Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Ceasar’s essay

Joe Knippenberg brought this Jim Ceasar essay to our attention a few days ago (and I noted his book Nature and History a few months ago). I finally got around to reading the essay on the ideas that move American politics. It is very good, and I recommend it. I think he has it essentially right.   

Discussions - 15 Comments

Dear Peter, ditto. As I said in a previous post, I very much appreciated Jim’s observation that the non-foundationalists typically don’t want their views to be aired in public, much less discussed. His line about the race between Red America rates of reproduction and Blue America’s efforts to convert the kids at college was witty and, to some imponderable extent, on point. Having recently made the drive from Baltimore to Charlottesville is was particularly impressed by his voting-patterns/life-styles analyses of the areas from Charlottesville to DC.

I thought it was my personal failure that I could discern no elucidated principles behind thought on the Left. My parents and in-laws, the Leftists to whom I am closest and with whom I argue the most, have no apparent principles on which they base what passes for their political beliefs. Yet they and every other Leftist I meet, consider themselves highly principled people. I feel so much better. Yet it is a little scary to think that is the condition endemic to the Left.


And the spawn of that lack of principle, say, an idea like the “living Constitution” are their monsters that would eat the republic. “like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." Maybe that made more sense to people who actually had build their own houses.


Also, this gives me a clue as to why I can never win an argument with a leftist. There is no there, there. I marshal my carefully reasoned points, depending on facts, grasping always for those indisputable ones and assuming shared foundational concepts, only to be harangued on a lack of feeling and a blindness to some higher, though inexplicable, truth.


I told a leftist recently that I did not think he had any standing to judge a self-proclaimed Christian’s (Ken Blackwell’s) statement of faith since he himself had no faith and claimed to believe only in his own belief in nothing. He had a screaming fit on the spot, to which, if there was any point, that seemed to be that George Bush was the source of all evil in the earth. It was an impressive display, but left me none the wiser, just spittle-spattered. I wished for a more polar relationship.


But, one other thing. I have met two kinds of Libertarians; the ones I enjoy, whom Jim Ceaser cites, and some who seem to have climbed out from under a rock, for whom a lack of principles is as much a rallying cry as for those on the left. Or, perhaps their principle is best explained as “You have no right to tell me what to do. Who are you to say I am wrong?” Which puts me in mind of a perpetually nasty adolescent.


Then, since I have been associating with those of Ceaser’s Faith Alternative through home-school contacts for many years, I can attest to his alternative, unwritten constitution. These are Biblical principles that may lay like a shadow over the Constitution and especially the Amendments. For many of my friends, the true meaning of the words therein are only visible in that light. It is not a bad light, except that to most, secular, Americans, it does not exist.

"Also, this gives me a clue as to why I can never win an argument with a leftist."

I think, there, might, be other, reasons, Kate.

I think Kate’s no win against the left is, according to Kate, due to her appraisal that the left lacks any basis for their assertions, thusly making any rational debate with them moot.

I think JWC is on the money on the nonfoundationalism thing. The sovereignty of one’s own private fantasy is the last step in the development of the individualism Tocqueville described. But I also think that the claim that Leo Strauss entirely changed American conservatism by rooting it in the rational apprehension of natural right is a rather extreme exaggeration. I will explain why later.

I read the Ceasar piece yesterday, and am still reflecting on it. What I like best is how it explains why conservatives seem so much more successful than liberals in having internecine debates without destroying the coherence of "the movement." We might not all have the same foundations, and sometimes even when we rely on the same foundations we might reach very different policy conclusions, but we can still respect one another because we recognize that we all have more or less the same reasoning process. Without foundations every issue of policy becomes a litmus test, and any disagreement is tantamount to betrayal.

An excellent piece. There are very few liberals who understand (let alone admit to) the foundations of their beliefs- or lack thereof. I have a good, very liberal, friend who actually understands that his beliefs necessarily mean that the Constitution is only so much paper, but most liberals avoid this dark secret by claiming that most of their policies are "Constitutional" (like the argument that abortion is a Constitutional right).

I wonder, is it actually possible to be a conservative Democrat anymore? The Progressives took complete idealogical control of the party over a century ago and it seems the answer is "no."

Peter, I look forward to your promised explanation, especially the "What would American conservatism look like had Leo Strauss never existed?" question that must enter into it.

Carl, good question to pose to Peter. To anyone, actually.
About to head to a natural law/natural rights in the Founding seminar here in Albuquerque. We start with Thomas, though.

