the elite are from failure. Once you have elite status and especially once you have academic tenure as well, mere failure, even spectacular failure, is not enough for you to lose your elite status. This is how our elite experts lead us from bad policies to worse ones. As Pipes makes clear in his review, given these ridiculous realities, citizens should not be intimidated by the seemingly elite status of academics and experts. The common sense of citizens about Syria would have been far preferable Lesch’s advice.

But perhaps no American is better at clarifying the precise nature of the mess in American foreign policy brought about by the idolatry of “experts” than Angelo Codevilla. His article, “War Without End” in the latest issue of The Claremont Review of Books is a perfect example of common-sense realism in foreign policy, and the book he reviews is a perfect example of the intellectual corruption of the Washington elite. Codevilla examines and finds wanting Eliot Cohen, currently the director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (and, for what it’s worth, not a fan of American Greatness). Cohen’s book, The Big Stick, represents the absolute center of gravity of the American foreign policy establishment. Cohen rejects the very notion of grand strategy. Codevilla writes that according to Cohen the job of American foreign policy is to use military power as the “guarantor of world order. That means a bigger military to be used ‘chronically’ to fight every kind of war… But, because this book tells us that the distinction between war and peace is illusory, there is one thing that we must never ever think of doing with this ‘big stick’—namely, win wars and live in peace.”

Turning at the end of the article to self-evident truths and common sense, Codevilla writes that Churchill and Thucydides’ Pericles* rallied their citizens for war

“by speaking evident truths, while no amount of spin will ever be able to convince Americans to spend blood and treasure for such as Cohen to ‘play,’ without end, at whatever ‘world order’ they find themselves imagining. The difference is so apparent, so commonsensical, that you’d have to be a member of America’s foreign policy establishment, like Eliot Cohen, to miss it.”

Can it be stated better than this?

Possibly. Here is Codevilla again, writing soon after 9/11:

Common sense does not mistake the difference between victory and defeat: the losers weep and cower, while the winners strut and rejoice. The losers have to change their ways, the winners feel more secure than ever in theirs…Common sense says that victory means living without worry that some foreigners might kill us on behalf of their causes, but also without having to bow to domestic bureaucrats and cops, especially useless ones.

Yes indeed. And Americans can tell the difference easily, as it happens, without the benefit of experts.

*in an earlier version of this post “Pericles” was inadvertently omitted.

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America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Identity Politics • Law and Order • self-government

Some Things Trump Could Say About Monuments

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President Trump has expressed regret about the removal of commemorative monuments whose honorees are tainted by participation in slavery. While I respect his sentiment I find it inadequate, because the symbolism and function of historical statues are more complicated than either the president or the iconoclasts make it sound. I think the president could do good by addressing the controversy at greater length and with more complexity (even if it is entirely predictable that any attempt by him to do so will be met by distortion and snarky ridicule). If I could write a speech about monuments for the president, it might go something like this:

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All good Americans—and almost all Americans are good people, I can tell you that—regard slavery as a stain on our national conscience that is painful to remember, not because we participated in it, but because it is an ugly part of  our nation’s history . And of course the memory of slavery is most painful, and most infuriating, to those Americans whose ancestors were the people who suffered its abuses, and other abuses after slavery ended—our African-American brothers and sisters. The abuse that African-Americans suffered at the hands of their fellow Americans is a terrible fact that we must all keep before us as an enduring lesson, because it was wrong, it held us back, and it must never be repeated. We are all Americans together, all brothers and sisters, bound by common love of one another and our country. A wound to one American is a wound to all, and we must never forget that.

No American enjoying a public park should feel the sting of indignation provoked by reminders of unjust deeds displayed in public as if they were something to be proud of. If I knew of a way to make that occurrence simply impossible, I would do it immediately, and I think any other American would, too. But I feel serious misgivings about the cries to take down all the statues of Americans who were associated with slavery.

Let me be as clear as possible: I think we must have a national commitment to healing our wounds, and addressing the legitimate sense of indignation that many Americans feel when they pass by these monuments. Many communities have removed monuments, and while I acknowledge their right to make that decision, I think there are better ways to achieve the healing we need than the wholesale removal of all reminders of past injustice for which the loudest voices are calling. These ways would include the erection of new statues that celebrate the achievements of Americans who heroically opposed slavery and other injustices—men like Frederick Douglass, a truly great American who should be held up as an example  for all of us today, and  for our children and their children’s children for generations to come. He would have been a great president, Frederick Douglass, and it’s a pity he never had the chance, but it didn’t stop him from giving a lot to our country, and his statue should be everywhere.

But as for the movement to take down the old statues, which is so divisive right now, I oppose it for two reasons. The first is that the symbolism of these statues includes more than slavery.

If the people of the United States should ever decide that the author of the Declaration of Independence is unworthy of honor—and it will never happen, believe me—but if it did, it would cause rejoicing and laughter among all the tyrants and ideologues who believe that human beings have no rights to lose in the first place. 

Americans should remember how important it was to our beloved President Lincoln to reunite and heal our country after the Civil War. Many of the Civil War memorials we see around us were erected in a spirit of national reconciliation, as a way of restoring the Union without imposing a permanent stigma of crime and humiliation upon the states and people that had rebelled and then been readmitted. In the year 1900 a section of Arlington National Cemetery was established for heroic war dead of the Confederacy, and many brave men were reinterred there, where they rest in the ground to this day. These memorials do not celebrate the unworthy cause for which these men died, and they avoid even hinting at it. They are monuments to the service and courage of soldiers, soldiers who were, among others things, the fathers and brothers and husbands and comrades of many Americans who were then alive. Many Americans alive today have ancestors who fought and died under General Robert E. Lee. We do well to honor this spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, for the time may come when we will need it, too.

A more important case is that of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and one of our founding fathers. This slaveholder was author of the Declaration of Independence, where he wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While it is regrettably true that in his lifetime Jefferson deprived human beings of freedom, it is also true that through his writings and statesmanship Jefferson helped give freedom to many, many more, of all races, including ourselves, and for that we are all in his debt. Americans must celebrate that legacy, and the great man who bequeathed it to us, because unless we do, we will be unable to preserve it for our children and grandchildren and future generations beyond.

On July 4, 1776, the freedoms and rights that Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were honored in only one place on earth, here, in the British colonies becoming reborn as the United States of America, our beloved country. And even today, those principles are despised in many corners of the globe: China, Cuba, Russia, North Korea, Syria, Iran . . . the list goes on and on. If the people of the United States should ever decide that the author of the Declaration of Independence is unworthy of honor—and it will never happen, believe me—but if it did, it would cause rejoicing and laughter among all the tyrants and ideologues who believe that human beings have no rights to lose in the first place. They would welcome our disavowal of Jefferson as a sign of surrender to their own low opinion of humanity.

I assure you, those who want to emulate the Chinese Red Guards and replace the ideals of Thomas Jefferson with those of Mao and Stalin are not pointing the way toward a better future for America, or for the world that looks to America for ideals and hope.

That brings me to the second reason for my opposition: the symbolism of the movement that wants to tear our statues down. This is not the first social movement of its type; they have occurred in many of the tyrannies I just mentioned. I assure you, those who want to emulate the Chinese Red Guards and replace the ideals of Thomas Jefferson with those of Mao and Stalin are not pointing the way toward a better future for America, or for the world that looks to America for ideals and hope. Their call for a cultural revolution in America isn’t about relieving the pain of memory, because the only pain they care about is the pain they are planning to inflict. But they won’t get the chance, I assure you, not while I’m president.

So I don’t think the wholesale removal of old monuments is the way to go. As I said in beginning, we must commit ourselves to relieving the burden that grieves and divides us, but we must do it in ways that promise the best chance of actual healing. Local communities have the right to decide what kind of art should adorn their public spaces—and in exercising that right they should be able to deliberate in civil discussions and without harassment by violent mobs.

But above all the American people must confront this challenge by deliberating together, with respect for one another and for the pains that history has dealt us in unequal measures. Because our common mission is to make a greater America for all our children and grandchildren. And with God’s help, we will.

 

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America • Americanism • Big Media • Black Lives Matter • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Donald Trump • Identity Politics • Political Parties • political philosophy • self-government • The Culture • The Resistance (Snicker) • Trump White House

Trump’s Coming Victory Over Identity Politics

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Amid the turbulence of the past few weeks, it has been President Trump who has kept his head while others have lost theirs.

Trump may be the one man in America who can detoxify racial relations—I mean actually do it, not exploit them in the mode of Black Lives Matter or Al Sharpton.

Let us first be clear:  No one on the political Left can possibly succeed in easing racial tensions. Their identity politics approach has played itself out beyond the limits of absurdity. That is what the reassignment of the Asian-American sports announcer, Robert Lee, really demonstrates. This farcical episode, made ESPN a mockery, even to some on the Left.

The battle lines in this ongoing fight for the political soul of America became obvious mid-day on January 20, 2017, when President Trump took his oath of office and Democratic Senate Leader Charles Schumer, poised to introduce Justice Clarence Thomas intoned a Monty Pythonesque litany, “Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional….” Schumer’s emphasizing these distinctions, many of which a civilized society should be seeking to make irrelevant or, at best, secondary, actually produces a more fractured society; one less likely to reconcile differences in order to produce a common good.

Trump’s Inaugural Address, by contrast, sought to unify the nation:

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice….

It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.

Trump’s approach to this issue is the only method that can redirect this country to a politics of the common good and thereby help to heal its often exaggerated racial and ethnic divisions. The Left disdains the old patriotic symbols, and too much of the right is cowardly or echoes the left. Some NeverTrumpers even adopted identity politics to oppose Trump, as the absurd candidacy of Evan McMullin exemplified, a nonentity selected for his Mormon faith to create Electoral College mischief.

Charlottesville, however, was the telling moment. With the aid of viciously anti-Trump left-wing media, a tiny cabal of neo-fascists attempted to hijack Trump’s campaign and inaugural message of American unity in the Robert E. Lee statue controversy. The absurdity of this attempt is nonetheless overshadowed by this partial success: A small claque of politically irrelevant losers, professing a foreign ideology at war with American principles, somehow persuaded the media to give it free publicity and prominence. Why might that be?

The leftist media and their imbibers thus grotesquely magnified the torchlit “blood and soil” chants of neo-fascist provocateurs. The media and those too unthinking to question it became useful idiots to these neo-nazis.

Using the slogan “Unite the Right,” the neo-fascists seized, as in a coup, the otherwise honorable cause of the retention of Confederate monuments, one that President Trump and a majority of Americans support.  The media  tried to legitimate this foreign ideology’s coup by accusing Trump of sympathizing with it and thus tainting him and his supporters with opinions that are entirely Un-American. And since the Left and their puppets in the press see all of political life as a competition for dominance between identity groups and they claim to identify with minorities, they cannot understand opposition to themselves as anything other than a manifestation of “white supremacy.”

The contentiousness over the statues became a narrative of a battle between pro-statue neo-fascists and anti-statue anti-racism activists. The leftist media and their imbibers thus grotesquely magnified the torchlit “blood and soil” chants of neo-fascist provocateurs. The media and those too unthinking to question it became useful idiots to these neo-nazis.

Trump was not only accurate but politically astute in denouncing both mobs and wresting away the monuments cause from the media-fueled putsch. His only rhetorical error was in failing to note the similarities between the neo-fascists and Muslim radicals as advocates of a violent, anti-American foreign ideology. Trump’s basis for unity in American patriotism is vindicated in the turns the anti-statue movement has taken as it spirals into increasing absurdity.

