Charles C. W. Cooke persuasively recasts political concepts for the millenials.
Twenty-one years ago, Charles Kesler criticized conservatism for being insufficiently political and insufficiently American. Neither libertarianism nor traditionalism was comfortable making claims about justice and injustice, preferring to wage their battles on grounds of economic efficiency and historical precedent. Neither variety was true to the Founders’ thought and practice. Accordingly, conservatism had surrendered two of the most potent terms of American political debate, equality and justice, to the Left—a bit like tying not one, but both hands behind one’s back. Kesler’s prescription: conservatism must become more political by becoming more American, by rediscovering the Founders’ conservatism, a republicanism of equal natural rights. This entailed recovering the entire tradition of political philosophy. Here, Kesler was following Harry Jaffa, the founder of West Coast Straussianism. For Jaffa, the Founders (and their true son Lincoln) had established the best practicable regime under modern conditions, a regime Aristotle and Locke alike would approve of. Jaffa downplayed (without denying) three typically Straussian tensions: that between ancients and moderns, between reason and revelation, and between philosophy and politics.
Jaffa’s heirs, the Claremont conservatives—affectionately, but revealingly, dubbed “Claremonsters”—are now a prominent force on the right. Shocking though it has been for those who associate Aristotle & Co. with moral decency and political civility, they have provided the most cogent defense of Donald Trump, whose rise introduced a dose of creative destruction into establishment conservatism. The Claremonsters have stepped into the breach to argue that Trump intuits the common-sense political principles that the great philosophers, and American Founders, took as their starting point for analysis and action. Trumpism in turn might be, or be the basis for, or at least be capable of being transformed into, Kesler’s Americanist conservatism.
Michael Anton, a student of Kesler’s and Jaffa’s and a fellow at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center made the Claremont case for Trump in a pseudonymous September 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” that earned the opprobrium of the establishment right and left. Anton (in)famously compared voting for Trump to charging the cockpit of the high-jacked Flight 93, likening a Clinton presidency to the “certain death” of remaining in your seat. For much of 2016, many Claremont conservatives—to say nothing of establishment conservatism—were uncomfortable with Anton’s position. Together with Julius Krein and other contributors (Krein would later found American Affairs), Anton had been publishing pseudonymous Trump-curious arguments during the primaries on the Journal of American Greatness, which quickly emerged as the best commentary of the season and just as quickly shut itself down to preserve its contributors’ anonymity. Two months before the election, the Claremont elders lent Anton their platform for his call to arms. Ever since, Anton has been the most visible spokesman for Claremont conservatism.
After the Flight 93 Election: The Voted that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose reprints the titular essay together with a preface and three other pieces: the “Restatement on Flight 93,” Anton’s response to critics; “A Note on ‘Decius’”, in which Anton defends his pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus; and a “Pre-Statement on Flight 93.” Taken as a whole, Anton’s book is a précis of Claremont conservatism and a valuable document for understanding a rising force within the American right.
As Anton observes, the original essay is “the reason we’re here” in one sense; but the “Pre-Statement” is the real reason to read his book. After the Flight 93 Election is, to borrow a phrase, a “little work” able to be read in an afternoon by busy men in positions of power. Anton has pointed to his Claremont elders for more comprehensive discussions of how we once got it right (Thomas West’s 2017 The Political Theory of the American Founding) and how we have since gone so wrong (John Marini’s 2019 Unmasking the Administrative State). Here, his audience is “those remaining conservative intellectuals who have not formally or functionally defected to the Left,” and his goal—addressed above all in his “Pre-Statement”—is to help them “relearn, or learn for the first time, what to conserve, why it is worth conserving, and how to conserve it.”
Conservatives, Anton writes, should “conserve America, its people, its communities, its ideas, its traditions, and what is best and truest in Western civilization.” Central to this task is a “theory of justice” for evaluating moral and political actions. This theory is articulated by political philosophy, which “presumes that human nature and the human good can be discovered and [at least partially] known […] through reasoned analysis,” that is, with whatever rationality and certainty is possible and appropriate in human affairs. Anton deftly outlines the “political and moral epistemology” adopted by philosophers and political actors throughout history, showing the reasonableness and sufficiency of beginning from common sense and proceeding “dialectically and empirically.” Anton brackets revelation and tradition as “nonrational” approaches to the human good while dismissing voluntarism as “inherently irrational.” Philosophy may come to the same conclusions about justice as revelation and tradition, but it relies strictly on the light reason can shed upon our condition. The fundamental observable fact about humanity is that, as rational and sociable animals, we seek both mere life (security) and the good life (happiness). This discovery requires neither revelation nor modern scientific methods. These goals provide the standard to which all societies must be held. For his present purposes, Anton emphasizes the consensus among philosophers and statesmen about “the fundamental political problem: to build a regime that secures mere life while facilitating and encouraging the good life.”
