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

Lincoln on the Independence Generation: ‘They Were Iron Men’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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America • Center for American Greatness • History • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society • The Constitution • The Culture

The American Founding’s High-Minded Purposes

James Madison is justly celebrated for his frequently stated opinion that “all power in just and free Government is derived from compact.” But Madison’s view is not endorsed by all purported champions of the founders. A recent article, “Our Unwritten Constitution: Orestes Brownson and the Foundation of American Liberty,” published as part of the Real Clear Policy series on the American Project and co-authored by Richard M. Reinsch II and the late Peter Augustine Lawler, argues that Madison is utterly mistaken in his claim. In fact, the authors claim that reliance on “Lockean contract theory” produced a constitution that was “devised solely in the interest of the rights of individuals” and was “based on the unrealistic abstraction of unrelated autonomous individuals.”

Lawler and Reinsch claim that autonomous individuals—that is, human beings abstracted from real life—cannot provide the appropriate material for political life. They are not “parents, creatures, [or] even citizens. Lockean thought, thus, isn’t political enough to be the foundation of government, and it isn’t relational enough to articulate properly the limits of governments or the roles of family and organized religion.”

Reinsch and Lawler rely heavily on Orestes Brownson’s criticism of Locke’s influence on the American Founding. They describe Brownson, accurately if a bit oddly, as “a 19th century New England intellectual associated with the transcendentalist movement who converted to Roman Catholicism” and vouch for his assertion that “the equality of human persons is a fact. But it is a fact that entered the world through Christian revelation and was later affirmed as self-evident by philosophers.” The authors maintain, according to Brownson, the self-evidence of human equality as it appears in the Declaration of Independence “is undermined” by its “pure Lockean dimension . . . where individual sovereignty becomes the foundation of government. Every man, Locke says, has property in his own person, and for Brownson that assertion of absolute self-ownership is, in effect, ‘political atheism’.”

Brownson, however, vigorously resists the idea of self-ownership: “man is never absolutely his own, but always and everywhere belongs to his Creator; it is clear that no government originating in humanity alone can be a legitimate government. Every such government is founded on the assumption that man is God, which is a great mistake—is, in fact, the fundamental sophism which underlies every error and sin.”

Our authors endorse Brownson’s criticism of the notion that the just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed or that sovereignty ultimately resides in the people. To say that the people are sovereign is “implicit atheism” because “[s]ocial contract thought lacks an external standard higher than man’s will that could limit, shape, and condition it. The highest being is man, who would self-create government by consent . . .” This is the universe of “self-sovereignty or political atheism” that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau occupied and which the authors of the Declaration of Independence obediently followed.

The authors of the Declaration, of course, appealed to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as their authority. Were they simply disguising the fact that they relied on no higher authority with high sounding rhetoric?—that despite their rhetoric they were “political atheists”? It is true the Declaration is the quintessential statement of social compact theory, but isn’t it also clear that its entire argument rests on the acknowledgment of a Creator and an intelligible Creation?

Reinsch and Lawler are wrong to assert that compact is only about the protection of rights and does not involve obligations. In a social compact, every right entails a reciprocal obligation. Every member of the compact who joins for the equal protection of his equal rights has the duty to protect the equal rights of fellow citizens—even the right of revolution is a reciprocal duty belonging to all citizens. Anyone who is unwilling or unable to perform the duties attendant upon membership in a community based on social compact is ineligible to become a member.

Our authors apparently did not notice the closing statement of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” The signers are willing to sacrifice life and property—both of which are natural rights—to preserve their honor. They believed that honor or justice was of higher rank than the natural right to life or property. Clearly, the signers of the Declaration ranked the goods of the soul (honor, justice) higher than the goods of the body (life, property). For Hobbes, of course, honor is not any part of the human good. It is utterly impossible to imagine him ever pledging his “sacred honor” to any cause.) But Reinsch and Lawler maintain throughout, that the Lockean authors of the Declaration and the Constitution sought only to provide protection for the natural rights of autonomous individuals or, as they described it on one occasion, “to provide protection against violent death and to secure property rights.” As we have just demonstrated, however, they are mistaken. In ranking honor above life, the authors of the Declaration demonstrated they were not Hobbesians, willing to sacrifice everything to the “fear of violent death.”

In addition, the Declaration never claims that the principal end or purpose of government is the protection of natural rights; it is rather the “safety and happiness of the people”—what one prominent political philosopher described as the alpha and omega of political life as depicted by Aristotle. Our authors make the significant, but frequent, error of those who insist that the American founding was radically modern, simply ignoring the obvious Aristotelian elements incorporated in the framers’ handiwork.

Bound by the Law of Nature
The authors of The Federalist accepted the Declaration of Independence as the authoritative source of the Constitution’s authority. Madison in The Federalist insisted that the proposed Constitution must be “strictly republican” because no other form of government could be “reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with the honorable determination which animates very votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

The “genius of the people” refers to the habits, manners, customs, history, traditions, and religion of Americans. Contrary to our authors, the social compact founders were well aware of the necessity of including these factors in their constitutional deliberations. No one can read The Federalist or, for that matter, the writings of the Anti-Federalists, without coming to that realization.

The second and central factor that requires “strictly republican government” is adherence to “the fundamental principles of the Revolution,” i.e., the principles of the Declaration. The third reason is that strictly republican government requires self-government; and that means rule by the consent of the governed, a principle squarely based on social compact.

In following Brownson, Reinsch and Lawler may have followed a false prophet. Brownson’s account of Locke is seriously defective because he seemed to be unaware of the unique theological-political problem that Locke faced. Our authors seem to have followed him through the gates of error.

The wars of religion were still a fresh memory to Locke and other political philosophers of his era. They were not just a distant memory to the American founders, either. In the classical world, the laws of particular cities were always supported by their gods. Obedience to the gods and obedience to the laws were one and the same. As soon as there was a universal God for all cities, however, political obligation became problematic. In the Christian world, conflicts between obligations to God and obligations to civil authority became inevitable, and in cases of conflict, the first obligation of Christians was to God or ecclesiastical authority. This reveals the apolitical character of Christianity. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, “our government is in heaven.”

The universalism of Christianity, of course, makes an appeal to particular gods as the ground or foundation of the laws of a particular regime impossible. Some ground for political obligation—for politics—independent of Christian theology had to be found if political life was to be free from the continuous strife engendered by the theological disputes that arose within Christianity. The late Harry Jaffa probably understood this theological-political predicament better than anyone when he argued:

Christianity had established within the souls of men the idea of a direct, personal, trans-political relationship between the individual and his God. But this relationship did not determine what the laws were to be, or the precise character of the obligation owed to those laws. The idea of the state of nature—the idea of a non-political state governed by moral law—corresponded to the relationship which every Christian had with every other Christian as he considered himself prior to and apart from his membership in a particular civil society. Just as every Christian was under the moral law, without being a member of civil society, so every human being was under the moral law of the state of nature, prior to entering a particular civil society by way of the social contract.

It is clear in Locke that everyone is bound by the law of nature—the moral law—in the state of nature. Thus, Jaffa argues, the social contract, by creating particular political communities, reestablishes the idea of man as by nature a political animal, an idea that was absent from the apolitical universe of Christianity. It provided a ground for political obligation, based in reason and consent, that was also absent in Christianity. Far from the “political atheism” described by Brownson, Locke restored man’s political nature based on higher law, the laws of nature—and he did it on Aristotelian grounds!

Good Theology and Good Government
Of course, Locke spoke most often in terms of individual rights, something that Brownson deplored as leading to the radically autonomous individuals who assumed, he falsely believed, the sovereignty of God. Brownson misunderstood Locke, but he must surely have understood the origin of the idea of individual rights was in Christian theology itself. In Christian theology, man’s relationship to God is personal, thus the political relationship must also be “personal,” that is based on individual rights. Locke understood that the principles of natural right must be able to accommodate the regnant theology. Rights must belong to individuals; that was good theology—and it was good government.

Aristotle says that the principles of human nature are universal, but for human nature to flourish, for human potential to become actual, it must do so in particular human communities—in the polis. For Christians, the highest aspirations are in the life to come, and political life in this world is merely a preparation for the next. Paul cautioned the Colossians to “mind the things above, not the things on earth.” From this point of view, man is by “nature” apolitical. Social compact reaffirms man’s political nature by establishing particular political communities where this-worldly aspirations are the proper objects of political life. At the same time, man’s universal nature is affirmed by the law of nature that is the standard and measure by which particular communities are judged. While reasserting man’s political nature, social compact at the same time retains its compatibility with the City of God because natural law is understood to be, in Locke’s terms, “the Will of God” or reason which is the “the voice of God.”

The Declaration is also Aristotelian in its recognition of universal human nature (“all men are created equal”) but also recognizing that the implementation of that equality in securing of the “safety and happiness” of the people requires the creation of a “separate and equal” nation. Only in a separate and equal nation—a sovereign nation—can the privileges and immunities of citizenship be guaranteed and the habits, manners and virtues suitable for republican citizenship be inculcated.

No doubt Reinsch and Lawler will complain that this social construct is hardly Aristotelian because it is a human construct, an act of pure human will, whereas Aristotle maintained that man is by nature a political animal. For Aristotle, of course, the polis does not grow spontaneously—it is not the result of natural growth; rather, it had to be “constituted” by human art, and the one who first “constituted” the polis, Aristotle says, is the cause of the “greatest of goods.” The polis exists by nature because, while it is last in the order of time, it is first in the order of final causality. All associations—male and female, the family, the tribe, the village—are incomplete, and their incompleteness points to the polis as a final cause. And the final cause is nature. Aristotle’s polis thus seems to be no less the result of artifice than social compact. In other words, Aristotle’s polis—no less than America—had to be founded by human art. Had Aristotle faced the same theological-political situation that Locke faced, I believe he would have agreed that social compact was the only possible ground for establishing political life on the foundations of nature or natural law.

Brownson and our authors are particularly exercised by Locke’s “doctrine” of self-ownership. They believe this to be the most destructive of all Locke’s subversive writings. Men always belong to the Creator; they can never belong to themselves. But what is the sovereignty of the individual presupposed by social compact “but the assumption that man is God?” Let’s see.

In the sixth paragraph of the Second Treatise, Locke spells out the obligations that men have in the state of nature. It is quite remarkable that in a book famous for its advocacy of rights, we hear first about the obligations that everyone has to the law of nature:

The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions. For Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s Pleasure.

Men are thus the property of “one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker.” This act of creation—the “workmanship of God”—makes each man equally the property of God, and each being the property of God, no one can be the property of anyone else. Thus each is “equal and independent” with respect to every other human being, which can only mean that “every Man has a Property in his own person” in his relations with every other human being, but is responsible to God in fulfilling his obligations to the law of nature—those obligations that God has imposed for the preservation of His workmanship. According to Locke in the First Treatise, God made man and planted in him a desire for self-preservation so that “so curious and wonderful a piece of Workmanship” should not perish. And according to Locke in the Second Treatise, God has set the individual free and made him “master of himself, and Proprietor of his own Person” so that he might go about fulfilling his obligations to the laws of nature, which he describes as the “Will of God” in the service of preserving God’s workmanship, not only of individuals but of mankind.

Liberty Is the Law of God and Nature
This is hardly the portrait of radically autonomous individuals who seek to supplant the authority of God drawn by Brownson and endorsed by Reinsch and Lawler, but it is the authentic Locke available to anyone who is willing to read him with any modicum of care. The American Founders read Locke as enlightened statesmen, gleaning political wisdom from his superior understanding of the theological-political problem. It was the absence of such disputes that made the success of the American Founding possible—a rare time in history when such a providential dispensation favored political founding—a dispensation prepared in large measure by Locke.

Madison was right: compact is the ground of all just and free government, and the theologians at the time of the founding agreed.

I will discuss here only one widely circulated sermon that was typical of the many sermons that relied on compact to reconcile questions of theology and politics. The Reverend John Tucker delivered “An Election Sermon” in Boston in 1771 that was profoundly influenced by Locke. “Civil and ecclesiastical societies are, in some essential points, different,” Tucker declaimed. “Our rights, as men, and our rights, as Christians, are not, in all respects, the same.” It cannot be denied that God’s

Subjects stand in some special relation and are under some peculiar subjection to him, distinct from their relation to and connection with civil societies, yet we justly conclude, that as this divine polity, with its sacred maxims, proceeded from the wise and benevolent Author of our being, none of its injunctions can be inconsistent with that love of liberty he himself has implanted in us, nor interfere with the laws and government of human societies, whose constitution is consistent with the rights of men.

Tucker exhibited a common view among New England clergy: the constitution of the “divine polity” cannot be in conflict with any civil government “whose constitution is consistent with the rights of men” and the “love of liberty” that God implanted in human nature. According to Tucker, the proper constitution of civil government begins with the reflection that

All men are naturally in a state of freedom, and have an equal claim to liberty. No one, by nature, not by any special grant from the great Lord of all, has any authority over another. All right therefore in any to rule over others, must originate from those they rule over, and be granted by them. Hence, all government, consistent with that natural freedom, to which all have an equal claim, is founded in compact, or agreement between the parties;—between Rulers and their Subjects, and can be no otherwise. Because Rulers, receiving their authority originally and solely from the people, can be rightfully possessed of no more, than these have consented to, and conveyed to them.

Thus compact seems to be the key to reconciling divine polity and civil polity. Tucker began the sermon with the invocation that “the great and wise Author of our being, has so formed us, that the love of liberty is natural.” Liberty is the law of God and nature. The laws of divine polity are prescribed in the Gospel; those of civil polity are derived from social compact. What connects divine polity and civil polity is the liberty that God created as the essential part of man’s nature. Social compact is the reasonable exercise of that freedom in the formation of civil society. Thus it seems that the theological-political problem—the problem of potentially conflicting obligations between divine polity and civil polity—is solved by Tucker, at least on the moral and political level, on the basis of social compact, which provides the only rightful basis for government because it is the only origin of government consistent with natural liberty.

In fashioning his account of the social compact, Tucker readily acknowledges the influence of “the great and judicious Mr. Locke,” extensively quoting and citing “Locke on Civil Government.” I think it fair to say that “America’s philosopher” dominated the pulpit no less than he dominated legislative halls and constitutional conventions. Thus a remarkable providence seemed to have guided the American founding in the form of a dispensation from the theological-political disputes that would have rendered impossible any attempt to establish constitutional government.

To argue that the American Founders fell prey to Locke’s radical individualism when they relied on social compact reasoning is simply perverse and a mischaracterization of the Founders’ (and Locke’s) understanding. The Founders did not read Locke as a radical modern. They were unaware—or ignored—the philosophic dispute between ancients and moderns. As statesmen, they were interested in the history of politics and were free to choose the most salutary and beneficial practical solutions. Their reading of Locke traced the ideas of natural law directly back to Aristotle. They were mostly unaware of the latter-day discovery of Locke’s esoteric writing that provided insights into the radical core of his thought. Locke’s exoteric writings provided an entirely salutary political teaching that was adopted—and adapted—by the Founders.

