“Are you serious?”
That’s how a visibly annoyed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied when a reporter dared ask where the Constitution grants Congress authority to require individuals to buy health insurance.
This vexed response from the House’s top Democrat last fall reveals the extent to which the intellectual, cultural and political elites have blithely abandoned the principles of America’s founding as outdated, defective and of little relevance to modern governance.
How—and why—did this come to be? The abandonment of first principles began about a hundred years ago as an intellectual project involving mostly academics and writers. It grew into a popular reform effort under the banner of “progressivism.”
Progressive thinkers sought to “re-found” America according to ideas alien to Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. Repudiating the Founders’ belief in the existence of self-evident truths, progressives saw only relative values. Similarly, they claimed, man enjoys no permanent rights endowed by God, only changing rights held at the indulgence of government.
With no eternal truths or permanent rights, Americans must be governed by a “living” Constitution, one that endlessly evolves and grows with the times.
The progressive movement—first under a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and then a Democratic one, Woodrow Wilson—set forth the platform of modern American liberalism: Progress means a form of government able to engineer a better society, assuring equal outcomes and redistributing wealth.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were grand steps toward achieving the progressive platform.
"Progressives insist the modern world is so complex and problematic that we need an activist government to manage political life and human affairs."
This new liberalism seeks to transform our constitutional structure of limited government into an increasingly powerful, centralized government focused on social reform. The rise of the modern administrative state, the growth of bureaucracy at every level, and the host of benefits the public has come to expect from government all undercut and pervert the American idea of self-government.
More than 170 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans of an emerging danger to democracy: “soft despotism.” This insidious threat, the French political thinker explained, could reduce a self-governing people to “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
The danger is greater than ever. The Left is pushing America toward European-style centralization of power. Liberal panjandrums seek an even more highly regulated economy, nationalization of industries and socialized health care. Lawmakers increasingly leave the “details” of how to implement legislation to unelected bureaucrats.
This isn’t progress. It’s the revival of a failed, undemocratic and illiberal kind of statism.
"Progressive ideas have not completely won the day. And in important ways, the progressive liberals have had to adapt to realities defined by the American political tradition."
Even so, the dominance of progressive arguments—in our schools and in the public square, as well as in our politics—has significantly weakened the very foundations of constitutionalism and limited government. That, of course, makes it all the more necessary to defend and recover the ideas of the Founders.
To flourish in the 21st century, America doesn’t need to redefine or remake itself by rejecting core principles in favor of more stylish beliefs. Rather, what’s needed is a great renewal of the foundational principles that are the true roots of American greatness.
We should focus on six priorities:
Educate for liberty. Public high schools tend to minimize or disparage the story of America’s founding, justifying this neglect by arguing it’s outdated and difficult to explain. Or teachers give short shrift to the principles of constitutional government and fixate on the Founders’ acknowledged flaws. It’s time the classroom again fostered understanding and appreciation of founding principles.
Engage the American mind. Despite constant scorn by academic elites and popular media, most Americans still believe our country is something special and respect the Founders’ ideas that make it so. Conservatives must repeatedly articulate these core principles and apply them to questions of the day, giving voice to the majority of citizens who haven’t given up on the American experiment.
Uphold the Constitution. Public officials take a solemn oath to support the Constitution, so they have a moral obligation to understand and abide by it. For members of Congress, this means refraining from passing bills that exceed their constitutional authority. For the president, it means rejecting unconstitutional bills and executing the law in a constitutional manner. Judges, uniquely positioned to spell out the meaning of the Constitution, must recognize they aren’t immune from its constraints.
Defend free markets and fiscal responsibility. Americans work hard to move their families up the economic ladder. The fruits of their labor are moral goods contributing to happiness, as are opportunities to pursue the American Dream. Yet democratic capitalism is under attack by progressives. Principled leaders must reconnect the economic arguments for liberty and prosperity with the moral case for equal opportunity, free enterprise and creativity.
Revive self-government. Government has assumed more and more tasks in more and more areas outside its responsibilities, greatly damaging American self-rule. When it encourages an entitlement mentality and dependency rather than self-reliance and independence, government weakens the character of the nation. Determined to impose moral neutrality, the state pushes churches and other traditional social institutions into the shadows. To strengthen the fabric of civil society, we must restore the standing and roles of those institutions.
Promote liberty. The United States has a special responsibility to defend the cause of liberty at home and abroad. Friends of freedom everywhere draw inspiration from our ideas and example. A confident understanding of founding principles reaffirms what Americans hold to be self-evident. Anything less would deny our birthright and undermine our moral standing in the world.
"Reclaiming America’s future will require a concerted, monumental effort to push back progressive liberalism’s assault on individual liberty and recover the Founders’ principles in our political culture."
Thankfully, more and more Americans realize how deeply the progressive movement has transformed our politics and society. We see this in town hall meetings, “tea party” protests and recent election returns.
Taxpayers and voters are looking to the principles of the American founding. Not merely as a matter of historical curiosity, but for its philosophical grounding, practical wisdom and limitless spirit of self-government and independence.Reclaiming America’s future will require a concerted, monumental effort to push back progressive liberalism’s assault on individual liberty and recover the Founders’ principles in our political culture.
In a world of moral confusion, of arbitrary and unlimited government, the founding provides our best access to permanent truths. It’s our best ground from which to repulse the whole progressive project to remake America. It is still our rock of assurance and direction, ready to guide us to the blessings of liberty, for ourselves and our posterity.
Are we serious? Yes, Madame Speaker, we are.
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
This article is based on portions of his book, “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future” (ISI Books).