Steven F. Hayward sat down with ChangeUp Media’s Ben Weingarten to discuss his new book Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion, slightly modified for clarity.
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Ben Weingarten: What compelled you to write about these two men, Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns, and their significance, both in the history of American political philosophy generally, and conservatism in particular?
Steven F. Hayward: Right. Well, it really became a reason to write something of a memoir. I knew both of them fairly well. I was a student of Harry Jaffa’s and then a colleague of Walter Berns at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. for a decade. And they had a bitter feud for 20 or 30 years, that was really unfortunate, I thought. But they agreed on so many things. And when they died, coincidentally (if such a thing can be a coincidence) on the same day about two years ago — sort of like Jefferson and Adams dying on the same day in 1826 — I thought, that’s just too remarkable a coincidence, and it became the narrative device to write a book about the two men and their ideas and their wider circle of friends; because they not only had a lot of important arguments of their own, but they, and a lot of political scientists of their same disposition, really mounted a frontal challenge against liberalism, and also, I think, refined American conservatism. So that’s a lot for an opening statement, but the book tries to tell a very rich story. But it also tries to do it in an accessible way, especially for a non-specialist or a non-political scientist.
“They not only had a lot important arguments of their own, but they really mounted a frontal challenge against liberalism, and also refined American conservatism.”
Ben Weingarten: Well, and as you note in the book, biography was one of the quintessential means for Jaffa and others of getting to these deeper questions that you address in the book about statesmanship and natural rights and a whole litany of other core themes that run through what has been broadly called, the “Claremont School” of thought. Now to that end, during the 2016 Presidential election, an East Coast-West Coast feud of sorts broke out over Donald Trump. And it didn’t involve rappers, but rather conservative intellectual followers of Leo Strauss. You wrote a lengthy piece on this for The Weekly Standard, and I wonder, how do the contours of that battle relate to this book and these two men?
Steven F. Hayward: Well, that article kind of grew out of this book. There’s a lot of overlap between them, although I finished the book before it was evident Donald Trump would even be the Republican nominee, let alone elected president. So I only have a couple of mentions of Trump in the book, and I speculate that Walter Berns would have strongly disliked Trump. I’m certain of that. Jaffa, I’m not so sure about. He might have liked Trump because remember Jaffa was an early enthusiast for Barry Goldwater back in 1964, when a lot of other political scientists, even the ones who became conservative, like Walter Berns, were still very wary of Goldwater and the conservative moment. So Jaffa was early to the parade, you might say.
I, actually in the book try to avoid getting too far into the weeds of the famous, or semi-famous, East and West Coast split among students inspired by Leo Strauss. And I do have a few things about that argument, and the important part is, and that’s why I got the title of the book, “Patriotism is Not Enough,” is, one aspect of that fight is how to understand John Locke, the American founding. And the East Coast Straussians supposedly, there’s a variety among them, but they supposedly think that America’s a purely modern, liberal, individualist regime, stable and decent, but not as great or as admirable, even, as the classical regimes of ancient Greece — which really had some classical idea of virtue at their core. And Jaffa and his followers actually think that the United States is much closer to the noble regime of greatness and excellence as envisioned by Aristotle, although with some modifications.
“We should study the American founding intensively, and also respect it for its nobility and goodness and enduring truth, and not just as a matter of historical fascination.”
And that may seem like a silly or unimportant argument if you’re not in the depths of political philosophy, and maybe it is. But both Jaffa and Berns agreed that patriotism required a foundation. They both agreed with what Ronald Reagan called for in his great farewell address in 1989, that we need to have an informed patriotism. And so, a lot of the book is talking about the things they agreed about: About why we should study the American founding intensively, and also respect it for its nobility and goodness and enduring truth, and not just as a matter of historical fascination.
Ben Weingarten: And patriotism is a huge theme that runs through the book, and you even say, following a quote, I believe, from Jaffa, that you would say that, “A person who doesn’t respect the country in the end will not respect himself. This may be one reason why so many America-hating leftists are such unpleasant and unhappy people.” And that follows a quote in which Jaffa says, “Patriotism is civic friendship. Patriotism is the link between justice and friendship in its purest or trans-political form.” And it goes on, “Those who see each other as utterly alien cannot be fellow citizens.” Define patriotism for these men.
