Progress or Return?

The 98th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.


A reader asks our opinion of Ben Sasse.  Honestly, we don’t know much about him.  He seems like the kind of person we would have loved in 1994—or even in 2014.  We’re glad he got elected to the Senate and are confident that he’s better than the alternative would have been (not that we remember who that was).

The reader distinguishes between:

the Senator who has spent his brief (speaking) time in the Senate speaking against executive overreach, against the decline of the Congress, and against putting party before country—not the potential candidate for a third party bid which he has called for but seems uninterested in.  It is the later which Trump supporters and the media have recently noticed and mostly mocked, but he former seems more accurate and more interesting.

Are the two so easily separable?  More to the point, does Sasse himself see two Sasses or one?  Or does not his diagnosis of the times (your point #1) inform his prescription for what to do (your point #2)? Thus, to him, point #1 leads directly to #2.

Since you question his program (as do we), are we not—all of us—questioning his prudence?  His judgement?  His fitness to lead in these times?  We know we are …

We note as well that the reader is impressed by Sasse’s “speaking” record in the Senate.  (Later in his message, he praises Sasse’s Senate speeches about the history of the Senate.)  We haven’t heard or read any of them and we will take the reader’s word for it that they are fine speeches.  So what?  What has Sasse done?  That may sound pot-kettle coming from people whose chief public activity is to blog.  But at least in our capacity as editors of JAG, we are thinkers and writers.  Sasse aspires to be a statesman.  Statesmanship is the realm of action.  Not to take anything away from writer-statesmen such as Xenophon, Caesar, Lincoln and Churchill.  But you could strip away their writings and they would still be great statesmen.  Strip away the actions and they would just be writers.

Sasse’s only public act so far, as the reader notes, has been to call for a third party run to divide the Republican Party, stop Trump, and elect Hillary Clinton.  That may be “principled.”  Is it prudent?

In a similar vein, there is this from Mackubin Thomas Owens, a perfect encapsulation of what we call “restorationism.”  Owens praises little in the piece that we do not also love (though we question the relevance of John Stuart Mill to the American Idea).  But the idea that some “return” is possible in these circumstances strikes us as absurd.  What reasons could be cited to validate such a claim?  We would happily trade our current government for one that worked exactly as designed in 1787, as amended in 1865 and shortly thereafter (but, we hasten to add, with a proper understanding of the 14th Amendment that excludes birthright citizenship).  Do Sasse or Owens have a time machine? Ruby slippers?  Click the heels and say it three times: There’s no government like the U.S. Constitution!

The conditions of 2016—the state of the nation and of the people—make a such a return, if not a pipe dream, then at least far from the most urgent priority.  If we are to return to proper American Constitutional government, there is much we need to fix about America first.  We need to make the American people more fit for liberty.  That starts with ceasing to follow polices that undermine their fitness for liberty.  Secure the borders, promote their economic welfare, and stop draining their blood and treasure in pointless war.  Let’s see if we can help get them back to work, off the couch, off the booze and opiates, and all the things Kevin Williamson denounces them for.  Which we dutifully acknowledge are bad things.  And every bad moral choice is ultimately the responsibility of the chooser.

But “ultimately” does not mean “totally.”  Our elites created, through self-interested policy, rotten conditions in which the virtue of the people declined.  One could argue that many of those policies are consistent with some abstract conception of “liberty.”  But this is just further proof that libertarians are fools.  Men have passions and appetites that must be governed.  In the best men, these are governed solely by the self.  But in most men, self-government requires a complex web of relationships and institutions: families, friendships, churches, schools, communities, workplaces, and (gasp!) government—the state.

Strip away all the others, and all you’re left with is the state.  Machiavelli put it this way: fear of God can be replaced by fear of the prince.  But in republics, religion is indispensable.  We would include all those other things, too, but Nicky liked to be pithy.  Anyway, all those others have been undermined by many factors—emphatically including bad policy—in recent years. That leaves us with only the state to bludgeon us into minimally anti-social behavior.  How’s that working out?

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” reads one clause in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  How would you assess the state of 2016 America’s religion, morality and knowledge?  These, too, have been undermined by bad policy.  So why not try some good, or at least different, policies and see if we can do any better?  Do what we can to burnish families, friendships, churches, schools, communities, workplaces, and even good government?

We at JAG are not, to say the least, pie-eyed optimists.  Yet neither are we wholly without hope.  Thecycle of regimes is not always a perfect sine wave: birth, rise, peak, fall, crash, death.  There areexamples of a people lapsing into corruption and then righting themselves: England after the riot of the Restoration and the revelry of the Regency are the most obvious examples.  It’s not common but it’s possible.  And even if a full return to the peak of American virtue (whenever that was) is not possible, surely we can do better than we are doing now.

The urgent priority is implementing the Greatness Agenda, not trying vainly to restore perfect Constitutionalism in President Cruz’s first 100 days.  The former may—or may not—lead to the latter (absent, of course, President Cruz).  At least it holds out the hope that moving back toward the Constitutional ideal, if not to full restoration, might someday be a realistic goal.  It isn’t now. Continuing to try for it to the exclusion of what is actually achievable in the here and now will yield exactly as much as that strategy has for the last 30 years: nothing.

The only specific criticism Owens can muster against Trump is that Trump has shown a willingness to reach out to Sanders voters.  In other words, Trump wants to win.  We actually don’t see a whole lot of evidence for Trump’s feeling the Bern.  But we hope he does!  Aren’t the Sandernistas Americans too? Haven’t many of then been hurt by the same Davoisie policies that have hurt Trump’s Republican supporters?  Second, what good have the last 16 years of Red-Blue trench warfare—which all the orthodox “conservative” candidates, our Haigs and Pétains, would merely have furthered—done for the principles Owens (and we) care about?  Again: nothing.  The prospect of scrambling that electoral map and really realigning our politics is as, if not more, important than the intellectual reset, which is already more than a prospect.

We’ve said it before and may as well say it again.  Bismarck was right: politics is the art of the possible. The restoration of Principled American Constitutional Conservatism is, right now, a distant dream.  At best.  It is certainly not possible unless much groundwork is laid.  If you want to bench 300, first you must lift 100, then work your way up, a little at a time.  Or you can load the bar to 300 and press on it ineffectually, day after day, consoling yourself that you are “principled” because you know that 300 is the “right” goal and you are too principled to settle for anything less.  The bar will never move, and your muscles will continue to atrophy, but you will feel smug and lofty.  That appears to be the ongoing strategy of “principled conservatism.”  It may be principled, but it’s also stupid.

America was strong once but we let our moral and political muscles atrophy.  The Greatness Agenda is a training program to build them back up again.  “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?”Trump recently asked, echoing JAG’s mission statement.  “We’ve got to straighten out the country.” No “conservative” intellectual has said anything remotely that intelligent since this election cycle began.

Returning, before we leave you, to the reader who occasioned this missive, he asks if Sasse is “our Cicero”—that is, a final, wholly ineffectual advocate for a return to the old ways.  For our judgement of Cicero’s political acumen, we refer the reader to Plutarch.  For our view of the comparison of Ben Sasse to Cicero, we refer him to Lloyd Bentsen.  We leave him with this thought: if a man of Cicero’s caliber completely failed to save the Roman Republic, why would anyone hope for more from Ben Sasse?

—Decius

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