Imprimis: America’s Cold Civil War

Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, has a posted a transcription of a speech given by Charles Kesler, the Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. America’s Cold Civil War discusses the current political divide in the USA and how it came to be. The somewhat lengthy piece details the difference in beliefs about the Constitution, individual vs group identity, and opposing definitions of rights. It also identified five possible paths ahead, including hot civil war.

…[W]e have described our current political scene as a cold civil war. A cold civil war is better than a hot civil war, but it is not a good situation for a country to be in. Underlying our cold civil war is the fact that America is torn increasingly between two rival constitutions, two cultures, two ways of life.

Political scientists sometimes distinguish between normal politics and regime politics. Normal politics takes place within a political and constitutional order and concerns means, not ends. In other words, the ends or principles are agreed upon; debate is simply over means. By contrast, regime politics is about who rules and for what ends or principles. It questions the nature of the political system itself. Who has rights? Who gets to vote? What do we honor or revere together as a people? I fear America may be leaving the world of normal politics and entering the dangerous world of regime politics—a politics in which our political loyalties diverge more and more, as they did in the 1850s, between two contrary visions of the country.

One vision is based on the original Constitution as amended. This is the Constitution grounded in the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. It has been transmitted to us with significant Amendments—some improvements and some not—but it is recognizable still as the original Constitution. To simplify matters we may call this “the conservative Constitution”—with the caveat that conservatives have never agreed perfectly on its meaning and that many non-conservatives remain loyal to it.

The other vision is based on what Progressives and liberals, for 100 years now, have called “the living Constitution.” This term implies that the original Constitution is dead—or at least on life support—and that in order to remain relevant to our national life, the original Constitution must be infused with new meaning and new ends and therefore with new duties, rights, and powers. To cite an important example, new administrative agencies must be created to circumvent the structural limitations that the original Constitution imposed on government.

As a doctrine, the living Constitution originated in America’s new departments of political and social science in the late nineteenth century—but it was soon at the very forefront of Progressive politics. One of the doctrine’s prime formulators, Woodrow Wilson, had contemplated as a young scholar a series of constitutional amendments to reform America’s national government into a kind of parliamentary system—a system able to facilitate faster political change. But he quickly realized that his plan to amend the Constitution was going nowhere. Plan B was the living Constitution. While keeping the outward forms of the old Constitution, the idea of a living Constitution would change utterly the spirit in which the Constitution was understood.

The resulting Constitution—let us call it “the liberal Constitution”—is not a constitution of natural rights or individual human rights, but of historical or evolutionary right. Wilson called the spirit of the old Constitution Newtonian, after Isaac Newton, and that of the new Constitution Darwinian, after Charles Darwin. By Darwinian, Wilson meant that instead of being difficult to amend, the liberal Constitution would be easily amenable to experimentation and adjustment. To paraphrase the late Walter Berns, the point of the old Constitution was to keep the times in tune with the Constitution; the purpose of the new is to keep the Constitution in tune with the times.

Until the 1960s, most liberals believed it was inevitable that their living Constitution would replace the conservative Constitution through a kind of slow-motion evolution. But during the sixties, the so-called New Left abandoned evolution for revolution, and partly in reaction to that, defenders of the old Constitution began not merely to fight back, but to call for a return to America’s first principles. By seeking to revolve back to the starting point, conservatives proved to be Newtonians after all—and also, in a way, revolutionaries, since the original meaning of revolution is to return to where you began, as a celestial body revolves in the heavens…

Click here to read the entire essay at Imprimis.