Congress’ Principled Institutionalist

Author and editor Bill Kauffman discusses his work on “The Congressional Journal of Barber B. Conable, Jr., 1968-1984” (University Press of Kansas, 2021) and how this principled institutionalist approached the problems of his day and ours. Gil Barndollar joins.

Applications Open for 2021 Constitutional Fellows Program

The Constitutional Fellows Program

Offered by the The American Conservative and the Center for the Study of Statesmanship (CSS) at Catholic University.

**Applications for the Spring 2021 semester are open—apply now! More information below.**

The U.S. Constitution is everywhere cited, but how many really know what they are talking about? The Constitution assumes an entire view of human nature, society, and politics and has moral and cultural preconditions. Without people who respect and embody the spirit of the Constitution, the Constitution cannot be sustained. Truly to understand the text of the Constitution it is necessary to be familiar with its historical sources and the view of life that it implies.

The Constitutional Fellows Program is a three month course of study designed for Congressional staffers, journalists, and other policy professionals. Offered at a time when America’s constitutional order may seem to be crumbling, the program illuminates the meaning of the Constitution and the prospects for its reinvigoration.

Each session will have a seminar format and will be conducted by two or three leading experts. Students will prepare for each session by studying carefully chosen and manageable readings. Now in its third semester, the Constitutional Fellows Program has featured faculty members like Claes Ryn (CUA), William Smith (CUA), Rod Dreher (TAC), Patrick Deneen (University of Notre Dame), Oren Cass (American Compass), Daniel McCarthy (The Fund for American Studies), John Burtka (Intercollegiate Studies Institute), Bradley J. Birzer (Hillsdale College), Jonathan Askonas (CUA), Justin Litke (CUA), Joseph Baldacchino (CUA), Chris Owen (Northeastern State U.), David Hendrickson (Colorado College), Emily Finley (Stanford), Michael Federici (Middle Tennessee State U.), and more.

The topics of the six sessions will be:

The Moral and Cultural Context of American Constitutionalism

Ancient and Christian Origins of American Constitutionalism

Radical Democracy, Socialism, and Other Domestic Challenges

The Constitution and Foreign Policy

Constitutionalism and Economics

Contemporary Challenges for American Constitutionalism

Students who attend at least five of the six sessions will be certified as graduates of the Constitutional Fellows Program. Students who show particular commitment and distinguish themselves in discussion will be designated Honors Graduates.

Only a limited number of students can be admitted. For the Spring 2021 semester, the application deadline is January 29, 2021. To seek admission, send an application to The application should contain (1) a c.v., (2) a personal statement of about 500 words on why the applicant wishes to participate, and (3) at least one letter of recommendation from a person–usually a supervisor or a current or former professor–who can speak to the applicant’s suitability for the Program. Students who are admitted will pay a $25.00 enrollment fee.

While COVID restrictions may force early sessions into a virtual format, every effort will be made to hold program sessions in person in Washington, DC. Participants should be mindful of the expectation to attend in person in Washington, especially later in the semester.

Fall 2020 class of the Constitutional Fellows Program

Chandler Averette, National Republican Senatorial Committee

John Connolly, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Suanne Edmiston, Legislative Director for Rep. Steve King (R-IA)

Jorge Gonzalez-Gallarza Hernández, senior researcher at Fundación Civismo.

Paul David Harshman, system vulnerability analyst at the Department of Defense.

Robert Hasler, ministry associate with Ministry to State.

Jessica Kramer, freelance video host for Media Research Center.

Michael Marn, policy assistant at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Quinn Marschik, policy advisor in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the Department of Labor.

Dustin Messer, priest at All Saints Dallas.

Julie Mitchell, Outreach Assistant and Intern Coordinator at Media Research Center.

Sam Mulopulos, Legislative Assistant for Senator Rob Portman (R-OH)

Michael Rafferty, US Army (ret.)

Jacob Stubbs, Legislative Assistant in the U.S. Senate.

Daniel “Sully” Sullivan, Foundation Ambassador of the Shafik Gabr Foundation.

Sydney Thomas, Communications Director in the U.S. Congress.

Karen Testerman, US Marine Embassy Guard Unit.


Spring 2020 class of the Constitutional Fellows Program

Clare Basil, Legislative Correspondent for Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR).

Robert Bellafiore, Policy Advisor at the Joint Economic Committee.

Shane Devine, research assistant at the Capital Research Center.

Caroline G. Douglas, law author, university instructor, media host and guest.

Isaac Easton, Research Assistant for Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).

