Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann: A Dissent

Something’s rotten in Denmark—or, in this case, the blogosphere. Much of the Right seems to have united around Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who currently leads the 2012 Republican pack by a wide margin, thanks to a combination of Texas’ impressive job-creation record, his bold, take-no-prisoners style, and his ostensible conservatism on all the major issues.

Except…he’s not all that conservative, or all that appealing a candidate. He’s got a horrendous immigration record, he initially tried to use states’ rights as an excuse to punt on gay marriage and abortion, his 2008 pick was the radically pro-abortion Rudy Giuliani, he’s a practitioner of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare, he seems to have an Obama-like ego, he’s a surprisingly clumsy debater (to the point where he can’t even give a compelling defense of his own position on global warming), and, in the scandal that’s been getting the most press lately, he signed an executive order trying to force young schoolgirls to be injected with an unproven vaccine meant to prevent an illness which children cannot contract in schools through casual contact. 

As Michelle Malkin and Shannen Coffin have explained, the Gardasil mandate raises multiple serious questions about Perry’s principles and trustworthiness. There’s the fact that his EO circumvented the democratic process and tried to unilaterally impose a sweeping policy change. There’s the fact that his position presumes the government has the right to make medical decisions for parents for reasons completely unrelated to the justification for traditional school inoculations, as explained by Rick Santorum. There’s the fact that he both defends the mandate and condemns its critics with leftist-style emotional appeals about who does and doesn’t care about disease. And there’s the unproven but certainly plausible possibility that his decision was motivated at least partially by cronyism.

The defenses leveled by Perry and his supporters don’t hold water. First is that he apologized. Only partially—he’s said the EO was a mistake, but not the core policy (nor has he apologized to those he’s slandered as not caring about Texan children). Second is that the policy had an opt-out. But not only is it offensive from a limited-government perspective to presume that the state is going to do something to your child unless you take proactive measures to stop them, the opt-out itself had numerous shortcomings. Third—and most pathetic—is that the policy never went into effect. Obviously, we don’t give people a pass for trying to do wrong simply because they didn’t succeed!

Perry’s been taking a beating for this from several competitors, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul. But this week, the focus shifted from Perry’s statism to Bachmann’s incompetence, as she relayed the story of a mother who told her Gardasil caused her daughter’s mental retardation. To be clear, she absolutely deserves criticism for recklessly passing along an anecdote without bothering to verify it. (Full disclosure: This is one of several blunders that have convinced me she doesn’t have the good sense or communication ability to be the Republican nominee, and so I no longer support her for president.)

But the response from two of the Right’s biggest professional blogs has been something else entirely. At RedState, Lori Ziganto says Bachmann “has shown she is of bad character,” Ben Howe thinks she “should be ashamed” for “diminish[ing] the pro-life movement for her own political gain,” Brad Jackson & Elizabeth Blackney discuss Bachmann needing to “pray the crazy away,” and Leon Wolfe declares that Bachmann doesn’t “deserve to be one of the 435 people who gets to contribute to the creation of legislation that might one day influence health policy in America.” (Before Bachmann became an issue here, RedState’s Streiff also impugned Malkin’s “integrity and intellect” for questioning Perry, a nasty, unfounded attack on a conservative heroine which RS editor Erick Erickson refused to criticize.)

Meanwhile, at Pajamas Media, PJM CEO Roger Simon said Bachmann and Santorum sounded “rabid, and frankly scary” in criticizing Perry (please note that he’s talking about the debate itself, not Bachmann’s subsequent retardation claim). Bryan Preston has done six posts so far blasting Bachmann over this, including declaration’s that she’s “descend[ed] into self-parody” and that her “time as a serious candidate is over.”

Again, I want to be clear that the criticism isn’t what I have a problem with. Michele Bachmann has displayed a clear pattern of factual sloppiness and rhetorical recklessness. I am, however, asking why there’s such a double-standard—why all of a sudden Bachmann is being treated with a level of scorn no GOP candidate other than Ron Paul ever gets, at least not in such volume and unanimity, from the blogosphere.

Rick Perry gives speeches to La Raza and smears lawmakers who resisted his Gardasil mandate as heartless monsters who don’t care about women’s health; Mitt Romney continues to insist his state’s healthcare plan was a good thing; and Herman Cain shows no signs of having assembled a coherent foreign policy platform, despite campaigning to become leader of the free worldall of which are bigger substantive problems than repeating an anecdote without bothering to verify it—and the blogosphere reaction is much more diverse and balanced. Some criticize, some defend, but most conclude that the problems aren’t disqualifying on their own. (Heck, going back to the last election, not even Rudy Giuliani’s support for partial-birth abortion and taxpayer funding of abortion was enough for a consensus that he was beyond the pale!)   