The Founders’ decision decision to follow Locke on social compact—“the principles of the Revolution”—meant that the end of government was the “safety and happiness” of the American people, an Aristotelian conception that helped to insulate the founding from the storms of modernity that were threatening Europe. It provided America with a more comprehensive and elevated purpose than simply avoiding “violent death” and “protecting property,” the Hobbesian purposes assigned by Reinsch and Lawler.

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America • Donald Trump • Immigration • political philosophy • Post

First Principles, Justice, and Trump’s Immigration Proposal

The United States has failed to protect the life and property of American citizens and undermined the proper end of government: justice. It has done so through disastrous immigration policies that endanger innocent lives, take low-wage jobs from citizens, and impose a burden to the social structure, tax base, and education system.

Trump’s merit-based immigration policy would be a restoration of justice and a return to first principles. The plan would assess would-be immigrants by taking into account English language ability, education, and job skills. It also would restrict chain migration and attempt to reduce frivolous asylum claims. Finally, improved border security at key points of entry and ports will help protect Americans.

America’s Founders recognized that men are endowed with certain inalienable rights and that to protect those rights they consented to form a government dedicated to protecting those rights. These rights included life, liberty, and property, rights which enable us to pursue happiness.

It has often been said that for the American republic to endure it is necessary for the citizenry to recur often to first principles. To understand why the president’s immigration proposal is a return to first principles, it is necessary to see in what ways the previous policy violated them.

First, old immigration policy undermines the consent of the governed. For the Founders, all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights by the laws of nature and nature’s God. All men are therefore equal in regards to the right to rule and because of the principle of equality, it is necessary for men to consent to form government.

Taking this principle to its logical conclusion, it is necessary both for those immigrating to consent to join a new nation and those who already compose to consent to let them join. If one or the other does not, the principle of consent has been violated.

Second, the old policy fails to protect the lives of American citizens by creating incentives for illegal immigrants to move to the United States and failing to aggressively, or efficiently remove them. The current policy of “sanctuary” cities does the same by protecting known criminals, allowing them to harm Americans’ property or, more heinously, kill innocent citizens.

Third, unrestricted immigration ignores the twin importance of creed and culture to the Founders.

The Declaration of Independence deftly proclaims the universal truth that all men are creatures of the Creator endowed with certain inalienable rights, that because of the equality of men the basis of government is the consent of the governed, and the end of government is the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or, if you prefer John Locke’s formulation, property).

In the fight to pass the Constitution, The Federalist argued that America possessed a common culture: English language, Protestant Christianity, common holidays, English common law, an admiration and adherence to the Western heritage, and devotion to republican principles. This distinctly American culture provided common ground and has proven adept at welcoming and assimilating immigrants from many different lands. Because of all the cultural elements they held in common, they were able to form a “more perfect union.”

Illegal immigration ignores the danger of admitting illegals with no familiarity with the principles of republican government and who have had no experience with self-government. This has also imposed a severe strain upon public schools that struggle to teach basic skills (never mind the sort of civic education necessary for living in a self-governing republic), and yet must spend vast resources trying to teach English to the children of illegal aliens.

Fourth, large numbers of illegal aliens who are only competent to perform low-wage work creates unfair competition for American citizens who would happily work those jobs. The system has encouraged the replacement of native workers with immigrants, both legal and illegal, and therefore failed natives who could perform these jobs. The Trump Administration’s merit-based immigration proposal very simply would be a return to justice and social peace.

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American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Defense of the West • Libertarians • political philosophy • Post • The Culture • The Left

Sohrab Ahmari and Our Existential Struggle

Perhaps the most amusing intramural intellectual squall on the Right these past few days has centered on “Against David French-ism,” Sohrab Ahmari’s recent polemical reflection on liberalism in First Things.

I did not think that Sohrab had all that much to say directly about the man who provided him with the title of his essay, but then I am not, so to speak, a French man. I have never met Pastor French, rarely read him, and generally feel about him the way C. K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story felt about George Kitteridge, man of the people: “to hardly know him is to know him well.”

The outpouring of indignation, fury, and contempt that greeted Sohrab’s column reminded me that opinions about the Pastor vary widely. I group him with Pete Wehner and some other NeverTrump evangelists as a modern incarnation of the Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse, virtue signaling around the clock to the amazement of the world. I know there is disagreement on that score.

As I read it, Sohrab’s essay involved David French only incidentally. There were, I thought, two key passages. The first came near the beginning. “The movement we [conservatives] are up against,” Sohrab writes, “prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.”

I’ll come to what I think the other key passage is in a moment. First, note what a bold statement Sohrab has made here. Autonomy: aren’t we all for that? Isn’t it the prime Enlightenment virtue? Sapere aude, Kant said: “dare to know!” Priests, superstition, convention, tradition: didn’t the Enlightenment discard all of that for the sake of autonomy? For the sake, that is, of giving the law (nomos) to oneself (autos)?

The Ghost of J. S. Mill
In a word, yes. And it was a project carried on by such Enlightenment heirs as John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty is a sort of bible of Enlightenment-infused liberalism. I note that Sohrab quotes in passing Mill’s famous line—famous imperative—about the importance of “experiments in living.” “Individual experiments in living,” he writes, “—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community.” Which suggests that the project of autonomy always involves an element of heteronomy: the emancipation from tradition, convention, etc., always seems to yield a new sort of orthodoxy. It was just this tendency, I suspect, that bothered Sohrab.

We see it all around us now. What we call liberalism presents itself not as one view of the world among others but as a neutral (but nevertheless inherently virtuous) state of nature from which no right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) person could dissent.

The same dynamic was ostentatiously on view in Mill’s radical libertarianism. For anyone interested in understanding the nature of the modern liberal consensus, the extraordinary success of Mill’s rhetoric and the doctrines it advances afford a number of lessons. Above all, it provides an object lesson in the immense seductiveness inherent in a certain type of skeptical moralizing.

Together with Rousseau, Mill supplied nearly all of the arguments and most of the emotional weather—the texture of sentiment—that have gone into defining the liberal vision of the world. His peculiar brand of utilitarianism—a cake of Benthamite hedonism glazed with Wordsworthian sentimentality—accounts for part of Mill’s appeal: it provides a perfect recipe for embellishing programmatic shallowness with a cosmetic patina of spirituality. It is a recipe that has proven to be irresistible to those infatuated with the spectacle of their own virtue.

Mill was exceptionally adroit at appealing to his readers’ moral vanity. When he spoke (as he was always speaking) of “persons of decided mental superiority” he made it seem as though he might actually be speaking about them. Mill said that there was “no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or some small number of patterns.” Quite right! Even if persons of genius are always likely to be “a small minority,” still we must “preserve the soil in which they grow.” Consequently, people have a duty to shun custom and nurture their individual “self-development” if they are not to jeopardize “their fair share of happiness” and the “mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.”

Mill’s blandishments went even deeper. In On Liberty, Mill presented himself as a prophet of individual liberty. He has often been regarded as such, especially by liberal academics, who of course have been instrumental in propagating the gospel according to Mill. And “gospel” is the mot juste. Like many radical reformers, Mill promised almost boundless freedom, but he arrived bearing an exacting new system of belief. In this sense, as Maurice Cowling argues, On Liberty has been “one of the most influential of modern political tracts,” chiefly because “its purpose has been misunderstood.” Contrary to common opinion, Cowling wrote, Mill’s book was

not so much a plea for individual freedom, as a means of ensuring that Christianity would be superseded by that form of liberal, rationalising utilitarianism which went by the name of the Religion of Humanity. Mill’s liberalism was a dogmatic, religious one, not the soothing night-comforter for which it is sometimes mistaken. Mill’s object was not to free men, but to convert them, and convert them to a peculiarly exclusive, peculiarly insinuating moral doctrine.

This tension in Mill’s work—between Mill the libertarian and Mill the moralistic utilitarian—helps to account for the vertiginous quality that suffuses the liberalism for which On Liberty was a kind of founding scripture.

How Liberalism Corrodes Morality
Mill’s announced enemy can be summed up in words like “custom,” “prejudice,” “established morality.” All his work goes to undermine these qualities—not because the positions they articulate are necessarily in error but simply because, being customary, accepted on trust, established by tradition, they have not been subjected to the acid test of his version of the utilitarian calculus. (Mill elsewhere refers to such calculation as “rational self-conscious scrutiny,” the implication being that anything else is less than completely rational.)

The tradition that Mill opposed celebrated custom, prejudice, and established morality precisely because they had prevailed and given good service through the vicissitudes of time and change; their longevity was itself an important token of their worthiness. It was in this sense, for example, that Edmund Burke extolled prejudice, writing that “prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit. . . . Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Mill overturned this traditional view. Indeed, he was instrumental in getting the public to associate “prejudice” indelibly with “bigotry.” For Mill, established morality is suspect first of all because it is established. His liberalism is essentially corrosive of existing societal arrangements, institutions, and morality.

Mill constantly castigated such things as the “magical influence of custom” (“magical” being a negative epithet for Mill), the “despotism of custom [that] is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement,” the “tyranny of opinion” that makes it so difficult for “the progressive principle” to flourish. According to Mill, the “greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history because the sway of custom has been complete.”

Such passages reveal the core of moral arrogance inhabiting Mill’s liberalism. They also suggest to what extent he remained—despite the various criticisms he made of the master—a faithful heir of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. And I do not mean only the Bentham who propounded the principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but also the Bentham who applauded the proceedings of the Star Chamber, advocated the imprisonment of beggars, defended torture, and devised the “Panopticon”—a machine, he said, for “grinding rogues honest”—to keep miscreants under constant surveillance. Liberty was always on Mill’s lips; a new orthodoxy was ever in his heart. There is an important sense in which the libertarian streak in On Liberty is little more than a prophylactic against the coerciveness that its assumption of virtuous rationality presupposes.

Such “paradoxes” (to put it politely) show themselves wherever the constructive part of Mill’s doctrine is glimpsed through his cheerleading for freedom and eccentricity. Mill’s doctrine of liberty begins with a promise of emancipation. The individual, in order to construct a “life plan” worthy of his nature, must shed the carapace of inherited opinion. He must learn to subject all his former beliefs to rational scrutiny. He must dare to be “eccentric,” “novel,” “original.”

At the same time, Mill notes, not without misgiving, that

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase; the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion—a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous.

In other words, the partisan of Millian liberalism undertakes the destruction of inherited custom and belief in order to construct a bulwark of custom and belief that can be inherited. As Mill put it in his Autobiography:

I looked forward, through the present age of loud disputes but generally weak convictions, to a future . . . [in which] convictions as to what is right and wrong, useful and pernicious, deeply engraven on the feelings by early education and general unanimity of sentiment, and so firmly grounded in reason and in the true exigencies of life, that they shall not, like all former and present creeds, religious, ethical, and political, require to be periodically thrown off and replaced by others.

So: a “unanimity of sentiment” (a.k.a. custom) is all well and good as long as it is grounded in the “true exigencies of life”—as defined, of course, by J. S. Mill.

A New “Theocracy”? Oh, Please
A lot more could be said about Mill’s doctrine and its importance for understanding today’s liberal consensus. But for now, I’ll just say that that I suspect it also informs Sohrab’s criticism of our culture’s habit of elevating autonomy into the highest virtue even if—especially if—it circumscribes the individual’s freedom understood as something that cannot flourish apart from a particular community or outside a particular tradition. Edmund Burke caught an important aspect of this dynamic when he observed, “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.”

Again, more could be said about all of this, but let me move on briefly to what I think is the other key passage of Sohrab’s essay. It comes at the end. “Progressives,” he writes,

understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

This passage was Exhibit A for Sohrab’s critics. Imagine, consigning civility and decency to the status of “second values”! Praising “enmity,” endorsing our own values and (dread word) “orthodoxy.”

Some of Sohrab’s critics seem to think that such passages indicated that he was advocating a new theocracy. I think he is advocating realism when it comes to our opponents in the culture war. What they want is not tolerance but full-throated approbation, whether the issue is bringing children to public libraries to be indoctrinated by sexual freaks, unlimited abortion, radical environmentalism, or the smorgasbord of toxins populating the ideology of identity politics. What they offer is not tolerance, not debate, but an invitation to submit to their view of the world.

In such situations, dissent cannot succeed if it proceeds piecemeal. It must recognize that what is at stake is, in the deepest sense, an anthropology, a view of what man is. We are living among the fragments of a shattered inheritance, morally and socially as well as politically. The so-called liberals (so-called because no one is more illiberal) are bent on scattering those fragments and trampling underfoot the values they represent.

Sohrab Ahmari’s essay is certainly not the last word in how to respond to this onslaught. But it has the inestimable virtue of understanding that this battle is not fodder for a debating club but an existential struggle.

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America • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • History • Hollywood • political philosophy • Post

The Political Implications of the Antihero

Once upon a time in Western civilization, the knight in shining armor was the beau ideal for male character development. A guileless, clean-living, fair-playing Christian and brave sort of rule-keeping chap who treated women with due deference and willingly, if not enthusiastically, sacrificed all for God, king, and country.

The Somme, to steal from Robert Graves, bid goodbye to all that. In the United States, one might have thought Fredericksburg would have done the trick. It didn’t and it took until World War I to start the process in earnest. It took the Vietnam War to finish it.

But culturally, we see in the Great War poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, followed by the “Lost Generation” in Paris, the beginning of the disillusion with, and rejection of, Western codes of honor that had held sway for 1,000 years. Fictional characters such as Jay Gatsby, Rick Blaine, Harry Callahan, and Han Solo showcased leading men who broke rules, disdained authority, and behaved as they saw fit, sometimes in serious contravention of reigning codes of society. They are the antihero.

Though a phenomenon since the time of Andrew Jackson and the American cowboy, it’s fair to say that as artillery serves as a precursor to an infantry assault, this post-World War I trend paved the way in America for Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. These men are rogues who found political success in a culture no longer looking for Boy Scouts.

When we think of the past world, in a sense the old world before 1916, we think of bemedaled sovereigns and potentates striding in solemn procession at Edward VII’s funeral in 1910. The approximate century prior since Waterloo had seen the concept of the Christian gentleman, perhaps best typified by Gordon of Khartoum, as the apogee of masculinity. We perceive them as Dudley Do-Rights today. John Glenn was a self-admitted member of the club and worried about it.

The generation of men who thought and lived like that—Rupert Brooke may have been their most sublime and beautiful voice in “The Soldier”—found their ultimate sacrifice in the trenches of the Western Front. The young subalterns straight out of Eton or Oxbridge, in keeping with Wellington, saw it as a grand game at first. After all, gentlemen didn’t even carry a weapon. Slaughter was the work of the lower orders. Aristos had better things to do. Many of our best of 1917 felt the same way.

