My last essay ended by noting that conservatives are told by many of their leading politicians and pundits that America’s fundamental problem is that too many of their fellow citizens no longer understand its basic principles, of which liberty has pride of place. Were we to get enough Americans to appreciate the teachings of the Founders, and of the American political tradition (APT) more generally, they would become far more moderate and judicious in their voting.
It is appropriate to remind us, as Matthew Spalding did in his 2009 book, We Still Hold These Truths, that the Founders would have expected the “perpetuation of liberty” to “depend on spirited citizens…actively engaged in the democratic task of governing themselves” and “holding to the truths of 1776.”
When, as ample evidence demonstrates, “most of our high-school and college students…consistently score poorly in virtually every measure of civic knowledge,” this cannot occur—our citizens have to know what the truths are before they can consider whether they should hold to them. Nor can it occur, Spalding suggests, when the typical professor at our typical college prefers to put scare-quotes around “truth.”
So the answer, often proposed, is to reform higher and secondary education, so that it mandates study, just as Thomas Jefferson insisted upon at the founding of the University of Virginia, of the “general principles of liberty and the rights of man,” and “the distinctive principles of the government of our State, and that of the United States.” As the Jefferson-guided Board of Visitors indicated, such a curriculum would likely feature close study of the Declaration, The Federalist, Washington’s farewell address, and John Locke’s Second Treatise, among others.
What Jefferson couldn’t foresee, but which Spalding knows well, is that such mandates can only work if the teachers charged with teaching the principles reject reigning dogmas which reject the very possibility of truth.
I have been involved in and employed by such reform efforts myself, and entirely endorse them. I also endorse the most immediately doable reform effort of all, which is for adults to themselves form and promote book-groups dedicated to the study of such texts.
Other Americans may hesitate to endorse such a program, or the more general enthusiasm they note among conservatives for the “Founders,” perhaps because it smacks of a style of patriotism they feel little affinity for, but more fundamentally because they suspect there is a larger agenda behind it that they cannot endorse.
Now the programs promoting greater civic education generally have been careful to keep themselves free from dogmatism, political agitation, or the exclusion of liberals, and indeed they would welcome of greater participation by scholars who lean leftwards, but there can be no denying that they are often in spirit linked to a larger trend, or even school of thought, known as “Founderism.”
Founderism is mainly embraced by conservatives and libertarians. Liberals indulge in periodic public rhetorical displays of “So-to-Speak” support for the Constitution, and they like well-told history or biography about the Founders as well as anyone, but they aren’t as interested in treating them as a guide.
And liberals are especially and deliberately uninterested in what scholarly conservatives, of the West Coast Straussian school especially, have established about the original progressives concerning their departures from the principles of the Founders. For these findings have exposed severe limitations in the narrative of America’s development long-offered by our liberal-dominated historiography and political science, and widely accepted by the public as authoritative.
So there is an agenda. There cannot but be one.
What I mean is, no feeling person who faces the WCS findings on the progressives can avoid thinking that either a) liberalism is just wrong, or b) it has to become more serious about its foundations, and in a way that puts it in a less direct conflict, or at least in less arrogant conflict, with the Founders and today’s Founderism. My own agenda is, a) is what I think for myself, b) is what I recommend for Democrats who are not prepared to think a) but who recognize their need to work and dialogue more with their non-liberal fellow citizens.
But again, none of this can justify the simplistic counter-narrative that has increasingly characterized Conservative Founderism, which I criticized here. To review, the narrative suggests that the political principles of the Founders n’ Lincoln were the completely correct ones and not in any fundamental tension with one another, and that America’s present trouble is largely due to the Progressives opposing these and gradually/covertly getting Americans to abandon them.
It is an agenda of denunciation. It only points a finger. It never extends a hand.
And the key point here is that presently, all the Founderist narrative can tell the discouraged Post-Morning conservative, is that contemporary progressives can only be winning so many key contests due to trickery, to appeals to raw economic-entitlement self-interest, to reverse racism, and to America-hatred, which is at bottom, a hatred of Liberty and a desire for Statist Tyranny. Were it not for these, it would still be Morning in America.
Are not these most puzzling and unlikely conclusions?
In terms of a secret agenda for collectivist authoritarianism, I admit a few liberal elites are that depraved—I was myself shocked by the degree to which the leaders of the Democratic Socialists of America, the ones who helped train our current President and whose leader (Michael Harrington) I myself read and admired in the 80s, were open to deception and smear-tactics, as revealed by Stanely Kurtz’s Radical in Chief. And one can, if one wants, learn more about the nefarious doings of the left during the 20th-century. You could make yourself an expert about the likes of Bill Ayers, and yeah, when we read the findings of that (necessary) expertise, it does tend to make us angry and very wary.
But to hold that the typical liberal leader today desires to extinguish liberty, for the sake of collectivist statism? To hold that the typical American who calls herself a progressive wants that? Such a conclusion lays at the heart of a key popular text of Founderism, Mark Levin’s Liberty v. Tyranny.
From such a framework, one can only conclude that Americans let liberals win because they have betrayed their Fathers. Americans just ain’t being Americans!
“So let them return to the principles of their fathers!” goes the cry. But alas, comes the reply, the institutions of higher academy and public education are now hopelessly dominated by liberals and thus utterly biased against the correct understanding of those principles.
An aside. I do not think those of us involved in the more Founders and more APT reform efforts at the college level can offer, after many years of effort, much evidence to the contrary to this domination idea. I have engaged in no systematic investigation, but it seems to me our efforts remain piecemeal, modest, and quite dependent on outside funding. Very few political science and nearly zero history departments are dominated by “our kind” or are even one-fifth populated by our kind. Special “center-based” departments or de facto departments, such as the American Studies one I belong to at Christopher Newport University, remain exceptions to the rule. But they will face great obstacles to becoming common and to gaining real power. Unless major players in the main universities begin to favor our efforts during the next decade or so, we won’t be able to honestly claim to be making a much of a dent against the current trends. We’re keeping the flame alive, sure.
