Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

First Principles

Flag a a Veteran’s Day parade in New York City in 2016. (Reuters photo: Eduardo Munoz)
Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments That Redefined American Conservatism, by Steven F. Hayward (Encounter, 296 pp., $25.99)

Steve Hayward may be the most versatile man in American conservatism. A prolific author, perhaps best known for his justly lauded two-volume biography of President Reagan, Hayward has written highly regarded books on everything from Winston Churchill’s leadership to environmental theology. He’s a leading blogger at the popular Power Line site, a prolific podcaster, formerly a frequent guest host of Bill Bennett’s talk-radio show, and currently a senior resident scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.

But even given Hayward’s diverse skills and prolific output, Patriotism Is Not Enough still comes as a surprise. There are just not many conservative public intellectuals who have deep knowledge of public policy who can also offer a subtle and textured analysis of political philosophy. But in this study of Leo Strauss and some of his leading disciples and their profound effects on American conservatives’ views of politics and statesmanship, that is just what Hayward has done.

On further reflection, however, perhaps Patriotism isn’t such a departure after all. It ties together the various strands of Hayward’s career: After his writings on environmentalism, he explores politics as a study of “human ecosystems”; and his studies of Churchill and Reagan showed the practical importance of leadership and statesmanship, which Patriotism now grounds in philosophy.

Hayward’s intellectual roots are very much in high political theory and, in particular, the school of West Coast Straussians that grew up around Harry Jaffa at the Claremont Graduate School. It was there that Hayward was first exposed to some of the principal ideas that animate his book. The book is part history and part memoir, written in a literary style that brings out his wry personality.

Patriotism is, at its heart, an exploration of some of the most important philosophical debates in modern conservatism, taking as its point of departure the deaths on the same day in 2015 of Jaffa and Walter Berns, who, despite many areas of fundamental agreement, carried on a lifelong quarrel about the meaning of Strauss’s work and its relationship to America’s founding. The book is also a critique of modern political science, which has denigrated statesmanship in favor of regression modeling and “value free” methodology. What unites Strauss and his followers, even those who, like Berns and Jaffa, quarreled bitterly, was their rejection of this approach and their elevation of the importance of statesmanship, which Hayward defines as “the point of contact between political philosophy and real politics.”

Despite the often bitter and fundamental disagreements the Straussians had, this focus on statesmanship rather than data analysis united them well outside the mainstream of academic political science. (As Hayward approvingly quotes Strauss disciple Herbert Storing regarding his fellow Straussians: They feel “relief that they have not allowed political science to make them more stupid than they need to be.”)

Above all, Hayward, like the colorful figures he profiles, calls for a return to values in politics and a skepticism of the supposedly value-free modern social science. He quotes Strauss disciple Edward Banfield’s attack on so-called scientific politics: “Would anyone have maintained that in the Convention of 1787 the Founders would have achieved a better result with a staff of model-builders?”

For Strauss and his disciples, the positivism and historicism of contemporary social science kept it from answering truly important questions. Strauss wrote that modern social science was like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, excused only by the fact that “it does not know that it fiddles and it does not know that Rome burns.”

Hayward’s book touches on prominent philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Heidegger; it even includes an extensive discussion of Shakespeare’s politics. He also profiles statesmen and more obscure philosophers whose work is relevant to his theme, always showing a firm grasp of the material. The theoretical sledding is at times heavy — “Locke is what Aristotle would have been had Aristotle experienced the challenge of Christian revelation” — but Hayward writes in an accessible and easily comprehensible style, even when covering difficult territory.

One noteworthy element of Patriotism is the way that it eschews all of the modern buzzwords of Straussianism that caused Strauss to become something of a household name among conservative intellectuals. There is no discussion of ancients vs. moderns or the “theologico-political problem,” and no analysis of esoteric writing. Hayward’s Strauss is the Strauss of the public square, not the Strauss of the academic cloister.

At the heart of the dispute between Jaffa and Berns was the role of natural law as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, as a source of U.S. law as interpreted by the judiciary. For Jaffa, the Declaration and the Constitution were inextricably intertwined, and the rights spoken of in the Declaration must be vindicated by judges interpreting American law. For Berns, as a textualist, the Constitution itself should be the only guide, and to go beyond the constitutional text was to invite judicial activism. With respect to the various schools of Straussians, Hayward inclines somewhat toward a more expansive natural-law view of constitutionalism (a position taken by his mentor Jaffa), but he is a scrupulously fair judge and is quick to detail the problems with the position at length, especially as it opens the door to leftist meddling and the creation of nonexistent “rights” at the whim of liberal activist judges.

