Among the significant changes on the American intellectual right in the last 50 years is the growing emphasis on equality. From the speeches of Jack Kemp and the collected works of Professor Harry V. Jaffa to the arguments advanced for Proposition 209 in California, it seems that equality is not only a principle worthy of our attention: It is now the highest principle and one that Jack Kemp calls the “conservative principle” par excellence. Although such tributes to equality predictably come from neoconservative politicians and Straussian “political philosophers,” they do indicate what is becoming a characteristic of the conservative mainstream.

According to this recently revealed conservative dogma, the United States was founded as a “proposition nation,” and its germinal creed is “All men are created equal.” Abraham Lincoln, by destroying the states, helped give flesh to that creed, and the federal government waged war on foreign powers in this century to advance it. (This was Allan Bloom’s argument in The Closing of the American Mind.) Moreover, the American crusade for equality continued as the “good” civil rights movement, exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin, and in “moderate” as opposed to “radical” feminism. Since respectable conservatives do not want the egalitarian ox to get close enough to gore them, the march of equality is conveniently brought to rest in the mid-60’s, with the emergence of an American immigration-expansionist and anti-discrimination welfare state.

Considerable sophistic energy has gone into explaining why we should not push a splendid principle too far, e.g., by treating “equality of opportunity” as “equality of result” or, as minicon Bill Kristol argued in the New York Times (February 12, 1995), by threatening the “political progress on equal rights for women” by asking too much from the state.

The multi-million dollar neoconservative project of promoting “moderate” versions of welfare-statism and social engineering is a manipulative rather than philosophic enterprise, and it depends, for its justification, on a series of philosopher-kings who, like Lincoln and Roosevelt, seize executive power with both hands. The achievement of Lincoln as depicted by Harry Jaffa or that of FDR as presented in Harvey Mansfield, Jr.’s Taming of the Prince was to have twisted and suppressed constitutional liberty for a universal ideal. As Jaffa himself pointed out in National Review (September 21, 1965), “no American statesman ever violated the ordinary maxims of civil liberty more than did Lincoln.” But these violations of American liberty were entirely justifiable because, as Lincoln knew, “civil liberties are the liberties of men in civil society,” and those liberties are tied to higher principles and duties. As Jaffa explains in Equality and Liberty, constitutional liberty for us was intended to be subordinate to the “principles of the Declaration of Independence,” understood as political equality. In the name of that equality, Lincoln had a right to sacrifice “bodies whose souls remained dedicated” to foundational American principles.

Jaffa and other neoconservatives and Straussians apply the same justification to later presidents who entangled their countrymen in ennobling struggles, from the punishment of Southern slave-owners to the “crusade for democracy” waged against

Kaiser Bill to the Gulf War. Those conflicts provide, as Allan Bloom suggests, “educational experience,” and that experience involves teaching our people and those whose brains we knock out about “human rights,” especially about “democratic equality.” These educational experiences usually entail fighting ethnic groups that neoconservatives dislike—Germans, Slavs, Arabs, and reactionary Southerners—and on the side of those they like—upper-class Englishmen, Israelis, and progressive Yankee millionaires. The pursuit of moderate egalitarianism results inevitably in a slow drift leftward which they and their friends can presumably control and which will not empower minority leaders to a point that is intolerable.

The obvious problem with conservative egalitarianism is that there is nothing historically conservative or even classically liberal about the glorification of political equality. This new conservative principle is in fact the ideal of social democrats and Jacobins. As Clyde Wilson observes, “What they say is not unusual but certainly not conservative.” And, so far from being conservative, it is not even defensible on rational grounds. In a still unpublished manuscript, analytic philosopher David Gordon has gone through the works of Harry Jaffa and his disciples to expose their perpetually ragged reasoning. Treating as apodictic what is never demonstrated, ascribing disagreement with their ideas to racist and antisemitic attitudes, and ignoring historical contexts are all essential to the arguments defending these “universal” positions. Gordon notes how little concerned his targets are with the circumstances surrounding their texts of choice. Though Lincoln intermittently may have opposed slavery, his remarks during (though not exclusively during) his debates with Senator Douglas indicate that he did not believe that blacks could or should enjoy political equality with white Americans.

There is in fact nothing in Lincoln’s words or biography up until 1856 to show that he ever held anything like Jaffa’s opinions on race and politics. Even leading Abolitionists like Ralph Waldo Emerson disliked slavery for, among other reasons, introducing into an otherwise Northern European people black Africans whom Emerson thought unsuited for citizenship. Similar nonegalitarian objections to slavery could be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and of other signers of the Declaration who owned slaves. Though these Southern planters signed a document with a borrowed phrase from John Locke about natural equality, it is a long leap from there to the modern politics of equality. He who says “yes” to the Declaration as a statement of national independence need not be endorsing the idea of political equality for all races, as both leftist historian Richard Hofstadter and Southern conservative M.E. Bradford have pointed out.

