What I Said at Harvard
What’s Wrong with the Proposition: “Return to the Founders to Save America”
The following is a transcript of my opening remarks in the ISI/Abigail Adams Society sponsored debate between me and Michael Anton that took place this past Thursday at Harvard University. “Debate” is not quite the correct word—perhaps more discussion and conversation, since we found ourselves agreeing on a great deal. This statement was far less about anything Anton has said or written, and more about the proposition we were invited to debate: “Return to the Founders to Save America.”
You can view the full debate here:
We are here tonight to debate the proposition: “Return to the Founders to Save America.” If this were a debate between a typical progressive and a mainstream conservative, the division would be fairly clear and the outcome, fairly predictable. The “progressive” would oppose the idea of “return,” or would argue that the Constitution is a living document and its meaning necessarily changes with the times. A mainstream conservative, on the other hand, would likely argue that we must return to the Constitution’s original meaning, deeply informed by the genius of the Western tradition and informed by the timeless wisdom of the Founders. The debate might well be entertaining, but like Christians fighting lions or a modern WWF a wrestling match, we would enter knowing the whole contest would be staged, and the outcome already certain. At such a debate, everyone would know where they stood at the beginning and where they would stand by the time of its conclusion.
Tonight’s debate—if it’s really a debate at all—offers something rather different. First, it pits two conservatives, both of whom are on record as critics not only of progressivism, but of the reigning orthodoxy of conservatism. I’m as in the dark, and as interested as anyone here in what will emerge, but to my mind it’s as difficult to predict as a first-round matchup between a five seed vs. a twelve seed (I’m the twelve seed, by the way).
One thing is clear to me: given the participants, the proposition isn’t exactly the subject that the organizers intended. I think the more accurate, or fuller proposition, would actually have to be something like: “To Save America, Should Conservatives Return the Founders?”
In either case—certainly in the case of conservatives and possibly even America—it seems obvious we never left them. Discussing and debating the meaning of the American Founders began surging as a topic of scholarly and intellectual inquiry and debate especially in the 1960s, and hasn’t declined since. One small indicator of this fascination is reflected in findings from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which counts word and word combinations that appear in all books that have been scanned by Google (roughly forty million books). I checked a few words and combinations just to confirm my suspicions. A few findings: The combination of words “American Founding” was almost nonexistent until the early 1940s, and then rose in a steady ascent throughout the 1950s until today, hitting its high water mark in 2017 before falling back slightly to mid-2000 levels in the past several years. The combination “Founding Fathers” shows a similar pattern, beginning its ascent somewhat earlier, starting in the 1930s and hitting several peaks throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, with the high water mark in 1964, and comparable peaks in 1975, 1987, 2008, and 2016, and today still quite elevated compared to the pre-WWII period. The word “originalism”—that is, the jurisprudence that attempts to arrive at judicial decisions based upon an intimate understanding of the intent of the Founders or those who ratified the Constitution and its Amendments—was nonexistent before the 1980s, but then skyrocketed in a dramatic ascent, jumping to new highs in nearly every decade since the 1980s, with the highest level yet recorded in 2018. (And certainly likely to go higher with the recent publication of HLS professor Adrian Vermeule’s controversial and important new book, Common Good Constitutionalism).
The quantity of scholarly and intellectual work on the Founders is staggering, with a great deal taking place in the academy, but even perhaps even more in the sprawling conservative network of well-funded programs, institutes, and centers either on, near, or off campus. A partial roster would include tonight’s cosponsors, ISI and the Abigail Adams Society; the Heritage Foundation; AEI; the Claremont Institute; the Jack Miller Center; the Madison Program (and the Witherspoon Institute), and a vast plethora of imitators, campus and off-campus Centers, Programs, and Institutes. We would also of course include seemingly the entirety of Hillsdale College, including the Kirby Graduate Program located in Washington, D.C., where Professor Anton teaches. One close to my home is the newly founded center on the Notre Dame campus, the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, initially funded (according to a tweet by its founder and my colleague Phillip Muñoz) in the amount of $10 million. If I tried to list the names of all the programs around the country (and even the world), it would consume all the time of my entire opening statement, which would seem sufficient to prove that the proposition is easily falsified—at least in this conservative corner, no “Return” is necessary.
