Charles Krauthammer, who died last June at the age of 68, was the most important political columnist of the post–Cold War era. In fact, he gave that era its name. In an essay for Foreign Affairs published in its winter 1990/1991 issue, Krauthammer pronounced the dawn of a unipolar moment, when American political, economic, military, and cultural power went unchallenged. In subsequent essays and articles, he articulated a foreign policy of democratic realism by which the United States might prolong the unipolar moment as it pursued the ambitious and controversial goal of what he called “universal dominion.”
Yet Krauthammer was also among the first to suggest that the unipolar moment may be drawing to a close. By 2008, the wars in the Middle East had gone badly, Russia under Vladimir Putin had invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and the global financial crisis and Great Recession had undermined confidence in American leadership. In his essays, speeches, and appearances on Special Report with Bret Baier, Krauthammer gave voice to the fears of conservatives over what an Obama presidency might bring. The writing of Charles Krauthammer defined a historical epoch.
And his life exemplified the political currents of his time. He was not the only Baby Boomer to begin adulthood as an LBJ, Great Society Democrat and end it as a Reagan conservative Republican. Many children of the 1960s, on both left and right, shared his commitment to individual liberty. The son of refugees from the Third Reich, he had learned from his parents the nature of totalitarianism, the horrors of fascism and Communism, and the necessity of Zionism.
Krauthammer’s life as a public intellectual traced the arc of American power from the rise of Reagan to the rise of Trump. But this eminent conservative intellectual was not always comfortable within the conservative movement. When Charles Krauthammer’s first collection appeared in 1985, National Review was skeptical. “Charles Krauthammer is so judicious he makes George Will look like a mud wrestler,” wrote NR’s reviewer. “He is judiciously equidistant between left and right on all sorts of issues; he stands for ‘centrism’ in politics; his tone is Solomonic.”
Three decades later, when Krauthammer’s posthumous collection, The Point of It All, edited by his son Daniel Krauthammer, was released, National Review was nowhere as reserved. “In addition to being a stellar book, it is a service: a portable, continuing Charles,” wrote Jay Nordlinger in the magazine’s February 25, 2019, issue.
What accounts for this change in attitude? How did Krauthammer go from a liberal Democrat to a conservative Republican? The answer Krauthammer often gave when someone asked how he went from writing speeches for Walter Mondale to appearing nightly on the Fox News Channel was, “I was young once.”
But youthful idealism gradually transforming into adult realism is not the whole story. Indeed, Krauthammer always was realistic about human nature and potential. If Krauthammer was a conservative, what sort of conservative was he? His life, career, ideological evolution, and philosophical background are reminders that he matters not only for what he thought but for how he thought.
Three things characterized the life of Charles Krauthammer: chance, contention, and pluralism. His biography — and the formation of his public philosophy — is a story of the interaction of these three elements.
‘The way I look at life is that it’s all an accident,” Krauthammer once told A. B. Stoddard. “Everything.” The fateful happenings started long before he was born. Charles’s mother, Thea Horowitz, was born in Antwerp in the early Twenties. The German invasion in 1940 sent her Jewish family into exile. She fled to New York City. His father, Shulim Krauthammer, also fled the Nazis after they invaded France. They met during a visit Thea made to Havana to see her parents, who had been denied U.S. visas.
Shulim was managing a factory producing industrial diamonds for the American Army. They wed and began a life together that would take them around the world. Charles’s brother, Marcel, was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1946. Charles was born in New York City in 1950. The family moved to Montreal when Charles was five but returned every summer during his youth to Long Beach, Long Island.
Theirs was an Orthodox Jewish household in which the main language spoken was French. “By the end of his life [my father] spoke nine languages and, by the real end of his life, was speaking them all at the same time,” Krauthammer told Brian Lamb of C-SPAN in 2005. “His motto was, ‘I want you to know everything,’” Krauthammer told Bret Baier in 2013. “You don’t have to do everything, but you’ve got to know everything.”
Krauthammer studied at McGill University and graduated at 20 years old. It was there that he began to adopt the politics of pluralism. He discovered Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty upon its publication when he was 19. “I read this book and a great fog — made of equal parts youthful enthusiasm, hubris, and naïveté — lifted. I was forever enlisted on the side of limited, constitutional government — flawed as it was and despised at the time as ‘the system.’”
