The 20th century is over. Marxism remains contemptible, anachronistic, and hasn’t a prayer of real comeback. To the extent that full-blooded socialism is returning to compete with liberal democracy for the allegiance of modern persons, it does so in populist garb—and in the future, its theory will be built not so much upon Hegelian-Marxian premises, but far more upon ones developed by Anglo-American democratic theory, particularly of the Rawlsian sort. A winning 21st-century leftist formula has yet to be articulated, but when and if it comes, it will have much to do with long-consolidated principles of the Sexual Revolution, and much to do with the shape of the Internet World—that is, insofar as it even bothers with a solid categorization of “classes,” it will do so according to a new theory.
So much of the shape of future leftism will likely come from American sources, or from international-minded young people all over the world struggling to deal with America-originated developments, and will have nothing to do with young Karl’s encounter with German Hegelian philosophy, on one hand, and with the French radical republican tradition on the other.
This likelihood of everyone thinking in more America-related ways in the future goes beyond leftism.
This is the case even if America “falls apart.”
The Chinese, for example, are particularly interested in Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution right now, and that will likely lead not a few of them to his other big book. As they consider whether to take a leap into democratic governance, or whether they can to do it in an adjusted way that better fits with China’s traditions and current situation, Democracy in America, and perhaps the broader story of American democracy’s development may become important to them. And that means the American Political Tradition in its real dialogic complexity, not “understood” 20th-century-style by way of lumping it all under a quick category such as Liberalism, could (and really should) become important to them.
To think about ancient democracy, you have to know your p’s and q’s about Athens.
To think about modern democracy you really do have to pay special attention to America.
So I think that what will matter to future political debates all over the world will have more to do with Abraham Lincoln v. Wilson Carey McWilliams, or both of them teamed together v. Herbert Croly, than with the old Germano-Franco continental debates running from Paris to Berlin to Moscow to NYC, but always circling back to Paris, and yes, I include the grand Strauss v. Kojéve debate in that set.
(That last debate will always matter to philosophy, and can help us understand how philosophic types reacted to the currents of 1917-1989, but it has little political application at present, beyond its relation to the Nature v. History distinction. And again, insofar as that distinction is employed to suggest that nothing can matter more to American democracy than pitting the progressives’ historicism against Lincoln’s natural right, it becomes unhelpful.)
However that may be, I want to especially stress that American conservatives must be wary of reducing everything to their old battles with Marx. Too often when encountering the very democratic, and often uniquely American, confusions of their left-leaning brothers and sisters, they see only the worst, only the Marxist roots or Statist utilizations of their haziness. They act as if the questions of principle are easy ones, immediately resolvable by means of intellectual patriotism, and refuse to admit that not a few of the confusions come out of the heart of the American creed.
This is related to the fact that the Founderist narrative, despite its scholarly roots in the West Coast Straussian position, untenably papers over the debates among Straussians themselves (and not simply between the East Coast and West Coast camps) about whether it is even possible to pose Nature against History in a way that genuinely supports modern natural rights democracy. And so to whatever degree popular Founderism derives inspiration from Straussianism in general, and especially by the way a “united Straussian front” can seem to be crying “treason” against progressives for denying the existence of natural right, it can be exposed to awkward questions, questions about many Straussians’ bottom-line belief in Natural Rights, or more sophisticatedly, about whether that belief is held in a manner in accord with that of the Founders.
A similar dynamic applies to other aspects of Founderist doctrine, such as the classification of political power into three elemental types, legislative, executive, and judicial—which, as Harvey Mansfield can show you, has historical roots. Excited as we may be to spread the news of W. Wilson’s rejection of this theory, or his undermining of its constitutional authority in practice, we might want to pause and consider to whether, or in what manner, we ourselves believe in it, at least as a theory.
Most of Founderism’s opponents are too unschooled, and/or too dismissive of Straussianism, to raise such awkward questions, but they are ready at hand for those willing to undertake a bit of serious intellectual homework.
Like Richard Rorty but for different reasons, I’m grateful for our increasing intellectual attention to the progressives, and to the American developments of the 1880s-1930s era. But I worry about a conservative temptation to make progressivism the chief ideological opposite of sound Americanism, as kind of a post-1989 substitute for the very clear (and for a long time quite dangerous) ideological opposition of communism.
Communism’s 20th-century heyday in a way made it too easy for American conservative intellectuals: we could slide into a broad and Reaganesque belief in a more-unified than it really was “The West” and in a more-Morning-esque than it really was America. We could cast out Spengler-like thoughts as defeatist, and we could forget or dismiss as alien the progressive side of our American family.
Well, whatever happened, it’s time to move on. And I say the progressives v. natural rights dichotomy has a way of putting us back into certain pre-1989 mindsets that only serve to make us bitter and befuddled today.