Founders Good, Progressives Bad? Come to Mercer and Find Out

So I’m going to debate Brad Watson on whether “Founders Good, Progressives Bad” is still the best or even an adequate premise for defending our Constitution today.

Come to Mercer University in Macon, Ga., tomorrow at 6 p.m. in the President’s Dining Room (which is very large) and listen, learn, and let us know what you think.

I will take the negative view. You always take the negative view, someone might complain. But my view is only partly negative: That the narrative still favored by some conservatives is at least semi-obsolete is evidence that America has gotten better and worse.

Here’s one thing: We’ve gotten over history in the Hegelian sense. Over the sense of “history is all there is,” and all we are are historical beings

You probably heard of the book by Leo Strauss called Natural Right and History. It was an excellent piece of Cold War, anti-totalitarianism polemic, among, of course, other things. All the anti-Communists were about defending natural rights and what’s right by nature and against the “historicist” Communists, who treated particular people not as unique and irreplaceable beings with rights but as expendable fodder for the glorious future to come — for the coming End of History. Against History the Lockeans and the Thomists and so forth — everyone who was all about personal dignity and individual rights — were united. The rhetorical high point of the war against History was the nobly ideological speeches of Ronald Reagan, who said that human nature was bound to prevail over lies about History.

The year 1989 was when History died. (It was already on life support, of course.) Everyone in the West believes in human rights now. That means that the particular individual is his or her own “bottom line.” I am not to be treated as a part of a country or species or church or even family. “I am not a part!” is the human-rights bumper sticker. But, you say, people who talk about human rights these days say they are non-foundational. But that’s because foundations, even nature, produce senseless killing. “I, the not a part, do not have to justify myself to you.” I’m an autonomous being.

Now, the students of Leo Strauss and many others also told us to think of the American progressive movement as a form of “historicism” that also didn’t take individuals and their rights very seriously. That’s why the American progressivists, such as Woodrow Wilson succumbed so often to racism and eugenics. And that’s why they were too much about a “great community” that subsumed the individual into an amorphous political whole. By progress, those progressives meant bigger and better schoolmarmish government that would gradually perfect the administrative regulation of the details of particular lives. They were, as Tocqueville explains, “soft despots,” who were different from the Communists more in their means than in their ends. They were constantly coming up with new economic “rights” that required more intrusive government protection. To keep the Constitution from getting in the way of their schemes, they claimed that the Constitution was made to evolve, mainly in the direction of enlightened executive leadership. First there’s FDR’s New Deal, then LBJ’s Great Society, and so forth and so on. This emphasis on leadership caused some conservatives to call progressivism “liberal Fascism.”

Against the progressives were those who talked about natural rights as given to us in the Declaration of Independence, and who said that History couldn’t change the permanent truths of that perfect statement of our founding principles. Those defenders of the Declaration often talked about a “jurisprudence of natural rights,” of a Court that should strike down much of the New Deal legislation as contrary to our Constitution rightly understood. And they often wrote against the “judicial restraint” that gave the benefit of the doubt to various progressivist schemes. But things have changed, and History in the sense of evolution to bigger and better government is dead or at least dying in our country’s practical politics, just as it is in theory. 

Now, I’m not denying that there are some self-styled progressives who still push the paternalistic evolutionary progressivist big-government agenda, including President Obama. But the idea that Constitution should be reinterpreted to include new rights — including welfare rights — peaked out in the mid to late Sixties. That’s definitely not the dominant view on the Court now. But not only that, the Era of Bigger and Better Government is over, just because it’s unsustainable. There are a bunch of reasons; maybe the top two are America’s retreat from dominance of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace. Another is the “birth dearth,” or too many old (and expensive) people and too few young (and productive) ones. If people were old-fashioned progressives these days in the mode of the natalist Theodore Roosevelt, they’d be having lots more kids to secure the future of our country, and the government would do at least something to encourage individuals to become parents and act like citizens. 

