Two Great Americanists
The academic discipline of American political thought, now well-established as a part of political theory, is younger and newer than it seems. Until about the late 1960s, it was not a subject that would have occupied many scholars. Its advent, at least in its modern form, is owed to the work of a small cadre of professors of political philosophy and a revival of interest among historians in the thought to be found in the American political tradition.
The work of these scholars not only energized the emergence, or re-emergence, of an academic subfield, but it also quickly seeped into the consciousness of a broader readership. It has given shape, in turn, to a kind of philosophical-historical narrative about the American founding and the American nation that has proven enormously influential.
Some of these scholars lived to see their work gain meaningful influence, but two of the most important thinkers among them — Herbert Storing and Martin Diamond — have not quite gotten their due. Both were students of Leo Strauss and both died in 1977, before the revival of American political thought had really taken hold. But each contributed profoundly to our understanding of our heritage in ways that call for reflection and appreciation. And perhaps because it was cut off before really gaining a political valence, their work also reveals some deep and abiding tensions within the Straussian project of American political philosophy.
I was fortunate enough to know them both. Herbert Storing was my teacher, and also my friend. At the University of Chicago between 1964 and 1968, I took more courses from him than I can now give a quick count of. On rereading his works, I have had the experience of regularly coming upon some idea, some analysis, some insight I have for a long while considered my own, but lo and behold here it was, said by Storing long ago. I did not know Martin Diamond as well, though I had the privilege of hearing him lecture and could certainly see why he had been named one of the top college professors in America at one point in the 1960s. In my few personal dealings with him, I was charmed by his manner and wit, as was nearly everyone who encountered him.
But Storing and Diamond are important not only because they were great teachers and men of character and charm. They matter because they advanced our understanding of the foundations of American politics in ways that have proven deeply insightful and exceptionally significant. Their work charted paths and raised questions we would be wise to take up ourselves, perhaps now more than ever.
THE NEW YET OLD POLITICAL SCIENCE
When considering Diamond and Storing and their accomplishments, one must always take account of the elephant in the room: Leo Strauss. It may seem strange to call Strauss an elephant, for he was physically quite small and delicate. But he had a very large presence in the consciousness of his students. I recall an occasion when I heard Diamond speak at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. It was, as I remember it, a witty and thoughtful speech, very well received by the audience. Yet afterward, at a reception for him, Diamond was all anxiety. He was on his way to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, where he was to deliver this same talk to an audience including Strauss. Was this speech good enough to offer in the presence of his teacher?
In any case, Strauss the elephant must be mentioned because the largest public meaning and importance of the careers of Diamond and Storing was their role, along with a few other students of Strauss like Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns, in developing a new (or restoring an old) political science. The outlines of this new yet old political science were sketched by Strauss in places like the epilogue to Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, which was edited by Storing. There are a variety of ways of describing it: It is oriented toward opinion rather than behavior (unlike the dominant version of political science), and it is normative or evaluative through and through, for justice and related normative notions were always a major part of the opinions that political science ought to focus on.
Furthermore, although neither Diamond nor Storing (nor Strauss for that matter) used this language, the new-old political science also implicitly distinguished between behavior and action. The latter were human doings as shaped by human consciousness — of meanings, and of ends in particular. Action is opposed to behavior because behavior abstracts away the consciousness-infused dimension of human doings. Since action is the focus, opinions are understood to be not merely epiphenomena or superstructures covering over the infrastructural reality of behavior. The new-old political science does not accept the fact-value distinction or the sharp line between explaining and evaluating political events. Following Strauss's emphasis on the idea of regime, the new-old political science took political communities and individuals to be shaped by the larger political order, understood as the authority structure and the ground of authority in a given community.
But Diamond, Storing, Jaffa, and Berns sought to direct this new Straussian political science to a subject Strauss himself did not much take up. He focused on the history of political philosophy. They wanted to focus on its significance and instantiation in the life of their own country. The upshot was a political science that focused on America in ways that took political thought, political ideas, and the Constitution seriously and sought to explain what political action was, what it meant, and what it should be. For Diamond and Storing, this emphasis led them back to the American founding in a quest to explain American political development and to assess and guide political action.
