Institutions Have Consequences

Since Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver published their canonical texts on American conservatism, subsequent authors have felt compelled to ground their arguments in the history of ideas. These later authors have not always measured up to their forebears, as they frequently resorted to the now-exhausted narrative of decline and promise. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, Americans were conservative, but then some bad ideas made them progressive. Now, a small number of us—we few, we happy few—are conservative by the grace of the Law of Nature and Nature’s God, and we stand poised to reintroduce the old ideas to defeat progressives and make Americans conservative again.

Some of these narratives precede the Founding, like the arrival of the Puritans, the discovery of the New World, or the Reformation. Poor old William of Ockham thought he was just having a theological debate, not tipping the first small domino that would lead to the collapse of Western civilization. 

Ockham would not need to worry, because these potted histories of ideas are a waste of time. Nevertheless, American conservatives still crave them. Why is that? The answer, sadly, is that they are what Alexis de Tocqueville called general ideas, and general ideas are substitutions for a real understanding of political life. Tocqueville observed that democratic peoples love general ideas because they answer difficult questions, easily if not correctly. Has Netflix increased its subscription rates? That’s late-stage capitalism for you. Are you a single religious man who cannot find a wife? That’s liberalism for you. Did the Supreme Court render a decision you do not like? That’s fascism for you. General ideas do not explain why something happens but rather act as a substitute for an explanation, since democratic peoples lack the time and inclination to decipher the complicated reasons for events. As Tocqueville said, “General ideas do not attest to the strength of human intelligence, but rather to its insufficiency, because there are no beings in nature exactly alike: no identical facts, no rules indiscriminately applicable in the same manner to several objects at once.”

However, Tocqueville noted that Americans did not always succumb to general ideas, and the reason for this was their institutions. Because Americans participated in local government, civic associations, and religious activities, they were well aware of the details behind the events in their lives. Moreover, their experience of self-government taught them that behind the Geist directing History was a bunch of schlubs holding a meeting. These conditions are largely missing from the lives of many Americans, especially conservatives working in elite institutions, and the result is that they have little understanding of republican self-government and, hence, a sense of bewilderment about how their country is so different from what they were raised to believe it was.

American Ideas and Institutions

Contemporary American conservatives understand that ideas matter, but they often do not have any experience in these kinds of self-governing institutions. Yes, ideas matter, but institutions matter, too. Indeed, the ideas that conservatives seek to conserve emerged in a feedback loop between improving institutions and the ideas about why they improved. For example, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations came after he and other Scots recognized the improvement in the quality of life in Scotland and sought to explain it. Indeed, a contemporary reader might expect Smith’s magnum opus to be brimming with explanations for their present ills. They are there, but they are often situated in concrete details of 18th-century trade, taxation, and currency. Smith requires careful study, of the kind that dispels general ideas, but democratic peoples have little patience for this. As James W. Ceaser notes, “Without recourse to general ideas, no science…would be possible” yet “[p]olitical science is the careful construction of knowledge in which general ideas are founded not on abstract principles from self-contained intellectual systems, but on the painstaking study of particular cases.”

Smith engaged in such an analysis, which is why his discoveries were so profound but difficult to translate directly. On the one hand, he firmly grasped the general ideas of markets but on the other depended, as a good political scientist, on the particularities of Scotland and England to learn of them. Hence, there can be no universal political science but only the work to discover and adjust general ideas according to new and varying particularities. 

Today, many young conservatives will conduct this study of Adam Smith, but they will not enter the market as independent entrepreneurs, or engage in statesmanship. They will perhaps intern at a think tank or, if they’re lucky, get a gig at a management consultancy firm. Say what you will about the selfishness of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker;  they don’t hold a candle to a partner at Deloitte. At least butchers knew their own business and their customers. Management consultants operate purely on general ideas they believe can be transferred from firm to firm. What else are they but purveyors of general ideas with slick PowerPoint decks?

Young, contemporary conservatives can spend their entire lives having never experienced a proper meeting at a civic association, with its old business, new business, and Robert’s Rules of Order. Yes, they have sat through hundreds of Zoom calls always ready to mutter something about “scalability” or “blockchain,” but these meetings are normally courtly affairs in which inferior employees compete for the favor of their superiors. After so many humiliations, young conservatives begin to wonder, “Where is that America I was taught to believe in? Why was I raised on Frederick Douglass and Calvin Coolidge, when that country is nowhere to be found?” 

Ceaser answers this question. In works like Political Philosophy and Liberal Democracy, Nature and History in American Political Development, and Presidential Selection: Theory and Development, he revealed that the relationship between ideas and institutions is the feedback loop I mentioned above. In Liberal Democracy and Political Science, Ceaser argues that students of politics have an obligation to serve their country rather than posturing as though they were impartial spectators or, worse, moral superiors. To preserve our country requires the close and constant study of the uneasy relationship between constitutionalism and republicanism. 

To omit significant political actors from political science is to reduce politics to battles of ideas within institutions, the paranoid style.

