A review of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Ten Years of the Claremont Review of Books, edited by Charles R. Kesler and John B. Kienker
This was a fiendishly clever book review assignment. I am a notorious, one might even say promiscuous, fan of the Claremont Review of Books. I have touted it, blurbed it, promoted it, passed it on like samizdat to interns and tycoons alike; I've all but walked through the streets with a sandwich-board sign, ringing a bell like a modern day Jeremiah: "Salvation arrives quarterly!" So while no inappropriate pressure was put upon me to offer a favorable review of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Ten Years of the Claremont Review of Books, it was something of a foregone conclusion. It's like asking a food critic who's already praised a restaurant to the heavens to review a tasting menu of their best dishes. There's no guarantee he'll like it all, but chances are the review won't be too negative.
The plot becomes fiendish when you consider how difficult it is to review such collections in general and this one in particular, expertly compiled by the magazine's editor and managing editor. The CRB is famously generous with the space it grants its authors. Her editors are a bit like the officials of the old American frontier who said you can take as much space as you need, so long as you can profitably cultivate your parcel and defend your claim against attacks from any direction. Still, even with all of the literary elbow room available, there's nowhere near the space that would be required to engage authors as diverse and formidable as those featured in this volume: William F. Buckley, Harry V. Jaffa, James Q. Wilson, Hadley Arkes, Larry P. Arnn, Victor Davis Hanson, Allen C. Guelzo, Joseph Epstein, James W. Ceaser, and Mark Helprin, to name a few. So instead, the reviewer must search for a theme in the pudding, to paraphrase Winston Churchill (a fitting name to drop in these pages, after all), even if doing so pays short shrift to some of the worthy essays, engaging arguments, and lyrical prose found therein.
One of the most remarkable things about modern conservatism is how, well, modern it is. For all of its indebtedness to the past, American conservatism is of a remarkably fresh vintage emerging not quite, but almost, ex nihilo in the first decade of the Cold War. It was not a continuation of the so-called "Old Right," which, to the extent such a thing existed at all, was a heterodox popular front shaped by the madness of the Woodrow Wilson presidency and galvanized to oppose the New Deal and FDR's pre-World War II foreign policies. (Pearl Harbor shattered what remained of the popular front.) Bill Buckley took some inspiration from the old American Mercury and Albert Jay Nock's The Freeman, but he was really carving out fresh territory, and few if any of the early writers for National Review came from what could properly be called the Old Right. United by the clarion call of anti-Communism, they were a remarkably diverse lot. "Contrary to the restrictive paradigms established by fashionable academic opinion, modern conservatism tends to defeat neat doctrinal definition," writes Michael M. Uhlmann in an insightful essay on Buckley found in this volume ("The Right Stuff," Summer 2005). "National Review understood and acted upon that fact from its inception. Then as now, five different kinds of libertarians warred with five different kinds of traditionalists, debating everything from theology and epistemology to whether Richard Nixon was or wasn't a ‘true' conservative. However else they differed, they agreed that they were not liberals."
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Indeed, it's always amusing to listen to people of a certain conspiratorial bent caterwaul about the perfidiously "Trotskyist" roots of the "neocons" while extolling the red-blooded Americanism of the old National Review. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were amateur dabblers in Communist politics compared to many of NR's early editors and contributors: James Burnham (a Trotsky confidante, former editor, with Max Shactman, of The New International, and co-founder with Sidney Hook of both the American Workers Party and Marxist Quarterly), Frank Meyer (Communist apparatchik), Max Eastman (former editor of The Masses, Trotsky's friend, translator, and unofficial American literary agent), and, of course, Whittaker Chambers (a spy for Stalin's Russia). The list of former leftists hardly ends there. Will Herberg, Ralph De Toledano, Willmoore Kendall—former leftists all. Like men with much to atone for assuming new names in the French Foreign Legion, these warriors—some happy, some not—leapt into the breach of post-war ideological battle in no small part because they believed the fate of the world, or in Chambers's gloomy case, his soul, depended on it.
The point here is not to cast aspersions on so many heroes or to question the authenticity of their convictions. Rather, it is simply to note that necessity is the mother of invention, and the conservative alloy that Buckley and his allies forged from so many disparate components was a necessary product of the times they lived in. When the ship is going down, you grab what floats—regardless of whether it is an "approved" flotation device. And those who saw Western Civilization imperiled by Leftism, broadly understood, grabbed what worked.
