Among the current body of U.S. Senators, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is certainly the intellectual favorite of many liberals in the country, and she is already being spoken of as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. The former Harvard law school professor and consumer protection advocate has a great command of the issues, but her ideological commitments undermine her abilities, making her less effective as a legislator, and an often insufficiently decorous member of the U.S. Senate. Now that she has become a cause célèbre in the matter of Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General, the rebukes she is receiving from Republicans will come back to haunt them.
No other major figure in 20th century American social and political life has deserved study more than Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994). The existing studies of Kirk are excellent, but the latest effort, by Professor Brad Birzer, surpasses all previous attempts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. Birzer has a command of the primary sources that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. In other words, a significant advance in scholarly knowledge is upon us, as well as an advance in evaluating Kirk as a political thinker.
American political science has lost a significant contributor with the demise of Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015). We mourn the death of Professor Jaffa, and acknowledge that there will be many celebrations of his life and scholarly achievements to appear, especially from his epigones. Important contributions from Ken Masugi and Peter Lawler have already appeared in this space. As a mentor, Jaffa inspired a large number of graduate students who have assumed posts in the academy and government. We call many of these scholars our friends, and continue to appreciate their interpretative approaches and defense of the American political tradition.
He should also be remembered by those of us who disagreed with him.
When questioned recently about the administration’s Ebola response, President Obama’s exasperated White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, proclaimed to a reporter: “I guess you can take that up with James Madison.” Earnest, in his attempt to express the evolving nature of governance in a federated republic, correctly affirmed Madison’s central role in the debate, and directed the thoughtful citizen to appreciate original understandings of power.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin. Oxford University Press.
The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk, by André Gushurst-Moore. Angelico Press.
The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give It Back, by David Willetts. Atlantic Books.
Amidst the recurring question of whether Edmund Burke is relevant to contemporary politics, we are presented with three volumes that approach this vital issue in different ways, and with varying levels of scholarly and popular perceptiveness. All the books under review attempt to connect the witness and insights of the great statesman to ongoing conflicts in society and politics. Perhaps the disparate assessments of Burke alone could suggest the resiliency of his legacy; however, the importance of Burke the political theorist dictates a closer examination of these critical works.
The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains a delightful yet potentially bewildering interview with Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer on the pleasures of reading Proust and other French writers in their original language. Long obsessed with all things French, Breyer has consistently endorsed the incorporation of European jurisprudential insights into American constitutional decision-making in an attempt to refute originalist interpretations of the American legal and political tradition. Judge Richard A. Posner, in a now-famous critique of Breyer, correctly suggests that what is ultimately at stake is a disavowal of the “liberty of the ancients” for a new and “active” liberty and theory of unrestrained democracy embodied in recent studies of European law and political thought.