Here are some more fragments from my current prospectus for my five conceptions of American liberty book, the basics of which are sketched in the post below. I welcome your criticisms and suggestions.

. . . Usually, the discussion of American liberty is conducted in dichotomous terms. Mark Levin’s best-selling Liberty and Tyranny : A Conservative Manifesto, illustrates this. Levin presents the Founders’ vision of liberty as a completely united one, ignoring the tensions and outright divisions between the natural rights and classical-communitarian conceptions, and poses it against the progressive’s vision of liberty, which he considers essentially statist and utterly false, so that it leads to liberty’s very opposite, tyranny. Levin also tends to blend his already-simplified Founderist view of liberty with the economic autonomy one of late-19th-century origin; similarly, he makes no distinction between the progressive and personal autonomy conceptions of liberty. Everything is reduced to an opposition of two.

In a different and somewhat more complex way, the typical liberal view of the matter is also dichotomous, pitting the social justice understanding of liberty against the economic autonomy one on one level, and personal autonomy liberty against what amounts to a theocratic/authoritarian bogeyman on another.

These dichotomies are not only too simplistic for fair moral judgment or adequate historical summarization, but they keep us from noticing the potential divisions of principle that really could split apart either of the conservative or liberal coalitions, and which in any case are key to understanding our politics.

My five-fold framework avoids such reduction, and thus allows the examination of liberty to become dynamic , or to say the same thing, dialogic . The student who works through it will sharpen her sense of the five notions of liberty by seeing what each does not include. She will be better able to define each, but her understanding will become freed from wooden reliance upon definitions. She will perceive how some of the conceptions seek to respond to the shortcomings of another, or claim to be natural development of another . . .

**********************************************

. . . Before expanding my criticisms here of the West Coast interpretation, which more precisely is criticism of the way it has been reduced by way of its popularization into something like Mark Levin’s dichotomous liberty v. statism framework , I am obliged to insist that there is no getting around the core findings of the West Coast Straussian scholars. The dominant scholarly understanding used to be that the progressives represented a common-sense reaction to the growing industrialization and corporate power of the late 19th-century, and that in comparison with more fundamental critiques was in many ways quite tepid. Richard Hofstader’s widely-read The American Political Tradition , with chapter headings such as “Theodore Roosevelt: The Conservative as Progressive” and “Woodrow Wilson: The Conservative as Liberal,” illustrates the older view. This view was of course weakened by the post-1970s demise of respect for communism, but it is the findings of West Coast scholars that have made it totally untenable. They have shown: that 1), a natural-rights-centered republicanism is a coherent political philosophy seriously held by most of the Founders, at least in significant part, and one that could be plausibly held to today; that 2), from the Founding up through the Reconstruction amendments, it was the key source of opposition to slavery and race-discrimination generally, and the ground of Lincoln’s resolute statesmanship; that 3), that the progressives were deeply influenced by historicist ideas propounded by German philosophers, ideas incompatible with natural rights; that 4), key progressive thinkers openly declared that there was no real truth to those rights; and that 5), a number of key features of American constitutionalism, such as the separation of powers, were also denounced.

These are not mere interpretations, but findings. So while the usual academic quibbling and qualifying is to be expected, any pretense to dismiss them must be regarded as a sign of tendentious denial. We now know, to take one little fact among many, that Woodrow Wilson really did advise Americans not to study the first several sentences of the Declaration. Perhaps it is better to say that for the first time since his era, we now remember or make note of this fact. But should such a fact matter to us? Do they not all too conveniently suit a conservative critique of contemporary liberals, many of whom for their own reasons have taken to the “progressive” label once again? Well, how one judges contemporary progressivism to be like or influenced by the original sort is a complex and controversial question, and one should tread carefully.

But just as obviously, most Americans today will regard Wilson’s advice as quite telling . . . . . . Only a scholar who presumed what so many of the progressives did, that Americans would move beyond caring about the truth-value of the Declaration’s principles, could believe it was unworthy of note and consideration. And since it is widely known that most of our 20th-century scholars, and particularly in the field of history, have regarded themselves as progressives or as ideological heirs to them, it is easy to see why such facts became neglected. But what was once innocently forgotten, or even consciously suppressed, now has to be dealt with. That is, in our time, no serious student of America, whether left, right, or center, can have any excuse for ignoring or dismissing the findings of the West Coast scholars.

