Skip to comments.Why America Is Not A Propositional Nation (long read, likely to be controversial)
Posted on 06/03/2002 11:40:51 PM PDT by Pyro7480
Why America Is Not A Propositional Nation
FrontPageMagazine.com | June 4, 2002
THE IDEA has become popular in liberal, libertarian, and neoconservative circles that the United States is a "propositional nation." This means that the essence of America consists of certain ideas, from which it follows that the principal thing we should concern ourselves with in our national life is whether we continue to instantiate these ideas. It also follows that conservatism consists in conserving these ideas and this is the problem by implication nothing else. This is a thus deeply mischievous notion, mischievous because it is a half-truth, and it must be debunked.
The first problem with the idea that America is a propositional nation is this: what is the proposition? Ignoring answers invented on the spot without even pretence of historical justification, the most common answer is that it is,
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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."
The first problem with the claim that this is our national proposition is this: this is not the law of the land. These words come from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. One might as well say that America is founded on Tom Paines assertion in his pamphlet Common Sense, that "an island cannot rule a continent." Both these assertions may be true, they may be noble, they may have contributed to the subsequent founding of our country, but they are not law and are therefore not morally binding on Americans. The Constitution is the actual, legally-binding, law of the land, upon which our other laws, and thus the structure of our society, are based. It is the foundation of our nation, not the Declaration. The Declaration could have been followed by any number of constitutions, which would have established our society in any number of ways, proving that the Declaration itself does not establish the character of our society. It is even arguable that that the constitution that follows from the Declaration is the failed Articles of Confederation, and that America didnt work until the ideology of the Declaration was at least partially rejected in the more conservative Constitution.
Furthermore, the ideas expressed in the Declaration are contradictory. For example, Lockean natural right, the source of unalienable rights, is founded upon John Lockes social contract theory. But the Declaration says that men are endowed with these rights by God, not by the social contract. This is a puzzling assertion in light of the fact that God was worshipped for 4,000 years without anyone noticing that He had endowed man with unalienable political rights. The Bible does not mention social contracts (of Lockes variety) or democracy. When it does discuss governments, like King Davids Israel or the Roman Empire, it not only does not say that they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, but frequently intimates quite otherwise.
Furthermore, the Declaration claims that all men are created equal, a simple empirical falsehood. As John C. Calhoun pointed out, only two persons were ever created, and one was subordinated to the other. All the rest were born, and people are not born to equality. Even if one is not a biblical literalist (I am not), the point stands, as consideration of evolution gives similar results. To claim that our equality consists in the equality of our incorporeal being as souls equal in the eyes of God, instantly concedes that this equality does not exist on the corporeal plane of politics. So does the Declaration lie? Yes, but it achieved American independence, which was its purpose, so it is still a great achievement. But brilliant barbs of rhetoric hurled at an English king to rally the fighting farmers of 13 colonies, constitute neither philosophic truth nor the foundation of a society. Further undermining contemporary attempts to extract a national proposition from the phrase, at the time when it was said, "all men are created equal" clearly meant all middle-class white males to the people who said it, if we are to judge by their actions. The contemporary concept of equality simply isnt in the Declaration. There may be independent philosophical reasons to believe it, but it is not "the American way" in any historical sense.
The problem of contradiction is even worse in the Constitution, which is a curious mixture of Greco-Roman ideas, Christian ideas, Lockean natural-right ideas, plus a few other odds and ends from Montesquieu and other sources. Now a propositionist can claim that America is founded on these multiple propositions, but even all these ideals taken together as ideals, do not found the nation. It is only their synthesis in the Constitution, in which they are combined in a certain way, modified and compromised to fit, and gifted with institutional arrangements to embody them, that founds the nation. The separate strands of idealism, in abstracto, are not a constitution, and found nothing. Therefore even if there is a national proposition, which I deny, it can only be the Constitution as a whole, not any set of ideas abstracted from it. It follows that what the Constitution actually says, with all its compromises and deviations from ideological purity, should be our ideal, which implies a strict-constructionist approach to its judicial interpretation. There is a reason why office-holders swear an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, not to the ideals of the Declaration.
