Note: This was written in August, 2015, during the Obama administration. Lamentations about the current state of affairs pertain to an era now past. Hope for the future, though, burns eternal.
We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.
– Neil Howe & William Strauss, The Fourth Turning
So many say it or think it. Why bother?
I think it myself. A lot. I pull out of the civic process for big chunks of time, disappointed in the people I’ve voted for, disappointed in people I’ve campaigned for, disappointed in people I fight alongside, disappointed in my own ineffectiveness. Sometimes it’s best to pretend I was never involved.
But the world always brings me back.
Because the labor participation rate is the lowest it’s been since the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration. People who want to work don’t work. People who want full-time jobs work one or more part-time jobs. People who believe that if they work hard and stay in school and don’t have babies can’t find meaningful work. Or they hear the rules have changed, and now “making it” means a government check and a room in Mom’s basement.
Because lives matter. Yes, black lives matter. All lives matter. And lives get snuffed out every day of every week because 40 years of federal programs have failed the people they’re designed to help. They’ve cheapened life and deprived millions of the dignity of decent work, decent wages, and a safe community. The war on drugs and the war on poverty have body counts like any other war. Housing and education programs have made housing less available and education less meaningful. And the government’s failures hurt real flesh and blood human beings.
Because God and my family blessed me with the brain and the education and the curiosity to learn that the solution to jobs and crime, to apathy and hopelessness, are not impossible mysteries of the cosmos but proven, quantified social policies that work every time and everywhere they’re tried.
Because the burden of knowledge is a call to duty. We want people to experience the dignity of meaningful work and the pride of living their own lives. We know how to make that happen. And we’re frustrated that a meddlesome few won’t let us do it.
Because we were told from childhood on to leave every place a little better than we found it. Whether it’s the schools we attend, the bathrooms we use, or the earth we wander for 80 years, we feel a compulsion to leave everything better than we found it.
I am almost 52 years old. For the first 30 years of my life, things were getting better, particularly from 1981 to 1993. Then we plateaued. And the past decade has been straight drop down.
Before my time is up, I want to know every person who can work finds meaningful work to do, that everyone who works can afford to care for himself and his family, that the safety nets we’ve built support those who truly need them without the stress of able-bodied people using the safety net as a hammock.
Because we know that discouraging people from becoming the best they can be is to deny them their God given right to flourish, to live, to feel the pride of doing something for themselves and for the benefit of others.
Because we are Americans. We take the words of our founding documents as creed. We believe in the self-evident truth that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that our government was established to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our children.
Because the job of securing liberty is never done. The lust for power and control never sleep. And the duty falls to each generation to renew our founding creed, improve its outcomes, and pass along its wisdom and promises to the next.
Because we love people so much we are willing to give up our nights and weekends, our money and, if necessary, our lives to see our fellow Americans live free with dignity and opportunity for all.
Because we are conservatives. Ours is not an economic system or a math formula. We don’t believe in big business as the solution to our problems. Nor do we believe it’s “every man for himself.”
Rather, we bother because conservatism is a moral philosophy from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to the preamble of the Constitution, our moral philosophy is based on human rights–life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, the dignity of work, the rewards of labor, the love of family, and the security of a freely chosen community.
Those are the principles and conditions we seek to conserve. Not merely some tradition whose origins we cannot name. Not some a priori truth that’s too sacred to expose to empirical scrutiny. It’s the words we all know by heart–the words Jefferson penned and Martin Luther King sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that all men are created equal.
In our America, murder is rare because every person sees every other person as a child of God with rights equal to their own life.
In our America, welfare is rare because every person seeks to engage in meaningful work trusting the benefits of that work will go to the worker.
In our America, unemployment is short and rare because every person wants to work and every community feels shame when it has unemployed people in its midst.
In our America, racial strife is rare because we recognize the inherent value and dignity God infused in every person.
In our America, want is unheard of because our generosity of spirit knows no limits.
In our America, people are vigilant against intruders, thieves, and free-riders because every person contributed to the greatness of the society.
In our America, bad things still happen, but we pull together, nurse the wounded, comfort the grieving, and look forward to the next challenge.
In our America, work is a blessing, not a punishment.
In our America, the needy are “untapped resources, not liabilities to be managed," as Arthur C. Brooks wonderfully puts it.
In our America, history is not a home we seek to re-enter, but a well-learned lesson that gives us hope and wisdom as we press toward the other side.
Some say our America is impossible. They may be right. But deep down inside, I believe they’re wrong. The only thing really impossible is imagining the impossible. Imagination is simply a memory that hasn’t happened yet.
In 1775, this country was impossible because it existed only in the imaginations of a few men. Yet here we are.
Yes, the past decade has been difficult, but we’ve survived difficulties before. The Jamestown settlers lost 80 percent of their population, including their most prominent citizens.The Pilgrims lost half their members to disease, starvation, and crime. Slaves rounded up in Africa died by the scores crossing the Atlantic, only to emerge into slavery. We fought a brutal civil war to end slavery and preserve a fractured union. Economic panics and natural disasters pocked the 19th century. Depression and world wars scarred the 20th.
And somehow that mythical nation dreamt up in the imaginations of a few spirited colonists survives 240 years later.
Today a friend of mine told me that America is at a crossroads.We must choose between an autocrat of the left or an autocrat of right.
I told him, “Maybe I’m too much like James T. Kirk, but I don’t believe in no-win situations.”
That’s why I believe we can preserve this imaginary nation. We cannot preserve America by becoming un-American. We can survive only by doubling down on the contradictions that made us the greatest nation in history.
We are rough but decent
We are irreverent but polite
We are individual but highly social
We are brave but seek the safety of community
We are strong and armed but gentle and giving
We are fierce in battle but gracious in victory
We are wealthy beyond reason but industrious and fair
We are one nation segmented 300 million ways
We are a nation of God with compassion for those unblessed with faith
We are Americans
We are proud but humble
We are great because of our people not because of our government. If our government is great, it is so because of the people who designed, fund it, regulate it, and populate it.
We are great because decent people were left free to live their own lives and pursue their own happiness. We remain great so long as free people choose to live harmoniously together, to share a portion of their wealth to meet common needs and to care for the indigent.
It’s a precarious balance, this freedom, like walking a tightrope. On one side is tyranny, on the other is anarchy.
Because I want to see what’s on the other end of the rope. And I can’t do it alone.
Please share your thoughts below.