🎧 Robert P. George on Free Speech, Philosophical Liberalism, and Conservatism After Trump
Yascha Mounk and Robert P. George discuss how America can mediate deep moral disagreements among its citizens.
Robert P. George is an American legal scholar and political philosopher. The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, George is considered one of the foremost conservative intellectuals in America, and advocates a theory of natural law consistent with Catholic belief. With Cornel West, he authored a statement on “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Robert P. George discuss the political philosophy of John Rawls, why democratic republics can’t function without free speech, and what relevance the first principles of conservatism do or don't retain today.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You've been writing and talking a lot about free speech and the threats to it on campus, but also in American public life more broadly. How would you describe the current situation and why should we care about it?
Robert P. George: The current situation is one in which people in general—including people on college campuses, not only students, but faculty, not only untenured (and therefore, in a certain sense, insecure) faculty, but tenured faculty who are secure—are censoring themselves. All the studies that have been done on this subject reveal that people are not saying what they truly believe, or not raising certain questions they'd like to ask, because they fear the social or professional consequences of “saying the wrong thing,” or saying the right thing in “the wrong” way. Well, this, in my opinion, is terrible for institutions of higher learning, colleges and universities. It makes it impossible for us to prosecute our fundamental mission, the mission of pursuing knowledge of truth, but it's also terrible for a democratic republic. In a democratic republic, the whole idea is that the people rule themselves. We're not ruled by a king. We're not ruled by an aristocracy or oligarchy. We rule ourselves. Now, if we're to rule ourselves well, make good decisions, come up with the best plans for addressing our problems and doing justice, we're going to have to freely consider what's to be said on the competing sides of the various proposals. In any circumstance of freedom, reasonable people of goodwill are going to disagree about some things, including some important things.
As you probably know, I've made something of a career of being a critic of the so-called political liberalism of John Rawls and those associated with that school. But I think he was absolutely right on what he called the fact of “reasonable pluralism” in circumstances of freedom. Reasonable people of goodwill will find themselves disagreeing about things, and those things will not be confined to the trivial and superficial matters of life. They will include important things, important practical decisions, important decisions about what's right and wrong, just and unjust. To make those decisions well, we have to be able to seek the truth as best we can, and speak the truth as best we can, and put on the table all that's to be said on the competing sides of these questions on which reasonable people of goodwill disagree. So I think the situation is rather dire when people are censoring themselves or not saying what they believe or not even asking certain questions. You can't run academic institutions that way. You can't run a democratic republic that way.
Mounk: When I came to the United States as a graduate student—I started my PhD in 2007—I felt that we could play with ideas and try and seek the truth in a way that didn't have any attendant fears, and which was well-intentioned, where we tried to understand what people truly think about the world. I certainly didn't feel that if I somehow offended somebody or expressed myself poorly, that might have dire personal or professional consequences for me. And now that seems to be a fear that a lot of people feel all the time.
George: Things perceptibly changed in about 2015-16. That's at least when I began to notice that students were somewhat unwilling to speak their minds, or put proposals on the table in class discussion that would run contrary to the dominant view on campus. It wasn't like that before. I arrived at Princeton fresh out of graduate school in 1986. I had no perception that students were having any qualms about expressing their opinions, even if their opinions were out of line with the majority opinion of other students in those days. That really continued for, what, two and a half more decades? But around 2015-17, it really began to shift. In 2017, Cornel West and I were moved—in part on the basis of our teaching experience, individually and together—to put out a statement called “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.” And we were moved to put out that statement precisely because we were perceiving this self-censorship, people now experiencing a kind of tyranny of orthodoxy. And it was really impeding our work as teachers, and we also feared it was impeding the proper functioning of our democratic republic.
A lot of young people feel pressure not only to conform their own speaking and thinking to a dominant orthodoxy. They feel pressure to become part of a mob that attacks somebody else who questions a dominant orthodoxy. They fear that they will be looked at askance, that they will be or become suspect, if they don't participate in the howling of the mob. And I think they're even internalizing it in some cases, they will fear that unless they jump on the bandwagon and add their voices to the demands that this person be fired or expelled or whatever it is, that they will be bad people; that if I were a good person, I would be calling for Professor ‘X’ to have his tenure revoked, or I'd be calling for this fellow student to be subjected to discipline in the college disciplinary system or something like that. This is extremely worrying to me.