Perhaps the most suspicious thing is that these new Bachmann critics apparently weren’t this bothered by Bachmann’s own previous blunders, like signing the Iowa Family pledge without reading it, that weird talk of Tea Partiers slitting our writs and signing a blood oath together, or calling on people to be “armed and dangerous” in opposition to Obama. Those were worth varying degrees of criticism, but she was still generally considered a respectable choice for the nomination.

What happened? Rick Perry. The biggest difference between this gaffe and all of Bachmann’s others (as well as the aforementioned failings of various other candidates) seems to be that this time, she made it while crossing the latest man to be anointed Savior by a segment of the Right that still hasn’t gotten over the hero-worship tendencies that have all too often led conservatives to gloss over the failings of various politicians, including George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, and Sarah Palin.

How many times does the movement have to replay this game until we finally see that it’s about principles, not personalities? When will we stop being infatuated with alluring poll numbers and conservative-sounding bravado, and instead maintain the detached objectivity to consistently judge all those who would be our standard-bearers?

Today’s Snapshot of Conservatism in Crisis

Steven Ertelt at LifeNews reports that GOP presidential wannabe Mitch Daniels still hasn’t gotten the message on the “truce” crap:

“I guess two things,” Daniels added. “One is that, first, those remarks were directed as much to the aggressors on the other side of these questions — for instance, the proponents of gay marriage — as much directed to them as anybody with whom I’m in agreement.”

Asked if liberals have called a truce on social issues, Daniels responded, “No, obviously not. I said I was thinking of them as much as my own allies when I said it,” he said about the truce.

Wait – so you think a.) that liberals would be willing to accept a truce on social issues, and b.) that they’d be willing to do so for the purpose of enacting conservative fiscal reforms? Does anyone else see how mind-blowingly stupid this is? Mitch Daniels is unfit to be president simply for being so clueless.

“The major point, though, was something different, and it was just this: I believe…. that the arithmetic of our times says we are headed for Niagara Falls, fiscally. You cannot run any kind of enterprise — private or public — on a self-governing basis as deeply in hawk as we now are and are going to be,” Daniels added. “…. to change the whole size and scope of the federal government in a radical way, then we are going to need a very broad constituency in this country to do that…. so that’s all I meant, kind of a priority matter, first things first. Maybe we could just concentrate on that for a little while, because I think that’s the most immediate threat to the republic we’ve known.”

The fiscal crisis is already at the forefront of the conservative conversation. There are no social conservatives calling on economic conservatives to put spending, ObamaCare, or any other issues on the back burner for the sake of fighting abortion or preserving marriage. Congressional Republicans are letting us down on the fiscal front, but it’s not because they’re distracted by social issues; it’s because they’re inept and spineless across the board.

Later in the interview, The Hill transcript indicates, Daniels returned to the truce issue, saying fiscal issues should take precedence and social issues like abortion should be “muted” for awhile.

“I would like to think that fixing it and saving our kids future could be a unifying moment for our country and we wouldn’t stop our disagreements or our passionate belief in these other questions, we just sort of mute them for a little while, while we try to come together on the thing that menaces us all,” he concluded.

Let me try to explain something to you, Mitch: abortion isn’t controversial because it’s “sinful” or “distasteful.” It’s controversial because IT KILLS PEOPLE. 1.2 MILLION DEAD BABIES EVERY YEAR. It’s not just another political issue; it’s a human rights crisis. (You claim to be pro-life. There’s no excuse for you to not already get this.) And if you really understood what our Founders thought about the conditions necessary to maintain a free society, you’d see that the fate of marriage has profound implications for America’s fiscal state.

This response is dead on:

“We cannot repair the economy without addressing the deep cultural issues that are tearing apart the family and society,” said Andy Blom, executive director of the American Principles Project.  “The conservative movement has always been about addressing ALL issues—economic, social and national security—that are in need of repair.”

“It’s unfortunate Gov. Daniels doesn’t seem to understand the winning philosophy of Ronald Reagan that brought conservatism to victory by addressing all three issues,” said Frank Cannon, President of American Principles Project.  “If Mitch Daniels is planning to run for president by running away from social issues, he will face a grassroots revolt.”

“The national furor over the expansion of abortion coverage and efforts to re-define marriage demonstrates the resistance he will face.  There is no appetite among grassroots conservatives to run away from these critical issues,” said Mr. Blom.  “Mr. Daniels is only causing divisions in the movement by this talk of a ‘truce.’”