But it’s the sentiment behind the proposal that’s of interest tonight: should conservatives keep doing what they’ve been doing? This last question is particularly pressing, since all the evidence today suggests that, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the rise of modern political conservatism, conservatives have not succeeded in conserving anything.
If it’s not conservatism that the “Return to the Founders” has served, then we rightly must ask, what are all these donors getting for their money? Why keep pouring in millions upon millions of dollars in a failed investment? I’d like to propose a rather different title which focuses our attention not on how we as scholars might debate the specifics of the Founding, but rather—“What Purpose Has Conservatism’s Ceaseless Call to ‘Return to the Founding’ served?” What goals guided conservatism’s vast and well-funded array of think tanks, the summer seminars and internship programs aiming to cultivate the next generations, the academics it developed and invested in, its wide array and network of on-, near-, and off-campus institutes and programs, even foundings of new colleges—all animated by a call to “return” to a particular reading of the Founding documents?
It won’t surprise you to hear me conclude that the development of mid-century conservatism as a political project relied upon advancing an theory of the Founding that that was a pristinely liberal. The Founding by this telling was largely reducible to a set of philosophical ideas whose most distinct appeal lie in their liberal grounding as timeless and placeless principles. America was cast as an idea, a theory. Like the state of nature of the liberal philosophers who were of particular interest—particularly John Locke—the Founding came to be understood as a set of principles that transcended place and history and which were advanced as self-evident and universal.
The appeal of this approach to the Founding lies in specific historical and political contingencies of mid-century America. Following World War II, America was elevated to uncontested superpower status, the most powerful nation now on the planet. It now faced an adversary—the Soviet Union—that advanced an ideology which it claimed to be universal. Nations came under its sway either through force of arms or by the appeal of its revolutionary ideology. Domestically, Progressivism bore a family resemblance to this ideology, one based in the same philosophic tradition of progressive historicism. A response was needed, both to combat the threat of Communism abroad and the domestic adversary, while addressing the world in its new status as a global power.
The need to fashion such a vision for an ascendant American hegemony, both for domestic and international consumption, was the seedbed for a highly theoretical, philosophical, and even ideological explanation of what America is. The American project was necessarily conceived as a competitor universalist set of ideas that were ahistorical and de-linked from any geographic place and particular set of cultural or historical conditions. First, this particular fashioning of the American project served as an intended beacon to nations that sought to align with the United States and Europe.
Second, resort to an abstract universalism served as an ideal means to achieving domestic unification among varying opponents of Communism, whether Evangelical, libertarian, Catholic, Jewish, and so on. This is what was came to be labeled conservatism.
Conceiving the American project as a universalist and ahistorical set of ideals served two specific political commitments which came to dominate actual conservative policy.
First: An airbrushed liberal reading of the Constitution was attractive to several key constituencies, especially economic libertarians and businessmen. While representing a small percentage of the electoral base, they played an outsized role especially as funders of what would become the vast network of conservative institutions. Intellectual histories of the period show that there were many contenders for what might become the main philosophical competitor to Communism and Progressivism—whether Burkean traditionalism (Russell Kirk), common-law constitutionalism (George Carey), Jeffersonian and Tocquevillian localism represented by agrarianism, or even Catholic (ranging from the liberal John Courtney Murray to the proto-integralist Brent Bozell). And while many of these elements were incorporated as minor themes in the movement, its institutional form became dominated by the libertarian views of those who were paying the piper—the likes of Joseph Coors, John Engalitcheff (Fund for American Studies, Young America’s Foundation), Richard Mellon Scaife, and eventually the Koch brothers.
