Does Barack Obama Blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it Doesn’t Matter.

I have to take exception with a post by Mark Kleiman from last Saturday. In it, he slammed George Will, channeling a book by Claremont professor Charles Kesler, for claiming Barack Obama was part of “a conspiracy against the Constitution embracing Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ.” Actually, the Will/Kesler thesis has something to it. Obama almost certainly does disbelieve in natural rights and other things (most of the) Founders believed in. But to the extent he does, good for him. And to the extent that Will and Kesler want the original constitution back, they’re a few generations too late.

Kesler is, as Mark puts it, a “third-string Straussian” only in the sense that we’re all third string compared to a scheming genius like Strauss. Kesler is of course extremely conservative, but a very intelligent and serious scholar with whom one can amicably disagree in conversation, as I have. While I haven’t read his book, I would submit that it’s less likely that the book has no argument than that Will, in a 750-word column that quotes a few sentences from the book, fails to do justice to it. And I’m baffled by Mark’s claim that Will is “as intelligent a figure as the Red team has to show.” One could bounce a squash ball off the walls of the Hudson Institute’s conference room and hit a dozen smarter ones.

Even Will’s breakneck summary, though, is not completely implausible. The question is whether it matters, and whether Obama or Will is the real radical here.

That Obama’s call for “transformation” entails a plan to scrap the constitution is absurd. But constitutional conservatives, and what Mark Lilla called the “Sousa” school of Straussians (paywall), who want a president committed to Locke’s view of rights and government and the Founders’ plan for our national institutions, are of course right to believe that Obama is not on their team. Obama’s philosophy of government in The Audacity of Hope is much closer to the “deliberative democracy” school that developed out of Dewey’s rejection of old-fashioned individualism than to anything from Locke. (It is that cloying, slightly Deweyan, common faith in deliberation and progress that so often got Obama into trouble early in his term; Dewey himself actually had a stronger sense of the role of social and economic power than Obama used to, but when Dewey’s ideas were filtered through elite law schools the part about power for some reason got strained out.) To the extent that Obama acknowledges limits to human endeavor and democratic action, he gets this acknowledgement from the Christian Left—from the early Neibuhr’s suspicion of human selfishness and the power of privilege—not from the conservative’s belief in the frailty of human reason and the vanity of hopes for improvement. On a more sociological level, I think it’s fair to say that the individualism of libertarians and (a bit inconsistently) some conservatives, which relies on and trumpets the pursuit of self-interest, is also something Obama rejects. He felt terrible when he briefly did corporate writing; chose community organizing over a slew of high-paying gigs; and in his rhetoric almost never trumpets individual achievement—of any kind: commercial, artistic, cultural—without demanding that the achiever find his or her real purpose through linking that achievement to the common good. This is again very Deweyan. And it often troubles me as a left-of-center individualist who doesn’t think that society as a whole has a common purpose. There’s more than enough in how Obama talks and thinks to trouble individualists of more conservative stripe.

But Will leaves out a few things.

First, Obama’s position—with respect to what he rejects at any rate, not what he espouses—isn’t at all unusual. Though Republicans clearly think (watch their convention) that individual success is the measure of the good life, that success should be defined in material terms, and that personal charity is the only thing that need leaven it, that vision of life seems clearly less popular than a moderate version of the President’s. Though Republicans believe in limited government—to the extent of thinking that the right governmental response to a recession is to tell the citizens to tough it out—conservative political philosophers’ deeply held belief that there are few problems individuals face that government can or should help them with is so unpopular that no Republican president would dare espouse it out loud. Finally, though I can’t prove it, and though pollsters are wise enough not to demand systematic philosophical systems from ordinary voters, I see no sign that my students grow up regarding Locke’s beliefs are self-evident, as opposed to nice words for the Fourth of July. (For that matter, the last Fourth of July speech I attended, in a Republican suburb, had lots about supporting the troops but nothing about natural rights.) Most of them are wise enough to prefer Hume’s takedown of Locke’s philosophical Deism in his Dialogues, and of Locke’s contract theory, in an essay ignored in the U.S. but widely considered in Britain a refutation of that theory.

As for the rhetoric of progress, the American Left, as Will well knows, started talking about “Progress” instead of “Equality” because in America the former, not the latter, can compete with—in fact beat, in a straight fight—Americans’ admittedly strong attachment to rugged individualism and our suspicion of government. That government will fail at solving many problems is something that most Americans will buy. That “we” should not even try to “do better” is not.

But the rhetoric doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even when we keep the rhetoric of old-fashioned rugged individualism and the Founders’ constitutionalism, we haven’t tried to live that way for a century. When Wilson proposed the Federal Reserve system, FDR proposed the New Deal and the agencies that embodied it, LBJ proposed Medicare and the use of national power to bring nineteenth-century economic and political rights to Southern blacks, and operational liberal Richard Nixon proposed the EPA, they were smart enough to pretend that they weren’t effectively amending the constitution. But while the new powers and agencies were nominally part of the hoary “Executive Branch,” we’re kidding ourselves to claim that they resemble in any way what the Founders intended by that. They are—rightly, and fortunately!—new institutions that borrowed prescriptive legitimacy by masquing themselves in old forms. (In my forthcoming book I write, in a different context, of keeping a building’s facade while gutting the interior.) Conservative intellectuals may dream the old dream of calling all of this a mistake: of privatizing Medicare, abolishing the EPA, striking down the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts as well-intentioned but unconstitutional (as Goldwater believed), turning wage and price regulation back to the states, and (if Libertarian) scrapping the Fed. But if these ideas are mainstream in the conservative intellectual world, they’re politically toxic, an electoral lunatic fringe. And by now they’re on the fringe of jurisprudence as well. On the level of governmental powers, Will’s quarrel, and possibly Kesler’s, isn’t with Obama. It’s with West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish.

It’s been said before but we should lose no opportunity to say it again: the “constitutional conservatives” are, unknown to themselves, the radicals. The constitution has followed the progressives’ model for at least nine or so decades. Not an American alive has experience of any other model, and vanishingly few want to reject it. The constitutional conservatives can’t return to the constitution they want through conservation—only through reaction.

Conservatives may seriously hope for cuts in government spending, lower taxes on the wealthy, new restrictions on abortion, and a passel of foreign wars. But the Founders’ constitution is gone for good. It will never come back. And conservatives who pretend—often because they believe—otherwise do both their followers and the public a disservice.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.