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It is perhaps with this in mind that CRB editor Charles Kesler writes in the splendid introduction to this anthology:
Some conservatives start, as it were, from Edmund Burke; others from Friedrich Hayek. While we respect both thinkers and their schools of thought, we begin instead from America, the American political tradition in all its genius and profundity, and the relation of our tradition to revealed wisdom and to what the elderly Jefferson once called, rather insouciantly, "the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." We think conservatism should take its bearings from the founders' statesmanship, our citizens' loyalty to the Declaration and Constitution, and the scenes, both tender and proud, of our national history.
What Kesler is getting at here is something not merely deeply profound, but to a certain extent politically (though not philosophically) heretical. Although there was a great deal that was brilliant and vital about the conservative movement started by Buckley, it was nonetheless embroiled in the wrong arguments.
This in a nutshell is what the late Thomas Silver, the former president of the Claremont Institute and first publisher of its journal, argues in his bracing essay, "Why Conservatives Lost the War of Ideas" (Winter 2001/02). He spares no constituency on the Right from criticism for rejecting the founders' grounding in the "n-word—Nature." Even Ronald Reagan, the one national politician nearly all of the authors in this collection seem to revere, failed in his most—or second most—important mission. "From our vantage point more than 20 years after Reagan took office, it is evident that the man who would overthrow the New Deal rode into Washington as St. George and rode out as Don Quixote," writes Silver. He reserves no such reverence for the various members of the coalition that brought Reagan to power: the Christian Right, the originalists, traditionalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives all belong to a "motley camp" that confuses ends, means, or both. The most successful of the bunch are the conservative economists who, as of 2001, had beaten back the Keynesians (who've since mounted a mighty counter-assault). But even the economists don't understand that "Progressivism was—and is—at its deepest level a teaching about human and political ends. The successes of free-market economics, to the extent that they are broadly convincing, can be assimilated, sometimes easily, into the pragmatic framework of American progressivism or liberalism." Indeed, the whole technocratic approach to politics can mislead conservatives because it lacks a metaphysic or, more properly understood, it is blind to its own metaphysical assumptions. "We begin to see how the perplexities of conservative thought contribute to the progressive hold on the American mind and why progressivism cannot be dislodged by mere policy studies, however many and however persuasive."
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It is not clear to me that conservatives have to subscribe to a dogmatic belief in nature in order to be reliable conservatives, to get right with the founding, or to make strides in the fight against the unfolding progressive revolution in politics (after all, it was this motley camp that got Reagan elected in the first place). At the very least, if this natural law approach to politics is the ultimate and proper destination of the street car called conservatism, other right-wing fellow travelers can ride for a good long while in the same direction before the insufficiency of their philosophical fare requires them to hop off. There may be some first-order disagreement between the Claremont conservatives and the more technocratic thinkers around, say, the excellent fledgling journal National Affairs, but those disagreements seem entirely academic given the political and economic realities we face. Indeed, the diversity of philosophical opinion among the supposedly unanimous Founding Fathers themselves seems far greater than that among the leading conservative intellectuals today.
Moreover, in their defense, it should be noted that the Cold War conservatives had little choice; they were simply fighting where the fight was. Vast swaths of the Left were thoroughly and completely bewitched by Marxism and its self-anointed priesthood. Even anti-Communist liberals were in many ways hostages to the fact that no left-wing solidarity was possible without a certain amount of tolerance of, and apologizing for, the Marxists in their midst. The social scientific method practiced by the neoconservatives may have been philosophically insufficient—at least by Silver's standards—but it was better suited to winning countless political arguments than were appeals to natural law or the wisdom of the founders. Politics must ultimately be about persuasion, and while it may (or may not!) be a sad consequence of progressivism's success that technical policy papers are necessary to win political battles in a technocratic age, that doesn't change the reality of their necessity.
The same holds true for many of the other instruments in the conservative symphony. William F. Buckley's criticisms of Ann Coulter ("Tailgunner Ann," Winter 2003/04) are well-taken, particularly given his light touch. The same goes for criticisms of other strident voices on the Right (a group in which some would include me). But a political project as grand as the conservative one must allow for divergent appeals because not every audience is persuadable by the same arguments.
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Where the "Claremonsters" are undeniably right, however, is that the exigencies and arguments of the Cold War—and roughly the first decade after—caused far too many conservatives to simply miss the ball. Going through the archives of National Review, for instance, it is remarkable how little attention is paid to the Progressive era. John Dewey comes under assault a bit (mostly on educational issues), as does Woodrow Wilson (but only on foreign policy). Meanwhile, Herbert Croly isn't mentioned until 1960—and only in passing. The first sustained criticism of Croly doesn't appear until 1986, three decades after the magazine's founding. But in the past decade (after the CRB's founding, nota bene) we've been going after Croly hammer and tongs.