Tyler Fagan, Legislative Correspondent for Representative Jason Smith (MO-08).

Nicholas Grandpre, staff assistant in the office of U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT).

Dan Grazier, former Marine Corps captain, writer, and lecturer.

Amalia C. Halikias, Communications Director of the Joint Economic Committee.

James Haynes, research assistant in the Brookings Institution’s China Center.

Anthony Hennen, managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Rebecca Sears Holdenried, external relations director for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Wells King, policy advisor to Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) on the Joint Economic Committee.

Christopher Krepich, communications director for Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner.

Sarah Lee, Communications Director and External and Media Relations Manager at the Capital Research Center.

Michael Lucchese, digital media assistant in the office of Senator Ben Sasse.

James Mazol, Policy Director for the Aviation and Space and Security Subcommittees on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Scott Reber, Legislative Assistant for Sen James E. Risch (ID).

Carlos Roa, senior editor at the National Interest.

John Shelton, legislative assistant in the United States Congress.

Amber Todoroff, policy associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

A Thanksgiving Message from CSS

By CLAES G. RYN • November 19, 2018


Quite often I have lunch at a McDonald’s in one of the most affluent and pretentious suburbs in America just outside of Washington, D.C. The residents are ambivalent about having a McDonald’s in their community—it undermines their self-image—so the restaurant is tucked away inside a little mall and almost impossible for outsiders to find.

I like to arrive just after 10:30. I am up very early, and before 11:00 my McDonald’s is still quiet. I eat and read in peace. Later, mothers drive up in their luxury SUVs with their preschool children, and, if schools are closed, older children too. Some high-schoolers show up. On Saturdays many fathers do McDonald’s duty and older children come as well. My French café is transformed into bedlam. Near the playpen especially the noise rises dramatically. I have learnt when late to shut out the din, but sometimes I watch the scene in fascination. At the counter toddlers in strollers scream when parents do not give them French fries fast enough. Older children crawl on chairs and tables or rush about shouting and shoving while waiting for mom or dad to bring the food. Mothers and fathers scurry around, anxiously solicitous of their princes and princesses. They comfort the crying and apologize to little Ashley and Eliot for having taken so long. By now I know well the difference between the crying of a child in distress and the importunate crying of a child who won’t wait or take no for an answer. At the playpen—the “hell-hole”—it is obvious that playing without throwing yourself about and making lots of noise would not be real playing. Sometimes the playpen emits such piercing screams that the Asian-American children look at their parents in startled surprise. Deference to grown-ups seems unknown. I used to take offense, but the children have only taken their cue from their parents, who took their cue from their parents. The adults, for their part, talk in loud, penetrating voices, some on cell phones, as if no other conversations mattered. The scene exudes self-absorption and lack of self-discipline.

Yes, this picture has everything to do with U.S. foreign policy. This is the emerging American ruling class, which is made up increasingly of persons used to having the world cater to them. If others challenge their will, they throw a temper tantrum. Call this the imperialistic personality—if “spoilt brat” sounds too crude.

But, surely, this rising elite has wonderful strengths. Are not its adults highly educated—about history, philosophy, geography, and world affairs—and masters of several languages? Do they not travel widely and have a keen understanding of other countries and regions of the world? Are they not sophisticated cosmopolitans suited to running an empire.

Pardon the sarcasm. I am well aware that a different type of American still exists. That American aspires to character traits virtually the opposite of those on display at my McDonald’s. Americans used to admire self-restraint, modesty, humility, and good manners. They were acutely aware of original sin. They feared the self-indulgent ego, in themselves and others. Americans of an earlier era stressed the need to check the darker potentialities of human nature, the unleashing of which could wreak havoc on the individual and society. They hoped that in personal life moral character would restrain the desire for self-aggrandizement, just as in national political life the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution would contain the all-too-human desire for power. Personal self-control and constitutionalism were but different aspects of the effort to subdue the voracious ego. Human beings could not be trusted with unlimited power.

The old Americans were not so foolish as to try to extinguish the will to power. Nothing good could be accomplished without power in some form. But they recognized the great danger of the will to power being diverted from its legitimate ends and breaking free of checks.

The Framers assumed that, for the Constitution to work, its institutions had to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit. These individuals had to be predisposed to virtues like self-restraint, respect for law, and a willingness to compromise. They had to have what I call a constitutional personality. The spirit of the written Constitution stemmed from America’s unwritten constitution, that is, the religious, moral, and cultural life that had inclined Americans to constitutionalism in the first place. The Constitution could not survive without character traits that the Framers hoped would be wide-spread. All know Benjamin Franklin’s answer to the woman who asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The primary reason why today the U.S. Constitution is a mere shadow of its former self is that it cannot be sustained without the constitutional personality.

