In our monotonous beige office block, two floors up from the Escape Salon in Claremont, we opened the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday morning and found this story glaring at us above the fold on the front of the "Living" section: "Claremont Institute's Mission: Conservative."
On the whole, it's a pretty fair story. Conservatives tend to be skeptical of journalists, especially if they hail from major metropolitan dailies with notoriously liberal biases. The writer, Reed Johnson, paid our office a visit two weeks ago and spent four hours or so with President Thomas B. Silver and Distinguished Fellow Harry V. Jaffa discussing what it is that we do here.
Johnson took a few pokes here and there ("pointy-headed contrarians," etc.). But we can hardly disagree when he describes our staff as "a scrappy cadre of a few dozen men and women with a singular, uncompromising mission: to remake American politics in the sacrosanct image set down by our Founding Fathers"; or when he calls our organization "an island of passionate scholarship and aggressive op-ed penmanship . . . [that] lies somewhere to the right of George W. Bush politically, and thousands of miles leeward of the Beltway policy-industrial complex."
President Silver summed up our mission to the reporter this way: "We want to overthrow the reigning orthodoxy . . . and we want to, somewhere along the line, train a Franklin Roosevelt who will then overthrow the New Deal."
"So, apart from the fact that we have to overthrow modern liberalism and modern conservatism, I think we're in pretty good shape," Silver said.
Some readers may be confused by that last statement. The Times story doesn't fully explain it. The Claremont Institute is, after all, a conservative (albeit non-partisan) organization. Why, then, would we want to overthrow "modern conservatism"?
The Institute has earned a reputation over the last couple of decades for being almost as tough even tougher on our friends as on our putative enemies. "We make common cause where we can make common cause," Silver told the Times reporter, "but we don't pull our punches."
Our job our duty is to correct error, wherever it may occur. Many conservatives do not understand America as well as they should. They either do not understand the principles upon which our republic was founded, or they simply reject those principles.
And just what are those principles exactly? As long-time readers of Precepts probably know, we believe they are summed up in the Declaration of Independence, which says, in part:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. . . .
That statement is at odds with elite opinion of our day, which objects to such words as "life," (anti-choice!) "men," (sexist!) and "truth"" (what truth?). But many conservatives wince at the word "equal." For them, it evokes a vulgar egalitarianism, utopian schemes, fantasies of equality of result, rather than equality of opportunity, or the equality of citizens before the law.
We agree with the likes of Robert Bork that modern liberals have given equality a bad name. But where Judge Bork and others on the right would heave the very idea of equality into the furnace, we would save it from those who have corrupted and made a shambles of it.
As Harry Jaffa, the intellectual godfather of the Claremont Institute, has written,
The idea of Equality, as expressed in the Declaration, is the key to the morality of 'the laws of nature and of nature's God.' It is this natural law which the Constitution and the regime [or government] of which the Constitution is a feature is designed to implement.
That was the belief of Jefferson and of Lincoln, of Coolidge and of Reagan. But you will be hard-pressed to find it taught in our nation's schools or institutions of higher learning. Our country has become detached from the Spirit of '76. While some conservatives scoff at equality, liberals reject self-evident truths in favor of "progress." Government, rather than securing rights, becomes an instrument of social justice. Because there is no limit on progress, there can be no limit on government.
Overthrowing the conventional political wisdom cannot be done in a day, or a week, or even a year. We've been at this fight for more than 20 years. But we do not despair. We have many friends, some in high places. We have attracted a number of bright young students over the years through programs such as the Publius and Lincoln Fellowships. We have made inroads to the academy through our panels at the American Political Science Association and other conferences. We have begun to counter the revisionism taught in the schools through our websites, such as Founding.com and Rediscovering George Washington. We are waging the battle of ideas head on with liberal journals of opinion through our new flagship publication, The Claremont Review of Books.
And we could not do any of it without the help of some 30,000 members. For that we are grateful, and hope we can count on your continued support.