Charles Kesler has recently provided another of his brilliant and bracing synopses of the American political scene, with a view to summoning conservatives to “another epic struggle, a battle for America’s soul, a battle that will determine whether free government will survive.” I am not sure there is in it a single word I disagree with, as far as the essay goes, and heaven knows I appreciate a good call to arms. But as I ponder the dire situation with which Mr. Kesler confronts us, a few questions seem to stand between me and full readiness for combat. I invite my friend Charles, as well as Pomocon comrades, to resolves the perplexity that stifles my alacrity.
Kesler’s characterization of the pathological allure of “the Higher Lawlessness” of the Progressive-Liberal faith and of its success in addicting Americans to an unlimited government that shades imperceptibly into socialism could not be more apt. And he is right that limitless government under a “living Constitution” was sold and is being sold to the American people on the basis of a virtually limitless understanding of “rights.” To recover the “free, honorable, independent” spirit of “old American democracy” would require a return to an earlier constitutionalism grounded in an earlier and sounder understanding of rights, that of the Declaration of Independence, in which rights originated “in God or nature,” not in the State. The Reagan Revolution failed to create a lasting majority based upon such a return, and Republicans in the era of “Compassionate Conservatism” persuaded themselves that a principled commitment to constitutionally limited government was no longer necessary, since the other side, under Clinton, had itself given up on the “era of Big Government.” Hello!!
Kesler’s call for a return to “founding principles” grounded in “our capacity for self-government” is admirable, but his own diagnosis fosters some doubt as to whether this capacity still exists. Any reader inclined to accuse the author of a simplistic or doctrinaire commitment to rights (even old-fashioned ones) should first ponder his last section, in which he invites reflection on the dilemma of statesmanship before “the deeply intractable problem of what to do about the liberal state,” a state that “has entwined itself so tightly around the organs of American government that it seems impossible to remove it completely without risking fatal harm to the patient.”
The difficult challenge to which Mr. Kesler summons us is thus at once “a battle for America’s soul” and the painstaking and incremental task of a gradually extricating ourselves from a myriad of statist addictions. Surely he is right that we should not despise the relatively humble work of preventing “further damage.”
But does not even this humble work involve a spiritual and intellectual task higher and deeper than the one to which Charles Kesler calls us? For a limitless liberalism has entwined itself, not only around “the organs of American government” but around the American soul itself, raising grave questions concerning “our capacity for self-government.” When Kesler addresses “virtue,” he limits himself to “public virtue” or to the rule of reason and justice as alternatives to limitless public “compassion.” But can we would-be counselors to statesmen hope to begin to disentangle the American soul from a thousand cords of limitless liberalism without first taking up reason’s responsibility for goods that reason cannot found by itself, goods that our Founders had the luxury of taking, mostly, for granted?
The grounding of rights in “God or nature” cannot remain an abstraction, understood only negatively as a basis for attacking limitless progressive liberalism. The appeal of “Progress” can only be countered by a substantive understanding of the good of the soul. However politically inconvenient this may be, the question of the soul of self-government can no longer be deferred.