Conserving What?

A few weeks ago in a conference with the American Enterprise Institute, prominent neoconservative Bill Kristol speculated “Look, to be totally honest, if things are so bad as you say with the white working class, don’t you want to get new Americans in?”

These are the words of someone who sees a nationand more importantly, the American nation—as a mere collection of undifferentiated and interchangeable economic units, defined only by geographical proximity.

The great irony, of course, is that today’s impotent yet ostentatious conservative intellectual class claims to bear the mantle of the Founders.  But, luckily, we needn’t rely on the sapience of Bill Kristol.  The wisdom of the Founders is preserved in parchment.  We can examine it ourselves.  So what did the Founders actually say?

In Federalist 2, John Jay shared sentiments that would drive Kristol to tears.  I can already hear the cries of racism (a charge from the left all but dead, but many “conservatives” are determined to keep it alive) at his observations:

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

Thomas Jefferson seemed to agree on the dangers of immigration to national unity.  In Query 8 of his Notes on the State of Virginia, he inquired:

But are there no inconveniences to be thrown into the scale against the advantage expected from a multiplication of numbers by the importation of foreigners?  It is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent.  Every species of government has its specific principles.  Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe…(Immigrants) will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another.  It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty.  These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children.  In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation.  They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass…Suppose 20 millions of republican Americans thrown all of a sudden into France, what would be the condition of that kingdom?  If it would be more turbulent, less happy, less strong, we may believe that the addition of half a million of foreigners to our present numbers would produce a similar effect here.

Alexander Hamilton, himself a Scottish immigrant and political opponent of Jefferson, stated his agreement under the pseudonym Lucius Crassus in the New York Evening Post:

The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common National sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education and family.

The opinion advanced in [Thomas Jefferson’s] Notes on Virginia is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived, or if they should be led hither from a preference to ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism? There may as to particular individuals, and at particular times, be occasional exceptions to these remarks, yet such is the general rule. The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.

The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others. It has been often likely to compromit the interests of our own country in favor of another. In times of great public danger there is always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone weakens the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader….To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country…would be nothing less, than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty.

In another bout of self-induced delusion, Kristol cited John Adams in his calls for “new Americans.”  Kristol may have forgotten that John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1789, making it far more difficult for “new Americans” to naturalize and vote.  

The Founders’ views on immigration were simple: government exists for the protection of its own citizens and their interests.  Immigration can be good or ill depending on circumstance; however, when immigrants arrive en masse, they are unlikely to adapt to our principles and will consequently fracture society.  They will carry with them the political principles of the place they came from, and no magic wand can wipe away the thousands of years of political and cultural traditions steeped in their being.

Kristol, obviously, disagrees and sadly he is not alone in his disdain for the GOP voter base.  Kevin Williamson, writing for America’s Pravda, (otherwise known as National Review) penned a totally unoriginal piece titled The Father Fürher (who needs enemies with “friends” like these?).  He argues that the poor white communities who carried Trump through the primaries and to the White House likely had no stable father figure in their lives, are “morally indefensible,” and “deserve to die.”  Even Aristotle’s account of a tyrant—which he defines as a self-interested ruler—seems benign (benevolent, even!) when compared to a pundit class calling for the death and replacement of a country’s own people.

Kristol, Williamson, and the rest of the pundits are obsessed with a zeal to immanentize the eschaton.  They are blind to the very real effects of immigration felt by a very real American nation. 

In his scintillating indictment—Towards a Sensible, Coherent Trumpismof the ossified and defunct conservative movement, Publius Decius Mus (author of the brilliant essay The Flight 93 Election) points out that even Plato’s city in speech is closed to foreigners.  The significance of this cannot be overlooked.  Plato’s city—perhaps the greatest political abstraction of all time, by one of the most abstractionist thinkers of all time—was not open to immigrants.  In his construction of the best regime (The Republic itself being a warning against utopian fantasies) he creates a city of perfect, observable virtue.  This is a city run by philosopher kings, with total communism of property, and all women and children are shared in common.  In their educational phases, men and women exercise in gymnastics naked together and do not feel any sexual impulse.  If even this is fathomable to Plato, but mass immigration is not…that should tell us something. 

The strength of Plato’s city lies in its unity, he says. The word “nation” itself comes from the Latin word nasci, meaning “birth.” Thus, Plato presents a myth of metals, telling the children a “noble lie”: that they are all born of the earth and therefore all are brothers and sisters, establishing a familial relationship among the citizens.  But in Bk. V, Socrates seems to address Kristol explicity: “Now the name faction is applied to hatred of one’s own.”  Unity is why Socrates asserts the city will defeat all of its enemies in war.  Yet, he says faction will be the cause if the city is to lose a war.  Could this lesson be applied to Bill Kristol’s lovechild, our 14 year Iraq folly (with no end in sight)—a war in which we are unable to defeat third world tribal fighters lacking advanced technology? 