But at stake here is more than the appreciation of public art.

In his speeches on race, urban issues, and immigration, both candidate and President Trump have emphasized the need for Americans to subordinate divisive racial issues to their common American identity. Trump’s inaugural urged patriotic Americans to be loyal to each other, for “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice . . . .”

Trump’s understanding here is that of the Gettysburg Address, the most unifying statement—prayer or psalm, really—concerning the meaning of American citizenship. Contemporary multiculturalism, prized by the Schumers and the media and the universities of today, repudiates Lincoln and with him the truest, the most elevating, and the most unifying American teachings.

The Charlottesville aftermath raises the question of how might one convert anyone from one point of view to another, let alone from identity politics fascism—which, Trump was correct, infects both sides. Isn’t mutual trust the beginning? The Left will never gain the trust of the neo-fascists. While they mouth words of love, in fact hatred of the other is the only unifying principle for identity politics, and in this central passion  today’s Left has more in common with the neo-fascists than it does with anything truly American.

He has the trust of many white working-class voters without higher education, not because they are white, but because their uneasiness with race in our fraught and “multicultural” times has caused them so often to be mislabelled as racist, and they rightly resent it. His policies and rhetoric give him the ability to change the Republican Party in ways that welcome blacks—in particular striving, working-class blacks—into a political coalition with a new confidence in an America that seeks liberty and justice for all. 

Shed of the slur of being fascist-friendly, Trump is in a position to unify here because he hearkens back to American ideas rather than to any group identity, including even partisan ones. He has the trust of many white working-class voters without higher education, not because they are white, but because their uneasiness with race in our fraught and “multicultural” times has caused them so often to be mislabelled as racist, and they rightly resent it. His policies and rhetoric give him the ability to change the Republican Party in ways that welcome blacks—in particular striving, working-class blacks—into a political coalition with a new confidence in an America that seeks liberty and justice for all. We see this in obvious ways, such as in Trump’s calling upon allies like Martin Luther King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, and Dr. Ben Carson to warm up crowds at his recent rallies. Clearly, Trump’s overwhelmingly white audience is not expected to have contempt for these black leaders, but to welcome them as natural allies and fellow Americans who believe in and want the same things.

And in his relationship with Carson, a hero of long standing among many African-Americans for his rise from poverty to prestige, Trump echoes Lincoln:  “Here comes my friend Douglass.”

It may be the case that Trump’s visit to the Carson childhood home in the Detroit slums and a nearby black church, helped to win Michigan for Trump. In this regard, Trump emphasizes the economic appeal of his programs to working class blacks in the same ways that he emphasizes these points to working class whites. Whether it is a restoration of the manufacturing sector of the economy or in his calls for law and order and common sense immigration restrictions, these policies will spur economic improvements for the nation that will be felt very directly in these communities. Complementing these with moral messages on issues such as abortion, drug use, family disintegration, and gangs, Trump clearly wants to make middle America and middle Americans, of every hue, greater than ever before. He wants Americans to believe in themselves and in each other again. 

Republicans in the mainstream generally offer only paler versions of Democratic identity politics, but Trump has the opportunity of clarifying American identity in the nationalism of the American founding and its abiding principles of equality and limited government by consent.

With 13 percent of the votes of black men in 2016, Trump is in an enviable position to increase his vote totals and end the days of the Democratic Party taking the “black vote” for granted. A black male vote total of around 20 percent would mean the disintegration of the Democratic coalition.

But might Trump’s defense of Confederate monuments hurt him with black voters? According to a Marist poll, a plurality of blacks, 44 percent, favor retention, and 40 percent favor removal, with a high 16 percent remaining uncertain.Trump can proceed with confidence because the opportunity to unify both his support and the country is so clearly presented in this issue.

Republicans in the mainstream generally offer only paler versions of Democratic identity politics, but Trump has the opportunity of clarifying American identity in the nationalism of the American founding and its abiding principles of equality and limited government by consent. That is the deepest meaning of the unifying message of making America great again.

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America • Americanism • Black Lives Matter • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Identity Politics • self-government • The Constitution • The Culture • The Left • The Resistance (Snicker)

What Lincoln Might Say About Charlottesville

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Something like hate stirs within me at the sight of the swastika unfurled on American soil: a powerful, visceral reaction against white supremacy as the complete antithesis of both the American Founding, which I love, and the person of Christ, whom I love by an order of magnitude more and strive to live up to. The heart knows: here is an enemy, mortally opposed to the principle that all persons are created equal and ought to be judged not by any accident of birth, but by the content of their character.

An additional reason I hate the Nazi flag and the white supremacist creed is that it has such power to stir blind rage in me. In the abstract, I understand at all times that good and evil run through every human heart. But no other group of people makes me know so readily that I have murder and mayhem in me, too: I feel it the instant I see them marching under that flag or hear their vile chants.

I want to suggest looking at the events in Charlottesville a different way. 

I don’t know about your social media feeds, but mine have absolutely blown up with talk about Charlottesville this week, and to a person all posts have been laden with a level of urgency, passion, revulsion, and alarm. The authors hate racism, they hate white supremacy, they hate the violence that takes innocent life and don’t want to be associated with it. They don’t want it to spread; they want it put down

There have been some disagreements expressed about what precisely happened and what should have been said, but the disagreements have been between people who hate white supremacists and people who hate white supremacists but don’t understand why people won’t condemn the Antifa anarchist violence too; or people who hate white supremacists and resent having their political positions tarred with it in any way. What unites the debaters is resolute rejection of the white supremacist creed. 

If the numbers to be gleaned from the earliest reports are correct (it’s strange that we have no good numbers still), the Nazis in Charlottesville were perhaps no more than 500 bad dudes who deserve to be condemned—and just about everyone has condemned them. The very reason everyone is talking about this with such pain and horror is that the great majority of Americans have that visceral reaction to white supremacy that I feel. They despise racism, deeply regret the history of slavery and its legacy, and long for racial harmony and equality. That is not the mark of a racist people. That’s something to feel good about, even while we are a very divided nation, politically speaking. 

I think it’s important to notice this because the white supremacists and the Antifa  extremists who came armed to oppose them are both s—t-stirrers. They exist for the precise purpose of ginning up hate. They strive to provoke violent confrontation, and their method is to get us all to believe the worst of each other—to think that the Americans who believe in the brotherhood of man are few and the majority are bad people, secretly harboring racist tendencies.

That is not true. There were, again according to initial reports, a few hundred white supremacists.  There were additionally some 1,000 counterdemonstrators, of whom maybe 200 were Antifa. Which means that even in Charlottesville, the peaceful counter-demonstrators appear to have outnumbered the wicked people fighting each other, and the one murderer.

A few hundred wicked people fighting each other must not be allowed to make us all hate and suspect each other—or else they win, and we normal people (with our beautiful and necessary political debates and differences) do not.

The Nazis want us to hate blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and ultimately everybody. Antifa wants us to soak in the righteous rage the Nazis provoke until we feel ourselves justified in doing anything to discharge that rage.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum with a sober warning about how vigilante justice threatens our political institutions. If the United States were to die, he warned, it would likely not be at the hand of a foreign enemy, but by suicide.  He hoped he was being over-cautious, but he noted with alarm the rise of vigilantism in his day:

there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times.

What Lincoln wrote of some gamblers who were hanged in Vicksburg is about what most of us think of white supremacists:

They constitute a portion of population that is worse than useless in any community. . . . If they were annually swept from the stage of existence by the plague or small pox, honest men would, perhaps, be much profited by the operation.

The problem, Lincoln noted, is that mobs act not on impartial evidence and sober judgment, but by terrifying whim. Unable to make distinctions, they snatch up the innocent with the guilty:

When men take it in their heads today to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn someone who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of tomorrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.

In other words, the mob, if tolerated, will eventually come for each of us.  

That’s not the worst of it.  Unchecked, vigilantes grow emboldened and behave worse. Meanwhile, Lincoln notes, peace-loving people who love their country and would die for it, when they find themselves calumniated, their property destroyed and their family members injured, will eventually become disgusted with a government that won’t protect them and turn on it. And once a people has no attachment to its government, anarchy ensues. A constitution without a people loyal to it has no power whatsoever to protect anyone’s rights.

In other words, the mob, if tolerated, will eventually come for each of us.  

This is the consummation both white supremacists and Antifa, a Communist/anarchist group each devoutly wish: the destruction of our mutual commitment to each other and to the constraints on power embodied in the Constitution and necessary for self-government.

They want us to walk around on tenterhooks, suspecting our neighbors, so that we will feel justified in breaking into unruly mobs until the rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and all the freedoms of a free people are crushed by us ourselves. Their ultimate aim is to destroy the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution of what was conceived to be, and still can be, the freest nation on earth. 

Read the Lyceum speech and see if Lincoln does not have a prescient word for our own times.  Blind passions are the enemy of self-government, Lincoln taught. We require instead cool heads, sound morals, and a reverence for the political institutions that keep us free. Now is not the time to turn on America. It’s the time to be American.

 

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Administrative State • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Education • History • political philosophy • self-government • The Culture • The Leviathian State

How Do We Rediscover Our American Heritage? Start With the Declaration

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It’s sobering to consider the degree to which we have lost our knowledge of and connection to our American heritage. As a result, William B. Allen notes that we have been transitioning increasingly from a society of “independent yeomen” to a society of “wards of the state.” The challenge before us is to determine whether we can rediscover our heritage, and relearn the requirements for becoming good and free citizens while also reclaiming the sovereignty we have ceded to the state.

The first step toward recovery, after our recent celebration of the 241st anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, is to remind ourselves of its unique proposition that because we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, equality and our common commitment to the political implications of that equality—not race and blood—are the founding principles of our nation. This principle of justice, where all citizens would be equal, replaced the interest-of-the-stronger principle otherwise found throughout history.

Next, the famous claim that politics is downstream from culture tends to miss the bigger picture and the deeper meaning of the American Founding. Diagrammatically, here is how the functioning of American society under its founding principles has been radically altered by the Progressive revolution:

The American Founding: The Declaration’s Natural Rights ⇒ Individual Character Formation to Create Good Citizens Capable of Self-Government ⇒ Culture with Vibrant Mediating Institutions ⇒ Limited Government

versus

Today’s Progressive Revolution: Relativism in a Naked Public Square ⇒ Society Dominated by a Powerful Elite ⇒ Atrophied Culture ⇒ Individuals as Wards of the State

Let’s now compare and contrast the respective steps of these two alternative worldviews in order better to understand the differences between them and the consequences to society inherent in adopting either one.

The American Founding: The Declaration’s Natural Rights
The Declaration’s famous preamble relied on the existence and authority of a transcendent higher power when it asserted the self evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. In other words, our rights are a gift from God. Richard Reeb once observed, “America’s founders were scrupulously neutral between the numerous religious sects that existed in their time. But it is not true that they were hostile to the God worshipped by all of them.” There is nothing secular or relativistic about the Declaration or the founding, a view reinforced by the words of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson,  James Madison and other founders. Each of them understood the value of a secular government but saw a secular society—one without religion—as a threat to the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Similarly, Calvin Coolidge described the Declaration as a great spiritual document because equality, liberty, and our natural rights are based on religious convictions:

…It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776…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…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…

The American Founding: Individual Character Formation and Political Humility
We can avoid sliding backwards by recognizing how culture is downstream from individual character formation. In other words, what matters most to changing the state of our culture and enabling the rediscovery of our Declaration heritage is focusing on the important task of forming individuals who possess the character required to live the virtues that make free government possible.

