What the New Right Is Getting Wrong

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

In today’s political climate, these might be the most revolutionary—and most important—words to keep in mind from the American founding. They come from neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution but from James Madison’s Federalist No. 10

Few of us now dispute the core tenets of the Declaration or oppose the Constitution’s central aims of promoting justice, the general welfare, and liberty. But many—on the progressive left and what we may term the anti-conservative “new right” in particular—fail to grasp the revolutionary recognition on the part of our country’s founders that in morality, religion, and politics, human beings are bound to disagree.

Old but still revolutionary truths.

America’s constitutional architects leveraged the twin powers of time and liberty to allow us to cope with inevitable disagreement in as peaceful and fruitful a manner as possible. 

By ensuring that laws would be difficult to pass, and that they would pass only after attaining the support of stable and widespread majorities, Madison and his fellow Founders knew precisely what they were doing: enhancing the probability that reason, not passion, would shape the nation’s laws. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Greg Weiner wrote in his 2012 book on Madison’s “temporal republicanism,” Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics, “Because time defuses the passions, majorities should prevail only after cohering for an interval sufficient to ensure that reason rather than impulse guides their will.”

The Founders knew their history. And they surveyed a historical landscape filled with “efficient,” though unstable, government. The reins of power were routinely passed from one ruler or fleeting majority to the next, and whoever held the power for a time sought to wield it to the maximum extent feasible. Given the inescapable reality that “different opinions” were still formed, power would shift—often through violence—and the cycle would commence again. Often imbued with religious convictions, the governing group in power would then seek to impose their conception of “the Good” on everyone else. Violence would ensue; culture wars were literal wars. 

This left a bitter taste in the Founders’ mouths. They knew better than to repeat this senseless cycle; they recognized, as Jefferson put it, that “God hath created the mind free.” Thus, “All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens” were, to put it mildly, misguided. 

Using the force of law to dictate thought was the old way of doing things. The Founders instead used the power of law to create a zone of liberty—physical and intellectual—that would allow citizens’ thoughts and creativity to flourish and build on each other’s, leaving us with a more productive, stable, and sure-footed society. Again, to borrow Jefferson’s phrasing, the Founders rightly trusted “that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” To prevail, it needed “free argument and debate.” 

When taken together, the Founders’ insights on the dual powers of time and liberty point toward their prudence, patience, and foresight: Not every moral, religious, or cultural debate had to be won, let alone settled with the coercive power of the state, in an instant—or even, ever. Some questions and debates deserve to percolate through the public square, perhaps indefinitely. 

One of the best things a government can do is to allow and empower its citizens to engage in those arguments together; not oppressing one another, but muddling through together, inching toward truth and a legal regime that best squares with our human nature and is thus most stable. 

Modern forgetfulness.

The extremes of American politics have come to resemble one another in many respects, but perhaps the most striking similarity—and the most worrisome, given their growing power in their respective parties and the wider intellectual milieu—is their rejection of these founding-era insights. 

For many progressives and the eclectic crew of not-so-conservative right-wingers (think “national conservatives,” post-liberals, integralists, “Flight 93” Claremont types), the slow pace of American politics is never a virtue, but always a vice, and the preservation of liberty is at best an afterthought or at worst a hindrance to the real goal of structuring American life and culture so as to accord with their particular conception of the highest Good.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a “Burkean liberal” and always a sharp thinker, foresaw the dangers of this repressive line of political thinking: 

“[N]either the new Left nor the new Right, if that should come along, nor any such movement should be allowed to impose its particular moral imperatives upon the institutions and processes of the democracy. Without exception these movements are repressive, and almost without exception they are elitist. Their purpose is to impose the superior values of a minority on the inferior lives of the masses.”

Centrists and conservatives should be familiar with these sorts of critiques of the extreme left for its drive toward repression and elitism (think of “cancel culture” and the snuffing out of legitimate debate), but now they can be hurled with equal force at members of the right as well. Indeed, the leading young voices of what some term the “new right,” recently profiled in The New Republic, speak of “counterrevolution” and the need for urgency as if they were members of the Students for a Democratic Society. It’s a little strange. 

One of those young integralists, Declan Leary of The American Conservative, claims that “We’ve either got to take control or all is lost.” That sort of sentence should be scoffed at, or at least greeted with abundant skepticism, yet the urgency that it evinces is all the rage of today’s right. Indeed, rage is at the movement’s core. As David French has argued, the deep animosity Americans now feel for those on the other side of the aisle has led to the widespread weakening of commitments to civil libertarian principles. That lack of forbearance and willingness to respect the rights and liberties of the other side is paired with a lack of commitment to liberty—and thus, to permitting differing opinions—within one’s own tribe: “When there is escalating strife in a political community, there is decreasing tolerance for internal disagreement. Revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary movements require absolute commitment. It’s imperative that ‘we’ close ranks against the Great Enemy.” The rage-filled extremes not only stand opposed to founding commitments to civil liberties, but also to the founders’ (revolutionary) aversion to tribalism.

The new right: doomed to fail.

Unless the new right (or the progressive left) transgresses legal boundaries and seeks to “take control” violently (see: January 6), I suspect Madison will have the last laugh. Why? Because our constitutional structure was designed with the realities of human nature at top of mind. Madison and the gang planned for stuff like this. Although the new right’s leading lights may believe they are at the vanguard of some new—or rather, revivified—intellectual movement, the tune they are singing is vintage. Madison had heard it before, as it leapt off the pages of the histories he pored over in the leadup to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The burning desire to legislate “the Good” from on high and to do so now is quintessentially human; what is American, and revolutionary, is exercising the wisdom to constrain it.

It is unsurprising, then, that figures like Leary scoff at the founding (“None of us are particularly committed to it, frankly”), because ultimately it is the genius of the founding and the persistence of our constitutional structure that will render the new right’s project a failure. An intellectual project that prizes power over liberty is one driven by passion, not reason. It is precisely the sort of political movement that fails to reckon with the timeless truth of inevitable human disagreement. And it will fail to command the lasting and stable majorities required to actually wield power and enact fundamental change in our society.

Even though I am confident that members of the new right will come up short, then, we ought not discount the danger they do pose to founding—indeed, American—values. Those of us less taken with rage and fear of the “other side” must continually remind one another of that timeless truth: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” 

The best we can do is to maintain the zones and structures of liberty amid this passing moment of rage, keeping the absolutists away from the levers of power and reminding ourselves all the while that this struggle is nothing new. Luckily, Madison did the lion’s share of winning that struggle. Let’s conserve that victory.

Thomas Koenig is a student at Harvard Law School and the author of the “Tom’s Takes” newsletter on Substack. Twitter @thomaskoenig98.

Comments (74)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.