He became the editor of the McGill Daily at the beginning of his senior year. “A week earlier, the student council had fired the previous editor on the grounds that the paper’s mindless, humorless Maoism had rendered it unreadable.” Krauthammer’s first editorial was headlined “End of the Monolith” and emphasized viewpoint diversity.
For him, centrism “didn’t mean splitting differences or straddling some ideological midpoint. It meant viewing certainty with suspicion and acknowledging, with both regret and resolve, the imperfectability of man, the fallibility of institutions, and the tragic — rather than redemptive — nature of history.”
He was named a Commonwealth Scholar and read political philosophy at Balliol College at Oxford. He studied Mill, whose On Liberty became for him a foundational text. His tutor was John Plamenatz. “I remember I handed him my first essay one week and I came in to see him and he said, ‘Krauthammer, I don’t know about your creativity, but you’re certainly creative in your spelling.’ That kind of put me in my place. But reading with him for a year was my first sort of mind-expanding experience in political theory. And in a sense that year, year-and-a-half is what has stayed with me all this time.”
His background and education as a child of the British Commonwealth not only affected Krauthammer’s development. It also distinguished him from his future colleagues in the conservative intellectual movement in America. Looking to the Founding and to the Declaration of Independence in particular, many American conservatives, and indeed the dominant faction among them today, frame their arguments in terms of natural law or natural right or equal natural rights. The émigré philosopher Leo Strauss was perhaps the critical influence in the formation of this cast of mind.
Krauthammer was no Straussian. “What you might call American Straussianism was not even part of the conversation,” Krauthammer told Charles Kesler in 2015. “What was part of the debate at Oxford was Continental philosophy. So it wasn’t Strauss that you had to argue against, it was Hegel and Marx and Rousseau and the whole Continental philosophy, and that was what energized us at the time. So I discovered all this later. But by then I was so old I couldn’t absorb it.”
Nor was Krauthammer a libertarian. He appreciated libertarian thought, calling Robert Nozick, whose Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published in 1974, a “philosophical genius” in The Weekly Standard in 2002. But the doctrine of libertarianism was not, in his view, satisfying:
Libertarianism is sort of the literalism of JSM and Berlin. It’s sort of like somebody who is a literalist, fundamentalist in religion. It’s interesting, grounded, but doesn’t capture the spirit and it produces in real life a distortion of the philosophy. Libertarianism I’ve always thought is an excellent and irreplaceable critique of conservatism but it is not a governing philosophy. It’s too poor and limited to be a governing philosophy. It needs to account for the modern welfare state, the fact that we are not living in tiny republics. I think that the Constitution is a sophisticated adaptation of Mill. It recognizes a size, it recognizes there’s a role for the state, and it tries to circumscribe it within a regime of liberty. But if you go for pure individualism, you end up in a completely impractical fundamentalism.
Krauthammer imbibed the anti-teleological spirit of British philosophy. He was suspicious of if not outright hostile to metaphysics. “I’ve never even understood natural law, natural right,” he said in 2015. “I remember being in a lot of seminars at Oxford on this — and I know what it is and how it’s defined — but I never could find the ground on which it stood. ‘Natural’ as defined by, as decreed by, whom? It seemed totally arbitrary, and I don’t particularly like philosophies that begin with arbitrary decrees.”
Where, then, did he find the ground for individual liberty? Krauthammer gave us a hint when he told Kesler he preferred the term “inalienable” to “natural.” Rights, he suggested, inhere in the persons of rational choosing beings. He followed Kant in believing that humans are ends in themselves. “Civilization,” he wrote in the 1980s, “hangs on the Kantian principle that human beings are to be treated as ends and not means. So much depends on that principle because there is no crime that cannot be, that has not been, committed in the name of the future against those who inhabit the present.”
Indeed, the more one studies Krauthammer, the more one sees Kant strolling in the background. The gentleman from Königsberg is there in Krauthammer’s separation of empirical nature and subjective thought, his appreciation for the Enlightenment and its principles, his use of reason to establish ethical rules of behavior.
Listen to his statement to the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2002: “We want to bequeath to them [our children] a world, a moral universe, in which we think they ought to live. And . . . we may be jeopardizing the moral quality of that universe, the humanity of that universe, by cavalierly breaking moral rules that we have observed for generations in order that people like me can walk.”
