A Direct Glance at America

In his neglected mid-century essay “The Direct Glance” Whittaker Chambers sought to understand the smugness of the West and America regarding Soviet Communism. The struggle against it was marked, Chambers thought, by a “boundless complacency” rooted in the West’s belief in its material superiority. And this failure of understanding left the West, Chambers argued, listless and without appeal. We should be skeptical of Chambers’s rather intense pessimism here. He failed to measure fully the degree of resistance that many countries in the West were willing to offer up in the Cold War. Also he did not foresee, as many others did not, that communist economics would collapse in 1989.

But his basic question, “What is the philosophy of the West?” such that it knows what it is defending and knows what it is organized to do, is a perennial one. What happens to a wealthy giant without purpose and meaning? Chambers takes his direct glance at a prosperous postwar America content to shed its salutary ethical foundation that would give shape to its action in history. We might recall here Leo Strauss’s argument in Natural Right and History that the crisis of the West must be answered by the natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence. Strauss opens the book by quoting from the Declaration’s second paragraph, followed with this statement:

The nation dedicated to this proposition has now become, no doubt partly as a consequence of this dedication, the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth. Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised? Does it still hold those “truths to be self-evident”?

Many of our most important thinkers are gloomy on the prospect. From crisis to crisis, I suppose. Of significance is Charles Murray, who has written at length on the decline of our white working class. He even recently seemed to apologize for overlooking how mass immigration has impacted the working class: “Until the last few months, it didn’t hit home to me the degree to which the immigration policy that I, as one of the elites, find good is good only because I don’t pay any of the price for it.” Murray concludes “That the ruling class in this country is governing in its own self-interest, and ignoring the legitimate complaints of the working class and, for that matter, of the middle class.”

Elsewhere Murray observes that the “real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s.” Other factors of note include declining rates of workforce participation by working-class white men from 96 percent in 1968 to 79 percent in 2015. So it also is not surprising that marriage rates for this same time period and among this same cohort have gone from 86 percent to 52 percent. Reflecting on the data, Murray in his book Coming Apart posits that the American idea of a middle class country that personified a shared claim of citizenship rooted in the rule of law, freedom, and individualism is moribund. This creed no longer garners the universal assent of the American people as it did only decades ago.

There have been, Murray notes, a series of defections from the ideal in legal groupings of Americans into race, class, and gender differences and now economic and social stratification. This has left only certain prosperous middle and upper-middle class elements of the country still believing in our American ethos. And here the problem is that our uber rich don’t really believe in it. Adding to our difficulties is that this same elite has cloistered in superzips, insulated itself from many of the problems, social and economic, that have emerged in what is derisively referred to as flyover country over the last few decades. Here’s Murray on this point:

The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. Both of these new classes have repudiated the American creed in practice, whatever lip service they may still pay to it.

The phrase “in practice” to me refers to the new lower class. So that even if at the Trump rally the guys and gals are waving a flag for God and country, they are about to have their car repossessed and are in the middle of an acrimonious divorce procedure. And they buy too many lottery tickets. As for the new upper class, it’s not even lip service in that case. They are mostly multicultural believers in the Howard Zinn rendition of American history.

Charles Murray’s observation of a rescinded American ideal of citizenship is stark and depressing, but one that is difficult to deny. Where did our nation’s formative commitment to its republican ethos of citizenship as nurtured by its rational subscription to liberty and equality guaranteed by its Constitution go? That is, our founding fusionism is gone, and we need to get it back. For this, we need talk to that other Murray—he of the old-school Jesuit classical learning, which furnished him with the unique capacity to defend the American Republic rooted in the consensus tradition of Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas.

The “American Proposition,” John Courtney Murray notes “rests on the forthright assertion of a realist epistemology … There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth.” The Proposition begins by looking to the sovereignty of God as announced in The Declaration as the first principle of America’s political organization. We aren’t Jacobins. This part of the Proposition is, Murray announces, a crucial limitation on government because it recognizes that man’s highest calling rests above government’s competency.  To this we add the familiar list of Constitutionalism, the rule of law, sovereignty as a purely political concept limited by law along with a written constitution hammered out over the course of debate that is republican and representative. And this is a great act of political faith in the people themselves, Murray observes, one that further requires the separation of society and the state if government is to be truly limited.

If this body of political truths is rejected, Murray concludes, “the American Proposition is eviscerated at one stroke.” The conversation and argument of the Republic become nearly impossible to maintain in that event and are lost to mindless polemic or the trivialities of preferences and interests with no actual principles guiding public argument. In the absence of an “ensemble of substantive truths” that relate to and guide interpretation of constitutional and statutory law, there is no constitutional consensus and the identity it provides to “a people and the society” giving it “vital form, its entelechy, its sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”

An America of group identities and factions can really only be placated through the edicts of the administrative state, which acts by means of energetic feats of regulatory flexibility and legal interpretation. So Obama’s presidency from this vantage point confirms the seeming loss of the Proposition that Murray wrote about. Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the proclamation of his “pen and phone” as a lawmaking device that would outrun and ignore the legislative branch, have created the illusion that Obama has your back and will maintain through force of will the federal entitlements and supports that we’ve grown accustomed to and that many now fear to be evaporating. When conservatives and libertarian types analyze Obama’s “Government by Waiver” they focus on the abuse of the rule of law and constitutionalism, presupposing this means something politically to majorities of Americans. The deeper reality might be that Obama understands that waiver and blog post is how you govern a country that no longer possesses an understanding of itself and what it is politically organized in time to accomplish.

Where does this fresh misery leave us? Rather, what have Clinton and Trump learned from Obama about governing in a country that appears to be falling into tribes and incapable of deliberation about the goods held in common, as opposed to mere collective self-interestedness? Of Clinton, we know too much at this point. What we can easily say is that should Republicans manage to retain control of Congress, it will prove mostly ineffectual in stopping government by executive. Unless, that is, they were to recover the keys to their kingdom also known as Article I of the Constitution. I’m doubtful.

Of Trump, as Peter Lawler notes in his perceptive essay in The Weekly Standard, he “promises to be the leader on whom they can rely to get better deals. Because Trump seems to be more a ‘strong man’ than a statesman, he doesn’t really include the deliberation and the activity of citizens in his vision of renewed American greatness. …. He seems to promise to do all the elevating himself. And that’s not so democratic or so republican, after all.” Trumpery appears motivated by the old wisdom of FDR who said of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.” Bad advice then, and it remains so today.

Our path is to recover our truths because they are our patrimony, our heritage, and because they are true and have been entrusted to us. That they have been forgotten, left out to rust under the corrosive effects of skepticism and positivism entails that they can only be revived by public argument. John Courtney Murray reminds us that our Founders thought that “the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible.” Both as heritage and as public philosophy, the Proposition is an unfinished work that must be confirmed in continued argument interacting with the facts and experience of our country. It is a work that does not end. But, Murray warns, if the Proposition “dies from disinterest” or is so much sound and fury of a herd no longer capable of being a civil order, “you may be sure that the barbarian is at the gates of the City.”

So finally, Murray quoting Acton reminds us that freedom as the highest phase of civil society rests on the notion that we are free to do what we ought. Obedience to moral principle really can’t be imposed by government in a healthy self-governing political order, “but should spontaneously flower outward from the free obedience to the restraints and imperatives that stem from inwardly possessed moral principle.” In this sense, Murray tells us, we know that a republic is a moral and spiritual enterprise.