I often wonder how many people realize the full extent of just how screwed up the Right is these days. I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words in Peoria, Illinois. Speaking of a similar cancerous confusion over first principles, he lamented that our “republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.” He said we needed to “repurify it,” to “wash it in white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution”:

Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

What Liberty Demands

234 years ago today, our forefathers declared America’s independence from the British Empire.  For the support of that declaration, they pledged to one another “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”  And that wasn’t hyperbole – with their actions, they brought upon themselves the very real risk of death and imprisonment.

On this Fourth of July, compare that courage and sacrifice to the potential consequences of getting involved and standing for liberty today – some lost free time, maybe public embarrassment or the hostile words of your opponents – and ask yourself how many of us are living up to their example.

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Further Required Reading: President Calvin Coolidge, “Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” July 5, 1926

Conservatism Can’t Survive Without the Pro-Life Movement, Part II

In Part I, I argue that it would be politically foolish for the Right to further backpedal or abandon the pro-life cause. Here I want to make the case that the right to life truly is inseparable both from core conservatism and from any meaningful effort to advance conservative ideas—that, in fact, pro-abortion tendencies actually endanger the prospects of those who value limited government, the free market, and strong national defense.

As I explained on June 15, abortion is an affront to the Declaration of Independence. As the unjust taking of a human life, it is wrong for the same reason slavery, theft, assault, honor killings, rape, eminent domain abuse, and individual health insurance mandates are wrong: they are all violations of human liberty and natural rights.  Accordingly, society justly protects its citizens from them via law for the same reason.  As long as conservatism still “holds these truths to be self-evident” that all men have “certain unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and as long as conservatism still accepts that “governments are instituted among men” for the purpose of “secur[ing] these rights,” then philosophically-consistent conservatives have no choice but to oppose legalized abortion. Nobody can support abortion in good conscience without either honestly confronting this conundrum head-on, or asking himself what definition of “conservatism” he’s been operating under all this time.

That pro-choice views are an egregious exception to conservatives’ and libertarians’ pro-liberty rhetoric should be obvious. What may be less obvious—but is no less true—is that such dubious thinking cannot help but undermine other core conservative principles and efforts. Continue reading

Republicans Fiddle While Democracy Burns

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, free speech is one of America’s cornerstones.  All sides sing its praises, and no politician can expect to safely voice disrespect or opposition towards it.

The underlings of politicians, on the other hand…

Cass Sunstein, appointed by Barack Obama to head the White House Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs, isn’t a big fan of free & unregulated political expression.  In the past, he’s argued for new laws that would make bloggers and web-hosting services potentially liable for what their commenters say, as well as make it easier to sue people who “spread rumors” for libel.

For obvious reasons, these proposals would be logistical nightmares to implement, forcing bloggers to spend less time expressing their own ideas and more time policing their audiences, lest they risk liability for the words of others.  The end result is a stifling of free speech, and make no mistake: that’s exactly what Barack Obama and Cass Sunstein intend.

Now, Sunstein has been caught proposing more regulation of the blogosphere, in the form of new federal mandates forcing websites to “provide links to sites of the other point of view…Or maybe a popup on your screen that would show you an advertisement or maybe even a quick argument for a competing view.”  An Internet Fairness Doctrine, if you will.

What do the Left’s premier guardians of free speech at the ACLU have to say about all this?  Nothing.

Of course, I expect the Democrats to pull this garbage, and their foot soldiers on the Left and in the media to quietly go along.  The real scandal here is the lack of strong, vocal Republican opposition.  If they aren’t finally corrected, and fast, the cowardice and inability to lead that dominate the GOP are going to be the death of this country.

ObamaCare Truth & Consequences

Via Power Line, here’s a list of 20 Ways ObamaCare Will Take Away Our Freedoms, and an op-ed on The Real Arithmetic of Health Care Reform (also, here’s a handy summary of what’s in the bill, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, and for you masochists out there, the bill’s full text, courtesy of Open Congress).  Read ’em, print ’em out, and have ’em ready for the next time your lefty friends spout disinformation from the White House or MSNBC.  This recap of the states’ experiences with government meddling in healthcare is required reading, too.

Also, check out my latest NewsReal post for where we go from here.  The short version: we can, and must repeal this bill, but the GOP is really gonna have to bring their A-game.  And for a great explanation of what should actually be done to improve American healthcare, Ann Coulter’s got you covered.

Conservatism Must Not Abandon the Cultural Front (Updated)

My NewsReal colleague David Swindle has been debating Pajamas Media’s Mary Grabar on the subject of drug legalization.  I side with the arguments made by Grabar, Ann Coulter, and others against legalizing drugs, but I’ve honestly never cared enough about the issue to explore it in depth.

