Salvo 05.09.2022 10 minutes

America’s Republican Partisanship

Statue of Abraham Lincoln

Getting to the roots of our political crisis

I was gratified by my colleague Scott Yenor’s perceptive review of my book, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America. Yenor raises two important and interrelated issues that deserve a thoughtful reply, especially because the urgency of America’s political situation compels thoughtful citizens to reflect on these fundamental questions.

Speaking of the distinguished Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield, with whom Jaffa had a long and sometimes fractious friendship, Yenor writes,

As Ellmers recounts the confrontation, Mansfield went beyond merely questioning whether America had accomplished all Jaffa had thought. He also out-Aristotled Jaffa. 

According to Mansfield, political communities all deteriorate, because they are partisan and hence imperfect. Communities advance a comprehensive claim of justice, but usually only do so up to a point and for the good of one faction. The same old cycle of regimes had come to America, as Tocqueville thought it would. 

Yenor points out, correctly, that Jaffa and many of his students disputed the origins of this deterioration, and have argued, in a now substantial body of scholarship, that America’s descent began with (in Yenor’s words) “the intrusion of foreign influences and especially German philosophy during America’s Progressive Era.” Mansfield and Yenor wonder, however, if this explanation is adequate:

Yet this interpretation raises the same deep, regime-level questions that Mansfield raised. If America was the best regime, why was it so vulnerable to capture from this German invasion? Why weren’t the progressives laughed out of town?  Early in my career, I was bewitched by Strauss’s “Three Waves of Modernity” essay, where he broadly claimed that the seeds of later modern radicalism are sewn into the origins of modern political thought. Nothing stable or respectable, Strauss argued, could proceed from the modern notion of nature—and subsequent thinkers to Locke worked out that inner logic until there was nothing left of nature or natural rights. This explains why America, founded on a version of the modern idea of nature, was vulnerable to the German invasion. What is the alternative explanation? 

Let me respond first on Aristotle, who explicitly asserts that natural right is part of political right. Many of Jaffa’s critics don’t seem to appreciate how the principles explicated in The Politics need to be adapted to changing historical circumstances. To suggest that Aristotle would have mindlessly repeated his formulaic defense of the polis—when that type of regime had been irretrievably destroyed—would be to deny the architectonic role of prudence that Aristotle vigorously defends. For Aristotle, as for Plato, the authority of the gods as the source of law was taken for granted, since all law in the ancient world was sanctioned by the gods of the city. The factionalism that Yenor and Mansfield invoke—the partisan claims of the democrats, oligarchs, etc. described in Aristotle’s subtle taxonomy—operated within or upon a deeper legitimacy of law derived from divine authority.

But as Jaffa demonstrated, the emergence of Christianity as the universal religion of the West undermined this connection between law and piety, and created a crisis in citizenship that afflicted Europe for a millennium. Divided loyalties between priest and prince, battles between popes and kings, and ongoing religious persecution would only find a solution with the principle of religious liberty, which became a fully realized political condition for the first time in history in the United States.

The social compact theory of the American founders appealed to a non-sectarian rational theology, grounded in a new arche, or principle of rule: nature, and the consent arising from equality of natural rights. The American regime of natural rights transcended the factionalism Aristotle describes by establishing a basis for the common good that included every citizen. Therefore, equality as understood by the founders and articulated in the Declaration of Independence was not the partisan claim of the many, but a ground for just government based on the common human nature of the entire community—a principle affirmed by both reason and revelation.

Yenor and Mansfield follow Tocqueville in seeing equality from the perspective of Rousseau—as an impersonal force that needs to be balanced by appeals to man’s natural inequality. But this egalitarian or leveling understanding of equality is not the equality of opportunity proclaimed in the Declaration, which is intended precisely to liberate those “different and unequal faculties,” that Madison memorably celebrates in The Federalist.