Mounk: I think one of the most worrying elements of this culture is things like people getting into trouble for liking a tweet or something like that—not active, but passive expression of opinion. And then in an even more extreme circumstance, this idea of silence being violence, which is to say, “No, the fact that you did not actively speak out on this particular issue makes you somehow morally open to question,” which I do think leads to this perceived need to vocally support whatever the majority opinion is, at any one time.
George: That's absolutely right. Ordinary authoritarians are content to forbid people from saying things they believe to be true. Totalitarians aren't content with that, they take the additional step of forcing people to say things they don't believe are true. And we have moved from that authoritarian impulse to the totalitarian impulse in too many sectors.
Mounk: You mentioned earlier work of John Rawls, and I wanted to get a little bit more into detail about that. You are a defender of liberal democracy, of constitutional republics. But you believe that the way in which political philosophers have traditionally defended them, at least in the last fifty or so years and in the Anglo-American world, is mistaken in important ways. What do you think the right defense of these systems of government is and why is it that a lot of philosophical liberals—according to you—get that wrong?
George: I made my early career as a critic of the sort of liberalism that was championed by John Rawls; he was the greatest figure in that tradition. But there were other very distinguished exponents of that approach. One of my own teachers, Ronald Dworkin, and many, many others. I have great respect for that tradition. The preface to my first book Making Men Moral begins with an expression of respect for that tradition and for the work of its great figures. I think John Rawls was a very great thinker. I happen to see things differently, but I don't think he was an idiot or a fool, or that that tradition is just foolishness and silliness. I think there are important truths in the tradition, important principles, and ideas that are to be learned from and not simply dismissed, certainly not denigrated. But I do have objections. I have reasons for thinking that approach is wrong. Well, what is the approach? The approach is to conceive justice as fairness. What does it mean to do justice? It's to be fair. Now I agree that fairness is an element of justice. I think it's part of the picture, but it's not the whole story. I side with the Greeks of antiquity in believing that justice is giving each his due, which will include fairness of treatment, but may include more than that. But they begin from the proposition that justice is fairness. That's where Rawls begins.
Mounk: How is the way in which Rawls and his followers understood fairness more limited than how you want to understand justice, as giving each their due?
George: I think that'll be clear if we look at the devices and mechanism for choosing principles of justice. The mechanism, as you know, is to imagine ourselves in what he calls the “original position.” And in the original position, we are behind what he calls a “veil of ignorance.” Behind the veil, we know nothing about what makes us different from anyone else. We know nothing of what an older tradition of metaphysics would call “accidental properties.” We don't know whether we're white or black or Asian, male or female. We don't know whether we're poor or rich. We don't know whether we're Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, unbelieving—anything about ourselves that might make us different from anybody else. All we know about ourselves are the things we know all human beings have in common, what Rawls calls the “primary goods”—the things that everyone wants, no matter what else they want: self respect, more opportunity rather than less, more wealth rather than less and so forth. Now, behind that veil of ignorance in the original position, we’re ideally situated to do justice as fairness, because we're going to be choosing principles of justice to govern in the well-ordered society that we ourselves are prepared to live in, when we come out from behind the veil, and discover who we are.
Now, of course, some of Rawls’s critics think he's helping himself to some assumptions here about human psychology that are not universally shared. But he thinks, since people are fairly risk-averse, that we would choose two basic principles. And then all of our civil liberties and our ideas about how government and other institutions should be organized will be based on these principles. One is that we should all have the maximum liberty consistent with a like liberty for all. And two, sometimes called the “maximin principle,” or the difference principle, is that inequalities in society are tolerable only to the extent that efforts to eradicate those inequalities or ameliorate them would actually hurt the worst off people in society. Whether he's right about whether those principles would be chosen depends on whether you think he's right about some aspects of human psychology, such as risk aversion; but he's certainly right that whatever principles would be chosen in the artificial conditions of the original position would be fair in the sense that they wouldn't be unfair. There would be no bias there. No bias could enter because I don't know anything about myself that would make me different from anyone else. This is what's ingenious about it. And he was a brilliant man, a man from whom even critics like myself or Michael Sandel or Alistair McIntyre can learn and have learned.
