The Magazine

Providence and the President

George W. Bush's theory of history.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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WHAT DO CONSERVATIVES think today about History? As President Bush readies the nation for war, an abstract question like this one seems out of place. And yet, having raised this theme himself in recent speeches, President Bush has been faced both at home and abroad with widespread criticism for his use and abuse of History. Echoing others' arguments, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has accused the president of claiming to speak for "destiny and providence." European critics charge the president and his conservative supporters with a dangerous triumphalism born of a conviction that huge metaphysical forces are aligned on America's side. America, Bush is said to believe, represents God, History, and God in History.

It has, of course, come to be accepted in modern times that presidents will speak of History, provided only that they mean nothing by it. Whenever presidents wish to elevate the tone of an address, they invoke History. History becomes the omniscient observer, watching over the president's and the nation's shoulder. History--we all know the phrases--is "judging" or "testing" us, it will "record what we do," or, in its sterner moments, "will not forgive us." Used in this way, History has become no more than a figure of speech, the great empty suit of modern rhetoric.

The problem with President Bush, so the charge against him goes, is that he has gone beyond these merely ritual usages. When he speaks about "Providence" and "history," as he did in his State of the Union address, he unfortunately takes his own words seriously. This criticism, if it is one, is worthy of investigation, all the more so because it is conservatives who traditionally have worried about the pretensions of History. Is President Bush really guilty of what his critics accuse him of, or have they failed to read him closely?

I.

IT IS NOT ALL THAT LONG AGO that the Doctrine of History was the core idea of leftist political thought in America. History here was not history in an ordinary sense--what Edward Gibbon once called "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind"--but something much grander. History, usually with a capital "H," was the account of the march of humankind that supplied the answers to man's most fundamental questions. History, with a beginning, a middle, and a clear future direction, if not an end, had "meaning." It also had an internal source of movement or agency all its own, whose laws man could discern. History was going somewhere, and the political parties and leaders who were able to follow or, better yet, anticipate its direction would be vindicated.

The path of History was upward and onward, toward what was called Progress. Progress made History not only inevitable, but appealing. As Woodrow Wilson explained during his 1912 presidential campaign: "Progress! No word comes more often or more naturally to the lips of modern man, as if the things it stands for were almost synonymous with life itself." At the far end of the leftist spectrum was the Marxist version of Progress, with its assurance of a coming final revolution that would produce, as Marx put it, a "definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man." Marx's general view held enormous appeal for many American intellectuals, even if they might dissent on some of the details.

But Americans also developed their own, homegrown version of historical movement. The name said it all: Progressivism. Its most eloquent thinkers were two men who helped launch the New Republic, Herbert Croly and John Dewey. Dewey, perhaps America's most celebrated philosopher, never tired of singing the praises of Progress: "The future rather than the past dominates the imagination. The Golden Age lies ahead of us not behind us." Oddly enough, under this understanding, the focus of the Doctrine of History was not on what had already happened--what we usually think of as history--but instead on what would happen. History was now about the future and took the place of prophecy or divination.

Under its adopted name of liberalism, the Progressive idea supplied the theoretical backbone of the Democratic party up through the 1960s. To read some of Lyndon Johnson's speeches is to have the feeling of looking at a grammar school version of some of John Dewey's writings. Even the term "Great Society" was used by Dewey. Then one day--and looking back, it seems to have occurred almost that suddenly--the great idol of History collapsed. Under the pressure of opposition to the Vietnam War and the accumulation of postmodern thought, the Left abandoned History and chased Progressivism from the temple. A New Left, as it called itself, pronounced the American experiment flawed and argued that American civilization was following a downward course of increasing dehumanization and alienation. The "Port Huron Statement," the manifesto of the New Left, proclaimed, "What we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era."

