Peoples become nations by following those who lead them to worship the same God or idols, and to act habitually as they do. The Greeks called these habits “ethics.” These change for good and ill as prominent persons change, or develop new ways of life, or foreign influences impose themselves. The general population tends to follow. Plato and Aristotle led subsequent generations to note that peoples tend to take on their leaders’ character.
Some see such changes as betrayal. If these alienate a large enough proportion of people, the body politic itself loses the capacity to act as a whole. Enough disarticulation, and the body politic ceases to exist for practical purposes. Serious changes, regardless of their sources, lead some to want a resetting the country on what they regard as its proper basis—or outright resuscitation.
Machiavelli wrote that doing that amounts to re-founding a nation, and that this is considerably more difficult than founding one in the first place.
What does it take to re-found a nation? The question is lively for twenty-first century Americans because the changes that have taken place in the bipartisan ruling class that controls nearly all our institutions have explicitly denied and denigrated what had made America itself. Today’s ruling class leads and even forces Americans to act, speak, and think as if all that they had thought good were bad, and vice versa. Almost as if a vengeful power had conquered the country. At least half the country yearns for some kind of rescue.
Though history does not lack examples of nations rescued and refounded, most rescues involve overthrowing the dominion of foreigners rather than of mutated ruling classes. But as the Book of Exodus shows, the removal of foreign influence is almost always much less than half the battle. Reference to foreign oppression is often a necessary, but always an insufficient factor. Charles de Gaulle’s success against the Germans was not enough to overcome resistance to his efforts to restore France’s corrupt body politic. Without a foreign focus however, refounding can only be a civil war of variable temperatures. Abraham Lincoln’s failure to avoid the Civil War is as clear an example as there is.
Machiavelli’s near equation of reform with re-founding mostly abstracts from the fact that, for nations and regimes founded on and tailored for the people’s characteristics, repeating something like the founding is not possible once these have changed. Peoples are far less malleable than regimes.
On the one hand, successive generations of Romans were able to re-set Rome more or less on the basis on which Romulus had set it by killing his brother, Remus, who had trespassed on what became the Urbe’s fundamental law: war against outsiders. Successive Fathers of the Fatherland reaffirmed that law. And when Cleomenes judged that Sparta’s ephors had violated Lycurgus’s constitution, he deftly re-established it by killing the ephors and their followers. The Soviet regime’s fundamental law was the Communist General Secretary’s murderous discipline of the Party, which suffused society with fearful uncertainty. When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to rescue tyranny from the feudalism into which it had fallen under Brezhnev, he might well have succeeded had he been willing to kill as Lenin and Stalin had done.
Doubtless, rescuing disrespected constitutions has always required and will always require undoing any number of enemies.
But there is little historical evidence that peoples who had constituted themselves nations on the basis of freedom can convert that nationhood’s lively memory into rebirth.
Self-government ever reflects self, and lost civic virtue is almost as unrecoverable as lost virginity.
The political conflict in which we are engaged pits some Americans who revere the legacy and memory of the Republic founded in 1776-1789 against those who despise it and have corrupted the Republic’s institutions into an oligarchy.
The concentration of corruptions in the ruling class does not minimize the reality that a part of the U.S population are that oligarchy’s eager subjects, either uninterested in or opposed to any kind of restoration. We who resent that our ruling class’s corruption deprives us of self-government are another part. Hence governing ourselves again, resetting America on the bases on which it was founded is necessarily by, of, and for only we who want it.
In short, America has changed so much from what it had been just a half century ago that any restoration implies some sort of mutual alienation, separation, or secession, whether as a substitute for civil war or as a result of it. What kind of conflict might it take to rescue ourselves from what we regard as contemporary America’s corruptions?
The process of rescue necessarily consists of republican Americans’ would-be leaders convincing their followers to ignore, to disdain, to resist, the directions from society’s commanding heights in favor of what they believe is more consistent with what America had been and should be again. It is essentially a revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) process that requires equal doses of negation and affirmation.
Silent secession by alienated individuals is inevitable and deadly. In 1967, hippie songster Arlo Guthrie invited those who wanted to drop out of the America they despised to mock its authorities by singing them the meaningless “you can get anything that you want at Alice’s restaurant.” Millions of East Germans said to themselves “ohne mich,” without me, as they pretended to go along. Many more Soviet subjects also kept their heads down as they spat out official lies with ever more evident mockery. Live not by lies, said Solzhenitsyn. In the long run turning one’s back, tacit hemorrhage of legitimacy, dooms regimes. But it reforms and refounds nothing.
Because nations consist of collective affirmation, founding, refounding, and mere repair require leadership that embodies, personifies, and secures the good to which individuals are invited to adhere. Statesmanship—that is, constitutive politics—consists of attracting the many to feel, and to lead them to act, as one. This means leadership must consist of identifying with a cause common and attractive to the people.
But to meld the assertion of collective authority on behalf of a prospect at odds with the dominant power of the day, to affirm a better future while leading collective rejection of the present, to say “Don’t listen to them, listen to me and follow me, though it may cost you to do so,” may be the most difficult of messages to formulate and deliver successfully. Because it inevitably foments strife, it must be part and parcel of reasonable plans to safeguard the people through that strife to the desired goal.
The larger the enterprise, the more diverse the people engaged in it, the more important is it that it be focused on one person, whose own vision and character defines its substance and cohesion. The American Revolution happened through the efforts of differently motivated people in scarce contact with one another. But it would not have succeeded, and certainly not in the same way, had it not been for George Washington. In the 1860s, countless Americans pushed and pulled the country around. Lincoln provided such coherence, focus, definition, as America needed to get through its trial. His loss showed how important these had been.
A defining leader’s presence is essential for the members of the enterprise to recognize themselves as part of something that is alive. Leadership provides a living intelligence and will in which they can place their confidence on safety and success. To lead, someone must prove he knows what he is doing, that he cares, and that he is going to make the whole thing work. At all times and in all places, persons personify enterprises.
The greater the enterprise to be personified, the wider and more diverse the interests and passions to be focused on it, the more essential it is that whoever does try to do it meld himself into it. Charge of big things naturally tempts would be leaders to think of themselves in large terms, to seek commitment to themselves. There is no greater pitfall. Effective espousal of a cause means that the leader dissolves into the cause.
A serious attempt to rescue Americans from an alien regime at war with our way of life awaits the rise of a person to embody their sentiments, focus and lead them to act successfully in their own interest.