What a Providentially Bad President Can Do for America

King Arthur: I am your king!

Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!

King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.

Woman: Well how’d you become king then?

— “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

In his enviably readable book Inventing Freedom, Daniel Hannan refers to King John of England as “providentially bad.” Most importantly for the cause of English liberty (and by extension American liberty), the “obnoxious” and overbearing behavior of King John resulted in the Magna Carta. Had John been more artful and politically deft he might have aggrandized more power to himself and imposed a number of political innovations on a disgruntled people. But John, being bad, inspired reaction.

A century and a half after the Norman invasion brought to England a new ruling class and an imposed Continental feudal political arrangement, the nobility—who were themselves the offspring of the “bastard” Normans—drew deeply from the older Anglo-Saxon traditions still encoded in the sinews of English order to check the king and produce a crystalized defense of old liberties. In the Magna Carta they drew from the past but also altered the future. Often in reaction we make progress.

ObamaSome people today worry that a bad president and a compliant Congress, bureaucracy, and judiciary are pushing us across a tipping point that will leave us with a servile citizenry and the soft despotism so long feared. But President Obama could be our King John. His rule might provide the best circumstances for diverse people, stimulated by his stunningly bad ideas and policies, to produce the sort of response that continues the great Anglo-American tradition of creative reaction.

The goal is to innovate in order to preserve, to allow new circumstances, new abuses, new violations of liberties to supply the means by which we develop a new clarity about principles in our time. The danger to our inheritance of self-rule and liberty (which are so tightly bound as to be nearly indistinguishable) would be greater had the President understood better the society he seeks to “fundamentally transform.”

Defenders of American liberty have often operated with an “ideas have consequences” argument. The purest version of this comes from Richard Weaver, who located the root of civilizational decline in one idea—14th century Nominalism. More frequently, and more casually, the battle-of-ideas view has pervaded the arguments of conservatives, libertarians, and a wide variety of old-style liberals.

When Herbert Hoover, for instance, argued against the policies of the New Deal throughout the 1930s, he did so by making a case for the ideas of liberty or freedom versus the ideas of “collectivism.” The intellectual battle lines of the 1950s through the 1980s were drawn around foundational ideas, with those on the Right claiming that small accommodations to socialist ideas would lead to a transformation in American politics unless those ideas were defeated by vigorous counter-arguments. This ideological war had many fronts, from the Cold War to domestic policies to educational skirmishes about “Western civilization” and “the canon.”

One of the more intriguing outcomes in this war was the dominance of a conservative species of abstract truth to counter the abstractions of revolutionaries from Robespierre to postmodernists. For a great many people, abstract claims to universal moral truths were a necessary instrument in the fight against “relativism” and “historicism” and, more generally, the tendency to worship the will while transforming reason into its servant. One of the most thoughtful and subtle exponents of this point of view was Leo Strauss, who saw in Continental Europe the savage destructiveness that follows the loss of a natural or theological teleology. Strauss believed that American intellectuals in the 1950s were mimicking the trends he witnessed in Germany during the Weimar years and before. Rather than succumbing to the same outcome, the American intellectual battle must be fought against all forms of moral relativism. Great books and great ideas must be mustered for combat, and generations of right-wing scholars have since been armed, trained, and deployed.

And yet, much confusion attended this resistance to modern liberalism and various forms of radicalism in the early years of this struggle. At about the same time that Strauss and others argued that we needed a philosophical defense of moral absolutes expressed in ahistorical terms, America witnessed a conservative revival of Edmund Burke and his species of historicism (which, one must state, can never be understood as bearing any kinship with the historicism of the Continental thinkers so abjured by Strauss).

But that was only the beginning of the creative incoherence of the various schools of thought allied for common causes. Some translated Burke’s historicism into the categories of Thomistic natural law theories while others, obsessed with the dangers of historicism, advocated a simplified natural rights argument as the most likely moral redoubt for small “d” democrats who still found the Declaration of Independence believable. Even Richard Weaver found himself an advocate of both Platonism and Southern Traditionalism. For intellectuals on the American Right, ideas were easier to understand and explain than principles drawn from experience. This is truer today than ever before—conservative intellectuals find security in simple abstractions that satisfy the desire to universalize without any complicating historical factors.

