The Stultifying Condescension and Irrelevance of Movement Conservatism

A Response to Brian Mattson and Doc Sandlin 

Brian Mattson doesn’t like my defense of nationalism contra authoritarianism. In a recent response, he doubles down on the accusations of authoritarianism, statism, and a neo-socialist revolution to overthrow the constitutional order.

Mattson’s first complaint regards my reading of Alexander Hamilton in The Farmer Refuted (1775) regarding the relationship of natural liberty (rights) and civil liberty (rights). There, Hamilton argued that “Civil liberty is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society” (italics original to Hamilton, not me). I focused on the point that with the formation of the body politic and civil government natural rights simpliciter must be modified in order to make them compatible with the well-being of society (this is Hamilton’s argument, and I agree). Mattson is suspicious of this idea for two reasons. First, I failed to equally emphasize Hamilton’s concern to secure natural rights, not just modify them. Second, Mattson is skeptical that a polity in which the “pre-political” is swallowed up by the political will, in fact, likely or even inexorably lead to some kind of political totalitarianism: “this is, in my estimation, a recipe for unbridled Statism,” says Mattson.

The relationship between the pre-political (e.g., natural rights and liberties) and the political (e.g., civil rights and liberties) can be confusing, so let me clarify. Civil rights are the civil analog of natural rights. They secure natural rights from the ravages of the state of nature—where civil government is either absent or has broken down—which easily and almost always devolves into a state of war and anarchy where the right of the stronger rules with an iron fist. The idea of the “pre-political” is somewhat of a misnomer. While it can refer to a temporal period in the genealogy of the political, it needn’t. Instead, the “pre-political” simply refers to the natural order of things that exists both prior to and above political society and thus serves as a standard of authority for it. This includes theological truths about God and true religion; metaphysical truths about being, existence, and reality; anthropological truths about man’s created nature and end (contingency, finiteness, bodily, ensouled, etc.); and moral truths about good and evil, right and wrong, and the beautiful and ugly. While these things can, in theory, be known via right reason prior to or outside of political society (e.g., the life and quest of the philosopher), most citizens come to know these truths through familial and ecclesial societies, custom and norms, and civil law and social habits within the body politic. This is why the Greek poet Pindar proclaims (P. Oxy. 2450, fr. 169a) that “law [is] the king of all” (nomos ho pantōn basileus), because everyone is necessarily formed by law and social custom and takes their guidance from it.

Civil government cannot secure natural rights unless they are properly named, defined, and the boundaries of their exercise drawn. What are our natural rights? What should you or I be at liberty to do? Who decides? These are questions concerning political sovereignty and obligation. Everyone might agree that we have the natural right (and duty) to worship God, privately and publicly. But whose God? What if some citizens insist that their religion prohibits them from fighting to defend the body politic from foreign aggression, or of paying taxes, or requires female circumcision, or allows for widow burning and child sacrifice? Who gets to judge such religious exercise as a perversion of natural rights due to a disordered anthropology or even false conception of God, piety, and moral obligation? Again, who decides? For the Americans, the people collectively decide through their political representatives, which is why I quoted state constitutions to the effect that the people have a right to “assemble and consult upon the common good.” It is the people’s understanding of the common good that defines their rights, liberties, and privileges as citizens, including their proper and improper use. Note that this is a different standard than the minimal and individualistic “no harm” principle of libertarian political philosophy.

Civil society is necessary to secure natural rights against external threat, domestic violence, individual abuse, and even the exercise of rights that are legitimate in themselves but become hazardous in the context of the community (I previously gave the example of property rights and honoring the dead through burial). Yet civil society secures natural rights precisely by modifying these rights to be conformable to the well-being of society—the common good that the people have deliberated over. When natural rights are transformed into civil rights like this they can be enjoyed freely by all citizens without egregious injury to oneself, to others, or to human goods.1

This is not a diminishment of natural rights, but a fulfillment of their design, for they exist for the sake of communally achieving and possessing the good things God intends for men to have. Of course, this is all contingent upon the people’s good sense in deliberating over the common good. The people could be deceived, resulting in majority tyranny. This is why, beyond the “auxiliary precautions” of government form and structure, the founders all agreed that republican government requires virtue, and virtue cannot long survive without religion—belief in a transcendent God who created the world, the finiteness of the body and its death, of the immortality of the soul, and of a final judgment before the Supreme Judge of the world. Thus, the majority agreed that government must support and encourage religious devotion and practice (although they disagreed about the means to do this).