Their attitude soon changed when the butcher’s bill came due courtesy of German machine guns and poison gas shells.

British poet Wilfred Owen caught that acidic aftertaste in his classic Dulce et Decorum Est. Americans came home a bit less scarred but still questioning why. With the League of Nations not yet passed, Europe still in shambles, and an intervening decade that would see Europe on the road to world war again, just what did America accomplish in its bid to “make the world safe for democracy” and “end all wars”?

The consensus was very little. Hence, when the draft was up for renewal in 1941, and as World War II brewed with vigor, the bill passed by just one vote in the House, so present was the searing memory of the waste of World War I.

If you know your Fitzgerald, you know the story. The dashing young Princeton lieutenant off to war at the outset of This Side of Paradise is much removed from Gatsby, a bootlegging mystery man who consorts with mobsters and blithely violates societal norms to possess Daisy Buchanan. The difference between hero and antihero? The crucible of war.

Rick Blaine, who had run guns to the Spanish loyalists, then thought the nobler of the sides in the Spanish Civil War, in “Casablanca” is a boozy bar owner in Vichy France who is on the lam from American authorities for an unknown reason. When approached to help Victor Laszlo, a resistance leader against the Nazis, escape to America, he puts his bitter, burning torch for his ex, now Laszlo’s wife, above his alleged duty to fight for freedom and country. Yes, eventually he goes all squish. In 1942, the rot was in a state of stasis because of another war.

Jump forward two wars, Korea and Vietnam, a semi-victory and a loss, and we come to the San Francisco Police Department’s Dirty Harry. Since it’s relatively modern, I won’t belabor the details, as many readers will recall the film. Suffice to say, Callahan has only a passing acquaintance with rules and respect for duly constituted authority. The American public glorified him for it and a U.S. president quoted him from the podium. No more nice guys, we want winners, even if they have to fight dirty.

It’s almost as though we channeled the frustration over the failed objectives in Korea and Vietnam and decided to ape the Viet Cong in their dedication to final triumph, regardless of the questionable ethics required to achieve it.

Do I even have to go into all the ways Han Solo is no choirboy? He’s Rick Blaine in a galaxy far, far away. He’s out for himself and, like Blaine, only comes around at the urgings of a woman he eventually loves. Solo is a smuggler and free-booter, just the man for the age after “the best and brightest” lost Vietnam.

The young selfless honor-bound war hero George H. W. Bush’s win in Desert Storm notwithstanding, we rejected him a bit over a year later for a draft-dodging womanizer of highly questionable personal ethics and his wife who put, more so now, the Borgias to shame for their lack of integrity.

And how do we remember the 1990s? For many of us, it was a glorious decade. Now that could be a function of our then-relative youth, the good economy, or the GOP congressional dominance. No matter the qualifiers, however, many prospered. We noticed the White House doings, up to and including impeachment, and then went on with our lives, rarely giving a second serious thought to the summer stock Elvis in the Oval Office. Our need for noble individuals in power had fallen to that.

Consider that after Bill Clinton was impeached, his poll numbers went up.

I also won’t go into the current president’s foibles and what I consider his good record, as that was recently covered in another column in this space. You can make your own judgments. Though, ask yourself, when you hear of a scandal are you surprised at all? Do even the most heinous acts of political transgression motivate you to think, “Wow! I never would have guessed”?

I would venture to speculate it is generally unlikely.

Russian hoaxes, socialist authoritarians, and congressional witch hunts are usually not repulsed by the Dudley Do-Rights of the world. Fictional San Francisco police inspectors and their temperamental followers fare better when jousting with those foes. So our devolution from hero to antihero has its political plus sides. On the ethical and moral sides, the jury is most definitely still out on the question.

As it should be. For the specter of political conflict is not the total be all and end all of life. When it is our more vital civic, intellectual, and cultural lives are worse off for it.

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America • Americanism • Conservatives • Electoral College • Government Reform • political philosophy • Post • self-government • separation of powers • The Constitution • The Culture

The New Social Contract We Must Reject

America’s public life is disordered; our discourse toxic. Competing lists of scandals and abuses (calls for impeachment, “nuclear options,” attacks on free speech, and so on) are long and shop-worn—and often miss the real issue that something profound, systemic, and dangerous has happened to our nation. A hostile ideology now permeates the institutions that inculcate our children’s values, that shape or manufacture public opinion, and that supply the public with our only menu of political options from which to choose.

In effect, our ruling class has declared a new social contract, and they expect us to accept in silent acquiescence.

A social contract reveals itself in action, not ideas, and the true nature of the new, progressive contract emerges in countless examples of applied tyranny rather than its rhetoric of liberation. If we allow this new social contract to become our national norm, we will no longer be Americans in any meaningful sense. We will descend from a self-governing people into the subjects of social democratic elites who will dictate what kinds of political, economic, and social relationships we have with one another and with our new rulers.

American public life grew from a creative tension between two competing but ultimately compatible visions of who we are and what makes our common life meaningful. In effect, Americans have lived in and between two social contracts, which we have come to call “liberal” and “conservative.”

Our liberal social contract is largely individualistic; it stresses natural rights, political consent, and legal protections that extend from protecting contracts to guaranteeing equality of opportunity. Our conservative social contract, accepting much of liberalism, undergirds it by emphasizing the ties of community—of family, church, and local association—that make economic and political cooperation possible and help give life meaning. Freedom and stability, rights and duties, personal drive and the deeper ties and shared stories that bind us, these seeming contradictions have served as the poles of our common life, allowing us to forge a society of dynamic, ordered liberty.

Things have changed. Whether in the sweeping power grab of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” the old-style socialism of Senator Bernie Sanders, or the dogged resistance of “mainstream” Democrats to any judicial nominee who recognizes the duty of judges to follow rather than make law, formerly fringe positions have coalesced into a new consensus on the left more radical than anything we have seen previously in our two-party system.

How did this happen?

Barack Obama’s vapid speechifying about America’s coming “fundamental transformation” sounded sophomoric to many of us but inspired others—activists, academics, journalists, and politicians—to believe their vanguard had finally captured all the important cultural and political high ground. The words were conceptually empty but nonetheless important as they signaled a coming out for this vanguard. Feeling free to use naked power to implement their new social and political model, progressives largely immobilized non-progressive elites whose foolish complicity in the building of the new paradigm left them without a script.

This paradigm owes much to the most radical of American Progressives from a century ago. It is laid out most fully, however, in a work of academic philosophy, the 1971 book A Theory of Justice by Harvard philosopher John Rawls.  At one level, Rawls merely restates old leftist prejudices, and his abstruse language hardly conceals the radicalism of a “social contract” demanding that we reject our lived culture, our inherited principles, and the defining traits of our American character in favor of a radical, inhumane, and fundamentally unjust “theory of justice.”  

On another level, Rawls offers the purest form of political abstraction that supported a method of analysis perfectly attuned to the desires of a new generation of radicals for moral certitude and for those who cannot tolerate dissent or pluralism.  In this way, Rawls crafted a very useful and seductive theory for people who want action. Rawls’ contract begins with the question: what type of society would an individual choose from behind a “veil of ignorance” completely masking every aspect of a distinctive self:  gender, class, talents, physical limitations, religious and moral beliefs? Rawls’ answer is a “fair” society, in which the only permissible inequalities would be those that produce disproportionate benefits to the most disadvantaged. The cold abstraction of Rawls’ system produces moral heat against all forms of difference and inequality, and against anyone who fails to parrot the claim that its principles are self-evident. And so, dissent from the new orthodoxy is portrayed as a sign of racist rage and a selfish thirst for power, political majorities are dismissed as brainwashed rubes or mere fictions, and open opposition to the new order is deemed treason. Rawls’ theory effectively closes the mind of disciples in order to prepare them for the long march to power.

If we have learned anything over the last two and a half centuries it is that nothing is so dangerous to real, particular, breathing humans as moralism devoted to abstract visions of the good. Unfortunately, we seem perpetually destined to unlearn such lessons. “Free” college, medical care, and guaranteed incomes, courts determined to legislate against the expressed will of the people, and the poisonous demands of today’s identity politics all share a hostility to the norms of personal responsibility and traditions of due process deeply embedded in our liberal/conservative consensus. They demand rejection of tradition and opportunity in favor of using government and radical pressure groups to redistribute wealth and power according to political standards.

Political conflict is nothing new in America. Nor is all political conflict the product of disagreements over our social contract. For example, much of the tragedy of race relations historically has stemmed from primitive emotions and bad, race-based pseudo-science. But at the core of today’s toxic politics is a battle for America’s soul. We must choose: Are we, as a people, dependents of a central government and those who perpetually run that government, looking for administrators to protect us from all the tragedies of life—including sickness, poverty, feelings of inferiority, and speech we find hurtful? Or are we a free people, possessed of a common story as well as our own stories in our own communities, capable of governing ourselves provided each of us is given fair treatment and room to move in the public square?

The Rawlsian contract demands that every form of inequality—political, economic, and social—pass muster according to rigorous, unrealistic criteria. In effect, every aspect of our lives is to be judged by the most “woke” among us, who will then use the power of the state to enforce their judgement. Promising liberation, the Rawlsian social contract would reduce each and every one of us to a featureless cog in a great machine of constant social reconstruction. This most political of social contracts is the real foundation for the politics of envy and resentment promoted by Occasio-Cortez, Sanders, and their enablers.

At its heart, the Progressive social contract is a rejection of society itself in favor of a pervasive, inescapable politics, guided by a permanent ruling class insulated from the people by tenure, lifetime appointments, civil service rules, and a corrupt political system. Real political consent comes, not from behind a veil of ignorance, nor from the kind of mass, national elections called for by those who would destroy our Electoral College. It comes from people within their own states and local communities. National politics and promises must take a back seat to local concerns and loyalties if we are to regain self-government. For this to happen we first must call out those who would shame normal Americans into submission. It is time to call a radical a radical and a socialist a socialist. Most important, it is time to remind ourselves that, whether conservative or liberal, a majority of Americans still believe in self-government and ordered liberty; this is what has bound us together, and what must continue to bind us together if we are to remain a free people.

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political philosophy • Post • Progressivism • The Culture • The Left

The Demon in Democracy

Earlier this month, Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko was supposed to deliver a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont. A few hours before the event took place, college administrators called off the event, explaining the decision was based “based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response.”

Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, specializing in ancient philosophy and political theory. He has served as a Polish government minister and a member of the European Parliament. He’s also an ardent anti-Communist with traditionalist views. That was enough, evidently, to make him a “threat” to the “safety” of Middlebury students.

Legutko gave a lecture anyway to a small group of students in a political science class. “All this was done in defiance of the college administration,” he later told the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher. “I was smuggled in a student’s car to the campus and entered the building through the backdoor.” Encounter Books editor and publisher Roger Kimball writes about the incident and its aftermath here.

In 2016, Encounter published Legutko’s latest book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. In it, Legutko argues that liberal democracy “tends to develop the qualities that were characteristic of Communism: pervasive politicization, ideological zeal, aggressive social engineering, vulgarity, a belief in inevitability of progress, destruction of family, the omnipresent rule of ideological correctness, and the severe restriction of intellectual inquiry.”

The following is an excerpt from that book, republished here with kind permission from Encounter.

* * *

Liberal democracy does not have and never had an official concept of history that can be attributed to a particular author. It does not have its Marx, Lenin, or Lukács. Nevertheless, from the very beginning, the liberals and the democrats made use of a typical historical pattern by which they were easily recognized and which often appeared not only in the variety of general opinions they formulated but also, on a less abstract level, in popular beliefs and stereotypes professed to be a representation of liberal thinking in mass circulation. According to this view, the history of the world—in the case of liberalism—was the history of the struggle for freedom against enemies who were different at various stages of history but who perpetually fought against the idea of freedom itself and—in the case of democracy—the history of a people’s continuing struggle for power against forces that kept them submissive for centuries. Both of these political currents—liberal and democratic—had therefore one enemy, a widely understood tyranny, which, in the long history of humanity, assumed a variety of additional, distinctive costumes. Every now and then it was a monarchy, often the Church, and at other times an oligarchy. The main enemy of freedom was portrayed in various ways in different countries and different traditions. As John Stuart Mill wrote in the passage opening his essay “On Liberty,” “The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature of history since the earliest times known to us.”

In England, at some point there emerged a Whig concept of history that was to portray the country’s basic dramatic political history. According to this view, the history of British civilization was a progressing expansion of freedom and its legal safeguards and the disappearance into the past of bad practices of autocracy or arbitrary authority beyond the control of the people and Parliament. More specifically, the history of England could be presented—as has been done many times—as a narrative of the emergence of Parliament and creation of a constitutional monarchy, with a particular legal system sanctioning it.

But the Whig view of the history of Great Britain deserves a broader look. There were also authors who treated it as a basic libertarian model of development. If one was going to introduce the idea of freedom to Western civilization, then—as they claimed—the most clearly expressed representation of the idea of freedom at its most mature, the one most rooted in law, institutions, and customs and in freedom mechanisms themselves, was revealed in the history of England. Such were the feelings of numerous Anglophiles, from the Enlightenment thinkers to Friedrich Hayek.

Naturally, a question arises of what was supposed to happen and would happen at the end of history, when freedom would claim victory over tyranny. There, for millions of people, Communism offered a rousing but actually quite vague vision. Under Communism, people were promised to have a lot of time off from work, to be free from alienation, to find employment that was rewarding and fulfilling, and to have the means of production socialized, which would result in each person receiving according to his needs. What all that was supposed to mean in more specific terms, nobody knew. When Soviet Communism emerged, some said that in fact it was precisely the system that the socialist prophets had in mind; others categorically opposed this opinion, claiming that Communism was a terrible perversion of genuine socialism, while still others argued that the Soviet regime was merely a transitional phase—somewhat unpleasant yet necessary, leading to the future realization of socialist ideals. Given the vague notions of what true socialism was supposed to be, each of these assessments was right to some extent.

The liberal vision, although less thrilling to hearts and minds, was a bit more concrete. The impetus of liberalism was understood to lie in its cooperative feature, which was to bring the human race to a higher stage of development, then called the Age of Commerce. The era of conflicts, wars, and violence—it was claimed—was coming to an end and the period of cooperation, prosperity, and progress was near. In short, the liberal era was the era of peace. This, in any case, was the way of thinking one could find in Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, and other classical liberals. It does not sound particularly grand or original today, but we should remember that war was a ubiquitous experience then, and thus the prospect of peace appeared tempting if almost unrealistic and the theories that justified it had to appear exciting in their boldness.