In Nature and History, he illustrates how foundational ideas adapt to institutions, while institutions rest on foundational ideas. As an example, he notes how John Adams repurposed the “rights of Englishmen” into “natural rights,” thereby regrounding one reason for the American War for Independence in human nature and not political custom. After all, what good are the rights of Englishmen when one no longer lives under the English crown? 

In Presidential Selection, Ceaser demonstrates how individual statesmen used ideas to influence institutional reform. All three of these ingredients were necessary: the people, the ideas, and the institutions. Ceaser tells two stories in this book. One is about how the people used ideas to reform institutions, and the other considers how to determine whether these ideas are bad, as some have been. A less capable political scientist would shy away from so-called “normative” evaluations, but Ceaser has already accepted in Nature and History in American Political Development that our nation is rooted in foundational ideas that should always be the basis for institutional reform.

To omit significant political actors from political science is to reduce politics to battles of ideas within institutions, the paranoid style. We see this error in low-effort political social media content about “the rise of socialism” or “the rise of nationalism” or, at the academic level, talk of “social forces” of which all people are merely the physical manifestations. To omit ideas from politics is to reduce political science to rational choice theory, in which ideas are merely heuristics for voter decision-making or rationales for pursuing self-interest. Ceaser, in Liberal Democracy and Political Science, draws from Tocqueville an approach that relies on the convergence of ideas and institutions, or what he calls “political culture.” Here is a key passage:

Each nation, by definition, has a political culture. By studying the various regimes and political cultures, the political scientist seeks to discover the elements of a political culture that operate to support each regime type. The political scientist then proceeds to see how existing political cultures in specific cases might be adjusted in direction of the political culture that best supports the maintenance of the chosen regime. This form of general regime analysis applied to specific cases is then supplemented by a purely local analysis, in which the political scientist considers specific aspects of political culture that have grown in that place, analyzing whether they work to strengthen or weaken the existing regime.

Ceaser is not, however, recommending pure detachment. Far from it. Instead, he insists that political scientists must act out a commitment to the best regime possible for a political culture. Political science cannot be “an academic discipline” but “an important human enterprise in a free society.” What, then, is the current state of American republican political culture? 

The Virtual Institution

In the sweeping historical narratives I mentioned at the beginning, the problem is omitting institutions from politics. These narratives focus on the development of ideas with too little interest in the political actors and institutions who deployed them. Yes, Cicero was a genius, but the Roman Senate helped shape his understanding of republicanism. No Senate; No Cicero. No Cicero; no Roman republicanism. I am not saying that the Roman Senate, as an institution, was the true author of Cicero’s works but only that Cicero could not have gained an appreciation of republicanism without also serving republican institutions.

After conservative collegiates graduate and make their way into public life, they cannot find the institutions where people express ideas—except online. The online forum is a poor institution for, well, anything. Online audiences are attracted to conflict and pornography (or both). The digital device often has a small digital screen, making it hard to read anything longer than 240 characters, especially when there are limitless alternatives waiting in one’s feed. The experience of social media is inherently isolating, since one must silently look at a phone. These features should remind us of the problem of individualism that Tocqueville feared. I remember meeting some young, upwardly mobile Washington Zoomers whom I largely knew through social media, and our conversation inevitably was about social media. When our talk reached a natural pause, all of them reached for their phones.

With only social media as an institution for mediating people and their ideas, the problems multiply. Isolated people without institutions for public engagement fall victim to the paranoid style. Having no experience of shared deliberation in a public forum, these Americans suppose that all decisions are the result of some nefarious social force. Social media users then have to choose a force with which to align, and the algorithms relentlessly recommend to them more of the same. 

As provincial as the problem seems to be, the consequences have already reached the height of American politics. The 2020 Kamala Harris campaign largely took its cues from influencers on Twitter. The result was disastrous. A significant number of Capitol Hill and White House staffers use Twitter, and they take their cues—whether consciously or unconsciously—from whatever is trending there. Without Twitter, I posit, there would be absolutely no discussion of student loan forgiveness. Of course, Barack Obama made Twitter the it-place for social media political influence, and Donald J. Trump, the first man to master the medium, leveraged his millions of followers to help him reach the Oval Office. Afterward, a major goal for many conservative “influencers” was to get the coveted Trump retweet.

The very nature of large, profitable, hierarchical institutions prevents the old-style self-government on which American constitutional republicanism depends.

When young conservatives operate under these conditions, it is no surprise that they have latched on to paranoid pathologies that once operated at the fringes and now have found their way into serious discussion. Without political parties hashing out policy priorities and vetting candidates, congressional committees transforming political preferences into statutes, and civic associations forcing social media addicts to “touch grass,” every fight comes down to identity politics. Conservatives always had these fissures, but they are hyper-charged into anarcho-syndicalist, Catholic integralist, neo-Hapsburg monarchist, Chestertonian distributist, Lee-statue-defending neo-confederate, and ever-more insane permutations of this sort. 

These ideas all share something: they are utterly detached from the business of self-government and consume an incredible amount of creative energy. Some of you may know that I participate in these debates from time to time, but I do have a limited defense. As a writer in the digital age, I have to promote my work and engage with people who comment on it. Although imperfect, my efforts in these debates are meant to attune readers to the real political problems and the proper institutions for their resolution. The only reason I can confidently make these recommendations is because of the time I have spent sitting at Ceaser’s feet, learning about the need to hold republicanism and constitutionalism together. All my writing is simply a footnote to his.     