There is no compelling reason to assume that the Declaration (mostly a list of grievances like the 1629 English Petition of Rights) stands behind the Constitution, which nowhere invokes the “principles” of 1776. There is no reason to assign pivotal importance to the Declaration’s phrase about equality, even if Lincoln pointed back to it as the “sheet anchor” of our founding. After all, the equal right of all people not to be enslaved, to which Lincoln does refer, does not imply other more radical forms of equality.

But there is another observation to be made. Those who now prate about equality believe even less in it than does the reactionary right. Democratic ideals in the past were identitarian ones, assuming the kind of unity among citizens that Aristotle, Rousseau, and Jefferson thought indispensable for democratic polities. Homoiotes (likeness, or parity), which the Greeks saw as the essence of democratic regimes, meant something entirely different from such late 20th-century democratic litmus tests as the availability of entitlements or adherence to a “universal proposition.” It signified membership in a community held together by shared ancestry, gods, and customs. As Aristotle notes in the Constitution of Athens, Pericles rose in the esteem of the demos when he struck from the list of Athenian citizens those who were not descended from Athenian parents on both sides. As ancient historian Paul Veyne observes, open citizenship is the mark of an empire, not of a democracy. To carry the analogy with antiquity one step further, modern global democracy creates imperial subjects, not democratic citizens.

While the American founders were not trying to replicate a claustrophobic ancient democracy, they did assume that their own extended, representative republic would require sharp cultural and ethnic boundaries. Whether one quotes from Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia or from Federalist 2 (on the good fortune of culturally and ancestrally homogeneous republics), it is clear that the founding generation did not believe their country could survive as a proposition nation. Citizenship would require a high degree of homoiotes (which was more necessary for republics than monarchies) if the federal union was to be maintained. In this respect the advocacy of ethnic unity, combined with Protestant-tinged civic culture, was consistent with American ideas of democratic homogeneity.

American presidents from Jefferson through Lincoln and Wilson to FDR thought that the racial preconditions of American citizenship were not mere personal idiosyncrasies or signs of generational bias. They believed that a democratic society could not function without an (at least residually) homogeneous population. Such a concern, however embarrassing to neoconservatives and other liberals, is quintessentially democratic. In a regime dependent on an active popular will, as opposed to our current system of electronic manipulation, a deep sense of community is vital.

Significantly, the appeal to equality made by Ward Connerly and other supporters of Proposition 209 suggests the same misunderstanding about democracy encountered among neoconservatives. Connerly crisscrossed the country with the usual egalitarian platitudes: Allowing commercial and educational enterprises to engage in discrimination, for the purpose of rectifying past injustices against blacks, Hispanics, and women, goes against the “vision of equality” preached by Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It also contradicts the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which tried to implement that vision by creating a “colorblind” society. Not surprisingly. Proposition 209 drew on the language of that act.

But the Civil Rights Act promoted neither conservatism nor democratic government. It empowered a federal commission, overlapping the congressional and executive branches, which monitors all sorts of social and commercial relations. While supposedly designed to fight discrimination, that oversight commission, in alliance with the courts, has been inflicting minority quotas and mandating minority set-asides since the 1960’s. Whether or not this was supposed to happen, the fact is that it did, and for an obvious reason: Vast discretionary power was conferred on the central state to alter social behavior. How could anyone have expected a different outcome?

In taking sides on a false issue such as Proposition 209, potential critics of the managerial state are distracted from the real question that is important for a democracy. Is the incursion by federal engineers into communal relations across the United States compatible with self-government and with the civic life necessary to generate and preserve it? Unfortunately, this question was never addressed in the debates over Proposition 209. Partisans on both sides agreed about the central role of the managerial state as the source and instrument of socialization. A ritualistic debate took place, appealing to the fictitious visions of Lincoln and Martin Luther King and to variant strategies for democratically enforcing “true” equality. For genuine democrats and for those of the right, however, it is not worth fighting over whether public administrators create a color- blind, gender-neutral society with or without explicit quotas. Yielding such power in the first place is entirely unacceptable.

Though I for one have no special preference for authentically democratic regimes, they do feature distinctive strengths and ways of life. But our “democratists,” as Claes Ryn calls them, have no interest in fostering these characteristics, and they attack those who would restore popular government as right-wing extremists. By now, it is clear that this talk about democratic equality is not the profession of a philosophic creed, but the self-justification of careerists attached to a post-democratic and post-conservative American empire. The pampered defenders of a generous regime have little interest in philosophy and still less in meeting the objections of anyone to their right.