Since the 1960s the Left has struggled, without much success, to find a substitute understanding of the historical experience. One group, the cultural Left, has followed in the footsteps of the New Left, elaborating and perfecting an insistence on decline. Its message, heard daily on any elite college campus, holds that the Enlightenment has been an ongoing violation of the "other" (meaning, as need requires, the third world, minorities, or women) by the "hegemon" (the West, America, whites, or males). A second group, leftist communitarians, has abandoned the intellectuals' customary adversarial posture and now celebrates the American tradition. Communitarians look with acute longing to the American Founding, only to a Founding understood--surprise--as a "share and care" communitarian venture. Finally, a third group of postmodern progressives has concluded that without a belief in Progress, the Left is doomed to irrelevance. Led by the philosopher Richard Rorty, this group recommends going back to the future and recycling the idea of Progress, only with the postmodern stipulation that this idea is nothing more than a compelling story. Liberals today, Rorty says, should spin "a pageant of historical progress," in which they "tell themselves a story about how things might get better." If you build it, they will come.

II.

MODERN CONSERVATISM, meaning the conservatism that took hold of the Republican party with Ronald Reagan, established itself on a different plane from that of History. It has rested on the standard of nature, and conservatives have looked first to permanent principles enshrined in documents like the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, conservative statesmen have recognized that people also expect an account of where things fit into the flow of time. Political leadership must do justice to the experience of history.

But conservatives have been perplexed by the question of History, and their thought and instincts have pulled them in different directions. During the long period of Progressive intellectual dominance, conservative thinkers contested the Doctrine of History, but from opposite ends. Some accepted the idea of Progress, arguing with liberals over how to achieve it. Progress, these conservatives insisted, would be the order of the day if only society abandoned measures of collective planning and put its trust in the forces of the market. Something of this spirit survives in modern libertarian thought.

Other conservatives found fault with the whole idea of Progress. Southern Agrarians referred contemptuously to the "Gospel of Progress," decrying the thinness and materialism of the vision. Others insisted that the Doctrine of History failed to prepare people for the inevitable trials, tribulations, and reversals that were intrinsic to man's experience. Progress was a cheap elixir that sold short-term hope at the expense of longer-term understanding. Who living in the middle of the twentieth century could even begin to square the idea of Progress with the experience of the times? A more sober way of thinking was demanded, one that took account of what many conservatives called the "tragic sense." Some pushed this sense to the point of gloominess. Since tragedy proved the falsity and fatuity of the idea of Progress, it was welcomed as an indispensable companion. Conservatism became associated in some quarters with refusing to accept success for an answer.

Conservatives also balked at any idea of an inevitable plan controlling the course of events. The Doctrine of History view removed responsibility and control from human actors, especially from actors inside the political realm. It eliminated nobility and greatness. Had it not been for Lincoln or Churchill, to pick two examples, would the course of human affairs ever have been the same? The French theorist Raymond Aron was celebrated for his classic formulation of this theme. History, Aron insisted, is ultimately an account of "events," where an event is "an act performed by one man or several men at a definite place and time . . . that can never be reduced to circumstances, unless we eliminate in thought those who have acted and decree that anyone in their place would have acted the same way." As this last condition is an absurdity, it follows that the Doctrine of History is a delusion. History, from a human point of view, must be indeterminate.

These thoughts about History were in the background when the liberal idea of Progress collapsed in the 1960s. Conservatives faced an unprecedented situation. The old shibboleth that named conservatism the party of order and liberalism the party of progress could now be no more than half true. If only by comparison, conservatives had become the more progressive force. But it was not just by default that conservatives captured this dimension in 1980. The new conservative leader, Ronald Reagan, was an inveterate optimist, as strong a believer in the American project and in the capacity for transformation as any president in American history. Following Reagan's cue, a new generation of conservatives emerged that put any hint of doom and gloom in the closet and made an unshakable confidence in the future the emblem of conservatism. Grover Norquist's claim was typical: "From Ronald Reagan, conservatives have learned optimism and discovered they are on the winning side of history."