This means having habits and dispositions to be and do good, including acknowledging the existence of certain moral constraints on behaviors. As such, the Founding draws on our instinctive knowledge of right and wrong that is connected to the laws of nature summarized in Micah 6:8, which Washington referenced in 1783: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Lawrence Reed explains that individual character matters because of its direct connection to liberty, and thus to self-government: “If you value liberty, you must understand that character is an indispensable ingredient—a necessary pre-condition—for a free society…no people who lost their character kept their liberties. That may be the most important lesson from the last five thousand years of human history.”

The American Founding:  Creating Good Citizens Capable of Self-Government

Citizenship represents the interactions between individuals and their community. “Political prosperity” results when people of character act as good citizens, forming a good regime by blending together the virtues with “institutions and habits of freedom,” all free from an overbearing state.

Among these good citizens, there is no collective guilt, in either direction, based on race or by role in society. None of us owns any personal responsibility for the sad historical fact of slavery just because we are white. However, we all own personal responsibility for having hearts that hold no hatred for people based merely upon the color of their skin. Similarly, some of us come from families who have been living the American Dream, seeing improvements in educational and financial status generation-over-generation. That doesn’t equate to white privilege or a mandatory feeling of guilt even as we are called to assist those who need a helping hand so they can share in similar opportunities.

The American Founding: Building a Culture with Vibrant Mediating Institutions
A strong culture results from good citizens committing to participate actively in exclusive and reciprocal obligations with other citizens, based on the laws and customs of their communities. They do this through what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the constant formation of associations and Edmund Burke called “little platoons,” efforts that bind people together in the pursuit of aligned purposes—some even altruistic in nature—that also develop a refined sense of individual moral responsibility.

Social justice, properly understood, is then a virtue, a habit associated with individuals of character (instead of society at large), who appreciate how voluntary associations of fellow citizens of varying ideological preferences are the most productive way to effect genuine and lasting societal change.

These activities strengthen the community’s mediating institutions—smaller groups of family, churches, schools, fraternal organizations, and other local efforts—all voluntary activities that build ties between American citizens and have the added benefit of limiting the power of the state. Within these groups, informal norms (often called the “hidden law”) allow judgment and common sense to be applied as a means of regulating daily behaviors and interpersonal conflicts. Along the way, good citizens show their love for America by displaying affection for other Americans, thereby contributing to the building of a national character whose “summit of worth” consists of what Allen calls “independence in character and circumstance.”

The American Founding: Limited Government
People of character exercising their natural rights and freely building communities of good citizens is the very definition of a uniquely American freedom, a freedom that does not need more than the limited government necessary to protect such pre-existing natural rights.

In contrast, today’s Progressive revolution has created an entirely different societal dynamic.

Today’s Progressive Revolution: Relativism in a Naked Public Square
Relativism’s rule across American society means all subjective feelings are deemed valid and, when combined with political correctness and multiculturalism, conversations about “justice, rights, and moral common sense” have become well nigh impossible.

Lost in this assertion that there are no universal moral truths is the irony, described best by William Voegeli, that “no one is really ’value-neutral’ with respect to his own values” as he adds that relativists “always dismiss other people’s beliefs, but spare their own moral preferences from their doctrine’s scoffing” which then leads to there being “no reasons to choose the standards of the wise and good over those of the deranged and cruel.” This is crazy, but consistent with what we see building throughout our society. Roger Scruton offers the antidote:  “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”

However, George Weigel forecasts the ultimate consequences of today’s cultural trajectory:

Freedom untethered from moral truth risks self-destruction. For if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard by which to settle our differences, then either you will impose your power on me or I will impose my power on you . . . Freedom uncoupled from truth . . . leads to chaos and thence to new forms of tyranny.

Such nihilistic power plays have become the new social currency and anyone who disagrees is labeled intolerant and in need of re-education. If this persists, it will not end well as no society has ever survived after basing its existence on relativism.

Today’s Progressive Revolution: Society Dominated by a Powerful Elite
As relativism exerts greater control, all forms of religious faith must become privatized and be taken out of the public square, continuing the destruction of our Western Civilization’s cultural heritage dating back to Athens, Jerusalem and Rome. We see this with today’s attacks on religious liberty and the exercise of rights of conscience. These occur because, as Richard John Neuhaus reminds us, the “vacuum will be filled by the agent left in control of the public square, the state . . . In this manner, a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church” where the state “displace[s] religion as the generator and bearer of values . . . the public square has only two actors in it—the state and the individual” where “religion as a mediating structure . . . is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state,” regardless of whether the state is defined in national or globalist terms.  

As a result, we have gone backwards, becoming increasingly a regime based on the interest-of-the-stronger, about which the Greek historian Thucydides said: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.” And the Progressives think this is progress!

Today’s Progressive Revolution: Atrophied Culture
Instead of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous words where he wished his children to be judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, we now hear group blaming derived from identity politics and the resulting cry for “social justice,” which we increasingly see for what it is, a demand for coercive power plays by the state, as special interests seek favors or to play god.

With an increasingly unchallenged, centralized, and rules-based bureaucratic state run for the benefit of elites, mediating institutions and voluntary associations wither away. Hidden law is destroyed, replaced by the rule of a remote, unelected, nameless, faceless, and unaccountable administrative state that seeks to regulate an ever-increasing span of societal activities. One result of these efforts has been the over-criminalization of ordinary life that enables the state to target anyone, only further tightening the noose around liberty’s neck.

Today’s Progressive Revolution: Individuals as Wards of the State and Political Hubris
The incentives to be charitable to others diminish as citizens become incentivized to relinquish all personal responsibility to get involved with and care for the needy because, after all, the state is deemed to be responsible for that. In accepting that worldview, we have passively agreed that a distant bureaucrat can be a better judge than us of how to meet our neighbors’ needs. We know from history that these programs will be ineffective and the costs will only be higher. Soon enough, it gets worse when the recipient of charity begins to feel entitled instead of grateful, eliminating any incentive to modify their behaviors.

Whether the Progressive revolution—having long ago become a form of religious fundamentalism, albeit one without a transcendent power—is viewed through a public choice lens or a Declaration lens, the revolution presumes it can adversely alter economic and behavioral incentives but still achieve better outcomes through centralized state power. Never in history has that approach succeeded but its proponents only argue for more of the same, the very definition of hubris. As Michael Walsh has said, “the Left never stops, they never sleep, they never quit. If you think you’ve beaten them, you haven’t.”

Rediscovering Our Declaration of Independence Heritage
We are in a cultural crisis, as we recently saw in the Progressive reaction to President Trump’s speech in Poland, a situation that cannot begin to resolve itself until after we first conclude a serious public debate that favorably answers the following four questions, building a new societal consensus that rediscovers our Founding heritage and rejects Progressive idolatry.

Question 1: Do we believe our rights come from the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God or from government?

Question 2: Is it individual character formation, based on universal moral truths and the virtues, to create good and free citizens or is it the nihilism of relativism, with its political correctness and multiculturalism relatives?

Question 3: Should voluntary associations and mediating institutions or the state dominate the public square culture?

Question 4: What is the most effective way to dismantle the administrative state, thereby allowing a sovereign people to reassert their natural rights?

Only after a new consensus has been realized can the second part, the hard work of recovery and living differently, begin in earnest. We have a lot to do if we are going to have any chance of reclaiming our uniquely American heritage of liberty and self-government.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • History • political philosophy

Jefferson’s Elements

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When Euclid wrote Elements circa 300 B.C. he set down five axioms.

  1. A straight line can be made from any two points.
  1. A finite straight line can be extended continuously.
  1. A circle can be described by a line segment with a fixed point and the opposite point rotated continuously to its original position.
  1. All right angles are equal to one another.
  1. If a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.

There is no proof of these axioms. They are definitional as to a line, a circle, an angle, and parallel and intersecting.

There are two basic polygons of Euclidian geometry that are remarkable descriptors of phenomena: the triangle and the circle. A triangle is a polygon that can be made with the fewest number of sides. A circle is a polygon with an infinite number of sides.

All similar triangles have the same proportions regardless of scale. Any point on a circle can be described by a line descending from that point to intersect at a right angle with a radius. One can know the proportions of that triangle knowing only one other angle. All the trigonometric functions can be thus derived.

Euclid’s Elements is so well founded on these self-evident axioms that Euclidian geometry and derivations of it are used to describe with accuracy nearly all—it is subject to some exceptions that it is not necessary to discuss here—human experience of the physical world, from solid bodies to sound waves. Derivatives of Euclidian geometry describe (though not unqualifiedly) planetary motions adequately through Kepler and many quantum phenomena (e.g., spherical harmonics that govern electron shells which in turn govern quantum states of energy). The structure of Euclid’s Elements is similar to the structure of experience.

If you were to deny the axioms of Euclid’s elements—other than, to some extent, the fifth axiom (a discussion for another place)—you would destroy the descriptive and predictive character of Euclidian geometry and its derivatives.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence begins its argument justifying the revolution with “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” The first axiom of the American Revolution is “all men are created equal.”  

This axiom is a rejection of the ground of government which had for so long dominated world opinion, the divine right of kings. The divine right of kings is a principle of inequality, culturally understood in the West from the paternity of Abraham, the authority of Saul, and the authority of Caesar. It is a mix of divine anointment, conquest, and heredity. Absent supernatural proofs, anointment is an inequality rooted in fraud. Conquest is an inequality rooted in force. Heredity is a mix of both, which Thomas Paine rebutted simply with if God intended hereditary government He would not “so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.” The authority of kings is an authority based on a political geometry of fraud, force, and, not infrequently, farce.

Equality and free government are based on an opposite and superior political geometry of reason. The unique characteristic of a human being qua human being is reason. As all right angles are equal, all human beings, other than infants and imbeciles, possess reason.

“Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”  —Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

When Adam Smith wrote this he was speaking specifically of trade. But the principle is the same when applied to politics. Only human beings can—and persistently do—enter into agreements.

Reason is the power to distinguish between universals and particulars. A human being can see a chair and comprehend that it is at once a particular chair and one of an infinite number of possible chairs. This is true of the general manner of ideas and expression of human beings. We use speech constructed on mutual understanding of particular things participating in universal categories.  

One dog fairly and deliberately exchanges one bone for another with another dog.  

Each word in the above sentence represents a concept that is universal: oneness, otherness, fairness, deliberateness, what is a dog, what is exchanging, what is a bone. Each word is intelligible because it has a particular meaning as well.

Yet Adam Smith’s dogs do not have this “simple” power and as a result are incapable of making an agreement, a fair and deliberate exchange.

Human beings make agreements using words and remembering their meaning. The basis of these agreements is concurrence about the universal and particular meaning of words sufficient to form, in the parlance of common law, “a meeting of the minds.” Agreements, or contracts, are compilations of words which deliberately describe an exchange of one thing for another and to which the parties bind themselves in the future. Unique among animals that live in society, we use speech to exchange ideas about the just and the unjust. All human beings, infants and imbeciles excepted, are capable of making agreements about the just and the unjust. That is the basic geometry upon which our liberty is built.