Because the Right was fighting on different fronts, some important things were forgotten. For starters, the Progressives, with little to no help from Marxism-Leninism, had their own vision for a socialist America—though the word socialist wasn't always used. This is why the late liberal philosopher Richard Rorty considered Marxism a "catastrophe" not just for countries where the Marxists took power, but for the reformist Left in all of the countries where the Marxists didn't take power. The Cold War, and in particular the radicalism fostered by Vietnam, caused the American Left to become deracinated from the indigenous "American type of socialism," in Richard Ely's words, championed by Ely, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and even such later adherents as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. ("There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals," he wrote in 1947.) This American type of socialism was in fact in key respects something of a foreign import as well, as Ronald Pestritto (whose gracious and thoughtful review of my book Liberal Fascism appears in this collection ["A Nicer Form of Tyranny," Spring 2008]) and other contributors to the CRB have labored mightily to demonstrate. The "higher lawlessness," in Kesler's phrase, of the "living constitution" which made progressivism possible may have been injected into the body politic by Woodrow Wilson & Co. but they did so in no small part because they were apish admirers of European intellectual fads.
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And this is where the CRB's indispensable contribution comes into focus. Though monumentally important, in terms of the American intellectual tradition the Cold War is shaping up to have been something of a Great Detour and the 20 years since its end have been marked by a groping quest to get back to the main road. The Claremont Review of Books sees itself as standing at the mouth of that road ringing the bell in the darkness for all of the stragglers and refugees to heed. "American conservatism stands or falls…" Kesler writes, "by its allegiance to the American Revolution and founding, even as modern liberalism really began, in the Progressive era, with a condemnation and rejection of America's revolutionary and constitutional principles."
In an odd way, Rorty was a bit like the Professor Moriarty to Kesler's Sherlock Holmes. They both recognized the real game that was—is—afoot, even as so many of their respective confreres did not.
This, in short, is not just the theme of the pudding, it is the theme of the moment. After being so rudely interrupted by Lenin's arrival at Finland Station, liberalism is returning to its roots. Barack Obama and his followers have been forthright in their desire to resurrect the arguments, rationales, and premises of the Progressive Era (minus, for the most part, the racism, imperialism, and eugenics). Indeed, over the last two decades, liberals have constructed an intellectual infrastructure around the idea that progressivism was an idea whose time has come—again. New think tanks billed themselves as inheritors of the progressive tradition. Liberal writers were resuscitating progressive thinkers. By 2008 Hillary Clinton openly rejected the liberal label, defining herself instead as a "modern progressive," a term she helpfully added, "which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century." Obama defeated her by successfully being "Crolier than thou" (to borrow Albert Jay Nock's old barb). When Obama all but locked up the nomination he held a rally at the University of Wisconsin. "Where better," he asked, "to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the progressive movement was born?" In his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention, Obama rhetorically dethroned "the American dream"—an individualistic conception—and installed the old collectivist Crolyite "America's promise" as the new lodestar. Three years later he doubled down on this commitment, ostentatiously following in Teddy Roosevelt's footsteps in Osawatomie, Kansas.
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Stripped of its idealism, hyperbole, and demagoguery, the modern progressive project, like the original one, is simply a doctrine of power. "If any trait bubbles up in all one reads about Wilson," writes historian Walter McDougall in his book Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776, "it is this: he loved, craved, and in a sense glorified power." Wilson himself admitted, "I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive." Love of power is what defined Walter Lippmann's preference for progressive "mastery" over the "drift" that characterizes a free society. The living constitution, as so many CRB writers have demonstrated, is simply an invisible talisman of power. Invoke it and it transmogrifies the principles of our republic into the perquisites of progressive rule. Franklin Roosevelt's legacy, writes Robert Eden in his essay from the Fall 2004 issue ("FDR as Statesman"), was to "‘constitutionalize' social experimentation on a national scale, conducted by permanent governmental institutions, and funded by taxation." Experimentation is a close sibling of "pragmatism," and both words serve the same function: to give technocrats the license to exert arbitrary power at their whim, heedless of constitutional or "ideological" constraints. A potent brew of nostalgia, unconquerable self-regard, and philosophical incoherence has led liberals to internalize this love of power, to the point where no policy can be wise if it does not grant liberals more of it.
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Many of the essays in this book expand on this very theme. Steven Hayward's devastating dissection of the contemporary environmental movement ("All the Leaves Are Brown," Winter 2008/09) reveals that much of it is an elaborate rationalization for giving technocratic greens the ability to circumvent liberal democracy. Among the books he reviews is The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. The former, Hayward notes, has argued that:
[l]iberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the U.S.A., unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens…. There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties.