In a famous essay, Immanuel Kant wrote about the advent of the era of “perpetual peace” among the republics. What is interesting, however, is that, according to Kant, this blessed era could and actually should be preceded by a phase of enlightened absolutism. Authors such as Spinoza, who wrote favorably about democracy, made their praise conditional on people’s first meeting high intellectual and moral requirements. They believed—and it was a fairly widespread view at the time—that tyranny, despotism, and other anachronistic regimes hindered the development of human capacity, stopping it at the early stages of dependency and helplessness. Following the removal of such regimes, work was to begin—partly resulting from a spontaneous internal desire for self-improvement of the mind and partly imposed by the enlightened rulers—that in the end would generate an improved society composed of better and more rational individuals.

A comparison between the liberal-democratic concept of the history and that of Communism shows a commonality of argument as well as of images of the historical process. Three common threads occurring in Marx’s works have their counterparts in the liberal and democratic tradition. There is a belief in the unilateralism of history, leading inevitably and triumphantly to the era of perpetual peace, or, in other terms, to the refinement of commerce and cooperation that humanity will reach due to the victory of freedom over tyranny. Another is the equivalent of deliberate human action, albeit not run by the party, but by active entrepreneurs and all types of freedom fighters, as well as the distinguished minority groups, elite and enlightened rulers who will prepare humanity—until now apathetic, enslaved, and ignorant—for the new reality. The third topic—mankind’s achieving maturity and intellectual independence—is usually described in simpler language than the German-Romantic used by the young Karl Marx and amounts to a promise of a modern society liberated from ignorance and superstition.

Over the past 150 or 200 years, the concepts of Communism, liberalism, and democracy evolved under the pressures of reality. It seems beyond doubt, however, that the first two views—that history has a unilateral pattern and that a better world is shaped by conscious human activity—are still very much present in the modern political mind.

Of course, few people talk of the laws of history today, mainly because this quasi-scientific language lost its appeal in an age when the concept of science changed. Nevertheless, both the Communists and liberal democrats have always upheld and continue to uphold the view that history is on their side. Whoever thought that the collapse of the Soviet system should have done away with the belief in the inevitability of socialism was disappointed. This belief is as strong as ever and the past practices of socialism—whether Soviet or Western—are well-appreciated, not because they were beneficial in themselves, but because they are still believed to have represented the correct direction of social change. One can observe a similar mindset among the liberal democrats, who are also deeply convinced that they represent both the inherent dynamics of social development and a natural tendency in human aspirations.

Both the Communists and liberal democrats, while praising what is inevitable and objectively necessary in history, praise at the same time the free activities of parties, associations, community groups, and organizations in which, as they believe, what is inevitable and objectively necessary reveals itself. Both speak fondly of “the people” and large social movements, while at the same time—like the Enlightenment philosophers—have no qualms in ruthlessly breaking social spontaneity in order to accelerate social reconstruction.

Admittedly, for the liberal democrats, the combination of the two threads is intellectually more awkward than for the socialists. The very idea of liberal democracy should presuppose the freedom of action, which means every man and every group or party should be given a free choice of what they want to pursue. And yet the letter, the spirit, and the practice of the liberal-democratic doctrine are far more restrictive: so long as society pursues the path of modernization, it must follow the path whereby the programs of action and targets other than liberal-democratic lose their legitimacy. The need for building a liberal-democratic society thus implies the withdrawal of the guarantee of freedom for those whose actions and interests are said to be hostile to what the liberal democrats conceive as the cause of freedom.

Thus the adoption of the historical preference of liberal democracy makes the resulting conclusion analogous to that which the communists drew from the belief in the historical privilege of their system: everything that exists in society must become liberal-democratic over time and be imbued with the spirit of the system. As once when all major designations had to be preceded by the adjective “socialist” or “Communist,” so now everything should be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, and this labeling almost automatically gives a recipient a status of credibility and respectability. Conversely, a refusal to use such a designation or, even worse, an ostentatious rejection of it, condemns one to moral degradation, merciless criticism, and, ultimately, historical annihilation.

Countries emerging from Communism provided striking evidence in this regard. Belief in the “normalcy” of liberal democracy, or, in other words, the view that this system delineates the only accepted course and method of organizing collective life, is particularly strong, a corollary being that in the line of development the United States and Western Europe are at the forefront while we, the East Europeans, are in the back. The optimal process should progress in a manner in which the countries in the back catch up with those at the front, repeating their experiences, implementing their solutions, and struggling with the same challenges. Not surprisingly, there immediately emerged a group of self-proclaimed eloquent accoucheurs of the new system, who from the position of the enlightened few took upon themselves a duty to indicate the direction of change and to infuse a new liberal-democratic awareness into anachronistic minds. They were, one would be tempted to say, the Kantian Prussian kings of liberal democracy, fortunately devoid of a comparable power, but undoubtedly perceiving themselves to have a similar role as pioneers of the enlightened future.

In their view, today also consciously or unconsciously professed by millions, the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations. The people, structures, thoughts that exist outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdated, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end up in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve.

Once one sends one’s opponents to the dustbin of history, any debate with them becomes superfluous. Why waste time, they think, arguing with someone whom the march of history condemned to nothingness and oblivion? Why should anyone seriously enter into a debate with the opponent who represents what is historically indefensible and what will sooner or later perish? People who are not liberal democrats are to be condemned, laughed at, and repelled, not debated. Debating with them is like debating with alchemists or geocentrists. Again, an analogy with Communism immediately comes to one’s mind. The opponents of Communism—e.g., those who believed free markets to be superior to planned economies—were at best enemies to be crushed, or laughingstocks to be humiliated: how else could any reasonable soul react to such anachronistic dangerous ravings of a deluded mind?

After all, in a liberal democracy everyone knows—and only a fool or a fanatic can deny—that sooner or later a family will have to liberalize or democratize, which means that the parental authority has to crumble, the children will quickly liberate themselves from the parental tutelage, and family relationships will increasingly become more negotiatory and less authoritarian. These are the inevitable consequences of civilizational and political development, giving people more and more opportunities for independence; moreover, these processes are essentially beneficial because they enhance equality and freedom in the world. Thus there is no legitimate reason to defend the traditional family—the very name evokes the smell of mothballs—and whoever does it is self-condemned to a losing position and in addition, perpetrates harm by delaying the process of change. The traditional family was, after all, part of the old despotism: with its demise, the despotic system loses its base. The liberalization and democratization of the family are therefore to be supported—wholeheartedly and energetically—mainly by appropriate legislation that will give children more power: for example, allowing increasingly younger girls to have abortions without parental consent, or providing children with legal instruments to combat their claims against their parents, or depriving parents of their rights and transferring those rights to the government and the courts. Sometimes, to be sure, these things can lead to excessive measures perpetrated by the state, law, and public opinion, but the general tendency is good and there is no turning back from it.

Similarly, in a liberal democracy, everyone knows—and only a fool or a fanatic can deny—that schools have to become more and more liberal and democratic for the same reasons. Again, this inevitable process requires that the state, the law, and public opinion harshly counteract against all stragglers—those who are trying to put a stick in the spokes of progress, dreamers who imagine that in the twenty-first century we can return to the school as it existed in the nineteenth, pests who want to build an old-time museum in the forward-rushing world. And so on, and so forth. Similar reasoning can be applied to churches, communities, associations.

As a result, liberal democracy has become an all-permeating system. There is no, or in any case, cannot be, any segment of reality that would be arguably and acceptably non-liberal democratic. Whatever happens in school must follow the same pattern as in politics, in politics the same pattern as in art, and in art the same pattern as in the economy: the same problems, the same mechanisms, the same type of thinking, the same language, the same habits. Just as in real socialism, so in real democracy, it is difficult to find some nondoctrinal slice of the world, a nondoctrinal image, narrative, tone, or thought.

In a way, liberal democracy presents a somewhat more insidious ideological mystification than Communism. Under Communism, it was clear that Communism was to prevail in every cell of social life, and that the Communist Party was empowered with the instruments of brutal coercion and propaganda to get the job done. Under liberal democracy, such official guardians of constitutional doctrine do not exist, which, paradoxically, makes the overarching nature of the system less tangible, but at the same time more profound and difficult to reverse. It is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a preintellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.

Forty years ago, at the time when the period of liberal-democratic monopoly was fast approaching, Daniel Bell, one of the popular social writers, set forth the thesis that a modern society is characterized by the disjunction of three realms: social, economic, and political. They develop—so he claimed—at different rates, have different dynamics and purposes, and are subject to different mechanisms and influences. This image of structural diversity that Bell saw coming was attractive, or rather would have been attractive if true. But the opposite happened. No disjunction occurred. Rather, everything came to be joined under the liberal-democratic formula: the economy, politics and society, and—as it turns out—culture.

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America • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Defense of the West • Education • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society • The Culture

Who Will Convert Us? The Life of James V. Schall, S.J.

At the passing of a priest, age 91, who was also a profound scholar and inspiring teacher, one expects to see praise of his dozens of books, hundreds of writings, 60 years’ worth of lectures, and generations of students.

In the case of Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., the longtime Georgetown University political theorist who passed away on April 17, 2019, such praise will be deservedly legion. More to the crux of the matter, his whole life seemed devoted to rebirth or conversion, the Socratic periagoge, a decisive turning around. As the example shows, such an experience is not limited to Catholics but is fundamental to a fully lived human life.

Indeed, the most striking eulogy of all may be the one by the geopolitical strategist and author known as Spengler. David Goldman wrote on Facebook, a few hours after his passing:

Fr. Schall was a theologian as much as he was a strategist, and brought a deep understanding of mankind’s spiritual condition to bear on geopolitical analysis. I had the privilege to meet him and correspond with him over the past decade and considered myself blessed to engage so luminous a mind. There are few strategic thinkers who understand the primacy of man’s existential condition in the course of world affairs. We cannot forget him; we cannot replace him. We only can mourn.

And earlier a mutual friend, a Chinese immigrant scholar, wrote late last year to Fr. Schall, recalling one of several Chinese dishes they had shared (though Schall was persuaded away from the duckfeet):

We also tried the whole fish dish at a Chinese restaurant in Arlington (walked across the bridge to get there). You did a good job using chopsticks to extract fish from the bones and added green onion slices to go with it. Then, you philosophized over the fish skeleton with its head and tail arching upward.

Using the recollection of the food, she was recalling him to life from what had been presumed was his deathbed.

More modestly, I recall breakfasts with Fr. Jim in Georgetown (I always visualize him in motion from the Jesuit Residence to our rendezvous). At one he exchanged greetings with George Will, noting to me that the columnist had hired former students of his as research assistants. We would discuss questions of political philosophy, theology, current politics, and the university. This would prepare us for interviews in the form of exchanges conducted by email, to be published by the Claremont Institute. The focus of these conversations, which began in 2002 and were typically published during Advent, was on the relationship between theology and philosophy in the study of political philosophy.

One of those conversations reemerged as an Appendix in Schall’s book, The Mind That is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays.

The conversations thus reflect the catholicism (with a small c) of Schall’s teaching. I could recommend for this purpose one of his earlier books, At the Limits of Political Philosophy, in particular the chapter on an enduring theme of his, political friendship, that is, patriotism.  But this catholicism, this defense of the West, is displayed in particular in the book on Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg Lecture which I recommend to my classes on American political rhetoric. In debunking journalistic accounts of Benedict’s analysis of the crisis of the West, Fr. Schall shows the profundity of that crisis for both reason and faith by explicating the text. In repudiating its roots in faith, Schall and Benedict show, that the West also denies reason. Revelation and rationality require each other and belong together. As he put it more recently,

The Church really is the last major bastion in the world that stands for the sanity of normal mankind. Its enemies, and it has enemies, recognize the importance of capturing the “image” of a Church about to change, about to embrace modernity in all its glory and goriness. I think that Pope Francis has learned a lot in his first year in the papacy. What is missing is what Benedict and John Paul II understood, namely, the importance of intellect in this whole analysis of what needs to be done.

This account of this powerful message can be found in a Claremont conversation that occurred just before Easter, almost exactly five years ago. The context I supplied for our exchange was a two-day seminar led by Harry V. Jaffa on his own major books.

While not a participant at that seminar, Schall observed that  

I am in part thinking of Harry Jaffa’s remark at Strauss’s funeral that the importance of Aquinas was that he kept Aristotle alive. Indeed he did, but he also saw how Aristotle and revelation were in fact related. It has been my life work, as I look back on the political philosophy essays and books that I have written, to explain how they belong together. We still must keep the proper distinctions and observations.

Schall repeated this theme in his reflections on his life in January. They are particularly acute as the smoke of the Notre Dame fire still lingers:

We want to say that nothing basic is really going on. Yet too much evidence appears that some huge disconnect it taking place in our midst. That clear line of thought from Aristotle to Aquinas to Benedict seems frayed. Orthodoxy meant a confidence that what was handed down was not itself changing or becoming obscure. It also meant that reason would meet what was revealed to us as compatible with what we could learn by ourselves. The truths of God made reason more itself, when thought out.

Strictly speaking, if what is revealed and what is understood are no longer coherent to each other, then that central promise on which we rely for stability of doctrine and practice cannot be maintained.

Fr. Jim and I had spoken several times of a book collecting  his Claremont conversations, as a complement to another book of conversations he has since published. Our volume might conclude with writings from his last years.

I’ll remember the time of his passing, April 17, 12:48 Pacific Time corresponds to when (albeit in Eastern Time) I was scheduling a Mass to be said for him. About the nearest date available was St. Anthony of Padua’s Feast Day, June 13. Fitting for a world that is losing its mind and for a saint who was a Doctor of the Church. My birthday too, for my conversion seems impossible without Fr. Jim.

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Photo Credit: The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University

America • Declaration of Independence • political philosophy • Post • The Constitution

Are You Positive About Natural Right?

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Last Sunday, Edward J. Erler replied to Mark Pulliam in their battle over positivist originalism and natural rights originalism. Erler’s relies primarily on the opinions of founders and leading politicians responsible for the 14th Amendment to show the natural rights basis of both the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. The emphasis on opinion outside of the Constitution perhaps obscures some fundamental points about proper construction.

The technical rules of legal construction—containing such exotic delights as in pari materia, ejusdim generis and expressio unius est exclusio alterius—can be fairly reduced to four basic common sense principles: (1) apply the plain meaning or common usage of the language; (2) where the language is still unclear, look to the other plain language within the document to interpret; (3) where a term of art used has a customary and historical meaning, apply that meaning; and (4) if 1, 2, and 3 are insufficient to resolve the ambiguity, the look outside of the document to the stated intentions of the leading authors or proponents of the document, if reliable statements can be found. Avoid conclusions that are contradictory, absurd, or render words or provisions meaningless. For originalism, we can add that where the contemporary and original meanings of plain language are different, the original meaning should prevail.

