America at the Point of No Return
by michael anton
regnery, 500 pages, $32.99
Beginning with his essay “The Flight 93 Election,” published by the Claremont Review of Books in September 2016, Michael Anton has become famous—and infamous—as the foremost intellectual defender of the current president. One can read his new book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, as a longer version of the same defense, and no doubt most will. But Anton has more ambitious aims. Yes, he is a pundit addressing the American electorate in autumn 2020. But he is also what Harry Jaffa would call “the eternal political science professor addressing the eternal class.”
The Stakes exhorts Americans to take eternal principles of historical causation seriously. According to these principles, all regimes, including the one created by the founders of the United States, eventually decline and fall. The Stakes gives an appealing account of the sort of republic that America is supposed to be. The bulk of the book details the way in which that regime has already—perhaps irreversibly—declined.
Anton holds that the American constitutional regime is committed to natural human equality, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In this affirmation he follows in the footsteps of his old teacher Jaffa, founder of the school of “West Coast Straussianism,” which flourishes at California’s Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Institute. But Anton does not simply echo Jaffa. He builds on his thought to say something new.
Jaffa sought to establish principles around which to rally and restore the best of the American regime. He was less clear-eyed about what America had already become, and how it had gotten that way. Nor did he have much to say about what Americans should do to fix their country. Anton, by contrast, emphasizes prudence rather than principle; he argues that we may be entering a time in which restoration of the American regime will be impossible. Anyone interested in American conservatism should follow this transformation carefully. It indicates deeper shifts, which will outlast the results of November 2020.
West Coast Straussianism, unlike its more circumspect East Coast counterpart, read Leo Strauss as wholly endorsing the truth of natural rights and the goodness of the American regime. Following Strauss, Jaffa understood the American regime as imperiled by moral relativism and historicism, by a loss of America’s sense of purpose at its moment of triumph after World War II. Jaffa responded with an uncompromising defense of the key American principle: “All men are created equal.” That defense became the cornerstone of West Coast Straussianism.
West Coast Straussianism understands the principle of human equality as implying a natural right to freedom from arbitrary rule and for government through the consent of the governed. Equality entails self-government. But as the Declaration of Independence indicates, consent of the governed is not an end in itself. The end of government is to “secure” natural rights and “effect” “Safety and Happiness”—the common good. Defending the common good requires defending equal natural rights, which are given determination in the 1787 Constitution. Because the cause of constitutionalism is inseparable from the cause of equal natural rights, unwavering loyalty to the Constitution is required, and Americans should work within its framework to achieve the common good. But working within that framework is possible only when a prevailing body of Americans affirms the principle of equality.
By focusing on Abraham Lincoln, West Coast Straussianism recalls one of the most dramatic moments in American history, when many Americans no longer affirmed the principle of human equality. Lincoln was inaugurated in the wake of concerted efforts to reject that principle. Stephen Douglas had spurned equality by turning consent of the governed into an end in itself. In Dred Scott, Justice Taney had asserted that the 1787 Constitution rejected equality. John Calhoun had gone further and rejected the principle of equality as an outright falsehood; this was the official position of the Confederacy. In A New Birth of Freedom, Jaffa recounted how Lincoln confronted these challenges and restored the principle of equality.
But A New Birth of Freedom was not just a work of history. It was also a work of philosophy aiming to show why the principle of equality is eternally true. And as a work of politics, it sought to awaken Jaffa’s contemporaries to similarities between the American crisis of Lincoln’s day and the crisis of their own day. Jaffa hoped to teach them (and future generations) that the conception of equality found in the Declaration is the principle of just government.
As a West Coast Straussian, Anton defends Jaffa’s conclusions as integral to the American regime. The principle of equality is “in our political DNA,” he writes. But unlike Jaffa, Anton stresses how the contemporary American crisis originates not just in the abstract ideas of moral relativism and historicism, but in concrete efforts to discard the written provisions of the Declaration and Constitution. In Anton’s words, these documents have been “torched.” With this blunt judgment, Anton shows how West Coast Straussianism has been transformed.
In his pessimism about American constitutionalism, Anton follows those who first transformed West Coast Straussianism, notably Charles Kesler, John Marini, Ronald J. Pestritto, and Bradley C. S. Watson. Aiming to describe more precisely than Jaffa did how the Constitution was lost, these men focused on American progressivism. For them, progressivism is a concrete project to replace the 1787 Constitution, as well as the principle of equality, with a new form of government: the administrative state. The administrative state denies the centrality of the principle of equality, and denies that the right to rule proceeds from the consent of the governed. In the administrative state, the governing class legitimates its power by appeals to expertise. A technocracy of the educated supersedes the democracy of the living and the dead.