Now, essential to this whole view is what Rawls calls and embraces as “anti-perfectionism,” which is the idea that government decisions, especially those having to do with constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, most especially those that limit liberty in this way or that, should not be made on the basis of controversial ideas about what makes for or detracts from a valuable and morally worthy way of life. This is sometimes referred to as the idea of “liberal neutrality”—what we have to figure out is the right ordering of society, what rights people have, irrespective of what their conception of the good is. And this is where critics, not just me, but many others have expressed their grave doubts.
Mounk: I think today, when we debate about Rawls, when we think about his lasting contribution, the difference principle is discussed much less, because what's at the center of our debates today is much more a question of how you deal with the fact of a diverse society, where people have very different religious and political beliefs, and they somehow have to sustain the common scheme of what you would call “social cooperation.” And so the question then shifts to not, “Can we derive this economic set of principles from the original position?” but, “Can we derive the right set of views about how to mediate between people with fundamentally different conceptions of what the good life is?” Now one criticism I often hear about Rawls, often from people who are less sophisticated than his main critics, is something like, “Well, look, the problem of liberals is that they just don't care about religion. They don't understand it or see how fundamentally important it is to the citizens of a lot of contemporary democracies, and so they’re dismissive of the kind of duties that it imposes on people who have these deep beliefs.” I do not come from religious tradition, but I recognize that as a big mistake, and we should be respectful towards the deeply held religious beliefs a lot of our fellow citizens have.
But the way that I understand liberalism would be to say, “No, it starts precisely from the fact of the importance of those religious beliefs. That is precisely why this is such a hard problem, because we know that so many of our fellow citizens have very strong commitments in this respect, and that they may disagree with each other. We need to have a set of policies that are guided broadly speaking by something like the right rather than the good—which is to say by a set of regulative principles about how we can deal with each other, rather than by agreement about what actually is worthwhile in the world—precisely because we have such fundamental disagreements about these questions. And therefore, the state shouldn't prescribe to citizens how they should live. We need to figure out a set of rules, which to the maximum extent possible allows each citizen to be true to their conscience and their religious beliefs, even though their neighbor may have completely different convictions and compulsions.” How do you respond to that kind of defense of liberalism?
George: There's a whole lot there. First, you're right that much of the discussion of Rawls in the immediate aftermath of the publication of his book A Theory of Justice in 1971 had to do with the difference principle and questions of distributive justice. But even then, there were people who, though finding that question interesting, also thought we needed some attention to the liberty principle. Those tend to be people like myself, who were interested in fundamental questions of civil liberty and equality, and the proper design of institutions of government. So the debate has really, from the beginning, concerned both questions. But it was the latter that engaged me more intensely. And Rawls is addressing a really important question for anybody. Whether you're an anti-perfectionist like him or you're perfectionist like myself and Sandel, we all have to come up with a way of figuring out how we live together despite deep differences, because we all think Rawls is right on the fact of reasonable pluralism. If you have freedom, especially religious freedom, freedom of speech, fundamental civil liberties, there are going to be differences of opinion and they won't be restricted to the trivial and minor and superficial things of life. They will reach the most profound and important questions. Here's the problem we critics have with Rawls. His way of solving the problem would be great if you could do it Rawls’s way. That is, if you could really avoid smuggling into your prescriptions ideas about the human good. But that is where we think Rawls and the other anti-perfectionists ultimately failed. You find that anti-protectionist liberalism can't deliver on its promise to prescind from these fundamental questions of the human good.
