The inability of liberals and progressives to accept the fact that Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and now serves as president, remains a prominent feature of our politics and culture. The Emmy Awards telecast, with its increasingly diminishing audience, was an anti-Trump fest, and Hillary Clinton now has publicly refused to rule out challenging Mr. Trump’s election on the grounds that purported Russian interference with that election makes him an illegitimate chief executive.
American history from the late 18th century has featured spirited political controversy, and sharp loathing among partisans, but what we have now seems, somehow, a bit different in kind. Our differences are now so keen, that some have begun to suspect that another Civil War might be inevitable, if, for example, Mr. Trump is ousted by impeachment or other means.
Chances are that cooler heads will prevail, and that, eventually, the Democrats will understand that any interference by Russia or any other nation did not significantly affect the outcome of 2016. Perhaps the disappointed liberals and progressives will also realize that unbounded and unrelenting attacks on the legitimacy of a duly-elected president, and mounting legal challenges to virtually all of his acts — from the imposition of restraints on illegal immigration to the pardon of Sheriff Arpaio — will only have the effect of undermining the foundation required for the operation of the national government of whatever party.
Like their political ancestors, the English, Americans frequently find themselves in a frenzy, but eventually come to their senses. There is some risk, though, that ideology will blind too many of us for too long. It might be time to remember the work of our nation’s greatest critic of ideology, the great social conservative thinker, Russell Kirk, who passed away in 1994. In the seventh edition of his great classic, "The Conservative Mind," published shortly after the election of President Reagan, Kirk expressed his hope that we would come to understand the simple wisdom of conservative thought, and reject what he rightly called the "siren song" of novel utopian notions.
Kirk drew a sharp line between sensible politics, and political delusion, a line that now separates too many of us. "For the conservative," Kirk wrote, "custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order." Channeling James Madison in "The Federalist Papers" (No. 51) Kirk went on, "Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another."
Reflecting on life in the then numerous Communist nations, and before that in the fascist countries, Kirk concluded, "Precisely that has come to pass in a great part of the world, during the 20th century."
Mrs. Clinton and her supporters’ desire to eliminate the Electoral College, in order to have our leaders determined only by direct popular vote, would remove one of the wise checks and balances of the framers, just as the Seventeenth Amendment, providing for direct popular vote for the U.S. Senate, has, in our time, reduced the quality and effectiveness of that body.
The ideological restraints on freedom of speech, imposed by speech codes on university campuses, and the habit of refusing to tolerate any political discourse which challenges the prevailing ideological directives, especially by Antifa’s armed thugs, brings us ever closer to the earthly hell Kirk envisioned. This is what Mr. Trump, in challenging "political correctness" understood, and this is why his presidency, one actually relatively free of rigid ideology (as his latest efforts to reach accommodation with Democratic congressional leadership demonstrate) offers the possibility of restoration of the kind of consensus government this nation actually enjoyed for much of its history.
If ever there were a time to listen to Russell Kirk’s admonition about the need to preserve our constitutional order, our traditions, and our wiser understanding, it is now, when our political sensibilities have been rubbed raw by acrimony and absurd attacks not only on our president, but on many of our laws and legal institutions.
Those who voted to repudiate the federal leviathan, and swept Mr. Trump into office, understood the futility of the federal government, or any other temporal power seeking to construct a heaven on earth.
It is a humbling lesson to learn, and one which some of our ideologues have yet to master.
It was an easier matter so to understand when religion played a greater part in our public square, and when piety was so prominent in our culture that Russell Kirk even named his home Piety Hill.
Mrs. Clinton and her supporters might do well to return to Federalist 51 and to Russell Kirk, before they create a situation that will render government of, by, and for the people, pursuant to our existing institutions and customs, completely impossible.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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