During the twentieth century, the expansion of this kind of government affected every nation of the West. But unlike in other modern countries, in America it did not completely remove the old regime. The 1787 Constitution was neither explicitly overruled nor abolished. Instead, as the twentieth century wore on, the 1787 Constitution was overlaid by a “second Constitution,” which accorded with the ambitions of the progressive administrative state.
On this analysis, the American crisis is a constitutional crisis. Both constitutions—the written one and the implicit progressive one—operate. This means that power is exercised on the basis of two different understandings of the right to rule, two different legitimating principles. One is the principle of equality; the other is the claim of expertise. The crisis deepens because neither is strong enough fully to displace the other.
On all this, Anton agrees with Jaffa and Kesler. Then he goes a step further. Whatever its flaws, the progressive constitution was informed by love for America. Progressives were patriots. The two constitutions were in conflict, but they had national loyalty in common. By 1968, however, something new had emerged. Richard John Neuhaus and the socialist Norman Thomas were among its early witnesses. At a protest against the Vietnam War, the crowd burned an American flag. “Richard,” said Thomas, “don’t they understand that our purpose is not to burn the flag, but to cleanse the flag?”
Over the following decades, American institutions were constantly inflamed by one or another form of anti-Americanism. A ruling class emerged that is defined, as Anton writes, by “contempt and hatred for America and its history.” A self-hating American ruling class has instrumentalized and weaponized the progressive administrative state and its claims to expertise in order to destroy what is left of American constitutionalism and crush the people who wish to be governed by it. The original progressives were content to wage a war of supremacy against the old Constitution. Once they beat down its principle and spirit, they were content to let the letter of it stand. The New Left’s partisans fight a much more brutal war, a war not of supremacy but of extermination. Their objective is revolution: to reduce the old Constitution to ashes.
This is Anton’s own transformation of West Coast Straussianism. The cause of America’s crisis is not just moral relativism, historicism, or what Woodrow Wilson wrote in his academic articles. It is the revolutionary combination of the progressive administrative state with the flag-burning ideology of the sixties. Partisans of the revolution are replacing equality before the law with an open-ended egalitarianism on behalf of an ever-growing class of the “oppressed,” coupled with a leveling egalitarianism against an ever more dreadful class of “oppressors.” This “second Constitution” results in flagrant inequality: “special privileges and preferential treatment for some, official disfavor for others.” Its legal machinery is despotic, “a cudgel with which one coalition of Americans beats another.” In Anton’s parlance, “blue” Americans use it to beat down “red” Americans.
In some respects, Anton’s argument leans on Christopher Caldwell’s Age of Entitlement, to which he owes the term “second Constitution.” But Anton goes further. In evoking social conflict as opposed to social contract, he contends that it is becoming impossible to rally Americans to the fundamental principles of their regime, because too many no longer hold to these principles. This is the problem of postconstitutionalism.
What is postconstitutionalism? As Strauss observed, political science grasps that regimes grow, mature, decline, and die. One task of political science is to classify and rank regimes (their constitutions, broadly understood) by looking to their mature form. The result is a taxonomy of regimes, which will be familiar to readers of Plato and Aristotle. But if all regimes decay, how do political scientists classify regimes that have decayed into something other than what they were? And how do political scientists advise the citizens of decaying regimes to act? When a regime has broken down, Lincoln’s “reverence for the constitution” becomes a fool’s errand.
In a postconstitutional situation, the old legal institutions may still exist, but they no longer function properly. The regime’s fundamental principles have lost their power, or are invoked to secure their opposites (as in the progressive invocation of equality to establish group rights that ensure inequality before the law). When the final breakdown of a constitutional order occurs and the constitution ceases to function, prudence demands more than strict constitutionalism. In such circumstances, a responsible statesman must employ power in order to secure justice, even by working outside the framework of the old institutions.
Strauss noted that the ancient political scientists did not put their reflections on postconstitutionalism into print. They did not want to legitimize Caesarism, at least not outwardly, since it so often produces tyranny. But Caesarism is not the same as tyranny. Under conditions of decay, Caesarism can be necessary and hence legitimate. Caesar Augustus’s establishment of permanent one-man rule through the Principate, which brought an end to Rome’s civil wars, offers a classic example. Jaffa believed that such a postconstitutional situation had been a real possibility in the America of 1861. After all, the South had seceded and discarded the 1787 Constitution and its commitment to equality. Powerful Northern factions were willing to negotiate for the South’s re-entry by acquiescing to the disposal of the 1787 Constitution and its commitment to equality. But Jaffa drew a veil over what prudence would have demanded from Americans had this postconstitutional situation arisen. He focused instead on celebrating Lincoln as the savior of the republican constitution.
