The conservative ascent

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Barack Obama’s precipitous rise to the White House and his awesome expansion of federal power are frequently explained either as the products of failure or as crucial elements in progressivism’s undoing of American Constitutionalism. While each account is not exclusive of the other, both seek an explanation for the challenges posed by Obama’s presidency to self-government properly understood. The former wagers that the distorting effects of Bush’s foreign policy, a badly flawed Republican Party, and the 2008 market crash were crucial to his mastery of fortune. President Obama stands as the accidental leader. The comforting thought is that as political prospects for Obama have grown dimmer, the repeal of Obama’s mandate to govern is surely just around the bend of the Potomac. We conservatives can almost see it. Alternatively, other more trenchant observations point towards the ongoing corruption of America’s founding spirit. Within this tale of deformation, occurring for well nigh a century, President Obama represents a fresh and dramatic episode in government expansion.

This fuller account convincingly focuses on the deep unlearning of the constitutional heritage bequeathed to America by the Founding Fathers. The chief antagonist of said unlearning is progressivism. Contradicting the natural rights legacy of The Declaration of Independence, progressivism asserts that citizens are not equal under law because of a common human nature and its innate liberty, but are made equal, and given meaningful lives, through the state’s bundling and dispensing of rights. The fundamental challenge to Madisonian constitutionalism could not be more apparent. The American Founding is now polluted and besotted by statist ideas. Her standard must be renewed in our time if free government is to endure.

This compelling tale of American constitutional and civic woe, popularized almost daily by Fox News maestro Glenn Beck, connects Americans with certain sources that have contributed to our oncoming fiscal train wreck, among other impending disasters. Other conservative insights, however, are overlooked in this attempt to reinvigorate American limited government and free markets. We stand in need of better thinking. Unconsidered is that the recovery of these goods might be possible only through richer appreciation of the moral and spiritual insights that undergird republican liberty. Perhaps no figure in American conservatism better deserves our attention in this regard than Whittaker Chambers, the anti-communist par excellence.

In his epic memoir Witness, Chambers observed that “political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.” For Chambers, the ennobling experiment in republican liberty must be grounded in God, the human soul, and the intrinsic dignity of the person. Man’s freedom has a purpose that is intelligibly disclosed to him by God. Politics can be politics and economics can be economics only when man ascends above his immanent condition. The failure to acknowledge this reality ends in man’s existential torment that seeks its Sisyphean relief in ideological certainty.

Believing that man’s conscience could discern the good and know truth, albeit in limited fashion, the political conclusions were that man does not reach his end in service to the state or any other temporal order. As Chambers stated, “Freedom is a need of the soul and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom.”

Man’s purposes are not unlocked by a state that bundles and dispenses rights to its citizens. In fact, the state receives its direction and its limits from citizens possessed with the thick account of freedom that Chambers defended.

Chambers sensed that political liberty was rooted in the self-understanding man received from the rich biblical and pre-modern heritages of the West. The fullest expression of man’s life went beyond immediate reality. Chambers beautifully noted, “It was the genius of Christianity to whisper to the lowliest man that by the action of his own soul he could burst the iron bonds of Fate…”

His worth transcending immanent reality, the ordering purposes of the state were turned towards respecting and supporting this self-understanding of man. Equality under law, the ultimate ground for the rule of law, slowly emerged as a concept with inscrutable meaning.

Chambers’ famous conversion from communism to Christianity and his witness to truth in the early Cold War period were made possible because he wrestled with the question that modern rationalism was unable to pose to itself: What can be hoped for with this life? Chambers famously argued that modern liberalism was unable to challenge either communism or the soul-sapping elements within western democracies. Modern liberalism’s god of substantive equality and its basic disloyalty to the spirit of man were unsustainable, Chambers believed. The man of late-modernity required something more if he was to forego the ongoing ideological hypnosis of his time. Even though expressly denying its existence, the communist sensed the inescapable existence of his soul and its irrepressible logic. To acknowledge this reality and its portents was the first task of an intellectual conservatism. Of this soulful movement, modern liberalism was strangely unaware.

Chambers articulated that the allure of state planning in its New Deal and communist manifestations was the effectual truth of modern rationalism. In other words, we had it coming for a long time. From its ideal of salvation by technique, the conclusion was that “man’s mind is man’s fate.” Unlike many of his conservative contemporaries, Chambers rarely attacked communism’s practical difficulties; instead his critiques centered on its immorality and deeply misguided anthropology. Chambers’ analysis of communism’s intrinsic disloyalty to man makes his contribution one of transhistorical importance. We know that total planning as an ideal of state action has receded. Unfortunately, the larger philosophical confusion from which limitless state power emerged remains too much with us. Expansive state power is a reality conservatives struggle to contain, even at the level of principle.

Liberty is no longer the heroic struggle grounded in the proposition that truth is knowable in thought and thus capable of being enacted, if only incompletely. In rejecting the transcendent ground of liberty, the denizen of late-modernity now throws himself into the endless relativism of contemporary democratic thought. Only in radical indeterminacy do we have full protection for individual rights, we are told. Man’s subjective will remains the exclusive measure of government. Chambers’ well-noted pessimism, best stated in his observation that he was “leaving the winning world for the losing world” in renouncing his communist beliefs, still haunts a hollowed West.

If the citizens of liberal democracy no longer believe in their intrinsic freedom as persons, and that freedom must be guided by conscience and truth, government inherently becomes unlimited. What precisely are the principles that would limit and guide government in this flawed philosophical framework? The weariness and cynicism of an age that believes little and risks little undermines the firm limits that our Founders insisted were the basis of republican government. These are the truths many conservatives struggle to understand, if not dismissing them outright.

President Obama’s assertion of further control over health care, among other industries, has only upped the ante in our centralized republic. The real contest with the contemporary Left is much broader and involves our firm engagement with the dimensions of liberty that Chambers articulated. To regain our republic requires our comprehension of man’s higher purposes and the beliefs and habits necessary to achieve them. Forsaking belief in the freedom of the person as a “political reading of the Bible” we remain, as one man recently stated, doomed.

Richard M. Reinsch II is a program officer at Liberty Fund, Inc., and the author of the recently released book entitled, “Whittaker Chambers: the Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary” (ISI Books, 2010).