The most distilled version of the “ideas have consequences” school of thought on the Right turned into a rather popular account of American exceptionalism that stressed the self-evident truths of the Declaration as reinforced by Lincoln and completed by King. To these self-evident truths we must add the miracle of Philadelphia, which gave us our governing document. The final ingredient of this version was a powerful faith in human potential to change our destiny, most vividly expressed by Reagan’s invocation of Thomas Paine that “we have the power to begin the world anew.” Processed down to an ideology, this version emphasizes fixed, knowable, and universal ideas about the Good that give direction to a forward-looking vanguard that possesses the power to apply those ideas to contemporary circumstances. Many things flow from this moral perspective, but for the purposes of my argument, I only want to stress the very potent appeal for contemporary defenders of liberty of seeing political life simply as a struggle among competing ideas.

Ideas are curious things, even those that proclaim universal truths. They do matter; believing bad ideas leads to bad outcomes. But those that gain currency, that people find persuasive, emerge in language and forms that relate to the experiences of those who find those particular ideas powerful.

In disordered times, people cast about for ideas to make sense of their experiences. In the abstract perfection of ideologies, many find comfort, hope, and a call to action (which is to say that they find purpose). Others, meanwhile, find themselves in creative reaction to the disordering of their world. They find they need to express in some systematic or unambiguous way a set of habits, or beliefs, or even sentiments that had been only partially visible to them before. For these people, the experiences precede the ideas. Their reactions to disruptions or disorder produce a new articulation of the principles of order that make sense of their experiences.

The process is complicated and varies in its particulars, but in all cases we can assume that by bringing some political or moral question to the surface, people simultaneously reaffirm and alter what had been habitual. In other words, crises can produce a salutary reform that becomes necessary and possible only after some moral principles become visible because of crisis.

One way of understanding American liberties and the moral claims that we use to defend them is to think of them as emerging out of an Anglo-American experience, complete with habits, prejudices, traditions, and institutions. Hannan’s account in Inventing Freedom is particularly useful in this regard. Long before the Norman conquest of England, an Anglo-Saxon civilization, drawn from the “gloomy forests of first-century Germany,” had developed a jealous regard for self-government along with the habits of liberty (or perhaps liberties) that would become the DNA of an “Anglosphere” political culture. This culture was not a product of racial solidarity but incorporated outsiders, even invading outsiders, into the system of liberty.

The Magna Carta, which came rather late in this story, responded to demands put forward largely by descendants of the Norman invasion who had accepted the beliefs and many of the institutions of the Anglo-Saxons. It was, therefore, a prime example of creative reaction—the formalizing of principles in a way that was at once conservative and revolutionary. Ideas do indeed matter, but only if they give expression to our experiences of reality.

The same holds true with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776. Throughout English and American history we have a way of doing and then codifying—of allowing human experience to be our guide to political principles. As Hannan accurately notes, the English-Americans, drawn heavily from dissenting Protestants, were hyper-Englishmen who felt more fervent devotion to English liberty than any other group in the Anglosphere. Whatever political philosophy colonials employed in defense of the American Revolution and whatever political philosophy Americans deployed to defend the U.S. Constitution, the underlying experiences and traditions supplied the ground for these ideas to have purchase or even meaning. In times of crisis, Americans have a way of innovating in order to preserve. We ought to consider this the conservative genius of the American people.

What Americans are devoted to, by habit, is liberty understood as self-rule. They want to be free to pursue their individual lives; they want the freedom that comes from a secure private property; they want to be able to work with neighbors to solve common problems; and they want to associate with whomever they wish as an expression of their independence. This species of freedom or liberty is consistent with a restrained democracy but has a natural suspicion of democracy understood on a national scale and buttressed by a bureaucracy that governs on the “people’s behalf.” The instinct is to favor the ability of individuals, and the institutions that individuals help create, to function by their own lights so long as they do not grossly violate the freedoms of others.

Because my argument depends on the habits and prejudices of a people and because these must emerge from experiences that affirm them, it follows that the most important defense of American liberty is found in society, in voluntary organizations, in strong local government, and in the matrix of institutions that incorporate people into a culture of liberties. That defense is especially needed now because, in all of these areas, the buttress of liberty as self-rule is weaker than it has ever been in American history. We could argue that the failure of previous generations to maintain these social, cultural, and institutional bulwarks has left us more or less defenseless before the onslaught of an abstract system of freedom imported from Europe. This argument suggests that Americans have been seduced, slowly, by the protections of big government supported by a servile citizenry, to give up the ideals of American liberty.