I know there’s an argument that true conservatives should recognize that arresting people for voluntary drug use goes beyond the proper role of limited government.  But y’know what?  We’ve got plenty of cases of government overreach and violated rights in this country that don’t involve destructive behavior—stolen property due to eminent domain abuses, innocent babies destroyed in the womb, politicians constantly looking for new excuses to paw through their constituents’ wallets—that frankly, the tribulations of potheads fighting for the right to light up register pretty low on my sympathy meter and priority list.

But hey, maybe the Founding Fathers really would side with the libertarians on this one.  I’ll read with open-minded interest David & Mary’s continued exchanges, but I have to strongly disagree with one of David’s assertions:

John McCain lost to Barack Obama because of politics, not culture. Obama was a more exciting candidate who ran a much more effective campaign. It’s that simple.

A conservatism that can win is one which understands itself and defines itself as a political movement, not a cultural one. To do otherwise is to begin to destroy a functioning coalition that has been vital to defending America since Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ronald Reagan brought it together in the 20th century. Conservatism must take the same approach to culture as the Constitution does — neutrality. Such an attitude worked for the document which has guided and protected our country for centuries and it will work for the Movement who has the same objective.

Far be it from me to read too much into the defeat of John McCain, the poster boy for almost everything a Republican shouldn’t be.  2008 was the culmination of years of GOP incompetence and lack of principle, and for reasons completely unrelated to ideology, Barack Obama was perfectly positioned to seize upon it.

But it’s another thing entirely to assume that culture played no part in Obama’s ascendance.  A culture that worships gratification (particularly sexual) without responsibility or constraints, that believes truth is personal and relativistic rather than grounded in permanent wisdom, that has been conditioned to expect everyone else to provide for their every need and clean up after their every mistake, that sneers at traditional morality and religious belief…these trends and attitudes cannot help but play into the Left’s hands.

Simply put, a narcissistic, relativistic, secular, ignorant culture will always be receptive to a political movement that promises to give them things paid for with other people’s money, affirms their “if it feels good, do it” mentality, and assures them that supporting statism and “environmental consciousness” are the only forms of morality or compassion they’ll ever really need.

A conservatism that disregards our culture will not win; indeed, its political prospects will only diminish further still.  I grew up in a public school system completely dominated by the Left.  I have seen time after time how easily the average apolitical teen, bereft of solid core values and spoon-feed the consensus of popular culture, assumes the Left’s claims on government’s role and conservatives’ evil to be true, to say nothing of every liberal myth from man-made global warming to the military-industrial complex.

More importantly, I have seen the Right’s feeble response.  This is a battle in which the conservative movement is largely—and the Republican Party is completely—AWOL.  How many conservatives are formulating strategies to break the Left’s stranglehold on education, both K-12 and college?  How many are drawing attention to the corruption of Church teachings on compassion?  How many on Capitol Hill are challenging the Left’s poisonous sexual dogma, or publicly illustrating the connection between the Democrat Party and the cultural forces it cultivates and feeds upon?

Republican electoral failures cannot be attributed to a nonexistent emphasis on culture; indeed, it’s far more likely that our woes are intimately tied to our dereliction of duty on this front.  The same old tactics—conservatives talking to the same radio audiences, writing in the same magazines, and posting on the same blogs, all mostly to each other—will win converts to the Right from time to time, but not in numbers that can even begin to compare to how many people are unwittingly fed liberal presuppositions about the world by stealth in their schools, TV shows, music, and churches, all of which form an echo chamber, reaffirming the messages for one another.

Republican strategists tend to think short-term: what will get us back into power in the next couple election cycles? Say what you want about Democrats (Lord knows I’ve said plenty), but they see the big picture, and play for keeps.  Conservatives need to open their eyes to it, as well, and settle in for the long haul. Any real, lasting return to the conservative values of the American Founding will require comprehensive strategies and solid commitments to oppose liberal encroachments on every front.

David invoked President Reagan in his post; let me conclude by doing the same.  In his Farewell Address to the American people, Reagan said:

I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins.

UPDATE: David has responded here. It seems the differences between our positions are less than they initially appeared, and I certainly agree with his central point, that the force of law is not an instrument of value enforcement.  I’ll have more thoughts later, but thanks to David for his thoughtful reply.

Exposing the Left’s Progressive Roots

“If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1802

“I believe in the people: in their honesty and sincerity and sagacity; but I do not believe in them as my governors.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1891

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Last weekend I wrote about American conservatism as the intellectual legacy of the finest political thinkers from the Enlightenment onward.  On Thursday I highlighted the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville & Abraham Lincoln.  Back in May I editorialized about the role of religion in American heritage.  Now it’s time to look at the other side of the coin: the foundations of American liberalism.