Diamond and Storing differed from the other early students of Strauss who turned to the study of the American regime precisely in that they worked primarily (though in Storing's case hardly exclusively) on the founding. Their early work on the founding was instrumental in giving birth to, and in giving much greater prominence and respectability to, the fields of American constitutionalism and political thought — and to the revival of popular interest in the founders and their ideas.
We cannot give them sole credit for resuscitating the field of American political thought because, by one of those odd coincidences of history, there was a turn back toward the founding and American political thought occurring in our sister discipline of history at the very same time. Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn made a major splash with his book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution in 1967, followed very soon by the equally influential book The Creation of the American Republic by his student Gordon Wood.
Bailyn and Wood at Harvard shared with Diamond and Storing at Chicago a concern with political ideas. It would, however, be a mistake to overemphasize the similarities between the ways in which political science and history turned their gaze to American ideas, for the historians were historicists. They believed the thought of the past is firmly ensconced in its own time, can only with great difficulty be reached from some other time, and certainly cannot be lifted out of its time and brought to bear in ours. Nonetheless, in sometimes parallel or converging and sometimes conflicting lines, the Chicago and Harvard schools reoriented the study of the American founding era.
One place where, as already suggested, Chicago and Harvard diverged concerned the implications for the present of their respective inquiries into the past. The Chicago duo sought a "usable past," that is, an understanding or an orientation toward history that would be relevant to and could perhaps guide our contemporary politics. The Harvard duo and their ilk saw that aspiration as anathema to both the true or proper study of history and the true nature of historical reality.
But with regard to the study of the founding era, the Chicago and Harvard teams to a large degree agreed in opposing the previously prevailing approach to founding studies, which was associated with the so-called progressive historians. Among other things, the progressives took a very interest-based approach to the founding. They tended to dismiss all highfalutin rhetoric, whether in political theory or the niceties of English constitutional law, as so much obfuscation. The reality this jib-jawing covered over, they thought, was the role of interest, and in particular economic interest, in shaping the course of events.
In accord with their downplaying of interest, both the Harvard and Chicago schools broke with the progressive reading of the Constitution as an essentially counter-democratic enterprise aimed at taming the democratizing effects of the American Revolution itself (though Gordon Wood shared in the break with this progressive view to a lesser degree than the other three). And it was Diamond in particular who made one of the first and most important statements in the concerted effort to replace the progressive approach and findings.
UNDERSTANDING THE FOUNDERS
In effect, the progressive onslaught on the founding and the Constitution had three facets. First, progressive historians pointed to a collection of statements by members of the founding generation decrying the excesses of democracy and attributing the failures of the decade following the Revolution to the excessively vigorous embrace of democracy in the states. Second, they analyzed the Constitution itself to reveal its many anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic elements. Third, they (most notably Charles Beard) analyzed the economic interests of the various parties to the founding debates and concluded that the supporters of the Constitution were overwhelmingly to be the economic beneficiaries of the new political order.
Diamond first caught the eye of the profession in an article he published in the American Political Science Review in 1959, in which he delivered a harsh blow against the first two pillars of the progressives' temple of anti-constitutionalism. In retrospect, much of what Diamond had to say seems commonsensical, even obvious. It is true, he conceded, that one does find in the historical record many statements by founders expressing reservations about and finding fault with democratic institutions in the states or in ancient history. But he argued that these statements were being grossly misunderstood. The Americans were concerned about the deficiencies of democracy precisely because they were committed to a form of "popular republicanism," not because they were turning away from it.
The founders sought ways to make democracy more competent, effective, and just than it was proving itself to be in the states and had shown itself to be in places like Athens and Florence. They sought, as Diamond repeatedly emphasized, to find a republican or democratic remedy for all the defects to which democracy was prone. Their complicated system of federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, and so on were not means to produce governmental inaction and stalemate, as so many of the progressives claimed, but rather means to temper the passions without curtailing the power of majorities. They sometimes sought to delay the transformation of popular will into public policy, but not to deny that will its ultimate authority.