  1. All men are created equal.
  1. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,
  1. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  1. Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.  

The above might be called Jefferson’s Elements. They are axioms. No further proof of them is necessary. They can be examined and applied. And they can be denied. But they cannot be denied without destroying free government, just as Euclid’s axioms cannot be denied without destroying the remarkable descriptive predictive character of Euclidian geometry. The structure of Jefferson’s Elements is similar to the structure of experience.

Today, we are in the midst of a political defense of Jefferson’s Elements against a drift of political opinion that has slowly separated itself from these axioms.

Heredity has become an increasing part of our politics. It has been pointed out many times, but for the election of Trump we would have gone on to twenty-four of the last thirty-two years with one of the same two political families in office.

The agreement, the compact made by the People, the Constitution also has become routinely ignored, as both parties advance legal theories that do not require the words of the Constitution to have their plain meaning. Justice Gorsuch is a good first step in remedying this. Similar nominees upon the retirement of Kennedy and Ginsberg will also be essential.

The law with respect to immigration has been routinely ignored, with a view towards institutionalizing and making permanent that disregard as a prosecutorial discretion.

The Congress’ political will has been sapped by its preference for delegating legislative power to the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy has correspondingly developed a political will independent of the process of elections.

These things and more are now at issue in the pitched battle over Trump’s presidency. There is an enormous effort afoot to convince you that the great issue of our time is the etiquette of tweeting on Twitter.  This is an effort to focus on the small to take your attention off of the larger matter of Jefferson’s Elements.

Happy Fourth of July.

 

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • political philosophy • self-government • The Left

Conservatism Must First Recover What It Seeks to Conserve

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Since the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president, essays about conservatism—what it is, how it ought to relate to Trump—are all the rage. Some—like Greg Weiner’s “Conservatism’s Constitutional Moment”—argue that the right way to understand conservatism is to view it as a disposition committed to conservation. Without that orientation, he argues, “conservative” will become a mere “label for policy preferences that are, by their nature, momentary.”

This was a point amplified by Michael Anton, writing as Publius Decius Mus, in his now famous essay, “The Flight 93 Election.” In that essay, Anton criticizes “Conservatism, Inc.” for its insistence on small-ball thinking—attempting, in essence, to put out the raging wildfire in America (a fire started by progressivism) with water-bottle-sized proposals such as “tax deductions for having more babies and the like.”

Weiner asks: “But what in the age of Trumpism . . . are conservatives to conserve?” His answer is the “constitutional regime” which ought to undergird all policy disputes. I agree wholeheartedly that the constitutional sub- and superstructure that is our birthright as Americans is of immense importance and should be treasured. But Weiner, and others like him, unfortunately, put the proverbial cart before the horse. To borrow a concept from the late, fiercely anti-Communist political theorist James Burnham, they miss the “key”: the central challenge of the age, against which all else is “secondary, subordinate.”

What is that key? The reenchantment of the American mind with its constitutional heritage. Before conservatism can preserve the constitutional order bequeathed to us by the founders, the nation itself must rediscover what that order entails, offers, and demands of us. We cannot preserve what we do not currently understand or possess. We the People have forgotten what it truly means to live in the American constitutional republic with all its responsibilities and associated privileges—rights and duties alike.

The primary problem with trying to preserve the constitutional structure of our republic before the people have rediscovered the necessity for it is that we run into the problem: that politics, in the words of the inimitable Andrew Breitbart, “is downstream from culture.” Thus, merely preserving the modes of a constitutional order emphatically is not sufficient to stem the cultural tide against free government because, to a large extent, that order no longer exists in people’s everyday lives and imaginations.

This is because, except in certain boutique corners of the culture, all understanding of it has been eviscerated, chiefly, by the bloated, liberty-killing modern administrative state. We thus can no longer count on the habits or the thinking of a free and self-governing people, something essential to the existence of a well-ordered, prosperous nation-state. The siren song of equity, a stifling P.C. culture, and the rapid technological advancements that have disrupted traditional mores and habits of work that sustain a healthy middle class have also contributed their share to the damage. The problem, in other words, runs much, much deeper than Weiner and other advocates of “constitutionalism” may realize or admit.

Commentators like Weiner speak of, envision, and hope for a Congress that will stand up for itself as a co-equal branch of our tripartite federal government. They imagine that if Congress were just more willing to assert itself, perhaps by puffing up its chest and “elbowing” its way back to the table of power, then we could all return to journeying unencumbered toward the sunny uplands of liberty and prosperity. But this is largely wishful thinking. It elides a crucial reality: Congressional members are voted into their offices by a polity that has, for all intents and purposes, no memory of, lived experience with, or historical tradition of the kind of self-governing constitutional republic that is the subject of these scholars’ studies. What they understand to be the legitimate historical American regime is no longer the regime under which voters actually live—neither is it a thing alive in their imagination or memory.

How then can “We the People” expect that Congress—given its powers by such an impoverished people and comprised of nothing more than 535 persons drawn from such a diminished polity—will or can right the ship of state and set us on a course worthy of the American idea? To agree with the conservation-before-recovery argument advanced by Weiner  is to think that an “institutional bandage” (i.e., a more muscular Congress) will suffice to stem the advance of our nation’s “cancer” (i.e., the decay of our collective commitment to our American heritage). The solution to the problem of the hollowing out of the idea and reality of a free America simply must address causes and forces deeper than those Weiner identifies if it is to be successful.

In addition, it is odd to hear conservatives insist that adhering more strictly to the mechanisms of the Constitution—mere political practice—will rescue us. That is a profoundly unconservative position, for it has never been in the past and ought never to be now the conservative position that the mechanisms of politics are of prime importance but, rather, that these are subordinate to (and rightly so) other goods that inform politics in the higher sense (i.e., deliberation about how we ought to live together)—namely, family, religion, community, and the like.

This is not at all to say that Weiner’s prescription for repairing and restoring the indispensable principle of separation of powers to its rightful pride of place is not a necessary step to be taken; it absolutely is. But that is the key insight. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to restoring the American creed and the promise of opportunity, mobility, and liberty for all.

To think that government and the mechanisms of politics can save us is to throw our lot in with the political Left which clings to these forms as one would to driftwood out at sea. For those with no other higher good at which to aim, this is understandable. But it won’t do for us.

Progressives, sadly, have no genuine summum bonum outside of political activism; politics is their god, plain and simple. To ape their rhetoric is to accept their blinkered view of human dignity and flourishing which cheapens and damages conservatism and the conservative project greatly.

Our current political moment is not one in which the Burkean-Madisonian view described and endorsed by Weiner—that “enduring practice ratified by the people acting through all three branches of government [can] … ‘alter’ … constitutional meaning” and that “long possession creates a rightful title”—applies. To accept this view is to accept that the Progressive Left, keen as it has been to push the constitutional envelope ever since the days of President Woodrow Wilson—a man who utterly abhorred the separation of powers—will be nearly always unilaterally setting the terms of engagement; it is to cede, wholly unprompted, an unbelievable amount of political ground to the enemies of the very “constitutional regime” Weiner so clearly respects and cherishes. (Not to mention that so much of the process has been hijacked by an illegitimate “fourth branch” of government, so the requisite conditions of alteration don’t even obtain.)

New entitlements are difficult to undo, and people alive today are very much incapable of imagining what life was like in a pre-New Deal America, so any move to, for example, slow the growth of government spending—not even cut it in an absolute sense but merely slow its rate of growth—is met with fevered denunciations and outlandish claims that the GOP consciously desires the demise of the sick and elderly. We cannot allow anti-constitutional innovations, if they just so happen to “stick” to the wall of our common life, to gain legitimacy. This is so for a purely instrumental reason: such bastardizations of the Constitution serve the Left’s perverse agenda at the expense of the Right’s vision. The Left gives no quarter to the Right in pursuit of its agenda; the Right ought to resist in kind, otherwise any hope of preserving a constitutional regime is a fool’s errand.

This posture massively benefits aggressors (the political Left) at the expense of would-be conservers (the political Right) and trades very heavily on the idea that those seeking power have the best interests of the nation at heart. Conservatives are thus put in the awkward position of having to conserve every new aberration that the Left shoves down the country’s throat if it cannot be undone before it becomes even just a marginally ingrained idea, practice, or institution. Perhaps paradoxically, conservatives—if we are to achieve the sort of conservation Weiner believes is fundamental to our identity—must at times act in the ways our foes smear and accuse us: reactionary and in that way refusing to allow distortions of our Constitution to crystallize. For if we don’t, then we offer both precedent and justification for ever more new, frequent, and extreme distortions and crystallizations until the original order of 1791 (or, better, of post-1868/pre-1937) is all but unintelligible. We would do well to heed the words of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in this regard: “[E]xtremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

The only real solution, then, is to reject the notion that our political deliverance will come, in the words of Burke, “ready made [sic] and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of wisdom and of war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the brain of Jupiter himself”—that is, salvation won’t come in a top-down manner, beginning with Congress. It must come, rather, to draw yet again upon the eminent Burke, by way of “example”: “the school of mankind; [for] they will learn at no other.” Americans must relearn what it means to be a self-governing polity, freed from the fetters of an overweening government. Will that require a change in how our government operates so that it ceases to crowd out American ingenuity and push to the point of obliteration communal ties and social capital?

Yes, definitely. But that cannot happen until We the People reawaken to the great promise, traditions, and heritage of which we have been robbed.

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2016 Election • Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Book Reviews • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Donald Trump • Hillary Clinton • Lincoln • self-government • separation of powers • The Constitution • The Leviathian State • Trump White House

Coarse Correction: The Real Significance of the 2016 Election

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About a year ago, the respected Harvard political theorist, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., wrote an op-ed about Donald Trump for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Donald Trump Is No Gentleman.” Mansfield made the case that the appellation “gentleman” is one used so rarely these days that we forget, even, to note its opposite.  

He also wrote:

The outstanding person in this election is Donald Trump, in that he attracts the most attention, but the outstanding fact is the voters behind him who excuse Mr. Trump for his ungentlemanly behavior….

Incapable as he is of appreciating the gentleman, Mr. Trump earns the disdain of the promoters of gender neutrality. Mr. Trump’s resistance to political correctness, however, has the coarseness of a male [this months  before the Access Hollywood tape]. Or what used to be the coarseness of a male. Now that women are practicing to swear like sailors, Mr. Trump is a reminder of male superiority in the department of vulgarity. Surely no woman would have run his campaign.

Mansfield’s essay, then, invites consideration of the coarseness of his female opponent. She was after all the embodiment of vulgar pandering to sex preference. In fact, his penetrating essay implied that Trump had a good chance of beating Hillary Clinton precisely because he was willing to be crude and in that contest, he could outmatch even her.

The subhead of Mansfield’s article tells the tale in more detail: “Like Machiavelli, [Trump] makes clear that winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Can a citizen survey the field of honorable candidates, losers or near-losers, all—be his name Romney, McCain, or Bush—without revulsion and fear for the future of republican government? Could any of 2016’s supposed gentlemen candidates have beaten Clinton by flipping those Midwestern states and Pennsylvania?

Two weeks after Mansfield’s article appeared, Trump named Kellyanne Conway his campaign manager. In that sense a woman did run (and win) Trump’s campaign. It seems that the coarse candidate made the very course correction that Mansfield implied was impossible: the Machiavellian candidate’s truthfulness about political correctness needed political protection (not to speak of wisdom) in Conway’s form.