Second: a reading of the Founding that was theoretical, universal, and timeless undergirded a foreign policy that could be cast as a global competitor to the universalist ideology of the Soviet Union. A liberal reading of the Founding was especially appealing to the neoconservative wing of the Republican party, many of whom took the lead in the expansion of the defense sector and America’s growing international garrison imperium. The universalist appeal was on full display in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and in particular, was invoked with universalist purity in George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address. (Interestingly, John Agresto, who served as president of the American University in Iraq following the invasion, would later write a book called Mugged by Reality, a play on the oft-used phrase to describe how onetime Marxists became conservatives. However, he used to to describe how he—a onetime neocon—became a Burkean).
In short, the two groups that came to dominate the conservative complex advanced what was titled by Eisenhower as “the military-industrial complex.” A universalist, theoretical construction of America proved critical to the domestic and international requirements of these two groups. While conservatism spoke in the tones of preservation and recovery, “conservatism” advanced the two most destabilizing forces for lived conservatism, a globalized economy and a globalized military empire. These two endeavors culminated not only in the twin failures of the 2008 economic crisis and the debacle in Iraq (and later, Afghanistan), but unleashed entropic forces that have visibly degraded any existing American republican virtues (exactly what Eisenhower sought to warn his countrymen about). While conservatives would decry the baleful effects of Progressives—often correctly—there was not a little effort taking place to distract conservatives from what the Right hand was doing while denouncing the Left hand. The evidence from the post-WWII reign of the American hegemony should be clear: the past five decades has been very good for the managerial elite that runs the military-industral complex, while exceedingly poor for anything recognizably “conservative.” And it’s not America’s Founding that is to blame, but a significant part of what is to blame is a highly selective, tendentious interpretation of the Founding that coopted the label “conservative” that ultimately bore little, if any, relation to the American nation at the time of the actual Founding—one that was, in fact, profoundly conservative.
Let me conclude by noting one final, problematic aspect of the appeal to “Return to the Founding.” Namely, by casting some light on the work is being done by the language of Return. Return, after all, sounds . . . conservative. It is an appeal to the past, a turning back, a resistance to heedless lurching into the future—suggesting that we “stand athwart History yelling, Back!” The language of Return evokes the superiority of the past, the wisdom of the ancients, and the anchoring truths of our forbears. It is designed to sound like and appeal to conservatives. Yet, the call to “return to the Founding” is, in fact, appeal to a set of ideas, philosophical principles, and theory—ultimately abstractions that don’t actually reflect an actual human community that we can locate in history. Note that such conservatives never appeal to any particular time, but rather, a detached set of theoretical constructs—ones that are ultimately as “real” as the state of nature.
While the appeal to the American Founding sounds like an appeal to the past, in fact, its essence shares far more with the Utopianism of the progressives it typically condemns. The Founding, by this telling, has never been tried. In some senses, we await our actual “founding” yet to take place some time in the future. All the while, the appeal to a liberal utopian future—much like the example of the Soviet Union it was designed to combat—serves as a shroud for a power elite that advances its interests at the expense of the kulaks.
We need not a “return to the Founding,” but a less theoretical and less ideological America. More history, less theory. More memory, less fantasy. More focus on what we must build that we might then seek to conserve, rather than defending to the last breath a philosophy of profligacy and hubris that continuously degrades whatever virtues remain.
And, above all, conservatives—Americans as a whole—should undo the destruction of a highly tendentious and abstract understanding of America that rests on libertarian wish-casting about the Founding. Instead, we must begin with a topic that has been a continuous part of the American tradition, concern for the common good. Our Constitution, and our nation as a whole, is capacious and rich enough in traditions and practices to provide powerful support for a renewal of the ancient and modern concern for the common good. And if it is the case that our own national loam is in some places too thin, too depleted, or too dessicated to provide the nutrients for a robust common good, then let us commit to enriching our soil, and to cultivate a rich humus in which new roots can deepen and spread. Let us do so with as much energy, passion, and commitment as inspired our forbears who built places like this university, in the very beginning stone by stone—not at first with the wealth that would today make a Pharoah blush—but, now, as then, out of shared sacrifice, what remains of republican virtue, and an aspiration for the good that is common, for our generation, for our children, and for our children’s children.
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