But the long history of Anglo-American liberty suggests a much more enduring social and cultural memory. It particularly suggests that the people who are the cultural (rather than racial) products of this long tradition have deeper habits than can be altered in a generation or three. Perhaps, therefore, what is most needed now is a providentially bad President who has no real connection with this heritage, who has been educated to believe that the system is in need of fundamental change, and who engages in sustained assaults on the everyday experiences and prejudices of the people. Perhaps then, and only then, will the citizens seek some expression of principles that would give voice to their contemporary version of the American story of liberty. What such a President will have done is make space for a renewed Magna Carta or a “Bill of Rights.”

American liberties need a new expression. This new expression ought to be able to connect the past with the present, to signal an inheritance that is nonetheless living in contemporary experience. The new expression must be creative in some measure. It must find something new because it is responding to new challenges and new assaults. What it discovers will be new in the sense that it had not reached a level of intellectual clarity before, but old in the sense that it is a fresh statement of longstanding ideas. Finally, it will be conservative in the sense that it seeks to find an intellectual vehicle to carry the weight of already-existing wisdom encoded in the habits of unfolding experience.

Is there not, after all, a grain of truth in that silly exchange between King Arthur and the woman in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”? To me it suggests that the most important liberties associated with England and America were not created by philosophers, are not recent inventions, and emerged as principles long after they were alive as living prejudices. We elected this providentially bad President, but the violations against our liberties might well provoke a reaction in which prejudices long part of the American experience rise to the level of ideas.

Ted McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord Chair / Associate Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. Author of Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order, he is currently working on a book about Walter Lippmann and the problem of modern liberation.

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Comments

  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Perhaps one area of comparison of “bad King John II” to a “bad President” might be seen in the similar efforts at centralization of influence and power. That was probably most evidenced by continuing centralization of the legal system under John II whereby the manorial courts were superseded by royal authority; a process of developing a unified legal system that was largely completed in the 1st quarter of the 14th century. Of course, the objectives of that centralization were disruptions of the local power bases of the manorial lords, not efficiency of the legal system (nor the perfection of justice).

    Otherwise, in our time, regardless of the historic variations, the comparisons are not adequately valid. It is highly unlikely that the consequences of those advents of power, and the reactions to them, will be comparable.

    The “powers” were extended to the “bad President” by extensive, repeated, consent of the electorate.

    As that electorate and its motivations have evolved over the last 60 to 80 years, they have established the Federal Administrative State, with all of its powers, bureaucracies, intrusions in individual relationships and impacts on those freedoms which comprise individual liberty, by consent and passive acceptance.

    “What Americans are devoted to, by habit, is liberty understood as self-rule. They want to be free to pursue their individual lives; they want the freedom that comes from a secure private property; they want to be able to work with neighbors to solve common problems; and they want to associate with whomever they wish as an expression of their independence. This species of freedom or liberty is consistent with a restrained democracy but has a natural suspicion of democracy understood on a national scale and buttressed by a bureaucracy that governs on the “people’s behalf.” The instinct is to favor the ability of individuals, and the institutions that individuals help create, to function by their own lights so long as they do not grossly violate the freedoms of others.”

    That part of the “argument” is subject to serious examination. It omits the other motivations and “wants” of the aggregate public referred to as “Americans.” Those Wants and Motivations now (and perhaps predominantly) include access to particular benefits, privileges and immunities and ameliorations from the “burdens” of responsibilities coincident with freedoms and rights.

    ” . . .they want to be able to work with neighbors to solve common problems . . .”

    That “want” might be better expressed as “would like to,” but “they” also have been motivated to avoid the discomfitures of frictions and conflicts and required compromises for cooperation, by devolving those interactions to intermediaries, most often bureaucratic institutions such as zoning boards and planning authorities, usually vested with the coercive powers of government.

    “The instinct is to favor the ability of individuals, and the institutions that individuals help create, to function by their own lights so long as they do not grossly violate the freedoms of others.”

    While that “instinct” may linger, the longer trends have led to favoring reliance upon the abilities of “experts” and specialization. The institutions that individuals “helped create” have been allowed (mostly by passive acceptance) to pass into forms of guild-like bureaucracies; exemplified by such organizations as education “systems.”

    Even the “security of private property” (property being a human relation to physical matter) has been modulated, by consent and passive acceptance in the quest for particular social (and often political) objectives through means that conflict with the basic concepts of “private property.”

    While there are signs of dissatisfactions with the results of those consents and passive acceptances, it is questionable whether this is now a point at which the choices that would need to be made, and the motivations that would need to be adjusted, for this argument to succeed, has actually been reached.

    What is the evidence for that?