The popular framing of these findings , however, is another matter. Here is the narrative that has been increasingly trumpeted, especially by conservative pundits: first, the political principles of the Founders/Lincoln were the completely correct ones and not in any fundamental tension with one another; second, America’s present trouble is largely due to the progressives opposing these and cleverly getting their fellow citizens over the course of the 20th century, especially by expanding the role of government and the power of the Supreme Court, to forget about them, to abandon them for a set of historicist, statist, and collectivist principles imported from Europe. This framing narrative, which I will call the “Founderist” one, is in some significant respects true, but I hold that everything its simplicity excludes eventually comes back to bite the conservative.

It excludes the fact that progressivism has about as much claim to have uniquely American origins as does the Founder’s political philosophy. It excludes the fact that the Founders did not exactly hold one political philosophy. Thus it excludes recognition of the fundamental tensions existing in the thought of the Founders, both between Lockean liberal and Aristotelian classical ideas on one hand, and Deistic/atheistic and Christian ideas on the other, not to mention other lesser divisions. It denies the fundamental character of the divide today existing between American conservatives and libertarians, nor is it even aware of a similar divide possible between personal-freedom-centric and social-justice-centric liberals, having characterized all of their ideas as stemming from progressivism. It is deaf to the growing communitarian/agrarian competition conservatism now faces for the political allegiance of idealistic young Christians. It shuts its eyes against the various disappointments and failures of free-market ideology, and plays down the differences between that ideology and the more limited defense of economic liberty espoused by Lincoln and the Founders. It is incapable of admitting, as a modern-day Madison would, that just as political faction is endemic to liberty, various political creedal groups that by conservative lights are errant, such as communitarians, ACLU-style-liberals, mainline progressives, democratic-socialists, and so forth, are endemic to it also. Visions of future success thus tend to be ones of total victory, that take no pains to think about how conservatives will continue to have to compete against and work with such groups. Nor does the Founderist framing encourage one from learning any lessons from progressives or communitarians about the limitations, some of which may even be said to be flaws, of our constitutional order.

Finally, while as the title of Thomas West’s excellent 1997 book Vindicating the Founders indicates, the West Coast scholars provided a long-overdue push-back against the casual slandering, neglect, and mis-interpretation of the Founders that had taken hold throughout academia, this scholarly effort and its popularization have had a tendency to “over-vindicate” the Founders. To take just two examples, Jefferson’s (and Madison’s!) refusal to act against slavery from the 1790s on, or of Jefferson’s (and Madison’s!) ugly conduct of the partisan contest with the Federalists, are topics neglected, or only defensively discussed. My beef here is close to being a scholarly quibble, but because it points to certain inclinations in conservative Founderism towards idolatry , a tendency nearly as ugly as many a liberal’s knee-jerk penchant for iconoclasm , it is necessary to air it . . .

**************************************

. . . One of the main reasons the “Founders v. Progressives” dichotomy has caught on is that it makes the alliance between conservatives and libertarians easier. . . . even though most conservatives and libertarians are aware of their policy differences, when they begin to talk together of the Founders, or even of the Constitution, they seem entirely in agreement. But this is quite deceptive, and in the long run conservatives have more to lose from the illusion than libertarians do.

**************************************

. . . the main point should be obvious enough: conservative thought has become bogged down in the Founderist dichotomy. The teaching of the West Coast school could be used as a doorway to a more comprehensive understanding of America, but conservatives have preferred to use it as a walled fortress, from which to rain down missiles. It is thus keeping them from engaging as thoughtfully as they might with their political opponents, who truly need to face up to the West Coast findings and begin exploring new accounts of the relation of American liberalism to the Founding and the Constitution in response. A negative edge in popular rhetoric is an inevitable feature of partisan politics, but with respect to conservative Founderism, there has been too little moderation of it, and too little from the West Coast scholars themselves, likely because their thinking was inclined to get caught up in the dichotomy from the beginning. In any case, I am not interested in who is the most to blame. I will leave lofty discussions of whether Leo Strauss’s revealing of a fundamental philosophic conflict between natural right and historicism was correctly or incorrectly applied to the American story to others. What is plain is that it is time for conservatives to resist the simplicity of the Founderist narrative, so as to arrive at a fresh approach to the American political tradition and the place of liberty within it. My five-fold framework offers a possible way forward.

More on: Etcetera

Articles by Carl Scott

Loading...

Show 0 comments