A charter can be examined adequately using only these rules in almost all cases. But where these methods, exhausted, continue to admit of two or more reasonable meanings, a construction at odds with the principles of the authority on which the charter rests ought to be discarded. After all, what makes a charter compelling and intelligible is the authority behind it. This is true whether we are speaking of a simple corporate charter, the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, or the Constitution. For this reason charters invariably open with a reference to the source of their authority: a Delaware corporation—“pursuant to the General Corporation Law of the State of Delaware”; the Magna Carta—“John by the grace of God”; the Mayflower Compact—“In the name of God, Amen . . . the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord King James by ye grace of God, of Great Britain, France, & Ireland king, defender of ye faith”; and the Constitution of the United States—“We the People.”

Let’s look at the source of the authority behind  “we the People.” Generally, legal reasoning in Anglo-Saxon-derived systems involves inductive reasoning. That is, the legal interpreter looks at the particulars, cases, words in a contract, precedents and persuasive authorities, and reasons by distinguishing and synthesizing to a unifying principle. That principle is then applied to the particular matter. The Declaration of Independence, the very first legal document in which the United States is mentioned, relies on deductive reasoning. Because it purports to transcend a positive law regime (i.e., the laws of England) and the ground of that regime (i.e., the divine right of kings) it proceeds from axioms independent both of the positive law and divine right. These axioms cannot be demonstrated but can be adequately known without further evidence. The Declaration then applies those principles deductively to answer partially the question of what is justice: the ground of just laws is the consent of the governed. Obedience to the positive law— a quintessential feature of justice as understood philosophically since Plato (Crito) and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics)—is compelling on the ground of the consent of the governed, which is, in turn, compelling on the ground of natural sovereign equality.

The American form of government closely reflects the principles of the Declaration. The American form is a deliberately adopted and amended charter, periodically ratified with elections rooted in the principle of majority rule. Elections to offices are staggered, causing the government to embody a will separate from the momentary will of a majority and embodying the long-term consensus of a people. In a microcosm, it is also the meaning of a free individual, who is neither tool of someone else nor a tool of momentary passions. The administrative state has been criticized in these pages for displacing the long-term consensus of the people with the caprice of a clique of bureaucrats, as we have seen with career apparatchiks James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and Robert Mueller, subordinating consent of the governed to a national bureaucratic and credentialed caste. The positivist originalism says the principles of the Declaration are unnecessary—indeed are an impediment—to the just and fair (or correct) interpretation of the Constitution. The difficulty of arguing with the positivist position is it is almost entirely correct. Constitutional questions can be adequately, correctly, and more soundly derived in almost all cases using the principles of construction outlined above.

I say “more soundly” because a callow natural rights jurist who uses compact theory to resolve a problem that can be resolved using the basic rules of construction will substitute his intention for the intention embodied in the charter. If that happens the consent needed for justice is undone; the confabulations of a misguided scholar of natural right confuse the nomoi (conventions) of a charter with physis (nature).

I also say in almost all cases” because a positivist originalism that eschews natural right is akin to dead reckoning without ever looking at the stars. This positivist originalism must attempt to inductively determine the authority of the Constitution without any fixed point of reference. In this exercise the interpreter is confronted with two reasonable conflicting inductive conclusions: (1) the Constitution is pro-slavery and is designed to protect the institution of slavery by protecting the slave trade, providing for fugitive slave laws and providing fractional representation of slaves and other persons not taxed, and (2) the Constitution is anti-slavery, confining the institution of slavery by allowing the prohibition of the slave trade after a date certain, tolerating the institution for the sake of the greater good of union, and facilitating the exclusion of slavery from the territories, until the institution dies a natural death.

The reasoning of the second interpretation is that of Lincoln in the Cooper Union Speech, which relies on inductive reasoning to show that in original intent the Constitution is anti-slavery. The first interpretation answers the question of what is compelling about the laws in a troubling way. We the people are an imposition of force, and force is what makes the charter compelling. This, in a nutshell, is a core position—apart from the compact of states doctrine which is so badly at odds with the plain language of the Constitution’s preamble that it should be ignored—of John C. Calhoun. It is also, looking back further, the position of the Athenians at Melos and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic.

So how does one judge whether the inductive reasoning in (1) or (2) is, in fact, the correct reasoning? On the one hand, the claim to authority of (1) has the allure of antiquity, practicality, and simplicity (not to mention circularity). Regimes are in power because they have the power to remain in power. But (1) is also contradictory, and must exempt itself from its own thought. The claim to authority of (1) has no independence of the power to enforce it.

On the other hand, the claim to authority of (2) has no such internal difficulty, provided one looks to the principles of the Declaration. The authority of the charter comes from the individual sovereign equality of individuals. Their claim to rule is inalienable even in defeat, and the Constitution’s inclusion of concepts supportive of slavery can only have been intended if the authors of the document understood themselves correctly—and those who did not understand can be dismissed—to have been a temporary compromise.

That said, given that Dred Scott is behind us and, with the adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments, the question of a pro-slavery or anti-slavery Constitution is also behind us, how is natural rights doctrine today more helpful than misleading?

First, the jettisoning of natural right in hopes of curing the insobriety of particular judges does not work. Those same judges will find a worse basis (e.g., historical right) on which to rest their judgments. We have today a doctrine of substantive due process that is divorced from the natural rights origin of the Constitution. In an attempt to determine what the meaning of “due” is in “due process” the judiciary has resorted to incorporating the Bill of Rights over and against the states in increasing measures of emanating in the penumbras, as the joke goes. Most of this jurisprudence has come from the Left—for example, Gitlow (1925), Mapp (1961), Gideon (1963), Griswold (1964), Roe (1973), and Bakke (1978)—but now the Right is in on the game, such as the MacDonald gun rights case in 2010. The best argument against this substantive due process is that such elaborate imputation to the word “due” violates the principle of consent of the governed derived from the equality of the Declaration.

Second, the best argument in favor of the substantive due process advanced in the name of a “living constitution” is the Constitution is at origin a pro-slavery document whose aged clauses are not venerable but are so contemptibly wicked that decency requires they be transmuted, without need for a process of consent, as the principle of the Constitution never respected consent in the first instance.

The first check on a jurist is temperament. Whether the jurist is inclined to adventure in natural right or living constitution substantive due process will always be a function in part of that jurist’s sense of self-restraint. I would no more want to fly to Mars on rocket ship designed by some fanatical Aristotelian than I would want to be judged by an unrestrained natural rights scholar. I would take the diligent student of field equations and a sober Rehnquist or Bork in both cases, on almost all questions. But on certain questions, like what to do on Mars once I get there and whether the word “due” includes plainly arbitrary and capricious methods, I might take my chances with the zealous Aristotelian or wild-eyed natural rights champion of academe.

But, more importantly, I don’t have to choose between a sober Rehnquist or Bork and an inebriate natural rights jurist. It is a false choice. All other things being equal, I would choose the sober natural rights scholar as my judge who does all the things that the Rehnquist or Bork jurist does and understands the source of authority of the Constitution.

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Book Reviews • Defense of the West • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society

Soul, Man

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The soul is the most difficult and paradoxical thing in the world. In classical thought, the soul is our form, which activates and animates the matter of our bodies and makes us rational and free beings. It thus provides our access to metaphysical being itself—the understanding of everything that is. The soul is the space where the light of philosophy shines.

In Christianity, the soul came to be understood as the spark of the divine or the image of God, and also immortal. (This latter view is ascribed to Aristotle by the disciples of Saint Thomas Aquinas.) A bit later, with the birth of modern science, the soul vanishes altogether. We speak today of the soul largely metaphorically and call the hard sciences “soulless”—by which we mean that chemistry, physics, and information technology are cold, deterministic, and heartless. (The soul is not the same as the heart, but they go together.) In a more than metaphorical sense, however, modern science emerged specifically in opposition to any notion of the soul as the completion of the body. The ancients thought the soul the opposite of a metaphor; it makes the body real—but it does so in a way technology cannot grasp. Modernity sets aside the soul as irrelevant, outside the scope of scientific measurement, and, hence, a non-entity. But even modern science admits it has difficulties explaining consciousness—the residue of the soul in beings that think.

David Bolotin, retired after a distinguished career at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, believes Aristotle can provide useful instruction here. Indeed, he takes the philosopher so seriously on this matter that he has performed the monumental task of translating Aristotle’s short, dense treatise On Soul, plumbing the deepest wellsprings of the manuscript tradition in order to reconstruct what he believes to be a more faithful rendering of the original . . .

Read the rest in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Image credit: Elliott Banfield/Claremont Review of Books

Book Reviews • Foreign Policy • political philosophy • Post

Defending the Nation

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For Yoram Hazony, governments are either nations or empires. This is a more superficial distinction than Aristotle’s, for whom a regime’s purpose is paramount, whether ruled by one, few, or many. Despite its limitations, however, Hazony’s new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is worth reading because it focuses so succinctly on what nations are, why they are good, what distinguishes nations from empires, and why Western elites’ attempt to drown nations in “liberal” supra-nationalist institutions is bad. The book presents “an anti-imperialist theory that seeks to establish a world of free and independent nations”—un monde des patries, as Charles de Gaulle would have said.

The president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, and himself an Israeli, Hazony is a proud part of the prototypical nation: a people forever defined by the covenant they made with the Lord God. In quasi-Platonic terms, Israel is thus the idea of the nation. Others are nations insofar as they approach that idea. The Israelites defined themselves by their adherence to God, who shaped His people morally by giving them the Ten Commandments to instruct them in basic personal behavior. Hazony calls these “the moral minimum.” God at once endowed and limited his nation by giving them a land to be their own, while warning them—as he does in Deuteronomy 2:4-19—to “meddle not” with other peoples, whom He had also endowed with lands to be their own.

Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir . . . . Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession . . . . Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession . . . . And when thou comest nigh over against the children of Ammon, distress them not, nor meddle with them: for I will not give thee of the land of the children of Ammon any possession; because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession.

From the beginning, then, Hazony shows that the prototypical nation was “living within limited borders alongside other independent nations…and uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its rule.” It welcomed strangers who said, as Ruth did, “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” God willed that Israel rule itself, as the prophet Jeremiah declared: “And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them.” Its rulers would serve the people, because only God Himself is master of all. Having freed Israel from the Egyptian empire, the Lord settled His people in the midst of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and other Near Eastern empires, whose masters intended to deprive of self-rule as many peoples—nations—as they could conquer.

* * *

Hazony rightly reminds us that “all states are perpetually on the verge of losing their cohesion and independence.” The Hebrew Bible first taught the fragility of political order, “at every moment either rising or falling, moving toward either consolidation or dissolution,” depending on “whether human freedom is aided or hindered by the state, and whether the extension of the imperial state [leads or not] to mankind’s enslavement.” Peoples who are free to rule themselves are perpetually at risk of giving up the conditions of nationhood—the moral minimum and independence—and hence of being absorbed into empires, as the Israelites eventually became the successive vassals of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

Empire also results from the mistaken faith that only an authority superior to discrete peoples can prevent their pursuit of disparate purposes from ruining peace and prosperity. Hazony may be excused for attributing the Western world’s taste for empire to Catholic Christianity. But regarding the Holy Roman Empire as a continuation of Roman imperialism, as he does, misconstrues Christian political thought . . .

Read the rest in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Image credit: Elliott Banfield/Claremont Review of Books

America • Conservatives • Donald Trump • political philosophy • Post

A New American Agenda

Daniel McCarthy’s essay, “The New Conservative Agenda” which appears in the March issue of First Things, deserves serious attention.  McCarthy correctly finds that “conservatism” has waned and stagnated since Ronald Reagan left office. What is worse, it was our own conservative elites who allowed this to happen. To remedy this atrophy, he argues, we need a “conservative agenda for the twenty-first century.” McCarthy’s prescription? Economic nationalism, coupled by a revival in cultural and religious mores.

The problems now afflicting the country have been a long time in coming, and indeed they may even be baked into the cake of the post World War II era. That era was not a time for a strong economic nationalism, but internationalism, the likes of which we had never seen before but also did not run contrary to our interests because we were the strongest nation standing after the close of the war. But carrying on with that policy for as long as we did after the war, as if it is applicable to all times and places, has resulted in consequences we are only now beginning to feel.

As we awaken to the changing circumstances of our political age, it is time for a new agenda, but not a new conservative agenda—that word has long outlived its usefulness and was never clearly defined, anyway. What we should aspire to instead is a new American agenda. It’s time to abandon attachment to to the label “conservative” in America and instead try to come to terms with what it really means to be American. If the word conservative is to be retained, it has to be meaningful, that is it should be attached to the idea of conserving what is decidedly American.

What Happened to the Free Market?
The new agenda has plenty standing in its way. McCarthy notes a few of these things: the welfare state, a immobile techno class, a credentialed elite who know more than anyone else—at least they think so and they’ll be happy to tell you so if you doubt them. McCarthy claims that a “palliative liberalism” robbed us of the “dignity and power of work.” He is exactly right about the intent of modern liberalism, but the spark or desire to do, to create, to be free, the Founders thought existed in all of us even as we may tolerate a “long train of abuses.” We have to recover that spirit because the result of the existing system has produced a new slave power oligarchy where the haves dictate to an ever increasing number of have nots. And this system has sapped that spirit from many of our citizens.

The reaction against this “liberalism” is, in part, why Trump was elected. People do not want to feel hopeless and they grew weary of watching as their lives and livelihoods were slipping away. They understand that there is added value to their lives to leave something behind that they create, whether that be a strong family or something they have built with their own hands. Preferably, they want the pride of having done both. These realities are sown in the nature of man. As Horace might have written, no technological means to attempt to bypass such constraints of nature will succeed.

This is why Free Market, Inc., failed: Its proponents did not understand the nature of man or their real desires, wants, and needs, nor did they found an actual free-market system. There was never really such a thing. The entire American Founding up to the modern day used tariffs not only to raise revenue for the treasury, but also to grow a nascent domestic economy. Case in point was Albert Gallatin. He was the longest serving treasury secretary, and the most ardent free marketer in the country. However, even he believed that tariffs were important and necessary. Yet Gallatin knew tariffs by themselves do not work. Paying off the debt, clearing away regulations, and making internal taxes as low as they can possibly be would contribute to the sum of human happiness. He believed that every dollar the country is in debt was a dollar not  available to the domestic economy.

McCarthy is right that tariffs are a useful tool, but tariffs alone are not enough. When it comes to the debt, more needs to be done. While regulations have decreased, the debt soars, and this is entirely because spending soars.

The post-World War II economy was really meant as a prop to support the new peaceful unification of nations. The lesson we drew from World War II, if I read Churchill correctly, was the failure of nations to stave off an “unnecessary war.” The economic interests of all nations were thus tied together, slowly, in order to make sure nations had a stake in peace. Free trade was the selling slogan, but it wasn’t really free trade. We did not want any more Germanys, and the perverse economic incentives that led to the rise of Hitler. With all economies tied together, the thought was that there would be less incentive for war. But this world order has played itself out. We have new circumstances and different threats today.

