“Socrates understood … that a reform cannot be achieved by a well-intentioned leader who recruits his followers from the very people whose moral confusion is the cause of the disorder.”
— Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle
Lately I’ve been wondering if there are any conservatives left in the GOP. The Republican label hangs loosely around the current traveling GOP debate squad, but none of them strikes me as particularly conservative. Here’s the description that I first read in March 1960, helping my family proofread the galleys of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, which my father published later that spring: “The turn will come when we entrust the conduct of our affairs to the men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power that have been given.”
The very notion of limited power is unique to Christendom. Christian faith and tradition form the foundation of America’s founding documents. So I was somewhat mystified by the recent GOP “National Security Debate.” It was held in Washington’s Constitution Hall, but the contenders were falling all over one another to ignore the Constitution, to expand the power of the executive, and to support more wars [Note to reader: After every subsequent reference to the GOP debaters, please insert the phrase, “except for Congressman Ron Paul." Thank you.].
I marvel at the insouciant ease with which the debaters pleasantly amble towards world domination, sending the taxpayer another bill for another trillion dollars every time they enter a new time zone. Rick Santorum wants to go to war with China. Mitt Romney would make it only a trade war, but he – and most of the others – would go to war with Iran. Rick Perry would add Syria. Elbows flying, Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich pile onto the war wagon. No one mentions the Constitutional requirement of a congressional Declaration of War against all of these enemies – bringing to mind, again, Goldwater in 1960: “It will come when Americans, in hundreds of communities throughout the nation, decide to put the man in office who is pledged to enforce the Constitution and restore the Republic.”
Leaving aside the Constitution (that’s pretty easy these days), how will Americans pay for these new wars? One of my Democrat father’s favorite Republicans was Representative Robert Fleming Rich of Pennsylvania. Mr. Rich, who served in the years before World War II, became famous — and wildly popular — during the New Deal for one question, which he insisted on asking on the floor of the House of Representatives every time a new spending bill was taken up: “Where are we going to get the money,” he would roar. It was such a constant refrain that the other members of the House would often join in like a chorus — alas, only in jest: they knew where they would get the money — they would print it.
With money in mind, none of the debaters even mentioned the pending financial collapse of the European Union, even though we might expect such a collapse to affect our national security. None of them echoed Goldwater to declare that “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” Goldwater keeps harping about the darned Constitution: “I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible.”
Well, those days are over, Mister Conservative. But at least today we have the social conservatives, right? Well, of all the debater “pro-family” heroes, only Rick Perry mentioned abortion at all – he condemned “Communist China… [where] you have 35,000 forced abortions a day.” None of the contenders condemned the $500 million in foreign aid, passed annually by bipartisan congressional majorities, that sends contraceptives and abortifacients worldwide, or the $65 million that goes for abortion, all in the name of “family planning.” The debaters didn’t condemn it, nor did the questioners, whose number included an odd smattering of disgraced retreads from the George W. Bush years, apparently attempting either to rehabilitate their resumes or to intimidate the presidentials into advocating more wars.
“When words lose their meaning, people will lose their liberty.”
— Friedrich Hayek
Hayek is summarizing the passage in Confucius’s Analects, in which Confucius observes that, to restore order in society, the first step is to call things by their right name. Thus Big Brother’s Newspeak dictionary aimed to destroy language altogether, in order to maximize power. It is interesting to note that none of the GOP debaters mentioned the word “conservative” in Constitution Hall. Perhaps that’s because they gaily proposed new wars, ignoring the Constitution as well as the vicissitudes that burden our country’s political, financial, and moral condition. Egged on by “conservative” questioners, they advocated more drones, more foreign aid, more nation-building, more Pentagon spending, more troops in Afghanistan, a “stronger” Patriot Act, and, almost unanimously, war with Iran. And they think Obama is bad?
What has become of “conservatism,” anyway? These policies will not achieve Goldwater’s goal to “enforce the Constitution and restore the Republic.” In fact, they will bankrupt the Republic. Stan Evans once famously observed that, while the Democrats race towards the abyss, the more prudent Republicans insist on going the speed limit. But even if we are only coasting, the only way you can coast is downhill. We are careening into oblivion, and no Republican debater has volunteered to apply the brakes.
