I retired recently after a 40-year career in the Mathematics Department of the University of Maryland – the last eleven of which were spent as a senior campus administrator. My prior presentation here dealt with an article that I published in the American Thinker, which was read by Rush Limbaugh over the air, and in which I described my difficulties in surviving as a conservative faculty member in an overwhelmingly liberal campus environment. The short story is that, to my shame, I did it by staying in the political closet for many years. But as I approached retirement, I did three things: First, I wrote a book entitled Liberal Hearts and Conservative Brains, which is referenced on the handout. Second, I came out of the closet on campus. The campus response is described in the American Thinker article, which you can find on their website, at the link above, and also by following the links on the handout. And finally, I began to write for and publish regularly in conservative online magazines. Richard has asked me to speak today about two recent articles that I published. They appeared in The Intellectual Conservative and The Land of the Free – and, to continue the shameless commercial, you can also find them by following the links on the flyer.
Unlike virtually all other countries, the United States of America was founded upon a set of ideas. Its people did not coalesce around a religion, race, ethnic heritage, language or geographical area in order to form itself into a coherent, recognizable nation. Rather the US was constituted by an amazingly astute and prescient group of Founders who created an entity that would maximize individual liberty and endow the people with the greatest chance to have a life of freedom, justice and prosperity. The ideals that undergird this nation, unique in the annals of world history, are enshrined in its founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be an American is to subscribe to and strive to embody these ideals.
The founding documents laid out the track that Americans were to follow in order to preserve our freedoms, our just society and our unparalleled prosperity. Alas, America has jumped the tracks. It is my purpose here to explain the derailment more concretely and to pose an overarching strategy for returning to the rails.
Now I assert in the piece that the tracks that our beloved country has jumped are laid out along three rails: political, moral and idealistic. In the first of these (the political), I refer to the ideas of a republican government with limited, enumerated powers, individual liberty, rule of law and equal justice, consent of the governed, and the other founding political principles bequeathed to us by our Founders, and from which we have been fleeing at an alarming rate. The moral rail refers to the idea, completely understood and enunciated by our Founders, that the experiment in limited government could only succeed if the people were generally “good” – meaning that they had a clear understanding of and could distinguish between good and evil, just and unjust, honesty and dishonesty, responsibility and irresponsibility. If the people made the right choices when confronted with moral opposites, the system would work well and the nation would thrive; if not, then corruption, vice and malfeasance would surely follow, with tyranny the ultimate outcome. The people would learn to make the right choices because they were embedded in a society that prized strong families and communities, charity and good works, universal education, a powerful work ethic and the fear of God. I hardly need remind you that such ideas would be found laughable by far too many of America’s current leaders. And finally, the third rail, the idealistic, is summarized, perhaps a bit glibly, by asserting that the Founders were the first believers in American exceptionalism. They saw the American people as the “new Hebrews,” a people chosen by God to provide, by their example, a light unto the nations in regard to how a just and free society should be organized and governed. The Founders understood that they were creating something unique and revolutionary. They expected that their descendants would guard it zealously and hold it up as a beacon for the peoples of the world to emulate. The “descendant” who currently resides in the White House is not waving any beacons.
Americans rode these rails for more than a century. But beginning in the so-called Progressive Era a century ago, continuing through the New Deal and the Great Society, and culminating today under the Prophet Obama, the American people have been abandoning these tracks. In all three strains, the train has been diverted onto a route that bears less and less resemblance to the path laid out by the Founders. We might ask: How and why did this happen? And if we can formulate an accurate answer, can we make use of it to get back on the rails?
The answer is found in my articles. At the risk of oversimplification, it goes as follows. First I subsumed the second and third tracks under the single heading culture. After all, the components that determine a people’s morality and ideals are precisely the contents of their culture. The key point is then to acknowledge the insight of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci from the Progressive Era, who asserted: One need only capture the culture. The politics will follow. And that is exactly what the leftists did over the last century. Through an unremitting assault on many fronts, the Left took control of all the opinion-forming organs of American society: the media, educational establishment (lower and higher), the legal profession, foundations and libraries, the government bureaucracy and the unions, the seminaries, the marketing industry and (to a certain extent) the upper echelons of big business. Once the people’s mindset was converted from individual liberty to collective equality, security and order, it was easy to convince them to implement the political changes that enabled the conversion of America from a free society into a statist society.
The cultural assault by the Left was broad, sustained, relentless and purposeful. The Right – naively assuming that things would naturally stay the way they always had been – wasn’t even paying attention. A few noticed (e.g., William Buckley), but for the most part, traditionalists and conservatives did not appreciate that the fundamental organs of society that supported and maintained the traditional American culture were being subverted and diverted to something radically different. It is only in recent times that a substantial portion of traditional America has awakened to the radical leftist revolution that has swept the country and which threatens to kill the historic society that America embodied. The issue is how to resuscitate the latter.
The answer is in principle simple: we do it exactly as we lost it, i.e., by retaking control of the culture, reestablishing the moral and idealistic themes that animated the American soul for more than two centuries. Here are some concrete suggestions:
· Fox News has proven a valuable counterweight to the mainstream news media. We need many more such venues.
· Similarly, conservative newspapers like the Washington Times have provided some balance in the print news media. We need more such conservative newspapers, magazines, periodicals and online journals.
· The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have arisen to challenge the Ford, Rockefeller and other left-wing foundations and think tanks (which ironically were established by conservative businessmen). The former must be multiplied many-fold.
· In the same vein, Regnery has provided a conservative counter punch in the book publishing industry. More such outlets are required.
· We need to have law schools that champion strict constitutional interpretation of the law; public libraries that display conservative books more prominently than liberal ones; movie producers that explore patriotic themes and other genres that extol the virtues of traditional culture; and highly successful businessmen (unlike Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, e.g.) who promote conservative ideas and resist the lure of crony capitalism.
· The next suggestion is more political than cultural, but the American people must return to the idea (most clearly articulated, ironically, by the arch leftist, FDR) that unionization of public sector employees poses a grave threat to the nation. Unions like SEIU must be decommissioned. When that happens we might be able to address our explosive and crippling entitlement programs in a rational way.
· And finally – and most importantly – we must take back our schools. The damage that the Left is doing in our public schools is amply documented in Marybeth Hicks’ recent book, Don’t Let the Kids Drink the Kool-Aid. Whatever the medium – charter schools, vouchers, or something else – we must break the back of the monopoly that the NEA has on the education of American children and enable schools to re-instill traditional American values into our children, and so into our future.
Two points to close: First, polls continue to identify America as a “Center-Right” nation. One sees percentages like: 40% Conservative, 20% Liberal, 40% Centrist or Independent. And the polls have reported such figures for a long time. How can that be? How can such a supposedly conservative country have so readily glommed onto the liberal/statist program that has dominated our politics and culture for decades? I think that there are two components to the answer. First, many who identify themselves as conservatives are not really so. For example, consider those who see themselves as patriotic, law-abiding and proud of their country’s history; but who at the same time, also approve of wealth redistribution, same-sex marriage, the United Nations and affirmative action. It does not occur to them that such views constitute proof that they are indeed not really conservative. Second, what exactly does it mean to be Independent? The competing visions for America held by the Left and Right are irreconcilable. It makes no sense to be “in the middle”; it does not reflect a coherent worldview, but rather a non-Solomonic willingness to split the baby. Alas, many in the middle are equally comfortable with the ideas that I attributed above to faux conservatives. Thus many are confused about where they stand in the political spectrum and it is dubious that we truly continue to be a Center-Right nation. But we can be again – if we find a way to implement the steps that I outlined above.