A Crisis of Two Constitutions and Two Cultures

Daniel Greenfield, Charles Kesler unveils the rise, decline, and recovery of American greatness.

“In thinking through the crisis of American national identity, we should keep in mind the opening words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths’. Usually, and correctly, we emphasize the truths that are held in common, but we must not forget the ‘We’ who holds them. The American creed is the keystone of American national identity: but it requires a culture to sustain it,” Charles Kesler writes in Crisis of the Two Constitutions.

That to some degree encapsulates the complex textual journey through a history of American political ideas to the fundamental cultural challenges captured in Crisis of the Two Constitutions.

Crisis of the Two Constitutions: The Rise, Decline, and Recovery of American Greatness, refers to what the respected Claremont McKenna College professor calls a struggle “between two rival cultures, two constitutions, two ways of life”. This linkage between culture and constitution, between how we live and our laws, is often tragically neglected in conservative thought.

But there’s no constitution without a culture. The “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence and its natural rights are only natural and self-evident to a culture that has reached the same conclusions. When Americans revolted against British rule, their rhetoric of independence was neither foreign nor alien to the intellectual traditions of both sides.

The two nations may have been, as Churchill much later quipped, divided by a common language, but America now contains two nations that no longer share a common language of values. And even when speaking of the Constitution, they are really speaking of the two constitutions of the book’s title, the original Constitution and the “living constitution”.

The two constitutions also reflect two cultures, one traditional and the other forever changing, and two peoples, one centered in its origins, and the other pursuing an impossible future.

The vast gap between conservatives and the Left is a gap of culture and peoplehood, and it is also therefore inevitably a gap of constitutions with each fighting for the constitution that best reflects its identity, its values, its goals, and its hopes for the future. On one side are Washington and Jefferson, and on the other the bending moral arc of the universe envisioned as a utopian rainbow at whose end waits a sociological leprechaun with a theoretical pot of fool’s gold.

As Charles Kesler notes, we have become “two countries with divergent ways of life”. The urgent question of Crisis of the Two Constitutions is whether we can live together, or whether like China’s One Country, Two Systems experiment, American conservatives will become the Hong Kong to a progressive people’s republic determined to crush them in its political jaws.

Crisis of the Two Constitutions surveys five options, including the darkest of them, secession and civil war, even as Kesler dives deep into the intellectual history of the two constitutions, and, almost as importantly, what leftists and the conservative movement actually believe.

As the editor of the Claremont Review, Kesler has a deep understanding of the evolution of the conservative movement, and the goal of Crisis of the Two Constitutions is not just to issue another set of warnings, but to trace a conceptual pathway for the rebirth of conservatism.

If these truths are dependent on a ‘We’ who hold them, then it follows that a viable conservative movement is one that can serve as a vessel for these truths and for truth in general.

In the struggle between the Constitution and the so-called “living constitution”, which as Kesler aptly notes, “implies that the original Constitution is dead”, he argues that conservatives have too often abandoned the struggle for justice and the moral authority of the Constitution.

“Conservatives avoid arguing about questions of justice whenever possible, which means they eschew politics (whose central issue is justice) whenever possible,” he argues. Too many Republicans use pragmatic arguments rather than moral ones, they use policy to evade the issues of justice that leftists enthusiastically embrace and transform into their political brand.

America’s revolution and its founding documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, were built by asserting the justice of self-evident rights and republicanism. Conservatives neglect this at their peril. And so Kesler praises the revivals of the movement under Reagan and Trump, while not being blind to the miles on the broken road ahead.

And to the ruthless difficulty of the battle.

“Trump has his eye on the contemporary Left’s extremism, but this is not so much the statist Left that the libertarians oppose, nor the values-and-autonomy Left resisted by the religious Right, but the anti-American Left. This Left plunged its knife into our politics in the 1960s and has been twisting it ever since,” Kesler writes. And the knife seems to only reach deeper every year.

Can America be saved under the conditions of a culture war, divided not merely by ideas, but by fierce and towering hatreds, by value systems as incompatible as those of Iraqi Shiites and New England Presybterians in which higher education, as Kesler notes, turns children into “hostile aliens”, and in which all of life becomes a cultural battlefield in an endless war against ‘isms’?

Crisis of the Two Constitutions: The Rise, Decline, and Recovery of American Greatness argues that we cannot escape the crucible of history and we cannot count on the courts to salvage the country from its crisis. Politics, policy, and law are expressions of a people’s sense of itself.

The conservative movement is not a singular entity, Crisis of the Two Constitutions argues, but an evolutionary process, sometimes shaped more by what it opposes than by what it holds dear. Kesler’s book, gathering together valuable essays from a conservative thinker and intellectual titan across the decades to address the crisis of the present, is a powerful argument for reviving the positive power of the conservative movement to speak to the American people.

“Modern liberalism,” he writes, “has done its best to strip natural rights and the founders’ Constitution out of the American creed.” The conservative movement faces the challenge of reclaiming the ideas of the Founders, and Crisis of the Two Constitutions would be invaluable alone for its histories of the ideas and movements that moved our Founding Fathers, and for its study of the progressives and their evolving constitution which exists to grant new rights, but it  most compellingly brings these two elements together in its overview of the road ahead.

Americans have kept the parties in an electoral stalemate, moving power from one party to the other. Politics has become inescapable, and as Kesler notes, no external crisis appears likely to transcend the internal crisis of a fractured nation and that leaves three alternatives, federalism, secession, or civil war. “To appeal to the better angels of our nature we must first reacquaint ourselves with that nature,” Crisis of the Two Constitutions argues.

To sustain our self-evident truths, we must become a culture of “We the people” again.