Steven F. Hayward: Well, normally patriotism, literally or narrowly speaking, is “love of country,” or “love of your father’s country.” Think about the root of the word, the, ‘patri’. And so, you’re attached to your country in the ordinary sense, because it’s the land of your fathers, or mothers and fathers, if we want to be gender equal these days. And both Jaffa and Berns thought that America is different. Really, what I’m drawing out here is another way of thinking about what we usually call American exceptionalism, although I don’t use that term. I’m trying to use new vocabulary, if I can. And the point is that America, because of its aspirations, because of its self-conscious founding on new principles of justice, as we see in the Declaration of Independence, that “making patriots” — the title of Walter Berns’ final book was Making Patriots — “Making Patriots” here is a more self-conscious and deliberate act.
And of course, we do a miserable job of that these days. We either neglect it, when in fact, our universities aren’t actively teaching the opposite, that America is an unjust country, it’s been nothing but oppression from A to Z. That’s the oppression narrative you get in so much of the humanities these days in colleges. And A, that narrative is wrong. And B, understanding why it’s wrong requires going back, and again, recovering and understanding why this is a good and just country, whatever faults and mistakes that we’ve made.
Ben Weingarten: Related to that there’s a quote from the book, “For Jaffa, Berns, and others from this circle, political philosophy is not merely a matter of theory informing practice, but literally a means of saving souls. Jaffa wrote, and you quote here, “I believe that the enterprise of Western civilization is consummated each time a soul is saved from the dark night of fanatical obscurantism. It is consummated whenever one soul is released from the pessimism, the truth is unobtainable or not worth the trouble to obtain it.” And it’s funny because you just referenced right there essentially today’s progressivism which couches itself in moral terms. “We’re on the right side of history.” These are the beliefs you have to hold if you are a good and moral person. Yet Jaffa also is essentially claiming the morality of his political philosophy, and the American political philosophy, as a means of saving souls. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?
“Progressivism was really an attempt to get over and get beyond the American founding and leave it behind us.”
Steven F. Hayward: Well, not about what Jaffa just said right there, that’s a mouthful. The amazing thing is he wrote that passage you just cited in a response to one of his arguments he was having with Walter Berns. That’s one of the reasons many of us regret that they feuded, is that there’s such beautiful work that went on between them when they weren’t insulting each other. That was really too bad about that. Berns was the same way from people who I know who were his students at Cornell years ago. They both were the kind of people who could literally change your life and change your way of thinking, almost to the way that people talk about evangelism. They didn’t approach their classrooms that way, but they were both so compelling, and you could see that they were so much more serious than the usual political science you got from other courses, that, it’s like a night-and-day comparison, studying politics with these two men and with anybody else.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah, and you get that sense from the book because there’s an understanding of politics in terms of both tragedy and comedy. There’s the poetry, and the human nature element of it. And then there’s these higher aspirational elements to it. And so I would ask the question, how is it that Jaffa and Berns emerge in the middle of essentially a barren wasteland for conservative thought and interest in the American founding? Because you talk about essentially the early progressive movement, and then how it evolves during the New Deal and after into the ’50s. How is it that conservative thought and this focus on the founding emerges when that is so alien to the academy at that point in time?
Steven F. Hayward: Right, well that’s a two part story really and understanding requires joining the two parts. First, Jaffa and Berns and so many others like Allan Bloom and Martin Diamond, I mentioned in the book and discussed, were students of Leo Strauss, the famous German Jewish émigré to the United States in the 1930s. There’s a lot to say about him, a controversial and complicated figure. But in one sentence: He restarted the serious study of classical political philosophy, and thought that in classical rationalism, we could find some of the remedies for the dead end of modern philosophy, especially nihilism — the kind of things that led to Hitler. This is obviously a subject of great immediate interest to people like Strauss and who came to study him.
Second part of the story, and unless you get the synthesis of the new appreciation of America, is that it’s a long story, but in one sentence: I think a lot of mid-century liberals like Arthur Schlesinger to pick a famous name, I think they understood that the progressives in the Woodrow Wilson era had made a mistake in rubbishing the American founding, which is what they did. Progressivism was really an attempt to get over and get beyond the American founding and leave it behind us. And people like Schlesinger, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, you could go down a lot of list of very elegant writers, but I think superficial thinkers. Although they were correct — and I think very decent people in a lot ways — although they were correct about the defects of progressivism, their own recapture so to speak of the American founding was defective, limited, superficial as I say.
