America is neither unreservedly an empire nor altogether a European-style state.
Righting the Right
A reply to Matthew Continetti's recent critique.
In a recent piece for Commentary (“The Left of the Right”), Matthew Continetti takes aim at the “New Right”—and at me. According to Continetti, “all” New Right writers “share one” key “quality: They sound more like left-wing progressives than actual conservatives.” In support of this claim, Continetti cites (among other things) a chapter I contributed to the recently published book, Up from Conservatism. Continetti’s article misrepresents my argument and therefore calls for a response. His account is worthy of additional comment, moreover, because also it illustrates the errors that I sought to highlight in my Up from Conservatism essay in the first place.
Let’s begin by correcting the record. According to Continetti, the New Right is like the New Left in that it “casts a critical eye on” America’s “ideals and values.” His prime evidence for this claim is that “Claremont Institute fellow Carson Holloway writes in Up from Conservatism that ‘propositional-nation conservatism,’ inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s adherence to the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence, is ‘a source of political failure for the Right—indeed, of the kind of failures that threaten the security of our civilization.’” Continetti omits to mention that my chapter—the title of which is “Recovering the Real Founding”—begins with the affirmation that “conservatism must be rooted in the past” and that accordingly, “American conservatism must be guided, at least in part, by the American Founding.” My aims in this essay, then, are clearly conservative in nature and have little in common with the progressive aspirations of the New Left.
My chapter criticizes “propositional-nation conservatives” not because they adhere to the teaching on equality and rights found in the Declaration of Independence—but because they treat that teaching as if it were the whole basis of America’s political identity, and they thus neglect and even disparage other important aspects of our political, moral, and intellectual inheritance from the Founders (such as their realism in foreign policy, their economic nationalism, and their understanding that cultural unity and a vibrant religiosity are necessary to a healthy republic). Such an argument obviously does not “cast a critical eye” on the principles of the Declaration or on our “ideals and values” more generally.
Indeed, just one paragraph after the passage that Continetti quotes, I say the following: “Like most political errors, the claim that America is a propositional nation is based on a partial truth. Nobody can deny that the political creed expressed in the Declaration of Independence is a key element of America’s national identity. Repudiate the doctrine of natural equality and natural rights and you would no longer have the same country.” Later in the essay I observe that the successful campaign to roll back Roe v. Wade, which the Right had presented as inconsistent with the right to life, “reminds us that continued attention to the natural rights proclaimed in the Declaration is a necessary element of a successful Right, even if rights and equality alone cannot be the basis of the whole conception of the common good that the Right requires.” No fair-minded reader of this chapter would conclude that I “cast a critical eye” on America’s “ideals and values.”
Continetti also faults me because I, while neglecting even to mention Harry Jaffa (I address this omission below), cite Jaffa’s “nemesis…Pat Buchanan…approvingly.” This is not as serious as his previous distortion, but it is also not exactly accurate. To be clear, I see nothing wrong in citing with approval any of the many true and insightful observations Pat Buchanan has made in his long career as a commentator on American politics. I did not, however, do so in my chapter in Up from Conservatism. Instead, I cited a certain criticism of Buchanan’s protectionist trade proposals as an example of the kind of simplistic, cartoonish, and slogan-based argumentation to which “propositional-nation conservatives” are prone. It was ridiculous, I suggested, for Buchanan’s critics to label him as “left-wing” for proposing trade and tariff policies akin to those that had also been endorsed by leading American Founders.
This brings me to my second point, that Continetti’s essay itself manifests the ahistorical, unhelpful, and dogmatic tendencies of thought that my Up from Conservatism chapter contends are characteristic of “propositional-nation conservatives.” This is evident, to begin with, in his remarks on economic policy. In discussing the policy prescriptions of Oren Cass, Continetti doubts the wisdom of an “economic nationalism that raises prices by increasing tariffs.” This is a reasonable point that is worth debating. He goes on, however, to say that “it would be a tragedy, for the working class most of all, if the GOP decides that the only stuff it wants to import are bad ideas from Europe and Asia.” Leave aside the silly and manipulative suggestion that advocates of tariffs don’t want America to import any goods at all. More to the point, Continetti here writes as if he is unaware that no less a figure among the American Founders than Alexander Hamilton had advocated the use of government policy, including tariffs, to promote American industry, that such a policy had later been foundational to the Republican Party and had been followed by the administration of Abraham Lincoln, and that such a policy persisted during the two generations during which America grew into a great manufacturing power.
Similar problems emerge in Continetti’s remarks about foreign policy. He presents American “ideals and values”—meaning the principles of the Declaration of Independence—as “the wellsprings of American activity abroad.” Like other “propositional-nation conservatives,” he seems to think that the purpose of American foreign policy is to remake the world in the image of the Declaration’s principles at their most abstract. He ignores the fact that while all of the American Founders believed the principles of the Declaration to be true and universal, nearly all also adhered to a kind of realism in foreign policy, holding that uses of America’s power in international affairs ought to aim first and foremost at protecting the nation’s interests. Such were the prudent foreign policy precepts that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton sought to teach to their fellow citizens.
Accordingly, Continetti views as a kind of apostasy the New Right’s skepticism about recent American foreign policy, when in fact it can be seen as an effort to return to our Founding-era roots. He concedes that “before World War II, Republicans were known for their opposition to permanent alliances and to involvement in European affairs.” “But,” he continues, “that was almost a century ago. Postwar conservatives have been known for their antagonism toward anti-American tyrants and their sympathy for U.S. international leadership, a strong defense, and military force.” He thus overlooks that “opposition to permanent alliances and to involvement in European affairs” can be traced back not only to the prewar Republican Party, but in fact to George Washington’s advice to the nation in his celebrated Farewell Address of 1796.
Continetti’s thinking about foreign policy is not only alien to the realist statecraft of the Founders; it is also positively dangerous—again, as I had argued more generally about “propositional-nation conservatism” in my chapter in Up From Conservatism. Continetti longs for a return to a time when thinkers on the Right might dissent from a given foreign intervention, but “without contesting American exceptionalism or America’s role as guarantor of international security.” Obviously, if America is obliged by its “exceptional” status to be the “guarantor of international security,” then there is no security problem anywhere in the world that we can stay out of. How can this possibly be a path of prudent and safe policy for the people of the United States?
Elsewhere in his essay, Continetti laments that by losing its “bearings” the New Right has embraced a topsy-turvy world in which, among other things, “America becomes the source of, not the solution to, the world’s ills.” I admit (of course) that only a fool and an ingrate would contend that America is the source of the world’s ills. But it is no less foolish, and also arrogant and perilous, to claim with Continetti that America is “the solution to the world’s ills.” Such a hubristic claim—so characteristic of propositional-nation conservatives’ rhetoric—inclines toward a kind of messianic foreign policy that can only involve America in problems that are none of its business and breed (understandable) resentment among other nations that wish to be left alone.
In his passage claiming (wrongly) that my essay “casts a critical eye” on America’s “ideals and values,” Continetti observes that I did not cite Harry Jaffa or Jaffa’s political hero, Abraham Lincoln. He’s right, but the omission indicates no disrespect for these men. Jaffa was a great scholar and Lincoln a great statesman. They emphasized America’s creedal or propositional identity because they were combatting intellectual opponents who neglected or denied the Declaration of Independence’s truth and crucial place in the American political tradition. I wrote my chapter the way I did because I think that at present we face a different problem: a class of conservative writers and leaders who have erred by emphasizing the creed expressed in the Declaration to the exclusion of all the other political wisdom the Founders have to offer. To the extent that Continetti is an indicator of contemporary conservative thinking, I was right.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.