Anton departs from the caution of Strauss and Jaffa. He makes explicit his postconstitutional reflections and puts them into print. He describes the tools with which the progressive left (the “blues”) now impose their rule without regard for democratic consent and constitutional form. He also details possibilities for “red state” counteraction. In portraying these scenarios, Anton takes West Coast Straussianism into new territory.
In the short term, Anton foretells the consolidation of blue rule. Using their control of the administrative state, the media, and cultural institutions, blues will deprive reds of their ability to fight back through the only institutions the blues don’t completely control: political institutions. As political institutions fall into the hands of the blues, America will become a one-party state, California writ large. Primary elections, in which the blues pick their candidate, who has no chance of losing in the general, will become all-important. The future regime of America, Anton concludes, is an elective monarchy—blues ruling absolutely and reds permanently disenfranchised.
But this elective monarchy might be an “affront” to the people, as Montesquieu puts it, and trigger a spirited response. Anton describes a variety of situations that might arise as the “Big Sort”—the partisan divide between blue and red America—accelerates. Propelled by “defund the police” and pseudo-egalitarian economic policies (the most unequal American cities are blue cities), blue America could collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Meanwhile, in red America, the national one-party establishment, the elective monarchy, could lose all its legitimacy. This would call into question the whole legitimacy of the federal government. It is not hard to imagine local authorities refusing to enforce diktats of the blue administrative state. The coercive powers of the federal government would flounder in the face of mass conscientious objection and civil disobedience. This could provoke a cycle of crackdowns, resistance, reprisals, and revolts, culminating in civil war.
Caesarism appeals in this postconstitutional situation. Autocratic rule that wards off the worst outcomes is better than constitutional rule that cannot. A Caesar who brings an end to civil war is better than a Cicero who cannot. In a postconstitutional America, then, we can imagine both blue and red Caesars arising, each claiming to be better equipped to ward off the worst outcomes, but neither capable of claiming lasting constitutional legitimacy. At this stage we will be long past “morning in America.” If a unified blue government imposes “darkness at noon,” we will likely see the emergence of new “committees of correspondence” and secret societies within the military and state. The best hope is that their search for a red Caesar leads them to form “committees of public safety”—not of the 1793 kind, but of the 1958 kind. The 1958 kind brought General de Gaulle to power, the only person who could command the legitimacy to provide France with a lasting constitution.
Anton does not indulge in such speculations, nor is he out to invoke the right to revolution. But he admires the fortitude of those who formed revolutionary committees in America in the 1770s. Moreover, he admires the fortitude of those who, responding to the “affront” delivered by the British monarchy, declared on the basis of natural law their right to revolution in 1776. He is aware that in taking the Declaration seriously, we take the right to revolution seriously, a right that the 1787 Constitution cannot revoke. For Americans, the easiest path to justifying revolution was set out by Abraham Lincoln, in his First Inaugural: “Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied.” If a minority is deprived of “any clearly written constitutional right,” and “if such right were a vital one,” then the deprivation “certainly would” justify revolution. But Anton restrains himself from such a Livy-esque exhortation to imitate former times. West Coast Straussianism may have changed, but not to the point of turning Lincoln’s obedience to natural law against Lincoln’s reverence for constitutional law.
Anton’s provocative speculations about the decomposition of America invite many comments, of which two are especially important. The more Anton reflects on postconstitutionalism, the more he must travel beyond the horizons of American political thought. Conscientious objection and civil disobedience against unconstitutional and unjust laws are—as Thoreau, Lincoln, and King remind us—part of the American political tradition. But postconstitutionalism has no American referent. Anton is aware of this. For this reason he steps outside the mainstream of American political reflection and takes his bearings from the eternal principle that regimes must rise and fall. He invokes the insights of Machiavelli and Montesquieu, who likewise took their bearings from these principles.
Yet Machiavelli and Montesquieu are still in the canon of American political thought, given that they informed the American founding. By confining his political science to this canon, Anton deprives it of some necessary diagnostic tools. Characterizing America’s future regime as an elective monarchy, for example, is misguided. Monarchy, as developed in the West, is personalist, with sovereignty located in the person of the monarch. By contrast, the ascent of the administrative state is the ascent of a statist order that dissolves the personalist element of sovereignty. A monarch exercises his own will. In the administrative state, the one who is ostensibly at the helm submits his own will to the cult of technocratic expertise.
Technocracy is depersonalizing—which is one reason the administrative state inaugurates a very different constitution. Technocracy’s exaltation of expertise is hostile to freedom and politics, and thus hostile to sovereignty. In the administrative state, the agency behind state power is obscured by universal claims of efficiency. Bureaucrats impose “best practices,” not the will of any person.
