Feature 04.16.2021 10 minutes

Refashioning American Whigism

Princeton University’s Whig Hall

If the old republic is over, let’s prepare the ground for what’s next.

Glenn Ellmers’ essay “Too Much of a Unity” asks: What should be done now that Trump has lost and many states cannot be trusted to hold legitimate elections? More than attempting to formulate a positive plan, Ellmers is trying to show that the Claremont position is adaptable to a time when the “dissident right” has immense potential, as well as some of the strongest critiques of the present regime. Well-meaning elder conservatives, who concede they are losing the battle, ask for a plan. Ellmers has set out to show the dissident right that Claremont, theoretically and practically, is capable of standing up to the clown regime and that it is capable of doing so on its own terms.

The theoretical and practical suggestions Ellmers develops have been tried before—and I do not say this disparagingly. If you fight and lose, what’s left for there to do but fight again? The good guys have won again and again in American history. The Revolutionaries defeated the slaves of King George. The North defeated the South. Progressivism changed some things but was put down after a long struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. triumphed over Jim Crow. This narrative was fashioned by Harry Jaffa to deliver the leftwing Equality-Cudgel into the hands of the conservatives: Martin Luther King, Jr. is our guy; Frederick Douglass, ditto; we stand for principled equality against the naked racialist politics that unite ancient Southerners and modern Kendis. But now our Declaration, after a history of victories, appears to be fighting a losing battle.

This historical narrative is why Ellmers struggles to take up several positions once considered anathema by Claremont scholars: the right (natural, “not constitutional”) to secession, or to its peaceful forerunners Nullification (a word Ellmers declines to use) and Interposition; the dignity of the states’ police powers; the right to reject elections and Supreme Court opinions when they are unconstitutional, or “nonacquiescence.” These positions were taken up by the bad guys in American history.

Yet these positions are obvious to common sense: no one is bound by a contract when the other parties routinely violate it and champion further violations of it. These positions have usually been taken by the losers in American politics (who, nevertheless, did enjoy some victories) and I think we can surmise why Ellmers is willing to take them up now. The mantle of Patriotic-Abolitionism has won its last battle. People still writing about how MLK Jr. is “our guy” are a decade late and impotent. The 1776 Commission is no more and will not be revived. Ellmers’ piece is a signal flare from the Claremont camp: “Losers of America, we are here to help!”

This development is not to be too greatly lamented. Like I said above, I do not wish to disparage the attempt by Ellmers to refashion some tried political concepts. Those who lose are not necessarily defeated. Furthermore, the virtue of Ellmers’ piece is that he shows that our Founders were radical in the way losing makes young Americans radical today. The freedom of movement is on our side. While the leftist winners can talk about “Our Democracy,” they cannot help but become increasingly stultified. Even their most exciting popular thinkers produce nothing more than platitudes. The only way a leftist can be edgy today is by going after children with antiracist propaganda and hormone blockers. Once you’ve abandoned natural right, all that is left is the titillation of power—the discovery of more guilt and therefore the need for more authority.

The left offers more welfare to cure the ills of welfare; less property to cure the ills of poverty; more sharing to cure the ills of having little; propaganda to cure the ills of misinformation (more ignorance to cure the ills of ignorance); fewer privileges of citizenship to cure the ills of increasingly meaningless citizenship—in sum: more democracy to cure the ills of democracy. You cannot formulate an ideal when your putative ideal is causing the illness, nor can you “abolish” the cause of illness.

So what does Ellmers’ piece show? What have we got? Ellmers aims for a republican solution to cure the ills of democracy.

Ellmers points out that the arguments stemming from Jefferson and Madison would, historically, get bound up with states’ rights and therefore many racial questions, but that this connection is not necessary. I want to set aside Ellmers’ slight turn to the states, because I do not see much coming from them in the way of resistance. From Civil War, to Massive Resistance, to attorneys general filing lawsuits: state governments are not what they used to be.

More importantly, Ellmers develops the idea of the American Whig. Claremont might have polished its non-racist bona fides in the past by championing “propositional citizenship”—all those who can accept “these truths” can be Americans—but this position has proven too wishy-washy. Its effect on the students has been deleterious. Ellmers proposes narrowing the meaning of citizenship: only American Whigs are the true American citizens.

That is, there is a false dichotomy being debated where one side says that anyone who can accept the truth of the Declaration can be American, and that this is easy to do or relatively easy, and on the other side there is the more “volkish” or Taney-esque claim that America is for the white race alone. Ellmers sees through this false dichotomy and makes the “propositional” position into a more elitist one, outdoing the race-nationalists in both substance and grace. The American citizen is nothing so crass as the member of a race in a geographic location, nor is he something so mushy as a catechist. There is universalism “for all” and there is a universalism “by which all are judged.” These are two different things. Ellmers sides with the latter and encourages us to move in this direction. I hope we can find ways to refashion this name (American Whig) and its content, but the direction and the synthesizing effort of Ellmers seems right to me.

The last section of Ellmers’ essay is written “merely for the sake of philosophical edification about the founders’ understanding”—i.e., he ends his essay radically, by setting down what he takes to be the threshold for calling oneself an American citizen. Furthermore, he provides some theoretical speculation about what rights these Americans have under a hostile regime.

And in this section we see what it is “we’ve got” that the left hasn’t: the ability to formulate ideals, to talk about ideal men, and to judge laws and existing institutions according to those ideals. We should not be so concerned with forming concrete plans. Let’s say what is true, promote that true ideal, and try to pick and win our battles against the propagandists and political shills.

Before the Spirit of ‘76 there were two generations of theorizing and political change. From John Wise’s naughty little book to Patrick Henry’s noble speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses, nearly 60 years of theorizing and acting prepared for the emergence of the American. A new work is underway. We probably won’t be sticking to the name “American Whig” and I doubt there will be a republican solution. The republican was a great type of man in American history, but we cannot will him back into existence. The township cannot be artificially constructed. Property cannot be artificially made equal enough, and a relative equality in property would be necessary. We cannot make the populations small enough. The militia will never again be the backbone of our military. These hurdles and many others lead me to believe the republican character of the citizens is through.

That does not mean we have to show ourselves disloyal to the American regime of Jefferson and Madison. The original republic was composed of philosophic, aristocratic, democratic, and other regime-strains. We do not have to adopt democratic solutions to democratic illnesses to stay loyal to America. With this in mind, we should dispense with the trappings of Liberalism that were in fact democratic—not because they were not good, but because they no longer are. Separating out the rhetorical strategy of liberalism from its idealistic core is a topic for another essay. It suffices to say that enlightenment, under whatever name it goes, presupposes the ability to poetically depict virtue in a variety of ways suited to the present. One such book is Bronze Age Mindset, but there could be other formative books more amenable to Liberalism and therefore to Claremont.

Until those books arrive, Ellmers’ attempt in his recent essay is good for the ongoing dialogue between Claremont and the dissident right. As we continue to form our Franklin “clubs for mutual improvement” and other such excellent associations, it is essays like these that will help begin and frame debates that increase the philosophic understanding needed for a vital poetic force.

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