Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Publications

Guardians of the American Idea

Res Publica

August 2016

by Ivan Larson

The astounding popularity of Donald Trump has caught the Republican Party off guard.Before he entered the race,no one could have predicted the huge numbers of primary voters who would support a bombastic populist with vague promises to “make America great again.” Regardless of his ultimate success or failure in becoming president,Trump has fractured the Republican Party more deeply than any other candidate in recent memory. He has called into question the nature of the conservative idea for which the party allegedly stands. As such, it is necessary to reflect on what conservatism really means. The conservative stands for the American idea. His compass points to liberty as his true north, and tradition grants him a map to negotiate the obstacles to that goal.

Unique among nations, America was founded on a principle. America declared its existence with a document that held “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men.” Although America’s war for independence was called a revolution, it was premised on an old idea that was already ingrained in the American tradition. According to Thomas Jefferson, at the time the Declaration was signed, “All American whigs thought alike” with regards to the nature of their rights, and the Declaration served as“an expression of the American mind.” The Declaration gave voice to the American idea that government exists only to protect the natural rights of the people.

When major reforms have been needed, our greatest leaders have invoked the Declaration. Abraham Lincoln invoked it in the Gettysburg Address, calling the Civil War a test of whether a nation conceived on “the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked it in his “I Have a Dream”speech, calling the Declaration a “promissory note” that black men must cash to end segregation.When our nation has faced its greatest challenges, the Declaration of Independence has been a beacon of light around which we can rally. It is an expression of eternal truths that Americans must always work to realize.

To live up to the American idea, we must limit government’s interference in people’s lives. The government can only restrict our rights to life, liberty, and property so far as is necessary to secure those rights.That said, the limit should not be interpreted in the minimalist sense as libertarians do. For example, when state and local governments provide education systems,they strengthen the values that make people productive members of society, and they strengthen our people’s understanding of how to govern themselves. Government-funded education secures our rights because it leads to lower crime rates and better governance. But even in such cases where the tie is indirect, the actions of government must be justified by how they secure the rights of the people.

In a system that lives up to the American idea, the government leaves as much as possible to be done by civic organizations. When Alexis de Tocqueville studied early American society, he found that civic organizations fulfilled responsibilities that would have been left to the government in his native France.United by a common faith and strong communities, the American people used their freedom virtuously, uniting together to help improve their localities. When they are left unrestrained by government, the American people show that they are capable of being virtuous.

Defending the American idea requires adherence to tradition. Tradition is necessary because man’s capacity to reason is limited. One man cannot thoroughly evaluate every nuance of every important question. He must accept established wisdom where he has not had the chance to develop his own understanding.Even on questions that he does investigate himself, he must consider whether his reasoning is superior to that of the greatest authors. In most cases, it is not. Hence, there needs to be a strong inclination against rejecting traditional ideas. Only by grounding his investigation in tradition can man come closer to truth.

Springing from the foundation of tradition, conservatism represents the accumulated wisdom of millennia. The conservative draws on the teachings of Western civilization. A conservative learns of the fragility of democracy from Edmund Burke’s explanation of the failure of the French Revolution, which sought to overturn all social institutions, thereby untethering all connections to fixed notions of justice. A conservative learns of the importance of pursuing truth from the teachings of Socrates. Where modern political thinkers have dismissed older philosophers as outdated, conservatives engage with the old teachings to learn from them.

Conservatism is not a monolithic movement. Conservatives come in many various strands that emphasize different elements of the American idea.There is the religious right, which focuses on maintaining virtue and adherence to the social elements of our tradition.There are classical liberals,to whom liberty is worth pursuing even at the expense of tradition.There are pragmatic fiscal conservatives who like conservative economic policy for its results. But all of them are united by the principle that government ought to be limited.The religious right seeks the freedom to worship and order their lives in accordance with Biblical teaching. Classical liberals seek minimal government interference anywhere. Fiscal conservatives want to limit government’s interference in the economy.Each holds a piece of the unified conservative message.

Conservatism pursues the idea that a limited government secures our rights to give man the opportunity to be good.The conservative seeks to bring reality closer to that ideal while realizing that perfection is impossible in a flawed world.The conservative movement has thrived within the Republican Party. But as we approach November, we must ask: is Donald Trump a conservative?