The Crisis of American Self-Government

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    The Crisis of American Self-Government ​


    Harvey Mansfield, Harvard's 'pet dissenter,' on the 2012 election, the real cost of entitlements, and why he sees reason for hope..​


    By SOHRAB AHMARI
    Cambridge, Mass.

    'We have now an American political party and a European one. Not all Americans who vote for the European party want to become Europeans. But it doesn't matter because that's what they're voting for. They're voting for dependency, for lack of ambition, and for insolvency."

    Few have thought as hard, or as much, about how democracies can preserve individual liberty and national virtue as the eminent political scientist Harvey Mansfield. When it comes to assessing the state of the American experiment in self-government today, his diagnosis is grim, and he has never been one to mince words.

    Mr. Mansfield sat for an interview on Thursday at the Harvard Faculty Club. This year marks his 50th as a teacher at the university. It isn't easy being the most visible conservative intellectual at an institution that has drifted ever further to the left for a half-century. "I live in a one-party state and very much more so a one-party university," says the 80-year-old professor with a sigh. "It's disgusting. I get along very well because everybody thinks the fact that I'm here means the things I say about Harvard can't be true. I am a kind of pet—a pet dissenter."

    Partly his isolation on campus has to do with the nature of Mr. Mansfield's scholarship. At a time when his colleagues are obsessed with trendy quantitative methods and even trendier "identity studies," Mr. Mansfield holds steadfast to an older tradition that looks to the Western canon as the best guide to human affairs. For him, Greek philosophy and the works of thinkers such as Machiavelli and Tocqueville aren't historical curiosities; Mr. Mansfield sees writers grappling heroically with political and moral problems that are timeless and universally relevant.

    "All modern social science deals with perceptions," he says, "but that is a misnomer because it neglects to distinguish between perceptions and misperceptions."

    Consider voting. "You can count voters and votes," Mr. Mansfield says. "And political science does that a lot, and that's very useful because votes are in fact countable. One counts for one. But if we get serious about what it means to vote, we immediately go to the notion of an informed voter. And if you get serious about that, you go all the way to voting as a wise choice. That would be a true voter. The others are all lesser voters, or even not voting at all. They're just indicating a belief, or a whim, but not making a wise choice. That's probably because they're not wise."

    By that measure, the electorate that granted Barack Obama a second term was unwise—the president achieved "a sneaky victory," Mr. Mansfield says. "The Democrats said nothing about their plans for the future. All they did was attack the other side. Obama's campaign consisted entirely of saying 'I'm on your side' to the American people, to those in the middle. No matter what comes next, this silence about the future is ominous."

    At one level Mr. Obama's silence reveals the exhaustion of the progressive agenda, of which his presidency is the spiritual culmination, Mr. Mansfield says. That movement "depends on the idea that things will get better and better and progress will be made in the actualization of equality." It is telling, then, that during the 2012 campaign progressives were "confined to defending what they've already achieved or making small improvements—student loans, free condoms. The Democrats are the party of free condoms. That's typical for them."

    But Democrats' refusal to address the future in positive terms, he adds, also reveals the party's intent to create "an entitlement or welfare state that takes issues off the bargaining table and renders them above politics." The end goal, Mr. Mansfield worries, is to sideline the American constitutional tradition in favor of "a practical constitution consisting of progressive measures the left has passed that cannot be revoked. And that is what would be fixed in our political system—not the Constitution."

    It is a project begun at the turn of the previous century by "an alliance of experts and victims," Mr. Mansfield says. "Social scientists and political scientists were very much involved in the foundation of the progressive movement. What those experts did was find ways to improve the well-being of the poor, the incompetent, all those who have the right to vote but can't quite govern their own lives. And still to this day we see in the Democratic Party the alliance between Ph.D.s and victims."

    [excerpt]

    Read more:
    The Weekend Interview with Harvey Mansfield: The Crisis of American Self-Government - WSJ.com
     

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