Both elites and the public have expressed much recent anxiety about increasing political “polarization.” The moderate “center” that used to be the basis for compromise on all manner of policy has been disappearing for at least the last three decades, as the distance between the most liberal Republican in Congress and the most conservative Democrat continues to grow.
The two parties trade national congressional majorities and the presidency, but gridlock is the rule rather than the exception. Even the occasional policy victory, like Obamacare or the recent tax cut, is passed on strictly partisan lines and subject to reversal after the next narrow electoral victory by the other side.
Our political divisions and policy instability are symptoms of a growing conflict of visions over America’s past and future. At both elite and popular levels, Americans have become partisans of one or the other of what my colleague Charles Kesler calls our “two constitutions.” The stakes could not be higher: this is a fight over what kind of national political life we will choose for ourselves and the next generation. So we find ourselves in the midst of what another colleague, Angelo Codevilla, has labeled a “cold civil war.”
What We’re Really Fighting About
The two constitutions in dispute are the Founders’ Constitution and the Progressives’ constitution—what Woodrow Wilson called the “living constitution.”
The Founders’ Constitution takes as its starting point a fixed human nature, the truth of natural human equality, and the individual natural rights any non-tyrannical government must protect. Left unchecked, governments tend to abuse natural rights, so must be limited by internal checks like the separation of powers and external checks like regular elections and popular consent.
The Progressives’ living constitution takes as its starting point an endlessly changeable and perfectible human nature. This leads to a conception of group rights rather than individual rights, evolving with the “progress” of history. In this system, government must be unlimited so that it may be free to apply the latest social science to advance the perfection of human beings and society. Internal or external checks on government stand in the way of social progress, so they must be overcome or ignored.
The Founders’ Constitution first came under sustained attack in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1950s and 1960s, the case for a return to the Founders’ Constitution began to gain proponents and momentum. Conservatism as an independent and self-conscious force began to come into its own, thanks to intelligent patriots like William F. Buckley Jr.
But it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that the Founders’ Constitution found a fully coherent intellectual, political, and moral argument in work by scholars like the Claremont Institute’s Harry V. Jaffa, his students, and many fellow travelers and friends across the country in think tanks, the academy, and the public prints.
We now find ourselves fully engaged in this battle of ideas, which amounts to a conflict between the old justice and the new social justice, natural rights and historical right, constitutionalism and the deep state—between the Founders’ Constitution and the living constitution. These are two fundamentally opposed views, not only of how we ought to run our government, but also how we understand human beings, and even reality.
Where Things Stand Today
Although this cold civil war has been a long time coming, it has only recently come to a head in our national political arguments. That is why many of us on the “Right” considered the outcome of the last election so very important. We were more than willing to make the prudential choice to vote for a national political novice, Donald Trump, along with his common-sense patriotism and lack of deference to the bureaucratic status quo, over the avatar of living constitutionalism and unlimited government, Hillary Clinton.
On the “Left,” Hillary’s inevitable victory over Trump was expected to usher in the consolidation of the social progress the Obama administration started and the electoral dominance supposedly mandated by America’s changing demographics. If history is progressive, a candidate like Trump is not supposed to win—at least not in 2016. This rude awakening is what accounts for much of the existential tone amongst the Resistance.
The central clash in our cold civil war and its resolution, however, are much bigger than the 2016 election or any individual president or candidate. This is a battle for the American mind and soul, and it is being waged in our schools, on our screens, in our books, and online. Any lasting resolution will come only with a political realignment in which the winning coalition dominates national politics for a generation or more. This is not hyperbole or histrionics. American political history is full of such realignments.
We Are Determining Our Future in a Big Way
Are our national political fights this important? Isn’t politics “downstream from culture”? Culture exercises powerful and subtle influence, to be sure, but we must keep in mind that current culture is often shaped decisively by past politics.
It is an open question whether the culture of the living constitution shaped by the politics of the last century will continue to dominate, or whether the politics of the Founders’ Constitution will bring about a cultural renewal disposed once again to the advance of liberty and self-government.
Whichever view prevails, victory will not be permanent. How could the story of the last 200 years, let alone the last 2,000, teach anything but the contingency of history and the centrality of choice, action, and statesmanship?
With this observable fact in mind, both sides ought to agree on the paramount requirement of domestic politics in America: the cold civil war must not become hot. This is a dispute over fundamental things, to be sure, but it remains a dispute among fellow citizens. Whoever wins, let us heed Abraham Lincoln’s advice to proceed “with malice toward none,” and “with charity for all.”