The new imperialistic ego is shrugging free of the old American self and corresponding constitutional restraints. The desire for self-aggrandizement has transformed limited, decentralized American government into a national Superstate, which has given the will to power a scope far beyond the worst fears of the anti-Federalists. The Tenth Amendment, that ironclad guarantee against improper expansion of central power, is a dead letter, like so much else in the Constitution. Decision-makers in Washington reach into virtually every aspect of American life. But not even power on this scale can still a desire that is insatiable. Today it contemplates dominating the entire world.

Needless to say, the will to dominate does not present itself as such to the world. It wraps itself in phrases of benevolence and selflessness. There is always another reason for government to do good. The greater the caring, the greater the need to place power in the hands of those who care. It is, of course, sheer coincidence that this benevolence invariably empowers the benevolent. So well does the will to dominate dress itself up that it almost deceives the power-seekers themselves.

The ideas of the French Jacobins provided a sweeping justification for exercising unlimited power. As followers of Rousseau, the Jacobins were not content with reforming historically evolved ways of life. “Freedom, equality and brotherhood” required the radical remaking of society. Because of the scope and glory of the task, the Jacobins had to gather all power unto themselves and deal ruthlessly with opposition. Good stood against evil, all good on one side—their side. The Jacobins called themselves “the virtuous.” In the twentieth century, their communist descendants offered an even more blanket justification for wielding unlimited power.

Although the classical and Christian view of human nature has eroded, big government still has a bad name in America. Challenging the Constitution outright remains risky. Americans attracted to the Jacobin spirit have therefore sought instead to redefine American principles so as to make them more serviceable to the will to power. They have propounded a new myth—the myth of America the Virtuous—according to which America is a unique and noble country called to remake the world in its own image. The myth provides another sweeping justification for dominating others.

An effort has been long underway to transfer American patriotism to a redefined, Jacobin-style America, seen as representing a radical break with the Western tradition. According to Harry Jaffa, “The American Revolution represented the most radical break with tradition . . . that the world had seen.” “To celebrate the American Founding is . . . to celebrate revolution.” In Jaffa’s view, the American revolution was milder perhaps than the “subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or elsewhere,” but it is, “the most radical attempt to establish a regime of liberty that the world has yet seen.” America thus reinvented is founded on ahistorical, allegedly universal principles summed up in such words as “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy.” These principles, the new Jacobins assert, are not just for Americans; they are, as Allan Bloom insisted, “everywhere applicable”—a theme echoed today by George W Bush.

The French Jacobins appointed France as the Savior Nation. The new Jacobins have appointed America. Its great, benevolent cause is to rid the world of evil. This cause gives the appetite for power the moral cover it likes to have. One kind of universalist ideology, communism, has been replaced by the ideology of American empire, and the stage is set for another cycle of crusading. With neo-Jacobins shaping U.S. foreign policy, whether as Democrats or Republicans, America and the world can expect an era of chronic conflict.

Could any goal be more appealing to the will to power than ending evil? The task is not only enormous but endless. No conservative would need to be told that evil cannot be “ended”; Rousseau’s notion of the fundamental goodness of man and his vision of society transformed are pernicious figments of a childish imagination. Evil can be tamed to some extent, as the Framers knew, but even Sunday schoolers used to understand that it cannot be ended. You wonder why, if America is called to end moral evil, it should not, while at it, also do away with poverty and illness.

Do the new Jacobins ever reflect on the remarkable coincidence that they should be alive at the precise moment in human history when the one valid political model was finally discovered and that, furthermore, they should happen to live in just the country that embodies that model and is called to bestow it on the rest of the world? But such questions do not bother ideologues who are arguing toward a preconceived conclusion: that they should preside over armed American world hegemony—for humanity’s sake, of course.

The word “empire” does not yet have the right ring in American ears, so the new Jacobins try not to appear too grasping. But even when feigning modesty the will to dominate has difficulty keeping up appearances—as when Ben Wattenberg said, no, no, no, we Americans do not want to “conquer the world.” We only wish to ensure that “the world is hospitable to our values.”

The arguments for bold American assertiveness are familiar: We live in a dangerous world full of odious political regimes. Terrorism is a serious threat to America and its allies. America must, as the world’s only superpower, play a leading role in the world.