And the best and easiest example is even trying to decide whose interests count for those in the original position: who are choosing the principles of justice? Should it include the severely cognitively disabled? Should it include the unborn, or the newly born? What about certain non-human animals that have certain intellectual capacities? And that just begins the question. So, when we see the actual prescriptions, we see, formally, considerations of these deep, profound issues, issues that go beyond just selecting fair principles. In theory, formally, they're excluded. But in practice they’re brought in because they have to be brought in, when push comes to shove. And that's because I think our basic ideas about rights are shaped by some fundamental conceptions about the good. And so this is why I think Rawls is not only wrong on this point, but he has it exactly backwards. The good is prior to the right. Our conceptions of the right and rights like the right to freedom of speech—its contours, its limits, its content—will be shaped in part by your conception of the human good, if you believe as I believe that a fundamental irreducible intrinsic aspect of human well-being and fulfillment (I'm sounding Aristotelian here because I am one) is truth and truth seeking, the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge of truth, then your argument for free speech will draw on that understanding of the good of truth seeking that is served precisely by free speech.
Mounk: There are questions, as you point out, about people who are human, but who don't have full human capacities, whether that is the unborn, very young children, or people who are severely mentally disabled. And so when you have to have a set of substantive moral deliberations about who gets to count as part of the moral circle, who is owed the status of a full member of this society with all the duties and rights that come with that, you might say, once you have answered that question, once you have figured out who is a member of the society, then you should indeed act in accordance with principles of right rather than the good. Which to say you should ensure that you treat all of those members of the society as full moral equals, which means that the state should not have a particular view as to which of their conceptions of how to live life takes precedence over another, and should therefore have a goal to enable each of them to lead the lives in the most self-determined way possible—obviously, with the constraint that they cannot go around telling other people how to live.
George: I just don't think it works. Interestingly—but to me, not surprisingly—you don't find anti-perfectionist liberals out there in the vanguard defending Joe Rogan or Brett Weinstein or Heather Heying, or people like that. I wouldn't expect it and it's not what we're seeing. I think that we really have no choice in the end but to debate issues of free speech on perfectionist terms. It is true that when you do it that way, there will be people whose perfectionism produces for them different results than mine produces for me. Mine will produce civil libertarian results when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of religion and so forth. Others will say that for the sake of religious truth, we can't have religious freedom, we need the state to be empowered to enforce religious doctrines. Some people will say, “No, for the sake of truth, we can't have people denying truths about science, or truths about psychology or society.”
I'm not saying that no perfectionist case can be made against civil liberties. I'm saying that a more powerful perfectionist case can be made for civil liberties. It's this question of where you think the argument should take place—on perfectionist terms, or does anti-perfectionism enable us to parachute out of those difficult questions of what really is good or how the good can best be served? And this is why I've sometimes described Rawls as “heroic.” I think it's a failure, but it’s a spectacular one. And it's heroic because it has such a grand aim of enabling us to get out of the most difficult sorts of arguments, the ones about the nature of the good and how it's best served. We can maybe escape all that. And we can just have a formal principle or set of principles that will excuse us from the tough stuff. That's heroic, but it doesn't work. It'll always end up smuggling perfectionist principles in—not in bad faith. I think when we find it in Rawls’s work, like in his famous footnote about abortion, no matter where you are on the issue, you realize Rawls is really making some perfectionist assumptions. He's in good faith. He's not cheating. But he's failing to see that he's smuggling in precisely the kinds of controversial opinions that anti-perfectionism and his whole apparatus is meant to avoid or exclude.
Mounk: Assuming that we buy your case for a perfectionist liberalism—
George: —Well, the word “liberalism” is so indeterminate now and its meaning is used by so many people in so many different ways to mean so many different things. I've always thought of myself as a conservative, not a liberal. But many of my civil libertarian beliefs, my liberal friends, at least those who are still old fashioned liberals, say, “Well, that's us. You're one of us.” And sometimes my really conservative friends say, “You're a liberal.” But my views haven't changed on these issues since I first published them in 1993, when my book was regarded as a full attack on liberalism. So I don't know, am I a liberal? I can't tell. I'm sitting here doing my work thinking what I'm thinking, and one minute, they call me a conservative and the next minute they call me a liberal.