What’s In a Name?

Let’s start with a common area of confusion: the use of the term “liberal” to describe the American Left.  Common usage of “liberal” and “conservative” often identifies the former with a willingness to try new things and the latter with a desire to preserve that which came before.  This isn’t terribly useful when applied to politics (who among us is a down-the-line supporter the old just because it’s old, or the new just because it’s new?), but it does speak to one aspect of each ideology: conservatism seeks to preserve the principles of the American founding, while liberalism discards the founding in favor of newer ideas.  But this is also what makes “liberal” such a misleading moniker for left-wing thought: it suggests a relationship to the classical liberalism espoused by the Founding Fathers where none exists; in fact, modern liberalism is largely a rejection of classical liberalism.

Classical Liberalism’s Lockean Foundations

The Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.  (Other thinkers, such as Montesquieu, played significant roles as well, but here we’ll elaborate on Locke, so we can understand progressivism’s repeated self-proclaimed deviations from Lockean thought.)  Locke first asked the reader to envision a theoretical state of nature in which we can observe man as he is essentially, outside of government.  This shows us two things: first, all men are equal in that none can be seen to have any sort of divine claim to rule over any other; and second, all men have perfect freedom over their own lives, liberty & property, and perfect freedom to defend them with whatever force they see fit.  But if everyone were to carry out justice on their own, the resulting chaos would be intolerable.  So to live in peace, men form a social compact with one another, in which they surrender to whole, in the form of government, the right to judge & punish transgressions against their rights.  Accordingly, the Founders crafted a government based on immutable principles of justice instituted among men for the sole purpose of securing the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Hegelianism

The early progressives were largely inspired by 19th-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s The Philosophy of History.  Hegel envisioned history as a transcendent, almost conscious, force, which is moving on a set course toward freedom, its every turn for the better, even if we can’t see the benefit. He defined freedom not as free reign over one’s own life, liberty & property, but as liberation from dependence on any material need outside of one’s self, a dependence which corrupts the individual’s will.  History has a rational, universal will that acts through the passions of people (not their reason), and can be discerned through the State, whose will is pure because it isn’t tainted by dependence on anything external.  The universal will is not to be confused with the majority’s will, which is no more than a collection of impure individual interests.  We become free to the extent that we recognize the universal will and adjust our personal wills accordingly, thereby becoming pure.  Hegel rejected Locke’s state of nature and determined that, because history is constantly moving to truer, better things, no political principles are truly universal; they are temporary, good for their time only until their usefulness to history is exhausted and they are replaced with something new.

Progressivism

Key texts—Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings and American Progressivism: A Reader, edited by Ronald Pestritto, The Promise of American Life and Progressive Democracy by Herbert Croly, Liberalism and Social Action by John Dewey.

President Woodrow Wilson echoed Hegel’s rejection of Locke—he saw no state of nature in which man enjoyed perfect freedom, concluding instead that, since only government can ensure freedom, government must also be the source of freedom.  Wilson also rejected Lockean social compact theory—he thought government had its roots in, and was essentially an enlarged or evolved version of, the family.  Wilson believed that our moral identity was defined by the relationships we make with one another, and consequently, man had no real moral standing outside of the state.  He fully embraced Hegel’s conceptions of temporary truth and historical progress working through passion—he rejected Aristotle’s observation that governments could revert to older & corrupted forms, instead believing that democracy was here to stay and that history would essentially iron out whatever kinks arose along the way for us.

He stressed that democracy was not government by consent of the governed (political questions were far too complex, and personal interests much too diverse, for this to be a realistic plan), but government by recognition of the universal will, as discerned and enacted by an unelected expert class trained in policymaking (as professionals attuned solely to this purpose, their will is pure).  Incredibly, President Wilson claimed the Declaration of Independence’s political assertions did “not afford a general theory of government to formulate policies upon.”  He believed there is “no doubt we are meant to have liberty, but each generation must form its own conception of what liberty is,” and saw the relationship between the individual and the government as a scale of competing privileges (not rights), which may be readjusted from time to time, as circumstances dictate.  In accordance with the Hegelian conception of freedom, Wilson saw government regulation in private affairs such as property & income not as meddling in the rights of some, but as removing artificial constraints on people.

