Essay

Welcome to The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute. This is a forum for vigorous yet civil debate about the ideas that drive the news cycle, our culture, and our politics. Unlike other publications and websites, The American Mind (like the Claremont Review of Books, from which it draws inspiration) seeks to recover a distinctively American solution to our current intellectual and political crisis.

Fear and Loathing

The current national debate about justice and American government is insufficient. Each side in our national political life sees the other as a threat. The Right fears the accretion of power into politically unaccountable hands and the eventual declaration (or series of regulations) pronouncing some of the older ways of American life, morality, religion, and even constitutionalism outmoded, retrograde, and finally illegal. The Left fears that what they take to be the Right’s hostility to their science, policy prescriptions, and evolving group rights will usher in destructive, welfare-sapping policies that prevent the alleviation of suffering and the march towards social justice.

The understanding of Americanism present among certain factions, even on the Right, is misguided and misinformed. We can only restore Americanism, properly understood, by studying, reexamining, advancing, and adapting the timeless and true principles that made America great. These principles include the equal protection of the individual rights to life, liberty, and private property, safeguarded by the prudent construction of the U.S. Constitution explained and defended in the Federalist. The American Founding and its fulfillment by statesmen like Abraham Lincoln ought to be our guide. The Founding does not ineluctably lead to progressivism and modern liberalism as some scholars have recently argued. Nor are we inevitably impelled to some post-liberal democracy or post-republic future. The “liberalism” of the American Founding—equal protection of equal individual rights—remains the best practicable form of government on this earth to promote, protect, and foster the common good.

The Left’s understanding of the Founding as white supremacist in principle is profoundly incorrect. On the contrary, the vision of human nature, rights, justice, and government offered by the Declaration of Independence is the only identity that should form the core of Americanism. Progressivism’s unlimited government in pursuit of social justice based on picking individual and group winners and losers is a recipe for disunion or tyranny—or more likely one followed by the other.

The Claremont Institute’s View of Our National Debate

What follows is a quick sketch of where Claremont thinks the Right ought to be intellectually, and how the Left stands fundamentally in opposition. If we do not engage in this debate first at the level of ideas, we will lose the proper orientation in our messier political and policy debates.

Human nature is relatively fixed or constant, especially regarding moral and thus political things. For the Left, human nature is malleable and largely a social or cultural construct, making it perfectible through science—a science which supposedly discovered (or assumed?) its ostensible perfectibility only recently in the long run of human civilization.

The American people share a common national identity based on a set of fixed principles or understanding of justice. For the Left, rather than one people and political community, Americans are instead a collection of groups, with their distinct group identities, grievances, privileges, and rights. Those easily manipulated factions are, quite unlike nations, the building blocks of the “global citizenship” the Left sees as the end state of perfected humanity.

Government ought to be limited (not necessarily “small”) because the temptation to govern selfishly rather than for the common good is a permanent problem. Tyranny will be a problem as long as human beings are not perfectly wise and perfectly virtuous—that is to say, for all foreseeable human history. For the Left, the only things standing in the way of perfect justice and perpetual peace are the restrictions on government slowing or forbidding the application of modern science to the perfection of the people and society. The current perfection the Left has in mind means a procession of newly identified (or newly invented) oppressed groups and their liberation and subsidization by government at the expense of “white privilege.” The social sciences in particular are in fact the applied sciences of government (to paraphrase Claremont Senior Fellow John Marini), and the modern university is government’s R&D operation.  Science is not to be feared, nor is government, because its application to human perfectibility under the supervision of government experts is a benevolent and welfare-enhancing enterprise for society as a whole.

We at Claremont, by contrast, think that political rule by consent and through American institutions is paramount. In this world, ruling (or being ruled) without consent is unacceptable regardless of the skill and scientific wisdom of the government. One does not want incompetent, inexpert, or ignorant people running things, of course, but consent must legitimate and rule expertise. The good life for a free people is one of self-government. For the Left, self-government must be weighed against the advance of social justice as originally defined by progressive experts, and now increasingly by college administrators, faculty, and activists. The Left sees scientific rule as a benign force that is safe for democracy; they would therefore consider it perverse to halt science’s advance in deference to ignorant or prejudicial voters and their representatives. Progress in science and its application will make mankind freer, so expertise must legitimate and govern consent.

Our American Crisis

Any common understanding of America’s principles and the history of our attempt to live up to them has collapsed. This is our current American crisis. We stand at a great turning point in America: the meaning of who we are and who we ought to be as a people and political community are open questions.

Thomas Jefferson famously called the Declaration of Independence an “expression of the American mind” (as Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler reminded us when we launched our original American Mind video series back in 2013). What national understanding was Jefferson invoking? It was a common view of justice based on an understanding of equal rights and duties deriving from a common humanity. It was also an understanding of the importance of forming and protecting a particular political community in a particular place—one sharing agreement about rights and pledging mutual sacrifice as fellow citizens to preserve it. America is not just an idea.

Yet there is no common American idea today shared by a majority of the citizenry. Neither is there one shared at the elite level. Right and Left are at loggerheads nationally over whose idea ought to prevail, just as Right and Left are engaged in internal intellectual and political disputes about their own—and America’s—future.

Our Task

The application of American principles to our current challenges will require all the intellectual resources at our disposal. The America of the Founding era, the post-bellum period, the late 19th century, or even WWII have little in common, materially or technologically, with America today. Restoration of founding principles does not mean somehow “going back” to a past way of life. But our policy, and especially our institutional reforms, must start with the great principles of American government and apply them to our age of big data, big tech, globalization, and a national and state government footprint that threatens to grow larger than the private sector.

There is no escape from this moment of reckoning, whether in the name of ideology or compromise.

To save the West we must save America; to save America we must rehabilitate Americanism, properly understood; the intellectual and political vehicle for such rehabilitation in the foreseeable future in America is the Right. To set the American Right on the correct course we need to reapply the principles that made America great to the political and policy challenges of the 21st century. Despite the passage of time, however, the American foundation is still sound. To rebuild well upon it, we need to deliberate seriously together in a spirit of common cause and disputatious good will. The American Mind hopes to stand at the center of this debate.

We have only our country to lose if we do not get this right.

Thanks for reading, listening, and contributing.

is the President of the Claremont Institute. He is the Publisher of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind.

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