Friday, October 14, 2005

The Chimpanzee Politics of the Miers Nomination

Conservative resistance to President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court shows that conservatives are returning to their traditional principles of limited government and resisting the seductions of presidential democracy. In doing that, they reaffirm a realist view of human nature that is fundamental to what I have called "Darwinian conservatism."

Traditionally, conservatives believe that ordered liberty requires limited government with a balance of powers under the rule of law. Leftists favor a pure democracy founded on popular sovereignty, and so they are suspicious of any system of checks and balances that limits the will of the people. Conservatives reject pure democracy unconstrained by a balance of powers, because they believe that the natural desire for status and distinction will always create political rivalry among leaders and factions motivated by the passions of ambition and avarice. Because of their realist view of human nature as imperfect, conservatives believe that any person with power is inclined to abuse it to achieve dominance over others, and therefore the only way to prevent the abuse of power is to structure things so that power checks power. Because leftists have a utopian view of human nature as perfectible, they believe that power will not be abused in a true democracy where the people are sovereign.

Darwinian science supports the conservative principle of balancing power by sustaining the realist view of human imperfectibility. Comparing the social behavior of human beings with that of other closely related animals suggests that political rivalry and the need to constrain such rivalry through a balance of power is manifest in chimpanzees and other political animals.

Frans de Waal is famous for his studies of "chimpanzee politics." From many years of observing chimp social behavior, he sees a natural drive for dominance expressed in the "alpha male" of every chimp society. But he also sees a natural drive of subordinates to resist the exploitation of the dominant male. He suggests that chimps avoid despotism by a "balance of power" in which the power of some is checked by the power of others. This drive for dominance checked by opposing power is so similar to human politics that Newt Gingrich has often recommended de Waal's book CHIMPANZEE POLITICS as one of the best books for understanding the political life of Washington, D.C.

In the American conservative tradition, the importance of the balance of power was elaborated by John Adams. He insisted that inherent in human nature was the desire of ambitious people to become dominant. And although such a desire could motivate the ambitious few to heroic leadership, he argued that to prevent despotism, there needed to be a system of countervailing powers by which the ambition of some would be checked by the ambition of others. He warned that the inclination of the French revolutionaries (and their sympathizers in the U.S. like Thomas Jefferson) to give all power to a democratic majority would tend to favor the despotic rule of a Caesaristic leader. Napoleon's rise to Emperor of France by majority consent of the citizens confirmed Adams' prediction.

Conservatives have generally been on the side of Adams and balanced government. But in recent decades, they have been seduced by presidential democracy--by the idea that a President elected directly by the people has a popular mandate to use the virtually unlimited powers of executive prerogative--particularly, in national emergencies--for the public good. A clear manifestation of this disposition has been the willingness of conservative constitutionalists to allow the President to wage war without the congressional declaration of war required by the U.S. Constitution.

In recent years, a Congress controlled by the Republican Party has generally bowed to the leadership of George W. Bush, and thus they have failed to assert the traditional conservative principle of balancing powers.

But now with the Miers nomination, many conservatives both inside and outside the U.S. Senate are challenging the claim of the President that he should be able to appoint a long-time friend to the Supreme Court whose primary qualification seems to be adulation of George Bush. This shows a healthy conservative recognition of the dangers that come from concentrated power and ambition and the need to reassert the constitutional scheme of checks and balances.

The British have faced a similar problem as the British Prime Minister has increasingly come to resemble the American president, with unchecked authority derived from popular plebiscites. And unlike the U.S., Great Britain does not have a written constitution to which they can appeal to assert the constitutional checks on the prerogative powers of the Prime Minister.

The fundamental insight of conservative constitutionalism is that because power-seeking is rooted in evolved human nature, the power of one person or group can only be controlled by the power of another. Among chimpanzees as well as human beings, liberty requires a system of limited government based on countervailing powers.

Chapter 5 of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM is devoted to this Darwinian understanding of limited government.


Anonymous said...