But the thing about conservatism is that it cannot remain in the abstract.  The word “conservative” implies that there lies something outside itself that it is bent on conserving.  “Conservative” only makes sense if we are talking about conserving an actual thing.  A conservative can—and must—draw on universals, as the Founders did, but he must also make the transition to particulars.  Conservative ideas are manifested in those particulars; the “transcendent things” the pundit class pays such lip service to become actualized in real people, real policies, and real results.

The Declaration of Independence illustrates this beautifully.  It starts in the most universal and abstract of terms: “When in the course of human events” means anytime, “one people” means any people.  The self-evident truths of rights and equality apply to “all men.”  But the Declaration does not leave things in the abstract; it gradually transitions into particulars.  It goes through a list of grievances against the King (virtually all concerning representation), and ends with the most specificity imaginable: a list of individual names.  The universal values it enunciates are universal in the sense that anyone can adopt them.  But in the case of America, the Founders sought to actualize those universals only for citizens of the particular American nation.  That’s why the Preamble of the Constitution ends with “to ourselves and our posterity.”  And what would the Founders say about today’s immigration policy and securing rights “to ourselves and our posterity”?

Vain is the fool who thinks that we can airdrop Constitutions all over the world and expect liberal democracies to abound.  14 years of much more than airdropped Constitutions in Iraq was our real-world science experiment, and it failed spectacularly.  But if this is true, then the inverse must also be true.  If we cannot export our values on people elsewhere, we cannot expect to bring them here and have them somehow mesh right in to American society.  Dropping an illiterate, nomadic shepherd family from northern Afghanistan into Nashville is simply not going to work.  Nor will bringing in tens of thousands of military age male “refugees” (the majority are from sub-saharan Africa, not Syria).  They don’t share the language, traditions, values, or religion that prop up our free republic.  To say that they “want liberty” is insufficient. Machiavelli makes this point: “A people accustomed to live under a Prince, should they by some eventuality become free, will with difficulty maintain their freedom.” The Founders knew liberty under self government would be difficult to maintain; hence their common reference to America as an “experiment.” 

Immigrants bring crime and are a drain on the taxpayer, sure, but that is not the deeper problem.  They are changing the face of America.  They are changing everything that defines us.  America is in a Theseus paradox; how many more parts can be replaced for her to remain herself?  Plato’s greatest student understood this: the Philosopher knew that “we say that the state retains its identity as long as the stock of its inhabitants continues to be the same.” And we mustn’t forget the ultimate lesson of Plato’s Republic: the regime is simply a reflection of the soul of the people.  Or, as conservatives like to say, “politics is downstream of culture.”  We ought to be very careful in choosing which cultural influences are worthy of admission. 

Even Bill Kristol should realize a deeper truth (and deep down, I believe he does, although he is terrified to acknowledge it): immigrants don’t like his ideas.  Immigrants at best vote 60-40 against conservatives .  Usually they are far less favorable than that.  This statistic alone reveals the pundit class to be unabashedly myopic.  How long can this continue before the GOP is electorally obsolete?  Kristol will say to give it time, we just need more outreach—as if 50 years hasn’t been enough—but middle America chose a different path.  “Build the wall” turned out to be more popular than “learn Spanish and explain to immigrants the metaphysics of the Founding.” 

Kristol’s brand of conservatism is sanctimonious and insipid, the defunct ideology of someone utterly complacent in the death of America qua America.  To which America responded “Hell no!”  If America was to die, she would die in a pile of empty brass, smoke pouring out of the barrel of her gun.  But she survived—for now.  That’s why Trump, a firebrand outsider running on an immigration-based platform, dominated a field of far more experienced competitors and now lives at 1600 Penn.  He may fail, but in championing the people—the American people—he showed that this country still had a beating heart and a fiery will to survive.  A Clinton presidency would have led to America’s collapse; America would have fallen with a shudder, a ghostly outline, a mere shadow of her former self.  The edges would remain, the substance would have vanished.  Compare Kristol’s petulance to Trump’s optimistic First Inaugural: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” 

I close with an observation from Alexis de Tocqueville, French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America.  He believed that “a time will come when we shall be able to see in North America one hundred and fifty million people all equal to one another, all belonging to the same family, sharing the same beginnings, the same civilization, the same language, the same religion, the same ways, the same customs and among whom will circulate similar forms, depicted in the same colors.  All else is uncertain but this is certain.  And this is something wholly novel in the world, the significance of which the imagination itself cannot even grasp.” 

What does Kristol’s vision for America look like?


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