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The American Idea: What It Is, Why It Matters, and Why It Is in Jeopardy
On October 22, 2015, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse delivered the keynote address at ISI’s tenth annual Dinner for Western Civilization. The spring 2016 issue of the IR is excited to share these insights from a rising political star and a profound thinker who holds degrees from Harvard, St. John’s College, and Yale.
We face great challenges at this moment in history. We face cyber threats. We face a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. We face a jihadi threat. We face the growing threat of nonstate actors, who now can carry out massive attacks and are as able to play on the global stage as state actors. We face the exploding costs of our entitlement programs.
All these challenges are acute, but another dangerous trend is attracting less notice: the crisis of confidence in, and the growing unawareness of, the American idea.
What is the American idea? The American Founding made the bold claim that most peoples and most governments in the history of the world had been wrong about the nature of power and the nature of freedom. Sure, there had been moments in history when certain city-states advanced some conception of liberty. But most people in human history had said that might makes right: if you have a monopoly on power, you can do what you want. Everyone else in those societies was not a citizen but a dependent subject. If you lived in such a society, you needed the king to give you rights. The passive assumption was prohibition. The passive assumption was that if I want to start a business, I need a charter, because it’s illegal to run that business unless the king has sanctioned it. So I go and supplicate before the king in his court, and he decides whether to give me the right to start that business.
Today we would say that’s bizarre. The voluntary transaction between two people is the very nature of freedom. The American Founders saw that denying people their freedom is fundamentally wrong because it doesn’t comport with the dignity of people who are created in the image of God. People have been endowed with certain inalienable rights. God gives us those rights; government does not.
Government is merely a tool. It provides a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can live fully flowering lives.
This is why Ronald Reagan said that the American Founders “brought about the only true revolution that has ever taken place in man’s history.” Previous revolutions “simply exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers,” Reagan said. But America’s Founders did something different: they developed and fought for “the idea that you and I have within ourselves the God-given right and the ability to determine our own destiny.”
Think about how the framers of the Constitution wrestled with whether to enumerate any rights. What’s the danger in enumerating rights? Your list will never be long enough. The Constitution actually doesn’t define any rights because the Constitution is the way that we give the government limited authority. All the powers that we don’t give to the government are rights that we still retain. Even when the framers came up with the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights, they couldn’t decide on any one individual right to list first. They had to list five things in the First Amendment: religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to redress grievances. Those five freedoms are all listed as first freedoms because there’s no way you can get the list complete.
And that is a crucial point to understand whenever you hear discussions of “limited government.” We talk about limited government not because we’re obsessed with government; we talk about it because we’re obsessed with the maximal nature of human freedom and human dignity and human potential. The American experience with limited government is not about government. It’s about people—about the dignity and the full lives that God envisioned for people created in his image. Limited government is just a means to that end.
That’s the American idea. And it has had unbelievable results.
America’s Civil Society
Even after the United States won independence from Great Britain, Europeans were too distracted by their own issues—the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and so on—to take much notice of the Americans. In fact, not until the conclusion of the War of 1812 did it become clear to Europe that the Americans would retain their freedom.
Then, beginning in the 1820s, America embarked on a market revolution as well as transportation and engineering revolutions. This is when Europeans really began to take notice: Who are these people, and how is all this economic flowering happening over there?
Alexis de Tocqueville comes to the new world in 1831 to try to answer such questions, to explain American dynamism to Europeans. What does he do? He goes to Washington, D.C., because if you have a vibrant society, it must be because you have greater bureaucrats than anyone else.
But when Tocqueville arrives in Washington, he finds a swamp. So he realizes he must go elsewhere to find the source of American innovation. He spends nine months traveling up and down the United States. Finally he writes back to Europe and says, I found the meaning of America. It is . . . the Rotary Club.
What Tocqueville found was America’s communal life. Americans had discovered new ways to associate with one another. Europeans wondered, how can you ever take on shared projects if the government isn’t in charge? Tocqueville saw that Americans had found the answer by building a robust civil society—intermediating institutions that struck the balance between the extremes of collectivism, which means that the government is in charge, and isolated individualism.
That’s what Democracy in America is about: the volunteer spirit of Americans who came together to create communal life. The American dynamism of the 1830s was just a working out of an idea that was clear to those who were drafting the Constitution a half century earlier, and that should still be our idea today.
The American Idea in Peril
But now that idea, the American idea, is in peril. Ronald Reagan recognized the importance—and the fragility—of the American idea when he said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed down for them to do the same.”
Today we’re not doing a good job of fighting for or handing down the American idea. Think of President Barack Obama’s response when asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This is exactly the opposite of what American exceptionalism means.
Obama’s misunderstanding of American exceptionalism was deeply wedded with the philosophy that the Democratic National Committee followed throughout the 2012 election. The videos used to introduce the president on the campaign trail and celebrate his first term featured a troubling line from then-congressman Barney Frank: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” That is an abandonment of the core American understanding of what government is. Remember, government is the tool by which we create a framework for ordered liberty; it guards the natural liberties of the people so they can go out and build flourishing lives.
That flourishing rests, of course, on individual rights, but as Tocqueville saw, individualism alone is not the answer. The American idea of freedom centers on civil society and mediating institutions, all those ways that we form real communities—communities of the heart and communities of the soul; communities of voluntarism, not of compulsory institutions.
We often hear that politics has become too polarized, and that characterization is a fair one when it comes to political elites and the nationally attentive. But I think our more fundamental crisis is a crisis of disengagement. We have so many people who have little understanding of what it means to transmit republican ideals to the next generation that we now see a drift toward the assumption that it is the government’s job is to solve every problem. The framers of the Constitution were quite clear about what governments do and don’t do, and about what powers and responsibilities reside at the federal level versus the state and local levels. But as a people we have lost that clarity.
Government is not “the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” No, as the Founders and Alexis de Tocqueville would have recognized, it is in coming together in voluntary communities outside the sphere of government—in civil society—that we get things done together.
We have big battles to fight to persuade people that the American idea is in crisis, because so many of our fellow citizens have never even heard what it is. To say that the solution to virtually every problem is a government solution, and especially a federal government solution, represents a regression from the American idea. The true greatness of America is the ability of people to build institutions together and to fully flower.
In the economy, in higher education, and in so many other fields, what we need at this moment is more innovation. We need more entrepreneurs. We need more civil society. We need more striving for independence, not more homogenization and standardization. We need to preserve and enhance the communities that have made America great, not seek to become more European in the way we embrace the future.
The full flowering of America has always depended on the private sector. The private sector isn’t just for-profit entities; the private sector includes all of civil society, all those mediating institutions that have defined Tocquevillian American greatness for two centuries.
Ben Sasse is a United States Senator representing Nebraska. Before his election to the Senate in 2014, he served as president of Midland University, where he turned around a failing institution and made it one of the fastest-growing colleges in America. Senator Sasse holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, and a PhD from Yale.
Image by Jake Ingle via Unsplash.
Complement with Dan Mahoney on rescuing culture from “appropriation,” Bradley J. Birzer on how nothing has fundamentally changed since the election, and the student’s guide to American political thought.
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