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Power Play

You don’t need a military to pull off a coup. Ideas will do.

A weakness of traditional Western political thought has been a tendency to disparage a desire for power. Following Plato, many moralists have associated political virtue with a reluctance to pursue and exercise command. To want to rule others is to be morally disqualified from doing so.

This is an unfortunate prejudice. Without some people governing others, basic social order could not exist, to say nothing of effecting desirable change. The prejudice against power-seeking has left politics too much to people with the wrong kind of ambition, most of whom desire power as an end in itself. Yet wanting power need not be immoral. Pursuing it can be a means to good.

Even a self-serving desire for power must portray itself as a wish to assist others. If you are able to persuade them that the present world is grossly oppressive and destructive of human happiness but that you can make it infinitely better, they may support mobilizing massive power and placing it in your hands. The more ambitious your scheme for benevolent change, the greater the need for power.

Since the French Revolution, ideologies have been exceptionally conducive to power-seeking. Jacobinism, Communism, and National Socialism are alike in promising glorious change and assuming the desirability of granting vast power to those who know what needs to be done. A few years ago, David Frum and Richard Perle provided an all-purpose justification for unlimited power: putting “an end to evil,” the title of their co-authored book. Now there is a noble and ambitious goal! That rooting out evil might be an endless task only increases its appeal to a ravenous will to power. We are, of course, supposed to believe that the connection between advocating sweeping, wonderful change and needing great power is purely coincidental.

Jacobinism and Marxism were openly revolutionary. They were the ideologies of out-groups challenging existing elites. What this writer has called neo-Jacobinism is the ideology of members of America’s elite who wish to make the might of the United States a more pliant and powerful tool and who are attempting a creeping coup d’état from within. According to their ideology, virtuous American power should create a better world based on allegedly universal principles. Their main excuse for exercising extra-constitutional power is to combat terrorism.

The rise of a huge, centralized federal government and the corresponding decline of limited, decentralized government resulted from changes deep in the American imagination. The new Jacobins have taken advantage of the fading of the old ethos and hasten its disappearance by advocating notions incompatible with it.

The old American idea of government was indistinguishable from the commandment to “love thy neighbor.” That morality stressed the importance of the person trying to control his own evil and weakness. Strength of will—character—had to be built up so that people would become capable of more loving familial and local relationships and more responsible citizenship. This made for strong communities and self-reliance and minimized the need for government. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the great reluctance among Americans in the early 19th century to give up power over their own lives to any distant authority.

The Constitution thus rested on an unwritten constitution—America’s religious, moral, intellectual, cultural, and social habits and beliefs. Traditional America encouraged a strong attachment to self-restraint, modesty, respect for law, and a willingness to compromise. It was this heritage that brought into being the constitutional personality. Just as people were in the habit of imposing internal checks on desire, so were they predisposed to accept and respect external constitutional constraints. Without such people, the Constitution could not work as intended.

But the self-understanding of Americans has slowly changed. They began to abdicate authority to benevolent-sounding politicians. An older personality, which the Constitution both assumed and required, began to disappear. The new culture of America and the West generally disparages this tradition. It shifts attention away from intimate associations and local community. For the new culture, morality is not found in personal acts of character toward particular individuals—neighbors—but in “idealistic” caring for unfortunate collectives and mankind at large. Increasingly, doing good has been made the responsibility of government, which alone can take on the massive projects said to be demanded by morality. Governmental, collective action replaces private and communal responsibility. The decentralized society withers. Today, centralized federal power seems to most Americans not merely acceptable but desirable.

Much of the intellectual opposition to this trend has been confused and self-defeating. A prime example is the way many conservatives, thinking that they were shoring up traditional beliefs, attached themselves to the ideas of Leo Strauss, whose disciples became a major force in American academia and national politics. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Strauss taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Because he appeared to defend a classical, ancient notion of universal moral right, many did not notice that he was actually discrediting respect for tradition.

According to Strauss, no real philosopher gives credence to “the conventional” or “the ancestral,” to use his terms. Respecting them represents the greatest of all intellectual sins, “historicism.” Inherited ways are, he insisted, mere accidents of history. Respect is owed solely to “the simply right,” which is ahistorical and rational. Strauss sharply criticized Edmund Burke, who saw the possibility of moral universality acquiring historical form.

By propagating a rationalistic, anti-historical notion of moral right, Strauss and his disciples created a deep prejudice against cherishing America’s distinctive, historically evolved Christian and British past. But this was the cultural heritage that nurtured the inner and outer restraints of American constitutionalism. Because Straussian anti-traditionalism has confused and weaknened so many who wanted to defend that heritage, it has been in some ways more destructive than standard liberal anti-traditionalism.

Despite plentiful ceremonial praise for the Constitution and orgies of constitutional legalism, we are living through the progressive dismantling of America’s proudest political achievement. One sign of the precarious condition of the Constitution is that many imagine that it could be restored by electing more politicians sympathetic to its tenets and by having more “strict constructionists” appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the old American constitutionalism is inseparable from the moral-spiritual culture that gave it birth. Limited government and liberty were made possible by people who, because of who they were, put checks on their appetites, ran their own lives and communities, and generally behaved in ways conducive to freedom under law. Restoring American constitutionalism would presuppose some kind of resurgence of that old culture. Americans would have to rearrange their priorities and start acting differently, placing more emphasis on family, private groups, and local communities. They would have to want to take back much of the power ceded to politicians far away. Is that likely to happen? If not, the Constitution may not be salvageable.

The time has certainly come to consider what might take the place of American constitutionalism. That so many admirers of the Constitution are prone to nostalgic dreaming and intellectual passivity is a sign of moral and intellectual paralysis.

But there are people who have thought for a rather long time about what should replace the Constitution of 1789. They include leading Straussians and neoconservatives who have masked their agenda by pretending to defend what is being lost.