A couple points:

Not all leftists believe in pure democracy in the sense of majority rule. There are both populist and elitist leftists. Quite a few of them accept the power and ability of "revolutionary" governments to interpret and enforce the General Will, which is not the democratically expressed wishes of the people through elections and political participation, but the "true" interests of the people as defined by the elite. There's a reason leftists like to talk about "false consciousness."

How elitist or populist conservatives or liberals are at any point in time seems to depend a lot on which party controls which branches of government. James Burnham wrote his pro-legislative "Congress in the American Tradition" at a time when liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were worshipping the executive. A couple of decades later, Nixon was claiming the support of the "silent majority" while Schlesinger, who obviously no longer saw being a courtier as fashionable or rewarding, wrote "The Imperial Presidency." The Watergate Congress earned conservative opprobrium by abandoning South Vietnam and Cambodia, castrating the CIA/FBI, etc. Conservatives then cheered Reagan as he cowed Democratic majorities in the House and in the Senate (after 1982). By the middle of the Clinton years and with the Republican Revolution of 1994 still young, conservatives were back in Congress's corner while liberals defended Clinton's unprecedented claims of executive privilege during the Lewinsky scandal. And, as you note, in 2005 conservatives have largely acceded to Bush's dominance, while the left is starting to sound like the black helicopter crowd on the mid-90's far right.

Larry Arnhart said...

Good points.

If conservatives were consistent in their adherence to limited government with a balance of powers, they would not be seduced by presidential power. Those like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall who warned about the dangers of presidential supremacy represent the core of conservative thought.

Although the Left has often been elitist in its reliance on leadership by a revolutionary vanguard, their justification, as you indicate, has been to appeal to some notion of the General Will of the People.

In the U.S., the attraction of presidential supremacy is the populist idea that only the president can lead the people against those who would frustrate the people's will. This was the idea behind the progressive movement in the U.S., which saw the Constitutional scheme of limited and divided powers as an impediment to true democracy.

Anonymous said...


In his excellent work The Machiavellians, Burnham scorned what he termed "politics as wish" and urged the analysis of politics in terms of power, conflict, and hierarchy.

There are both conservatives and liberals who accept this starting point, and reject the populist idea that there is some unitary "will of the people" that can executed by a strong, popularly elected executive. Perhaps the key difference is that while leftists seek to transcend what Samuel Huntington called the "promise of disharmony" by removing or socially deconstructing the imagined roots of that conflict (class, racism, nationalism/patriotism, the lack of "diversity"), conservatives seek to utilize man's imperfect nature by checking ambition with ambition. Which I think leads precisely to your central point that conservatives accept human nature, while the left seeks to somehow overrule it.

Larry Arnhart said...

Marx would illustrate your point. He was a Machiavellian realist in his analysis of past political history as a history of conflict in the selfish pursuit of power and domination. But he was a utopian visionary in his prediction of a revolutionary future in which human nature would be transformed so that "the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all."

Anonymous said...

So how is it that conservatives and leftists can start from the same premise, and arrive at totally different conclusions? I can only guess that while conservatives believe the social order to be evolved and rooted in human nature, and severely limited tragic incommensurability of human wants and needs, leftists believe the social order to be in some sense designed, rooted in specific interests with evil intentions, and thus subject to remaking by eliminating those interests and redesigning society. All of which, I believe, you have argued at length. But why, do you think, some are attracted to the first position, and some the second?

Anonymous said...

As suggested by Carl Becker's classic book THE HEAVENLY CITY OF THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY PHILOSOPHERS, the philosophes and the leaders of the French Revolution were moved by a secularized longing for transcendence and redemption--Heaven on Earth.

The moral passion of the Left shows this longing. Consider, for example, Michael Harrington's vision of "an utterly new society in which some of the fundamental limitations of human existence have been transcended." With such a vision, he could foresee that "in the more distant future, it is not only possible but necessary for society to enter the Kingdom of Freedom."

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