Does Barack Obama blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it doesn’t matter.

George Will, channeling (and hacking to pieces) Charles Kesler, claims that the President’s belief in progress blasphemes the Founder’s belief in natural rights and limited government. He has half a point. But it doesn’t much matter. The Founders’ beliefs deserve to be challenged. And once one jumps outside the conservative bubble, where all that matteres is culture and rhetoric, is to realize that progressive critics of the original constitution won on the institutional level, definitively, about a century ago.

I have to take exception with Mark’s post 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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

21 thoughts on “Does Barack Obama blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it doesn’t matter.”

  1. I went to an elite law school, and think I know why Dewey’s ideas on power got filtered out. The proximate cause is a touching faith in crude Chicago economics, which can be viewed as a slick rhetorical device that precludes any discussion of power. This has decreased a bit over the last 20 years, but the dissidents mostly still feel compelled to make the neoclassical framework safe for the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. (This is a mug’s game, IMO.)
    The deeper cause is a Progressive belief in technocracy that still permeates the law schools, with a concomitant deep distrust of the democratic process and a faith in the power of elites. This is a common disease in the academy: almost an occupational hazard, if you will. One might think that law professors, almost alone among academics, should be immune to this. They are, after all, (mostly) lawyers, a tribe skilled at handling disputes, and thus very sensitive to power relations. However, the practice of law is divorced from the norms of legal academia, a few contrary law professors notwithstanding.

    1. “They are, after all, (mostly) lawyers, a tribe skilled at handling disputes, and thus very sensitive to power relations. However, the practice of law is divorced from the norms of legal academia, a few contrary law professors notwithstanding.”

      Not really; IMHO law professors are barely members of the tribe. They tend to have little experience in the field, and their paychecks definitely don’t depend on winning cases. The power relations to which they have to be sensitive are in academia.

    2. “The proximate cause is a touching faith in crude Chicago economics, which can be viewed as a slick rhetorical device that precludes any discussion of power. ”

      Bruce Wilder, IIRC, pointed this out over on Crooked Timber in a post on workplace coercion (search for ‘f*ck me or you’re fired!’). He pointed out that this theory acted like Newspeak, in that it defined real-world phenomena out of existance, making it impossible to discuss.

  2. I am not “ready to go there.” I will continue to believe that the Founding Fathers, if present through time-travel, and after taking apart my computer to try to see how it works, would agree with at least me about absolutely everything. U!S!A!! U!S!A!!

  3. This has nothing to do with Will’s column. Will’s column was an incoherent and incomprehensible screed about how Obama was perpetuating a malign and secretive conspiracy that started with Woodrow Wilson, who was repeatedly and in at least one instance dishonestly featured, not for any actual contribution he ever made to the ideas or especially the achievement of social democracy, but simply because the John Birch Society, Glenn Beck, and others of the most enthusiastic but worst informed Republican base have undergone Pavlovian conditioning to feel intense anger whenever the name Woodrow Wilson is mentioned.

    You want to examine the ideas Will is supposedly responding to? Sure, go nuts (in fact, it will probably help to take that advice literally). But you do Will too much credit o think he has any ideas at all.

  4. “Conservatives may seriously hope for [….] a passel of foreign wars.”
    Where do you find this in the thinking of the Founders? They tried to make it difficult to start wars: modern conservatives, apart from Rand Paul, reject this prudence and are happy to let the executive launch wars freely. 1812 was an aberration. American militarism didn’t really get going till the Mexican War, against a second-rate regional enemy.

    1. Very true. The neocons are here following Teddy Roosevelt, who was (even before Wilson) a constitutional revisionist and a proponent of expanded presidential power.

      But my intended point was that serious conservatives *can’t* in fact aspire to follow the Founders. They must be something other than constitutional conservatives. A serious conservatism is, or would be, one whose agenda could actually be carried out in a contemporary society. Wars of choice against imagined terrorist enemies are very bad, but it is, alas, demonstrably possible to pursue them. A return to the Founders’ constitution is a different matter: society would grind to a halt.

    2. “American militarism didn’t really get going till the Mexican War”.

      In one sense, this is correct. I agree that the War of 1812 doesn’t really count, and we didn’t have any declared wars between that war and the Mexican War. But. Indian wars don’t count as militarism?