And I think a lot of the students of Strauss — and Strauss himself, never wrote much about America — but a lot of his students looked around and said, “Ah, this is interesting. We should look more closely at the American founding, at the Federalist papers, at Locke, at people like Madison, and Jefferson, and the rest of them.” And Tocqueville for that matter. So the second generation of political philosophers turned their attention more wholly to America. And that’s when I think they saw the defects of consensus liberalism. And all these people, who including Jaffa and Berns, thought of themselves as liberal Democrats in the 1950s, and who voted for Adlai Stevenson, gradually became conservatives and Republicans.
“These days, if you walk into any political science department and say, 'I want to study statesmanship,' they look at you like you're from Mars.”
Ben Weingarten: And one of the philosophical concepts that emerges from this focus on the founding again, is the idea of a natural rights philosophy, and natural rights-based Declarationism and Constitutionalism, which stands in contrast with historicism, scientism, positivism, etc. Describe the natural rights philosophy and Jaffa and Berns’ influence on it.
Steven F. Hayward: Well, their idea was that whatever distinctions or differences you might make out between the ancient world and the modern world in philosophy, the idea of Nature as the ground of right and as the ground of politics was something that modern philosophy had rejected — start with Nietzsche or whoever you want; certainly Heidegger and modern nihilists of the 20th Century. But that spills over of course into legal positivism and progressivism today which rejects Nature. And of course that means rejecting human nature, right? And so the recovery of Nature as a standard versus just wherever ‘History’ with a capital H is taking us is central to their enterprise.
I think you want to connect that with one other thing we mentioned earlier but didn’t discuss, and that’s the idea of statesmanship. These days, if you walk into any political science department and say, “I want to study statesmanship,” they look at you like you’re from Mars. And so a lot of political science these days is all regression analysis and formal mathematical models. And it’s very sophisticated, and often doesn’t get you very far in understanding political life.
That’s why both Jaffa and Berns said that, it turns out biography, especially the greatest statesman, Churchill, Lincoln, George Washington, Charles de Gaulle, Bismark, Napoleon even, as well as ancient statesman, are important to study closely and carefully and seriously as a way of understanding political life. What you see here is a completely different disposition to understanding politics and political life than you get from conventional political science. Recovering nature and human nature as the ground of our rights and the idea of statesmanship. And then of course what’s central to statesmanship is the idea of prudence, another subject thought not fit for serious study by academics today. And yet I think that the people who study those subjects end up understanding politics much more profoundly than your average political scientist these days.
Ben Weingarten: And one of the ignored ‘barbarous relics’ as it were of that era that is ignored today is the Declaration of Independence and its impact on the Constitution and the American political philosophy, distinctively American political philosophy itself. Speak a little bit to Jaffa and Berns’ views on the Declaration of Independence and your view of the significance of the Declaration.
Steven F. Hayward: You know that’s a big subject. Let’s see, two or three parts of this quickly. One is of course the left hates the Declaration because, or just rubbishes it, because they don’t believe that there is such thing as a self-evident truth, they don’t believe in the laws of nature and nature’s God. And then above all if you fight through that problem, they’ll say, “Well, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves so they were hypocrites, we don’t need to take them seriously.” So they just dismiss it. And that leaves aside a whole lot of practical considerations you can go through. Jaffa liked to talk about how the fundamental task in understanding the Declaration and the Constitution was understanding how to tell the difference between the principles of the Constitution and its compromises. Any sensible person understands that if you didn’t make some accommodations to slavery in 1787, we wouldn’t have a country, we wouldn’t have a Constitution, and the alternative was probably more security for slavery, not steps to try and limit it and ultimately eliminate it, which aren’t present in the Constitution. So that’s one point.
“A lot of political science these days is all regression analysis and formal mathematical models. And it’s very sophisticated, and often doesn’t get you very far in understanding political life.”
Now Jaffa and Berns largely agreed about the greatness of the Declaration, but disagreed on one key point. Jaffa thought the most important single word in the Declaration was “Equal,” from that sentence “All men are created equal.” And from there he spun out a very sophisticated understanding of the equality of our political rights. Berns thought the most important word was in the next sentence, “Secure.” To “secure” these rights: The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we institute governments. His point drawn really straight from Hobbes was, “If you don’t have a government to protect rights, your natural rights aren’t worth very much.” That’s straight out of Hobbes. I think they both have a good point here. I think you need both of those things. As I say, like intellectuals can do, they could fall into a feuding about this that was probably more severe than it needed to be.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah, as is their wont.
Steven F. Hayward: Right.