My point here is that the Constitution means what it says, not what some ideals abstracted from it say. The Constitution, with its various compromises and its playing off of various ideals against each other, quite wisely limits the degree to which it embraces these ideals. It establishes some democracy, but not absolute democracy. It invokes Divine providence, but does not establish a church or even specify which variety of Theism it takes as its inspiration. It allows autonomy within a federal system, but not total autonomy. It allows the Federal government to enact laws for the general welfare, but reserves powers not given it to the states or the people. To argue that the essence of the Constitution lies in "the ideals of the Constitution, not its compromises," as Straussian scholar Henry Jaffa has done, is precisely the opposite of the truth. The compromises are of the essence of the thing, and these compromises deliberately and ruthlessly subvert attempts to abstract "propositions" out of it. The founders were perfectly well aware of the trouble abstract ideology can cause: in the 18th century, it produced the French Revolution; in the 20th, judicial activism.
And these various compromises do not add up to some proposition. There is no American Synthesis in the abstract. A regime has to be politically coherent to survive, but it does not have to be philosophically coherent; this is an innate consequence of human beings not knowing the ultimate philosophical answers. The balance between the ideas of the Constitution is not an ideological achievement but a practical one, because these ideas only balance each other when they are loosed into the world and made the basis of real institutions. For example, the Constitution gives the electorate the right to elect representatives who can regulate interstate commerce, but it prohibits laws violating the sanctity of contracts. There is no abstract principle that can reconcile both these enactments. There is only the existential fact of a prosperous nation without a sufficiently large constituency for the confiscation of property. In a much poorer nation, the same enactments would not both by obeyed: you would have either a brutal oligarchy preserving its property by force, or a socialistic mob socializing property. This is empirically true: many nations have adopted American-style constitutions only to see them fail miserably because they did not possess the same existential social facts as America. Even a casual reading of the Federalist Papers will reveal that the framers of the Constitution understood this perfectly well. Therefore America is not just founded on its Constitution, but on the existential social facts of 1789 and since. If America is "all about" anything, this anything cannot be simply a set of ideas, however important those ideas are to America.
It crucially follows that conservatism in America cannot mean simply conserving the "ideas" of the Constitution, or even the Constitution taken as a whole. It must mean conserving those existential facts on which our nation is founded. This raises the obvious question of which existential facts are these? This is an immensely complex and fruitful topic of debate which cannot be disposed of here, but one might begin with the following list:
Obviously many of these points apply to other nations as well, albeit differently, since other nations are founded on other things. Singapore, for example, is clearly founded on Chinese ethnicity and simply wouldnt work in recognizable form if its Malays were a majority. Japan, if it had not the history it has, would not be such a peace-inclined nation. The Swiss would be far more inclined to ethnic squabbling if they werent so very rich. These are all concrete existential facts, not abstractions. Conservatives since Burke are supposed to be wise to the mischief of abstractions. To those who say that America is not so much a nation as an idea, I say, no nation is an idea: ideas do not issue passports. (If they retort that they dont mean it literally, I want to know how they do mean it, because they draw conclusions from it as if they meant it literally.)
Furthermore, if one appeals to American history, and in particular to the founding, as a source of information concerning what propositions are essentially American, one will dredge up things not to ones liking that no one wants to even talk about. Crucial facts about what America was founded on are deliberately hushed up by both liberals and conservatives and admitted only by the non-respectable Left and the non-respectable Right. Namely, that this country was founded upon conquest, slavery, sexism, and class rule. The Constitution, as originally written, holds that our ownership of this land by conquest is just, that Indians are savages, that blacks may be enslaved, that women have no fit role in government, and that the (little-remembered) restriction of suffrage to men of property by state governments is valid. (I have defended right of conquest in another article) . Liberals fear that admitting that these things are the basis of our great nation will legitimate these things; conservatives that their perceived illegitimacy will undermine respect for our great nation. This fact is in itself quintessentially Straussian: society represses certain truths, either by never mentioning them or by ingeniously explaining them away, as insalubrious for public consumption. The idea that America was founded foursquare on liberty and inalienable rights is the Platonic noble lie of our republic, and as such is entirely appropriate for schoolchildren and most of the rest of us. It is not, however, the truth. I challenge anyone to deny these bald historical facts with a straight face.