Here, Anton faces a difficulty. Grappling with the problem of the technocrat requires turning to a set of thinkers outside the American canon. Europeans have witnessed two centuries worth of revolutionary postconstitutionalism. France is on its fifth republic. Germany underwent accelerating postconstitutional crises from 1918 to 1933. In consequence, twentieth-century European political thinkers offer insights into human nature, regimes, and counterrevolution that are not found in American thought. If Anton’s West Coast Straussianism is to gain a firmer footing, it must engage with figures who sought to resolve their own country’s postconstitutional crises—whether Bertrand de Jouvenel, the left-liberal politico-economic theorist, or Joseph Barthélemy, the liberal constitutional jurist. It should even engage with liberal constitutionalism’s best critics, such as Charles Maurras and Carl Schmitt. In this respect West Coast Straussianism can learn from its namesake, as Strauss engaged with both.
The second and more important observation is that Anton contrasts his classical political science, whose eternal principles of historical causation require the rise and fall of regimes, with a Hegelian habit of mind. In its American form, the Hegelian mentality, whether progressive or conservative, presumes that America is here to stay. Every crisis contains within itself the basis for a new chapter in the nation’s history.
Like Jaffa, Anton sees behind the American crisis a confrontation between classical reason and historicism. There can be no “synthesis” emerging from this “antithesis.” One side or the other will “win.” This assumption informs Anton’s winner-take-all title: The Stakes. But another explanation of American continuity amid sharp conflict is possible. When Lincoln appealed to “Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land” in the First Inaugural, he followed the Declaration in placing his “firm reliance” upon God’s protection. Lincoln’s account does not necessarily reject the eternal principles of historical causation; it simply holds that God determines America’s destiny.
West Coast Straussianism as represented by Anton does not take the full measure of how progressivism modifies the theological concept of Providence. Progressivism’s faith in the inevitability of the administrative state rests on the conviction that technology, coupled with administration, can resolve all of America’s social problems and lead to more freedom and equality. Faith in progress becomes faith in technology. Both Lincoln and the progressives appeal to Providence to declare that America will endure. But they understand Providence in very different ways. Lincoln sees the Declaration’s “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” as compatible with the Bible’s “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” His wish that a nation of free men should live forever can be understood as a wish that they should always do the will of God. His observation that a nation of free men will die only by suicide is, then, to say that they will die by acting contrary to the will of God.
By contrast, progressivism sees the Declaration’s “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” as a constraint upon ever-greater freedom and equality. The Declaration is ultimately incompatible with faith in ever-greater technological mastery over nature, including recalcitrant human nature. The new civic liturgy of iconoclasm and purification through struggle-sessions does not aspire to do God’s will, but to do history’s will, acting for ever-greater self-creation. Hence it serves to assault and attack not just the Declaration’s God, but also the Bible’s God. America’s crisis is perhaps best understood not as a confrontation between reason and historicism, but as a confrontation between two versions of political theology. In this account, Lincoln’s view of Divine Providence faces down the progressive creed. America’s crisis is ultimately a form of spiritual warfare.
In dwelling at length on America’s postconstitutional possibilities, Anton sets aside the discretion exercised by his teachers. But he refrains from evoking the most noted postconstitutional thinkers and actors of the twentieth century. And he stops short of theologizing the conflict besetting America. Here he is perhaps observing a philosophic silence about those matters that are most dangerous to discuss in public.
The final chapter of The Stakes reinforces this impression of knowing silence. In view of the sharp portrayals of fundamental conflict that characterize so much of the book, Anton is notably moderate when he speaks about what must be done to meet today’s crisis. He provides a blueprint for a new realignment in American politics, drawing on populist, social conservative, and “reformicon” fare detailed elsewhere: spirited uses of the power of the state, pro-natalist policies, industrial and trade policy, fixing immigration, and minority outreach. His most radical proposals are neo-Madisonian applications of Federalist 10, ensuring that no faction becomes strong enough to dominate the other. If blues want to make Puerto Rico a state to gain a permanent edge in the Senate, he suggests, then reds must make sure that Northern California becomes the new (red) state of Jefferson alongside Puerto Rico, thereby ensuring neither reds nor blues gain a permanent edge over the other. This is Anton’s twenty-first-century version of the Missouri Compromise.
What is Anton’s ultimate intention? In good Straussian fashion, what he teaches is not what he says, at least not outright. With great moderation, he explicitly teaches us how to act prudently within the framework of the republican constitution; with great daring, he implicitly teaches us how to act prudently when the republican constitution is gone. But the ultimate intention of The Stakes is to teach prudence and fortitude. It is to prepare us for life in postconstitutional America.
Nathan Pinkoski is a postdoctoral research fellow at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.