Last week the death of Harry V. Jaffa at age 96 was met by exuberant detailed tributes in sources extending from the New York Times and Washington Post to the major organs of the Murdoch media. Jaffa was hailed as an influential conservative theorist, the founder and driving force behind the heavily endowed Claremont Institute, and the author of widely read works on Abraham Lincoln, the American Founding, and the concept of equality. Although I could not imagine a single issue on which the deceased and I could possibly have agreed (except that Hitler and Stalin were not particularly nice men), I fully agree with all the tributes stressing Jaffa’s contribution to what is now considered the American conservative movement. This present movement would have been far less substantive without Jaffa’s rhetorical and conceptual contribution.
Indeed when such journalists as Rich Lowry casually observe that Jaffa may have been the key thinker for their movement and when they rate his book on Lincoln as the single most significant book in molding their ideas, the compliments are fully justified. All other contemporary thinkers pale into insignificance, beside Jaffa, Sam Francis and M.E Bradford both pointed out, there is nothing in Jaffa that is not quintessentially leftist. What Jaffa and his acolytes have done is rearrange labels so that what was historically associated with the Left has now been renamed “conservatism.” At the same time figures who identified themselves as leftists, like Martin Luther King, have been assigned conservative bona fides, and groups like antebellum Southern landowners have been attacked as either similar to the communists or as value relativists. What started out looking like a word game was turned by Jaffa and his disciples into something far more cataclysmic. It was a total remaking of the Right into a subgenus of the Left, combined with certain biographical peculiarities that may have been drawn from Jaffa’s New York Jewish background, for example a hyperbolic Zionism, revulsion for the Germans and Russians, and a commitment to America as a society bottomed on universalism and equality.
What linked this faux conservatism to an older post-World War Two tradition was Jaffa’s attempt to make the Left identical with value relativism. Having written widely on this subject, I can find no evidence for the supposition that leftists are “value relativists” as opposed to moral fanatics. But since Jaffa picked up his value position from his teacher Leo Strauss and seems to have tenaciously held on to it, it was dragged into the mix that came to characterize his new, winning brand of “conservatism.” Presumably those who disagreed with Jaffa, including traditional European conservatives, were or are moral relativists or (Heaven forfend!) “historicists,” that is, people who presume to look at historical situations in understanding political and cultural institutions instead of trying to inflict the Jaffaite Bed of Procrustes on the entire human race. Although neither Jaffa nor I care much for Woodrow Wilson, our reasons for this dislike are utterly dissimilar. Unlike Jaffa, I lament Wilson’s foreign policy and crusades for democracy; Jaffa and his followers, by contrast, deplore the one thing about Wilson I respect, namely, his attempt to understand rights as historic accretions rather than as attachments with which individuals everywhere enter the world, and which American journalists and politicians are presumably equipped to enumerate.
Moreover, since Jaffa also maintained intermittently that America’s uniquely revolutionary society had roots in ancient and medieval sources, particularly the Old and New Testaments, Aristotle and Aquinas, it was possible to present him as a selective perpetuator of the past as well as an advocate of a global democratic revolution originating in the US. Certain ambiguities and interests in his writing have been useful in widening the appeal of his doctrines. Those followers of Jaffa I’ve come across over the years have been mostly observant Roman Catholics; and when they oppose gay marriage and abortion, their stands may have more to do with their religious backgrounds than their Jaffaite credo. But taking these stands has certainly not hurt their membership in the club, providing they also embrace Jaffa’s American ideology and certain indispensable positions, like “being good on Israel.”
The success of this school of thought, quite broadly understood, may have more to do with its timeliness than its philosophical coherence or historical objectivity. It offers narratives and positions that fit the practical needs of GOP operatives who are eager to exhibit their sensitivity to minority issues and who wish to identify their “conservatism” with onetime standard left-of-center views. Such people hope to present their stands, even while shilling for multinational corporations, AIPAC, and the defense industry, as being fully consistent with universal rights and the principle of equality. GOP journalists also want to coexist with a leftist media establishment, at least to the extent that they are not treated, like Marine Le Pen and Pat Buchanan, that is, as moral lepers. What better way to do this than to affirm “conservative values,” which are really leftist ones in differently wrapped packages.
The last thing I wish to do is understate what Jaffa did to fill the needs I’ve described. I could not imagine myself doing anything even as remotely ingenious as what Jaffa has achieved as a purveyor of ideas. This thinker or myth-maker (he was both) has made good on a claim he once divulged to his boyhood friend from the Bronx, the late Francis Canavan, S.J. Jaffa told the then already eminent theologian and Burke-scholar in a moment of candor: “Frank, I’m inventing a myth and I’ll make people believe it.” I learned of this story while Father Canavan and I were attending a Burke conference about twenty years ago. The Jesuit scholar mentioned it not to disparage Jaffa but to express admiration for someone who achieved what he said he would do when they were both much younger.
Finally it would be misleading to try to view Jaffa simply as the head of a particular group of Straussians, who were located in the Southwest part of the US. Contrary to what the mainstream Straussians tell us, Jaffa and his disciples are not merely a cluster of sectarians who broke off from the main body of Strauss’s followers, that is, from those who branched out from the University of Chicago and who are identified with such celebrities as Allan Bloom, Walter Bern, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle and Michael Zuckert. Whatever the hermeneutic differences between these schools, and as an outsider looking in they seem to me piddling, the groups often publish in the same places and praise each other’s work.
More to the point, the Jaffaites are more tightly organized than other Straussians and come together almost ritualistically to adulate their founder and leader. While in attendance at one of their gatherings, I noticed the absence of females, the predominance of military types, and the conspicuously robot-like behavior of most of the attendees. Those meetings of far left groups I attended as a graduate student were lively, spontaneous affairs in comparison to the “informal” collection of Jaffa’s followers I wandered into during an American Political Science Association gathering. Anyone who can elicit such submissiveness from his followers, once having organized them on the basis of leftist myths, has achieved a remarkable success as a cult-leader.
Moreover, no other disciple of Strauss has achieved such a hold over the conservative movement (no, not even the best-selling author Allan Bloom). Nor is the fact that Professor Jaffa contributed to the speech that Barry Goldwater delivered as Republican presidential candidate in 1964 in any way responsible for his mesmerizing effect over the Beltway Right. Jaffa rose to prominence in the conservative movement in the 1970s, when the time was ripe for his ideology. Presumably he was not the only figure selling equality and human rights as “conservative principles.” The fact that his formulation worked so well for “conservatism’s” shakers and movers speaks volumes about his abilities and persistence. For all our differences, I admired his energy and charisma, and if anyone with his views was destined to redefine “movement conservatism” it might as well have been Harry Jaffa.