It would be ironic if American politicians were insufficiently ambitious to sustain a system predicated on “ambition counteracting ambition."
King Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
— Monty Python and the Holy Grail
In his enviably readable book Inventing Freedom, Daniel Hannan refers to King John of England as “providentially bad.” Most importantly for the cause of English liberty (and by extension American liberty), the “obnoxious” and overbearing behavior of King John resulted in the Magna Carta. Had John been more artful and politically deft he might have aggrandized more power to himself and imposed a number of political innovations on a disgruntled people. But John, being bad, inspired reaction.
A century and a half after the Norman invasion brought to England a new ruling class and an imposed Continental feudal political arrangement, the nobility—who were themselves the offspring of the “bastard” Normans—drew deeply from the older Anglo-Saxon traditions still encoded in the sinews of English order to check the king and produce a crystalized defense of old liberties. In the Magna Carta they drew from the past but also altered the future. Often in reaction we make progress.
Some people today worry that a bad president and a compliant Congress, bureaucracy, and judiciary are pushing us across a tipping point that will leave us with a servile citizenry and the soft despotism so long feared. But President Obama could be our King John. His rule might provide the best circumstances for diverse people, stimulated by his stunningly bad ideas and policies, to produce the sort of response that continues the great Anglo-American tradition of creative reaction.
The goal is to innovate in order to preserve, to allow new circumstances, new abuses, new violations of liberties to supply the means by which we develop a new clarity about principles in our time. The danger to our inheritance of self-rule and liberty (which are so tightly bound as to be nearly indistinguishable) would be greater had the President understood better the society he seeks to “fundamentally transform.”
Defenders of American liberty have often operated with an “ideas have consequences” argument. The purest version of this comes from Richard Weaver, who located the root of civilizational decline in one idea—14th century Nominalism. More frequently, and more casually, the battle-of-ideas view has pervaded the arguments of conservatives, libertarians, and a wide variety of old-style liberals.
When Herbert Hoover, for instance, argued against the policies of the New Deal throughout the 1930s, he did so by making a case for the ideas of liberty or freedom versus the ideas of “collectivism.” The intellectual battle lines of the 1950s through the 1980s were drawn around foundational ideas, with those on the Right claiming that small accommodations to socialist ideas would lead to a transformation in American politics unless those ideas were defeated by vigorous counter-arguments. This ideological war had many fronts, from the Cold War to domestic policies to educational skirmishes about “Western civilization” and “the canon.”
One of the more intriguing outcomes in this war was the dominance of a conservative species of abstract truth to counter the abstractions of revolutionaries from Robespierre to postmodernists. For a great many people, abstract claims to universal moral truths were a necessary instrument in the fight against “relativism” and “historicism” and, more generally, the tendency to worship the will while transforming reason into its servant. One of the most thoughtful and subtle exponents of this point of view was Leo Strauss, who saw in Continental Europe the savage destructiveness that follows the loss of a natural or theological teleology. Strauss believed that American intellectuals in the 1950s were mimicking the trends he witnessed in Germany during the Weimar years and before. Rather than succumbing to the same outcome, the American intellectual battle must be fought against all forms of moral relativism. Great books and great ideas must be mustered for combat, and generations of right-wing scholars have since been armed, trained, and deployed.
And yet, much confusion attended this resistance to modern liberalism and various forms of radicalism in the early years of this struggle. At about the same time that Strauss and others argued that we needed a philosophical defense of moral absolutes expressed in ahistorical terms, America witnessed a conservative revival of Edmund Burke and his species of historicism (which, one must state, can never be understood as bearing any kinship with the historicism of the Continental thinkers so abjured by Strauss).
But that was only the beginning of the creative incoherence of the various schools of thought allied for common causes. Some translated Burke’s historicism into the categories of Thomistic natural law theories while others, obsessed with the dangers of historicism, advocated a simplified natural rights argument as the most likely moral redoubt for small “d” democrats who still found the Declaration of Independence believable. Even Richard Weaver found himself an advocate of both Platonism and Southern Traditionalism. For intellectuals on the American Right, ideas were easier to understand and explain than principles drawn from experience. This is truer today than ever before—conservative intellectuals find security in simple abstractions that satisfy the desire to universalize without any complicating historical factors.
The most distilled version of the “ideas have consequences” school of thought on the Right turned into a rather popular account of American exceptionalism that stressed the self-evident truths of the Declaration as reinforced by Lincoln and completed by King. To these self-evident truths we must add the miracle of Philadelphia, which gave us our governing document. The final ingredient of this version was a powerful faith in human potential to change our destiny, most vividly expressed by Reagan’s invocation of Thomas Paine that “we have the power to begin the world anew.” Processed down to an ideology, this version emphasizes fixed, knowable, and universal ideas about the Good that give direction to a forward-looking vanguard that possesses the power to apply those ideas to contemporary circumstances. Many things flow from this moral perspective, but for the purposes of my argument, I only want to stress the very potent appeal for contemporary defenders of liberty of seeing political life simply as a struggle among competing ideas.
