The Corner

Politics & Policy

In Defense of the American Idea

My article on the homepage today is rather long, so I thought I should provide a few postcards, as it were, to help readers decide whether they feel like taking the trip. These are the main questions that the article addresses: How does the “American idea” of government of, by, and for the people — an abstract political doctrine — relate to the American people in their cultural particularity? What does that political doctrine presuppose about human beings and our ethical duties toward one another? How should the American idea guide our thinking about multiculturalism, cultural assimilation, and American exceptionalism? How do the coercive tendencies of contemporary progressives, on one hand, and the alt-right attempt to justify racial and ethnic discrimination by means of statistics, on the other, run afoul of American political principles? How does personal identity relate to cultural, ethnic, racial, and other collective identities? And should generosity be a factor in our attitude toward immigrants and refugees (not to mention one another), even if it must always be counterbalanced by a prudent regard for our own interests and security?

On the whole, the piece can be taken as an argument against minimizing the philosophical patriotism embodied in the principles of the Founding. The populist-nationalist style that increasingly characterizes the American Right has brought to prominence certain themes that “movement conservatism” had — I do not deny — in part neglected (e.g., the plight of the working class, the consequences of uncontrolled immigration). Many of my colleagues have insightfully examined those themes, and there is much to learn from their work.

I believe it would be a grave mistake, however, for this current emphasis to reduce the commitment of the Right to the universalist principles of the Founding, leading us to turn instead toward a particularistic cultural patriotism that blends at the margins into ethno-nationalism. If culture is “upstream from politics,” then ideas — fundamental philosophical ideas about the rights of human beings and the purpose of government — have been, over the long term, upstream even from our culture. They have shaped it and guided it, to our own great benefit and that of humanity in general. What most alarms me about the present political scene is not that the progressive Left has abandoned much of the Founding vision — that is an old story, and part of the story is that an intellectually vibrant form of principled conservatism arose to resist it. No, what most alarms me is that the Founding vision now also faces a virulent challenge from the right, whether in the full-blown alt-right noxiousness of a Richard Spencer deriding movement conservatives as “a bunch of boring fatsos talking about how much they love the Constitution” or the subtler, more mainstream, and therefore more dangerous enthusiasm of a Patrick Buchanan for “moving beyond the niceties of liberal democracy.” We ignore such developments — or minimize them for reasons of political expediency or self-comfort — at our peril.

Yesterday, I wrote more briefly and light-heartedly — here — about what I consider the other new challenge to the American idea: the “neoreactionary” movement. I think neoreactionary thinking is probably too marginal to wield much practical influence, at least for now, and there are things I like about the writings of its progenitor, Mencius Moldbug; but, as a political theory, neoreaction strikes me as wrongheaded in ways that are potentially catastrophic and illuminating to reflect on.