To support his interpretation of the aims of the founders, Diamond in that same article, and in other later ones, went to great pains to show that the features of the Constitution highlighted by its progressive critics were as little anti-democratic in practice as they were in intent. To take but one very important example, the extended republic and the multiplicity of interests that Madison advocated were meant to hinder the formation of bad (i.e., factious) majorities and to encourage the formation of good majorities. Many progressive scholars never got so far as to realize that Madison actually was favoring rule by majorities. But even among those who did, the scholarly embrace of the fact-value distinction led them to reject the Madisonian distinction between good and bad majorities as meaningless.
Not only did these scholars (like Robert Dahl) have a difficult time appreciating how the system might work to allow the one kind and prevent the other kind of majority from forming or being effective, but, more fundamentally, they dismissed the entire enterprise as conceptually illegitimate because it rested on a mere value judgment. Here Diamond's approach to the founding led him to understand what Madison was attempting, and his Strauss-taught rejection of the fact-value distinction led him to dismiss the progressive critique. Diamond's APSR article and related writings reoriented founding studies away from the idea that the founders and their Constitution were hostile to democracy and majorities. Diamond's insistence that their reservations about democracy were so important to them precisely because they did want representative institutions was enormously influential.
So we might say the first important achievement of Diamond and Storing's public careers was largely historical. They showed us how to understand the founders as they understood themselves, how to get out from under the progressive historical misconstruction of the founding and the Constitution, and thereby how to appreciate the founders in a truer, richer, and deeper way.
Their second great achievement built on the first. They were not seeking merely to be historians but to develop a political science suited to understanding and guiding contemporary American political life. This new political science was built on that of the founders, but also on the political science of Aristotle. They constructed an amalgam that deepened the study of American politics. But this amalgam contains a serious tension between the indigenous and the Aristotelian components, which leads in turn to serious problems and points to deeper unanswered questions inherent in the effort to construct a Strauss-inspired political science.
AN UNEASY AMALGAM
We can begin to explore this fascinating tension by considering Storing and Diamond in light of contemporary political categories. Like most people connected with Strauss in the 1960s, Diamond and Storing were associated with conservative politics, and both largely accepted that description of their views. But we must recall that both died in 1977 (another of those amazing coincidences of history), before Reagan Republicanism came to dominance. Although both might well have come to support Ronald Reagan, they were not at heart Reagan conservatives.
Neither, for example, would endorse Reagan's assertion that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Storing, in particular, while capable of being critical of government, saw real conservatism to be not Jeffersonian minimalism about government but the alternative articulated in Federalist No. 51: "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." First, the power and ability to govern; next, the limits on that power.
Thus, Diamond and Storing were conservatives, but they were not the sort of conservatives that we have become used to. It is completely unimaginable to me that they could support President Trump or even Senator Ted Cruz, who made his mark by shutting down the government. They were, in the words Paul Carrese used to describe Storing in a recent article in American Political Thought, moderates in all ways. They did not favor large dramatic moves that would usher in either a liberal paradise or a conservative Eden. They opposed many positions associated with the absolutist free-speech doctrines pioneered by Justice Hugo Black; they also resisted the larger experiments in egalitarianism sponsored by the liberals in the 1960s and '70s. But they never set up "the left" as agents of the devil, and sometimes even endorsed causes associated with the left.
They were, I suppose it is fair to say, neoconservatives. Certainly Diamond was, for he was often associated with thinkers of that tribe, and just as often highly praised by them. People like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, stalwart neoconservatives, are on record with extravagant praise for Diamond's work. In general, Diamond and Storing did not stand for anything radical or transformative. The president they were closest to was Gerald Ford — no utopian transformer of society. And they did not endorse one of the major planks of conservatism early and late: opposition to Big Government. Both of them, even the Madisonian Diamond, were actually devotees of Hamiltonianism, with its emphasis on big, powerful, and active national government.
Their instinctive conservatism led them in this direction because the kind of political science Storing and Diamond developed was made possible by a certain convergence between their two theoretical inspirations. Aristotle famously argued that all regimes have their imperfections and stand in need of correction. He particularly called attention to the tendency of every regime to go to the extreme of its own dominant character: Democracies tend toward extreme democracy, oligarchies toward extreme oligarchy. This is a most natural tendency, since the dominant element in a regime uses its control of political power to skew things even more in its own direction.