Of course, one can quite easily dismiss these moral monstrosities by appeal to our modern, more advanced, understanding of right and wrong, but this abandons the idea that the propositions on which America is based are wholly good, and therefore one cannot argue in favor of things on the grounds that they represent American propositions. American propositionism is just a way of dressing up contemporary liberal or neoconservative preferences in the respectable garb of national antiquity in order to claim that these preferences are conservative of something. Propositionists can reply that they believe in what America is based on now, but this just makes their position a matter of contemporary political preferences, which are objects of dispute, not historical grounds upon which disputes can be settled.
Another thing to notice is that many foreign nations are liberal democracies like the United States. The way some propositionists write about the subject, one would think that America was the only free country in the world. Therefore being a liberal democracy cannot possibly be what makes America America. If a liberal democratic system of government makes us a propositional nation, why does one not hear the same thing about other liberal democracies? Why, for example, does one not hear it about Australia, a nation very similar to the US? Because its ridiculous. The closest thing I know of to a propositional nation overseas is the claim by some Frenchmen that France is the embodiment of liberté, egalité, fraternité in history. But this is a slogan from the French Revolution, and we all know how that turned out. Likewise with the biggest experiment ever of a nation set up as the embodiment of an ideology: the Soviet Union. It is intrinsically true that if one defines the nation as the embodiment of an ideology, one will end up sacrificing the real, concrete, actual nation on the altar of whatever abstraction one has set up. And this is true even if the ideology is something from the United States.
There is a deliberate effort going on to conflate having ideals with being a propositional nation whose proposition is those ideals. We are supposed to believe that if we give up the proposition bit, we give up the ideals. But one can have ideals without being those ideals.
Furthermore, one must question many of the ideals that have been propounded as Americas national proposition. While some propositionists stick to things abstracted from our national documents, which have at least some historical basis, others make wild claims concerning what "America is all about." "Diversity" is a case in point. This comes straight out of a hat, period. It has no grounding in history; in fact, most of American history prior to the 1960s was a ruthless effort to suppress diversity and weld a coherent nation. Immigration is a slightly more complex example. It is true that America was founded on the existential fact of colonization, but this is different from immigration and there is nothing about America that makes immigration a necessary foundation of its being. Sorry if this offends you my ancestors were immigrants, too but humility compels me to admit that this could have been a perfectly good nation without them.
The most offensive thing about propositionism is that it attempts to subvert conservatism by passing off liberal ideas as conservative, rotting out the conservative mind from within. Propositionists argue in favor of their preferences by invoking our duty to our history and national character, but are blazingly uninterested in these things when they dont agree with them, or in any concrete form. They are utterly cavalier about tradition and nationhood when asked to cherish these values in non-ideological form. They would reduce this rich, complex, historical, actual nation to an ideological skeleton.
There is one final question: if America is fundamentally an idea, why bother having a country at all? There is no fundamental reason to cherish America, only its historically contingent role at this point in time as a promoter of certain ideas. It is a disposable instrument of an ideological agenda, and it is thus no secret that some people seem to be keen to dispose of it. Since propositions are not limited by geography, propositions imply the desirability of a world state to realize them. Propositionism is thus inherently globalist and nation-liquidating, no matter how much its exponents may deny it.
Fundamentally, Propositionism amounts to no more than the native arrogance of intellectuals, who desperately want to believe that the only important things in the world are ideas. Theirs, of course. Conservatives should know better.