It is also possible that civil magistrates, apart from the will or consent of the people, might pervert the idea of natural rights and the common good. What if civil government proclaims that some men are natural slaves and others have the right to own them? What if the right to be free from want and fear, or the economic right to a job, a house, education, health care, and retirement are enumerated in civil rights law, funded through extortionary omnibus spending bills, and enforced through administrative fiat? What if disadvantaged minorities, due to the history of their oppression and because of the “privilege” long enjoyed by dominant sexes or races, are afforded more rights and immunities, liberties and privileges than the “oppressor” classes?

The possibility that the people collectively or civil governments specifically will misunderstand and abuse natural rights and the common good is significant. But this is no reason to therefore banish government from private society, as if limited government means that it is confined to a corner where it cannot touch, and therefore cannot encroach upon, the “pre-political.” Mattson seems to be laboring under a false conception of American politics as essentially liberal: that private society (i.e., culture) exists both prior to and apart from the public society (i.e., politics), and that since the political is a necessary means to the end of the good of the private life, therefore politics must be limited in what it can do lest it overwhelm and corrupt society and culture.

The American founders did not adopt this perspective. They certainly believed that government should be restricted in its ends. I discussed in detail the nature of federalism and dual sovereignty (i.e., dual delegation of the people’s sovereignty) under both the national and state governments. Yet between the two forms of government, all of life is touched by and comes under the canopy of the political. The pre-political is, in a sense, swallowed up by the political. This does not mean what Mattson thinks it must: it does not mean pre-political natural and divine realities are obliterated by the political, but that the political must incorporate natural and divine law within its customs and civil law in order to be just in the sight of God.2

In the American political system (and in the nature of things), private spheres of life (e.g., friendship, marriage, family, church, certain businesses, etc.) are always and everywhere either affirmed, protected, regulated, or supported by the political. Even the idea of a “natural rights republican regime” requires civil government to fundamentally orient itself toward acknowledging and respecting natural rights, bringing these rights under the sway of the political (which inevitably requires modifying them as civil rights). We could rightly label different societies within the body politic as being ‘private’ or ‘public’; yet it is not the case that private societies are non-political or apolitical societies, while public societies (e.g., municipal and state governments and auxiliary services, publicly-traded companies, etc.) are political.3

This fact has been driven home in recent decades as left-progressive and Democratic movements have targeted America’s traditional ways of ‘private’ life for extinction (heterosexual marriage, binary gender, Christian morality, parental care of children and their education, and businesses that assume this ethic) using a myriad of political actors and mechanisms. Formally, this is not a new development, for these things have always been regulated, supported, and shaped by civil government. The only difference now is that the inputs have changed in terms of belief in God, understanding of human nature, moral philosophy, and the end goals. Conservatives who adopt a ‘live and let live’ posture or ‘leave me alone,’ retreatist attitude will inexorably find themselves overrun, crowded out, exiled, or compelled to submit. They do not understand the political. This is one reason among many why the conservative movement in America since 1945 has failed.

