Most Americans have a pretty good idea where we are. Where we are trending is a government that does more, spends more, and regulates more and more and then some more.
Our politics are covered by an intricate web of policies and procedures, rules and regulations, driven by growing streams of money flowing from D.C. to every state and locality, thousands of private and nonprofit organizations and millions of individuals. As a result, growing numbers are dependent on government benefits and entitlements. We’ve become more subjects of the state than self–governing citizens.
Our country is tending toward what Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about in Democracy in America: the soft despotism of the nanny state. “Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
In many circles, especially among liberal intellectuals and cultural elites, the truths proclaimed in 1776 have been supplanted by the passionately held belief that no such truths exist, certainly no truths applicable to all time. Over the past century, the government has lost many of its moorings and today acts with little concern for the limits in the Constitution, disregarded by many as an obsolete document.
As a result, many of our political leaders are increasingly rudderless, speaking in vague generalities, all the while mired in small-minded politics and petty debates. As a nation, we are left divided about our own meaning, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to defend our ideas, our institutions and ourselves.
To solve this problem, there are increased calls for change and progress in our national life. After all, it is said, change and progress are the essence of American democracy. We must keep up with the times and be liberated from the shackles of the past.
But where are we going? Forwards or backwards? Up or down? Change can be an empty promise or a dangerous deception. The change we need, the change that is consistent with the American idea, is not movement away from but toward our principles. What we seek is not change but renewal. The path we must follow requires a reborn conservatism, grounded in the abiding principles of American liberty as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
A conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths according to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It derives legitimacy from the consent of the government. It recognizes man’s self- interest but also his capacity for virtue.
A conservatism of the Constitution limits government’s power but makes sure that it performs its proper job effectively and energetically. It refines popular will through the filter of democratic representation at the same time that it checks and balances political power in distinct branches of government and through an extended nation of states. It unites all conservatives through the natural fusion provided by American principles. It reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, cultural conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety at home and prominence in the world.
A conservatism based on first principles provides the core framework for an internally consistent and meaningful policy agenda. It sustains conservatism’s appreciation for the central place of individual liberty; it informs our resistance to the liberal shift from equality of opportunity to equality of results; it supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom in the world; it demands the appointment of judges who understand that their proper function is to uphold the Constitution; it shores up the idea of free markets and encourages reforms grounded in market-based solutions; it works against unsustainable federal spending and the fiscal burdens placed on future generations; and it informs conservatism’s defense of family, neighborhood, local community and church.
It is not about returning to the 18th century, it is not some abstract or retreat from reality. It is about recalling the timeless principles that guide us in making practical decisions in accord with those principles, to regain our grounding so that we can think prudentially about the great policy questions of our time.
Keenly aware of the necessities of particular circumstances and the reality of actual outcomes, but fully informed by core principles, the political task is to advance principle as far as possible under prevailing conditions, always moving toward the goal and wary of illusory, short-term gains at the expense of larger objectives.
Abraham Lincoln asked at “what point is the approach of danger to be expected? It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” In the same speech Lincoln wrote that the “The temple of liberty must fall unless we supply new pillars hewn from solid materials, molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and Laws.”
If we are to succeed in the battles to come, we must be sure in our purpose. And we must begin by retaking and defending the high ground of America’s founding principles.
You can read A New American Fusionism: Recovering Principles in Our Politics, by Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at this link.