Conservative Consensus at the Level of Principle
Byline: Matthew Spalding, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
In the face of unbridled liberalism's latest push, conservatives stand confused. Some want to modify basic conservative positions and target spending and programs to appeal to demographic groups. Others insist on better tactics, louder advocacy and more of the same.
But if they mean to withstand liberalism's larger challenge, conservatives need to make arguments about principles and politics, and about liberty, opportunity and the liberating ideas they seek to conserve.
According to Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, the key has been there all along, bound up in the midst of the country's title and deed.
The great story of America has unfolded because of the interweaving influence of two brief but powerful documents: the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The way we talk, the way we stand, the way we dance or sing - all are influenced by the laws of our land and the principles behind them, and our laws and principles spring from these two documents. Modern liberalism, stemming from a progressive movement that opposed both, has managed to sever and mutate the two documents, turning the Declaration's self-evident truths into constantly evolving rights claims and the Constitution's clear commands into meaningless generalities. This intellectual sham is well advanced, especially among our elites, and increasingly in the citizen body.
Mr. Arnn calls on us to rediscover and re-embrace both documents and sets out to teach us the deeper meaning and the integral unity of the universal and timeless claims of the one and the forms and institutions of government established by the other. The Declaration acquires a practical form and operation that do not seem to come from it alone. The Constitution soars to the elevation of the natural law, and its arrangements are reinforced with the strength of that strength. It is the powerful attraction of those principles and that form that is the key - something understood by the Founders and still available for us to ignite an American restoration.
The Declaration, as Mr. Arnn beautifully describes, is grounded in the very nature of things. Its words reach back to both classical philosophy and biblical theology - as in the Laws of Nature as well as nature's God - representing a profound agreement between reason and revelation about man, and the proper ground of politics and an understanding of natural rights that is a continuation of both the English republican tradition of Locke and Sidney and a natural-law tradition dating back to medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and further to classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero. Properly located in this nature, man is his own natural ruler, with the capacity to govern himself, able to make decisions about how to live his own life and conduct his affairs.
In discussing the structure of the Constitution, Mr. Arnn recalls The Federalist's famous argument for auxiliary precautions and its republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. Rather than relying on a predominance of virtue and civic responsibility, a dangerous assumption for constitution-makers, the Founders designed a system - extending the sphere of representation, separating powers and providing for checks and balances - that would harness man's competing interests not to lower politics to questions of narrow self-interest, but to provide what they called the defect of better motives. The Founders didn't rely on the enumeration of powers alone to limit government, and neither should we. The better path is for each branch of government to be responsible (and held responsible) for its actions according to the structure and distribution of government powers set out in the Constitution.
What does this mean for conservatism? Of late, conservatives either fall back on the fading hopes of a traditional-values majoritarianism, or slide toward the narrow self-interests of libertarianism. …