As he worked on his thesis, Krauthammer became disillusioned with philosophy. A friend was on leave from Harvard Medical School, to which Krauthammer had been accepted the previous year. “In his room was a bookshelf that fascinated me. It contained a set of neatly bound, three-ring notebooks. Each, in turn, contained a complete set of med-school lecture notes: anatomy, histology, cardiology, and so on. I imagined that all one had to do was to know — memorize, perhaps — everything on this single shelf, and one would command a certain irrefutable reality.”
Eventually Krauthammer asked Harvard if the offer of admission was still valid. It was. “Two weeks later I found myself in Boston listening to the opening lecture on enzymes.” It was 1972.
During his first summer of medical school, after playing tennis with a friend, Krauthammer put his books on the ground and dove into a campus pool. “I knew exactly what happened,” he told Baier. “I knew why I wasn’t able to move. And I knew what that meant.” He was paralyzed at the bottom of the pool. “There was no panic. There was no great emotion. I didn’t see a light. My life did not flash before me.” He had hit the bottom with his head and sustained no injury except the breaking of his spinal cord. His friend fished him out. The two books at the side of the pool were his neurology textbook and André Malraux’s Man’s Fate.
Krauthammer was hospitalized for a year and two months. “I spent that year basically in physical therapy, exercising, regaining my strength,” he said in 2005. “And it took a lot of time. That was the whole day, eight hours a day on the mat, training, weightlifting, and all of that. And then in the evening I studied.”
His mentor Hermann Lisco arranged for his special instruction. “Within a few days, a hematology professor, fresh from lecturing to my classmates on campus, showed up at my bedside and proceeded to give me the lecture, while projecting his slides on the ceiling above me,” Krauthammer wrote in 2000. “(I was flat on my back in traction, but I’m sure Hermann had instructed everybody to carry on as if such teaching techniques were entirely normal.)” Relearning handwriting took three years.
He rejoined his class in his third year, and married Robyn Trethewey, whom he had met at Oxford, in 1974. He graduated on time in 1975. He became chief resident of psychiatry at Massachusetts General. He was grateful for his medical education: “Doctoring taught me about real suffering, which I can now readily distinguish from the more literary forms of anguish. And life in the shadow- and mirror-world of psychiatry cured me finally of a young man’s need for hardness to truth,” he wrote in 1985. But he was coming to the realization that he could not spend the rest of his life as a physician.
“And then, pure blind luck,” he wrote in the introduction to Things That Matter. “With only a few months left in my residency, a professor with whom I’d written a couple of papers on manic-depressive disease was appointed out of the blue by President Carter to head a newly created federal superagency overseeing the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).” Krauthammer suggested he might go with the professor. And he did.
In 1978, the Krauthammers moved to Washington. “When I left psychiatry to start writing — a movement that my late father wryly noted was not very well calculated for upward mobility — I did so not out of any regret for the seven years I had spent in medicine, years that I treasure for deepening and broadening my sensibilities, but because I felt history happening outside the examining-room door,” he recalled in a 2003 speech. “That history was being shaped by a war of ideas and I wanted to be in the arena. Not for its own sake. I enjoy intellectual combat, but I do not live for it. I wanted to be in the arena because some things matter, some things need to be said, some things need defending.”
While at NIMH, Krauthammer noticed a call for articles in the pages of The New Republic. His wife urged him to make a submission. The magazine’s editor, Michael Kinsley, was intrigued. Krauthammer’s first article, “The Expanding Shrink,” was published in the September 22, 1979, issue. It was reprinted in the Washington Post. Another piece, “The Myth of Thomas Szasz,” was published in the December 22, 1979, issue. He might have joined the editorial staff then.
Instead he ended up working as a speechwriter for Vice President Mondale during the final months of the Carter presidency. “When we got totally crushed in the general election, I got a call from The New Republic and they said, ‘We think you’re unemployed now. Would you like to come work for us?’ I said, ‘Yes, right away.’” His first day on the job was Reagan’s inauguration.
Two years later, he began contributing a monthly essay to Time magazine, a relationship that continued until 2008. In December 1984, he wrote his first column for the Washington Post, and he became nationally syndicated the following year, when his son Daniel was born. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1987. His final column was published on June 8, 2018. He died some two weeks later.
Krauthammer’s life was filled with pastimes, pursuits, passions, and convictions. Its backdrop was happenstance and coincidence. “These quite fantastic twists and turns,” he wrote in 2013, “have given me a profound respect for serendipity and a rather skeptical view about how much one really is master of one’s fate.” When young people asked him how to become a columnist, he replied, “First go to medical school.”
