Yuval has done better than anyone is showing how coherent, ambitious, and hugely partisan the speech was. The Declaration, we remember, has been the most effective partisan weapon in our nation’s history.

Here’s Yuval’s view of president’s view of the Declaration’s vision: “life becoming choice, liberty becoming security, and the pursuit of happiness transmuted into a collective effort to guarantee that everyone has choice and security.”

From my view, of course, that’s a deeply unrelational view of who each of us is. And the result, as Yuval points out time and again, is hostility to every social or relational institution between the individual and the state as a threat to free choice and solid security. The Machiavellian subtext: Love sucks because it’s for suckers.

I wouldn’t call this vision “socialism” though. For even Locke (as we can read, for example, in Michael Zuckert’s interpretation), human history is the march away from nature toward’s free personal choice and the achievement of a secure techno-environment. So I would hardly say the president’s view of who we are lacks an understanding of nature, or even that that understanding is simply alien to the originating American tradition.

A BIG differentce between Obama and Locke is doubtless the underestanding of the state. For Locke, the state is the result of a contract to achieve limited and defined goals, and mostly individuals are on their own when it comes to maxing out on choice and enhancing security. The president thinks the state can do more and individuals—in our highly contingent times—can reasonably consent to its enhanced role. So his vision might be understood as Lockeanism run amok or morphing in directions probably Locke wouldn’t have chosen but are far from alien to his vision of who we are.

I don’t agree with Yuval that “the pursuit of happiness” is replaced by “collective effort.” That does sound kind of socialist or fascist, but the president doesn’t call individuals to do anything much that would get in the way of their private pursuits, their personal choics concerning what happiness is. Enhanced security comes with little self-sacrifice, or not anything more than slightly higher taxes that liberal oligarchs (well, apparently not my favorite left-handed golfer) can easily weasel out of and surrendering your firearms with due compensation. And of course he more than suggests that national defense can occupy a lot smaller place in our thoughts and personal efforts.

His is not—as was, say, Dewey’s—a kind of national or civc greatness liberalism or progressivism.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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