Tocqueville’s critique of equality (which Mansfield has repeatedly endorsed) replaces the framers’ standard of nature with an understanding of equality as a historical force. History reveals through time—i.e., through progress or social evolution—what succeeds, and therefore what is true. Nature, however, unlike history, never guarantees success. What is true or just by nature may fail; injustice and falsehood sometimes triumph. The realm of moral freedom established by natural right means that political life and indeed all human conduct is not predetermined. We cannot guarantee success; we can only be worthy of it. Both liberty and equality—which the American founders saw as concomitant—could be lost without effort and attention.

Someone who appeals to the standard of history would seem to believe that human equality must be false because the American experiment is faltering. If the principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence were true, Yenor implies, the founders’ experiment would have succeeded in perpetuity. There is, he suggests, “no alternate explanation.” But this is not how the framers understood themselves. While they hoped that future generations would vindicate the justice of their cause, they always saw the truth of human equality as grounded in the laws of nature and nature’s God—propositions that might be denied or suppressed by emerging tyrants, including a tyrannical majority. They never supposed that the United States so conceived was self-sustaining. Continual education in the principles of natural rights and equality would always be necessary. Jaffa, were he alive today, would argue that even if American constitutionalism is collapsing—which is not yet a foregone conclusion—such a contingency would have no bearing at all on the truth of the founders’ principles, although it would be rooted in a failure to apprehend that truth. This is the meaning of Leo Strauss’ memorable lines from Natural Right and History:

Yet however much the power of the West may have declined, however great the dangers to the West may be, that decline, that danger, nay, the defeat, even the destruction of the West would not necessarily constitute a crisis of the West: the West could go down in glory, certain of its purpose, with guns blazing and flags flying. The crisis of the West consists in the fact that the West itself has become uncertain of its purpose.

Speaking of Strauss, I might mention that the “Three Waves of Modernity” essay Yenor mentions describes the development of modern philosophy; it is not a commentary on America—which is a product of political statesmanship, not merely theory. Indeed Strauss makes a point of ending that very essay by reminding his readers that “a theoretical crisis does not necessarily lead to a practical crisis” since “liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking that cannot be called modern at all: the premodern thought of our western tradition.”

Yenor’s critique of the failure of equality could be just as easily applied to his own field of research: the family. If a married man and woman raising their own children according to biological sex roles is obviously better for everyone concerned, why isn’t the radical gender-queer agenda “laughed out of town”? Does the success of the trans liberation movement establish its truth? I have heard Scott speak eloquently in defense of the moral basis of the natural family. Is that morality now to be regarded as false simply because fanatics and ideologues have waged a successful propaganda war of sexual revolution—just as the Progressives waged a propaganda war of political revolution?  Like the United States, the success of the family is dependent upon both good habits and opinions.

Jaffa, indeed, predicted decades ago the current madness of puberty blockers and chemical child abuse in the name of sexual freedom. He knew that a part of humanity will forever chafe at the demands imposed by the objective moral order, and will seek to transcend those demands. This is an old story of hubris and self-deception, exacerbated by the power of modern science. Ever since the serpent in the Garden promised eternal life, mankind has been led astray by the false belief that the tree of knowledge could conquer the limits of nature. For Jaffa, as for Lincoln, human equality and the morality of the family are two sides of the same coin: one can’t defend the one without the other. The same nature that makes us men and women makes us more than beasts and less than angels. The tyranny now threatening the United States, which denies the authority of nature, is the enemy of both morality and equality. Or rather, the new oligarchy understands morality and equality (as well as liberty, rights, and law) in an entirely different way. Although woke progressivism sometimes uses the older language, it also tips its hand by invoking its own replacement terminology, such as equity, self-expression, or social justice. The agenda of the radical Left has nothing to do with “equality” as the founders understood it.

Many (though certainly not all) Straussians share Claremont’s alarm about today’s leftist equity agenda. We agree, Claremonsters emphatically included, that this radical egalitarianism is antithetical to liberty and constitutional government. But what exactly should be the ground of our objection?  If it is wrong to apportion rights and privileges according to race, gender, and other categories of identity politics, then what is right? Jefferson, Lincoln, and Jaffa had their answer. If Mansfield and Yenor do not accept that answer—that is, the equality of individual natural rights—then what, to ask Yenor’s own question, is the alternative?

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