A review of Designing a Polity: America's Constitution in Theory and Practice, by James W. Ceaser
In ancient Rome, they hailed Julius Caesar. In modern America, we read James W. Ceaser. Or at least we should.
The American Ceaser is a longtime professor of politics at the University of Virginia, and the author of many important books, including Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America In Modern Thought(1997), Liberal Democracy and Political Science (1990), and Presidential Selection: Theory and Development (1979). He is no stranger to regular readers of the CRB and the Weekly Standard.
For those who've already benefited from reading Ceaser, Designing a Polity: America's Constitution in Theory and Practice is an important complement to his previous writings. For those who haven't yet had the pleasure, his new book is a particularly good point of entry into his thought. Designing a Polity brings together nine superb essays, revised to take account of developments subsequent to their original publication. Each more or less stands alone, and is accessible and instructive in and of itself. Yet together, the chapters add up to a book that has a real unity, to a whole that consists of more than the sum of its parts.
Ceaser's book could be said to mirror the American polity he describes: both are complex or heterogeneous wholes. Ceaser's account of America does justice to the fact that we are a polity, constituted in a certain way according to certain principles and not others, and with an institutional structure that is designed for certain ends. But his account also captures the contingency of history and politics. He is not a mere political theorist, so seduced by the wish to find unity and to celebrate form that he underestimates the variety and variability of the things of this world. Nor is he is a mere political man, so entranced by the mutability of the human things that he can't see anything underlying or constant. In addition, his writing is sprightly, feisty, and witty. He makes you think without seeming to labor at it.
Designing a Polity begins by considering America's political foundation, "meaning its first principle or guiding idea of right." Ceaser first critically examines the work of "nonfoundationalists" like Richard Rorty, who reject first principles, and then turns to the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville and Leo Strauss in order to explore "the character of the original foundation, how it has been challenged, what its current status is, and whether America still needs or is well served by having a foundation of any kind." Here as elsewhere, he manages to be fair-minded without being non-judgmental, and instructive without being ideological.
In exploring anti-Americanism's theoretical origins, Ceaser shows there is more depth to it than one would guess from the silliness of its contemporary exponents. He closes the book with the fairly startling assertion that "anti-Americanism is the Trojan horse that has been introduced to destroy Western civilization." If this is so, then understanding and defending the foundations of Americanism is key to the future of the West.
This means studying Tocqueville and Strauss, as Ceaser recommends, but also understanding the American founders, and in particular The Federalist. At the book's heart are three excellent chapters on the founders' political science, their understanding of demagoguery and statesmanship, and their construction of the institutional framework of the separation of powers. Ceaser argues that The Federalist has much to teach us about how political science can guide political life, how political life in a republic can avoid being dominated by the low "arts of popularity" and demagoguery, and how certain institutional structures can help promote good government. These arguments are enlivened by interesting tidbits about politics, and intriguing insights about America, dispensed in passing.
* * *
Finally, Ceaser turns to modern American conservatism. Once again, his familiarity with both political theory and contemporary politics, and his unwillingness to reduce one to the other, yields much that is worth pondering. His brief meditation, "Is Conservatism a Form of Liberalism?" is particularly thought-provoking. He considers some of the tensions within modern conservatism—for example, between a grounding in religion and a devotion to liberty, and between an appeal to nature and a respect for history. And his examination leads him to suggest that conservatism's creativity comes from those tensions, and
that creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the simplest principles, but in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. By acknowledging this complexity, conservatism shows that it is no mere branch of liberalism.
One might add that by acknowledging the complexity of the American polity, Ceaser shows that it, too, is no mere branch of liberalism. And he shows that its defense and improvement require an understanding of political philosophy, American political practice, and the complicated relationship between the two.
I close with a small observation: in the first chapter, Ceaser writes that history is "what Winston Churchill once defined, in one of his more cheerful moods, as ‘mainly the record of the crimes, follies and miseries of mankind.'" But Churchill was actually paraphrasing Edward Gibbon, as Churchill acknowledges: "History, which we are told is mainly the record…." Did Ceaser nod, and not recall that Churchill's line is really Gibbon's? Or did he want to go out of his way to cite Churchill rather than Gibbon, perhaps deliberately drawing our attention to the example Churchill offers for modern statesmanship, so that some future Ceaser won't need to write The Decline and Fall of the American Empire?
But enough footnoting. I come from inside the Beltway not from inside academe. And I come not to nitpick Ceaser but to praise him. His work deserves our careful attention. If we want to investigate the American polity in all its complexity—if we want to be challenged to think seriously about America's foundations, its history, its predicaments, and its future—if we want to do our part in helping maintain good government by reflection and choice—then we must hail, but above all read, our Ceaser.