Ideas are curious things, even those that proclaim universal truths. They do matter; believing bad ideas leads to bad outcomes. But those that gain currency, that people find persuasive, emerge in language and forms that relate to the experiences of those who find those particular ideas powerful.
In disordered times, people cast about for ideas to make sense of their experiences. In the abstract perfection of ideologies, many find comfort, hope, and a call to action (which is to say that they find purpose). Others, meanwhile, find themselves in creative reaction to the disordering of their world. They find they need to express in some systematic or unambiguous way a set of habits, or beliefs, or even sentiments that had been only partially visible to them before. For these people, the experiences precede the ideas. Their reactions to disruptions or disorder produce a new articulation of the principles of order that make sense of their experiences.
The process is complicated and varies in its particulars, but in all cases we can assume that by bringing some political or moral question to the surface, people simultaneously reaffirm and alter what had been habitual. In other words, crises can produce a salutary reform that becomes necessary and possible only after some moral principles become visible because of crisis.
One way of understanding American liberties and the moral claims that we use to defend them is to think of them as emerging out of an Anglo-American experience, complete with habits, prejudices, traditions, and institutions. Hannan’s account in Inventing Freedom is particularly useful in this regard. Long before the Norman conquest of England, an Anglo-Saxon civilization, drawn from the “gloomy forests of first-century Germany,” had developed a jealous regard for self-government along with the habits of liberty (or perhaps liberties) that would become the DNA of an “Anglosphere” political culture. This culture was not a product of racial solidarity but incorporated outsiders, even invading outsiders, into the system of liberty.
The Magna Carta, which came rather late in this story, responded to demands put forward largely by descendants of the Norman invasion who had accepted the beliefs and many of the institutions of the Anglo-Saxons. It was, therefore, a prime example of creative reaction—the formalizing of principles in a way that was at once conservative and revolutionary. Ideas do indeed matter, but only if they give expression to our experiences of reality.
The same holds true with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776. Throughout English and American history we have a way of doing and then codifying—of allowing human experience to be our guide to political principles. As Hannan accurately notes, the English-Americans, drawn heavily from dissenting Protestants, were hyper-Englishmen who felt more fervent devotion to English liberty than any other group in the Anglosphere. Whatever political philosophy colonials employed in defense of the American Revolution and whatever political philosophy Americans deployed to defend the U.S. Constitution, the underlying experiences and traditions supplied the ground for these ideas to have purchase or even meaning. In times of crisis, Americans have a way of innovating in order to preserve. We ought to consider this the conservative genius of the American people.
What Americans are devoted to, by habit, is liberty understood as self-rule. They want to be free to pursue their individual lives; they want the freedom that comes from a secure private property; they want to be able to work with neighbors to solve common problems; and they want to associate with whomever they wish as an expression of their independence. This species of freedom or liberty is consistent with a restrained democracy but has a natural suspicion of democracy understood on a national scale and buttressed by a bureaucracy that governs on the “people’s behalf.” The instinct is to favor the ability of individuals, and the institutions that individuals help create, to function by their own lights so long as they do not grossly violate the freedoms of others.
Because my argument depends on the habits and prejudices of a people and because these must emerge from experiences that affirm them, it follows that the most important defense of American liberty is found in society, in voluntary organizations, in strong local government, and in the matrix of institutions that incorporate people into a culture of liberties. That defense is especially needed now because, in all of these areas, the buttress of liberty as self-rule is weaker than it has ever been in American history. We could argue that the failure of previous generations to maintain these social, cultural, and institutional bulwarks has left us more or less defenseless before the onslaught of an abstract system of freedom imported from Europe. This argument suggests that Americans have been seduced, slowly, by the protections of big government supported by a servile citizenry, to give up the ideals of American liberty.
But the long history of Anglo-American liberty suggests a much more enduring social and cultural memory. It particularly suggests that the people who are the cultural (rather than racial) products of this long tradition have deeper habits than can be altered in a generation or three. Perhaps, therefore, what is most needed now is a providentially bad President who has no real connection with this heritage, who has been educated to believe that the system is in need of fundamental change, and who engages in sustained assaults on the everyday experiences and prejudices of the people. Perhaps then, and only then, will the citizens seek some expression of principles that would give voice to their contemporary version of the American story of liberty. What such a President will have done is make space for a renewed Magna Carta or a “Bill of Rights.”
American liberties need a new expression. This new expression ought to be able to connect the past with the present, to signal an inheritance that is nonetheless living in contemporary experience. The new expression must be creative in some measure. It must find something new because it is responding to new challenges and new assaults. What it discovers will be new in the sense that it had not reached a level of intellectual clarity before, but old in the sense that it is a fresh statement of longstanding ideas. Finally, it will be conservative in the sense that it seeks to find an intellectual vehicle to carry the weight of already-existing wisdom encoded in the habits of unfolding experience.
Is there not, after all, a grain of truth in that silly exchange between King Arthur and the woman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? To me it suggests that the most important liberties associated with England and America were not created by philosophers, are not recent inventions, and emerged as principles long after they were alive as living prejudices. We elected this providentially bad President, but the violations against our liberties might well provoke a reaction in which prejudices long part of the American experience rise to the level of ideas.