    • Ted McAllister says

      The story is a familiar one. It is the primary alternative to the Progressive “right side of history” argument in which a subtle form of determinism leads us ineluctably toward a more just order. The alternative, assumed by Richard, is one of decline that, at some threshold, seems also to be inevitable. Over several generations the American people make accommodations to a growing administrative state because they either wanted to increase justice or they wanted some greater security or provision from a state that they believed they controlled. In time the administrative apparatus takes on powers that are difficult if not impossible to reverse, short of rebellion. But rebellion is unlikely because the citizens have changed over time, grown accustomed to the administrative state and, in fact, seek to live less independently in exchange for some other defined freedoms that are secured by the state.

      It is not that I disagree with this story–it is that I think people apply it to historical circumstances in ways that don’t account for other forces and that don’t allow for the contingency that the study of history reinforces. This account is too abstract and doesn’t account for very powerful human forces that are at play, but will play out in ways hard to predict.

      In a previous essay for this website I made an argument for the importance of institutions in cultivating the habits of self-rule. Like the current essay, I didn’t suggest that the war of ideas was unimportant, but that liberty is sustained not simply by ideas but by affections and habits–and these depend on institutions that reinforce the ideas of self-government. So, the ongoing defense of liberty in America should include stronger defenses for existing institutions and a willingness to innovate to produce new institutions that will serve those purposes.

      In this essay I have stressed that the history of Anglo-American liberty is punctuated with what I call creative reaction. The experiences of liberty are prior to the ideas of liberty in our case and that we get more articulate and more detailed about our liberties and rights when circumstances of abuse are sufficiently great that we react to the abuse and seek out the right language or descriptions of the liberties being abused. To this point, I would argue that habits are much studier and longer lasting than we normally assume and that a few generations of a growing administrative state does great harm but does not destroy the American love of liberty understood as self-rule.

      I do not know if the current abuses of our liberty will produce the creative reaction that I suggest have been an ongoing part of our tradition. But I do think it is an opportunity, a window, that will allow a well-wrought defense of liberty in our time, consistent with our tradition but a product of our own novel experiences of abuse, to get political, social, and cultural traction. We have examples in more recent times where this is still possible. Reagan’s form of conservative populism connected to people who recognized in his account the America of their deepest experiences and highest hopes. It did not reach the level of a rebellion, but it was a small example of creative reaction that exposed the values, beliefs and experiences of a largely quiescent minority and framed a political agenda that re-articulated and innovated at the same time.

      Nothing is inevitable and Americans retain a deep love of self-rule. Their experiences of independence, self-reliance, and what some call “individualism” have become entangled in new ways with the policies and actions of an intrusive and distant state. The hope is that certain events allow them to feel (experience) and then see (articulate in political ideas) the way their deepest habits are threatened by an insidious encroachment on their liberties.

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        No. The there is not an assumption of “decline” but rather an observation of fragmentation. As noted in professor McAllister’s response there also has been a recession of individuality. But that is not to say that it cannot reemerge and rise again.

        Where the observations differ appears to be in the characterization of motivations.

        “Over several generations the American people make *accommodations* to a growing administrative state because they either ** wanted to increase justice** or they **wanted some greater security** or provision[?] from a state that they believed they controlled. ”

        Is in direct contrast to:

        “Those Wants and Motivations now (and perhaps predominantly) include access to particular benefits, privileges and immunities and ameliorations from the “burdens” of responsibilities coincident with freedoms and rights.”

        An examination of the predominant functions and operations of the Federal Administrative State should indicate which wants and motives have led, not to “accommodation,” but establishment and embodiment of authority which impacts individual liberty.

        It is generally accepted that human conduct is internally and externally (responses and reactions) motivated. so, to wonder “if the current abuses of our liberty will produce the creative reaction that I suggest have been an ongoing part of our tradition” is to recognize that need for motivation not currently evident.

        That is why the question was raised as to whether there is *evidence* that we are now at the point where ” the motivations that would need to be adjusted, for this argument to succeed, has actually been reached?”

        That question does not deny the possibility, in fact the probability, that there are sufficient internal motivations and social forces that can and will result in the collection and reassembly of the fragments of what has been possessed in the past. How it will be reassembled and what it may resemble of our past experience remains to history.

        There is also a difference in the characterization of the results of the change of citizens over time:

        “their deepest habits are threatened by an insidious encroachment on their liberties.”

        A more realistic perspective rejects “insidious encroachment,” and observes subordination to the objectives of other wants and motivations.

  2. james wilson says

    This brush is excellent, but it is also too broad. What we are experiencing is the end game of democracy, a condition which no one has yet escaped, accelerated by universal suffrage, which Tocqueville described as not only the “most destructive element of government” but also “a revolutionary instrument”. The left has mastered it’s instrument’s rhetoric and all the enduring sources of it’s application. As Wittaker Chambers and so many others have written, ready men may rebuild a civilization from it’s ashes, but not reform what is malformed.