The legacy of the Reagan years has left conservatives with the question of how to incorporate this message of optimism into conservative thought. Two different paths, not always clearly delineated, have been suggested, and while the practical differences between them may for the moment seem small, the theoretical differences are enormous. In one account, conservatives espouse a Doctrine of History of their own in the form of a conservative idea of Progress. What is supported by natural law, they argue, must necessarily manifest itself in a predictable way in the historical context. Since, for example, liberal democracy is the system natural to man, one can be sure it will spread throughout most of the world in centuries to come. Other conservatives refuse to cross what they see as the philosophical red line between nature and history. While conservative principles offer the best prospect for progress and have proven themselves in many areas, nothing in the historical realm ever happens by necessity. Conservatives must continue to keep in mind the place of accident in human affairs and the importance of political choices, which of course can also lead to reversals of fortune.

III.

GEORGE W. BUSH is the product, far more than his father, of the modern conservative movement. Like Ronald Reagan, he is a self-described optimist who once went so far as to chastise a conservative intellectual for the sin of pessimism. What Bush has added to the mainstream of conservatism is a religious dimension, which in the case of the question of History includes the theme of Providence.

Providence is one of the richest and most complex--and therefore one of the most variously interpreted--of all religious ideas. For many, of course, the mere mention of a religious term is sufficient to provoke Pavlovian accusations of political messianism; any idea of religious pedigree (other than the message of peace) is devoid of all sense. Yet those willing to consider the matter more deeply will find that traditionally, Providence has had a reasonably determinate meaning. One of its central themes is that the course of history, from a human standpoint, is unfathomable: "The Almighty has His own purposes." One conviction, however, remains supreme: While the path of events before us can never be fully known, and while there will always be difficulty and pain, Providence offers a basis for hope and a ground for avoiding despair. Yet it disclaims any pretension to know the future and offers no assurance of divine reward for our action in this world. At the practical level of human affairs, the focus remains on human responsibility and choice.

The most sublime evocation of the "providence of God" in political rhetoric appears as the central theme of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural. This speech carries a message of ultimate hope without any guarantee of immediate reward. It keeps the focus in the political realm on duty, on the need to do right "as God gives us to see the right." These aspects of this great speech are well known, but less known, perhaps, are two other things. The first is that Lincoln's recourse to Providence was a response to the nineteenth-century precursor to the Doctrine of History that had circulated before the war and that taught, in the words of the historian George Bancroft, that "everything is in motion for the better. . . . The last political state of the world likewise is ever more excellent than the old." Standing where he did in 1865, after experiencing all of the agony and turns of fortune of the Civil War, Lincoln had come to know the centrality of political choice and to experience pathos. The second thing was that no sooner did Lincoln give the speech than he was widely criticized for not invoking God more directly on his side and for not promising a swift and certain reward. In one of his last letters, Lincoln explained that such a wish was contrary to the idea of Providence and unsuited to the education of a great people.

Although no one at this point can claim to know administration "policy" on Providence, President Bush's comments have followed in the Lincolnian mold. As he observed in his State of the Union address: "We do not know--we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history." Without taking anything away from a practical kind of optimism, the theme of Providence seems to have separated the president from the embrace of anything like a Doctrine of History. The focus has been on duty. Perhaps this language, suitably developed and elaborated, provides the best framework for conservatives both to express and reconcile their hopes and fears about history.

Presidents, it hardly needs to be said, are not philosophers. Yet in their responsibility to act, it happens that their words sometimes open a dimension of theoretical insight that more abstract thought misses. Modern man is growing ever more impressed with his supposed mastery of the physical environment. By contrast, it is obvious that the course of history can never be brought under his complete control. There will always be shocks, surprises, and events. So long as this fact does not lead to skepticism and paralysis, it can serve as a salutary reminder of the intrinsic limits of the human situation. It bids us open our thoughts, in a spirit of wonder and awe, to something much larger than ourselves. And this too is a part of the conservative message.

James W. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.