Published April 28, 2019
Recently, Ben Domenech’s vanity project The Federalist published a piece called “No. 10 is the Best Federalist Paper, and That’s Why the Left Hates It So Much.” The author, Robert Curry, is a prominent person within the Claremont Institute orbit.
Now, far be it from me to argue against the proposition that every American should have read Federalist No. 10 and be familiar with the arguments of James Madison therein. Demonstrating these arguments have not survived the test of time should be a relatively straightforward project, and I intend to do that here. But perhaps just as interesting is the meta-phenomenon of the existence of Conservative Inc. institutions dedicated to repeating the same pop-Straussianism decade in and decade out. On that larger question, I can only begin to hazard some tentative speculations
La Wik’s assessment is that “Federalist No. 10 is among the most highly regarded of all American political writings.” Madison’s primary topic in the essay is “faction,” basically the tendency of any political body to split along interest group lines. Madison defines a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” In arguing in favor of ratification of the 1787 Constitution, Curry sees Madison’s main argument as one that the United States’ relatively large population and dispersed geography is its best protection against the Federal government being dominated by a single faction. Madison is implicitly arguing against the historical forms of republican government best known to the Founders, the city-states of the Italian Renaissance and Classical Greece. Just as the power of the Federal Government would be spread throughout three competing branches, similarly the United States would be composed of many and diverse “parties and interests” who would seek to check each other, both in intent and effect.
In his blog “Unqualified Reservations,” Mencius Moldbug made sport of how Madison’s prediction played out in the following two centuries. “It is striking how few people read Federalist 10 in the light of actual historical experience.” Why? Well, the main vehicle for advancing factions in representative democracies is the modern political party. Madison neither wanted political parties to play any role in the American Republic, nor does the Constitution recognize or provide a role for them. In fact, the entire scheme of the Electoral College is based on the idea that Presidential elections, rather than party-machine driven popularity contents, would instead be the virtuous deliberations of American aristocrats along the lines of the Papal Curia. We know this because the runner-up was supposed to become Vice President. Where is our Trump/Clinton administration?! That this conception was well and truly dead by the election of 1824 shows how misconceived it always was. As Moldbug concludes, “surely it is plain to everyone that the problems Madison describes are real, and the solutions he proposes are quackery par excellence.” As is generally the case with the Federalist Papers, the flaws in Federalist No. 10 had already been pointed out by the Anti-Federalists, notably Cato (assumed to be George Clinton).
America has political parties. The party of the regime elites, the Democrat party, is dominated by a single faction, the Cathedral (the “emergent conspiracy of government bureaucrats, NGOs, media, and academia to take and hold informal power in Western democracies”), which in turn dominates the U.S. government. This has been the case since at least 1932.
So why does Curry love Federalist No. 10 so much? And why does he care that we should love it too? “The Progressives decided to attack the Constitution by attacking No. 10. It has been under constant attack from the left ever since.” So in knowing and defending Federalist No. 10, we would better know and can better defend the Constitution, the real document in issue. Rather than accept its limitations, “the Progressives want to use the vast powers of government to change America.” Indeed they do! But from what, and to what?
Ah, the Constitution! Why should we care? We have just given an example where the Constitution did not operate as designed and whatever role this feature was supposed to play in protecting our “liberties” has not worked out as planned. One could entertain oneself for quite some time identifying Constitutional provisions that are either complete dead letters or have shrunk to a vestige of their former importance. Didn’t the Federalists argue that the Bill of Rights wasn’t even necessary because the Federal government simply would not have the power to infringe them? In the meantime, the 1787 document has been amended formally and informally so many times over the centuries that very little remains of its original design. A perfect example is the Civil War amendments, which in our time have been read so that the government’s right to impose an ethnic and gender spoils system on the squabbling tribes of America overrides any concerns for the “first freedoms” of speech, press, association and religion.
So what are these ersatz “Constitutionalists” doing? Applying Occam’s Razor as popularly understood, many would posit either incompetence or corruption. One of the real services of paleo-conservatives like Peter Brimelow, Robert Weissberg and Paul Gottfried was to note that simple patronage was sufficient to explain most of the output of Conservatism Inc. The big donors got what they wanted and expected to hear. Under this theory, apparently, there are some rich and powerful men who like encomiums to the early American Republic, regardless of how little they have to do with the contemporary Cathedral state.
But that hypothesis’s parsimony also render’s it without much intellectual satisfaction. So let us assume the Claremont folks are all arguing in good faith. What could explain their particular blindspots? Here we enter the realm of deep theory and speculation.
No reflective person takes “the Constitution” seriously anymore as anything other than talisman the invocation of which might prevent the descent of America into complete social and political disorder. By invoking “the Constitution,” perhaps we can keep such evil spirits far from our door. But to anchor such a project, we need to find a version of liberalism that we can defend and that is at least facially plausible as a standard around which we can rally. The answer is the America of Abraham Lincoln that resulted from the Civil War.
To this idea the pop Straussians have returned again and again, as we see with Harry Jaffa writing in the Claremont Review of Books: “I do not pretend for a moment to speak for Leo Strauss, but I am perfectly convinced that Strauss shared the conviction that Lincoln’s appeal, in his greatest speeches, to the Declaration of Independence and to the Bible – to Reason and to Revelation – was the very model of wise statesmanship at the highest level.”
Speeches. Not actions or social conditions. Not battles won or lost. Speeches. Given we can take no comfort that the contemporary American State has any actual regard for freedom, tradition or virtue, we can at least take refuge in Lincoln’s fine speeches about how much better everything would be once the Confederacy was destroyed.
The pop Straussians also revere Lincoln because his America precedes by several decades the America of the Progressives, whose intellectual and institutional descendants rule over us today. This allows them to skate over the gross spectacle of “Gilded Age” democracy, with its electoral machines, its civil service spoils system, and its political corruptions. You will not hear from the pop Straussians why such illustrious descendants of the Founding Fathers as Charles and Henry Adams became “Mugwumps” and allies of the Progressives. It also allows them to ignore decades of defeat at the hands of the Left.
The reason that pop Straussian Michael Anton’s 2016 campaign essay “The Flight 93 Election” (published by Claremont) was such a breath of fresh air was its abandonment of this artificial argumentation in favor of more visceral, earthier, atavistic emotions. “I want to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live.”
Unfortunately, I do not expect an end of pieces like Curry’s until we are all suffering under much different conditions.