Jan 11·edited Jan 11

I highly recommend "Who Are We?" by Samuel Huntington.

When I hear that America is all about freedom, I wonder if people believe that the citizens are not free in Switzerland or Iceland or various other places. Is the essence of America the marginal improvement in rights (e.g. gun rights) compared to some of these places? If we appreciate our own heritage in the ways Huntington outlines, we will find identity in a mix of attributes from that heritage (e.g. religious dissenters bringing a strong emphasis on religious liberty and opposition to a national church; many aspects of Anglo-Protestant culture; moralism).

These attributes really do distinguish us from other affluent and highly free countries.

Expand full comment

“Provocative” is one of those great value-neutral adjectives. “Give me liberty or give me death” is provocative, as is getting up in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner and throwing the turkey out the window. I was having trouble figuring out what Michael Lind was arguing for (as opposed to who he’s arguing against) until I got to the end. He makes that provocative opening statement, quotes some Americans throughout history who supposedly had little use for the Founders (racists and segregationists [at least that’s how he frames them], communists, progressives, libertarians, etc.), criticizes people like George Will, and then finally makes the commonsense statement that we actually can look to the founders for guidance on modern problems, and that “their relevant views can and should be defended on their merits, without deferring to a sacral authority.” Well, d’uh.

It's all the same with the new right populists. I know who they don’t like, but I have a hard time figuring out what they’re arguing in favor of that other factions aren't already offering.

Aaron is definitely right to argue that if conservatives want to appeal to voters they should talk more about their vision for the future rather than have it appear like they’re trying to restore some golden, bygone era. But the real mistake isn’t looking to the wisdom of the founders; it’s coming across sounding like the 1940s-50s was that bygone era and that we need to get back to that.

Expand full comment
Jan 10·edited Jan 10

Regarding the founders not "having the answers to today's problems", I think that profoundly misunderstands what those problems actually are. Madison's take on the fallibility and corruptibility of humans, and the implications that has for government is fairly timeless.

And as far as turning to Pitt the Younger for guidance, while far from perfect he's light years ahead of BoJo or what's her name who lasted all of six weeks in office: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." That's as relevant today as it was in 1783 when he uttered it, and the hapless Mr. Johnson should have minded it instead of caving to the shutdown mongers (among other misdeeds).

Expand full comment

I think that forward looking conservatism was started many years ago - it is called neoconservatism- the Neocons which has fallen into disrepute. If you melt their idea down to its essence, it was to make the world over in our image. That hasn’t worked out too well. The Libertarians in my mind most closely hold to the Constitution, yet too many of their elites are not Christians so they have no universal ethic to get back to the good old days where we can self-govern.

Expand full comment

RETVRN is dead on arrival. To me, the frontier or at least A frontier for us to explore in the 21st century is how to make community make sense again in a globalized, tech-obsessed world. The answer might be to restore some of what was lost but it can't just be moving to rural America and raising chickens.

It requires innovation and building of smaller, agile and attractive networks of religious and family oriented people. Which people interface with the mainstream of America more as a communal block, rather than individually.

Expand full comment

The issue with the Founding Fathers is significantly more complex than that, and I could probably write a book-length account of the issue. The late J.G.A. Pocock, who passed away last month, was the world's preeminent expert on the topic of republican Founder cults.

But the simplest I can make it is this: any political society has to deal with the existential crisis of national continuity. Who are we, where did we come from, and how can we continue into the future? In order to convince human beings to contribute to a national political project, they have to believe in the legacy and continuity of that nation. They have to believe that what came before is good, worth preserving, and will continue in the future. For most nations, this need is provided by ethnonationalism or an essential religious identity. The legacy and project of the community is tied to the blood-nation or the state as agent of a god or gods.

Republics have the misfortune of being founded within historical time, and so can't rely on the appeal to ethnicity or myth. England has been English forever, as far as national identity is concerned. The god or gods created the universe. But Florence was founded in 1115 and the U.S. in 1776. They are not eternal entities, the way that the English race or the Jewish faith are eternal and reach back into time immemorial. And everything that begins must end. Republics suffer from an existential awareness of the possibility of their own destruction, because they emerged out of the destruction of another government.

Founder cults provide that stabilizing mythos, and were central to all republican societies: the Romans, the Florentines, and the Americans especially so. Our foundation rests on the virtue of the Founding Fathers, and our society is secure so long as we follow in their footsteps and preserve the Foundation upon which our society rests. This is especially the case because citizens of Republics have nothing in common with each other except for the Republic. There is no common ethnicity, no common religion, no commonality between citizens other than the Constitution, which is the concrete legacy of the Founder(s). Without the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, nothing makes us Americans. We're just consumers sharing a common marketplace.