Herbert Croly, former editor of the New Republic & influential progressive thinker, likened history to a journey in the dark.  Like a torch, the limited knowledge we possess at any given time only lights part of our path, and our temporary itinerary (latest political system) should never be confused for a complete map (final, eternal truth).  He embraced the universal will conception of democracy and the idea that the individual only gains meaning as part of a society, and spoke at length about how democracy’s true task was the equal distribution of society’s benefits.  Croly saw the individual’s dependence on income as an impurity in his will; a burden which forced everyone into the same material-gain mold and stifled individuality; therefore, it was the state’s task to liberate man from the profit motive, so man can pursue his dreams solely for their own sake.  In one of progressivism’s most drastic departures from classical liberalism, Croly believed that, through the state, essential human nature could actually be improved (of course, part of his plan to achieve this involved moving the goalposts—he was sharply critical of any conception of God that emphasized behavioral restraint as contrary to liberty and little more than excuses for the preservation of old social orders).

Progressivism gave rise to the idea that merely having a legally-protected right to do something was not enough; rights also entailed a social obligation on the part of government to facilitate the ability to exercise that right.  It saw government as a positive good with a proactive role, not a necessary evil with a limited role (effective government cannot really be limited, and besides, ever-improving human nature will eventually eliminate the need for such limits anyway).  It sought to close the debate on what government should do and refocus discussion strictly on how to go about achieving it.

The Folly of Progressivism

A simple description of early progressive thought raises plenty of red flags, and exposes just how diametrically contrary to the American founding the modern Left is.  Its take on moral relativism has no substantiation other than “history has decided,” which translates to little more than “might makes right”; its complete confidence in history’s trajectory is an article of unsupported faith that would make the most dogmatic Christian cringe, and to believe human nature is perfectible…well, that would require us to, shall we say, assume facts not in evidence.

As should be obvious, the expert policymaker progressives envision is but a man, subject to the same failings as the rest of us, including self interest (surely, power and job security are interests in the public sector every bit as much as in the private).  Furthermore, as economist F.A. Hayek taught us, no matter how well-versed in a certain field he may be, even a well-meaning expert cannot possibly know all the knowledge necessary—the circumstances, needs, desires, relationships, and other variables at play with all individuals—to make just, sound decisions on the wide scale the progressive dreams of.

The progressive notion of freedom as liberation from all constraints is impossible to effectively put into practice; as their own writings show (and as Tocqueville understood), attempting to do so puts equality and true liberty in direct conflict.

Ultimately, progressivism is utopianism, a rejection of reality’s constraints in pursuit of a fairytale world free of imperfections.  The Founders were neither as naïve or as arrogant as Wilson and his comrades: to them, invoking passion as society’s chief instrument of advance would be the height of irresponsibility, and as James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”  But they knew angels would assume neither role in society.  They were acutely aware of man’s limitations, power’s ability to corrupt, and the need to check both.

The Picture Comes Into Focus

Bizarre though the stroll through early progressive thought may be, it’s also remarkable—once you understand the foundations, every aspect of the modern Left—their policies, their tactics, their dogmas—suddenly falls into place.  The Constitution as a “living document,” judges and bureaucrats as unaccountable experts with tremendous power, the nanny-state mentality from healthcare to smoking bans, the thinly-veiled contempt for traditional religion, the disregard for personal responsibility, the routine practice of assigning ignorance & ulterior motives to dissent—it all follows from carrying progressive ideological presuppositions to their logical conclusions.

Again, you cannot effectively fight the Left if you do not understand what they are, what they really believe, and what they’re capable of.  Today’s so-called liberals thrive on the historical ignorance of the average American, and they’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it.  But relying on ignorance is a dangerous strategy, because you never know when someone might come along who knows better.  So take heart—the educated conservative is the liberal’s worst nightmare.  Arm yourself with the history of progressivism and the wisdom of our forefathers, and nothing can stop you.

What We Can Learn from Tocqueville & Lincoln

The following is a modified & abridged version of a paper I recently wrote after a week-long seminar here at Hillsdale College, regarding the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville & Abraham Lincoln.  Both men though deeply about human equality, individual liberty, and what it took to maintain a democratic society.  I think both are essential to a substantive, fully-formed political philosophy, especially today.

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Having lost his grandparents to the bloody French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville knew all too well how volatile the passions of a people intoxicated by newfound equality could be, and as a student of human nature, he knew that belief in freedom, the essence of which is independence from control, and passion for equality, which can manifest as a desire to level the conditions of all, could easily come into conflict.  In the United States, equality of conditions reigned, but curiously, America seemed largely unscathed by democracy’s dark side.

In America, Tocqueville found several political and cultural influences that kept Americans agreeable to one another and obedient to their government.  The French thinker noted that the United States government had strong governmental centralization (the necessary authority of the national government to decide national affairs), but almost no administrative centralization (federal influence over the affairs of states or individuals), yielding an effective government whose proper prerogatives were respected because it generally did not give the people cause for concern about their personal freedom.  Tocqueville thought increased administrative centralization would be the biggest threat to liberty in democratic societies, leading to a “soft despotism” under which the federal government assumed ever-increasing control over the people’s lives in the name of providing for them.

