Who are the “Straussians”?

I’ve received several emails over the years asking me to explain what I mean by the “Straussians.”

With the theme of “myths” this week, I thought it was a good time to go into more detail.

The Straussians are a particular type of American conservative based on the teachings of Leo Strauss through perhaps his most important student, Harry Jaffa.

Jaffa became somewhat of a star in the post-World War II conservative movement when he began challenging traditional American conservatives on the War, Lincoln, and the ambiguous term “equality.”

While never directly stating this as his primary motive, it became clear that Jaffa and other “conservatives” worried that American conservatism was intertwined with segregation, racism, and the ghosts of slavery, and thus mainstream Americans would consistently reject traditional conservatives once the Civil Rights Movement had become ingrained in American society.

Nixon may have won with a “Southern strategy” designed to blunt the influence of someone like George Wallace, a man William Buckley hated calling a “conservative”, but the Civil Rights movement had also helped produce Kennedy and Johnson and the Leftist “treasury of virtue.”

To Jaffa, Lincoln offered a rebuttal to this charge. You see, if Lincoln was a conservative–and Jaffa thought he was–and if the War had been fought against racism and slavery–and Jaffa thought it had–and if Lincoln believed in the “proposition that all men are created equal”–and the Gettysburg Address showed that he did–then American “conservatism” was based on an idea, born in the Declaration, defended by blood by Union soldiers and codified in November 1863 at Gettysburg.

Every event leading to civil rights was then a “conservative” reaction to a distortion of the “idea” of America.

Jaffa’s fairy tale, and it was just that, was based on ideology. Jaffa was a brilliant man always willing to engage in intellectual debates, but like Strauss he was an ideologue wrestling with tangible history that did not fit his narrative. The two are incompatible.

More than anything, Jaffa and his students (the Claremont Institute in California) now have an oversized influence on the direction of “conservatism” and it’s public image. It’s clear why. Jaffa took the sting out of being a conservative by allowing his students to point fingers at the antithesis of American history–the South–while feigning the moral high ground.

The one major problem with this interpretation is that the Left never really bought it.

They knew Lincoln was not a conservative and that the Civil Rights Movement was anything but conservative, even if radicals considered its initial aims to be less than acceptable or Martin Luther King, Jr. to be too soft of a spokesman.

King was never confused for a conservative in his time, but today, the Straussians like to lump him into a Lincolnian crusade to remake America in the supposed vision of the founding generation. If Honest Abe was a conservative, so was King.

I say supposed because the proposition nation was explicitly rejected even in the 18th century by many Americans, North and South, particularly after the horrors of the French Revolution, and in the 19th century after the Haitian rebellion. Barry Shain has conclusively proven this in his monumental The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context.

Jaffa and the Straussians have entrenched the Lincoln Myth in American conservatism, which is why we need to understand their faulty arguments.

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