      Otherwise, I agree with you.

  5. I don’t understand why legitimate amendments to the Constitution, such as the 14th, can be said to be a violation of it. It included a method for amendment in the first place. Is this not true?

    1. It is very true. But the Civil Rights act was upheld under the Commerce Clause, not the Fourteenth Amendment—and it’s a reading of the Commerce Clause that the Founders (the brilliant scoundrel Hamilton perhaps aside) would not have endorsed.

      1. They’ve entrusted the Court with interpreting the Constitution, so they did, in fact, endorse this reading. I would say they knew better than their best hagiographers.

        I also want to say that Mark was right, except for one little detail. Kesler is not a third-string Straussian (the first two being flushed down the toilet of history by the Iraq War failures). He’s a third-rate Straussian. Academia is full of highly intelligent people, so claiming that Kesler is smart is neither here nor there. Claremont McKenna is a designated repository of conservative academia, along with a couple of other places that take academic standing relatively lightly–namely, Boston University, George Mason University, Ashland University and Pepperdine. These places get the conservative academic dregs that still pass for “intelligent”, but can’t find tenure (in either sense of the word) anywhere else. The less fortunate but more “moral” bunch ends up at the assortment of religious institutions, such as Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, Liberty, Regent. The former is largely third-rate Straussians, endorsed by the National Association of Scholars, the latter is a bunch of theocrats that even NAS would not endorse. Both form the stable for the low-end political appointees for Republican administrations–both state and federal. The upper end of the political appointees come from a joint effort of the NAS (for such positions as the heads of NSF, NIH and NEA) and the Heritage Foundation. Kesler, in case you missed the memo, belongs both to the NAS and HF (well, he has membership with the NAS and I met him at their meetings, and his soul is owned by the HF).

        One thing you need to recognize about Straussians is that even when they are not particularly smart, they think that they are and do a plausible job of faking it. They are always well read, but not always quick on their feet when posed a surprising question (unlike, say, actual scholars, such as Pinker). They rail for hours without end about various declines of civilizations–largely about their own. And, should one of them falter, the rest come to the rescue at the drop of a hat (NAS passed down the word and they all gather in one spot). This is obviously expected behavior from Straussians–after all, they are the only ones outside the Cave (of reality). Oh–and first and second-rate Straussians don’t end up at Claremont. They pontificate from Yale, Penn, Harvard and Chicago or permanently reside at Hoover or some other foundation or institute frequently set up solely for their benefit. We have dozens of such think tanks, frequently more than one per state.

        1. Nice job, Shadowfox. (Although I’ve known a number of enormously intelligent people who are not very quick on their feet, and some very nimble people without much depth.)

    2. NCG:
      You obviously don’t understand wingnut legal reasoning. There is a Platonic Constitution out there, doubtless inspired by the Miracle in Philadelphia, but not sullied by mere human words and only accessible to those divinely inspired. It has not been changed since the 11th Amendment. Or maybe the 11th century.

      Btw, a favorite wingnut move is to argue that Constitutional amendments they don’t like weren’t properly adopted. This particularly applies to the 14th and 16th Amendments.

  6. Andrew: “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.”

    Mark’s specialty is giving undeserved respect to right-wing hacks, and Will is the hack master of a generation. He’s like some C-rank celebrity who is ‘famous’ for hanging around in the vicinity of people who are actually famous.

  7. I’m far from convinced that the framers were really big on natural rights anyway. The Declaration is just a piece of agitprop. They drafted two charters, and both were positivist.

  8. When you write “natural rights” you seem to mean “natural property rights.” One can believe in a natural right to life (if one isn’t at the time attempting to kill another person) freedom of conscience, freedom of speech (no offering money for a killing or shouting a fire in a crowded theater) and freedom from chattel slavery without going the full Locke.

    In any case, Locke was just aiming to justify the power of Parliament to tax (that is the powerlessness of the then potential King James II to tax), Locke wasn’t a tenther.

  9. I’m not sure about your premise that modern conservative philosophers think that there are few problems individuals face that benefit from government intervention. Surely there are few problems that poor or nonwhite people, especially those unable to employ private staffs and security forces, face that government should help them with. But the job-creators need — and deserve — all kinds of help, from regulations that inhibit potential competitors to special immunity from inconvenient laws.

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