On the cultural side, Tocqueville hailed several “habits of liberty”—Christianity, which turns man’s attention to his responsibilities towards others; civic associations, which teach men to know one another and to better govern; marriage, which calms man and counters excessive individualism; newspapers, which also promote social cooperation; and the doctrine of “self-interest well-understood,” or the understanding that it is in the best interest of every man to respect the rights of his neighbors, that his own rights will be respected.

Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence as tension over slavery reached its breaking point, with numerous southern states threatening to secede from the union to preserve the “peculiar institution,” and secessionists such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens dismissing “the assumption of the equality of races,” on which the American Founders based government, as “fundamentally wrong.”  In contrast, Lincoln hailed the Declaration’s principles as “the definitions and axioms of liberty,” which inspired all of his political thoughts.  For Lincoln, liberty and equality were simple: liberty was the right to govern one’s self, and equality meant that all have an equal claim to the Declaration’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” regardless of race.  Lincoln believed that the Declaration established timeless, unchanging moral principles, as evidenced by his observation that declaring human equality had no practical use in the revolutionaries’ struggle against Great Britain, but could eventually be used to free slaves, as it would remain true in the future.  To Lincoln, slavery was an obscenity; he noted wryly that nobody who called it a good would think it good enough for themselves, and confessed that “whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Despite this impulse, however, Lincoln refused to support or enact any emancipation efforts that failed to pass constitutional scrutiny.  Though he loved liberty, he also loved “reverence for the laws,” which he saw as the nation’s “political religion.”  Slavery was unjust, but ignoring the Constitution whenever it suited one’s political desires, however noble, would be dangerous, for it would undermine the legitimacy of constitutional government and endanger everyone’s liberty.  It was this belief in the rule of law that led Lincoln to wage the Civil War to preserve the Union.  Lincoln understood that America’s peaceful democratic system had established ballots as “the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets” in the transfer of political power, and secession—the idea that any state dissatisfied with democracy’s results could simply ignore them and forcibly resist their enforcement—threatened to undo that great advance, and, if carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to anarchy.

Today, America is governed by an ever-expanding federal government, proactive in every level of society; and progressive ideology, which views the Declaration of Independence as outdated and the Constitution as a “living” document to be reinterpreted by each generation, is very much in vogue.  Tocqueville’s fears about soft despotism and Lincoln’s fears that Americans could forget her founding creed have both come true.  But we need not lose hope: Americans longing to learn the principles liberty needs, and how to restore them, have all the tools they need in the wisdom of our forefathers; we just need a renewed focus on educating our countrymen in their timelessness.

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Further resources on Lincoln & Tocqueville:

Abraham Lincoln Online—has many of Lincoln’s writings & speeches

Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of America’s Greatest President by Thomas Krannawitter (review here)

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (full text available online here)

Generation Y Conservatism

David Swindle has graciously linked my reaction to his Conservative Chessboard piece on NewsRealBlog, but notes that I didn’t opine on “the piece on the board which he and I both fall into,” that of Knights and/or Pawns:

As those of us from Generation Y (born from the late ’70s through the mid ’90s) are beginning to emerge into the political culture it’s time to start the discussion: what will be our role in helping articulate Conservatism? What distinguishes those of us in Generation Y from generations past? What sensibilities and life experiences do we bring to the project of defending American Freedom that differentiate us from those who came before us? In other words, what is Generation Y Conservatism?

An interesting question, though one I’ve honestly never given much thought to.  I may be a bit of an odd duck among young conservatives (I’m a 22-year-old college junior, for those just tuning in) in that I tend not to think in generational terms.  (In fact, one of the things that most grates me about Meghan McCain is how every other sentence she writes seems to be “as my generation knows,” or something similar, as if there’s something intrinsic in youth that somehow confers heretofore-unknown wisdom on someone.  But I digress…)

Conservatism

I suppose a good place to start would be with what I understand conservatism to be.  With paleocons, neocons, libertarians, value voters, and assorted mix-‘n-match varieties vying for control of the Right, we can pretty much forget about pleasing everyone.  But in short, the conservatism I espouse can be defined thusly:

“Firm belief in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the form of government established by the US Constitution and explained in the Federalist, the arguments for union and human equality made by Abraham Lincoln, and the observations about human nature and democratic society made by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America; and following this wisdom to its logical conclusions.”