How did Trump stump the smartest campaign masterminds and conquer Lady Fortune? For one thing, he delighted more than conservative voters with his skewering of media figures and intellectuals. His keen insight was that Americans, whatever else they may think, do not like to be told what to think. And as his recent tweeting shows, the all-important proxy war with the media as the front for intellectuals continues into his presidency with Trump standing in as the unlikely champion of the people.

In this light, consider anti-Trump pundit George Will’s onetime praise of Trump who, Will then noted, “believes that excess can be a virtue” and in that belief “is as American as Manhattan’s skyline…. Brashness, zeal and elan are part of this country’s character” (quoted in The Art of the Deal, 1987). That was then. But the Will of the Trump era not only renounced Trump but the Republican Party that embraced him as well.

Mansfield narrows Trump’s attack on political correctness to questions having to do with women, but Trump included racial and ethnic identity politics as well.

Haven’t all card-carrying conservative intellectuals at some point denounced affirmative action and identity politics as corrosive of the souls of citizens and of the common good? After all, how does a judge in San Diego even get a case about a New York-based Trump University? More to the point, how did this adherent to a policy of favoring one identity group over others become a judge in the first place?  Why isn’t calling out a “Mexican judge” turnabout as fair play? It’s not as though he hit a girl.

If a candidate won’t defend his own interests, using all weapons at his command, why should the public think he will zealously defend their common interests, especially against pseudo-aristocratic racial/ethnic claims of privilege? It is scarcely egomania, let alone “white nationalism,” to defend oneself from fire coming at one from a safe space. Why are low blows and insults tolerated when they are directed at Republicans, but “unpresidential” and “beneath the dignity of the office” when they are repulsed in equal measure? In fact, Aristotle makes it clear that permitting an injustice to oneself is a vice.    

With these things in mind, I turn now to a book written by three distinguished conservative intellectuals who again combine their talents to produce what may well be the most insightful book written on the 2016 election. In Defying the Odds: The 2016 Elections and American Politics, James Ceaser (University of Virginia), Andrew Busch (Claremont McKenna), and John Pitney (Claremont McKenna) resume their quadrennial series on American presidential elections, going back to 1992 (Pitney having first joined for the previous book).

As I wrote of the 2012 edition, their latest deploys witty prose in combining “the best in political journalism with the most relevant political science scholarship—in other words, a citizen’s perspective but with statistical and empirical support and, above all, historical . . .” background.  Their focus on progressive striving to overcome natural rights and conservative gestures at defending those rights is surely unique in contemporary political science on campaigns.

Not coincidentally, a former student of the two Claremont coauthors, Heidi Cruz, emerged the most impressive spouse in the campaign.

But for all their seriousness and the seriousness with which they attempt to take Trump (and pro-Trump sources such as the Journal of American Greatness and its successor, American Greatness, “Flight 93” author Publius Decius Mus, and Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams) they end up missing Trump’s significance for American politics.  

Review of James Ceaser, Andrew Busch, and John Pitney, Jr., Defying the Odds: the 2016 Elections and American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 216 pages, $29.95)

Ceaser’s concluding paragraph (he stands in for all three authors) epitomizes the book’s strengths and weaknesses: “No one . . .  had been more of an outsider. No one had disrupted his own party and the conventions of politics more. No one had, in a single election, laid low the reigning dynasties of both his own party (the Bushes) and the other party (the Clintons).” Just before this, however, they write, “Although it was clear what Trump was against, it was never quite clear what he was for.”

They were unsure, for example, whether Trump would bring about a new form of identity politics, “white nationalism,” or instead call for a new emphasis on “citizenship and the nation.”

In a similar vein, Ceaser sometimes lapses into a kind of moral equivalence between Trump and Clinton—considering both anti-constitutionalist and “authoritarian.” Certainly, these authors should understand that the rise of intellectual elites (e.g., the Clintons with their Yale law degrees  and Obama as the first president with both parents holding Ph.D.s) distorted recent politics.

Trump’s ‘Political Friendship’

While Machiavelli always enlightens, Aristotle provides even better insight into the Trump campaign. Aristotle (Politics V.6) explains, “Oligarchies change most often in two most obvious ways. One occurs when they treat the multitude unjustly, for then any champion is sufficient, especially when it turns out that the leader comes from the oligarchy itself….”

Moreover, though neither Ceaser nor Trump uses this language, the America of failed promises we are now presented with is properly labelled a majority faction, which threatens individual rights and the common good, as seen in the constitutionally dubious waging of futile wars, promoting of illegal immigration, and preference for globalist policy over American interests. With the threat of yet another Bush or Clinton, prime causes of their current discontents, Americans turned as in 1860 to the unlikely candidate most likely to throw off “the slave power,” as the Decius once put it.

Thus Trump opposes identity politics, not by singling out groups, but instead by showing how an American identity is superior to all others (and especially to divisive sub-groupings of Americans). Trump’s patriotism is what Aristotle called political friendship, a kind of friendship of virtue. It is the unity of purpose, individual and national, that Lincoln described in the Gettysburg Address.

Thus Trump opposes identity politics, not by singling out groups, but instead by showing how an American identity is superior to all others (and especially to divisive sub-groupings of Americans). Trump’s patriotism is what Aristotle called political friendship, a kind of friendship of virtue. 

Far from being its enemy, such a “populism” becomes essential to preserve constitutional government, just as clearly as identity politics destroys it. It promotes a higher identity that unites rather than divisive sub-identities that set us against each other. And this is why the political correctness of identity politics is a necessary step to build that enduring faction known as the administrative state. That kind of authoritarianism and anti-constitutionalism is wholly assumed by Clinton. Quite the opposite with Trump.

Ceaser’s characterization of Trump as “post-ideological” misses that Trump is in fact pre-ideological—he thinks in terms of the whole American nation, not in terms of the groups that comprise it. Trump is more like Lincoln at Gettysburg than Madison in Federalist 10.

In a similar way, Trump was clearly the strongest candidate of a weak (not strong, as the conventional wisdom held) Republican field. His serious opponents were pretty much either parochial governors, callow senators, or yet another Bush. The man with “New York values” was, ironically, the only national candidate.

With this Trump in mind, I make my own observations about 2016, including a few major differences with Ceaser:

  • Their comparison of 1992 and 2016 doesn’t work, because George H.W. Bush ran away from Reagan, and Pat Buchanan despises Lincoln.
  • Modifying  the charge that 2016 was “perhaps the most uncivil, vulgar, scandal-flecked campaign in living memory” one should recall the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton, the political attacks in the anti-Goldwater campaign of 1964, and the Truman campaign of 1948.  
  • A Clinton television ad featured young kids in front of a TV watching Trump at various campaign moments. That played two ways.  I saw the way liberals treat their kids: Dump them in front of a TV without adult supervision.
  • Trump proved himself the best Catholic in attendance at the Cardinal Dolan-hosted Al Smith dinner, speaking truth to power by launching an impolitic attack on Hillary Clinton for her support of abortion rights, to the boos of the assembled audience. Trump won the Catholic vote.
  • Choosing Mormon Evan McMullin as a possible anti-Trump spoiler in Utah was itself a form of low identity politics, showing how corrupted and anti-American their partisan opposition to Trump had become.
  • Making America great again requires a stronger military, so no one should have been surprised by his cabinet and National Security Council adviser picks.
  • Besides demolishing the leading members of party establishments, Trump would redefine the Republican Party as the workers’ party, and welcome back black men as Republican voters (they cast 13 percent of their votes for Trump).
  • Finally, there is the matter of FBI Director James Comey’s various interventions or non-interventions, which continue to reverberate. Our authors write,

If third parties, FBI directors, Russians, and racists are not really satisfactory explanations for Trump’s win, can anything else be offered to help understand this surprising election? An alternative story might be built around world trends, rioters, a weak president, and rampaging progressives.

While there is much in that, the real alternative story of 2016 is Comey as a representative of the administrative state, which Nixon had made his concern. We still don’t know the extent of Comey’s attempts to go well beyond his investigatory obligations to exercise political influence.

Just as the left makes every attack on the administrative state an attack on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so every Republican Administration becomes for the media and Democrats a replay of Nixon and Watergate. Nixon tried to rollback the Democrats’ successor to the New Deal, the Great Society.  Republicans still haven’t learned the meaning of Watergate, which was far more a political crisis engineered by partisan Democrats than a constitutional crisis brought about by Nixon. Republicans have yet to recognize that their Machiavellian enemies in the bureaucracy, media, and politics brought about Nixon’s demise. Trump has seen that crisis early on in his presidency, embodied in James Comey, and is gamely fighting it..

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 of our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com

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America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • History • political philosophy • Religion and Society • self-government • The Constitution • The Culture

Progression—or Degeneracy? Part Three

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Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series.

Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution echoes forward to our time by highlighting the continuity between France’s ancien regime and the ones that grew in France and throughout Europe after the Revolution. The book’s point is that before, and especially after the Revolution, there was less liberty, equality, and fraternity in Europe than there had been in the Middle Ages. This is Tocqueville’s counterpoint to his Democracy in America, which shows that the Americans alone had secured these goods by departing radically from the regimes that had governed Europe since the fourteenth century.

The ancien regime had drawn unto itself the energies, hopes and fears of France even more than those of other European peoples. It had overlaid a pervasive, omni-competent bureaucracy onto society. This administrative machinery having grown huge, required ever more of the people’s money in taxes, which further drained society’s energies. The regime had endowed private groups with government power. Nothing could be done without official or officious sanction. Law had been transmuted into administration, and administration had become unpredictable, arbitrary. The administrators had become a class apart, contemptuous of the people’ s right and capacity to manage their own lives. The ruling class was all-abuzz with schemes to reform society. It gloried in its own hostility to Christianity. The best and brightest disbelieved in God but had unbounded faith in themselves.

Tocqueville writes: “The government having taken the place of Providence, people naturally looked to it for their individual needs. Thus…the public interest came to consist of a mass of little private ones.”

The French monarchy had tried to substitute technocratic administration for politics. But “the administrative machine [that it had built] was so vast, so complicated, so inefficient and unproductive and unresponsive that the government itself bypassed it and built an alternate system alongside, which did the things which the bureaucrats pretended to be doing.” This alternate system was answerable directly but officiously to the king and his friends.

Country parishes and towns that once had taken care of their own public buildings, water works, and the poor, now had to apply for permission and funds to the central administration. “Toward the end of the 18th century, not even an alms-house in the depths of a province could be built unless the comptroller general could account for the cost and establish its rules….and if knowledge does not match the extent of power, all is left to low-level agents who act as veritable masters.” “The controller-general demands…detailed information on all persons involved. His subordinate turns to his own sub-delegates and transmits back up the line what they report, word for word as if he knew the matter personally.” In all this, the regime involved the judiciary, “to give the impression that some new rights were being substituted for the ones being taken away.”

Decisions depended on who happened to be in charge, and on his humor, because “laws and rules changed ceaselessly. Nothing remained in repose one instant…Ever-newer rules followed one another with such rapidity that the agents, being commanded … hardly knew what or how to obey.” That is why “even when the law was not changed, the manner in which it was applied changed every day.” “It is difficult to imagine the disdain in which the law fell among the very people who were administering it…” And yet, this was the Old Regime’s “whole character”: “rigid rules, pliable practices.”