But as random and haphazard and tragic as life can be, Krauthammer also was determined to make the most of circumstances. He demonstrated the ability of willpower to enable one to adapt to and flourish in changed and even hostile environments. “Decline,” he famously said, “is a choice.”
In a column on the baseball player Rick Ankiel, Krauthammer reflected on the shooting of Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. “Reagan, the preternatural optimist, may have had difficulty fathoming tragedy,” he wrote. “But no one knows why Hobbs is shot. It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back.”
‘When I went into journalism,” Krauthammer told Brian Lamb, “I decided this is what I wanted to do. The point of it was to say what I believed, and I didn’t really care one way or another how people would react. Otherwise I’d still be a doctor. It’s an easier life and I don’t have to take those risks.”
The value he placed on intellect, reason, and argument is obvious. It is evident in his fascination with and passion for science: the clarity and precision of mathematics and physics; the achievements of the scientific method; the systematization of medical knowledge.
He was an inductive rather than a deductive thinker. He held to few general principles but his belief in individual freedom and support for liberal democracy. “That there’s a sphere of rights that are inviolable, and the truth is not to be imposed but discovered by contention — those are sort of the central ideas,” he told Kesler in 2015.
Krauthammer was not a religious believer. He liked to joke, “I don’t believe in God, but I fear him greatly.” (He was agnostic, telling Lamb, “Of all the possible theologies, atheism is the least plausible.”) He seems to have operated under the assumption that something like the scientific method could be applied to political and social and ethical life. Hypotheses are meant to be tested, evidence gathered, diagnoses made, truth determined by contention and measurement.
“I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking,” he wrote in his final statement. Five years earlier, he said that he had learned from Mill that “truth emerges from an unfettered competition of ideas and that individual character is most improved when allowed to find its own way un-coerced.”
His emphasis was on individual choice rather than the traditional authority of family, church, and nation. He understood that our scientific view of nature is changeable. One minute you operate under a Newtonian conception of gravity; the next minute Albert Einstein demonstrates time and space are relative. “As a doctor, I had been trained in empirical evidence,” he told Bret Baier in 2013. “If the treatment is killing your patient, you stop the treatment.”
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, he found himself persuaded by thinkers such as Mancur Olson, Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, and later Heather Mac Donald. “I began to look and read and think about whether the view I had of a social-democratic society like they had in Europe was the right way, and I moved gradually to the idea of a more limited, smaller government.”
Like a medical technician, Krauthammer understood that it was imperative to remain calm and dispassionate. “Remember that a people — even the most sensible people — can all lose their heads at once,” he told the graduating class of McGill in 1993. “When confronted with a national riot of dread: Keep your head.” He wrote that one of his goals was to “conduct a critical — clinical, perhaps — inquiry into those political and moral questions of inescapable ambiguity (like abortion or human experimentation) which demand illumination rather than solution, and which divide us far more bitterly than they should.” He added, “I suspect some of the habits of thought I absorbed in medicine have influenced my writing.” That was an understatement.
Krauthammer was more interested in objective behaviors than in subjective inner states. “We live in an age in which the highest moral injunction is to get in touch with one’s feelings,” he told the students at McGill. “Speaking as a psychiatrist — well, as a psychiatrist in remission — I can assure you that this is a highly overrated pursuit.” Discussing the Nixon tapes in a 1999 column, he wrote, “I don’t really care what a public figure thinks. I care about what he does. Let God probe his inner heart. Tell me about his outer acts.”
He reasoned by making distinctions. Not for nothing was the title of his 1985 collection “Cutting Edges.” “The trouble with blurring moral distinctions,” he wrote in Time in 1984, “even for the best of causes, is that it can become a habit. It is a habit we can ill afford, since the modern tolerance for such distinctions is already in decline.”
Consider the distinction he drew in the introduction to Things That Matter between political practice, which “deserves grudging respect for its power,” and political philosophy, which “commands reverence for its capacity for grandeur and depth, as exemplified in the sublime texts of the American founding.” Or how he began an article on drone strikes: “Three categories of questions are being asked. They must be separated to be clearly understood.”
Perhaps the most important distinction is between negative liberty and positive liberty. Paraphrasing Isaiah Berlin, Krauthammer wrote in a 1997 column, “What the monists — the believers in the one true truth, Marx and Rousseau and (by implication) such Third World deities as Mao and Ho and Castro — are proclaiming is not freedom. What they offer may be glorious and uplifting and just. But freedom is something very different. Freedom is being left alone. Freedom is a sphere of autonomy, an inviolable political space that no authority may invade.”