Note: Just to show how deep the rot has gone, here is a partial list of nominally conservative writers who appear to subscribe to propositionism: Dinesh DSouza, Charles Krauthammer, Charles Murray, Ben Wattenberg, William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, John Podhoretz, Fareed Zakaria, Newt Gingrich, George Will, Lowell Ponte, Jamie Glazov, David Brooks, Paul Johnson, Jonah Goldberg, Bob Bartley, John Fund, Rush Limbaugh, Linda Chavez. Here is a partial list of those who have spoken out against this notion: Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley, Jr, Phyllis Schlafly, John OSullivan, Ann Coulter, Peter Brimelow, Joe Sobran, Paul Craig Roberts, Scott McConnell, Lawrence Auster, Chilton Williamson, Donald Livingston, Clyde Wilson, Stephen Presser, Howard Sutherland, J.P.Zmirak, Paul Gottfried, Don Feder, Bill Murchison, Michelle Malkin, Debra Saunders, Ilana Mercer. My apologies in advance to anyone whose position I have misunderstood or over-simplified.
Post script: Criticize this essay all you want, but please dont accuse me of believing that our ideals dont matter. This is the usual misinterpretation of my argument: I said theyre only half the story.
In my humble opinion, he's taking a number of conservative standpoints to their logical extreme end. Some of the statements he makes uses language that would more typical of extreme Leftists than Rightists. It just goes to show that often, our political spectrum is more circular than linear. I think I'm going have to ponder over this piece more before I make my final judgment on it.
that's not necessarily unfair or unprincipled.
It just goes to show that often, our political spectrum is more circular than linear.
i've been saying this for years. i am reminded of closing lines in little gidding by t.s. eliott (... but we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be, to arrive at the place we started from, and to know that place for the first time ... [or words to that effect]).
you're the first other person i've heard say as much.
when i became immersed in the internet (viz., FreeRepublic), i allowed my subscription to national review lapse. so it's been some years that i've read dinesh d'souza and jonah goldberg (other than the occasional article); unless they've taken a course not predictable by their writings three or four years past, i'm a little surprised by the author's inclusion of them on his list of those who've been naughty.
however, the article is extremely thought provoking and well written. superb. thank you.
For me, he goes wrong right there. Man-made laws are morally binding only in so far as they are expressions of the intrinsic Moral Law established from the foundation of the world. That is why the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration are morally binding, because they are an accurate expression of the Creator's will.
Not quite true, but since it took 4000 years to produce US style republican democracy, and people who believed this "puzzling assertion" were the ones that did it, what is your point?
The founders did not all agree on matters of theology, but they agreed that God's will was knowable, not only by scripture, but by the light of right reason. To say that previous generations did not agree demonstrates nothing; previous generations did not achieve what they achieved.
Furthermore, the Declaration claims that all men are created equal, a simple empirical falsehood.
All men are created equal before the law. This is not an empirical statement, it is a statement of principle, which will be the guiding principle of the new government. I agree that you and I are not "equal", but I declare that you and I are and must be equal before the law.
Further undermining contemporary attempts to extract a national proposition from the phrase, at the time when it was said, "all men are created equal" clearly meant all middle-class white males to the people who said it, if we are to judge by their actions.
The principle was bigger than the men who articulated it. They could see it as it applied to themselves. They did not all yet see what it would mean as the idea took on a life of its own.
But ideas do take on a life of their own, and this one has transformed the world.
The Constitution, with its various compromises and its playing off of various ideals against each other, quite wisely limits the degree to which it embraces these ideals.
The Constitution wisely limits the power one human can have over another, whatever their ideals. This, in fact, is a direct expression of these ideals.
In a much poorer nation, the same enactments would not both by obeyed: you would have either a brutal oligarchy preserving its property by force, or a socialistic mob socializing property.
This is a false choice. Economic prosperity requires rule of law, it requires that persons be "equal before the law", and it requires that property rights be respected and protected.
Poverty, oligarchies, and socialistic mobs result from the failure to recognize these principles. Latin American countries, for example, rich in natural resources, suffer from the inability to establish "equality before the law", and thus careen between socialism and oligarchy, most often both at the same time.
Therefore America is not just founded on its Constitution, but on the existential social facts of 1789 and since.
Quite the contrary, the social facts have been transformed by its adherence to principle. Monarchy is gone. Slavery is gone. Communism and fascism have been smashed, although probably not for the last time. These principles are turning the Islamic world on its head.