This means that truth is neither bound to the passage of time nor relative to any given place or culture, that essential human nature does not change, and that the Founding Fathers were right then, right today, and will still be right tomorrow.  This means standing for government by consent of the governed, not the progressive notion of rule by an unelected, unaccountable expert class.  On the other hand, constitutional government also means that we have the rule of law to check the passions of the people, because there are things neither majority nor minority should be able to do to one another.

This means that all men are created equal, endowed by God with an inalienable right to life (from conception to natural death), liberty (free of government control over actions or property, so long as one is not violating the rights of another), and the pursuit of happiness (it is not the role of government to enforce anyone’s conception of morality; however, this does not mean individuals or private groups should be indifferent to such concerns).

I believe in the free market, low taxes, law & order (though I lean against capital punishment), the right to bear arms, and an originalist interpretation of the Constitution.  I believe in ending abortion, an injustice every bit as odious as slavery; and defending true marriage, an essential institution for a healthy society.  I believe that government efforts to provide for the people foster dependence on government rather than improve lives.  I believe in the separation of church and state, but not of religion and public discourse; like Washington, I understand that, “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

I believe we should welcome immigrants who long to better their lives and truly join the American experiment, but not at the expense of national security or societal stability.  There is no “right” to US residency or citizenship, especially for those with no intention of truly becoming Americans or giving back to this country.  I believe in a truly color-blind society where all are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I believe America has real enemies in this world, and cannot protect herself via isolation or appeasement.  I believe in peaceful conflict resolution if possible, but I also believe our words are worthless if our enemies know we lack the will to follow through with action.  I support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (if not their execution), President George W. Bush’s national-security and intelligence-gathering measures, and comprehensive missile defense.  I believe America must consistently maintain the most powerful military force on Earth, should never waver from her support for Israel’s fight for survival, and should never concede our sovereignty to foreign nations or entities.

Generation Y Conservatism: New Strategy, Same Substance

What, then, is different about Generation Y Conservatism?  For me, at least, its substance is unchanged.  I agree that David’s observations about distrust of non-government institutions, not putting all our eggs in the GOP’s basket, and distrust of elites are healthy, and should be aspects of everyone’s conservatism (though we abandon social issues at our own peril); but I’ve never understood these things to be lacking in past conservatism (inconsistently followed by self-described conservatives, yes, but not deficiencies intrinsic to the ideology).  Likewise, I believe open-mindedness is essential, but I’m always mindful of Chesterton’s reminder that the point of opening one’s mind “is to shut it again on something solid.”

Conservatism is that something.  I believe those who came before us—among them Locke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Bastiat, and Reagan—got it right.  We Generation Y Conservatives are the inheritors of an incredible moral & intellectual legacy, and our task is not to remake conservatism in our image, but to faithfully pass it down to the next generation and proclaim its timelessness.

Generation Y can contribute its energy, its vigor, and its familiarity with the contemporary “lay of the land” in finding the most effective strategies for bringing our message to the next generation.  We can keep conservatism attuned to the latest communication technology.  We can fight the stereotype that conservatism is only the domain of the old, prejudiced, and affluent, and show our generation that the Left doesn’t have a monopoly on vibrancy, fun, and individuality.  We can apply our energy to keeping a critical eye on those in power, fighting the Left at every turn, and holding the Right to its own standards.  We can remain ever vigilant for ways to show our generation the real-world consequences of liberal promises, and demonstrate how conservatism has already passed the test of time.

Perhaps our biggest contribution can be fighting back against the Left’s stranglehold on American education, from public schools through college.  The nation’s youth are, at best, given an education that doesn’t include an understanding of why the Founders established the country they did, or, at worst, actively taught falsehoods that tear down the Founders, slander America’s character, and distort the very meaning of freedom.  Leftist academics are reinforcing youth’s natural tendency toward arrogance and turning it into a religion that rejects the wisdom of the past and casts old, dead, white guys are the enemy—and we all know how well that turned out with the Flower Generation.

It is up to us to pull the curtain away and show the world the Left as it really is.  David is absolutely right that understanding the Left’s true nature—its origins, tactics, and character—is essential to effectively countering it.  If you think liberals and conservatives are operating from the same premises on human nature, belief in the Founding Fathers, or even the same definition of freedom, you’re in for a rude awakening (Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is essential in this regard, as is familiarity with the writings of Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, and other works of the early progressives).  The same goes for knowing how they fight and what they’re capable of (many people have documented and analyzed these things, but of particular value are Ann Coulter’s Slander and Guilty).

In short, I believe Generation Y Conservatives can embrace and reinforce our generation’s potential while countering the arrogance of youth and fighting for the timelessness of truth, justice and the American way.