Only One Constitution Can Survive

The upcoming June 27 debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is fascinating on several levels, even before it’s happened. We have never before had a current president debate a former president. In addition, the debate is unusually early, and will be conducted without a live audience—two factors that, according to some analysts, reveal deep concerns among White House staff. If Biden flops, the speculation goes, Democrats might still have time to replace him on the ticket.

We’ve also never had a debate in which the two major candidates had a combined age of 158. Although both men have strong support among the most devoted voters in their base, some Americans are less than thrilled with these two “well-seasoned” options. Last week one of us saw a man at the gym wearing a t-shirt that said, “America 2024: Anyone Under 80.” (Biden is 81; Trump is “only” 77.)

However similar they may be in age, Trump and Biden could hardly be more different in their attitudes and beliefs about the meaning of America and the state of the country. Some voters may be unhappy with their options, but there is no doubt the two candidates do represent a clear and dramatic choice. In fact, the divisions in our country have not been so stark since the Civil War. It is hard to see how the nation can continue to be split on so many fundamental questions of morality, culture, economics, and foreign policy. If the United States is to remain peaceful and united, it seems that we must, as Lincoln once said, “become all one thing, or all the other.”

While the choice may be clear, many voters may not appreciate that this division between Right and Left (or Red and Blue) has deep philosophical roots. One side traces its understanding of America and the purpose of government back to James Madison, George Washington, and the other founders. The other root goes back to the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, when new theories about consent, social justice, and the rule of experts took hold among intellectuals, and gradually spread through American society. 

These alternatives are a major theme of a new book which we compiled to honor our teacher, Charles R. Kesler, whose teaching and scholarship explore the profound differences separating the political science of the American founders and the new political science brought to America by the Progressives. 

Professor Kesler’s reputation will already be familiar to many readers of this website.  As we note in the Introduction to the book, Leisure with Dignity: Essays in Celebration of Charles R. Kesler

Charles’s most consistent, and still ongoing, output is the Claremont Review of Books, a highbrow quarterly of which he has been the editor since its rebirth in 2000…. The roster of CRB contributors is a who’s who of conservative academics and intellectuals, and even includes notable figures not on the right. Charles remains, unlike some of his students (ahem), a unifying figure within the Right as well as an authority respected by mainstream scholars—at least those not utterly allergic to any hint of conservatism. This status has allowed him to maintain a “big tent” approach that has made the CRB a clearinghouse of must-read copy of all things Straussian, conservative, and American. 

In recognition of Charles’s main interests, several of the book’s contributors elaborate on the Federalist Papers—the founders’ instruction manual, so to speak, for the Constitution. Other chapters explore how progressive theories introduced the idea of a “living Constitution” devoted to discovering an ever-expanding list of “rights,” to be secured by an ever-expanding federal bureaucracy. As one contributor, Steven Hayward, notes, “Charles Kesler is preeminent among the small circle of contrarian scholars who have generated a wholesale revision of our understanding of Progressivism and its decisive role in the gradual transformation of our constitutional republic into an administrative state.”

Few Americans today are confused or ambivalent about what separates Trump and Biden. And however distasteful the candidates as individuals may be to some voters, there is no doubt that their political appointments and policy choices will take America in almost diametrically opposite directions. Yet not everyone appreciates how serious the stakes are. The political and policy differences are only a reflection of more fundamental philosophical disagreements—about the purpose of government, the meaning of justice, the nature of man, and the basis of morality (or whether there is any basis for morality).

Anyone interested in getting a better understanding of what Professor Kesler himself has called The Crisis of the Two Constitutions can benefit from reading his brilliant writings. As an introduction to that scholarship, we humbly recommend our new book of essays honoring Charles as our teacher and our friend.

Michael Anton and Glenn Ellmers are co-editors of Leisure with Dignity: Essays in Celebration of Charles R. Kesler (Encounter Books, 2024).