I think a lot of people around the world could be asking that question right now.
We hear shouts for “returning to the Constitution” or “limited government” or “liberty” or “fiscal discipline” from Conservative activists here at home, just as we hear cries for “freedom” and “democracy” from the streets in the Middle East. If either movement is to succeed, they must move from their chants and slogans, to understanding, visualizing, and then implementing the real future they seek to create.
So, the first question that all of these activists must answer is “what is the future I seek to create?” In essence, they must answer the question: “what am I fighting for?”
I don’t pretend to know what that future could or should look like in countries whose people have formed a society and culture based, in whole or in part, on the teachings of Muhammad (or “Mohammed”), but I do have some thoughts about what that future should look like here. In his Farewell Address in January, 1989, Ronald Reagan finally gave America a glimpse of what he had meant when he said he saw America as a “Shining City on a Hill”:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
I believe that many of us who desire to re-establish a limited, fiscally-sane governmental structure based on the blueprints provided in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, instinctively want to leave to our children Reagan’s Shining City on a Hill. I believe that this has been the desire of every generation of Americans, regardless of whether they are direct descendants of the original Settlers and Founders, their ancestors came here in the many waves of immigration since 1789, or they and their ancestors obtained their freedom from bondage and segregation through civil war and civil protests. Remember that when Martin Luther King, Jr., told us of his “Dream,” it was based on the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the words of the Bible—the same concepts that moved the Founders to strive to form “a more perfect union.”
But, to leave to our children Reagan’s Shining City on a Hill, we must first come to grips with what that effort will require, because the America Reagan saw, that King desired, and that our Founders addressed was a different America, with different attitudes and understandings, than the America of today. The Americans that received the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Constitution saw their obligations to each other far differently than we see them today, and they understood that the limited government they were establishing would not work without those obligations being met. We have to face the reality that establishing that Shining City on a Hill will require a fundamental transformation—a transformation that not only addresses a re-organization of government, but a re-orientation of the way we each see ourselves as citizens—those “people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
This re-orientation of our understanding of American citizenship will not be easy, because we are far removed from the Americans who first received the Declaration and ratified the Constitution. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Recently, on one of the Sunday-morning TV talk shows, Republican Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona was on a panel and began a statement with the phrase “government is a necessary evil.” Immediately, the moderator interrupted her with a condescending challenge: “Now, Governor, you don’t really mean evil, do you?” To which, a puzzled Brewer responded, “Ok, it’s necessary,” and then she went on to discuss her point.
Frankly, I initially was stunned by this segment, until I thought about it a little. I am sure that most of you reading this post know that Brewer’s original remark was a quote from one of our Founders. A subset of you can probably identify it as a phrase used by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 8 to describe the creation of a standing army, as well as a concept central to Madison’s arguments in Federalist Papers Nos. 10 and 51.
Unfortunately, those of us cursed with the memory of what “necessary evil” means must realize that, after 100 years of learning a different narrative about our country, most of our neighbors couldn’t identify the history of that phrase, would not understand its historical meaning, and would have reacted just like the moderator—in fact, none of the three other Governors on the panel, let alone Governor Brewer herself, attempted to explain or defend her use of that phrase.
But the audience who first read those words in the New York newspapers during the ratification debate over the Constitution—both Federalist and Ant-Federalist—would’ve known, understood, and agreed with those words. They eventually agreed with Madison’s approach to dealing with the “necessary evil” dilemma, because they understood that our liberty would be protected only by combining the promotion of the virtues needed to sustain the fundamental relationships of a free society, with the extended republic and checks and balances of the federal system of government written into the new Constitution.