They would reduce this rich, complex, historical, actual nation to an ideological skeleton.
Sufficient ethnic homogeneity, if only so that the body politic is not torn apart by conflict.
This country never had the option of being some kind of paradise of ethnic purity, and does not today. This country has always been bound by shared ideals. Our shared values come out of anglo-saxon culture, perhaps, mixed as he points out with greco-roman, christian, and jewish ideas, but it is the idea that made the US what it is. Our war for independence was a fratricidal war, because "monarchy" is also part of the anglo-saxon culture. The war against slavery was also fratricidal because the slavers were also anglo-saxon, and accepted the ideal of liberty for themselves, but denied it to their work force.
America is not an ethnicity, it is a philosophy which must be inculcated one generation to the next or it vanishes.
It shouldn't be. Locke is on to something here.
It just goes to show that often, our political spectrum is more circular than linear.
There's no "often," my friend. The political scale IS circular, and the extremes overlap. The only difference in the extremes is the language used. That's it.
Equality before the law is not egalitarianism. I agree that egalitarianism is a slippery concept that has provided cover for some really bad government, in our country and even worse abroad. Millions of people have been shot, or enslaved, in the pursuit of egalitarianism.
But thats not what we're talking about here.
"Equal before the law" is not egalitarian.
Airport security is another issue. We are at war. There is nothing wrong with searching the citizens of enemy nations, which is to say, enemy aliens. The idea that old vietnamese ladies must be body searched is not rooted in conservatism.
It would be reasonable to say that all citizens must be searched, if our attackers were native-born Americans, based on the "equal before the law" notion, but of course they are not. They are from an identifiable part of the world. And they are not citizens.
There are two problems. One is that we are at war. "War" is what exists when normal civil and criminal law are no longer adequate to handle the current situation. But it is necessary to have a legal "finding" by our elected leaders that we are at war. They have, rather ambiguously, done that, but a more explicit declaration would, in my view, simplify the legal and constitutional quandaries that we find ourselves in.
Another problem is that approximately half of our country is not "conservative", in the sense we are discussing here. And this is where much of the irrationality in our system enters. It is obvious that profiling can be an abuse of power, but it is nevertheless a legitimate and necessary tool of law enforcement.
The original article is flawed, in that it attributes opinions to conservatives that they do not hold.
I am answering these out of order, as I read them out of order.
You and I are in agreement. Republicans, in their role as half of the governing coalition, sometimes find themselves on the wrong sides of these issues. Conservatives seldom do.
I still say this is a straw man. Conservatives are not egalitarians. Nor are they Utopians. Conservatives are, generally, small "L" libertarians, limited government constitutionalists. Who are the Conservatives Locke and Bradford are referring to?
Leftists, on the other hand, are both, egalitarians and Utopians.
Republicans, generally conservative, are all over the map on issues for the fact that they are part of the governing coalition, in a world in which half the electorate, and half the legislature, is leftist. They make compromises to get elected, and to get legislation passed. And, frankly, a lot of Repubs are not conservative. If this is what Bradford and Locke refer to, then we are in agreement.
"Neo" conservatives I can't answer for.
What is the "libertarian/neoconservative consensus"?
While I agree with the article on many points, I would make the case differently.
To me, the distinction is between Animating Documents and Legal Founding Documents. The Declaration is a national animating document. Commonsense was a cultural animating document. The former was adopted by the Continental Congress as a communication to the World but not as a government forming document. The latter was only a popular cultural tract.
In contract, the Constitution was a governing adopted document. Adopted by the Constitutional Convention and subsiquently by the States and their peoples.
Animating Documents can still contain principles that animate me today. But that doesn't give them the force of law or make the Constitution suddenly subject to "propositions" found in other documents created or popular our founding.
The Rationalistic-Left uses such tactics to subvert the Constitution and the Republic. From such comes the "seperation of church and state" because Jefferson cited that in a letter. From such comes the Privacy pernumbra wherein Abortion became a "right".
Metaphysical political schemes will kill our Republic.
