It’s funny how our minds work sometimes. As I’ve watched news coverage of the public union members protesting in Wisconsin over the last few days, what came to my mind was one of the last scenes from The Wizard of Oz.
I am sure you remember the scene. After the balloon takes off and leaves Dorothy stranded, Glenda reappears and tells Dorothy that she had always had the power to go back home to Kansas. Glenda then asks if Dorothy has learned anything from her experience in Oz. Dorothy explains that she now realizes that it wasn’t enough to just want to go back home; instead, she had to learn that what she had been searching for had been back home in Kansas all along. With that, Glenda tells her to click the heels of her slippers and she can go back home.
In many ways what Conservatives have been wanting over the last few years is to return to that “Kansas” that mankind found so exceptional when it looked to America over these last few centuries: to a government and society based on the principles of real liberty, where we are free from the control of our lives and choices by a government or elite class, and where we address the needs of our families and neighbors together through our communities, our churches, and, if need be, our local governments. In essence, we’ve wanted to journey home to the country our Settlers and our Founders hoped we would inherit, strengthen and secure.
As the scenes from Wisconsin show, we aren’t in Kansas anymore—and we haven’t been there for a long time. Toward the end of the 19th Century, as our cities were bulging with immigrants and workers from the countryside, who came to work in the great industries of the day, activists and churches established what they always had formed—organizations and facilities to help these newcomers assimilate and survive in the new environment. Neighborhoods formed, and new institutions, like Hull House in Chicago, helped individuals and families navigate in the new industrial society.
But then, the activists became impatient. They studied the welfare-state and socialist movements in Europe (which were familiar to many of the new immigrants, too), and they believed that the power of government could be used to meet the needs of the new industrial society better than the old model inherited from the Settlers and Founders—an old model that these impatient activists themselves had, until then, been adapting to the urban environment. As a result, our 100-year odyssey in the progressive land of Oz began.
Frederick Jackson Turner, the famous University of Wisconsin and Harvard University History Professor, observed this process throughout his academic career. He gave a famous keynote speech at the Columbia Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, in which he noted that the frontier was gone, and that we would be faced with the challenge of addressing problems that we could no longer “go West” to avoid. Almost thirty years later, Turner noted
Western democracy through the whole of its earlier period tended to the production of a society of which the most distinctive fact was the freedom of the individual to rise under conditions of social mobility, and whose ambition was the liberty and well-being of the masses. The conception has vitalized all American democracy, and has brought it into sharp contrasts with the democracies of history, and with those modern efforts of Europe to create an artificial democratic order by legislation. The problem of the United States is not to create democracy, but to conserve democratic institutions and ideals.
Turner understood that, in trying to cope with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, Europe had tried to change the social dynamic of class and monarchy, and of the emerging urban class distinctions, through laws designed to give the common man more direct say in the government, and to give government more responsibility over the welfare of the common man. What Turner noted was that America already had created a working system whereby citizens’ liberties were protected—they didn’t need to legislate it into existence, but they did need to preserve it.
But by 1920, our century-long adventure in the Oz of centralized national government, and national and state government involvement in most facets of our lives and decisions, had begun. Though it would be slowed during the 1920s, and again during the 1980s, the march toward the Europeanization of our society has continued unabated—until now.
Over the last few years, a lot of us have awakened to the fact that we aren’t where we wanted to be: that what those activists 100 years ago had been looking for—more liberty, more economic prosperity, more security, and more “social justice”—wasn’t in Oz after all. Instead, we’ve built a mirage of an Emerald City based on money we never really had, and we’ve depleted the reserves of the grand Shining City on a Hill. We know now that the answers were always in the principles of the Settlers and the Founders, and in the society and governments they created; and we understand it’s time to go home to those principles, and to rebuild that society and government, to meet the challenges of a new century.
Unfortunately, a great many of our neighbors who still receive the benefits of the Oz we created, and who never really learned about, or lived in the Kansas of our country’s youth—like the union protesters in Madison—haven’t figured this out yet. In fact, they like Oz, and they want to cling to it as long as they can.
So, it’s for the rest of us to start the journey home, because we know that the Oz we’ve created can not last—it is unsustainable. However, the transformation that will be needed to travel from the Oz of today to the Kansas of tomorrow—to re-establish a limited government, and a strong, interdependent society of free people, based on our Settlers’ and Founders’ principles—won’t be as easy as closing our eyes and tapping our heels. If any of us ever thought that the journey would be short and painless, the pictures from Wisconsin this week should snap us out of that delusion.
As we make this journey, we need to make sure that those who want to lead us understand the difficulty, as well as the necessity of the journey ahead. Thankfully, we are learning that some do. For example, take a look at the CPAC speech given by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana at http://dailycaller.com/2011/02/11/full-text-mitch-daniels-speech-to-cpac/print/. Over the months and years ahead, let’s make sure that all of our leaders understand what we need to do to get back to Kansas.