And no, there is no such thing as the "American Creed" outside of the Founders. Propositional nationhood is transparently partisan in America, its principles little more than the political self-interest of the New York "creative class," and is demonstrably insufficient to provide a basis for national identity and fellow-feeling. I'm not going to argue either way as to whether a Civic Nationalism or Propositional Nationhood is possible in principle. I'm undecided, but lean against it because I'm convinced by Pocock's work on republican self-identity. In practice, it's a club that the urban UMC use to bash the rest of the country into accepting their partisan, sectarian, and class self-interest.

In short, when we finally get to the point that Americans reject the Founding Fathers as totems of aspirational unity, and we will get there soon, then we've expunged the only basis to say that such a thing as an "American" exists. At that point, we're just strangers at a nation-sized mall, fighting over scraps left to us by the elites. It's inherent in the nature of intrahistorical republics to live and die by the cult of their Founders.

Expand full comment

Thank you, Aaron, for the post. I'm just starting 'To Change The World' and so can't speak with knowledge to faithful presence, but I can say with conviction that we are porous, easily influenced beings, and it's difficult to stay 'salt and light' amid the influences of elite careerist pursuits. I worked for many years in asset management in NYC and SF and found the greed, materialism, single-minded careerism, and instrumentality inevitably seeped into my thinking. Happily I now live in Maine and work remotely and that makes all the difference. From the little you write here, I'm skeptical of the promise of faithful presence. The costs of playing the game are too high.

Expand full comment

Great piece! I found this piece helpful for understanding what RETVRN is, for anyone interested: https://open.substack.com/pub/emmaecollins/p/the-retvrn-fallacy?r=k9yk0&utm_medium=ios&utm_campaign=post.

I feel like my wife and I are at the end of a three or so year long attempt to do the return and Benedict option thing. We found that it didn’t fit our personalities and put too much of a burden on us and the community around us. We do have to accept the limitations and conditions of the modern world in their good and bad aspects.

Many seeking to return might look back to Aristotle, but I am struck that Aristotle held that humans were city dwelling animals (“ political”).

Expand full comment

As someone who studied government at Liberty University, there was (and still is), a very strange cult around the Constitution amongst certain conservatives. While I respect others commenting here, what Aaron is citing goes beyond just respect for tradition and Biblical-based principles, but a political movement stewed in resentment to attempt to show the failure of modern government because it did not fit the exact version outlined in 1787 and the vision of the founders.

Also, for all of the talk about the Constitution, I could not tell you a single amendment that anyone proposed. This was fascinating to me. The Constitution gives us the opportunity to change it, but I can't tell you a single proposal that we discussed at length in-class or out-of-class. (I might also add I felt there seemed to be some small disdain for any amendment outside the Bill of Rights, but that may be reaching a little.) The Michael Lind article references things like labor unions, social insurance, healthcare, etc. I would have thought at least sometime with the department might lead to us to discuss amendments that were more in line with issues facing voters today, whether in or out of class. That rarely came up.

While it is coming up on a decade now, Obama faced major gridlock during his time in office. During one State of the Union address, he said that while Congress was gridlocked, he had a "phone and a pen", referencing his ability to whip votes and pass executive orders. (I think I have this story right?) Many conservatives were outraged about this since Obama was pushing his Constitutional limits, but I think most voters did not care. The process by which government does things does not matter as much to the average voter, they want their life to improve. I am only one person, but as I look back, it felt to me that certain conservatives were more outraged that Obama was acting unconstitutionally rather than the average American standard of living, and healthcare, not living up to other advanced nations.

Regular voters are not as enamored with the founders, but with government improving their lives to get better. I think we need to think more about those issues and how to meet their needs.

Expand full comment

It is astonishing to me to see how fast right-wing support for the Constitution is melting away.

Yes, the American veneration for the Constitution is unusual, and occasionally a bit hokey. But it is central to the concept of tradition. (How about getting rid of the Nicene Creed, because it's not appropriate for today?) And it is one more thing that keeps America away from Communism and Fascism.

When did the Right reject the wisdom of Edmund Burke?

This is yet one more sign that the American Right is becoming post-Christian. A post-Christian Right will have some extremely sharp edges. And it will cut many of those whose appetite is whetted by that prospect. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. If we are headed for a violent age, it is no longer simply the Left who is leading us there.

Expand full comment

I think you're missing the point that we look back at the Founding Fathers because of their mostly biblically-based sound principles that our nation was founded on. We don't need technological answers from them, we just need the wisdom they embodied. There's quite a shortage of that today.

Expand full comment