Orestes Brownson’s view is that America is the prudent compromise between two idealistic extremes.
Writing in the Journal of American Greatness, Plautus, who is more intent on making Trump to be the candidate he wants, as opposed to the vulgar brute that he is, calls for a conservative nationalism with tremendous purpose (link no longer available) whose chief goal will be the elimination of the “managerial class.” If achieved, the American people will have recovered something fundamental to American political order: popular sovereignty and the ability to govern themselves by popular opinion whose content is not determined by a “managerial elite.” The essay’s evocation of the sources of Trump’s power and his Teflon resistance, thus far, to the typical politically correct criticisms of his rhetoric is that he is channeling popular opinion in a way that has not been done in generations.
Much of the essay builds on the thinking of those around Pat Buchanan who have distilled ideas from James Burnham’s 1941 book Managerial Revolution. In this book, Burnham noted the rise of a management/bureaucratic/specialist elite class in America that had pushed aside, once and for all, the old order of a largely unregulated capitalism. The source of this class’s power was their purported knowledge arising from credentials, professions, and expertise. In basic forms, this class has come to define the American use of power, foreign and domestic, Burnham argues. Plautus notes that rather than wage a full-frontal assault on this class, postwar conservatives have focused on cutting taxes or deregulation rather than enlisting the passions of the people against such rule, with the promise that once this order is defeated, power will be returned to the states, counties, towns, villages, and hamlets of America. In short, conservatives have fought battles on terms acceptable to this elite. Perhaps.
We could also say that the push for federal tax cuts, or the constant drumbeat of deregulation, has been an attempt to starve this beast rather than a strategy of supine neglect. At the very least, it represented a way to tame Burnham’s elite. That the administrative state is larger and more unwieldy than ever, however, signifies this strategy failed. The Reagan strategy was to manage a restrained regulatory state through executive edicts of a de-regulatory bent by what was believed to be an ongoing train of Republican presidents. The more sustainable and constitutional path is the recovery of Congressional muscle against the bureaucratic state and all its works. But the stirrings of this strategy are already in motion. Why not focus energy here, among other ideas, rather than a Trump crusade?
To this failure to extirpate the “managerial elite” Plautus places blame on the vacuous understanding of American purpose the American Right has displayed. Their invocations of Lincoln and the creedal nation were thought sufficient for the principles of power. But no, we need more flesh and blood. He notes:
the great failure of the American right has been the failure to define an American nationalism at once grounded in binding, necessarily particularist, traditions and institutions while at the same time leavened by a creed worthy of the name. And this failure is inseparable from the right’s failure, even in periods of electoral power, to offer any effective resistance to the ever conquering globalist managerial class or attain any effective cultural significance.
Perhaps one unintended consequence of constant Lincoln talk was that it created the space for equality to be the definitive guide for policy and statecraft. But this hasn’t been Jaffa’s equality and our rhetoric has largely been shaped by calls for equality of outcome. So Plautus has something here, I think. But this is to skip a few steps, important steps, foregoing a much deeper understanding of the sources of our confusion regarding what American republicanism requires for constitutional vigor. This is to say nothing of how thoroughly the classes of folks that Plautus points to as willing participants in such a contest are themselves dependent on the government. They aren’t likely to be the Schmittians some conservative theorists have been waiting for.
Before even touching policy disputes, much less the American managerial class and its globalist pretensions, however, might we look to American constitutionalism and inquire differently how we are failing to think, live, and act as a constitutional people? Getting on the path to recovery requires asking basic questions that precede either perennial attempts to gauge success by how much the tax code is being trimmed or, as Plautus prefers, wars against managerial elitists. And this requires us to have a conversation over the origins and nature of American constitutionalism and how this should inform our attempts to be constitutional. Completely developing such an argument isn’t the purpose of what follows, but I am trying to note how it could begin.
More specifically, are we locked forever in a row between the aggressive states’ rights posture on the one hand, and a consolidated nationalist position that undergirds the regulatory state on the other? Is there a point of mediation between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian positions? What about the nature of the human person and how our thinking on anthropology drives disputes over liberty and power? Is American constitutional liberty only defensible on the basis of modern individualism which rejects the collectivity of big government but increasingly shows little regard for any other collectivity as well, i.e., social, familial, or religious?
To begin answering these questions, Robert Moffit and I co-authored an essay about Orestes Brownson, who staked out entirely new ground by articulating and defining the concepts of an unwritten, providential constitution and territorial democracy as the foundation of our republican journey. Our essay “Unwritten Constitutionalist,” which appears in the March-April edition of The American Conservative, argues that “the American conservative project is not a doctrine, but is better understood as a practice grounded in the country’s unique political culture.” Conservatives “have overrelied on sources like free-market theory, the abstract principles in the Declaration of Independence, or simply the post-World War II role of the United States in attempting to maintain global hegemony for democracy.”
In that vein, we point to Orestes Brownson who forged a theory of constitutional order that “secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual—the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.” Brownson articulated that “the providential or unwritten constitution of the United States—or what the country had been given by way of religious, cultural, social, legal, and economic inheritances,” was the foundation point for political reflection and development in America. Brownson stressed that America’s written Constitution didn’t stand on its own and served to ratify society’s unwritten norms and mores. To elucidate them, Brownson stressed, required deference and humility.
In making this argument, Brownson rejected the ahistorical teaching that an unattached mass of people creates government and a body of law on the basis of self-interest. The people must first be determined politically; before the state there is a common history, culture, language, religion, and law that form a people into a body, making them capable of pursuing a common political project. It is this providential constitution that forms the real organization of the constitution of government. Replacing this unwritten constitution was “state suicide,” Brownson said.
Further elucidating this concept is Brownson’s notion of “territorial democracy” or the possession of a land by a historically formed people. “The sovereign people of the United States are the territorial people of the United States, who have authorized, through the federal Constitution of 1787, a dual system of government, state and federal.” Against the isolating democratic individualism of our elite, which insists on using government power to release individuals from any obligations they might have to others, Brownson articulates “life by communion.”
As we wrote, “American constitutionalism serves the common good by facilitating what Brownson called communion of man with man (society), man with property (economics), and man with God (religious life). This means that what really inspires our loyalty to the constitutional order is its defense of the dignity of our relational personhood, not mere self-interest.”
Plautus calls for a conservative nationalism that knows what it’s about and, consequently, is decisive in the use of power. It’s not that he’s wholly wrong, but beginning a conversation on these terms will only serve to lead us off course if we first neglect the deeper sources of republican wisdom in the American tradition that can provide the self understanding that will enable us to know what we are about and must do.