For our efforts to go beyond such survival-mode, and to actually do what conservative pundits are calling for, depend a great upon a broader reform movement to restore genuine liberal education to the general curriculum and to give its champions real power. I don’t see many signs of that on the horizon.
What we APT educators do is better than nothing, and it makes some kind of difference. But still, if a rich and high-powered conservative donor came to ask my advice, whether they should try to start a new college, or whether they should try the easier and apparently more civic-spirited task of helping to reform existing ones (by aiding things like existing APT programs, such as the one that employs me), I think I am obliged to advise the former. That is not what I would have advised even five years ago.
And would I tremble to give the advice, because the logical result of such a start-new-conservative-colleges-because-the existing-ones-have-proven-hopelessly-dominated-by-leftists-and-technocrats strategy is an ideologically segregated system of higher education. It is bad enough that our media menus are now so segregated, but the possibility of an America fifty-years from now where the most natural question posed to a graduate would be “Did you go to one of the Old Blue colleges, or to one of the Upstart Red ones?” is a pretty frightening one.
But it’s a real possibility. Because we’re increasingly out of options. So unless the rumored-to-exist “moderates” show up for once in the college wars, that could be where the nation eventually is going to arrive. Because it is fantastical to think that as political and culture-war polarization increases in our society, conservatives and the traditionally religious will continue to send their children and savings to the existing colleges, even as they remain doggedly unrepentant about or in denial about their gross biases. Yes, all higher-ed signs of “That’s Just The Way It Is,” such as the brand-power of the old Ivies’ mere names, presently suggest that system will continue as per usual. But logic shows you it cannot for much longer.
So, to return to my main argument, there seems no way to return Americans to their principles outside of a massive citizen movement for self-education. The colleges, and in turn the public schools, are hopeless.
Presuming all that is the case for the moment, musn’t the Founderist Conservative account for why liberals came to dominate American academia, and let’s thrown in American journalism, too, in the first place? “It goes back to the Progressives!” comes the reply. “It was a deliberate long-march infiltration plan!” Okay, that is to a degree true, but still, if American principles were so inherently wonderful and so innately American, why were the Progressives, with their anti-American principles, able to succeed in infiltrating and then dominating these institutions? Not to mention to win elections?
Again and again, the Founderist narrative can offer no non-nefarious explanation for the liberal triumphs. It keeps conservatives from facing the fact that the Progressives, and most of the others who disagree with them, are their political brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers—that we are America’s children all, not simply due to formal citizenship, but due to the fact that something about America’s original principles, even something about America’s successes, caused many of its children to sincerely, if not always wittingly, reinterpret and thus actually oppose those original principles.
Moreover, we are unlikely win them back to a more correct understanding if we begin by accusing them of a kind of spiritual treason, or to use a more medical metaphor, if we begin by diagnosing them as suffering from some kind of ideological infection. “Ah…so that explains it. Your mind is riddled with the Hegelian virus!”
I have some sympathy for the Hegelian virus thesis, actually. Because I myself became a somewhat different person once I had really digested the Nature v. History distinction taught by the Straussians. I could no longer hear, for example, a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind” with the same sort of innocence that muddled the Biblical and Historicist hopes together.
But here’s the key thing. To establish modern republican democracy the way our Founders did means to enter into a perpetual race against the triumph of crude, but home-grown, democratic mindsets (see Republic book VIII, or Tocqueville’s discussions of a “desire for equality” throughout Democracy in America), and a perpetual multi-sided persuasion-battle against a host of more sophisticated but nonetheless errant democratic mindsets built upon the cruder ones.
So to truly apply the mindset of Madison today means to admit what he couldn’t quite see: that just as air is to the regrettable existence of fire, and as liberty is to the regrettable existence of faction, so is modern republican government to the regrettable existence of various at-bottom-suicidal democratic mindsets: progressivism, democratic socialism, militant secularism, and libertarianism. All of these will kill modern democracy (in their society) if they get to rule it for long, and all of them are endemic to it.
Why do we conservatives act so outraged that this is what we are now up against? And even if some may be intellectually “healed” by coming to understand the way historicist thought has warped their expectations and ideas, why do we act as if we expect all to be well once respect for Marx and Hegel is put to bed? Especially those scholars who should understand the significance of what Plato and Tocqueville said about democracy, and who should understand that historicism can never be decisively defeated at the popular level nor dismissed at the philosophic one?
I will have a few more comments about the role of conservative scholars, especially Strauss-influenced ones, in an additional post, but let me finally wind up the main argument here.
No, not all would be right and good if we could only teach Americans their principles. My proposed book will show there is more than one set of principles involved, and that what works best for America is a certain combination of them. The natural rights principles are central and primary, but they do not capture the broader vision of liberty Americans had from the beginning, let alone the dialogic conflict between various conceptions of liberty that developed over time. We simply have to be able to explain our regime’s development without a) regarding it as inevitable, progressive, and irreversible, as many (esp. boomer or older) liberals do, or b) regarding it as primarily a story of betrayal that must be utterly reversed, as the conservative Founderists do.
Nor can we hope to get liberals, nor serious communitarians, nor serious Christians, nor perhaps even serious libertarians, to accept our invitations to join us in necessary civic-education APT efforts if we insist on one tidy and loyalty-demanding interpretation of it.
We need the focus on principles, make no mistake. But to think America was ever just so wonderful and dandy, so that a return to the correct understanding of those principles is easily done and will make most everything right, is foolish, idolatrous, and ultimately, despair-causing.