The regime consisted of the administrators and of the class “which already had its particular spirit, its traditions, its virtues, its own values and pride. It’s the aristocracy of the new society.” Its chief characteristic was “the violent hatred which it felt for all, whether nobles or bourgeois, who wanted to meddle in public affairs, other than itself…In a word, [this class] objects to citizens intruding themselves in any manner whatever in their own affairs; it prefers sterility to competition.”

But while this class discouraged people from acting on their own behalf, it encouraged people to “attack the principles on which society rested…” They fostered discussion of all manner of moral and political change. “The ends which these reformers proposed were different, but the means proposed were always the same. They wanted to use the power of the central government in order to break everything and remake it all according to new plans conceived by themselves; It seemed that they alone were up to such a task. The power of the state must be as limitless as is its task; the only question is to make correct use of it.”

Tocqueville believed that America had gone much farther than any French Philosophes had ever imagined with regard to civil liberty. But he noted that the most notable difference between France and America was that, in America, the French ruling class’s “anti-religious doctrines had never been able to make an appearance, even given [America’s] unlimited freedom of the press.”

While the ruling class/reformers differed on many matters, they were united in their disdain for Christianity. Although “irreligion” was uncommon “among the middle classes and the people” it was “widespread among the princes and the beautiful people.” ”Since “those who denied Christianity raised their voices and those who still believed remained silent, it came to pass that those who kept the ancient faith feared to be the only ones doing so and, fearing isolation more than error, they joined the crowd without thinking like it….” “ [The ruling class] attacked the Christian religion without trying to put another in its place. [Emptying] souls of the faith that had filled them, they left them empty.”

But, “if the Frenchmen who made the Revolution were …incredulous…about religion, they believed in themselves. They had no doubt about the power and perfectibility of man…nor did they doubt in the least that they had been called to transform society and regenerate our species. For them, these sentiments and passions had become a new religion.”

Tocqueville believed that America had gone much farther than any French Philosophes had ever imagined with regard to civil liberty. But he noted that the most notable difference between France and America was that, in America, the French ruling class’s “anti-religious doctrines had never been able to make an appearance, even given [America’s] unlimited freedom of the press.”

Today’s America as 18th Century France?

Why do we recognize features of America’s present regime in Tocqueville’s description of 18th century France? Having established that the American founders rebelled precisely against these very features, and that they established a regime with features diametrically opposed to them, we must find the explanation for the similarity of what we have today to what the founders opposed in a cause that trumps any and all founders’ intentions. It is the very same cause that trumps any and all parents’ intentions to set children on one path rather than another. Namely, free will. While the founders founded an American regime that restrained government, they made no attempt to restrain anyone from adopting ideas and vocabularies hostile to the founding. Nor could they have, any more that God Himself could have made man in His own image—that is, with free will—and yet also somehow constrained Eve to “just say no” to the Serpent.

But, unlike the French, 18th century Americans reacted to these temptations by founding a constitutional structure designed to restrain human desires. They did that because they believed that such desires are properly subject to the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” None of them thought of individual liberty in the sense of fais ce que voudras.”

The Americans of 1776-1789 faced the same temptations as Eve and all other humans. We all want others’ deference, power over them, and above all to decide for ourselves rather than to discover what is good and what is evil. The desire to remake ourselves, others, and the world itself in our own preferred image and likeness is all too human. America’s founders faced these temptations just as had French kings, bureaucrats, philosophes, and revolutionaries—George Washington no less than Mr. l’etat c’est moi, Louis XIV or Robespierre. But, unlike the French, 18th century Americans reacted to these temptations by founding a constitutional structure designed to restrain human desires. They did that because they believed that such desires are properly subject to the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” None of them thought of individual liberty in the sense of fais ce que voudras.”

In subsequent generations, American leaders gradually came to see these restraints as offenses against their natural right to do and to be as they wished. They made this psychological and philosophical about-face because they adopted a view of human nature as a work–in-progress subject to human will. No sooner is the Biblical “God created man in his own image and likeness” dropped than “all men are created equal” becomes a meaningless piety, a “self-evident lie,” or an authorization for imposing one’s own vision of equality on everyone else. Absent the Biblical “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing religion or preventing the free exercise thereof becomes a mandate for those in power to define what religion is and how it may or may not be exercised. Ceasing to ask “what is right by nature?” one must concentrate on “who can do what to whom?”

The Bible, Plato and Aristotle, had given sense to the American regime’s foundation-blocks. As that sense disappeared, humanity’s barbarous default rule reasserted itself. Plato’s Thrasymachus expressed that rule succinctly: “everywhere, right is the interest of the stronger.”

That defines the American regime under which we now live.

Follow these links to read part one and part two of this essay.

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 of our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com

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America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Europe • History • Leo Strauss • political philosophy • Religion and Society • self-government • The Constitution • The Culture

Progression—or Degeneracy? Part Two

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Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series.

If, as I have posited in the first of these essays, “whether the men of the American Revolution and founding thought in terms of natural law or of natural right makes the difference between courthouses engraved with the Ten Commandments, and ones whose portals bear the words inscribed over Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme: “Fais ce que vourdas”—Do what you want (limited only by what you can get away with)” then why, in the founding generation’s voluminous writings is there no distinction between natural law and the concept of a natural right to do whatever one might wish, much less any denunciation the latter?

First, the Founders’ own interpretation of certain key texts about nature differs from the way they are commonly interpreted in our time. Second—and likely more important historically—is the contrast between the customs that the founders affirmed and the ones against which they rebelled.

John Locke, whom our Founders quoted extensively, is especially important. In our time, few dissent from the proposition that Locke did in fact start from the epistemological premise that society consists of individuals originally “in a state of nature.” Today, Leo Strauss’ reading of Locke as a subtle co-founder of the natural right tradition is generally shared. Therefore some conclude that, since the founders quoted Locke more than any other authority, they were revolting against any and all previous notions of society and were instituting a polity dedicated to fulfilling whatever desires might take precedence within it. That might be Locke’s logic. Voltaire thought it was. But it was not the founders’ logic.

Therefore some conclude that, since the founders quoted Locke more than any other authority, they were revolting against any and all previous notions of society and were instituting a polity dedicated to fulfilling whatever desires might take precedence within it. That might be Locke’s logic. Voltaire thought it was. But it was not the founders’ logic.

The founders’ reading of Locke and their understanding of his key concepts was what some may call straightforward and others describe as superficial or unsophisticated. Locke, after all, had written The Reasonableness of Christianity, A Discourse on Miracles as well as his First and Second Treatise on Toleration. All these books were written in the language of the King James Bible—the language of the day. Hence, they are full of Christian concepts, inferences, and references. Indeed the very notion of a “state of nature” that is prior to all human obligations may be interpreted as the work of God—another way of talking about the Garden of Eden. It is not difficult to imagine people who thought in that language and who were struggling against the monarchies of the Baroque age reading Locke’s works as re-discoveries of reasons for the recovery of freedom.

In John Quincy Adams’ best-known address, for example, we see the easy compound of elements that we regard as oil-and-water. On July 4 1823, Adams—who was at least as literate as any academic before or since—said that as a result of the Revolution, Americans had become “Christians in a state of nature.” Coupling these two concepts, doing which makes no sense to us, made perfect sense to him and to his audience as it had to Americans in his father’s time.

Adams went on to explain that revolutionary Americans, far from having established an empire of the will, were bound by all sorts of natural laws. He begins with a thoroughly Aristotelian account of human relationships and of society’s purposes: “The sympathies of men begin with the relations of domestic life. They are rooted in the natural relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, of brother and sister; thence they spread through the social and moral propinquities of neighbor and friend, to the broader and more complicated relations of countryman and fellow-citizen;” He describes the American settlers’ relations with one another as based on contract—Lockean language. Yet, he said that the Declaration of Independence is all about these very limits. So long as this planet shall be inhabited by human beings,… so long shall this declaration hold out to the sovereign and to the subject the extent and the boundaries of their respective rights and duties; founded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

Far from being an authorization for free-form reform, the founding was about affirming the order of nature:

From the day of the Declaration, the people of the North American union, and of its constituent states, were associated bodies of civilized men and Christians, in a state of nature, but not of anarchy. They were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledged as the rules of their conduct. They were bound by the principles which they themselves had proclaimed in the declaration. They were bound by all the beneficent laws and institutions, which their forefathers had brought with them from their mother country, not as servitudes but as rights. They were bound by habits of hardy industry, by frugal and hospitable manners, by the general sentiments of social equality, by pure and virtuous morals.

How does this emphasis on ancient custom and on the laws of God—altogether unexceptional until our very own time—fit with the equally widespread sentiment that all of this was novus ordo saeculorum, radically new? The answer lies in the question: New in what sense?

In What Sense Is America New?

The American regime was wholly new because nothing like it had ever existed. Other republics and even some principalities had been proclaimed by and for “the people”—as those who did the proclaiming defined the term. Some of these had been proclaimed by Christians, who presumably accepted the laws of God, and for whom the term “the people” necessarily implies human equality. The American founders, for their part, were well aware of all past instances of “popular government,” but took pains to distance their new creation from any and all of them. They stressed again and again that limiting government’s capacity to dominate society was the primordial feature that they wished to install. Modesty, sobriety, republican responsibility had been absent from previous republics. They would be the American regime’s practical watchwords.

The ideas that the Americans were fashioning into reality, aside from Montesquieu’s so-called “new political science,” were anything but new. Adams, again mixing Locke with the classical tradition, had written that it was “new, not as a theory, for it had been working itself into the mind of man for many ages, and been especially expounded in the writings of Locke, but had never before been adopted by a great nation in practice.” But even this practical “new science,” was largely Montesquieu’s reflections on balancing legislative, executive and judicial powers—primarily an elaboration of the classical concept of the mixed regime. Vintage Aristotle.

The American founders, for their part, were well aware of all past instances of “popular government,” but took pains to distance their new creation from any and all of them. They stressed again and again that limiting government’s capacity to dominate society was the primordial feature that they wished to install.

The most fundamental ideas of all—and the least novel—regard the relationship between God and man. The Americans knew that they risked their lives by revolting. But they were confident that in so doing they were not risking their immortal souls as well. That is because they rejected the common contemporary notion that kings rule by divine right—indeed that governments have any right to define what is right. Rather, they believed—Thomas Paine’s Common Sense made a big deal of this—that since God is equally the father of all men, God set no man to rule over any other man. It followed that political life is strictly between men, each of whom is equally responsible to God. This is something that every Christian believes. The Israelites’ original political life, wrote Paine, was “democratical.” Paine was no Christian. But he wrote—successfully—to appeal to his Christian, Protestant audience.

John Locke may or may not have been any more Christian than Paine. But he too quoted scripture to make a powerful case to Christians against Divine Right in the person of its best known English defender, Robert Filmer, who had attacked “the position of the supposed natural equality and freedom of mankind, and liberty to choose what form of government it please.” Locke, to show how thoroughly Divine Right contradicted Christian theory and practice, also cited several Jesuits, notably Roberto Bellarmino (Bellarmine), who had set forth standard Christian political theory in De Laicis (1588).

Bellarmino, a Catholic cardinal, had written in Chapter 6 that,

Divine law gives this [political] power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate. Therefore, power belongs to the collected body.