But why keep repeating the obvious? Yes, the world is dangerous; it always was, more or less. Like other countries, America must be prepared to defend itself and its legitimate interests—of course—and as a superpower she will indeed have to carry a heavier burden than other countries. It does not follow that America must impose its will on the rest of the world.

But 9/11 changed everything, the neo-Jacobins cry. Well, not quite everything. The human condition has not changed. Terrible events do not cancel the need for those personal qualities and social and political structures without which the will to power becomes arbitrary and tyrannical. Unfortunately, 9/11 gave the imperialistic personality another pretext for throwing off restraint.

American unilateralism represents a reversal of the old spirit of constitutionalism and checks-and-balances. Just as, domestically, particular interests need to accommodate other interests, so, internationally, states need to check and balance each other. The notion that America knows better than all other nations and has a right to dictate terms to them betrays a monumental conceit. It also guarantees that other nations will see a need to arm themselves just to have some protection against American bullying. Already the Muslim world is seething with hostility. China, which has long found Western hegemony intolerable and is already strongly prone to nationalism, can be expected to respond to American assertiveness by greatly expanding its military power. If present trends continue, the time should soon be ripe—in 50 years perhaps?—for a horrendous Sino-American confrontation.

For Christians, the cardinal sin is pride. Before them, the Greeks warned similarly of the great dangers of conceit and arrogance. Hubris, they said, violates the order of the cosmos, and inflicts great suffering on human beings. It invites Nemesis. On the Apollonian temple at Delphi two inscriptions summed up the proper attitude to life. One was “Everything in moderation,” the other “Know Thyself.” To know yourself meant most importantly to recognize that you are not one of the gods but a mere mortal. As for the old Hebrews, in Proverbs (16:18) we read: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

To the new Jacobins, such calls for humility have the quaint sound of something long outdated. Why should those who know how humanity should live question their own ideas or right to dominate? The world needs “moral clarity,” not obfuscation. Many of those who shape the destiny of America and the world today are just such “terrible simplifiers” with absurdly swollen egos.

How very different the personality that defined the old America and conceived the Constitution! In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for all the good bestowed by Almighty God on the American people. He asked his fellow Americans to unite “in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” This is the voice of the America that is passing. Today, increasingly, the imperialistic personality of Ashley and Eliot is being unleashed upon the world.

Remarks originally delivered at The Philadelphia Society’s 40th Anniversary Gala, Chicago, Illinois, May 2, 2004.

Fifteen Years of Forever Wars

Remarks by CHAS W. FREEMAN • WASHINGTON, D.C. • May 1, 2018

Fifteen years ago today, speaking in Kabul, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld declared that, in Afghanistan, “we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities. “ Later that same day, standing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, President George W. Bush proclaimed that “…major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”  He described the U.S. overthrow of the Iraqi government as “one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001,” adding that our “war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless.”

But, evidently, it is indeed endless.  Secretary Rumsfeld defined success in this war as not creating more terrorists than we kill.   That seems a fair standard.  But, by this criterion, what we have done is clearly counterproductive.

In 2003, we invaded Iraq to prevent weapons of mass destruction that did not exist from falling into the hands of terrorists who also did not exist until our arrival and subsequent misconduct begat them.  In 2003, we were engaged in military operations in two West Asian nations – Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2018, the Cost of War Project at Brown’s Watson Institute documents American involvement in some level of combat in seventy-six nations.  For at least the past fifteen years, we have been creating more terrorists than we kill.

Anti-American terrorists with global reach and home-grown terrorists alike explain that they are over here because we are over there.  Our political leaders keep saying that they can’t possibly have that right.  Surely, they hate us because of who we are,  not what we’ve done and where.  But the kith and kin of the roughly four million Muslims we have been responsible for killing in the post-Cold War era say otherwise.

We cannot erase past errors.  We can and should learn from them.  Yet we do not seem to be doing so.  Instead, we continue to repeat our blunders.  Sometimes the cause is hubris.  We should have learned by now that not every cakewalk puts cake on your plate.  Sometimes the cause is doctrinal delusion.  When they encounter reality, some of the most popular axioms of neoconservatism shrivel up and die.  At least the following six assumptions of interventionism consistently turn out to be false.

First, wars in countries with significant natural resources, like oil, can easily be made to pay for themselves.

Second, regime change can transform foreign societies because inside every foreigner there is a liberal democrat yearning to get out.

Third, if you kick the natives hard enough they will turn into the moral equivalent of Canadians – meek, unfailingly polite to everyone, and reconciled to American primacy.