They warn against abandoning America’s “founding principles,” though they refer not to the ways and beliefs of the Founders but to abstract principles of their own devising that they falsely attribute to revered historical figures. They caution against the “closing of the American mind”—the title of Allan Bloom’s 1987 best-selling book—but the mind they want kept open is not the old American mind but their own version of the Enlightenment mind. They worry about American cultural decline, as measured some years back by William Bennett’s “cultural indicators,” but what they want is not the old American virtues of neighborliness, localism, self-control, compromise, and the rule of law, but the purported virtue of vigorously asserting universal principles in the world. The new Jacobins disdain moral hesitation and ambiguity, demanding what they call “moral clarity.” You are either on the side of good, spreading “democracy” or “freedom,” as they understand them, or you are siding with the enemy.

They have a double message. On the one hand, they tell Americans that their society is in great danger: It is threatened domestically by fragmentation caused by lack of virtue and patriotism, by moral nihilism, historicism, and multiculturalism. And it is threatened from abroad by terrorism and Islamofascism. On the other hand, the new Jacobins want to be reassuring: Be not afraid! We, the patriotic champions of American principles, are here to protect you. We promise you order and security and an America committed to right in the world.

Their notion of America reveals its alien origins even in strange-sounding language, as in the name “Department of Homeland Security.” They are popularizing un-American ideas of governance, notably the so-called “unitary” executive—the notion of the pre-eminence of the president, who is to be as little constrained as possible by checks and balances and the rule of law. Their goal is wholly at odds with the constitutionalism of the framers.

Lest too many worry about the expansion and centralization of federal power, the neo-Jacobins do not let Americans forget even for a day the great danger of terrorism. A country that spends almost as much on its military and national security as the rest of the world put together has to tremble continuously before possible threats. People who resist the progressive erosion of American liberties are portrayed as unpatriotic and a threat to national security.

Those who would protect us are advancing the coup from within by teaching us to associate American security and virtue with the leadership of a strong man—a trademark of hardened standard liberal thinking. In the mid-20th century, academics like James MacGregor Burns inspired a cult of the presidency. Burns, who eventually became president of the American Political Science Association, advocated popular rule through strong presidential leadership in the Roosevelt-New Deal mode. He knew well that this notion flatly contradicted the framers, who opposed “democracy” and assumed that if any branch of the U.S. government were pre-eminent, it would be the Congress. Now it is Straussians and neoconservatives who most extol strong executive leadership and more muscular federal government. They see the powers of the executive as trumping those of the other branches, especially at a time of national emergency. Then the president must embody and express the will of the nation as he sees fit.

Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield is the intellectual figurehead of those attempting to justify this coup. Basing his argument on a transparently strained and unhistorical interpretation of the framers, he has stressed in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that the rule of law has drawbacks, “each of which suggests the need for one-man-rule.” For one thing, the law can produce only what is mediocre, “an average solution even in the best case.” For another, the law lacks “energy,” and “the best source of energy” is “one man.” What America needs today, Mansfield declares, is “a wise man on the spot” with freedom to act for the whole. To “subordinate” the president to law and the legislature is a “danger… he could not do his job.” Not only is a strong executive needed to deal with emergencies, Mansfield contends. It must also be able to overpower domestic opposition—“to oppose a majority faction produced by temporary delusions in the people.” If it is suggested that there is a connection between a strong executive and imperialism, Mansfield regards it as better to err on the side of imperialism than isolationism. The difficulties of the war in Iraq arose, he writes, “from having wished to leave too much to the Iraqis, thus from a sense of inhibition rather than imperial ambition.” (It seems apposite that Mansfield should be a champion of “manliness,” the topic of his recent book.)

Another proponent of the “unitary” presidency is Michael Goldfarb, previously at the Weekly Standard and now the deputy communications director for the McCain campaign. Goldfarb asserts that the framers “sought an energetic executive with near dictatorial power in pursuing foreign policy and war.”

Voices calling for unleashing virtuous American power have long been heard in the electronic media, the major newspapers—Washington Post and New York Times prominent among them—the big news magazines, and the leading opinion periodicals. Long before 9/11, Charles Krauthammer wrote that America must take advantage of being the only superpower to create a world to its liking. How should it accomplish this goal? “By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.” Why should virtuous America not be “implacable”? Robert Kagan added that “America … can sometimes seem like a bully on the world stage. … But really, the 1,200 pound gorilla is an underachiever in the bullying business.”

The handwriting is all over the wall. It is becoming clearer with each passing day that neo-Jacobinism and related currents, which may have seemed innocuous and academic to some, have provided ideological cover for a grasping and ruthless pursuit of power. People of great ambition who want to exercise the power being abdicated by Americans are trying to make us accept and even welcome the final disappearance of constitutionalism and its culture of modesty and self-restraint.

Wishing not to appear too radical, the perpetrators of the coup from within speak in the name of America, and their rhetoric is sometimes faintly conservative. They often present themselves as “neoconservatives” or even “conservatives.” But they are not inspired by a desire to protect and reconstitute the best of the Western tradition. By changing the meaning of words, they are rather trying to reconcile us to the demise of that heritage and its replacement with their own enlightened regime. Their response to the crisis, which they have aggravated, will hasten the crumbling of the American constitutional order. Their prescriptions contain the outlines of tyranny.

What is ominous about these, our saviors, is not that they want power. It is that they represent a conceited interest and have an obsessive desire to rule—a desire that cannot be concealed by feigned benevolence toward Americans and all mankind. It is necessary to expose their false solutions to what are real problems and to explore by what measures the best of our civilization might, despite daunting odds, be given a new lease on life.  

Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics at Catholic University and chairman of the National Humanities Institute. He is the author of America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.

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