That body may delegate authority as might be convenient to it:

It depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, or consuls, or other magistrates are to be established over them. And, if there be legitimate cause, the people can change the kingdom into an aristocracy, or an aristocracy into a democracy, and vice versa, as we read was done in Rome.

Bellarmino thought that arbitrary power was a bad thing whether located in one, few, many rulers or a mixture thereof, and quoted Plato to this effect. Because God commanded man to subdue the earth and the animals but not other men, no man may rule another as men rule animals. Consent is required. There was nothing radical or strange about this from the standpoint of Christian doctrine. It had been the standard political theory—though certainly not the practice—of the European middle ages. But, since the sixteenth century, this had become outright treason with regard to every European monarchy, whether Catholic or Protestant.

There is a lot more to the American founding than that, just as there is a lot more to the Bible than that. But the proof that the regime that issued from the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789 was not meant to legitimize rule by people free to re-invent right and wrong, exercised by an omnicompetent ruling class, is to be found in the contrast between the limited regime that issued from the American revolution and the modern state that emerged full-fledged from the French revolution.

The extent to which any of America’s founders ever noticed Locke’s references to specific medieval Christian scholars is irrelevant to the fact that that these scholars’ teachings about how regimes may be structured and what makes regimes legitimate are awfully similar to what the American founders wrought. Indeed kinship would be all the more remarkable had the Americans been wholly unaware of the medieval arguments, since that would show that these ideas were simply the “common sense” of educated Christians.

“God created man in his own image.” Genesis. “All men are created equal.” The Declaration of Independence. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus. “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment. These are old teachings, which had been propounded but honored in the breach for centuries, but which colonists on the edge of a wild continent now were laying down as the foundation of one of history’s greatest nations.

There is a lot more to the American founding than that, just as there is a lot more to the Bible than that. But the proof that the regime that issued from the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789 was not meant to legitimize rule by people free to re-invent right and wrong, exercised by an omnicompetent ruling class, is to be found in the contrast between the limited regime that issued from the American revolution and the modern state that emerged full-fledged from the French revolution.

The French revolutionaries overthrew the ancien regime for reasons very different from those that moved the Americans. If the Americans had opposed their ancien regime upon the same bases as the French opposed theirs, they would have built a regime of unlimited, discretionary, largely administrative power. But they chose another basis, and built another regime.

The Contrast of the French Regime

The contrast could not be more striking. Except for the question of legitimacy, (who rules and by what right?) France’s revolutionaries transmuted the royal regime of the Baroque age into the Modern Administrative State. Directly. Non-stop. Unlike the Americans, they had no objection to the political theory and practice of the previous four centuries, during which France had acquired a central administration that claimed universal expertise and which exercised authority absolute in practice as in theory. Hence the French Revolution, and the kindred ones that swept the rest of Europe changed the identity of rulers and the form of regimes, while preserving their substance.

The French revolutionaries spoke a language very different from that of the Bible. No nonsense about morality there. Like Hobbes, they imagined that men had emerged from an unambiguously secular “state of nature” into society in order to safeguard themselves and improve their lot. For this, men had given up their natural equality. By virtue of that, all matters, religion very much included, had become subject to regulation and improvement. The only question was who would superintend that regulation and improvement. Power was the French Revolution’s practical question.

The French revolutionaries spoke a language very different from that of the Bible. No nonsense about morality there. Like Hobbes, they imagined that men had emerged from an unambiguously secular “state of nature” into society in order to safeguard themselves and improve their lot.

According to this modern view of history, “the people” originally had lived by a variety of inefficient arrangements. Then, the kings rationalized administration. Henceforth, the people’s government would decide the practical meaning of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” By the same token, the king and his bureaucrats had come to superintend the Church. “Come the revolution,” that job would now pass to a secular ministry of “cult” that would ensure religion’s contribution to the public good.

In France, the revolution continued the monarchy’s four-century old revolutionizing of French society and morals. In this regard we see most clearly the influence of the “natural right” mentality: human beings come as individuals. Accordingly, families and other civil units are not the result of nature, but purely of choices that individuals make for their own interest. Thus the French revolutionaries, like all their successors from Moscow to Washington D.C., focused on de-valuing natural society. They promoted libertine behavior not so much to enjoy it as to destroy the current moral order. The Marquis de Sade was as fundamental to the French revolution as Robespierre. For both, marriage was the primary target because it is society’s foundational institution. The French national anthem, the Marseillaise, features “compagnes,” not wives. Aux armes citoyens!

By contrast there is no record in the history of the American founding, none, of persons yearning for government power to impose a new moral or social order on anyone. The Constitution’s list of the Union’s objectives is modesty itself: “establish justice,” (by which the authors meant the rule of law,) “insure domestic Tranquility” i.e. calm controversy rather than add to it, “provide for the common defense,” “promote the general Welfare” i.e., make it easier for all to prosper—not taking from some so that others may prosper, “secure the Blessings of Liberty” i.e., prevent interference in how Americans live their lives.

Is not that very modesty, that brevity about substantive ends, some kind of opening for doing whatever may come to mind? If the American founders, like the French revolutionaries (and, not incidentally like the French monarchy they replaced) had valued most the unfettered power to do good as anyone might define that good, the American regime might be inherently open-ended. Consequently, the practical meaning of our Constitution’s words depends on whoever has power to give them such content as he may. Then, freedom of religion might require freedom from religion. Ending racial discrimination might require discriminating by race. Securing the right to life might mean legalizing the killing of inconvenient babies and old people. Helping families could mean emptying marriage of meaning. Do not such as Barack Obama have at least a procedural point?

If the American founders, like the French revolutionaries (and, not incidentally like the French monarchy they replaced) had valued most the unfettered power to do good as anyone might define that good, the American regime might be inherently open-ended.

They do not. The American founders juxtaposed the Constitution’s legislative, executive and judicial powers not to give government more latitude, but to restrain it. They went further: the Bill Of Rights—each amendment of which are against government power—as well as the Constitution’s outright prohibitions om Bills Of Attainder, Ex-Post-Facto Laws, and retroactive laws, should resist mere partisanship. So should the unmistakable, short words of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Once upon a time, they did just that.

For the very same reasons and by the very same means that the American regime restrained government, it fostered natural society. The Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process of law” and the Sixth’s of “trial, by an impartial jury” echo the medieval Magna Carta’s restriction of penalties to “the lawful sentence of his peers and according to the Common Law.” Once upon a time this meant that ordinary persons would take part in making laws through their representatives, and would enforce those laws in detail as jurymen. That was government “by of and for the people” who, acting as individuals and members of groups both natural and voluntary, might fulfill their commitment to the “laws of nature and nature’s God.”

Modern America’s administrative state—regulations made and administered by persons over whom ordinary people have no control—quite simply disempowers natural society while empowering government (and its retinue) to satisfy its appetites. Hence, our American regime is the negation of of the regime established between 1776 and 1789, not its logical outgrowth. Rather, the practices, procedures, offices and honors by which we live today, and above all their spirit, owe more to the logic of France’s regime, before as well as after its revolution of 1789.

Follow these links to read part one and part three of this essay.

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 of our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com

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America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Featured Article • History • Obama • political philosophy • self-government • separation of powers • The Constitution • The Culture

Progression—or Degeneracy? Part One

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Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series.

The American regime that resulted from the American Revolution differs from today’s in size, scope, and character. We do not elaborate the contrasts. Rather, we ask: Whence came these differences between the former’s constitutionally limited pursuits of modest objectives—domestic tranquility, justice, the common defense, the general welfare—and the latter’s unlimited administrative discretion over everything from the planet’s climate to the proper exercise of religion? How could a regime evolve into something so like its own negation?

Specifically: are modern America’s institutions and mores departures from its founding principles, or are they the logical, necessary consequences of those very principles? Did the Founders’ principles undergo corruption, or did they bear the fruits inherent in them? How does the DNA that America’s Founders wrote into our roots relate to our present regime? What is the present regime’s genetic code? Regardless of the founding principles’ influence—restraining or propulsive as they may be—by what mixture of political and cultural mechanism did the changes occur?

Properly, these questions are historical. Too often, however, debate about the character of America’s DNA devolves into abstract exegeses of intellectual and moral principles, as if the Founders’ minds were tracking on one or another set of mutually exclusive views of man and society. We suppose that each track produces competing versions of what those principles were or ought to have been, and that these principles, like great trees’ seeds, predetermined America’s character—either to live by natural law, the Declaration’s “laws of nature and nature’s God,” or to satisfy whatever desires the natural right of selfish autonomy might engender.

Although—as we shall argue—this philosophical dichotomy does not explain everything, it counts for a lot.

If, as Abraham Lincoln argued to Stephen Douglas, the Declaration of Independence defined the new nation in terms of a set of divinely ordained natural laws, then any and all departures from those laws would pervert it.

The laws cited by the Declaration gave meaning to the Constitution. They bound the government and the people. America was not free to become indifferent to, never mind to accept, slavery (and, by implication, to anything else that violated those laws) without ceasing to be itself. But if, as Douglas argued to Lincoln, growth and greatness themselves are the American regime’s “law of life,” then any attempt to restrain the most powerful desires that arise within it must choke it. In that case, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope is correct that the U.S. Constitution is merely “the way by which we argue about our future.” Consequently we—or rather, whoever prevails among us—are bound only by our latest appetites. If those lead us to accept, say, polygamy, or to trade the Bill of Rights for rule-by-administration, so what?

Clearly, whether the men of the American Revolution and founding thought in terms of natural law or of natural right makes the difference between courthouses engraved with the Ten Commandments, and ones whose portals bear the words inscribed over Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme: “Fais ce que vourdas”—Do what you want (limited only by what you can get away with).

Focus on the pure forms of these philosophical points of departure, however, diverts attention from the founding generation’s forma mentis, which grasped philosophical doctrine through the medium of the practical questions at hand. Foremost among these was the struggle against the British regime. Although America’s founders are not here to pronounce on what may have been implicit in their hopes for the future, they were clear enough about what they were revolting against, as well as about about the basis upon which they revolted.

What Freedom Means

The founding generation was steeped in the concept of natural law. But it had not distinguished that concept from “natural right” as clearly as we do.

Their education in in Greco-Roman thought taught them to regard man as a social animal who is born, lives, and dies in families, tribes, and various kinds of political arrangements, and who has a fixed, knowable nature. As Christians they believed (along with Jews) that man is created “in the image and likeness of God,” and that this status between God and the rest of creation defines what is good for man. Such secularists as there were among them joined in believing that right, for man, is to live according to his nature. The Christian addendum to classical thought also stresses that because men are equally God’s creatures, none may rule another without the other’s consent, and that duties to God are separate from duties to earthly powers. All this portends limited government and defines “freedom” as the capacity to choose between good and evil, as these categories exist in the immutable “laws of nature and nature’s God.”

So what kind of freedom did America’s founders mean to establish? Fact is that, as they framed the American regime, they used the terms natural law and natural right interchangeably. Hence, they never choose explicitly between the implication of these terms as we have come to understand them.

Competing for their attention was the post-15th century (previously adumbrated in Greek thought) construct of the individual—radically unattached and inalienably self-interested. This individual first appears in a “state of nature.” Positing this “state” makes it impossible to think of creation and creator, as well as to consider for what purpose man might have been created. In short, it makes it impossible to think about what might be right for man by nature. The “nature” of this “state of nature” has really only one law, one natural right: self-preservation. What is good is whatever that individual decides for himself at any given time may be consistent with that right.

