The Road Not Taken

I shall bring my exchange with Patrick Deneen to a close by tying up three unresolved issues.

1. Americanism Redux: On the issue of Americanism, Deneen suffers from a fundamental confusion, which I’m happy to clear up for him. He confuses my use of the concept “Americanism” with the general story of American history. According to Deneen, “there are multiple streams in the American tradition from which one can criticize other streams.” This is obviously true, but it does not justify the inclusion of such “streams” in the concept “Americanism.” Americanism is not synonymous with American history. If it were, the concept would be so open-ended as to be meaningless. Deneen, however, takes the next step and reveals the real meaning and direction of his moral and political commitments: he says that the inclusion of these “multiple streams” in the American narrative justifies their laying “equal claim” to inclusion in the definition of Americanism. This is a fatal mistake. Deneen has applied moral relativism to historical judgment.

On Deneen’s premises, there is and can be no such thing as objective moral rightness. It’s all an illusion. To elevate the “equal claims” of all streams is to pronounce indifference on moral good and evil. By Deneen’s criteria, there is no standard to distinguish between Bull Connor’s Birmingham dogs and hoses in 1963 and the non-violent actions of Rosa Parks. Both have an “equal claim” to being included in his definition of Americanism. More: Deneen’s moral relativism must, by his standard, give equal status to the KKK when defining the nature and meaning of Americanism.[1] The problem with Deneen’s neo-Confederate theory is that it has no fixed standard of right and wrong, independent of mere opinion and local prejudice. He’s left with nothing but positive right writ small—small enough to fit on his front porch republic.

In the end, Deneen’s historical and philosophical methodology, like that of his nineteenth-century predecessor Stephen A. Douglas, legitimizes and gives informal sanction to ideas and actions that are objectively wicked. Readers here will recall that Douglas declared that he didn’t care whether slavery was voted up or down, and that he cared only for the right of the people to decide how the slavery issue would be handled in their local communities. Deneen’s localist, front porch republicanism is just the latest version of what Abraham Lincoln characterized as Douglas’s “don’t care” policy. Deneen stands for the positive right of local majorities, while I stand for natural right, that is, objective principles of moral right. He therefore has no means, no moral compass, by which to distinguish a good “stream” from a bad “stream,” and thus he has no principled ground on which to oppose that which is objectively immoral and unjust.

With no absolute, permanent moral standard grounding Deneen’s definition of Americanism, we’re left with nothing but the right of “robust” local majorities to superimpose their values on those of the minority, and sometimes by force. In the end, however, it matters not to the oppressed individual or minority whether their rights have been violated by national, state, village, or front porch majorities. Whether it’s hanging or stoning witches in New England or lynching blacks in the south, Deneen’s “robust localism” and “don’t care” policy of historical judgment leads to a kind of moral indifference that would slowly lead to moral atrophy and the undermining of America’s individual rights republic. Deneen’s historical and moral relativism is a direct assault on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and his feudalist localism shares more with radical postmodernity than with Lincoln’s adherence to the “ancient faith” born with the Declaration of Independence. In my view, the same principle that condemned slavery was the same principle that condemned the Declaratory Act of 1766.

Indeed, I use the concept “Americanism” in a very precise way, i.e., as a noun and as an “ism,” which means that it must have a specific definition and a concrete meaning. To repeat: that definition seeks to identify and isolate what is most unique to America. A concept such as “Americanism” is not the same thing as a tradition or even a history. They perform different functions, and they identify different things. A definition—by definition—requires a process of conceptual distillation. Using the western, Enlightenment logic that Deneen disparages, I establish a method for defining the concept “Americanism” that specifies its distinguishing characteristics and then differentiates it from those characteristics associated with other concepts. It is a definition with a genus and differentia. At the core of my definition of Americanism stand the principles of the Declaration of Independence. This is the distillation process of which Deneen is contemptuous.

2. The Enlightenment Redux: Deneen is right to suggest that the “most important point of contention between us” concerns our different understandings and evaluations of the Enlightenment. And it’s here that Deneen makes his most extraordinary claim. It turns out that I am “incapable” in his view “of considering what may be some legitimate arguments that have been made by some voices” in various ideological camps that include “radical feminists, multiculturalists, environmentalists, postmodernists, and Islamic totalitarians.” This is very true. I do not share Deneen’s concern with the “dangers that contemporary economic and scientific activity pose to nature and humanity.” I’ve heard all the anti-Enlightenment arguments from the aformentioned groups before, and I do in fact dismiss them—and proudly so. It is a most interesting state of affairs that Deneen should share more in common with the ideologies of these sundry groups than with my defense of Enlightenment liberalism and the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

3. Strauss Redux: Let me also say a few things about Deneen’s questions concerning Leo Strauss and the Straussians. First, I do not believe—not for a moment—that Strauss or his students (including Harry Jaffa and his Claremont followers) have been philosophic (as opposed to political) defenders of the modern natural-rights philosophy. (My friend Michael Zuckert is one possible exception but even then with very real qualifications.) I know of no work by Strauss or any of his students that argues for, and validates philosophically, the natural rights teaching as both true, and right, and superior to ancient and/or Christian natural right. Jaffa and his students have spent the last forty years attempting to shore up the principles of the Declaration with Aristotelian and Thomist natural right—indeed, even with the views of Pope John Paul II—precisely because they don’t think them capable of standing on their own.[2] Furthermore, Jaffa and his students have clearly drifted to the mainstream conservatism of the Heritage Foundation rather than to the neoconservatism of the American Enterprise Institute. Harry Jaffa is a remarkable scholar and a profound thinker in his own right and I have learned much from him, but I do not share his particular defense of the Declaration of Independence.


[1] This is not to suggest, however, as Deneen does, that I attribute to him a “pining for the KKK.” I did not say and do not think—not for a second—that Patrick Deneen pines for the KKK.

[2] For Jaffa’s attempt to infuse the meaning of the Declaration of Independence with the theology of Pope John Paul II, see Harry V. Jaffa, “The False Prophets of American Conservatism,” February 12, 1998. Jaffa writes: “For John Paul, like Jefferson and Lincoln, the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, being rights with which we are endowed by our Creator, are not to be understood blindly to emancipate the passions, but rather to direct them towards the ends approved by that same Creator, ends which are in the service of the common good no less than that of private pleasures.” One naturally wonders how it is that the inalienable rights discussed in the Declaration will lead individuals toward the “ends” approved by the Creator. Will each man determine for himself what God’s ends are or will some one person (e.g., the Pope) decide for him? Likewise, who will decide for our ordinary Americans what the common good is? In the end, Jaffa’s moral intrinsicism is just a different form of the same moral subjectivism that he criticizes so effectively. One also wonders why America’s founding fathers didn’t attempt to reconcile the principles of the Declaration with the theology of the then-reigning Pope, Pius VI.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.