Traditionalism Rising, Part V: The Problem of Politics
I’ll conclude my time here discussing my new draft on traditionalism with the problem of traditionalism’s politics. The problem is pressing because of internecine political discontent that now seems to afflict originalism, in whose shadow traditionalism at present stands. But it is also vital because all interpretive methods have a politics: they may be motivated by a particular set of political commitments; or they may lead systematically to outcomes with a particular political valence; or the adherents of the method may tend to come from a particular political perspective; or some combination of these. Interpretive methods are of course more than their politics, but in this post, I am focusing on this feature of them. To understand traditionalism’s politics, it may be helpful to set it in relief against the politics of originalism against which it is emerging.
In its early years, originalism as a sociological movement was a response to the liberal-progressive legal politics that came to dominate constitutional law in the twentieth century. For first-wave originalists, the jurisprudence of the Warren Court was felt to be incompatible with conventional lawyerly craft and led systematically to undesirable political outcomes. Yet as originalists came to suspect that a direct assault on the citadel constructed by the Warren and Burger Courts might backfire, they pivoted to offer an interpretive program that appeared politically neutral and might not be dismissed as mere political tit-for-tat.
As originalism’s second wave accelerated, however, the politics of its adherents changed as well, attracting more libertarian and progressive scholars. Methodologically, the second wave no longer conceived constitutional law as the search for the lawmaker’s will, but as a quest for the meaning of the Constitution’s words. With its constitutionalism of semantics, methods, conventions, and most recently computerized linguistic corpora, originalism hoped to offer something apolitical.
But politics could not be so easily outrun. At first, originalism’s positivism, and its putative rejection of politics, was a way of inscribing a fusionist alliance of libertarianism and conservativism into the constitutional realm. The illusion of originalism’s political neutrality, however, could last only as long as the subscribing constituencies sensed that they were equal partners in a strategic alliance of method. As fusionism began to unbind, as originalism attracted progressive adherents, and as social conservatives’ sense of embattlement and of th
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