America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • political philosophy • Post

The Causes of Steve King’s Moral Relativism

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In the course of their public responsibilities and acting on concrete political problems, Congressmen should know better than to ask abstract questions—particularly when in the company of New York Times reporters with no inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt. At best, this from Steve King, seemed another provocation: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Steve King, once again, just could not help himself.

The jumbling together of white nationalism and Western civilization seemed appropriate for many a leftist critic of Western civilization, but not a purported defender of it, as King is. (While I don’t know King, I do know some of his former staffers, all of whom display both intelligence and good character.) Thus, a similar utterance from a Democratic member of Congress might well have gone unnoticed or even produced solicitation for an op-ed for the leading establishment press.

But why, it must be asked, would anyone throw together three such unrelated terms in defense of Western civilization? This is the form some intelligence tests take—which of the following items doesn’t belong? King’s defense has been that he meant to disassociate the first two terms from the last and the Times erred in its punctuation of his quote. The bipartisan answer to his explanation has been to disregard it and proclaim that Steve King doesn’t belong in Congress.

But the more revealing fact about the reaction to King’s statement, reported without any context, was how it displays the creeping moral relativism that infects all our political discourse—on both the right and left.

Fortunately, a just-published book correctly diagnoses this modern disease—Harry V. Jaffa’s, The Rediscovery of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The 10 chapters—including long sections which have never been published—come from the writings of the late professor from the Claremont Colleges. Written between the late 1980s and 2010, the essays are striking for their insight into our times and current crises, because Jaffa had his eye on eternity and how the present might be illuminated by it.

Because of modern skepticism’s “passionate rejection of all ‘absolutes’” the educated, especially, are prone to make passionate instead of rational judgments about alternatives—turning the university into a “seminary of intolerance” rather than a place to grapple with the eternal questions.

The Left might rely on racial or “gender”-inspired passions, the Right—as apparently it did in King’s case—on the emotive catchwords of the day that they fear will blow back and taint them. Thus, moral relativism produces moral fanaticism, because reason, especially among the young or immature of any age, has little power. Jaffa illuminated this well in his essay provocatively titled “The Reichstag is Still Burning,” which takes on the student radicals and weak administrators of his day and recently has been the subject of a forum over at the Claremont Institute’s The American Mind.

Whatever his immediate subject, Jaffa’s “rediscovery of America” calls for the “sophisticated” to return to their citizen roots. But is it too late for such sentiments to move Americans who have become the kind of self-centered beings our universities seek to produce? Jaffa’s patriotism, indeed his nationalism, is based on the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to reason. Significantly, we Americans celebrate not the political act of our independence (which took place on July 2, 1776) but rather the declaring of that independence. In other words, we celebrate the reasoned argument for it.

Jaffa’s chapter “The End of History Means the End of Freedom” in The Rediscovery of America demonstrates how he proceeds against the relativists and nihilists, with an emphasis on those on the political right. (Earlier in his career he had emphasized his difference with scholars and politicians of the left.) Jaffa’s sobering point is that both the left and the right share in the moral relativism that many Americans sense and dread. The elites do not respect the most profound voices of the American political tradition, preferring instead the intellectuals who flatter each other.

As he does in his review of Allan Bloom’s best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, Jaffa argues that American political documents, in particular, the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, provide the philosophic grounding and moral teaching to guide Americans today. Francis Fukuyama, his teacher Bloom, Irving Kristol, and virtually all the heads of our universities could never agree with Jaffa on this point and offered only more versions of the same relativism.

In this way, Jaffa takes on one of the most commonly cited works of political science in the last 30 years, Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument, whose jarring 1989 article was expanded into a book. By “the end of history,” the now-Stanford professor and former member of the George H.W. Bush State Department, means not that events cease to happen but that the fundamental human choices have been made—liberal democracy and capitalism have won—and that all subsequent choices will be subsets of those. Perhaps a great man or political movement (like Islam?) might upset this consensus.

Jaffa poses this objection: “If, as Fukuyama … contends, philosophy ends with the ending of history then politics also ends. Politics can subsist only so long as it is thought reasonable for men to differ as to what they ought to pursue.” But if the quest for wisdom ends in the Wisdom of History, then philosophy as skeptical inquiry is no longer honorable or necessary.