Reclaiming American Institutions

So what is to be done? As I mentioned earlier, many successful conservative students find themselves sucked into immense, profitable, and hierarchical organizations like think tanks and management consultancy firms. Whatever their virtues, they are poor institutions for forming free citizens. Yuval Levin has rightly observed that our institutions have ceased to be formative and are, instead, performative. Performance is the only way a person can stand out. The reason people are so mean on Twitter is that it gets attention. The reason that politicians take extreme positions on silly issues is that it gets attention. Academics stake out indefensible theses online for the same reason.      

It wasn’t always like this. Formative institutions used to create space for people to perform, and those performances opened opportunities for advancement, not just for the performer but for the institution. These institutions were once so common and ingrained that they became the names for the speeches people gave at them—Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, FDR’s Commonwealth Club Address. How surreal would it be for us in the future speak of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Speech at the McKinsey Headquarters or even Ron DeSantis’s speech atop the smoking ruins of the Epcot Center? In our time, the person speaking is everything, and the institution at which they do so counts for almost nothing. 

The very nature of large, profitable, hierarchical institutions prevents the old-style self-government on which American constitutional republicanism depends. Unless one is toeing the social mission of the institutions, then one is constantly at risk of termination for an errant tweet or post, even a text message. Elizabeth Anderson calls this “private government” and audaciously claims that the terms of employment at many American corporations bear a closer resemblance to communist totalitarian states than anything authentically American. The introduction of the Nondisclosure Agreement to the White House is certainly a reason to agree with her. And this puts the conservative in an uncomfortable place. 

For decades, American conservatives have relied on the three-legged stool of foreign policy hawks, business interests, and social conservatives. Now, the business interests have defected, as their lower management and newer hires are increasingly radical on leftist issues. Despite the recent course correction stemming from the DeSantis fracas with Disney, the institutions themselves have not changed. As Noah Rothman has shown in his recent book, the fact remains that they encourage traits exactly opposite of what one needs in a republic—routine obedience, courtly kowtowing, and a constant emphasis on efficiency above all else. Hence, business interests had no problem trading with a geostrategic opponent in China, and attempted to persuade everyone that China would become more like us even as American corporations became more like China. 

So now conservatives need to consider taking a different approach to large, hierarchical institutions. How does one reintroduce republican self-government in a country where larger corporations prevail, and the rate of start-ups has declined precipitously? Fortunately, I’ve reached the end of my essay, so I don’t need to answer that question. But we do know that there are already those who are doing so. Oren Cass, Sam Gregg, Anne Bradley, and many others have begun this debate in earnest, but this matter of constitutional republicanism is too important to be left to the economists. 

It is my view that we should start assessing the structure of American economic life, and how it depresses the formation of republican virtue. Even more urgently, we should turn our attention to what habituates the public to isolated, self-radicalized individuals. The place to start is in the study of the American corporation as a political institution. This could be a site for policy reform that defends the natural rights of American workers against the too-often high-handed, increasingly minute regulation coming down from Human Resources and Legal Departments. 

In most large corporations today, legal and HR staff operate on general ideas of “Wokeness” received from education in elite academic institutions, from elementary school to graduate school. Yes, wokeness is silly to those fortunate enough to live outside of its reach, and complaints about it have become somewhat overwrought. Even so, to treat wokeness as a kind of mass hysteria is not to take institutions seriously.

Academic institutions are hierarchical, competitive, and consumed with fear of litigation, and wokeness, as a general idea, emerged from these conditions and became a significant part of their curriculum. Graduates of these institutions have a keen sense of how to use woke outrage to reach the top of hierarchies by way of legal or quasi-legal threats. When Dave Weigel at the Washington Post retweeted a tasteless joke, many of his co-workers took him to task online. For many onlookers, the whole affair was an amusing tempest in a teapot ending with Weigel suspended without pay for a month and at least one of his co-workers fired. Another way to understand the whole affair is that it was a bunch of job applicants trying to replace Weigel. Weigel, who has now left the Post for Semafor, held a prestigious position, and younger journalists learned at school that collective outrage is a great way to get ahead. For many corporations, the easiest solution is to fire the offender and hire the complainant to take the job. 

Such an environment is one of suspicion and fear, and it is one that is poisonous to republican government. I can recall a friend who told me of a financial services executive who is an evangelical Christian. My friend was raised among evangelicals and recognized some of the language she used. When my friend asked about it, the executive was at first terrified before my friend assured the person that no one would know. The whole affair confirms Anderson’s comparison of modern corporate life to that of living under a communist dictatorship, in which such secrets were the coin of the realm. As Anderson explains, Americans have rather robust political and legal defenses against the government, but they are constantly under surveillance in their own places of employment, both by higher-ups avoiding litigation and competitor co-workers looking for any offense they can leverage to advance their careers. It is time to consider reforming corporate institutions to defend these same rights against abuse. To retain our republican ideals, we need to reclaim republican institutions.