The Buckley Program hosted Mr. Josh Hammer and Mr. Daniel McLaughlin on April 19th, 2022 for a Firing Line Debate on Common Good Conservatism moderated by Gregory Collins. Mr. Hammer is the opinion editor of Newsweek, a research fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation, and the host of “The Josh Hammer Show.” Mr. McLaughlin is a senior writer at National Review Online, a fellow at National Review Institute, and a former attorney. The moderator, Mr. Collins, is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University. The following interview was conducted on April 18th via phone call.
As you know, Adrian Vermeule has been generating a lot of steam in American legal circles. Originalists on the left and right like Yale’s very own Akhil Amar are deeply concerned about Common Good Constitutionalism. Do you think this could drive a wedge within the conservative legal movement? Is it worth it?
So I have kind of been there Adrian got this idea going. I was speaking at Harvard FedSoc in early March 2020 just before COVID and I got coffee with him after my presentation. He told me about his upcoming essay, which ended up being the famous Atlantic piece on “Common Good Constitutionalism.” So pretty early on, about a month later, I had an essay published with the Claremont Institute called “Common Good Originalism [emphasis added].” I tried to, early on, see if I could charter a middle-ground position. I wanted to harness the intellectual energy and momentum for a more solid, communitarian, nationalist, common good sort of jurisprudence. I wanted to root the movement a little more firmly in the U.S. constitutional tradition, largely using originalist scholarship and theory. So I’d consider my own position distinct from that of Vermeule’s — and while I won’t fully endorse his proposal, I do praise it for its movement of the Overton Window.
When I go around describing my proposal, I get a lot of interest from curious law students. There is this sort of palpable sense that the Federalist Society, the status quo, and the hallowed originalism that was championed by the late Justice Antonin Scalia are not delivering conservative results. If the Court fails to overturn Roe, you’ll see a real crisis in the conservative legal movement.
I think this issue, specifically, is a metonymy for a critique that a lot of Ivy-educated, old-guard conservatives are making of the New Right. That the movement is currently leaning too far into populism. How accurate do you think their assessment is? Is this a problem?
It depends how far you take it. The short answer is no. I mean you’re with the Buckley Program — you can hardly find less of an icon of the conservative than your namesake. Buckley had a famous quip about how he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in a Boston phonebook than the professors at Harvard University. Roger Kimball wrote a fantastic essay about this just recently in American Greatness, I don’t know if you saw it. Definitely worth reading.
I’ll keep it in mind.
I’ll send it to you — but I think some semblance of a populist movement has been here since the beginning. I mean, take Alexander Hamilton, who, while he was certainly a representative of the commercial class, started a tradition that was carried on by folks like Teddy Roosevelt later on. They all agreed that, even when it comes to corporate and other private sector actors, ultimately We the People have to be sovereign commanders of our own fate. What that ultimately means is that we need to use the levers of political power to chart out our own winding destiny. If we look at the history of the jurisprudence of the necessary proper and commerce clause, starting with Hamilton, the regulation of industry for the common good has long been understood to be well within the American tradition. Having said that, it can go too far, as was warned by Madison in Federalist 10. We shouldn’t get rid of things like the filibuster which, while only a procedural rule, has continued to exist as a guard against the passions of factions. I mean Burke himself gave a 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol, Connecticut, saying that representatives owe their voters their personal judgment. He who sacrifices his judgment for the satisfaction of the crass majoritarian sentiment is basically betraying his constituents. So it’s a balancing act, like everything in conservatism. Just look at Russell Kirk’s ideas about ordered liberty, for an example. In short, I think that there’s a healthy skepticism towards the elite among all conservatives, as indicated by the aforementioned Buckley quip.
Yeah, that makes sense. That being said, I also wanted to give you the opportunity to respond to a label that has occasionally been used to describe you. Some call you a reactionary, rather than a conservative. Does this mean anything to you? Should we ever be reactionary?