Much of Aristotle's political science turned on the insight that statesmanship does its work best by countering this natural tendency of regimes to become very one-sided versions of themselves. The advice Aristotle gave to political leaders was to move to the other side of the ship, lest moving in the direction in which it was leaning lead to capsizing. In this sense (as in others), Aristotle's political science was meant above all to be a means of moderating regimes, and it is in this sense that it can be viewed as conservative.
Storing and Diamond saw the American founders as embodying roughly the same principle. All the constitutional devices the progressives found to be insufficiently democratic were rather attempts to build in counterweights to the dominant democratic tendencies of the regime. As suggested above, these counterweights were understood by Storing and Diamond as evidence of the founders' primary commitment to a democratic or popular regime. They were counterweights precisely in the spirit of Aristotle: devices both to prevent the democratic element from running amok and sinking the ship of state, and to allow the government to achieve the level of competence and effectiveness that would enable the democratic regime to succeed.
One such device in particular is often insufficiently appreciated even by students of Diamond and Storing. Both of them noted the role of mediating bodies in the construction of constitutional institutions. First, the government was to be a representative system altogether. The founders spoke of entirely excluding the people in their collective capacities from governance, and Storing and Diamond both saw this as a great good. Then there were all the other elements of mediation by special groups of political men and indirect governance by the people. Thus the president was to be selected by a special kind of intermediate body, the Senate by other kinds of intermediate bodies, and the judges jointly by the indirectly selected president and the indirectly selected Senate. Indeed, Madison's innovative definition of republicanism was constructed so as to establish the legitimacy of this sort of indirection and mediation. As he put it in Federalist No. 39, "[W]e may define a republic to be...a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people."
Closely connected to this theme of intermediation is Storing's emphasis on the presidency as a very non-Jacksonian institution, deriving its strength and leadership role from the Constitution itself rather than from the office's connection to the people, as was almost universally held when Storing was developing his theory of the presidency.
Even though Diamond and Storing took many of their cues for the political science they developed from the founders, they were never blind followers or originalists in any literal sense. Their goal was to learn to think about politics (in part) from the founders, especially Hamilton and Madison, but they did not think the task was to think just what Hamilton and Madison thought.
Take the example of the Electoral College, a topic on which both wrote toward the very end of their lives. They both spoke out against the strong efforts in 1976-77 to abolish the Electoral College and replace it in the name of democracy and straight majoritarianism. They resisted this effort not by defending the institution as intended by the founders — that was a hopeless cause, for the Electoral College had not operated as had been hoped for in a very long time. But the rather similar defenses Diamond and Storing mounted were geared to the kinds of considerations the founders would have thought to be the right ones — the way the Electoral College controlled some of the possibly dangerous effects of a pure majoritarian system, how it worked to promote stability by supporting the two-party system, how it worked for a moderate politics by discouraging ideological polarization. Of course, if they had revisited the topic 30 years later, they might have needed to reconsider some parts of their case.
THE CHALLENGE OF EQUALITY
The degree to which our two subjects agreed in their political science appears in a posthumous essay by Storing in which he speaks of Diamond:
Martin Diamond spent much of his scholarly life trying to show that the framers' devotion to popular government was the devotion of a true friend, who sees the defects of his friend...and combats them so they should not destroy the thing he loves.... Democracy is a problem in the United States precisely because of the extent to which the people are made the ruler.
Storing endorses this argument as "altogether compelling."
But similar as the direction of their thinking was, it would be a mistake to believe that they agreed on all things. It is worth considering briefly a few places where they diverged, as these can also help us further clarify some problems with the political science they sought to put forward.
First, they looked in somewhat different directions when they looked back to the founding. Storing was an outright Hamiltonian. He is on record as saying Hamilton was the most thoughtful of the founding actors. Diamond in his earlier years looked much more to Madison and later took Tocqueville on board in a way Storing never did. This difference between them was muted to some degree by the very nationalist reading Diamond gave to Madison, thus drawing him much closer to Hamilton than a more historically accurate reading of Madison would allow.