Still, Mattson is skeptical of the notion of the common good, for he complains that “there is no discernable limit to what the government can demand of its people and her institutions in the name of the ‘common good.’” This is a tired and old objection. There is a discernible limit and I discussed this (see Massachusetts’s 1780 constitution), although I did not go into great detail. In short, the principles for the discernable limit of the common good are the same as those for natural rights: the natural and divine goods God intends for his creatures. I also noted that abuse of a good thing does not negate its use, whether natural rights or the common good. American government has surely abused the idea of natural and human rights—as well as human “dignity”—by expanding them beyond any reasonable limit and by turning wrongs into rights and liberty into license. Shall we then, per Mattson’s standard, toss rights out as well because there is no discernable limit?4 To hell with it all, because any of it can be twisted in order to oppress and enslave a people! This is neither a mature nor a practical approach.

I addressed many of these concerns in my original article. I argued that American politics is not a form of mere conventionalism, positivism, or the will to power divorced from virtue, morality, and nature as the handiwork of the Christian God. I explained that American politics looks to so-called “pre-political” realities—the nature of man, his natural rights, his duties to God and others—as a guide for good government. I went into detail using eighteenth-century founding sources to show that the common good was a ubiquitous idea in their political thought and that the founders understood very clearly what it was and government’s role in securing it. This is not authoritarianism or statism, but the antithesis of both.

Mattson seems to have read my article (he derisively calls it “tedious and plodding” and a condescending tone is evident throughout), but it is curious that he completely neglects to engage the various arguments I put forward as to why National Conservatives are not authoritarians (let alone Nazis). Yet perhaps this is not so curious after all, for Mattson emotes that he’s “tired of writing about Nazis and nationalists” (as if, absurdly, these are one and the same). He does not want to bore his readers with yet another article on the dangers of nationalism on the New Right. Oh my! What indefatigable zeal and stamina does our fearless defender of liberty display in his opposition to the lurking threats of nationalism! With what courage and manly thymos does he stand athwart authoritarianism yelling, “Stop!” Mattson can barely scrape together a few hundred words to whimper about his uneasy and emotive “sense” that I hide an “authoritarian strain” behind a “thin veneer of reverence and respect” for the Constitution, all the while refusing to engage the myriad arguments I make against authoritarianism. Pardon me for not putting much stock in Mattson’s “sense” of things.

The second complaint by Mattson is his “proof” that I’m a lurking statist. He points to a Twitter dialogue between myself and P. Andrew Sandlin regarding conservative tactics to combat our current ills and preserve (or restore) constitutional government in some form. Mattson believes that my contention that conservatives on the New Right must acquire the knowledge, political imagination, and will to “act extra-constitutionally in order to regain constitutional government” is a call to “subvert the rule of law.” I am a closet socialist who refuses to learn from history. Sandlin, for his part, responded by claiming my comments reveal that I am no conservative but a revolutionary like Robespierre, Franco, and Pol Pot.

It is hard to know where to begin to address such muddle-headed nonsense, but I suppose a confession is in order:

I am a revolutionary.

I am an American Patriot, an American Revolutionary, and a Son of Liberty. I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, not as sentimentality, but as they really are. I believe the American founders sought to establish just government grounded upon the great truths of natural and divine law, that the American people were a Christian people whose core political tradition was a covenantal politics of deliberation over the common good, who sought to instill classical, Christian, and manly virtues into the people, and who took measures to preserve the religion of the people in custom and law. I believe that the innovative advances in political science advocated by the founders (separation of powers, checks and balances, representation, extended sphere, and independent judiciary) were good and necessary “auxiliary precautions” against various forms of tyranny. I believe with the founders that all civil magistrates are accountable to a higher law, and that when a long train of abuses has refused correction through ordinary means, that the people have a right—even a duty—to throw off the chains of despotism and enact new government upon just foundations.