Consequently, any and all familial and political bonds are naturally artificial. Freedom means the unfettered natural right, collective as well as individual, to decide what good and evil might be according to the inalienable priority of self-preservation. That in turn means discovering and satisfying one’s own ever-changing sentiments. The state has the greatest freedom to satisfy desires.

‘Right’ Rightly Understood

So what kind of freedom did America’s founders mean to establish? Fact is that, as they framed the American regime, they used the terms natural law and natural right interchangeably. Hence, they never choose explicitly between the implication of these terms as we have come to understand them.

They left no doubt, however, that their peculiar notion of right is something at the same time ancestral, natural, and divinely ordained.

Today’s dominant philosophical-political assumptions make it difficult for us to understand that. Since the Founders did not maintain the strict opposition between the concepts of “nature” and “convention” or “custom” to which academic philosophy has accustomed us, they found nothing incompatible about claiming that, as Britain was violating rights established by God and Nature, it was also violating the ancient rights of Englishmen—and vice versa.

Our difficulty in understanding this stems in part from the assumption—as wrong as it is widespread—that history has moved more or less uniformly from less freedom to more freedom, that America’s Founders were revolting against the middle ages’ legacies (despotism mixed with and veiled by religion) and that they, Children of the Enlightenment, were trying to make it possible for people to live however they like.

Consider: this British regime had been ruling in the same way for almost 400 years. The Americans were rebelling against the 18th century’s ancien regime’s established customs. But they were doing so in the name of a regime that was even more ancien, whose customs were no longer customary but were somehow right in themselves. Where had these customs come from? What endowed them with right?

Our difficulty in understanding this stems in part from the assumption—as wrong as it is widespread—that history has moved more or less uniformly from less freedom to more freedom, that America’s Founders were revolting against the middle ages’ legacies (despotism mixed with and veiled by religion) and that they, Children of the Enlightenment, were trying to make it possible for people to live however they like.

In reality, the Founders knew that the regime that was oppressing them was anything but medieval. They faulted it for having trammeled medieval and downright ancient rights. Nor, aside from Franklin, were they libertines. To them, freedom was the capacity to live life free from arbitrary power. This is something of which there had been much more in remote times than in their time.

Insofar as the American revolution was about custom, it was about restoring customs of limited government, which they believed was also divinely ordained.

In fact, the British crown against which the Americans were revolting (Parliament had become the senior partner within it) was not a relic of the middle ages. Like other European monarchies, Britain had transcended medieval political forms as well as the Christian notion of right as independent of power. The regime against which the Americans revolted was like the rest of Europe’s in having shed all but the trappings of an earlier age.

Why the Middle Ages Matter

The previous millennium’s story had been similar, whether in Spain, France, Germany, or England. The Germanic tribes that had overrun Western Europe consisted of free men. They had done away with Rome’s imperial bureaucracy. The absence of easy communication between towns as well as between countless corners of countryside, abetted the tribes’ independence from one another, as well as the autonomy of their components.

All this meant that the rules of life grew in diverse ways throughout Europe, and guaranteed that arrangements within medieval society would be flexible. All arrangements were inherited and hence became customary. Arrangements between nobles, towns, and kings became the charters of freedom, from Spain’s “fueros” to England’s Magna Carta. Since Christianity provided the only common intellectual guide, these arrangements had to be justified in terms of what is right and wrong in itself. Hence, the notion of consent of the governed became the essence of the medieval legal principle of jus et consuetudo regni (Ranulf de Glanville, 1180). Here we see diversity born of selfishness and necessity, ingrained by custom, blessed, and amplified by Christianity’s teaching of human equality.

Medieval Europe’s complex polity, which such as John Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae (1394-1480) described at length, and which Aristotle would have called a mixed regime, is what the kings of the Baroque age had destroyed. In England, Royal commissioners enforced the king’s will. Local custom had given way to law made by the king’s judges or by parliament.

Arrangements between nobles, towns, and kings became the charters of freedom, from Spain’s “fueros” to England’s Magna Carta. Since Christianity provided the only common intellectual guide, these arrangements had to be justified in terms of what is right and wrong in itself.

Elsewhere, though the details varied, the story was much the same. Tocqueville’s The Old Regime And The Revolution describes the result: “The central power encroached on every side upon decaying local franchises. A hierarchy of public functionaries usurped the authority of the nobles. All these new powers employed methods and took for their guide principles which the Middle Ages either never knew or rejected, and which, indeed, were only suitable for a state of society they never conceived.”

The kings just wanted more power. But they did not understand that, as they gathered it, they were building Leviathans. Having the power, as Blackstone said, “to do anything not naturally impossible,” these would fall for the temptation to do all that and more. The crown had declared itself the arbiter of right and wrong over all things. By what right? Britain was no stranger to the European doctrine that kings exercised absolute power. Louis XIV claimed divine right by papal dispensation. Henry VIII’s heirs headed the church and made rules about matters religious as well as secular. This of course was a negation of Christian orthodoxy as well as a departure from medieval practice.

What the Founders Were Up To, Really

In sum, the Americans sought to recover a right to self-rule which they supposed to come from God and which they recalled as the (by then largely superseded) custom of England. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out in The Rights of British America (1774), they harked back to Anglo Saxon government, limited by the people’s ancestral rights understood as natural rights. And, as James Wilson argued in his 1790 inaugural lecture to the first American law school, attended by a Who’s Who of the Founders, Americans disagreed with Blackstone’s notion that right is the will of the sovereign. In America, said Wilson, law was to be right insofar as it is right by nature.

Regardless of their precise understanding of natural law and natural right, of nature and convention, the American revolutionaries were not trying to transcend Christian or classical notions of right and wrong, much less were they trying to create a centralized state capable of instituting whatever moral or social order anyone in power might want.

Regardless of their precise understanding of natural law and natural right, of nature and convention, the American revolutionaries were not trying to transcend Christian or classical notions of right and wrong, much less were they trying to create a centralized state capable of instituting whatever moral or social order anyone in power might want. If the latter had been their intention, they would hardly have crafted a Constitution that makes it excruciatingly difficult for the government to act. Had they meant to institute the unbounded capacity to satisfy their own desires, they would not have sought to re-establish medieval customs. Rather, they would have grasped and reinforced central authority over all matters, including religion. That is what their contemporaries in France did, about whom more below.

No. Although Progressives have succeeded in making the American regime open-ended, they are wrong historically. It was not meant to be that.

Follow these links to continue reading part two and part three.

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2016 Election • America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Great Reads • Greatness Agenda • political philosophy • Religion and Society • Second Amendment • self-government • separation of powers • The Constitution • The Culture • The Resistance (Snicker)

For Memorial Day, Some Common Sense About Our Common Purpose

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“Will our Republic survive?”

It is a fitting question for Memorial Day. For, as Abraham Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” The work of preserving our freedom is never over and the best respect we can offer to those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to preserve it is to dedicate ourselves to the task of making their sacrifice meaningful.

So, “Will our Republic survive?”

I’m guessing that when you read those words you did not think of the threat of Islamic jihad, or of Russia, or of China. I’m guessing that you, like Abraham Lincoln, thought first of the danger that we pose to ourselves. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” said Lincoln, and he was right. When thinking of the terrible disorder within our borders and amongst ourselves today, I reflect that not since the days leading up to the Civil War has America been so divided. A great many Americans and many of the leaders of the Democratic Party utterly rejected the election of America’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. And today, it seems, they utterly reject the election of this Republican President.  There has again been talk of secession, long considered a matter settled by the Union victory. It seems we are no longer “one Nation under God, indivisible.”

The 19th century secessionists openly rejected the Founders’ vision. The Declaration, they said and wrote, was simply wrong about equality. In contrast, our fellow Americans who reject the outcome of our recent election seem more unhappy with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Among other things, they reject the Electoral College and the 1st and 2nd Amendments.

Those who reject the Founders’ vision today are mounting a spirited challenge. Consequently, those who do not want to lose our Republic need to mount a spirited defense. But to do that successfully, a strong grasp of the Founders’ vision will be needed. To that end, I recommend three books which, taken together, will ground the patriotic citizen in the understanding they will need to defend the Founders’ gift to us. All three consider the same cast of characters, examining them from three different perspectives. The result is a remarkably robust, almost holographic, presentation of the Founders and of how their new thinking transformed the world in so many ways.

The Society of Useful Knowledge

Benjamin Franklin, of course, plays a central role in all three books. The Franklin we come to know in this one is the man who initiated an American project of harnessing mankind’s intellectual and creative powers for the common good. The author, Jonathan Lyons, tells the story of the birth of the American way of doing science. It turns out that the Founders, who originated a new way of thinking about political liberty, also originated a new way of thinking about the study of nature.

The book is replete with references to common sense, as well as to those other intriguing terms—“the common good,” “the commonwealth,” “the common people,” “common purposes,” “common interests”—that cluster around and help define common sense. If your interests run to science and technology, this might be the book for you to begin your exploration of the American Founding.

On Two Wings

Here are the first words of the Preface: “Most of us grow up remarkably ignorant of the hundred men most responsible for leading this country into a War for Independence and writing our nation’s Constitution…This is a scandal.” But the good news is that you can easily remedy this.

If you want to learn more about the importance of religious faith and religious learning to the American Founding, then this is the book for you. In the brilliant image offered by the author, Michael Novak, the American eagle took flight on two wings, religious faith and common sense. And both those wings were uniquely American. As Paul Johnson wrote in A History of the American People, “In the America of the Enlightenment . . . the specifically American form of Christianity—undogmatic, moralistic rather than creedal, tolerant but strong, and all-pervasive of society—was born.”

The religious wing of the American eagle gets the lion’s share of Novak’s attention. Despite the book’s acknowledgement of the importance of common sense and the reference to common sense in the subtitle, common sense does not get equal attention. Consequently, Common Sense Nation makes the perfect companion to On Two Wings.

Common Sense Nation

Will you kindly forgive me for recommending the third book? Although it is true that I wrote it, it is also true that its fit with the other two is remarkable, and that I hope justifies including it.

This is from Scott Segrest’s review in National Review: “Common Sense Nation makes the case that recovering the Founders’ American idea is vital to reestablishing political order…[The author] is concerned most directly, as the book’s subtitle indicates, with an “idea” that once inspired, and he hopes will inspire again, the American nation. In his careful treatment of the U.S. Constitution, his intent is to recover the understanding and logic underlying the system, to get at the reason for our constitutional arrangements. The “American idea” is both the source of American identity and the standard for what America should be…[the book] tells the forgotten story of the philosophy of common sense that the Founders embraced, a philosophy that in fact was central to their purpose…Curry’s ultimate mission is to reawaken the American citizenry to their heritage and identity and to show them the rational principles by which they can reestablish a sound political order. His book could not be more timely at a moment of massive public disorientation and discontent with our public institutions…”

Because we live in the country the Founders made and in the world they transformed, it is all too easy for us to overlook what an astonishing break they made with all that went before and how great were their achievements. If America had never happened, you and I would almost certainly share the fate of our remote ancestors; we would be living poor, hungry, and oppressed. The Founders’ gift of liberty made possible the abundant and expansive lives we lead, and which we sometimes thoughtlessly take for granted.

Wherever you start, please consider diving in. After all, the Founding was one of the most remarkable and interesting events in the history of the world, and learning about it is its own reward.

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