A beginning: As far as I know, the guy (Gerson) who wrote Bush’s big natural-law second inaugural is not a Straussian and was not influenced by Strauss in a big way. And wouldn’t the "natural law" account of the Foudning have emerged anyway as part of the party as liberal Catholics changed teams over Roe v. Wade etc. (M. Novak, RJ Neuhaus, Russell Hittinger, Robby George etc.--neocons too, after all)? Murray’s WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS--which, with its appeal to Lincoln and the Declaration, seems to echo many Straussian themes--doesn’t seem to have a debt to Strauss, and it still made it to the cover of TIME. The Republicans still wouldn’t have been stuck with the history-faith dichotomy even without Strauss. Now I’m acknowledging that Strauss is really important, but that right-wing reason depends on him is going too far. (Does Thomas Aquinas College owe its mission-driven existence to Strauss.) And the increasing sophistication of evangelical political thinkers--the move toward natural law thru Lewis, Chesterton, and Thomas--doesn’t include a Straussian moment, although it would benefit from one.

Jim Ceaser’s piece is rich in ideas, isn’t it? Like John Moser, I have found the essay needs time. Two points occur so far. (1) progressivism’s abandonment of the ideas of the founders, in favor of historicism: I wonder if this had more to do with the impulse toward sectional reconciliation than Ceaser says, (that is, the cost of that reconciliation) -- along the historical lines sketched out by David Blight (Race and Reunion). The CW was, after all, felt as a war between irreconciliable interpretations of the founding, and in addition, "both read the same Bible" Lincoln said. And (2) Ceaser seems to assume that Strauss takes us toward only conservatism. That has certainly been true in terms of the partisan expression of many of LS’s leading ideas. But I have never understood why there can’t be liberal Straussians -- except for the contingency of (1).

On Steve’s # 2, there’s no reason at all. Even the contingency of #1 is ambiguous in JWC’s argument. Which is worse in his eyes--the progressivist historicism of Democrats until recently, the wacky techno-optimism of "reason" libertarians, or the cultural or customary or, in truth, faith-based historicism of Russell Kirk (to be fair to Kirk--calling him an historicist--whatever C. Ryn says--depends on understandings of both nature and history that would have made no sense to him)? And does JWC’s article really say the Founders are right on everything or does it say that’s if they erred the errors have to be corrected on the level of reason? What that would mean is surely a bone of contention--one that should animate our partisan politics. It would depend not on abstract logic, of course, but an adequate human psychology. In making such corrections, wouldn’t we have to consider the possibilities that there’s something to the progressive, technological, cultural, natural law (as opposed to natural rights) and faith-based criticisms of certain of our Framers’ assumptions? Or not? The fact that there aren’t many Democratic Straussians, JWC suggests, is due to a failure in Demo. statesmanship. Not only Galston, but I think Steve Smith and arguably Michael Zuckert etc. could be DEMOCRATS with the right candidate--one, of course, who wouldn’t take anything Rorty says seriously. Or to put it differently, it’s more than Strauss that makes me a conservative tdoay.

In addition to the scholars Peter mentions, I’d add Carey McWilliams -- not exactly a liberal, but a Democrat deeply sympathetic with some Straussians. But back to Ceaser’s provocative essay. What exactly are "foundational ideas"? JWC cites the marvelous Lincoln phrase, "philosophical public opinion"; and he quotes the equally marvelous verb from John Adams, "recur." If these are examples of "foundational ideas," they are also rhetorical devices to focus public opinion on ideas that both Adams and Lincoln believed were already there to be enlisted for a national purpose. JWC seems to move deftly from Lincoln’s "philosohical public opinion" to "first principles." Does he mean that they are the same? Is a first principle timeless and absolute? Or is Ceaser’s thinking amount to a more systematic and serious historicism?

On what Steve wrote: Carey McWilliams called himself a Straussian "fellow traveler" and he knew Strauss as well as most Straussians and American political thought better than anyone. He was certainly not a liberal in the sense of either liberal Democrat or liberal democracy, but he certainly was a Democrat and a democrat who wrote to defend the true liberty of the political, virtuous animal open to truth and aware of the fundamental mystery at the core of our existence.
In his view, a genuine "Straussian" would do what’s required to oppose what he called the "creeping libertarianism" (quoting Mansfield) of our time. To see the large measure of agreement between Carey and Harvey, read the one par. in MANLINESS where Harvey discusses, from a manly view, the superiority of the religious believer to the philosopher-searcher Is Ceaser an historicist?!! Was Strauss an historicist? Is the choice of natural right over history made on theoretical or "manly" grounds etc. etc.? Don’t know. Would like to know!

I’d like to know too.

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