Confession aside, neither Mattson nor Sandlin know what time it is (1 Chronicles 12:32). Their shock at my position betrays a false belief: that the constitutional government ratified by the American people in 1791 is still the same government that we live under today. But this is not true. Consider the following (a small sampling):

  • The progressive revolution in politics and administration in the early 20th century resulted in a regime change in America: the separate branches of government were conjoined, an administrative branch was created, and Congress delegated its law-making powers to both the Judiciary and administrative agencies.
  • Congress no longer effectively makes law in America. Instead of being a law-making body, Congress conducts constituent services as middleman brokers between administrative agencies and the private sector (citizens, businesses, churches, smaller municipal districts). In 2022, Congress passed 17,817 bills (many of no or small consequence), while agencies added 28,033 documents totaling more than 80,000 pages to the federal register. America is currently run by administrative fiat—in conjunction with the military, intelligent agencies, and large corporate and industrial partnerships on a global scale. Constitutional law was long ago abandoned.
  • Administrative agencies effectively combine legislative, executive, and judicial elements of law under a single, unelected and unremovable, political head. This, per the founders, is the definition of tyranny. Elections and suffrage no longer matter, since citizens have no control over their administrative overlords or the rule and regulations imposed upon them.
  • Agencies run their own administrative courts that sue citizens who violate regulations. These courts mirror the arbitrary abuses of the English royalist Star Chamber in that they deny defendants the right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty, deny them the right to face their accusers, deny them other due process rights (e.g., trial by jury of peers), and proceed through inquisitional instead of adversarial court procedures. Citizens can face absurd fines for unintentionally violating regulations—on the order of $37,500 per day per violation—in order to financially ruin and legally intimate them.5
  • The original federal structure of dual sovereignty split between the national and state governments has been obliterated through the juridical doctrine of incorporation (by which the Bill of Rights is applied to the state via the Fourteenth Amendment). This has destroyed state police powers and local self-government, including the right and ability of the people to regulate morality, religion, economic affairs, and deliberate over their common good. The result is national consolidation and the unleashing of destructive passions and habits (avarice and material gain, licentiousness, selfishness) billed as “rights” under a so-called democratic capitalist form of government. Drag Queen Story Hour and transgender library books can be imposed on your beautiful community through crushing civil rights legislation (or litigation).
  • The 2020 COVID pandemic actualized a bio-medical security state that treated citizens as serfs, denied them basic rights, liberties, and privileges, forcibly masked them and locked them in their own homes, indoctrinated and propagandized them into taking a dangerous and experimental vaccine, denied their children basic education, and treated all manual laborers as non-essential expendable workers. Careers were ruined, personal businesses utterly destroyed, life savings eviscerated. The deaths, sufferings, and harms from this tyranny have yet to be fully known.
  • The current Clinton-Obama-Biden regime successfully prosecuted Trump for winning the 2016 election (two impeachments based upon false evidence), manipulated the 2020 election to defeat Trump, and then when he and his supporters protested, called them insurrectionists and prosecuted them as domestic terrorists. January 6 protestors have suffered FBI pre-dawn raids with AR-15s drawn that have turned homes inside-out, confiscated computers, cell phones, and other valuables, and destroyed security cameras (the FBI is quickly becoming the American analog of the KGB); been held in solitary confinement for months without charges being presented against them, have been denied habeas corpus, have been presumed guilty, and have been denied a jury trial by their peers (as opposed to a politically selected jury that is biased against them); finally, many of them have been punished with draconian prison sentences while “minority” criminals with multiple felonies and violent crimes get let off with probation.
  • Finally, the ongoing political prosecution of Trump, not as legitimate political opposition, but as an internal enemy of the Regime reveals that Democrats are confident enough that they control the elite institutions and political apparatus of America that they can literally throw a former president in jail that half the country voted for without facing any consequences. If they can do this to Trump they will do it to anyone else who gets in their way.

The result is that America in 2023 is no longer a constitutional republic or a democracy. It has been forcefully and intentionally terraformed into an oligarchic kleptocracy and is fast approaching tyranny (if not already). The irony in Mattson and Sandlin’s response to me is that they utter not a word about all of this because they seem to know nothing about it. In accusing me of being a closet statist and revolutionary, they accuse me of advancing tyranny. Yet I discussed tyranny at length in my original piece. They offer no comments on that discussion, nor do they show how National Conservatism, by seeking to restore national political power to rule for the common good, is either worse than the current system or itself a different form of tyranny (hint: it’s not).