The last ten years have wrought havoc across the American political spectrum and political discourse. Democrats, increasingly left-wing, have abandoned the toxic term “liberal” and become “progressives.” Meanwhile, the tripod that forms the traditional Republican base has collapsed. “Economic conservatives” have been betrayed by huge hikes in federal spending and regulation spawned during the Bush Administration. “Social conservatives” were sidelined after 9-11, but stayed with the president in 2004 because Karl Rove promised us that our day would come after Bush’s re-election. Alas, that day never dawned, and the GOP paid the price in 2006 and 2008. And “peace through strength” conservatives saw their numbers riddled with former friends making millions on endless war, accompanied by a multiplication of tribal sobriquets — neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, Reagan conservatives, and simple traditional conservatives. Words had lost their meaning, and liberty was under siege. Bereft of constitutional principle, all the Republicans can say to Obama is, “We’re not so bad as you are!” The intellectual contradictions in the parties has mirrored the chaos in the streets.
Instead of re-fighting the battles of the past ten years, however, I’d rather return with Confucius to the ancient wisdom that forms our intellectual foundation as conservatives. In these few lines, I focus on those which have been most forgotten, as the “conservative brand” has been deftly lifted from its bedrock sources and slapped on a bunch of bumpers of cars that only turn left. What are those sources? Well, even though foreign policy is often considered a peripheral issue in electoral contests, where “all politics is local,” principles remain unchanged wherever they are applied. Let’s begin with Aristotle’s crucial observation: in order for a man to rule others, he must be able to rule himself. From the point of view of contemporary foreign policy, our government clearly cannot rule itself: it has some seventy trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities and is rife with bipartisan corruption. Defense Secretary Gates finally admitted — on his way out the Pentagon door — that he didn’t know how many employees the Pentagon had, or how much money they spend. And neither did anyone else. It comes to mind that Hayek was right — the worst do rise to the top. Are they the generation that should go forth and rule the world with virtue, might, and truth?
Hardly. But the ancient temptation is there, and another wise man of the ages, Augustine of Hippo, identified it in the first page of the Civitas Dei: the libido dominandi, the lust for power. Consider how many times Hillary Clinton, saturated in the dross of ambition, repeatedly condemned the Reagan years as the “Decade of Greed.” Yet we have never heard Hillary – or anybody – condemn the Decade, or the Century, of the Lust for Power. That’s because, alas, the Lust for Power prospers these days. Sir John Harrington comes to mind: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Ditto the libido dominandi. The Founders of our republic were profoundly aware of the danger of superbia vitae – the lusting after glory and fame (I John 2:16). How many pols have you seen sweat over that one lately?
To counter Imperial Rome and its “virtue” of pride, Augustine, on that same page with libido dominandi, praises humilitas, that virtue that is so Christian, and so un-imperial: but today, “humble yourself, the greater you are” (Sirach 3:18) has been overtaken by events.
In Federalist One, Alexander Hamilton writes:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Clearly, in 1787, America was exceptional. Americans knew it, and knew why. In his Farewell Address, George Washington explained why: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he told the Congress. “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.
Some forty years later, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Christianity ran so deep in the American character that he called it “an established and irresistible fact which no one seeks to attack or defend.” Americans uniquely believed that religion was “necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions,” he observed. Another European agrees. “Alexis de Tocqueville, in his day, observed that democracy in America had become possible and had worked because there existed a fundamental moral consensus which, transcending individual denominations, united everyone,” Pope Benedict XVI told the Curia last December. “This fundamental consensus derived from the Christian heritage is at risk wherever its place, the place of moral reasoning, is taken by the purely instrumental rationality of which I spoke earlier. In reality, this makes reason blind to what is essential. To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake.”