Fourth, in addition to the gerbils who inhabit the deserts of the Fertile Crescent, this region is full of Arab moderates eager to risk their lives by bravely making war on savage Islamist fanatics.

Fifth, exiles say what they mean and mean what they say; and

Sixth, if we sock it to would-be terrorists over there, they won’t dare follow us home.

The cost of the experience that has refuted these absurdities has been considerable.  It starts with a lot of dead and maimed soldiers and mercenaries as well as nearly $7 trillion in outlays and unfunded liabilities to be met by future taxpayers.

The dead and wounded come home.  The money will never return.  It was poured into the sands of West Asia and North Africa or ripped off by contractors.  The fact that it was not invested in the general welfare and domestic tranquility of the United States accounts for our broken roads and rickety bridges, the educational malnutrition of our youth, the emerging class divisions in our society, and our reduced international competitiveness.

We have just compounded the costs of the warfare state by cutting taxes.  This lowers our national savings rate and stimulates consumption, adding to our trade and balance of payments deficits.  But it also leaves all of our past, present, and future military spending – the defense budget and related outlays for veterans, nuclear weapons and propulsion, and so forth – to be funded by borrowing.

Over 40 percent of our mounting liabilities are to foreigners, some of whom we have just designated as adversaries, i.e. candidates to become enemies.  Our strategy for paying off our twenty-plus trillion dollar debt consists of endless credit rollovers.  These risk inflation that will push up borrowing costs and advance the inevitable day of financial  reckoning for our country.

Today our homeland is shabbier and we are less – not more – secure than we were before we began our rampage through the Muslim world.  Placing Russia and China at the top of our roster of enemies and preparing to go to war with them will make our military-industrial complex feel better by justifying the procurement of super-expensive weaponry.  But it will not improve our position in the wars we are currently losing and it could lead to a devastating nuclear exchange that our country could not survive.  We need to make an effort to extract the lessons of our misadventures in West Asia and North Africa so as not to repeat them.

Here are a few thoughts on what some of those lessons might be:

First, when people in high places twist intelligence to conform to their political convictions, unpleasant surprises and strategic setbacks are almost certain to follow.

Second, wars whose objectives cannot be concisely stated are, by definition, purposeless.  They squander rather than validate the sacrifices of the troops we commit to them.

Third, if we do something without first asking “and then, what?,” the chances are excellent that we will not like the results.

Fourth, starting wars without any idea of how we will end them, on what terms, and with whom, is a recipe for endless disaster.

Fifth, there are not many problems that can be solved by the ill-considered use of force, but there are almost none that can’t be made worse by it.

Sixth, strategies are not the same as campaign plans.  Strategies are plans of action designed to achieve desired objectives through the lowest possible investment of effort, resources, and time, with the fewest adverse consequences for ourselves.  Military campaign plans should implement strategies, not substitute for them.

And seventh, reinforcing failure or doubling down on sunk costs does not repair defective policies.  It just extends them and raises the costs of defeat.  Sometimes, in foreign policy as in any other business involving investment, the wisest course of action is to cut one’s losses and quit on the best terms one can arrange.

A final note seems in order.

Americans do best when we are true to ourselves.  This includes adhering to our constitution.  Recent confirmation hearings in the Senate make one wonder whether our politicians, including those with distinguished careers as lawyers, have ever read the document.

In Article II, Section 2, the Constitution makes the president “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”  This empowers the president to respond immediately to attacks on the United States, even before seeking guidance on war aims through a declaration of war from the Congress.  But, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 11  the framers of the Constitution very deliberately reserved the power to authorize wars of choice to the Congress alone.

All of the many wars in which the United States is presently engaged were presidentially ordained.  None was expressly approved by Congress, which has shirked its duty to declare them  and define their purposes – part of crafting sound strategy.  This means that all our current wars are extra-constitutional – even the sixteen-year-long war to pacify Afghanistan, as opposed to the initial year-long effort to respond to 9/11 by rooting out al-Qaeda.  And, all these wars began as illegal invasions of foreign sovereignty and breaches of the peace under the UN Charter and international law.

As Americans we can and should do better than this.  We need to learn from our mistakes, correct them, return to constitutional practices, and reconsider our policies.  If our representatives in Congress will not stand up for the basic principles on which our republic was founded, who will?

Ambassador Chas. W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) is Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, and a member of the Council of Advisors for the Center for the Study of Statesmanship. These remarks were delivered at a Center for the Study of Statesmanship-sponsored event on Capitol Hill.