And the same holds for faith in God. For those who seek to live by “an eternal and unchangeable order . . . recognize that democratic politics, philosophy, and religion all stand or fall together.” To believe in the end of history is to renounce all three and thereby pull down the heights of Western civilization and yoke them to one’s will. Once again relativism (historically conditioned knowledge) produces a dogmatism (the end of history) that justifies extremism (the claim of Wisdom and thereby tyranny).

All this is a mere warm-up for the most intriguing chapter of the book, an exchange of about 120 pages involving the distinguished Harvard political theorist and conservative, Harvey Mansfield, Jr., titled “The Decline and Fall of the American Idea: Reflections on the Failure of American Conservatism.” The Rediscovery of America signals the rediscovery both of philosophy and politics and thereby the refutation of relativism and its evil brother, fanaticism. At the heart of this endeavor is a recovery of the spiritedness essential for both love of country and love of wisdom.

This absence of this kind of spiritedness among so-called “conservative” intellectuals is what explains their horror at attempts to reinvigorate our politics. They should recall that without such politics, philosophy, and morality will suffer a similar decline.

Photo credit:  Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

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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.

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America • American Conservatism • Editor Picks • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln

Crisis of A Strauss Divided

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Steve Hayward has been a friend for more years than we’d like to count and his new book, Patriotism Is Not Enough, is a tour de force. He writes the history of one of the most important debates in post-war American conservatism in a way that is lively, readable, and intellectually satisfying even for people who know the debate and the participants well. Tod Lindberg writes an equally interesting review which begins:

“Steven F. Hayward’s Patriotism Is Not Enough is a loose intellectual portrait of the life and thought of Harry V. Jaffa and his circle of close friends and even closer enemies. Jaffa, who died two years ago at the age of 96, was a prominent student of Leo Strauss’s who held forth and shaped a generation of students of his own at Claremont McKenna College and its associated graduate school and institute in California. Jaffa was the author, most famously, of the classic study of Abraham Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, a book that sought to establish Lincoln not only as a statesman of the first rank but also as a profound political thinker in his own right.

Jaffa was also among the most quarrelsome men of letters ever to reside in the groves of academe, and it is this fact that gave Hayward’s book its impetus and provides its propulsion throughout. Hayward begins with a juxtaposition of Jaffa and Walter Berns, another prominent student of Strauss’s, with whom Jaffa quarreled incessantly throughout their adult lives. Jaffa and Berns, born six months apart, died on the very same day in 2015. This quirk of mortality set Hayward, a tremendous admirer of both men, on his way, and it informs the book’s personal style, which will painlessly acquaint newcomers with some pivotal moments and issues in recent intellectual history, even as it keeps those who already know the subject entertained.

Jaffa had a uniquely high regard for the American “regime” (if we may indulge the vocabulary of the Straussian school). And it was Lincoln, in Jaffa’s view, who played the pivotal role in its true establishment. The framers of the U.S. Constitution had done admirable work. But coping as they had to with a grave political problem—how to create a union of both slaveholding states and states where the practice was forbidden—they lost their grip on what Jaffa takes as the true founding document of the United States: the Declaration of Independence. In dissolving their ties with England and establishing a nation of their own, the Americans claimed they were acting in accordance with “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Lindberg’s entire review does justice to one of the best books of the year. Read the rest at Commentary.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Section 1 • The Constitution • The Culture

Rod Dreher, Meet Leo Strauss and Friends

Leo Strauss

Rod Dreher has discovered an exotic tribe known as the Straussians.

Dreher, in case you’re not aware, is a blogger at The American Conservative and is the author of several books, including his newest and much-hyped The Benedict Option. Prior to landing his own blog at TAC, he worked at National Review, was an editor and columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and then worked at the John Templeton Foundation outside of Philadelphia as its publications director.

Dreher’s discovery, and a sudden onset of severe Straussophobia, occurred after a recent talk at Benedictine College where he encountered a student of the late Harry Jaffa, Susan Traffas. (Traffas wrote her PhD dissertation under Jaffa’s tutelage, which was later published as Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.) Professor Traffas, says Dreher, was very critical of the Benedict Option concept and described herself as “a die-hard Straussian.” Dreher copped to not “know[ing] a lot about political theory,” and to therefore being unfamiliar with Straussians. But, never fear. He did some digging. After apparently taking a whole fifteen minutes to read through an essay on a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about how different groups of conservatives view the American Founding, he came up with this sweeping claim:

Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.

