Joseph de Maistre never met men in the abstract. Frenchmen, Italians, yes—but not “Man.” There were no universal principles of government, applicable to all men at all times, only governments suited to the different kinds of people in different countries.
Maistre was right, and to that extent, American conservatives are wrong if they think that their constitution is the perfection of human reason, a light unto the Gentiles. They’re especially wrong since the Constitution isn’t looking too good these days. One can love liberty and one can love America’s Constitution, but one can’t love both together without a thick set of blinders.
And yet the Constitution worked well enough for many years, and during that time American conservatives might have been forgiven for thinking that governing was a form of political geometry, in which ideal constitutions might be built upon self-evident axioms derived from the celebrated Montesquieu. That could well account for the conservatives’ reverence for the Federalist Papers, and their lack of interest in Madison’s Notes and the messiness with which the Constitution was put together.
In most other presidential countries, America’s Constitution has proven dangerous to liberty, and America itself is beginning to look less than exceptional as the font of liberty. But that’s just today. The future is another country. Will America follow other presidential regimes down the road to one-man rule, or will it return to the imagined country of the past?
Reasonable men may differ, but as for me I’ve always considered Mark Steyn a giddy optimist. Steyn wrote After America (2011) to describe a world after America’s withdrawal from the international stage. That part he nailed, but what he missed was America’s withdrawal from the United States. Missing today is the American’s sense of pride in American institutions, especially those favorable to liberty. Also missing is the America hero, tough on the outside, soft on the inside, who with a gritty integrity could always be counted on to do the right thing—a person who might have been cynical about people but never about his ideals. A person who didn’t torture his enemies.
If American government worked better in the past, it’s because there were more such people around. There was a sense, last felt for a brief moment after 9-11, that we’re all in this together, that we can appeal meaningfully to the common good, that it would be shameful to defend special privileges for the few that harm the many, that America might stumble but in the end would always recoil from unjust laws.
We didn’t have genuine gridlock back then—though the term has often been invoked at least since the 1990s—nor the one-man rule that is its supposed corrective. Congressmen cut deals, and sometimes even upheld noble principles, as they did in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If that’s less likely to happen today, that is in part because of the diminished sense of what it means to be an American. That used to mean something special. Today, for many, it means only a resident of the United States, that legal construct. An “American” is someone defined by his race, class, sex or sexual preference. When the president of Smith College recently opined that “all lives matter,” she was forced to apologize for not saying “Black lives matter.” That was Maistre’s point about Frenchmen of course, with the difference, now, that being American isn’t nearly as important as one’s race.
If that’s the case, then the future is less likely to resemble the past than it is the present, one in which charismatic leaders campaign for office with a promise to redress minority grievances, with little regard for the national good or yesterday’s constitutional principles.
Today it’s a different country, one with a different culture. If American conservatives want to read a Frenchman, then, let them turn from Montesquieu to Montaigne. Governing is downstream from culture. And what is upstream from culture we do not know.