Hayward also stresses the importance of practical, or pragmatic, wisdom in statesmanship. In discussing Lincoln’s position on slavery, a subject of great interest to Straussians, Hayward notes that “securing a right is not the same as declaring a right” — a fact that the verbose yet toothless Obama administration would have done well to study. For example, Lincoln’s less ambitious claims about the rights of African-American slaves helped develop a consensus among his fellow Republicans that ultimately secured those rights after the Civil War and set up the foundation for future gains. Lincoln’s mastery of the politics of the possible is something of a touchstone of leadership for both Berns and Jaffa (Jaffa having written a classic study of the Lincoln–Douglas debates, The Crisis of the House Divided). Hayward not only handles these debates skillfully, he also shows awareness of occasional controversies about Lincoln and state power among conservatives and libertarians, some even present in the early days of this magazine. He memorably dismisses harsh critiques of Lincoln by Lew Rockwell (a major influence on Ron Paul) as “emblematic of why libertarianism attracts so few adherents.”

Patriotism does not attempt to referee the dispute between Berns and Jaffa. Instead, it shows how they strengthened conservatives’ engagement with serious constitutionalism. The two camps defined by Jaffa and Berns have split the conservative legal movement, with luminaries such as Bork and Scalia on the side of Berns and the textualists, and legal scholars such as Richard Epstein and Randy Barnett and Justice Clarence Thomas endorsing Jaffa’s natural-law view.

But while Patriotism does not explicitly favor either Scalia’s or Thomas’s view, Hayward is quick to critique today’s law students, even at the best schools, as “constitutional technicians rather than constitutionalists,” because they are unable to argue the underlying meaning of the Constitution outside of narrow court precedents. They lack even the conceptual framework to deal with the Jaffa–Berns debate.

Given their critique of contemporary social science, it is unsurprising that Hayward and the thinkers he profiles are critics of the modern technocratic administrative state and its pretensions to be apolitical, a conceit that deifies the technocrat and ignores the larger questions of government. And this skepticism has more than just theoretical implications.

“That bureaucratic government is the partisan instrument of the Democratic party is the most obvious, yet least remarked upon, trait of our time,” Hayward notes. This is not simply a philosophical aside: This will be one of the most profound challenges President Trump faces. The issues raised by Hayward, Berns, and Jaffa are very relevant for modern politics.

As in any book, there are some areas that leave the reader eager for more. Despite their rancor, the disputes between Strauss’s disciples that Hayward illuminates are so much less consequential, at least on the surface, than their areas of agreement that the arguments sometimes appear to be “a distinction without a difference” — which Hayward acknowledges. For example, while Hayward brilliantly delineates the great differences between the philosophical background of Justice Scalia’s judicial conservatism and that of Justice Thomas’s version, in the real world virtually all conservatives would be delighted to have either, and certainly both are vastly preferable to the basket of deplorable liberal justices on today’s Supreme Court. To have angst about the Scalia–Thomas differences is the ultimate conservative “First World problem.”

Both Jaffa and Berns were politically engaged; Jaffa wrote for Barry Goldwater the famous line that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Early in the book, Hayward recounts a conversation he had with Jaffa late in Jaffa’s life. The fate of the world, Jaffa told Hayward, depends on the United States, the fate of the United States depends on the conservative movement, and the fate of the conservative movement depends on the health and success of the Republican party.

Whether this presents a hopeful view or a cautionary one in the age of Trump remains to be seen, but, as with much else in this sparkling book, it provides a direct connection between the work of the philosopher and that of the statesman. While Hayward’s book is a deep meditation on statesmanship and political philosophy, one need not be an admirer of or even familiar with Leo Strauss to appreciate this paean to statesmanship.

The title of Patriotism comes from Jaffa, who often liked to say that “patriotism is not enough” to command the respect and affection of a nation’s citizens — a theme his adversary Berns echoed in his own work. For both of these Straussians, to be worthy of its citizens’ respect and affection, America must be great again. And if we are going to make America great again, our citizens, and our statesmen, must be good again.

– Mr. Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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