There is so much to be said about these and so many other casual assertions that Dreher makes in this piece, I am not sure where to begin.

East vs. West Revisited

First, Dreher misses a crucial distinction apparent even in the ISI essay he claims to have studied. It is West Coast Straussians, and not necessarily Straussians in general, who tend to view the American Founding as a high achievement both politically and philosophically. But before delving into particulars, we must back up a bit to get a larger view of the Straussian genealogy.

As a quick primer, the term “Straussian” refers to students and admirers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré who revived the teaching of political philosophy in the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, Straussians see that the study of political philosophy is still possible because great questions such as “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of a just regime?” are always relevant to political life. The lessons of the great texts of philosophy such as Aristotle’s Ethics or John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government are always available to us because the truth of an idea does not hinge upon when or where or by whom it was first articulated. This is because truth, right and wrong, just and unjust, exist by nature—which Strauss opposed to the reigning orthodoxies of his day: historicism, positivism, and nihilism (hence the title of his most famous work, Natural Right And History).

A split emerged between Strauss’s students in the 1970s specifically over how the American Founding should be viewed, which stems from a more general disagreement about how to understand the relationship between politics and philosophy. The camps were dubbed East and West since they mostly broke down geographically, with West Coasters based mainly in California and East Coasters based in metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Today, the monikers East and West are less helpful since many East Coasters reside on the West Coast and vice-versa. As Charles Kesler once remarked in National Review, the “distinction is more a state of mind than of geography.”

West Coast Straussians are students of Harry Jaffa, his students, or his students’ students and can be found at places like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College. To generalize for the sake of clarity, West Coasters believe that America is a high and noble regime (Jaffa argued that it was the best regime in the history of Western civilization) because it is concerned ultimately with securing the highest ends of political life, the safety and happiness of its citizens. The American Founders combined the best elements of classical and early modern philosophy, along with biblical revelation, to form a coherent political theory that served the cause of liberty. The cornerstone of the American regime for West Coasters is the Declaration of Independence—especially the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though they see the principles of the Founding as theoretically sound, the Founding in practice was incomplete until the conclusion of the Civil War because of the stain of chattel slavery, which was in clear contradiction with the principle of natural human equality.

In contrast, East Coast Straussians tend to see the American Founding as, in Leo Strauss’s words (quoting Winston Churchill), “low but solid.” Some of the more famous East Coasters are Harvey C. Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and the late Allan Bloom. America, in their view, is a modern commercial republic that is based upon the utilitarian virtue of acquiring wealth and property rather than more noble virtues or caring for the souls of its citizens. It is a country born of the modern mind of John Locke, whose philosophy was primarily founded upon sheer self-interest and a doctrine of individual rights that lowers the importance of the duties one owes to one’s family, country, and religion. Though lower in its aims, and perhaps even in spite of them, America became a great and prosperous country. Since natural rights are a dubious foundation for the perpetuation of a republic over the span of generations, the touchstone for East Coasters is the Constitution and the institutional constraints it imposes, which act as a stabilizing force against the rights revolution the Founders helped unleash in 1776.

Thomas G. West’s essay on the West-East division, “Jaffa vs. Mansfield,” is essential reading for those interested in a more detailed examination of the fault lines between these groups.

It’s also important to note that ISI is a traditionalist conservative organization that is far more amenable to the views of the East Coasters than West Coasters. Before branding them as heretics, Dreher should check out the Claremont Institute and American Greatness (especially the essays of Michael Anton “Decius”) and get a clear understanding of how West Coast Straussians understand themselves.

Deifying the State?

Dreher intimates that “Straussians” (he means West Coast Straussians) have an “idolatrous faith in the American ideal.” “America,” in the eyes of the West Coasters supposedly, “is not a state so much as it is a religion.”

What counts as “idolatrous” in Dreher’s mind you may ask? According to the section of the ISI website he quotes, it seems to be the idea that “the Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded.” Furthermore, it’s the “special emphasis” West Coasters put “on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

But if looking favorably upon the Declaration and the principle of equality is a sin against God, then America has been corrupt in the worldly sense from the very beginning. Many Americans apart from those who inhabit the fairly small circle of West Coast Straussians have considered the Declaration and the ideas it espouses—especially that of equality—as the bedrock foundation of the American political tradition.

To get clear on terms, equality in the Founders’ sense means simply this: Unlike a colony of bees in which a queen rules her drones by nature, there are no natural rulers of men. As it is expressed in the Declaration, the principle of equality recognizes that regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, human beings are free to order their lives as they see fit.