Mounk: Well I can't answer that existential crisis for you. But let's say this: You're a strong believer in civil liberties, including free speech, and you're obviously a believer in what you may call a democratic republic, what I would call a liberal democracy. What is the perfectionist case for those? And how in particular can people who recognize that we will never agree about the most fundamental moral issues figure out how to treat each other within the realm of laws?
George: Among the things we argue about when we argue about the good is what liberties are needed to protect the most basic forms of goods, those goods that are not merely instrumental goods, but are ends in themselves, intrinsic goods, things that it's reasonable to want for their own sake and not merely as means to other ends. Knowledge itself, for example—while it can have a lot of practical instrumental value, I believe that it's most fundamentally of intrinsic value. Friendship—being genuinely willing to go to the other for the sake of the other. So we're going to have to think hard about trying to learn from each other about what liberties need to be in place if those goods are to be protected and advanced.
Again, I point to Mill, while rejecting his utilitarianism, as an example of a sound way of arguing for a basic civil liberty—in this case, freedom of speech. Now, will there be objections? Absolutely. I've thought a lot about them. I've thought about whether those objections, in fact, have merit. And I've concluded that they don't. There are reasonable people of goodwill who disagree with me about that. At the end of the day, we need a political procedure for deciding policy questions that need to be decided one way or another, where we have these debates. I think it's best to have a democratic republic where people can communicate with each other and participate and thus be and feel vested in the decisions that will govern them. The other thing I like about democratic republics is that there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers. I may lose the debate today. I might even lose it decisively—by lose the debate I mean, lose the election or lose the resolution of the matter in the forms of deliberative democracy. My view doesn't get made into policy; the view I oppose gets made into policy. But I can always come back. I can always say to my fellow citizens, “We've got some experience with this. Now we made a mistake. We should go back and reconsider this. We can start a movement, question it.” And there's where civil liberties are important. We can't just have a democracy. I think the American Founders were right. Democracy is not the way to go. A republic with powerful democratic elements, a democratic republic, is the way to go, but not a pure, straight up, straight on, unmediated democracy.
I think there have to be civil liberties that are in place, some of which have to do with our participation, our rights of participation. The late John Hart Ely, another great figure from the recent past, has written a book called Democracy and Distrust, which I assign every year in my course on constitutional interpretation—a book I don't entirely agree with, but makes some very important, powerful, and I think true points about the need to protect, as civil liberties, basic participation rights in the political system. It's for the good. I'd make a perfectionist argument for that kind of democratic participation, and those rights of democratic participation.
I echo a point here that was made by Pope John Paul II: the value of democracy comes, in part, because it recognizes the radical equality of human beings. I'm now embracing a very controversial point of view, and that is that human beings are fundamentally equal; that we all, simply in virtue of our humanity, are bearers of profound, inherent and equal dignity, whatever our differences are in strength, beauty, intelligence, athletic prowess, skill, whatever those differences are; however much they make legitimate certain ways of treating people differently—hiring professional athletes or university faculty or whatever—in the most fundamental sense, we're all radically equal. Even the demented or drug-addicted or alcoholic homeless woman, living under a bridge barely aware of who she herself is, smelly, difficult, accosting people who come by, shouting at people, being a complete nuisance—that person is the equal in fundamental worth and dignity to Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, Meryl Streep, or Kathleen Battle. That's a controversial, radical notion, but it's one I believe.
Mounk: You said something which I think really speaks to the case for free speech from a more comparative politics or instrumental perspective, which is that when you lose an election or a debate about a policy in a democracy, you can always keep making the case for your point of view. And one of the things I worry about is the losers of a particular political battle, or often, the losers of cultural battles who may have won a political election, but don't have influence in the most powerful institutions of society like corporations and tech companies and so on. When they start to feel like, “If I lose this, I'm not even going to be able to speak up,” it immediately escalates the stakes of politics, because it precisely takes away the ability to say, “Look, I don't like the prevailing culture, I don't like the kinds of things people say, or the kinds of plotlines we see in movies. But I can always make the case for my position, I might always be able to assemble the necessary coalition to win the next election.” I think when people start to think like that, it escalates the stakes of politics in a way that we all should be very worried about.