Most importantly, that audience understood that promoting and sustaining the practice of fundamental virtues among individual citizens was fundamental to the success of their new experiment. They believed that liberty was the freedom from being controlled by a government, an elite class, or a faction; it was not freedom from their neighbors or their neighborhoods, for they understood John Donne’s point that
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
To them, citizenship in a free society required active involvement in the life of the community and all its organizations; it was not a license to receive tax-paid benefits, nor a right to delegate community involvement to tax-paid bureaucrats. Democracy is what transpired in town hall meetings and town councils called or elected by the people to govern communities, in service organizations and church congregations, and in schools; while the work of elected representatives in state and national capitols was limited to a few specific tasks outlined in republican constitutions.
As C.S. Lewis observed,
And all the time—such is the tragic-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. … In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
And to his observation, I would now add,
We now promote an isolation from our neighbors and expect them to provide care and charity when help is needed. We create a dependency on government to pay for essential services and are shocked when no one will sacrifice to provide for those services themselves. We call on our national government to address our every problem and need, while we demand that our representatives re-institute limited government and follow the Constitution.
The reality is that we can prune back the branches of the progressive governmental trees we’ve planted over the last 100 years by cutting their budgets to the trunk, but that won’t limit government to what our Founders intended. Eventually, if that’s all we do, the branches will grow back.
The change we want will require uprooting the progressive tree. It will require uprooting our lives from the patterns we’ve created and becoming more involved in the democracy of our communities—our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our service organizations and churches, and our local governments. I know that this challenge may sound too daunting to even contemplate, or that it is historically too late, or society has become to complex, to make this type of transformation possible—we Conservatives have faced these arguments for decades. As Herbert Hoover observed in a book published a year after he left office as the New Deal was being implemented:
Our problems today are all strongly silhouetted against the background of depression. …And from all this maze of problems and emotions many thoughtful people assume that our difficulties are due to an irreconcilable conflict of Liberty with our complex Industrial Age, …. We must not conclude that ours is the only generation which has thought this, nor the first that has had to meet great perplexities. Men of every generation have envisaged their problems in terms of despair, but the dynamic impulses given to men from Liberty always have found tolerable solutions, so tolerable that a gigantic progress swept onward from generation to generation.
… Those who proclaim that in a Machine Age there is created an irreconcilable conflict in which liberty cannot survive should not forget the battles of liberty over the centuries, …. It is not because Liberty is unworkable, but because we have not worked it conscientiously or have forgotten its true meaning that we often get the notion of irreconcilable conflict with the Machine Age.
As daunting as the challenge may seem, I believe that we have not completely forgotten the true meaning of Liberty. Remember that the remnants of our unique society still exist under all of the layers of government we’ve created. Those basic relationships that formed the core of our democratic communities still function every day. Teachers, parents and children still work together to mold productive citizens. Patients and doctors still trust each other to keep us healthy. Neighbors still have local courthouses available where they can resolve their disputes. Police officers and fire-fighters still stand ready at a moments notice to keep us safe. Water and sanitation districts, street and bridge builders, and gas and utility companies still work to make sure we have access to the basic necessities for our homes and neighborhoods to function. Entrepreneurs and professionals still start businesses, employ neighbors, sell products and services, pay taxes, serve on private boards, and support communities. We still have a network of families, churches, homeowners associations, and other private service organizations, ready and willing to address our daily needs, and to build and sustain our neighborhoods. It is the proper functioning of these relationships, over hundreds of years, which has made America exceptional—and none of them need Austin or Washington to exist or to thrive, but they do need us.
On these remnants we can re-build our unique society and re-establish limited and fiscally-sane government. But, we have to be willing to believe that the blueprints provided by the Declaration and the Constitution are still viable, and then re-commit ourselves to this project. We have to re-engage in the democratic life of our communities. We have to start and support local businesses, join our local service organizations and churches, and involve ourselves in our schools and local governments—and then demand that these enterprises shoulder the needs of our communities with our help, rather than look to Austin or Washington for action. Once we make that commitment, then all of the hard work of re-organizing government will have a direction and a purpose—and we can get down to the difficult work that such re-organization will require.
If we re-build society according to these timeless plans, I believe we will leave that Shining City on a Hill to our children. I don’t know about you, but that is what I am fighting for.