Yeah, I mean, I’m not always a huge stickler for labels in general. I’m a proud alum of the Claremont Institution and a personal friend of Ryan Williams, the current president. His recent speech at NatCon Orlando referred to the need for conservatives to have a “counterrevolutionary spirit,” of sorts. Look at Chris Ruffo, who may be the most effective right-of-center political actor in the country right now. Just look at all the work he’s done to find whistleblowers and expose moral rot across institutions, whether they be academic, corporate, or more. The movement kind of is counter-revolutionary. It isn’t ideal, but I think the situation requires that.
Now, listen, I love Edmund Burke. I was a chairman of the Edmund Burke Society at the University of Chicago and I’m a Research Fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation now. I strongly believe in epistemological humility but there are other factors at work here. An adamant opposition to progress is simply insufficient for the task at hand. When the Left is throwing everything they have at us, and they are, it simply calls for a more vigorous, more muscular response. Conservatives, or right-of-center people, or whatever you want to call us, have to be willing to use power a little more pragmatically and prudentially to achieve our ends. And our ends obviously cannot be defined as just slashing taxes, slashing regulations, and just recapitulating the 1984 Reagan-Bush platform. So, to go back to your question, I like the term conservative. I think the ends of government I seek are conservative. I believe in substantive justice, as in doing good to those who deserve good and harm to those who deserve harm. I believe in serving the common good of the people and enacting, in a harmonious fashion, policies that encourage the formation of independent bonds of loyalty, at the family level, the community level, state level, and national level. I even support the international system of well-ordered nation-states. So I think the ends that I seek are profoundly conservative ones. But I do think the means to achieve those ends necessarily have to be more pliable and flexible, given the dire straits that we’re in right now. But that does not mean that we’re “ends justify the means” people. To again channel Ryan Williams who had a great Substack post about a year ago, and I’m very crassly paraphrasing here, we have to be a little bit more willing to experiment with a greater amount of means than we otherwise would have considered in an ideal way, if that makes sense.
Sure, I see what you mean. And just for one last question, do you have any comments on the state of academic discourse at Yale and universities more broadly? It seems like many of the big figures in the conservative movement are still coming out of elite institutions, despite the disconnect between them and the culture of said institutions.
Are you referring to the hostility to dissenting viewpoints?
Yes, yes I guess that’s one way of putting it.
Yeah, look I mean I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to observe the current landscape in higher education to say that it’s close to amounting to a cesspool. It’s not good. There are obviously some beacons of sanity, there are some Hillsdale Colleges. I went to law school and studied as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and when I was there it was among the more sane out there. But, well, Yale in particular has had some tough incidents. Aaron Sibarium is a friend of mine, a Yale alum, and he had that reporting for The Washington Free Beacon last fall about the whole “trap house” controversy with Yale FedSoc, which was just utterly egregious. Funnily enough, at the National Lawyers Convention for FedSoc in November in D.C., I was on a panel with, among other people, Akhil Amar. And Amar, quite bravely, actually, unambiguously condemned what happened. It was great. I think I pushed him to go a bit further but it was quite good and he deserves credit for that.
There was also of course the recent shouting down of Kristen Waggoner, also at Yale, and we can’t forget about Ilya Shapiro. He’s a good friend of mine and the cancel culture mob is now coming for his proverbial head for what was, at worst, a slightly poorly-phrased tweet. It really was not that bad and the point he was making was an obviously sound one. All of this, unfortunately, portends poorly for the state of higher education and those with more traditional affinities for higher education. Ideally speaking I’d like to see Congress and state legislatures take more heavy-handed political action to steer more middle and high school students toward a non-college course career track. Here’s kind of where the Viktor-Orban-Hungary-thing which, I’m sure you know, is where a lot of so-called “New Right” people are looking over to for inspiration right now. I was there in February and got to briefly meet with Prime Minister Orban and he just straight up banned the dissemination of modern gender ideology in higher education. Now his constitutional system is very different from ours meaning it’d have to work out a little differently here, in the Bismarckian sausage-making process. But that’s kind of the idea behind all of this. We need to use a greater political thumb on the scale to restore cultural sanity, bringing us away from the ongoing arson of civilization.
Aron Ravin is Editor-in-Chief of The Beacon and a sophomore majoring in History. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.