George: That is really such an important point. What it helps to explain is the concept of the “Flight 93 Election.” That is the idea that “This is it. If we lose this one, it's all over, we're crushed under the heel of the oppressor. We now live in tyranny and our basic rights to ever question or reform will be gone. So now we have to win by any means necessary.” That's dangerous to a democratic republic, if people feel they're in that position.
Mounk: I'd love to get into that essay by Michael Anton and the embrace of Trumpism that it pioneered among the conservative movement, but before we get that, what exactly is your case for free speech? It sounds to me like ultimately, you have a perfectionist case for the need for free speech. I would love to hear a three-minute version of that.
George: Yes, it's articulated in the final chapter of my first book. It provides a perfectionist case, going one-by-one through the classic basic civil liberties: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and so forth.
With respect to speech, it's most fundamentally the importance of truth and truth seeking. When I was a sophomore in college, I was persuaded of a position that I'd never even considered before, which is that the truth has intrinsic as well as instrumental value. In fact, its most fundamental value is its intrinsic value, which is not to deny that it has important instrumental value as well. But I became convinced that it was a basic, irreducible, constitutive aspect of the meaning and fulfillment of human beings: as rational creatures, as thinking beings, as agents. So that makes me want to know the conditions that have to be in place for people to look for the truth and find it. Well, they need to be free to look for the truth. They need to be free to speak the truth as best they understand the truth, subject to revision in light of counter-argument and evidence and reasons that critics might have. But you can't be a truth seeker, much less a truth speaker, if your speech—your right to think for yourself, to inquire, to express your views, to engage with others to put your ideas on the table—is restricted. I think that's the essence of the case for free speech. And it's important in a lot of areas, including economic matters. But it's really important with institutions whose whole reason for being is truth-seeking: universities, colleges, research institutes. And it's really important in government, in politics—not exclusively, but especially when you have a democratic republic, where the people are supposed to rule themselves and make good decisions for themselves.
Now, you have to recognize that when you allow free speech, the demagogues have got it the same as the statesman. Huey Long has it just as much as Abraham Lincoln does. And here I'm operating on what you might call either a “bet” or “faith.” I prefer to think of it as faith but it's not certain either way. My bet, or faith, is that truth has a certain power and luminosity. That doesn't guarantee that it will win out every time. What it does mean is that we are more likely to get to it or nearer to it—grasp it a bit more fully—in circumstances of freedom than we are in circumstances where everyone is required to conform to a particular point of view, and where the institutions of society and we ourselves reinforce each other in what we already believe. In academia, groupthink and conformist culture are much too common, as you know, and I can tell you it is toxic to truth-seeking.
Freedom doesn't mean you're going to get the truth. You might get things really profoundly wrong in circumstances of freedom. But I consider those circumstances much healthier for the truth-seeking enterprise than when those circumstances disappear, even if it's not because of course of laws or rules. A university might have great free speech rules. But if the culture is a culture of groupthink and conformism, that is absolutely toxic to the truth seeking process. Nobody learns anything. People are reinforced in what they believe whatever they happen to believe. A lot of what we believe at any particular moment—what right now, every human being on Earth, right this moment, has in his or her head—is wrong. That's because we're fallible, of course. We're going to get some things wrong, but our only hope of moving from false beliefs in any particular domain to true ones—swapping out the false ones, getting rid of them and getting some true beliefs in their place—is if we allow ourselves to be challenged, and if we're in conditions where we are challenged, and eventually able, at least, to challenge ourselves. My real goal for my students and myself is to get ourselves to the point where we're not only open to the challenge from others, but we're willing to be our own best critics, to be self-critical to challenge ourselves.
