By Gram Slattery
The Republican primary race started with an inevitable nominee, exploded into a hodge-podge of ideologies competing to replace Mitt Romney’s perceivedly moderate values, and has returned to the reluctant acceptance of the inevitable candidate. Still, despite the fact that this eleven-month act of political theater failed to produce a change in the 2012 pool of presidential candidates, the process itself has been far from inconsequential. On the contrary, the race has elucidated several overarching truths regarding the modern Right. Among these is the fact that the conservative establishment is clinging with more ferocity than ever to historical precedent as the root of its governing philosophy.
In the few instances of intellectualism that have managed to survive under the scrutiny of the Republican electorate, candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have framed their beliefs in the context of republicanism and early America. When discussing his plans to rein in “activist courts,” Gingrich spoke admiringly of Thomas Jefferson’s Judiciary Act of 1801, which enabled the executive and legislative branches to exerted tremendous influence over the composition of the judicial branch. Gingrich also claimed several times throughout his campaign that current judicial independence was an affront to the ideology of Montesquieu, whose seminal work, The Spirit of the Laws, was the most frequently quoted political text of the colonial era. In a similar manner, Santorum, alluding to Locke, has pointed to the French Revolution as a warning of what will happen if governments, rather than God, give man a basic set of natural rights. And in the judicial sphere, Republican-backed conservatives such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas carry the torch of Originalism, an ideology inherently rooted in history as it relies almost entirely on historical interpretation.
On the flip side, the Right’s perception of the Left’s philosophy is one of temporality: perhaps Gingrich summed up this feeling best when he analyzed the Latin root of “secular,” illustrating that it derives from words that translate roughly into “lasting a finite amount of time,” or “lacking timelessness.”
While liberals don’t necessarily agree with this condemnation of their ideology, they rarely take steps to refute it. As the title ‘progressive’ suggests, leftists rarely stops to dote over or glorify the past; after all, how many modern Democratic statesmen quote Montesquieu, Locke, or early case law? But this lack of historical allusion does not imply disrespect for the early American ideal. Rather, it is simply a concession that modern means can be used to fight for original values.
For example, a distinct non-libertarian such as myself can seek solace in the words of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, encapsulated in the Federalist Papers. In Federalist No. 51 it is asserted that government, in its republican form, is “the greatest of all reflections on human nature,” a far cry from the distrust and odium of all things government that characterizes American conservatism today. Of course, a belief in the power of good governance is not synonymous with statism, a distinction that contemporary liberals make clear through their support of the Bill of Rights, due process laws, and through their more general extension of human rights. As for judicial matters, in Federalist No. 51, Madison, credited by most historians as the father of the Constitution, passionately asserts that members of one branch must not encroach on those of another. This directly contradicts Gingrich’s plan to allow the executive and legislative branches to jointly send law enforcement personnel to detain judges. Furthermore, Originalism was not necessarily an original concept: Madison also wrote that, “If…you separate text from historical background…you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government.”
Of course, presenting only Madison, Jay, and Hamilton’s version of early American politics presents a skewed view of history, just as the Republican presentation of only the most convenient historical allusions has turned American history into a political tool for the Right. But even Thomas Jefferson, a hero for many libertarians, wrote, while expressing his support for the French Revolution, that in cases of inequality, “the laws of property” can be “so far extended so as to break a natural right.” To decrease inequality, Jefferson proscribed “exempt[ing] all from taxation below a certain point, and…tax[ing] the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” Conservatives would be disgusted at Jefferson’s suggestion of progressive taxation. Indeed, conservatives often ignore or discount the role of economic equality and mobility in shaping the early American identity, revealing their historical ignorance. Observers from “the poet of the American Revolution,” Philip Freneau, to essayist J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur noted in the late eighteenth century that low economic inequality was a defining feature of the American fabric. A liberal with an historical bent, whether a Jeffersonian or a follower of Madison, is left to wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of an America that is ten times more unequal than it was at its founding, with lower levels of social mobility than the vast majority of developed countries.
Modern liberalism, just like modern conservatism, has firm roots in early American political theory. Despite the historical allusions of Republican politicians, the Right is by no means the last remaining connection between modern politics and the intellectual history of Americanism.