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 Paine’s 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 didn’t 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 Locke’s 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 Locke’s variety) or democracy. When it does discuss governments, like King David’s 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 isn’t 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:
1. A predominantly Christian (or Judeo-Christian) nation. The Constitution does not give any ultimate metaphysical foundation for people to behave in a virtuous rather than vicious manner, but it presumes that they will so behave by entrusting them with self-government. It follows that the Constitution presupposes the existence of such a foundation in the cultural fabric of the nation. (A Christian or a Jew can clearly believe they are endowed by God with certain inalienable rights and believe in the non-establishment of religion; A follower of Islam, which enjoins sharia or Islamic law and prohibits the separation of church and state, can be a good American only insofar as he is not a good Moslem.)
2. Sufficient ethnic homogeneity, if only so that the body politic is not torn apart by conflict. How much is sufficient is obviously the controversial part, but clearly, things like a common language are a part of it. Also a part of it is the idea that the American people constitute a “people” in the sense of being a coherent and naturally distinct body in a world filled with other peoples. The Declaration begins, setting forth its cause, not by speaking of freedom but by saying “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” The Constitution begins, “We the people of the United States…” The concept of people-hood is essential. It is for this reason the Constitution says that its aim is “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” implying a certain continuity.
3. American ethnicity, i.e. the culture and habits of mind of Americans as opposed to other nations. It is obvious, for example, that one reason the French revolution veered into horror and the American revolution did not, is the fact that 18th century Americans, like the Britons from whom they descended, were culturally disinclined to ideological fanaticism. American ethnicity is a concrete identity with a history, not a blank slate. And it matters, so we should take an interest in having the kind of culture we need. For example, the indulgent and licentious culture embodied in contemporary American music is clearly incompatible with the self-control that self-government requires. A rock ‘n roll mentality has no place on the floor of the Senate.
4. A middle-class society. Only in a middle-class society can the sanctity of property be reconciled with a popular franchise. It is notoriously true internationally that only nations with solid middle classes can sustain democracy.
5. American history. To take a small example, only a nation that has gone through the excesses of the ‘60s and realized the need to correct itself will support certain conservative policies. A nation that had forgotten the experience of the ‘60s might not be so inclined. And this applies to other historical experiences, too. America’s wisdom depends on having had a certain history, and knowing that history.
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 wouldn’t 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 weren’t 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 don’t 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 one’s 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 it’s 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 America’s 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 don’t 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 D’Souza, 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 O’Sullivan, 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 don’t accuse me of believing that our ideals don’t matter. This is the usual misinterpretation of my argument: I said they’re only half the story.