- - Wednesday, July 3, 2013

By Larry P. Arnn
Thomas Nelson, $13.95, 226 pages

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. A conservatism of the Declaration understands the central place of individual liberty, and shores up the idea of free markets and encourages policy reforms grounded in market-based solutions, at the same time that it asserts self-evident truths according to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” recognizes man’s capacity for virtue and sustains the political defense of family, local community and church.

For too many conservatives, the Constitution is seen as a legal document rather than a framework of self-government, its clauses parchment mechanisms rather than the rules for constitutional politics. A conservatism of the Constitution limits government’s powers, working against unsustainable federal spending and endless rules and regulations, just as it makes sure that government performs its proper job effectively and energetically. The Madisonian solution then as well as today is not to be found in the technicalities of the Constitution as much as in its operational form: It refines popular will through the filter of democratic representation at the same time that it checks and balances political power in distinct branches of government and through an extended nation of states.

Such a conservatism unites us through the fusion provided by American principles. It reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, cultural conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety at home and prominence in the world. The true fusion of our ideas and our politics — the conservative consensus — is to be found not as much at the level of policy as at the level of principle, where there is foundational agreement among a broad swath of the American people. And therein lies our greatest opportunity.

The reconstruction of constitutional government will not occur all at once, across the board or in every circumstance. We must think strategically if we are to relimit government, defining and pursuing a realistic path that focuses government on its primary obligations, restores its responsibility and democratic accountability and corrects its worst excesses. Keenly aware of the necessities of particular circumstances and the reality of actual outcomes, but fully informed by core principles, the political task is to advance principle as far as possible under prevailing conditions, always moving toward the goal and wary of illusory, short-term gains at the expense of larger objectives. This is the work of statesmen, schooled in America’s principles as well as the prudential application of those principles in our time, requiring informed public argument and effective popular persuasion, for sure, as well as a great deal of political skill and practical wisdom.

At a time when political parties are becoming more establishmentarian, public policy more narrowly technical and think tanks more activist, there is an urgent need for arguments based on principles, for the prudential thinking and provocative ideas that define and shape the citizens and statesmen that will change the country’s course. “The Founders’ Key” is in the ideas and actions of the Declaration and the Constitution. It is here, and not in the latest poll or the next election, that we can find the missing — and winning — arguments for America’s future.

Matthew Spalding is the vice president of American Studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future” (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010).

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