Ben Weingarten: One of the manifestations of the move away from understanding the American founding and the natural rights heritage and the like is the administrative state. That is progressivism manifested in the form of all manner of nameless, faceless agents who essentially make law in the country, and also as we know, the administrative state has its own courts. It basically eliminates the separation of powers and creates a whole nother branch of our political system. And Berns, Jaffa, and others did a lot of work on the theoretical underpinnings of the administrative state. What are your thoughts on where we’re going in terms of the administrative state in America, its significance in your book, and the fact that we have a chief strategist to a president in Steve Bannon who has said that the goal is to deconstruct the administrative state.
Steven F. Hayward: Yeah, I think this represents to extent not appreciated even by conservatives the ways in which we’ve made progress, at least on the level of ideas. That phrase “administrative state,” is a little bit bulky, cumbersome, and for a long time — I first started hearing the phrase back in the 1980s as a graduate student and it was among the Claremont circle and a few other people — now as you say, we have a chief aide to the President of the United States talking about that phrase in public and saying they want to attack it. George Will uses that phrase prominently in his columns. Even a lot of liberals now use that phrase to describe the character of our government today.
I did by the way do some investigation and traced the phrase back to the late 1940s, the phrase “administrative state,” that may have been used earlier than that. But now it’s on everybody’s lips. And that represents an important milestone because as Margaret Thatcher liked to say, “First you win the argument, then you win the political fight.” And so yeah it’s again, a complicated story, but I think the two most important parts, of many, it would be these: One is, the administrative state represents a different kind of rule. The basic question of politics is, who rules? And the American idea is, the people rule. The people are sovereign. The administrative state says the experts rule, and the experts are not the people. The experts are immune from the direct reach of the people. They’re very hard to control. It represents a government that goes at itself, and that’s why it’s so very hard to stop. And just because Trump and Steve Bannon say they want to deconstruct it, doesn’t mean that it will necessarily happen. It’s gonna be a very hard and difficult fight.
The second thing is, is the whole idea of expertise. It’s the idea that we’re gonna have scientific government. As I put it in the book, “The theory is that bureaucrats will replace statesman, and science will replace ambition, as the things that move our politics forward.” And the idea that we can have experts who are immune from politics is of course laughable. 100 years ago, maybe the naive Woodrow Wilson thought this made sense, but I think today we understand that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, you name it, they’re deeply affected by politics and ideology, as well as the defects of bureaucratic government that people like the public choice school explain. They get single-minded in their mission, don’t make trade-offs, and the government is run very poorly in practice.
“The left is now very open about the idea that free speech itself is a tool of oppression.”
Ben Weingarten: One particularly interesting tertiary point in your book, but which also runs through, I think, the work of a lot of “Claremont School” scholars, is the idea that history didn’t end, as they say, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And you quote Jaffa and his prescience when it comes to fearing that the collapse of the Soviet Union might actually lead to something far worse in the ideological — the war of ideas that we’re engaged in. Speak a little bit to that.
Steven F. Hayward: Yeah. We all remember the Fukuyama article, “The End of History,” and the general climate after the Cold War ended, that gosh, it’s now liberalism in the old sense, free markets democracy, the new rule orders, the first President Bush talked about. We thought that good times were here. And for a while it looked like that. The 1990s were a pretty happy time for the world overall. And I remember that lecture of Jaffa’s and I thought, “Oh gosh, he’s just being pessimistic and grumpy. He misses the Cold War.” I don’t know. But boy, he turned out to be exactly right. Whether it’s Islamic terrorism, and what amounts to a world crisis and “clash of civilizations” in Sam Huntington’s phrase, or whether you look at the much deeper radicalization on college campuses these days that I think is worse than the political correctness of the 1980s in a lot of ways. He [Jaffa] turns out to have been absolutely right about that. And one of the parts of that insight that I quote in there is, I’m paraphrasing here loosely is, “Look, as long as you had a Soviet Union and a foreign enemy, a lot of people understood that in some instinctual way, if not an intellectual way, that radicalism, leftism was something that was inimical to our life.”
But now that Soviet Union’s gone away, leftism was removed; the stigma of being some kind of agent for a foreign enemy, and that was in a certain way liberated to mutate, which I think is exactly what’s happened. So, I think our universities are worse off than they were 30 years ago. And I think that the nihilism of the left is deeper than it was 30 years ago. And one thing that’s on my mind these days watching these free speech controversies on campus is that the left is now very open about the idea that free speech itself is a tool of oppression. An earlier generation of liberals would never have said that, or Leftists even. The Communists in 1950s during the McCarthy era, they retreated behind free speech. Now they rubbish the idea of free speech, and justify very brutal censorship. And that’s the direction we’re going, and it’s just getting worse.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah, we’re living in the illiberal age as it were, you could argue.