Related to their respective founding heroes is the difference in the way they characterized the regime. Storing wrote a preface to Paul Eidelberg's book on the Constitution, a book that made the case for the constitutional order as a full-blown mixed regime. In his preface, Storing compared Diamond's construal of the regime with Eidelberg's: "[A]s between the argument that the framers intended to establish a democracy and the argument that they intended to establish a mixed regime, I am inclined to think that the latter is closer to the truth." This is a profoundly important claim, and it points to perhaps the major difference between Storing and Diamond.
For Storing, the deficiencies of democracy require being supplemented or corrected by recourse to a positive role for the few — thus his well-known effort to interpret the bureaucracy as a positive elitist device with legitimate bona fides in the political science of the founders. Diamond, on the other hand, accepted Madison's analysis whereby the threat par excellence to the health of a popular republic lay in majority tyranny. Hence, Diamond always suggested that Madison's argument for the capacity of the extended republic to solve the problem of majority tyranny was the crown jewel of the founders' political science.
Storing was never such an enthusiast for the solution offered by Federalist No. 10, and he tended to understand its importance differently. For Storing, the effects of the extended republic were more like those of representation. As part of a commitment to commerce, economic growth, and differentiation, Storing saw the extended republic as a device for further "privatizing" the citizen body. The commercial sphere, fostered by the large market area of the extended republic, would attract the attention of citizens and pull them away from political activity and engagement. It would contribute to the self-exclusion of the people from governance, a result Storing saw to have some (albeit not entirely) positive implications for political health.
And this difference of opinion pointed even deeper. When Storing looked to the few to supplement the many, he was acting on the basis of an insight he claimed to take from Strauss:
Strauss made his students confront the enemies of liberal democracy — not only its modern enemies but also the more far-reaching criticism of the thinkers of classical antiquity who denied that men are equal in the crucial respects.
Diamond also made some surprisingly strong statements about inequality. As he says in an essay on education, "The principle of democracy is equality. The deepest principle of human existence is inequality." Democracy — the founders' regime, as he always emphasized — is at war with human nature.
Both men were responding to the expressed view of Strauss, their teacher. In the latter's Natural Right and History appears the following claim:
Since men are then unequal in regard to human perfection, i.e., in the decisive respect, equal rights for all appeared to the classics as most unjust. They contended that some men are by nature superior to others and therefore, according to natural right, the rulers of others.
Diamond and Storing's affirmations of inequality are clearly direct descendants of this passage in Strauss and of the broader classical political science Strauss was attempting to revive. But if, as I have suggested, Diamond and Storing were attempting to develop a political science that amalgamated indigenous American sources and Aristotle, then it is abundantly clear that that amalgam is beset with a large inconsistency — one of its sources builds on the claims that "all men are created equal" and equal rights for all is the standard of justice, while the other foundationally rejects those claims.
This tension persists beneath the surface of the political science of Diamond and Storing and points to the difficulty of generating a Straussian political science of the sort they were aiming at. The problems are deeper than the tendencies of democracies to fall short in the various ways that constitutional architecture might attempt to remedy.
It is of great interest to see how Diamond and Storing attempted to cope with this deeper problem of developing a political science true to the American commitment to equality and at the same time advancing the classical view of inequality. Although I cannot trace this out here — I have to some degree done so in other writings on the two — I would say that this deep tension was understood by both men to be a problem, and with increasing clarity as their careers progressed. So we find in Storing's late piece on "Slavery and the Moral Foundations of the American Republic" that "American Negro Slavery, in this ironic and terrible sense, can be seen as a radicalization of the principle of individual liberty on which the American polity was founded." Likewise, we see elsewhere in the later Storing writings some expressions of serious doubt about the American doctrine of rights and a stronger emphasis on the desirable role of the few in governance, as in his late essay on statesmanship.
At the same time, Diamond was working to resolve the tension in a different way. Diamond ought to be considered (as I have argued elsewhere) the founder of "Midwest Straussianism," a version of Straussian political science that reveals a disenchantment with classical philosophy and is more at peace with modernity. That is to say, these two students of Strauss and the American founders seemed to be moving in quite different directions at the time of their deaths, with Storing moving more toward the Aristotelian component and Diamond toward the American component.
Whether that tendency would have continued had they lived is anybody's guess. But it has persisted in some important ways in the legacy they left, and in the study of American political thought which they did so much to revive and to develop.