In a sense, McCarthy is right that we need something new, but let’s drop the pretense that America, in the name of “progress” and following the “arc of history,” has not already planned our own demise. Progressivism, an idea Churchill knew enough to call “fantastical” has contributed to the problems that threaten to tear us apart today.

Beyond Nostalgia
Those who supported Trump are not “nostalgic” for the best of the past. We are beyond that now. The old tropes post World War II era were faulty to begin with and served to create a new elite class spread out over the globe. But after 1945 we were tired as a people, and an economic boom was soon to come. Folks wanted to find some personal happiness from the desperate times that had gone before. Over time, a new class of elites emerged, and they are desperate to keep what they have. It took us all this time to understand that progressivism was just creating a new form of oligarchy not a natural aristoi. Their aim was not to unleash the market, but to control its creative destruction. That control solidified their positions in the world and assured their elite status. Trump, who is nouveau riche as much as Cicero was, was elected to cut through the entire damn mess. The oligarchy has always resented a challenge to its wealth and position. What McCarthy calls a “palliative liberalism” was, if not a purposeful consequence, then at least an unintended consequence of the post World War II order.

Trump looked back only in a narrow sense to “Make America Great Again.” It was national because he believed in this country but it was not meant to restore the old guard. His real aim was to create a “new order for the ages”—these ages based on American freedoms. The reason the entire progressive elite class opposes him is because they have the most to lose. This is why any attempt to resurrect the Idea of America, needs to be something more than merely nostalgic.

I wrote before the 2016 election that Trump did not represent a return to the past; Trump was not a choice between progress or return, he was return and progress. Modern-day “progressives” are not really progressives about the deepest need in man. Everything about them oozes a return to a political paganism. The human soul and what drives us is meaningless to them, especially in light of their proclivity for infanticide. The Left has become the party of Nabatea.

Real progress affirms the nature of man and adapts the economy and culture to the times we are in. This suggests that a politics without the guidance of natural right—doing that is right in the here and now in light of what is true everywhere and always—is doomed. We have all the evidence we need to be persuaded that progress as “progressive” has been a miserable failure. This leaves us the opening for progress in light of the immutable nature of man. There are certain timeless principles to which that new agenda should appeal.

While economic nationalism is a great place to start, economic incentives, or protection, will not be enough. There are a few other areas that need our healthy attention. Our education system churns out pseudo-intellectuals who know little more than that they are sure of their knowledge. It is as if they have accomplished something Socrates never did. Our freedoms are under attack, especially freedom of speech. The American renaissance will be increasingly difficult since we, with the influence of technology, have become post-literate, tribal, and identitarian. Any revival of America requires the ability to persuade and deliberate with these realities in mind. Economic nationalism solves none of this, and hence prudence dictates we cannot wait for time to effect what needs to be a cultural pincer move.

A new American agenda would prudently appeal to the rustic sensibilities of the whole man. A due respect for the consent of the governed—who are needed to make actual the political—will assist in this grand deliberation about the fundamentals of our existence. That would be a new political compact rightly understood. Such an agenda would surpass the commanding heights of conservatism. It would be quintessentially American.

Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

America • Americanism • Deep State • Donald Trump • Elections • Government Reform • political philosophy • Post • Progressivism • The Culture • The Left

Do Americans Today Still Deserve Liberty?

Victor Davis Hanson’s brilliant essay, “Autopsy of a Dead Coup,” describes how America’s leviathan bureaucracy effectively attempted a coup against a democratically elected president to abrogate the surprising 2016 election result and continue onward, unabated, in its warped agenda for the country.

This “deep state” of unelected, unaccountable, government bureaucrats, whose identities remain obscure to the American public, was abetted by high-ranking officials in the FBI and Justice Department. These included such names as James Comey and Andrew McCabe, who are now familiar to the public. They were joined, says Hanson, by journalists working for mainstream news outfits like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, who, alongside DNC proxies conveniently positioned at CNN, collectively worked to prepackage the phony Russian collusion narrative for the public. This was a public that was made ill-disposed to President Trump from months of premeditated, unrelenting negative coverage of him.

In short, a deep state comprised of government bureaucrats launched a full-out assault on a president they despised, for reasons that have to do with power above all. In so doing, they unleashed years of the pent-up frustration of those who are part of the infrastructure of government today, ranging from top-level agency heads to mainstream media allies, and all of this culminated in the first verifiably attempted coup in American history.

In connecting all these dots, one gets the impression that even Hanson remains a bit stunned that such an operation could actually play out. No less, in our purportedly free and democratic republic. These, Hanson concedes:

[are] not oligarchs in private jets, not shaggy would-be Marxists, but sanctimonious arrogant bureaucrats in suits and ties [who] used their government agencies to seek to overturn the 2016 election, abort a presidency, and subvert the U.S. Constitution.

In other words, this isn’t the stuff of a far-fetched Ian Fleming novel. This tried-and-failed coup played out real time in the United States of America. And it happened in a time of relative peace, in the age of information where such things are supposedly thought to be impossible.

Deep State Shock
Americans who are halfway attuned to the history of the United States in the post-war era will likely absorb this information in somewhat more measured terms. True, it remains shocking when you begin to realize that the federal bureaucracy has magnified to the point that it could think itself capable of pulling off such a feat (fortunately its attempt backfired—this time). History demonstrates time and again pride’s inebriating effect on the mind, prompting the downfall of powerful individuals.

But consider the history of the United States in the past seven decades or so; the advent of the military-industrial complex, the creation of the permanent political technocratic class, the influence of lobbyists and dark money on federal legislators, the rise of mission creep in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Once America became a global empire, it required the machinery to keep the gears running. This machinery was developed at the expense of America’s own citizens beyond the Beltway, who have been treated like soulless cogs and now suffer even more palpably from the costs of running an impossibly utopian project; one that certainly was never intended by our Founding Fathers.

High rates of suicide and divorce, the loss of meaningful well-paying jobs, the loss of community, and racial resentment are but a handful of the social costs that have accompanied the political atomization and the resurgence of aberrant ideologies like socialism in the electorate. Together these represent the natural outgrowths of a diseased and deracinated public. Or, to paraphrase Tucker Carlson, healthy republics do not elect Donald Trump for president. Though Trump may be a blessing for us now and in the end, the fact that he was needed at all is symptomatic of deeper malignancies that are currently ravaging America.

A Foreshadowing of Our Loss of Sovereignty?
Nearly 50 years ago, Gore Vidal, perched inside his villa overlooking the Mediterranean on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, waxed apoplectic about the condition of the United States. It was in a pitiable condition, he bemoaned in one of many television interviews. He argued that America was controlled by faceless players who do the real work behind the scenes like a black hand, tactfully manufacturing for the rest of the polis an illusion of sovereignty.

In touching on this theme, which he did increasingly in his later years, Vidal would channel his inner-H.L. Mencken in inveighing against the amnesiac condition of his countrymen. On the whole, he opined, they were utterly oblivious or simply indifferent to those who held true power in their foundering republic. They neither tried nor cared to learn more than what they were spoon-fed by the Washington Post or New York Times, for which Vidal harbored deep antagonism.

Separated by time and space, Americans find themselves in as bad a condition as any of Vidal’s wildest premonitions. Today every American—not just conservatives—has more to lose if the political revolution President Trump jumpstarted two-and-a-half years ago becomes immobilized by these anonymous actors. Trump openly has admitted that even he was hoodwinked upon taking office by the sheer extent of their influence. Though many of them profess loyalty to the president in public, they are happy to undermine him at every turn behind closed doors, though no one elected them or asked them to do it.

What Remains to Be Done
The stubborn fact remains there is no guarantee another President Trump will follow on the heels of the current one. From today’s vantage point, the possibility of a similarly minded individual coming to the fore, though possible, is unlikely even if competent to have the original’s seismic effect on the political arena. Trump has no natural successor, which means it’s essential that the work begun in 2016 must be followed through to its intended conclusion if Americans have any hope of political salvation.

That is not hyperbole. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who in a sense is Trump’s anti-establishment counterpart on the Left, proposes an antidote—socialism—that is fundamentally incompatible with America’s design as a free and rights-bearing people. Socialism is a phony palliative for America’s political anxieties, which, if prevented from treatment by the full-package Trump offered on the 2016 campaign trail (the wall and all), could very well trick America into settling into it.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bolshevism may well have taken root in America were it not for the trust-busting escapades of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s modern-day successor must be given license to see his program to fruition, unadulterated, even if it forever dismembers the old GOP brand. This we must do if we are to circumvent socialism’s insidious clasp on the country.

Unfortunately, it remains most likely that the bureaucratic-media-complex will have its way, possibly catapulting America into the paroxysms of totalitarianism from its own insatiable appetite. This could happen either democratically—if America embraced socialism outright—or through the blithe capitulation of the populace to the shadowy forces that control this country.

Philosophically speaking, liberal societies tend inevitably toward greater dependency: as individual autonomy is maximized to the greatest possible extent, the paternalistic edifices of the state invariably must take hold by replacing family and community. If that is where we end up, it will be in no small part the fault of a citizenry who had the chance to curtail that unenviable outcome with Donald Trump, but instead chose, owing perhaps to its own docility or pride, to fall into subservience in exchange for the illusion of “security.”

Liberty only befits a people competent enough for self-government. The American people have the opportunity at this unique juncture in history to decide whether Donald Trump’s presidency marks the beginnings of true reform or a continued descent into tyranny. If it proves to be the latter; a mere stop-gap or swansong that history would ultimately judge to be an aberration, perhaps that might be explained as the emergency response by our founding fathers who hardwired a last-ditch chance for freedom for a future people on the precipice of absolute tyranny.

If that is the situation that ultimately materializes, we will have no one but ourselves to blame.

Photo credit: Getty Images

2016 Election • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Post

What We Still Have to Lose

In September 2016, the Claremont Review of Books published Michael Anton’s essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” which became one of the most controversial and discussed essays of that most extraordinary election year. This month, Encounter Books published After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose. The book is a reconsideration of that argument and a look at where we go from here.

American Greatness is happy to publish, with kind permission of Encounter, an excerpt of this important book.

This volume contains two previously published essays, preceded by one new one. The central piece—“The Flight 93 Election”—is, so to speak, the reason we’re here. It was written in two days in August 2016 and published online by the Claremont Review of Books on September 5, 2016—Labor Day. At first, it received little notice, in line with my expectations. It was (somewhat infamously) published pseudonymously. I assumed—and still believe—that half the reason anyone reads anything is because of who wrote it. Conceal an author’s identity, lose half your potential readers. Second, those few who recognized my pseudonym (“Publius Decius Mus”) would have been readers of a by-then defunct blog, the Journal of American Greatness, to which I contributed under the nom de net “Decius.” Such readers, I further assumed, would consider (as I did) the new piece to be little more than a rehash of my old JAG posts.

Two days went by without a peep. Then on September 7, Rush Limbaugh read “The Flight 93 Election” in its entirety on the air. The CRB’s website instantly crashed—as did that of American Greatness (a successor of sorts to JAG), which published the piece concurrently with the CRB.

My intent in writing “The Flight 93 Election” was to impress upon those who consider themselves principled conservatives the urgency of the moment and the stakes of the 2016 election, not just for conservatism but for the country. I cannot say to what extent I succeeded, except to note that numerous people have contacted me in the intervening two years to tell me that the piece changed their vote or steeled their resolve. Many others have told me that it “woke them up” to the dangers that militant leftism poses to our country and our civilization. To all those who have thanked me for writing it and wished me well, I here return your thanks.

Of course, “The Flight 93 Election” was (and still is) attacked far more than praised. The substance of those attacks crystallized immediately as the piece gained fame, and I responded to them in a follow-up, entitled “Restatement on Flight 93,” published on the CRB website on September 13, 2016 (and here republished as the final part of this volume). While the criticism keeps coming, very little is beyond the scope of that initial response. Most of it echoes charges already made during the hectic first few days of the original essay’s viral notoriety.

Most, but not all. Over time, a deeper criticism (friendly and otherwise) has emerged. “The Flight 93 Election” is accused of being bereft of any positive vision—a vivid jeremiad, perhaps, but all nightmare, no dream.

In fact, “The Flight 93 Election” was inspired and informed by exactly such a positive vision—or, more precisely, by an account of America, how and why it is good, whence that goodness derives, and why it deserves to be conserved. I feared that this account—and a fortiori the underlying principles and institutions of which it gives account—were at grave risk from the relentless malevolence of their enemies and the fecklessness and errors of their supposed defenders. That fear has abated but little.

Defending America and the West is thought to be the province of “conservatism.” Yet the behavior of conservatism’s leading spokesmen in 2016 and beyond has cast significant doubt on whether it or they are capable of fulfilling that mission. Certainly, one must wonder what understanding of conservatism would make its adherents so willing to hand our country over to conservatism’s, and to America’s (at least as we have known her), avowed enemies.

In my view, the urgent task in September 2016 was to demonstrate the folly of that position and shine a spotlight on what we needed to prevent. Going forward, we will also need a clearer statement of what we are for—and a better awareness of the specific ways it is threatened. In this spirit of positivity, I here offer a “Pre-Statement on Flight 93.” This new essay is placed first for what Aristotle might call its “ontological priority.” Though written last (in August 2018, substantially revised in October), it comes first in the logical order of the argument.

Its first two-thirds say nothing I have not believed for at least two decades. But the last third reflects a growing alarm at the Left’s intensifying radicalization. I wrote the first draft after President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court but before the Democrats and the Left launched their disgraceful calumnies against him, aiming not merely to sink his nomination but to destroy his good name. I always expect the Left to behave badly—very badly—but their treatment of this fine man shocked even me. “The Flight 93 Election” was and continues to be widely ridiculed for its alleged apocalypticism. The following passage struck many as particularly overwrought:

A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire progressive-Left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the social justice warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.

It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify— in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.

Given what the Left has done—and pledges to continue to do—to Justice Kavanaugh, and indeed to anyone who stands in the way of their lust for unchecked power, can anyone seriously argue that this assessment was wrong? To answer a different question that I’m still occasionally asked: no, I don’t regret a word.

These are dangerous times. The Left has made them so and insists on increasing the danger. Leftists hold virtually every commanding height in our society—financial, intellectual, educational, cultural, administrative—and yet they affect the posture of an oppressed and besieged “resistance.”

Nonsense. The real resistance is led by President Trump. It is resistance to the Left’s all-consuming drive for absolute power, its hostility to all American and Western norms—constitutional, moral, prudential—and its boundless destructive enmity. If I have been persuaded by any criticism of “The Flight 93 Election,” it is that I was ungenerous to Trump. The president stands clearly and firmly against these virulent attacks on America and firmly for the protection of life and liberty, and the promotion of the good life for the American people. Those are the core responsibilities of any American president. May President Trump continue to fulfill them until the end of his constitutionally won second term.