Hayward then asks:
Whom does Shearman admire as an example of environmental governance to be emulated? China, precisely because of its authoritarian government: "[T]he savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders…. We are going to have to look at how authoritarian decisions based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse emissions."
It is the same argument that has caused New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to argue that Chinese authoritarianism is superior to American liberal democracy. If only we could be "China for a Day," in Friedman's pithy summation, we could overturn the rule of law, constitutional limitations of any kind, and impose "optimal" policies on the American people. Another author in Hayward's sights calls for alternatives to "the classical liberal state, the indiscriminate growth-dependent welfare state, and the increasingly ascendant neoliberal competition state" under the banner of what Hayward calls "green constitutionalism." And why shouldn't the living constitution be green, for isn't that the color of life?
The American Founders' vision took into account the one immutable insight of conservatism and the Judeo-Christian tradition: human nature has no history. The genius of the founders lay in their recognition of the fact that not only are men not angels, but no government of men can make it otherwise. The quest to change this fact is at the heart of progressivism of every sort. Hence, Hayward notes the great irony of the environmental cause: the "concern for the preservation of unchanged nature has grown in tandem with the steady erosion in our belief in unchanging human nature."
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In his essay "The Endless Party" (Winter 2004/05, and his excellent book Never Enough  that it became), CRB senior editor William Voegeli puts his finger on the indispensable observation about liberalism, past and present: its total lack of a limiting principle. Voegeli shows that in liberal rhetoric the measure of a program or policy is to be found in the intentions of those promoting it, not in its objective success. Failure is only proof that the government should "try harder" with more funding and deeper meddling. Tactically and philosophically, liberals can never concede that there will ever be a point where the progressive's job is done, because that means they would be out of work. And the real occupation, and preoccupation, of progressivism is to remain in power. Voegeli writes:
Keeping open, permanently, the option for the growth of the welfare state reflects the belief that the roster of human needs and aspirations to which the government should minister is endless. Any attempt to curtail it would be arbitrary and wrong. (In his concession speech after losing to Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale listed the groups he had devoted his political career to assisting: "the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless, and the sad" [emphasis added].)
This gets us to the theoretical reason why liberalism cannot incorporate a limiting principle or embrace an ultimate destination. Given humankind's long history of sorrows, most people would consider securing "abundance and liberty for all," ending poverty and achieving racial justice, a pretty good day's work. For LBJ it was, astoundingly, "just the beginning."
Obviously, I have left out of consideration here numerous stirring essays and reviews in this collection on a range of topics, from the Civil War and American oratory to architecture, television, and Shakespeare's Macbeth (not to mention a generous selection of art director Elliott Banfield's eye-catching and clever illustrations that make the volume that much more sumptuous).
But even on these fronts, the core philosophy of the Claremont Review of Books is obvious. In the essays on art and culture, the important questions about human nature and the proper purpose of man's creative endeavors are always present. In the essays on foreign policy and war, the central question is again: what are the proper uses of power, specifically military, within the parameters of the founders' vision. It is telling that the essays by Angelo Codevilla, Mark Helprin, and Kesler led Norman Podhoretz in the pages of Commentary to call them the "superhawks," even though this journal has been notably skeptical of what the liberal establishment considers to be the superhawkishness of the neoconservatives.
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At home or abroad, the fundamental question of the Constitution is how, in a free society, shall men use power over other men. The founders' answer was, in short, very carefully. That is why we have checks and balances, separation of powers, divided government, and all of the other mechanisms that make it hard for us to oppress one another. For this form of government to work, citizens must believe in self-government, an idea itself grounded in the framers' understanding of human nature as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere. No other publication has more effectively or eloquently made that argument over a sustained period of time. This is all the more impressive given that they have done so without falling into cant or cliché. Each piece in this book—and in the magazine—reads like what it is: an honest and deep examination of the books and ideas that shape the intellectual climate.
The Claremont Review of Books came on the scene far too late, but also just in time. Its influence on the conservative movement has been as enormous as it has been unheralded by the mainstream media. Virtually every critique of the Progressive Era in the last ten years in any conservative publication or forum can be traced back to the work of the Claremont Institute, the CRB, and her contributors in one way or another. (My own arguments about the progressive roots of liberalism were overwhelmingly inspired and informed by the works of scholars in the orbit of the Claremont Institute and the CRB. Whatever success Liberal Fascism had in popularizing the assault on the Progressive Era can be traced back to their work.) More impressive still, their indictment of the progressive revolution in politics and call for a renewed constitutionalism has become the defining and unifying cause of the Right in the Obama years and, I hope, beyond.
Of course, one need not agree with or even care about such things to enjoy this book. It, like the magazine, shines on its literary quality alone.
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.