The American solution to the problem of politics is based on the Founders’ doctrine of equal natural rights and liberty from domination. This entails the duty to respect the rights of others, the equality of all citizens before the law, and—since no man is naturally the ruler of another—consent as a condition for just government. A republican government that is representative, federal, limited, and separated in its powers turns out to be “the best way to secure equal natural rights” under American conditions, that is, in an expansive country with diverse interests and beliefs. Republican virtue, as well as human flourishing, warrants government promotion of the family and “respect” for the role of religion, even “to a certain extent in public life.” But public toleration for various faiths and traditions is contingent on their compatibility with the distinction between civil and religious law, republicanism, and natural rights. Political society “must be concerned with the flourishing of all higher aspects of human nature,” but should remain “grounded in a reasoned account of human nature,” which for a Straussian means a non-revealed account of human ends. No specific faith can be “authoritative for politics” in the modern West.
Such principles are universally valid but practically limited. Equality in natural rights permits inequality in outcome, though de facto oligarchy must be counteracted by “rigorous, impartial enforcement of the laws”; a polity is necessarily confined to its citizenry, neither permitting world government nor sanctioning the violation of another nation’s sovereignty; a regime must be suited to actually existing conditions; and republicanism requires cultural commonality, some measure of solidarity, and a “republican spirit” in the people. Anton thus limns a natural-rights-republicanism argument against radical redistribution, democratic nation-building, and immigration policies based entirely on economic and humanitarian rather than cultural and political considerations.
Having described the Americanist creed, Anton identifies its American detractors. The first heresy against Americanism is found in Calhoun’s pro-slavery political theory, which simultaneously denied equal natural rights and asserted “group rights that inhere in political minorities rather than individual human beings.” The second is Progressivism, which rejected the philosophy undergirding the Founders’ Constitution. Progressives argued instead that human nature changes over time, that its evolving needs may be discerned by social scientific experts, and that government based upon such expertise ought not be limited by antiquated notions of consent, separation and enumeration of powers, and the like. Progressivism thus endorses rule by administrative expertise (rather than political consent), ministered by research conducted in the modern university (rather than the formation provided by religion and liberal education).
The present heresy against Americanism is “post-60s leftism,” which adopts Calhoun’s group rights and Progressivism’s expert rule while adding a theory of justice that synthesizes Rawlsian liberalism and the New Left. Rawls taught the doctrine of “justice as fairness,” in the sense of equality of outcome or “genuine” equality (which permits, even requires, “formal” inequality to redistribute material and immaterial goods from the privileged to the disadvantaged). The New Left (or contemporary “social justice”) radicalizes Rawls, seeking to correct not only the effects but even the causes of disadvantage, to atone not only for present but even for past disadvantages, and to recognize not only individual but even group disadvantage. This theory of justice requires redistributive efforts which “must go on forever,” entailing unlimited and un-Constitutional government action.
Anton exemplifies the “more political, more American” approach prescribed by Kesler two decades ago. Drawing from our Founding’s account of human nature and politics, he charges the Left with violating principles of justice, equality, and liberty. Group rights “in practice equals de facto aristocracy,” granting members of expert-identified disadvantaged groups more or greater rights than members of privileged groups. Administrative rule is not merely inefficient but unjust, a violation of republican self-government. The effects are faction in the body politic, suppression of dissenting speech and thought, and the “spiritual sickness” that has resulted from the West defining itself as “nothing more than the sum of their ancestors’ transgressions and their own permanent inability to atone.”
Anton excels as a polemicist while maintaining political-philosophical integrity. His aim is to convince the right to adopt Claremont’s Americanism as the successor to fusionism and thereby wage with greater success what Angelo Codevilla calls our “Cold Civil War.” Only time will tell whether Claremont’s star continues to rise. Anton shows why we must recover the epistemology upon which responsible politics is practiced. He inspires confidence both that the Founding was guided by the resulting theory of justice, and that that theory should still guide us. As Anton notes, the modern Left harbors the noble, if deluded, hope that “all inequality is the result of injustice or oppression.” Anton’s attack on the Left is a defense of fundamental policies that, until yesterday, were recognized to be reasonable, against the danger of this overgenerous or utopian thought. The defense of common sense and self-government against shifting ideologies and administrative tyranny requires a positive teaching. More than any other school with significant traction in the academy and the forum, Claremont’s Americanism offers sound guidance for the American Right and the American Republic.
Machiavelli taught that a republic may be renewed by “drawing it back toward its beginning.” The Claremont conservatives seek to renew our regime through “intrinsic prudence” rather than allow it to suffer some “extrinsic force” which might produce rejuvenation—or disaster. Anton seemed rather less sanguine about renewal before Trump’s election, when he pseudonymously pondered whether our regime was, in one sense or another, a “late republic,” and endorsed “thinking through how we can shape, for better or for worse, whatever comes next.” Let us hope it does not come to that. But while we hope, we must act. And to act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.