So the fundamental experience of the median American (most of us, in fact, including me) is the collapse of the safety nets both public and private that cushion the free individual from “market forces.” Everyone knows our entitlements need to be trimmed (and trimmed again and again) to have a sustainable future. Unions, pensions, employer and employee loyalty, and so forth are all fading away. Every defined benefit is morphing into a defined contribution. President Obama, on this front, is actually a conservative in the precise sense; he claims “to have your back” or to be the guy that keeps you from losing what you have now. He does a lot of lying, but not even the Republicans can say say out loud the inconvenient truth with which we’re all stuck. What about Obamacare, you say? It’s can’t last as is. It will be mended or ended.

Bernie Sanders actually campaigns as a progressive — or not as a Silicon Valley Democrat. He’s cute, he’s quaint, he’s a reactionary that reminds us of what his party and its vision once was and can’t be again.

But isn’t eugenics still around? Sure, but even there the individual is now the bottom line. Nobody is about using science on behalf of the species or the race or the citizenry or anything like that. The point of the new biotechnological eugenics is to keep each particular individual alive for as long as possible. The goal is for each of us to become even pro-choice on death. Nothing is less progressivist or community-oriented than thinking that the whole point of everything is to keep me from dying. But that’s what our transhumanists — who mostly vote Democrat — really think.

What about the Supreme Court? Isn’t it historicist in the sense of being on “the right side of History”? Well, sure, but it’s libertarian History, not the History of the Hegelians or the socialists or the eugenicists or FDR or LBJ. It’s the tale of the liberation of the autonomous individual and his or her duty-free rights from the oppressive constraints of any whole greater than him- or herself. It’s all about individual rights, and the thought of our legal scholars is that it’s all working out the intention of the Founders about individual liberty’s being the absolute bottom line. It’s all about judicial activism to strike down allegedly repressive government policies, to make government smaller. The next step, everyone really knows, is for the Court to force government out of the marriage business altogether. Marriage, after all, disses the relational autonomy of those who aren’t married, turning their personal lives into suspect, second-class affairs. Again, that may be good or bad, but it’s progress in the direction of viewing individuals as in no way parts, as free to determine themselves however they please in the absence of government coercion.

A big point is that the legal theorists who justify this evolution in the direction of more and more liberty think of themselves as originalists. They think that the point of the 14th Amendment was to give the Court the power to gradually transform all of American life with the Declaration’s natural rights in mind. All American law should be about consenting individuals and nothing more, which is, after all, what the Founders and their philosophers had in mind. Theirs is, they think, a “jurisprudence of natural rights.”

So it’s good we’ve gotten over History in the “history fodder” sense. But maybe we’ve gone too far in the other direction. “I am not a part” is extended from not being a sucker for History to refusal to think of oneself as a relational being, as a citizen or creature or parent or kid or spouse — or at least to be bound by any accompanying responsibilities. The Supreme Court is now about striking down every law that makes the individual any kind of part. And that’s why it’s detached marriage from the species imperatives of procreating and raising children and the more specific civic responsibility for providing for our future. It’s all about the individual and his needs, and the entitlement of marriage can detached from any particular set of civic duties. I’m not saying for now whether this is good or bad: But this evolution ain’t about big government, that’s for sure.

The trouble with pushing autonomy too much is that we lose the truthful relational content — the human purposes — that allows each of us to think of ourselves as more than productive beings. The result is that the market trumps in all areas life, and in the name of quite unrealistic (and inevitably pretty unhappy) ideas of personal liberty we end up enslaving ourselves to the imperatives of technology. 

So today’s conservative, constitutional narrative has to have room for going after the remaining old-fashioned progressives but going after the progressivist (in a different sense) techno-enthusiast transhumanists even more. In both cases, we’re talking about a defense of nature, but also more than that.

Well, there’s a lot more, but you gotta come to Macon.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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