Where do we find America’s “moral consensus” today? Clearly not in the political sphere, where villains masquerade as heroes. Alas, our politicians rarely admit their mistakes. For Tocqueville, America was exceptional because of what we shared in common. “Common.” “Communicate.” “Community.” “We hold these truths” united us. But for many Americans today, regardless of party, those realities we once shared as a historical people have faded into vague abstractions, nestled comfortably in an inchoate civil religion, invoked, if at all, more to manipulate the people than to unite them. Rejected by the popular culture, the metaphysical goods that constitute our Christian heritage are denied, even attacked, by “our” government’s “instrumental rationality” that thrives on abstractions.
Bad ideas have bad consequences. Does one have to be a Muslim to descry widespread moral squalor and cultural corruption in our midst, or to perceive America on the brink of becoming a decadent, materialist wasteland? If that be the case, then we are “exceptional” only because we are delusional, and American Exceptionalism amounts to little more than ideological blather — tall-talking patriotic chutzpah concocted to justify America’s “right” to export democracy to the world by force and diminishing liberty at home.
To Washington, Tocqueville, and Pope Benedict, genuine American Exceptionalism requires Exceptional Americans – virtuous Americans, rational Americans, and yes, Americans who embrace, preserve, defend, and celebrate our Christian and Constitutional heritage. To reduce that treasured reality to a dry husk of “democracy” that can be imposed on tribal societies that border on barbarism, defy rationality, and demonize Christianity, is a political hoax and an intellectual fraud. The strength of our republic flows not from a few facile abstractions but from twenty centuries of history and a “Firm Reliance on Divine Providence.”
So: is America still exceptional, or is it sinking into the post-modernist mire? I rely on an image that Erik von Kuehneldt-Leddihn shared with me many years ago: if American Exceptionalism merely amounts to a shopworn excuse for power and war, useful for manipulation but devoid of meaningful content, then we are “living off the whiff of an empty bottle.” Today’s “American Exceptionalism” comes right out of Orwell’s Newspeak — it proclaims a gnostic rejection of human nature. It is a quality is possessed not by all, but only a few — those far-sighted Americans of Orwell’s Inner Party. It reflects the triumph not of Russell Kirk, but of Hegel. It flourishes in the immanentist progressive mind that conveniently hijacks the “conservative” label because the dialectic considers that term to be the most popular term at the moment.
Indeed, many are the conceits of human beings; evil imaginations lead them astray.
— Sirach 3:24
We conservatives have known all along that those nasty, power-hungry liberals are immoral – and often, we’ve been right: after all, when the Dictatorship of Relativism reigns, Christ is on the Cross. But in our exceptionalist reverie, we can mistakenly come to believe that we are not subject to the same temptations – that is, that, because we are conservative, or even Republican, we might be immune to infection by libido dominandi and superbia vitae. But these lusts are more powerful than simple physical appetites. And they tempt us all.
One of the most powerful temptations is also the most noxious: remember how “9/11 Changed Everything”? Well, it didn’t, but some folks succumbed to the dialectic’s gentle prodding and decided they’d turn reality upside down. In this dream world, we can benevolently spend untold trillions without care, proudly convert the world to a civil religion of secular democracy, and, ultimately, triumphantly “rid the world of evil,” as President George W. Bush put it at Memorial Prayer Service three days after 9/11.
Admittedly, the president was speaking in the wake of a catastrophe. Nonetheless, the troubling notion has survived in our national discourse. As a result, the contemporary gnostic tendency that Eric Voegelin traces to the Middle Ages now energizes policy and punditry on a wide scale. Mention “gnostic” or “Manichee” to the typical pol and you’ll get a blank stare. But today’s “conservative” political language is replete with assumptions that deny metaphysics and man’s fallen nature, instead unconsciously embracing the dialectical alternative.
Whatever prudential approaches conservatives advocate, in this election cycle and beyond, it would serve us well to bear in mind these timeless fundamentals. Without the metaphysical yardstick of right and wrong, the abyss is our only option. Since Aristotle, the West has known – proven, in fact – that, while good men can muddle through a bad constitution, bad men can wreck the best of them.