Mounk: While you were making this impassioned defense for free speech, I was thinking, ironically, of a Rawlsian concept, which is that of the “overlapping consensus.” I'm very glad to share this perfectionist case for free speech with my listeners, which I'm attracted to. I am torn as to whether it's my own case for free speech. But what we actually need in order to sustain free speech is for each person to come to a principled belief in free speech for their own reasons. And politically speaking, there is, I think, no problem with having a coalition of people who believes in free speech for perfectionist reasons, or for reasons for them are rooted in the philosophical-liberal tradition of Rawls, or for perhaps just hard-headed political reasons (like one I pointed out about the negative consequences for political peace and stability, of not having free speech). In a way, this is one of those circumstances in which, as American lawyers like to say, it makes sense to “throw a lot of shit against the wall and see what sticks.” Because we can sort of join arms as principled defenders of free speech, even if we each have slightly different accounts of what gets us there.
George: That's the reality out there right now, actually, if you look at who the defenders of free speech are, and if you look at where the threats to free speech are coming from. In either of those cases, it's not all on one side of the ideological or philosophical spectrum. That's interesting. There are threats to free speech from both the right and the left. There are great defenses of free speech coming from both people on the right and people on the left. They're coming from people who are old-fashioned Lockean or Rawlsian liberals. Not all utilitarians are defenders of free speech, obviously, but some are, in that tradition of Mill. Aristotelians, like myself. People of different religious backgrounds. There's a very interesting phenomenon out there right now. Weird coalitions have formed.
I'm glad you mentioned Rawls’s overlapping consensus because it reminds us that Rawls himself again, to his very great credit, shows you that he was an exemplary philosopher and I, even as a strong critic, love to say that, because he took on board serious criticism.
Mounk: As a last question, I want to go back to your mention of the Flight 93 Election essay by Michael Anton, which I think was a crucial moment in persuading a lot of movement conservatives who were quite critical of Donald Trump to embrace his candidacy in 2016. And it now feels as though Trump is very much in control not only of the Republican Party as represented in Congress, but also of the conservative movement as represented in institutions like CPAC. You remain quite optimistic, as I understand it, about the future of a conservatism that opposes Trump or is able to distance itself from him. What's the conservative case against Trump and what is the case for a conservative future after him?
George: Well, it seems to me that conservatism should go back to its first principles. When any tradition goes into crisis, the thing it needs to do is to go back to its first principles and see whether we still believe them.
Do we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Do we? Conservatives used to. I still do. Now, are we honoring that principle or other basic principles like the importance of the institutions of civil society. Or the importance of limited government—not simply, although this is part of the picture, to protect individual rights and prerogatives and judgments, but also to protect the institutions of civil society, which should have the primary role (at least we conservatives have always thought they should have the primary role) in delivering health, education and welfare and imparting to each new generation, the values, virtues, and life skills necessary to lead successful lives and be productive citizens? How should we think about our nation's exceptionalism? Conservatives used to be for American exceptionalism. It was a first principle, one of the core principles. Well, exceptionalism means this: We're not a nation, like other nations that are built on, or the unity of whose citizens is integrated around, blood and soil or throne and altar. And the way that played out historically in the United States was that anybody from anywhere could become an American. Because being an American is not a matter of blood and soil. It's not a matter of having the right religion, not a matter of having the right ethnicity or race. We have a terrible history of racism, beginning with slavery, but our formal principles, at least, our exceptionalism, was based on the idea that anybody could be an American.
All you need to do is sign up for citizenship, agree to meet the requirements for it, fulfill your obligations as a citizen, sign on to the American creed, the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. Do we still believe that? I do. I also think that can still be sold to people, whether they count themselves as conservatives or not, including a lot of people who see Donald Trump as the only hope because they're in “Flight 93 mode.” And we could go into other questions of economic policy, foreign policy, defense, and so forth, and I would still be asking myself the same question. Let's look at our first principles as conservatives—I would say, as Americans—do we still believe them? If we do, what are the implications for how we should conduct ourselves? What policies should we support with respect, say, to immigration, to the institutions of civil society, the family, the church, the neighborhood association, and so forth? Decentralization, federalism, the limited powers of the national government under the theory of the Constitution—I want to get back to all that. That to me is what conservatism is about and more fundamentally, that to me is what the American idea is all about. That’s what sound political theory in a democratic republic is all about.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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