Mattson and Sandlin would have us believe that it is politics proceeding like normal in America—as in nineteenth-century “normal.” While I’m sure they would admit that there are abuses, they fundamentally believe the structure is sound. In this, they make for good Tories and Loyalists: claiming that all is reasonably well, that abuses can be corrected from within according to traditional procedural means, and that any talk of revolution is sheer insanity. Sandlin goes so far as to claim that “the idea that liberty-loving leaders are forced to resort to extra-legality in order to preserve liberty but later voluntarily surrender their hegemonic illegality doesn’t happen historically.” Yet that is exactly what happened in the American Revolution! Without this—without the appeal to nature, to God, to just government, to natural rights—there would have been no moral or theological justification for the Americans to throw off British rule. Did the Americans go on to institute tyranny in the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution? No.

My call for extra-constitutional measures to restore American self-government is reasonable and prudent given the fact that we no longer effectively live under the Constitution—and the fact that the other side has been doing this a long time. We must act politically, not just constitutionally. We must not be hampered (as Movement Conservatism has for so long) by an artificial loyalty to mindless procedural norms that are impotent to preserve America, let alone renew or restore her. We are not yet at the point of appealing to the God of Heaven, but that day might soon be here. Let us throw off the shackles of the failed conservative movement and do what we can to forestall that terrible day.

Show 5 footnotes
  1. There will, of course, be conflicts in the practical exercise of rights claims that result in litigation and a body of case law to help the people and their civil magistrates resolve these problems, but the hope is that these conflicts will be marginal and won’t tear a society apart. An example of a “human good” would be marriage: a comprehensive conjugal union between one man and one woman, exclusively, and for life. Severe distortions to the public’s understanding of marriage via the ‘rights’ to no-fault divorce, cohabitation, casual sex, online prostitution, same-sex relations, and now transgenderism harms the good of marriage by obscuring its truth, perverting its practice, and instigating mass deception—all of which results in sin and brokenness in the lives of millions.
  2. Mattson calls this “Hotel California” style politics because once you’re in, you can’t leave. Since this wasn’t the topic of my original essay, I didn’t address the matter, but Mattson is wrong. The founders believed civil government could be changed or abdicated either through the constitutional amendment process, or through the “right of refusal” and voluntarily removing oneself from society, or, as a last measure, an appeal to heaven for the right to political revolution.
  3. Furthermore, certain persons wrongly assert that every symbiotic association is public, and none private. Now this axiom stands firm and fixed: all symbiotic association and life is essentially, authentically, and generically political. But not every symbiotic association is public. There are certain associations that are private, such as conjugal and kinship families, and collegia. And these are the seedbeds of the public association. Whence it follows that the private association is rightly attributed to politics” (Johannes Althusius, Politica, ed. and trans. Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995), III§42, p. 32). What Althusius means in the last line is that political life develops from private life (cf. Aristotle, Politics 1252b5-9), a similar notion to the “pre-political” discussed above. Yet private life is not nonpolitical or apolitical.
  4. As “rights” are dramatically expanded in practice it challenges the contention that there are discernable limits in principle to these rights. Who’s to say you don’t have a right to change your sex or gender, to take on an animal identity, to never be offended, to have sexual relations with minors, or to communally share wives and children? Conservatives like Mattson might retort that this is a gross abuse of a proper understanding of natural rights; I agree, but so is California’s contention that the common good requires mutilating children to change their sex an abuse of the common good.
  5. In reference to Sackett v. EPA 566 U.S. 120 (2012).
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Ben R. Crenshaw

Ben R. Crenshaw is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Declaration of Independence Center at the University of Mississippi. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter at @benrcrenshaw.

One thought on “The Stultifying Condescension and Irrelevance of Movement Conservatism

  1. “a condescending tone” is Mattson’s usual method. He seems to think he can be the only one who is right all the time. I have run into this “tone” on several occasions.

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