Krauthammer’s career testifies to the power of argument. “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race,” Mill wrote; “posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” It’s as if the public sphere were a giant atom smasher, flinging arguments against one another and seeing what emerges.
In his eulogy for his father, Daniel Krauthammer observed that Charles’s belief in liberty and democracy, reliance on induction and empirical evidence, faith in the ability of truth to emerge from intellectual argument, and slicing and dicing of concepts and phenomena in pursuit of clarity were the consequence of a deeper skepticism. “His passion for deep understanding,” wrote Krauthammer fils, “led him to what may have been his most firmly held belief: that the very nature of human understanding is limited, that we must have not only humility, but also reverence in the face of the great unknowns that lie before us and that we will never know.”
Daniel quoted from an unpublished letter of his father’s in which Charles responds to his son’s description of his work as exemplifying
“an appreciation, even a love of the unknowable.” Exactly. Precisely. And it unifies everything. It really is like a grand unified theory that I would never see myself. And then of course it is in accordance with the single piece of literature that had the most profound effect of my entire life, The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges. Which is precisely about the appreciation of, the love of, and the terror of the unknowable — in the hope that, as he puts it so poignantly in one passage, just some person somewhere any time in history should have had the knowledge, the revelation, that has been denied me and always will be.
Charles Krauthammer was the most emphatic, declarative, and definitive of writers and speakers. Yet behind his forceful articulation of common sense was a deep recognition of human smallness and frailty — of what cannot, what can never, be known.
‘The notion that there must exist final objective answers to normative questions, truths that can be demonstrated or directly intuited, that it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled, and that it is towards this unique goal that we must make; that we can uncover some single central principle that shapes this vision, a principle which, once found, will govern our lives — this ancient and almost universal belief, on which so much traditional thought and action and philosophical doctrine rests, seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.”
So wrote Isaiah Berlin in words Charles Krauthammer read in the introduction to Four Essays on Liberty in 1969. This is the second central idea of Krauthammer’s public philosophy: the distinction between pluralism and monism.
How did Berlin define pluralism? “I am not a relativist,” he wrote in his final essay, published in 1998. “I do not say, ‘I like coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps’ — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ.”
There is not an infinite number of such values, Berlin wrote. Nor are they subjective. “The fact that men are men and women are women and not dogs or cats or tables or chairs is an objective fact; and part of this objective fact is that there are certain values, and only those values, which men, while remaining men, can pursue.”
“The enemy of pluralism,” Berlin went on, “is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism — to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed.”
Note, however, that Berlin never provides a rule or rules by which to distinguish good values from bad. It is this omission that opens up pluralism to accusations of relativism. Krauthammer was aware of this weakness. Pluralism, he wrote in 1997, “was brilliant in deconstructing the political romantics. But it did have its logical conundrum. Philosopher Leo Strauss, in his essay ‘Relativism,’ surgically exposed the central paradox of Berlin’s position: that it made pluralism — the denial of one supreme, absolute value — the supreme, absolute value.”
Krauthammer encountered his own version of the paradox when writing his Oxford thesis on the conflict between Mill’s pluralist ethics and his more, shall we say, monist aesthetics. He found himself “deep into a black hole of circular speculation,” unable to achieve resolution. His solution? He abandoned the thesis and became a doctor.
You adopt pluralism aware of and willing to tolerate its slipperiness, its inability wholly to satisfy. And several things follow. The pluralist is opposed to monist regimes, nation-states that require populations to obey one value above all others, whether it be Marxism-Leninism, Nazism, Jacobinism, or a religious sect. The pluralist, in Krauthammer’s understanding, therefore finds himself against contemporary American liberalism, otherwise and more appropriately known as progressivism.
“Modern liberalism’s perfectionist ambitions,” Krauthammer wrote in Things That Matter, “reflected in its progenitor (and current euphemism), progressivism — seeks to harness the power of government, the mystique of science, and the rule of experts to shape both society and citizen and bring them both, willing or not, to a higher state of being.”