Abraham Lincoln described the place of equality in the American mind this way:

Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.”

In the Founding era, the importance of the Declaration and equality rightly understood is found virtually at every turn. Eight state constitutions written and ratified in the 1770s and 80s feature language that paraphrase “all men are created equal.” For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written by future president John Adams, states in Article I, “All men are born free and equal.” Similarly, the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 contends that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

Jefferson, writing to George Washington in 1784, argued that “the foundation on which all [the state constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration who would later serve as James Madison’s Vice President, John Adams called equality “our first principle.”

Regarding the importance of the Declaration, at the top of a list of foundational core documents for the curriculum of a proposed law school, James Madison named the Declaration of Independence as among the “best guides” on the “distinctive principles of the Government of [Virginia], and that of the United States.” Frederick Douglass called the Declaration the “ring-bolt to the chain of [the] nation’s destiny” and argued that the “principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” President Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration that it laid out “immortal truths” which would “liberate America” and “ennoble humanity.”

It’s difficult to understand how seeing the Declaration as the cornerstone of the American regime and its pronouncement of natural human equality as important to the meaning of America is somehow beyond the bounds of proper patriotism. Dreher, admittedly, isn’t too familiar with the Founders’ political theory (in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, he butchers the Founders on religion and mangles a John Adams quote all in the span of two pages) so perhaps it’s not surprising he thinks along these lines.

Rod Dreher, Meet Decius

Dreher’s argument that West Coast Straussians would be aghast at conceding “that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail” is quite frankly absurd.

The irony in Dreher’s blind broadside against West Coasters in this instance is that West Coast-influenced places such as The Journal of American Greatness, American Greatness, and the newly established journal American Affairs all share a clear-eyed view of the current degraded state of our regime. In fact, it’s the very concern that “the American experiment might be failing” that served as the foundation of many West Coasters’ arguments for why Americans should elect Donald Trump.

If Dreher had read the writings of Michael Anton with care—especially his famous “Flight 93” essay (which I know Dreher read because he offered a critique of it)—he would know that they are replete with sober acknowledgements of how far we have descended from the Founders’ regime.

Here are some examples from Anton’s many writings that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt:

  • The Flight 93 Election” – “If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed ‘family values’; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
  • Restatement on Flight 93” – “I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of ‘fundamental transformation’—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.”
  • Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right” – “I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be.”
  • The Telos Crisis” – “My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.”

Actually, the last point was from a recent blog post written by none other than Rod Dreher. They sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

In fact just last September, Dreher argued that he wasn’t “remotely persuaded by [“The Flight 93 Election”] either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic.” Why Dreher now thinks that West Coast Straussians would never admit that our country is balancing precariously on a precipice is a mystery that would take Sherlock Holmes to solve.

An Argument Between Citizens

Lastly, Dreher’s deeply immoderate rhetorical strategy seems to be to make hasty generalizations based on one-sided information and immediately hurl accusations rather than take part in reasoned reflection and dialogue. To paraphrase his arguments, “I’ve barely ever heard of Leo Strauss, and I hardly have any idea of who West Coast Straussians are, but they are committing heresy against God by deifying the state until someone proves otherwise” is probably not the best way to engage an audience who might actually sympathize with your arguments. This inquisitorial tactic is better at home with the modern approach of launching all-out rhetorical war against one’s political opponents, whereby individuals are said to be “DESTROYED” by the sniping of late night talk show hosts (yet, somehow, the individuals “annihilated” remain on earth to be targeted for future utterances that violate the ruling class’s god of political correctness).

Differences of opinion are, of course, welcome, and one need not accept the positions of West Coast Straussians in order to be counted among the learned. But, to quote Lincoln one last time, marking your opponent to be “shunned and despised” will cause him to “retreat within himself” and “close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” For not even “Herculean force and precision” will “be able to pierce him;” it would be akin to “penetrat[ing] the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Instead of immediately launching accusations that wither under the most cursory of examinations, Dreher should take some time to familiarize himself with the writings of Harry Jaffa, John Marini, Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, Thomas West, Ronald Pestritto, and others from which he would benefit greatly, even if he may ultimately disagree with their arguments. His regular readers would likely find such a dialogue to be very much worth their while. And those among the Straussian orbit would certainly find his opinions more compelling.