Constitutionalism vs. Hegelianism
- The constitutional regime is a complex mechanistic order predicated upon the division of sovereignty, and suspicion concerning human nature. Actually, suspicion isn’t quite the right word. Most writers were rather convinced that human beings, especially those interested in power, couldn’t be trusted and would constantly work toward aggrandizement. Convinced of the imperfectability of human beings, but also of the character forming properties of associative life, the originating principles of American political life sought to preserve, for better or for worse, the kaleidoscopic variety of American life.
Conservatives prefer voluntary variation to enforced collectivization, even if such variation can be off-putting or rife with problems. Collectivization destroys the liberty, sense of cooperation, governmental responsiveness, and immediate dependency we associate with local governance. Conservatives accept the fact the Constitution creates awkward clumsiness in politics, seeking balance among competing groups, interests, and places as perhaps the best that can be hoped for.
By the end of the 19th century and a catastrophic war, American thinkers and statesmen turned to the organicism of German (and Rousseauian) social theory. Herbert Croly’s hero in The Promise of American Life was … Bismarck. America could stick with the past or join the emerging progressivism of modern state-based politics which gathered the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions of American federalism and melted them down into an undifferentiated unity. The New Nationalism that resulted insisted on the absorption of local life and the transformation of human nature through systems of coercive education and genetic selection. Local associative life threatened the organic unity which was the non plus ultra of political life and, really, life in general.
To accomplish this required the destruction of the complex machinery which inhibited the movement toward monumental oneness. Central to the destruction was the devaluing of representative and federalist government to be replaced by nationalism as embodied in a charismatic leader. Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt sought to replace the cumbersome and awkward system of checks and balances with an organic system unified into the charisma of one man and having replaced politics with administration. Efficiency, uniformity, and bigness rather than liberty, variation, and modesty became the greatest goods of political life. So presidential politics and management became ways of bypassing constitutional restraints, and the Court became a central player in reshaping the Constitution to meet the demands of the new nationalism. Constitutional amendments turned the Constitution against itself.