    “Princes had turned violence into a physical thing but our democratic republics have made it into something as intellectual as the human will it intends to restrict.
    What concerns me in our democratic republics is not that mediocrity will become commonplace, but that it may be enforced.”

  3. gabe says

    From Richard:
    “A more realistic perspective rejects “insidious encroachment,” and observes subordination to the objectives of other wants and motivations.” -Spot on!!!
    This statement illustrates the difference in perspective( and tempered aspirations, perhaps) of Richard and Prof. McAllister.
    Combine that with Mr. Wilsons comment—
    “Princes had turned violence into a physical thing but our democratic republics have made it into something as intellectual as the human will it intends to restrict.
    What concerns me in our democratic republics is not that mediocrity will become commonplace, but that it may be enforced.”

    —-and one begins to see the nature and extent of the problem. It is not only that mediocrity may be enforced but rather that it has come to be celebrated as the positive end state of history!

    Flailing against this overwhelming “historical (ist) trend” are such as we, the readers of this site. Against us is the combined forces of mass communication- the “educrat establishment” and in many respects our own progeny, beneficiaries as they are of the “educrats,” and a political party system that has been both content and complicit with the establishment of a government that has morphed into a Madisonian “faction” pursuing its own ends, agenda and propelled by a vision that is alien to our own sensibilities. Rather depressing, wouldn’t you say?

    Yet, there is some truth to Prof McAllister’s argument. There is hope for a reactive politic syncretic.
    Reading F.H. Buckley’s book “The Once and Future King……” I was struck by his argument that the American Founders did not consider Weber’s second premise for validating government – “Custom.” I believe that Buckley is wrong – very wrong, in fact – and that Madison, et al, not only considered English political custom and tradition but that they embraced it. It was, after all, the rights of Englishmen that they sought to advance and protect for themselves in the Colonies. Buckley is wrong in mistaking the end result of compromise for the initial intent and aspirational motivation of the Framers.
    In effect, what they did was to undertake a “reactive revolution” such as is described by Prof. McAllister creating a synthesis of English political tradition, common law and political practice.
    I believe that this is still an option for today’s America. It will be difficult to be certain, yet not outside the realm of possibility. One need look only at the apparent cracks appearing in the “echo chamber” of the media as of late to argue that a skilled polemicist could advance such a reactive response amongst the currently submissive / passive populace (Then again, maybe I am just trying to avoid another both of Tocquevillean “inquietude”. Then again, this argument does give credence to “El Rushbo’s” argument in 2008 that he hopes the Big O fails as it may precipitate a reaction such as Prof. McAllister posits.

  4. nobody.really says

    On a somewhat less heady tack:

    [T]he “obnoxious” and overbearing behavior of King John resulted in the Magna Carta. Had John been more artful and politically deft he might have aggrandized more power to himself and imposed a number of political innovations on a disgruntled people. But John, being bad, inspired reaction.

    I ‘ve had similar thoughts about Nixon and the mid-1970s “post-Watergate” reforms he inspired — bless him!

    Obama spoke out against the Bush-era executive prerogatives, and especially of the need to close the Guantanamo prison. But Congress balks. While these expansions of executive prerogative threaten individual liberty, that prerogative is mostly targeted at minority groups (especially foreign nationals and Muslims), so there is little populist pressure to reign in these Presidential assertions of power. On the flip side, few in Congress are willing to vote to reign in these powers if that vote might be used against them following a future terrorist attack. Lacking an upside and anticipating a down side, Congress sticks with the status quo.

    How to motivate Congress that leaving the executive with Bush-level discretion is a bad idea? We need a providentially bad display of the potential abuses of these powers.

    Obama should again ask to close Guantanamo, and for Congress to take explicit action to reign in executive prerogatives to (for example) detain US citizens without notice or trial. And in addition, he should start a one-a-day campaign: Each day he could release the content of confidential e-mail messages of a Congressman that he obtained through plausible but abusive use of the Patriot Act and a compliant FISA court.

    Not enough? Then ratchet it up a few notches: Each day he could direct the military to detain a new family member of some Congressman, spiriting this person off to Guantanamo in the putative name of “national security.”

    If Congressmen came to identify with the people who are the likely targets of executive overreach, they’d promptly take legislative action to clamp down on such abuses – thereby promoting their own self-interest AND Obama’s agenda.

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