What the Kavanaugh affair has made clearer to me than ever is that the Left will not stop until all opposition is totally destroyed. The harm they do to people, institutions, mores, and traditions is, in their view, not regrettable though unavoidable collateral damage; it is rather an essential element of the project. It’s a bit rich to be accused by nihilists of lacking a positive vision. But such is life in 2018. To stand up for truth, morality, the good, the West, America, constitutionalism, and decency is to summon the furies.

America cannot long go on like this. Something’s gotta give, and something will. What that “something” will be depends in no small part on the actions of men and women of good character, good judgment, and goodwill. Among the most heartening things I’ve seen in my lifetime was the way the president, the Republican establishment, and most of the conservative movement stood together in the face of what a few took to calling “the Flight 93 Confirmation.” In that instance, justice was done. Many more tests are coming. Victory will require not just spirit and spine but the right arguments that explicate the right principles.

For all that lies ahead, let us fortify ourselves with a keener awareness of what we still have left to lose. Which is exactly what inspired me to write “The Flight 93 Election” in the first place.

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Political Parties • political philosophy • Post • Republicans

Populism, Elitism, and the Principle of Human Equality

We can’t seem to get away from populism in today’s political discussions. People disagree about what the term means, but R.R. Reno put it concisely: “populism . . . is by definition anti-elite.”

The problem is there are two ways to see populism. One can be anti-elite in the sense that one thinks the elites who rule now are bad and need to be replaced either by new elites or non-elites. This view presupposes there are, in fact, elite and non-elite people in politics. On the other hand, one can be anti-elite in the sense that one thinks in politics no one should be considered elite, no matter how smart or successful that person is. Most of us, especially those who presume to be elites, tend to think of populism in the first sense. But some, especially those of us who know we are not elite, are populist in the second sense.

Understanding populism in the first sense should be expected. Almost everyone today accepts that there are elites and all societies essentially have three political layers. This is the dominant view in academia and government as far as I can tell. Some call them the “uninformed public,” the “informed public,” and the “effective public.” Others call them “parochials,” “subjects,” and “participants.” To most educated people, there are those who should rule and those who should not.

The view that men are not actually equal in politics is not new. Politics long has been understood to have something that has to do with divisions between horizontal layers of people. From the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli to Marx, people have argued people come in groups, be they the one, the few, and the many; the common and the great; or the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Today’s progressives believe there are class distinctions based on expertise, race, or gender. Conservatives believe men are divided by merit or virtue. Whether the separations are based on merit, expertise, or virtue is unimportant; the result is the same.

Distinctions With a Difference
Today’s ruling class, both Left and Right, believe there is an “us” and a “them,” the two always struggle over who will rule, and the political elites should rule. This might sound aristocratic or Marxist for conservatives, but replace economic class, wealth, race, or gender with virtue and they will accept it. Dressing up political inequality in the clothes of merit or virtue makes it all seem so noble.

Conservative members of the ruling class think of themselves as the “natural aristoi,” and because they think they are virtuous, they think their rule is just and the status quo is good (you might notice that many conservative elites make the case that things really weren’t so bad before Trump, and anyway, if it was bad it is because people lacked virtue). It follows that they see any challenge to their rule as ugly, vicious, anti-elitist populism and any disagreement about policy as a crime.

But some of us don’t think there are any political elites at all, and thus anyone claiming to be one is a fraud.

For all of the elite’s credentials, merit, and supposed virtue, Trump says regular Americans are their equals and have equal claim to the title of elite. In one of his greatest moments, he called the elites “stone cold losers,” and he said of himself  “I hate it, I meet these people, they call it the elite, we got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are and they say they’re the elite. You’re the elite, we’re the elite!” And have you heard Trump talk about experts?

Populists like Trump and Tucker Carlson believe the wisdom of the people, the whole people, the young, the old, the highly educated, and “the poorly educated,” should replace the fraudulent rule of supposed elites. This was Trump’s entire argument for America. He argues against those who presume to be elite, but his fundamental claim is that only government of the people, by the people, and for the people is just.

The Primacy of Consent
This type of populism—that there are no elites in politics—is not distinctly American, but it is has been most honored here. The principle of equality is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: all men are equal in that no man has a right to rule another without consent. It might seem strange to us in our modern meritocracy, but authors of the Declaration actually believed this. As Thomas Jefferson boldly stated, there is a “palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

The genius of the American Founders is that they understood politics has less to do with political classes and more to do with economic interests. All men being politically equal and economically diverse, the purpose of government was to protect political equality under the rule of law and economic opportunity and diversity. The latter could be used in the new science of politics to protect the former. The founders denied a ruling class existed, be they democrats, aristocrats, oligarchs or a monarch, and our government was designed to keep it that way.

Here “the people govern.” We have no titles of nobility or other claims to rule other than consent. We are not a mixed regime, but a democratic republic. None of our branches of government are democratic or aristocratic in that they come from one class of people or another, though each branch is designed to have a different character. We want virtuous people in government, but virtue isn’t required; consent of the governed is. Every branch is republican, coming from and responsible to the whole, undivided people.

Equality Properly Understood
Perhaps some conservatives will read this and think of the dangers of radical egalitarianism. But not every revolution meant to bring forth “a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is following the philosophy of the French Revolution. As Tocqueville observed in the 19th century, America actually can be and (until recently) was for all political intents and purposes a classless society.

Likewise, to deny that there are political elites is not to say that some men are not more virtuous than others. Nor is it to reject the hope that virtuous people might rule some of the time. Some men are obviously more virtuous than others. But just as obviously, many who presume to be the natural aristoi are really aristocratic in the worst sense of the word—ignoble, presumptuous, and stupid.  As Jefferson said, and those who quote his use of “natural aristoi often forget, “the artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”

If you claim, as many conservatives do, to believe that all men are created equal, and therefore governments derive their just powers by the consent of the governed, then any claim that the elite must rule is unjust. Even to claim there is a political elite is unjust. We are all the elite here. The only legitimate claim to rule is the consent of the governed. It is likely that we have all forgotten this to some degree, but our supposed elites have forgotten it more than most.

In another time, people might have noted that the constant use of populism as an insult smacks of an aristocratic elitism, and people used to think a belief in aristocracy was a contemptible rejection of the American principle of human equality. Thankfully, some today are reminding men everywhere that the supposed elites are frauds, and government should be founded on the principle that all men are created equal.

Photo credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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

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

Administrative State • America • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Economy • Government Reform • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society • The Culture • The Left • The Leviathian State

Tucker Carlson’s Witness

Tucker Carlson’s now ubiquitous 15-minute monologue from his January 2 show is causing some conservatives a bit of consternation. Not because what he said was new or groundbreaking (it wasn’t, really), but apparently because Carlson dared to say it in the first place.

What is most alarming, however, is that it needed to be said at all, and more so, that it has to be defended not just from the Left but also from the legacy conservative media. The American vision that Carlson described used to be understood. It is at the heart of our founding documents, woven into our nation’s fabric, the shine of the city on the hill.

Carlson’s message resonated with many of us. In it, I heard echoes of another great conservative thinker of the mid-20th century, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers’ autobiography, Witness, had such a profound impact on Ronald Reagan that he “could recite passages” from it “verbatim,” according to biographer Paul Kengor. Chambers’ influence on Reagan was “evident in speeches throughout his public life,” most notably in his famous Evil Empire speech.

In his monologue last week, Carlson, like Chambers, “hit something else” when he “took up [his] little sling and aimed” it. Communism was Chambers’ Goliath, and the “something else” he struck were “the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation. . . .”

Since Chambers’ time, that ice cap has become a glacier. Carlson’s 15-minute barrage of stones similarly hit the mark and cracked its veneer—and people heard it. The “conservative” corner, however, seems to hear with different ears. And their response, has been enlightening.

What Are Conservatives For?
Carlson targeted several “isms” in his monologue: conservatism, capitalism, liberalism, socialism, interventionism, libertarianism, feminism, environmentalism, as well as the “private equity model,” the ruling class, banking, diversity, and marijuana use, among other problems that plague us. But fortifying all of these salvos was something much larger and more powerful. At the heart of it, Carlson was asking what should America really stand for?

Recall what Chambers wrote in Witness: “A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.”

It has been a long time since conservatives thought of themselves in terms of presenting what they are for.

In the middle of a long list of what ails us, Carlson asserted, “Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot. The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence.”

Channeling more of Chambers, Carlson went on to say: “. . . one of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.”

In Witness, Chambers similarly refuted that lie. “Economics is not the central problem of this century,” he argued. “It is a relative problem that can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age.”

It was Carlson’s reference to faith, perhaps, that spurred Trump critic David French to pen a rebuttal. Fellow Trump critic Ben Shapiro took Carlson to task for his omission of the words “pursuit of” before “happiness.” And both seemed to object primarily to what they felt was Carlson’s attribution of blame: in short, to the government/elites and their bad policies. French and Shapiro place the blame on the people, an attitude apparently shared by many NeverTrumps, often manifesting itself as a shameful disdain.

French’s title to his piece summed up this contempt neatly: “The Right Should Reject Tucker Carlson’s Victimhood Populism.” French argues,“Yes, we need public officials to do their best to create and sustain a government most conducive to human flourishing, but the primary responsibility for creating a life of virtue and purpose rests with families and individuals.”

That’s true as far as it goes. But what French seems to underestimate is the smothering, uncontrolled growth of Chambers’s “icecap.” This glacier we now face is certainly not going to recede on its own. Instead, as the many examples Carlson mentioned reveal, ever more impediments to pursuing a “life of virtue and purpose” have been erected and incentives removed.

Carlson simply noted what should, by now, be obvious: that our government should create incentives and remove impediments to secure the blessings of our liberty. Further, that conservatives should make this their focus, rather than “free trade” coupled with a sort of laissez-fairethey failed themselves” attitude toward the people harmed (or at the very least, not inspired to be more virtuous and responsible) by such policies.

Instead of acknowledging this, French insisted, “This is still a land where you can determine your own success more than can any political party or group of nefarious elites.” He concluded: “Contrary to Carlson’s contention, America isn’t being destroyed. It’s being challenged.”

Stumbling Into Philosophic Materialism
Whether we’re merely “being challenged” or more seriously engaged in a “cold civil war” seems to be the core of the disagreement between the NeverTrump-leaning conservatives and the pro-Trump faction, a phenomenon first observed in the heated reaction to Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” essay, which Shapiro labeled “incoherent, mind-numbing horseshit.”

In a more polite response to Carlson, Shapiro titled his rebuttal: “Tucker Carlson Claims Market Capitalism Has Undermined American Society. He’s Wrong.”

After listing some facts and figures he thinks refutes the notion that our situation is dire, Shapiro notes, in agreement with French, that “Carlson seems to suggest that our system itself is to blame for individual shortcomings, and that collective restructuring of free institutions will alleviate and cure those shortcomings. This is simply not reflective of conservatism, or of founding ideology.”

The gist of Shapiro’s argument seems to be that although he somewhat agrees with Carlson’s list of American society’s ills, Carlson erroneously attributes “America’s troubles not to government interventionism, but to government non-interventionism.” He says that Carlson is “wildly wrong”—that “[t]he goal for America wasn’t happiness. It was the pursuit of happiness—the framework of freedom that allows us to pursue happiness.”

Chambers, in his 1957 scathing review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, had something to say about that “pursuit.” Here are just a few of Chambers’ wonderful takedowns of the godless, “philosophic materialism” of Rand’s utopia:

[M]an’s fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand’s words, “the moral purpose of his fife.”

. . .

Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free-enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure . . .

. . .

[I]n a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. . . . The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

Chambers nails the fundamental problem of American life in that series of observations: we live in a materialistic, “wicked world,” both Left and the Right. “Much wickedness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” Indeed, the road to Hell (and socialism) is lined with such pursuits.

Capitalism can become dysfunctional—crony capitalism. Welfare programs often become enabling and destructive. Tax law grows into a voluminous collection of favors for special interests. Regulations grow into smothering mountains. Economic programs result in benefit to an elite few. Laws can frequently limit individual flourishing, freedom, and liberty rather than promote it. Speech, instead of being protected, is silenced.

Most importantly, our nation can either protect our “freedom of religion” or limit it to “freedom of worship.” That latter term was used by both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and, as Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon explains, they are two monumentally different concepts. Had Clinton been elected instead of Trump, we would have felt the impact of that shift, further ripening our society for the takeover of the Godless socialist revolution that Chambers warned us against.

As historian Christopher Henry Dawson noted: “The process of secularisation arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.” And further, “Secularism is terrible not only on account of its emptiness but because there is a positive power of evil waiting to fill the void.”

A very liberal neighbor of mine once admitted that the more he distanced himself from the Catholic faith of his upbringing, the more leftward he leaned politically.

Carlson concluded his monologue with this warning:

Socialism is a disaster. It doesn’t work. It’s what we should be working desperately to avoid. But socialism is exactly what we’re going to get, and very soon unless a group of responsible people in our political system reforms the American economy in a way that protects normal people.

Although President Trump is certainly no saint, he has been working on doing just that. Besides weakening the legacy media’s control of the conversation, he’s accomplished many things that protect and improve the lives of “normal people,” such as tax cuts and reduced regulations. But his emphasis on trade policies that favor the United States and the interests of our people over those of our trading partners is also important.

Another fight Trump is fighting that has been practically ignored but is yet critical is the fight to end the Johnson Amendment and its ban on political speech in church. This is an important step—for it was in America’s churches that the people first spoke revolutionary ideas of freedom and liberty. It was in churches that slavery was condemned. Of course, faith is personal, but it is also a worldview that does and ought to “live loudly” within us. If politics is downstream from culture, culture is downstream from faith.

To channel Reagan channeling Chambers, our crisis exists to the degree that we are indifferent to God and collaborate in materialism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. We can answer this challenge provided that our faith in God and in the freedom He enjoins is as great as materialism’s faith in Man.

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2016 Election • Center for American Greatness • Donald Trump • GOPe • political philosophy • Post

Protecting Greatness from Unthinking Memes

In a letter to investors last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook revised the company’s first quarter earnings forecast down by about $9 billion, largely due to lower-than-expected iPhone sales. Predictably, Cook attributed the weak sales to macroeconomic trends outside of Apple’s control, including the strength of the dollar, rising trade tensions with China, and economic weakness in the emerging markets.

But Cook also noted that the weak iPhone sales could be partially attributed to a special iPhone battery replacement program that Apple had offered last year for a limited time. Instead of buying new phones, users were getting the batteries in their old phones replaced.

This program was in response to the “Batterygate” scandal, in which it was revealed that Apple slowed down CPU speeds in old phones. Apple claimed that it did so to prolong the lives of old devices. Many customers did not buy this explanation, particularly as the slowdowns (at least anecdotally) seemed to coincide with new product releases.