Steven F. Hayward: Right.
“It's more than just economics. It's what does it mean to be a free soul? What does it mean to be a free society?”
Ben Weingarten: And relating to that is you quote one author in this book, “That the primary attraction of Marxian Socialism was not economic, but moral.” And I believe it was Jaffa who said that essentially the best and the brightest are always going to be attracted to socialism because it kind of feeds their soul. In other words, it’s a materialist worldview, yet their belief in it stems from something that’s deeper. Given that that’s the case, and as you’ve discussed, that we’ve now had multiple generations of progressivism dominating on college campuses, and we went from leftist liberalism to leftist illiberalism now, how do we supplant this false morality and relativism and scientism, positivism, historicism, with a belief in freedom in the American system once again? Because essentially that is the real war for America: Either those ideas triumph or they fail, and we’re a fundamentally different country.
Steven F. Hayward: Yeah. Boy, it’s a difficult problem. I’ll take the simplest part of it. The defense of free markets, if you just want to look at economics for a minute, for a very long time was really on their superior efficiency. It creates more wealth. And that never got to the moral dissatisfaction of people who disliked suffering and inequality. And I think we didn’t really see the advance in favor of free markets until you started having people like Michael Novak, who passed away recently, to pick one name, started making a moral defense of markets. And that’s all very good and necessary, and we need more of it, but I think you need to go beyond that.
I don’t think as Jaffa and Berns and others argued, I don’t think you really reach the souls of individuals until you convey a broader appreciation of what I call the metaphysical basis of human freedom. It’s more than just economics. It’s what does it mean to be a free soul? What does it mean to be a free society? And what I find with students, and I have a lot of liberal students at Berkeley who are very bright but very confused, they think that free speech is a human right, but so is free healthcare, is a basic human right. You have to sort through those confusions. And it takes a while, and there’s a lot of resistance. Because by the way, who’s against healthcare for everybody? Nobody in an ordinary sense. But if you just talk about who’s gonna pay for it, that’s not very persuasive. You have to draw into the argument in great levels of detail about the distinction between natural rights and positive rights, the problems that come about when you have an unlimited view of what government must do or should do, and you have to patiently work through those things to get students to think about it. And I don’t ask the liberal students to give up their goal of having universal healthcare, but I do try and shake their view that it’s simply a simple matter of declaring a right, and then writing checks.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah, and then and maybe another part of it is they would assert that there’s no such thing as a better morality or a worse morality, but they are asserting that their view of morality is the right one. And there’s a contradiction there.
“It’s actually not hard to point out to students that they don’t really have a consistent view of justice. And it turns out they know nothing of serious moral philosophy.
Steven F. Hayward: Well, the funny thing is, is I always thought, and I think I say in the book, that I always thought Allan Bloom overdid his depiction of moral relativism among college students. What I think is, that they’re actually very few, pure one hundred percent moral relativists among college students. They actually have a very strong sense of justice, but it’s very incoherent. And it’s very, of course, conforms to modern clichés. But you ask them about genocide in Darfur, they’re very worked up about the injustice of that. The more left you get, there’s the injustice of patriarchy and sexism and so forth.
So I find that you can work with all that, and what you…It’s actually not hard to point out to students that they don’t really have a consistent view of justice. It’s not grounded on anything, and you can make ’em think about this a little bit, and you can make some headway with that, I think. One of my examples these days is…I had fun with this in classes, and I have a large class of 175 students this semester. And it turns out they know nothing of serious moral philosophy.
But most of them know about what’s very popular in higher education these days, and that’s the ‘Trolley Car Experiment.’ Many listeners may know this, it’s the thought experiment that Michael Sandel of Harvard is especially good at. There’s a trolley, runaway trolley, running down a track, it’s gonna run over five people, but if you flip the switch it’ll get on the side track and run over one person. What do you do? And people, students love this experiment. And it’s really stupid actually. It’s just very narrow utilitarianism. And there’s no awareness of Aristotle’s ethics, for example, to pick one book. And so you really, these days, we need to start over again with basic moral reasoning. And it’s amazing how little that is done anymore.