[See also: Leo Strauss—Immigration Enthusiast? By John Venn]
A question that may have occurred to those who have read my book Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America is whether Strauss and his followers have influenced the view of immigration taken by what now passes for the “conservative movement.”
We have to address this question indirectly since, to my knowledge, neither Strauss nor his better known disciples have written specifically on immigration. But their picture of Anglo-American democracy and their glowing depiction of American modernity fully support the pro-immigration stance associated with the Wall Street Journal and other organs of neoconservative opinion.
Strauss’s disciples not only have a cozy professional relation with such partisan sources but provide the rhetoric for their emphasis on the US as a “Propositional Nation.” Supposedly, Americans are held together by a human rights ideology and a duty to make the world uniformly democratic.
These ideas or phrases are not directly attributable to Strauss himself, who was certainly less propagandistic than his devotees in commenting on current affairs. But already in Strauss’s Walgreen Lectures of 1949, which were published as Natural Right and History in 1953, we find certain recurrent themes of later Straussian politics—particularly references to the natural rights foundation of the American Republic and a strenuous attempt to dissociate the founding from both ethnicity and specific religious principles.
Strauss scolded Americans for forgetting or slighting the moral foundation of their society, which he maintained was based on individual rights, not on any collective identity outside of the acceptance of certain universal propositions.
In his statements about politics, Strauss also took positions that would be entirely congenial to his predominantly Jewish and passionately Zionist followers.
Most famously, in a letter Strauss published in National Review (January 5, 1956), he attacked the magazine’s contributors for demanding a more even-handed treatment of the Israelis and Palestinians. In contrast to his defense of universal rights as the conservative American heritage, Strauss praised the “conservative function” of Jewish nationalism. The existence of a Jewish ethnic nation was helping “stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences,” and it offered the awesome example of Jews practicing “heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity.”
Here we already encounter, at least by indirection, the later widely-accepted double standard about the right of Israel to be an ethnic nation, while the US and Europe are required to be universal nations dedicated to a creed of global rights.
This double standard is stated perhaps most explicitly by Bush-advisor and neoconservative par excellence Douglas Feith who contrasted the ethnic character of his beloved Jewish homeland to the required openness and fluidity of Western democracies like the US. In A Tragedy of Errors [The Nation, February 23, 2004] Michael Lind writes
“Unlike Brooks, Douglas Feith does not lie about the nature of Israeli nationalism. In an address he delivered in Jerusalem in 1997 titled ‘Reflections on Liberalism, Democracy and Zionism,’ [PDF]written before he became the third-most-powerful official in the Pentagon, Feith denounced ‘those Israelis’ who ‘contend that Israel like America should not be an ethnic state—a Jewish state—but rather a `state of its citizens.`‘ Feith argued that ‘there is a place in the world for non-ethnic nations and there is a place for ethnic nations.’ Feith`s theory, unlike that of Brooks, permits pro-Likud neocons to preach postethnic universalism for the United States and blood-and-soil nationalism for Israel.”
The two positions furthermore are justified by the distinctive identities of Western Christian “liberal democracies” and the Jewish state—the latter standing apart from other democracies. Both have duties to protect their respective identities but the US also has a global mission in addition to preaching its creed at home.
“[W]hen we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable. World War II was really an educational project undertaken to force those who do not accept these principles to do so.”
Equally significant in terms of confirming the political agenda of contemporary America: the work of two other of Strauss’s students, Michael Zuckert and Thomas Pangle. In their studies on the American founding, these political thinkers affirm the contractual, secular, and atomistic origin of the US as a political nation. Such a view, however open to question, fits perfectly with the project of turning the US into a global, modernizing force, mercifully free of a fixed ethnic character.
Given the overlap of interests between Straussians and neoconservatives, it was a piece of cake in preparing my book to demonstrate the ties between these two connected groups. Almost all prominent neoconservatives, starting with the Podhoretzes and Kristols, claim some kind of Straussian derivation for their ideas, while neoconservative publications for the last forty years have been studded with contributions from Straussians.
When, thanks to a committee stacked with neoconservatives, the Straussian hero Harvey Mansfield received the Jefferson Day Lectureship from the NEH in 2007, Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard threw a widely publicized bash for their favorite political thinker. Kristol not only defines himself as a Straussian but at Harvard was inseparable from his Straussian guru. If there are any ideological differences between the two, I have yet to discover them.
Despite this overlap, I would make certain qualifying observations. Straussians stand in relation to the neoconservatives in the way German racial theorists of the early twentieth century stood in relation to the Nazis or earlier Russian socialist revolutionaries stood in relation to Lenin and Stalin. They prepared the way for what came ideologically but were not the activists who caused a particular set of ideas to triumph historically. It is hard to imagine that the Straussians by themselves would have become a powerful political force, without the help of others who were better at roping in funders and creating a media network.
Among the Straussians, moreover, there is a traceable decline in intellectuality and contemplativeness, the farther one moves away from the first generation, which included Strauss and his collaborators at Chicago, Joseph Cropsey and Jakob Klein, toward what is now the second or third generation of epigones. The Straussians have become increasingly politicized—especially as seen in their stronghold at the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College, both of which institutions are dominated by the disciples of Strauss’s student Harry Jaffa.
In both of these places foreign policy has become the major interest. The cults of Lincoln and Churchill that the Straussians promote are designed to undergird an aggressive internationalism based on a human rights creed.
One can easily identify this stance with Steve Sailer’s graphic description of the signature neoconservative position: “invade the world/ invite the world.” But I’m not sure the activism of Strauss’ disciples, or his disciples’ disciples, would have been entirely welcome to him. He might have been offended by the sheer vulgarity of such propaganda efforts.
A final qualification: at least one Jaffa disciple, Thomas West, has allowed himself to criticize, in a subdued manner, a liberal immigration policy of the kind advocated by most neoconservatives.
In his 2000 book Vindicating the Fathers , West suggests that, although America’s founders intended to establish a creedal nation predicated on Enlightenment principles, they did not believe that it was practical to try to Americanize too many people all at one time. According to West, even propositional nations have limits in terms of what they can reasonably absorb. He warned us against trying to transmit our ideas to more immigrants than we can reasonably deal with.
This is what is called in hermeneutics an "immanentist critique.” West manages to call into question what his colleagues believe without going outside their theoretical framework.
And this too is a Straussian practice, framing one’s policy, whatever it is, in phrases about America as a universal creedal nation—representing a proposition that all decent people everywhere should be eager to embrace...unless, of course, they are patriots of the actual, organic, much-abused American nation.
Paul Gottfried [ email him ] recently retired as Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism His most recent book is Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America