I meant to post:
But that doesn't give them the force of law or make the Constitution suddenly subject to "propositions" found in other documents created or popular at our founding.
I guess a lot of the problem has to do with what you mean by "proposition nation." The neo-con answer seems to be that the country itself is the proposition about liberty and equality. Therefore it doesn't matter who lives here or what our history is. I'd have to say that there is such a thing as keeping faith and being loyal to one's own people. The country can take in some immigrants, but we shouldn't think of our nation as an empty metaphysical mold to be filled with the world's population.
There are cultural links between our institutions and values and the histories we bring with us. Too much change too quickly, too many newcomers at any one time could strain or break these links.
Also, as the world comes to accept our proposition, our own reason for being is called into question. And we face a severe identity crisis that may end in the fragmentation of our country. It's better not to try to be a global, cosmic, or universal country. There is already such a global, cosmic, or universal society being built in the world and our nation may prove redundant or superceded if it links itself too closely with that society.
But surely we do have certain ideas about liberty and human worth engrained in our political culture and with us from the founding. If we did not have such ideas we would never have parted with England, nor would we have developed as we did or fought the wars we did. Understanding our country means walking a fine line. I wouldn't want to think that America had become some universal empire of liberty. But neither would I want us to forget our heritage of liberty and dignity.
American propositionism is just a way of dressing up contemporary liberal or neoconservative preferences in the respectable garb of national antiquity in order to claim that these preferences are conservative of something. Propositionists can reply that they believe in what America is based on now, but this just makes their position a matter of contemporary political preferences, which are objects of dispute, not historical grounds upon which disputes can be settled.
This bit from the article caught my eye. I don't have any trouble with the first sentence. But the second seems a little naive. Countries change over time. What we keep and what we leave behind, what we view as essence and what as accident will differ from person to person and change over time. That's not to say that "it's all relative," just that what is most significant is always going to a contentious issue. It looks to me as though we are all trying to figure out what the thread that binds us together as a nation, both in the present moment and through time, is. And it also looks as though selection and imagination (in the best sense of the word) are bound to be a part of what ever answer we give. And our author no more escapes selection and creative recollection than those he criticizes. We are bound to choose those parts of our past that suit our current ideals and make them our American heritage. Of course this makes real trouble when our ideals don't coincide. But the author selects just as those he criticizes do.
To my way of thinking one can't avoid having some metaphysical assumptions or propositions. The "concrete" portrait our author gives of early America is guaranteed to turn off very many of us, as much in a "concrete" picture of French or German history would turn off most Frenchmen or Germans today. I think we're all building selective pictures (again I don't use the word to demean the process). We're all choosing what's best in the past to connect to.
The question is how much can you do with out, and how much do we need. A neo-con like Ben Wattenberg who distills everything down to a sentence or two that could probably be accepted by a billion people or more may have an admirable creed, but he does little to define what America is about. Nor does he give us much reason to attach ourselves to our country rather than the developing global market.
My guess is that early 19th Century Americans saw themselves as a nation with propositions about liberty and equality before law. They didn't think that the proposition was the nation or could replace the nation or provide a basis for its dissolution (actually some did come to think just that, but that only proves that abstract propositions can make trouble).
In the 20th century we stopped trying to define our characteristics as a people and let those assumed characteristics define who we are. Unfortunately, this may become an ideological lockstep. I would like to think that we can still disagree about ideological matters without being proscribed as "anti-American." It also can lead to a much shallower understanding of who we are and what we stand for. The two line creed doesn't give us as much in common as an earlier and richer cultural heritage did.
But the question for now is "Where do we go from here?" I suspect that though we weren't a purely "propositional country" to begin with, governments since at least 1965 have been working hard to make us just that, and leave us with no other basis of national unity or identity.
Anyway, a good read and worth thinking about.
Bloom's translation of the Republic also found its way onto my shelf last year...but that is a task for a really long vacation, LOL.
Business leaves so little time for mental recreation.
That's silly, the Constitution is a contract, the "propositions" are like mission statements- totally secondary.