It was the apparent willingness of the Democratic party to abandon Millian pluralism in favor of monist conceptions of egalitarianism and social justice that moved Krauthammer rightward. Yet his commitment to pluralism also ensured that he never would be a perfect match for the American Right. In a review of George Will’s The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions and Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism that appeared in the June 16, 1982, issue of The New Republic, Krauthammer wrote:
What makes Will as infuriating as he is charming is that he speaks of “the natural order” as if we all know — as if he knows — what he is talking about. Perhaps in 1790, when Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, most educated Anglo-Saxon men had a sense of natural liberty, natural right, and natural order, and could speak confidently of self-evident truths. But two centuries of individualism, capitalism, and secularism — however much Will may lament these innovations — have drained “natural order” of whatever common meaning it may have had. Who or what is to define the “natural order” we are to submit to today?
By contrast, Krauthammer said, Michael Novak’s argument for democratic capitalism (a.k.a. liberal democracy) incorporated the pluralist model. “Democratic capitalism is uniquely able to guarantee moral pluralism,” he wrote. “On the question of the ends of life it is necessarily neutral. The individual, the family, the church, and the other ‘mediating structures’ must decide that for themselves. Soulcraft is not the job of statecraft. At the ‘spiritual core’ of democratic capitalism, Novak insists, ‘there is an empty shrine.’”
The presence of the empty shrine is a rebuff to a human nature that seems drawn to monism. The “deeply disillusioning truth” about democracy, Krauthammer wrote in 1990, “is that it is designed at its core to be spiritually empty.” Citing Berlin’s essay “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” Krauthammer continued, “the defining proposition of liberal democracy is that it mandates means (elections, parliaments, markets) but not ends. Democracy leaves the goals of life entirely up to the individual.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the strength of a pluralist liberal democracy depends in some measure on monist elements within it. In a 1986 column headlined “In Praise of Fanatics,” Krauthammer wrote that “a mass of contending extremisms” in society “helps produce a moderation that would otherwise be impossible.” Granting various groups of monists “the power of petition and contention” — as long as they do not challenge the pluralist scheme itself — is a “brilliant scheme for harnessing the energy that lies at the political extremes and deflecting it to produce, paradoxically, a moderating effect.” By contrast, Krauthammer said, “societies where contending extremisms — i.e., pluralism — are not permitted are subject to catastrophic headlong plunges, such as the Soviets’ crash nuclear power program.”
The weakness of a pluralist system is that it does not provide ultimate direction to individual lives. Its strength is that it creates the space for individuals to choose their own way guided by, but not entirely subordinate to, families, communities, churches, and voluntary associations. Politics “is really a manual for means and not ends, but the genius of it is that you decide your own ends,” Krauthammer told Charles Kesler.
Liberal democracy might not quench the human thirst for certitude. It may thwart the will to power of individuals and groups convinced they have discovered the one universal truth. But it does protect the rights of minorities, including minorities of one, to pursue their own ends in life.
It was not lost on Krauthammer that he belonged to a minority. Liberal democracy provided a shelter under which Jews could live their lives safely. While not a religious man, Krauthammer nevertheless devoted himself to the cause of Jewish education, Jewish heritage, and Zionism. Liberal democracy and Jewish survival, he seemed to suggest, were intertwined.
The appeal of American pluralism made the existence of Israel all the more crucial. “One could do worse than merge one’s destiny with that of a great and humane nation dedicated to the proposition of human dignity and equality,” he wrote in his landmark 1998 essay “Zionism and the Fate of the Jews.” “Nonetheless, while assimilation may be a solution for individual Jews, it clearly is a disaster for Jews as a collective with a memory, a language, a tradition, a liturgy, a history, a faith, a patrimony that will all perish as a result.”
The fate of a culture, a heritage, a religion, and its millions of adherents was contingent on politics. “Of course, the greatest demonstration of the finality of politics is the Holocaust,” Krauthammer wrote in the introduction to Things That Matter, “which in less than a decade destroyed a millennium-old civilization, sweeping away not only 6 million souls but the institutions, the culture, the very tongue of the now-vanished world of European Jewry. The only power comparably destructive belongs to God.”
You see the stakes. The defense of pluralism and liberal democracy is no trifle. Our lives depend on it. So do all the things that make life worth living: “science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory, and all things hard and beautiful” that “promise purity, elegance, and sometimes even transcendence.” Politics is not merely the struggle of men for power. It is a system of social organization that shapes the very possibilities of existence.
Charles Krauthammer understood how great a role chance plays in life. But his choice of career was no accident.
–This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered in March as part of “Charles Krauthammer: A Life in the Arena,” a seminar of the Hertog Foundation.
This article appears as “Why Krauthammer Matters” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.