Apple, in a rare admission of culpability, responded by temporarily slashing the price of battery replacements in certain older iPhone models. And now the company’s CEO is complaining that this move ended up hurting sales of new iPhone models. Which might make a cynic think that the initial CPU throttling did have something to do with selling new phones.

Anyone who has paid attention over the past decade has noticed that Apple is starting to rot—and not just in its business practices and increased impersonality. Aside from a general deterioration of quality with increasing software bugs and hardware defects, the Cupertino, California-based tech giant has stopped being a leader in the industry. It is telling that the latest iPad Pro looks far more like an old Microsoft Surface Pro than a next-generation Apple product.

The iPhone stopped being innovative a long time ago and has increasingly been forced to play catch up to the competition. Many of Apple’s new innovations have been . . . well, less than compelling. As some wags have noted, the latest phones might be considered “$1,000 emoji machines.” Perhaps if the latest iPhones had new features that people actually wanted, people would buy more new phones instead of simply getting their old batteries replaced.

Some, no doubt, would argue that Apple’s woes are attributable to large-scale economic changes and a necessary slowdown in technological innovation. Apple is just too developed—there’s not much more innovation that it can do. This argument sounds similar to one many economists make about U.S. growth and innovation—that we, as a developed economy, should start to expect slower growth. Many economists, on both sides of the aisle, laughed at the notion that the country would ever again sustain 4 percent annual economic growth. The general consensus was that we could only expect an average of 2 percent growth for the foreseeable future. The United States just didn’t have the growth opportunities that other emerging economies had. We were just too developed.

Tools for the Job
But before we accept these pessimistic explanations, it may be useful to look at a few of Steve Jobs’ key talents to try to understand what made Apple so great in the first place.

His first talent: the reality distortion field. Many have described it as a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement, and persistence that Jobs used to make himself and others believe nearly anything. In particular, Jobs used this ability to convince his employees that projects previously deemed impossible were actually trivially simple. This new freedom to think outside of the bounds of what people thought was possible allowed Jobs to truly innovate and change the world. Also, the copious amounts of acid he dropped as a kid probably didn’t hurt.

People always react to expectations. The more rebellious will try to subvert or exceed them. The more docile will fall in line. But continually lowered expectations lead to complacency and malaise. Even the most stubborn rebel can get worn down by constant pessimism. Jobs knew his job was to inspire those around him, raise the standards, and push everyone to be their very best. It didn’t matter if his expectations weren’t reasonable—if some bean counter somewhere who had never innovated a day in his life had a 20-page academic paper to explain why they were impossible, that just made the challenge more enticing. It was better to have exceedingly high expectations than mediocre low ones.

His second talent—well, more a philosophy—was his belief that the world was malleable and that the thing most people call life “was made up by people that were no smarter than you” and that you could change it, influence it, and build your own things that other people could use. This way of thinking allowed Jobs to buck conventional wisdom and question even the most basic beliefs that others had. After all, some of the best innovations come from questioning things that most people take for granted. Smart people often do not like asking obvious questions—there’s a fear that if the question is obvious, the answer is probably just as obvious. People do not like looking stupid, especially if they pride themselves on their intelligence.

The strict adherence and unquestioning acceptance of hidden assumptions often impairs creativity and leads to stupid decisions. A lack of rigorous criticism is extraordinarily dangerous. And hubris can be particularly insidious when it comes to the things we take most for granted. NASA once lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because different teams working on the project used different units of measurement. These engineers were no doubt highly educated and competent experts in their field. One seemingly dumb question (Yo, stupid question, but, we’re using feet, right? Oh, we’re using meters? Oh, OK, cool) would have saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. And that was just a small technical mistake based on a minute faulty assumption that was quickly spotted because the parameters of success were so well defined. In the murky waters of business and government, faulty assumptions such as these are even more treacherous.

No matter how much social scientists believe that they can quantify everything, they can’t. And while the laws of physics seem to be static, the rest of the world shifts very quickly. An assumption that might have worked yesterday may no longer work today. And so, it becomes increasingly difficult to spot these errors of thought and to correct course. Without constant vigilance, it is practically impossible. Complacency and hubris can quickly lead people, corporations, and entire nations astray. Too many either completely disregard tradition or regard it as gospel. But too few truly respect it by understanding that it is a rich yet often fallible source of knowledge that has to be engaged in order to impart actual lessons. Respect requires criticism. Otherwise, it is simple sycophancy.

The Lazy Lure of Aestheticism
So, how did Apple go so wrong after Jobs’ death? Well, it was in the same way that the Republican Party went so wrong after Reagan left office. The company took the superficial solutions that their mythologized leader had given them and tried to apply a pat formula in every case with little critical thought.

Reagan’s pragmatism was recast as a dogmatic and principled strain of conservatism that was practically a caricature of itself. Jobs’ design choices in the context of a particular era of products morphed into a design language that would perversely pit usability against sleekness and require users to buy dongle after dongle just to use their existing peripherals with their new device.

The Republican Party looked for a while as though it was following Reagan’s lead. And Apple looked for a while as though it was following Jobs’ lead. But in both cases, they were simply copying the most superficial manifestation of these two men. They were just reproducing their aesthetics without ever fully grasping what made them great in the first place.

Aestheticism, or the undue attention to and replication of superficial details at the expense of the underlying qualities, is pervasive in the world. And it’s nothing new. Thoughtless meme culture has been around for a very long time.

Memeing After Trump
During the 2016 presidential campaign, many candidates tried to copy Trump, both in style and substance. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) started caring far more about immigration than he ever had before, unindicted former federal official Hillary Clinton started having second thoughts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which she incidentally helped negotiate in the first place), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tried to replicate Trump’s insults by making fun of his spray-tan and supposedly small hands.

Needless to say, those attempts fell flat.

While they may have succeeded in the superficial copying of Trump’s mannerisms or a particular talking point, they were not capturing the essence of the campaign. And the essence of the campaign was what made it successful. The aesthetic frills were just that—frills. They weren’t the heart of the phenomenon. Few people supported Trump because of his insults, though for some it was certainly a satisfying bonus. They were supporting him because he spoke to the concerns and frustrations that they had experienced for decades. And a deep and genuine understanding of those concerns and frustrations is very hard to copy in the course of a fast-paced and contentious campaign.

But a couple years have passed since the 2016 campaign. People have had time to stop and think about Trump’s candidacy. Aside from an occasional Mitt Romney op-ed and Joe Scarborough’s constant whimpering, the NeverTrumpers have largely faded into obscurity. Many of the same Republicans who bemoaned the impending destruction of Western Civilization under Trump now have happily fallen in line with the Trump Administration. Some of them even bought the same bright red hats that they once so mercilessly mocked. People start treating you with a lot more respect after you win.

If Trump wins a second term, there’s no doubt that the Republican party will accept “Trumpism” (for lack of a better term) as a winning strategy. The only problem is that many won’t understand what Trumpism was in the first place. Don’t be surprised if some future Republican candidate parrots many of the same slogans or phrases. He might even copy Trump’s aggressive style. The only difference will be that he will be reading his lines, written by a highly paid political consultant, from a teleprompter.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Big Media • Center for American Greatness • Congress • Conservatives • Economy • political philosophy • Post • Republicans

Up the Populist!

I listened the other day to Tucker Carlson’s populist dirge on what’s ailing America. Then I perused some rejections, critiques, and commendations of it. Then I shrugged.

To be charitable, it certainly wasn’t their fault. It’s the fruit of our communication revolution, wherein the head rush from new media’s immediacy renders antiquated the sober digestion of more lengthy philosophical debates. Small wonder, then, one so frequently searches for abiding comfort in these trying times by, again, turning back the dog-eared pages written by Burke, Kirk, Buckley, Röpke, and Nisbet, among so many other titans of conservative thought.

But I digress . . .  

Or do I?

In what does the current debate instruct us that aforementioned works haven’t already? The predatory economy Carlson describes is not market capitalism; it is the “business-government model” of crony capitalism long ago defined and decried by Belloc and Chesterton.

Its remedy was found in the “German Miracle” outlined in Röpke’s A Humane Economy. One would also know from Burke, Kirk, and Buckley that, since the French Revolution, it is not greed but ideology—the Enemies of the Permanent Things lust to desecrate all you hold dear in order to remold humanity according to their own insidious whims—that has caused most suffering and consumed the most innocent lives.

From Nisbet we learned how The Quest for Community that is based upon faith, family, community, and country has been impaired and imperiled by unrestrained government’s willful, deliberate, and premeditated destruction of mediating social institutions. What more could you demand or deserve from your elected public servants than that they follow the doctrine of subsidiarity and emulate the qualities of President Ronald Reagan that were highlighted by Kirk in his 1988 article, “The Popular Conservatives”?

There is a fundamental failure to recognize a rather elementary fact about contemporary populism. Traditionally, populism has demanded the government control private institutions that have an unfair, largely unaccountable power over the public. Today, however, while the traditional strain for government control remains in the progressive/democratic-socialist wing of the Democratic Party, a new strain emerged in its embryonic state back in 2008: the Tea Party.

Jump started by the Wall Street bailout and revved up by Obamacare, these new populists were essentially different from traditional populists in that the Tea Party’s goal was not to have government start doing things for them, but rather to have government stop doing things to them. Simply, it’s the difference between “Occupy Wall Street!” and “Don’t Tread on Me!”

Moreover, a conservative populism does not look to the government for “meaning” or “happiness.” Why? Because a conservative populism knows politicians are not our leaders; politicians are our servants.

As Lincoln affirmed, “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal, hope in this world?” Agreeing, conservative populism seeks a more limited government for a new birth of freedom for all Americans so that she can continue to inspire the world with what a free people can achieve.

So there it is, right stinking there, Tucker, Ben, David, Kyle, and everybody, the essence of conservative populism: “Leave me alone, you bum, and for the love of God don’t make things worse.” It might not be as catchy as “Peace, Land, and Bread,” but the results are better and nobody gets reeducated or capped.  

And lastly, in gratitude to all you cats for taking your licks while riffing in the conservative groove, I leave you with these words of eternal, inarguable wisdom from Kirk: “The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He [or she] believes, instead, that the object of life is Love.”

No, government can’t give it to you; and, true, love isn’t always “happiness”; but it’s always all you need.

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2016 Election • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Donald Trump • political philosophy • Post • The Culture

Nationalism Is America’s Comeback Kid

When it comes to sports, Americans look with admiration on the comeback player of the year. We can’t resist the rediscovery of excellence in a tried and true athlete. And so it was this last year with the rediscovery of an old and excellent concept. The comeback concept of the year has been nationalism (along with its nephew, tariffs). My pick is reinforced by the December 31 column of the otherwise reliable liberal E.J. Dionne, who makes apologies on behalf of nationalism.

Dionne allows that “it’s common,” among liberal elites, “to denounce nationalism, to disdain supposedly mindless, angry populists, and to praise those with an open-minded, cosmopolitan outlook. Note that those involved are praising themselves” (emphasis added).

Dionne’s column repeats the concessions of many an establishment pundit of a point to Trump and his supporters. But this is more than a point they concede—in fact, they surrender the whole match.

Now, with a President Trump, Dionne and his crew admit what the run-down towns of flyover middle America have known for decades: “Globalization married to rapid technological change has been very good to the well-educated folks in metro areas and a disaster for many citizens outside of them. This is now a truism”—having been mugged by the reality of Donald Trump and his ascendancy to president by winning the Midwest and its eastern extension, Pennsylvania—“but it took far too long for [us] economic and policy elites to recognize what was happening.”

Then comes Dionne’s New Year’s resolution: “[C]ritics of Trumpism need to recognize the ways in which globalism undercuts the rights and fortunes of large numbers of democratic citizens.” Trump was right on this key theme, the only one right in both parties.

Moreover, Dionne tries to play down his contrite confession that borders mean something: “there is nothing new (or necessarily indecent [what, this isn’t racism?]) about citizens saying that nations have a right to control their borders and to decide what levels of immigration they want to accept at any given time.”

Now we need Dionne to allow that Trump was right to upset the bipartisan consensus that got us into endless Middle East wars, while dodging the threat from the principal enemy in that region, Iran, and even subsidizing its support of terrorism. The prescient Walter Russell Mead is another commentator who sees how Trump has stirred the old order.

In fact the begrudged praise of nationalism and the nation-state is a way of avoiding Trump’s more winning phrase, “America First.” This has nothing to do with isolationism, imperialism, or fecklessness toward other nations. It is a reiteration of the policy advocated by George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.

Throughout his political career Lincoln emphasized preservation of the Union, most of all during the Civil War—whether it was slave or free. For slavery, to name the most pressing issue, could not be abolished unless the country were one—for we are a country that “demands union, and abhors separation.”

More well-known is the Gettysburg Address, which begins and ends with the reality of the nation born anew: “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . .  this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perhaps Dionne and others have been favorably influenced by the important new book by Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism. (See also American Greatness contributor John Fonte for his review of the book and his own defense of nationalism.)

Hazony points out that the problem of any form of government is whether it can keep people free. Not wealthy, not educated, not powerful—but free. While all these desirable traits are necessary for a good government, a government that provided all of them but did not make or keep us free, would be deficient. The central question of any good nation is how does the nation keep its citizens free?

As is typically the case, we must return to the meaning of freedom in Greek philosophy. The free man (the eleutheros) is not a slave but can act and care for himself. He gives freely from what he owns (whether it be sharing his lunch or his fortune). Ultimately, the free man has a free mind, not one merely unencumbered by ignorance or superstition but one educated in the moral and intellectual virtues. He assumes his duties as a citizen, fighting in its ranks and deliberating in the assembly.

Had Hazony developed his argument in this way, with a focus on understanding freedom more fully, he would not have denounced John Locke, the philosopher behind the Declaration of Independence, as he had. Hazony makes the error, similar to the one made by his graduate school colleague Patrick Deneen, that Locke’s America set forth the path to the self-centered, amoral nihilism we see today. On the contrary, Locke’s Americans are those of the Declaration’s protests against tyranny and for self-government. They respect the “Laws of nature and of nature’s God.” They are the ones demanding such respect still today.

American nationalism respects individual freedom. Contrast the first inaugural addresses of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.

Reagan sees ordinary American citizens as heroic, while FDR demands that Americans obey their president as soldiers do a general; citizens are self-governing in the one view, scarcely more than subjects in the other.

Trump would seem the best possibility of anyone on the political horizon to bind these two warring visions to affirm we are one nation. Trump’s America First nationalism can reconcile leading political elements of domestic and foreign policies. It is not in spite of his reputation as a disrupter, but precisely because Trump is a disrupter that he can redefine the political debate to the enduring benefit of Americans grateful for their freedom.

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