We can change America’s course, but only if we understand what makes America exceptional.
I should have been the happiest of politicians. I was a respected U.S. senator from my home state of South Carolina. I had played a key role, through my political action committee, in bringing principled conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and other new leaders to join me in the Senate. I was cheered when I addressed local and national rallies of the Tea Party, a dynamic new force in American politics. I was a frequent guest on television and radio, and quoted in leading newspapers and journals. I had challenged the Washington establishment and forced it to make major concessions on supposedly untouchable practices like earmarks.
By standing for fundamental American ideas like limited constitutional government and individual responsibility, and against politics as usual, I had made a difference in how Washington worked.
And yet I was deeply frustrated by how little Washington had really changed. We still have an ever-expanding federal government and an ever-mounting national debt—approaching $17 trillion as I write in mid-2013. As of 2013, the share of federal debt for every man, woman, and child in America is $53,000.
And despite all the trillions of dollars flowing from Washington, the official unemployment figure, as I write, hovers between 7 and 8 percent—and some Americans have dropped out of the labor force altogether. The real wages of the average American worker have not risen in thirty years. And we have a permanent underclass dependent upon government for everything from their food to their housing.
No matter how hard other conservatives in Congress and I tried to stop it, the federal government kept metastasizing, invading every aspect of the life of every American. I started to wonder what kind of future my four grown children and four grandchildren face. There was a time when many of us believed that the American dream would endure forever because America was too big to fail. But the warning signs cannot be ignored. Economic weakness and cultural decay are all around us. I fear that many institutions in America, and especially government, may have gotten too big to succeed.
Yet despite the obvious threats to our future, we don’t seem able to agree on what’s wrong or what we as citizens can do to get America back on the right track. The question I hear most often as I travel around the country is an urgent one: “What can I do?”
Politics as Usual Is Not the Answer
Big-government politicians in Washington, D.C., are not going to solve our problems. Quite the opposite: If we don’t stop them, they will turn our country into another bankrupt nation. Our politics have become intensely negative and even self-destructive. Commonsense solutions like a balanced budget are ignored, and demagogues drown out the voices of reason and prudence.
We live in an age when instant communications and continuous polling, massively funded by special interests, have created a politics of misinformation and blatant pandering. Permanent campaigning has not only polarized politics, it has divided America. It has smothered our love of country and our love for one another.
I lived in this poisonous political environment for over fifteen years as a candidate, congressman, and senator. Then, in January 2013, I resigned from the Senate to join The Heritage Foundation as its president and CEO, convinced I could do more to help save the American dream for this generation and future generations from outside rather than inside the Washington establishment.
But saving the American dream is far beyond the power of any one person or institution. Every generation in its turn must fight for our country and sacrifice for the next generation. Now is our time. You and I, along with millions of other Americans, must join our hearts and minds to save the country we love.
I have talked with many discouraged Americans who believe that our problems are so big and intractable there is nothing anyone can do to save our country. This is not true. There is a way and only one way to start to change America’s course, to turn back in a direction that will reunite our nation and preserve the blessings of liberty for us all: We must fall in love with America—again.
We must begin by recognizing the reason for the politics of deceit and distortion. Political consultants use negative campaigns to suppress voter turnout, especially among people who don’t follow politics closely and who want little from government. The strategy works. If they successfully discourage Americans who don’t look to government to solve their problems from going to the polls, that leaves the outcome of elections primarily in the hands of those who want more from government.
But if we can convince voters who want more freedom and opportunity—and less government intrusion into their lives—to register and vote, they can defeat the proponents of big government. This is what happened in the 2010 elections, when citizens inspired by the Tea Parties and their spontaneous grassroots activism turned out in force. It can happen again if we make clear to our fellow citizens how much is at stake, and provide the leadership to unite and inspire them.
Part of our challenge is to help our fellow Americans see that big government is not the solution to our problems; rather, it causes many of those problems, or makes them worse. Big government works hand in hand with big banks, big business, big labor, and big special interests, which are choking free markets and smothering the institutions of family, community, and church that built and sustained a strong, prosperous, and free United States of America through its first century and a half.
Now, big is not always bad—America is a land of big ideas, big dreams, and big accomplishments. But present-day big government is replacing self-government and what the British political philosopher Edmund Burke called the “little platoon.”
The danger signs of a nation in deadly decline are all around us. State governments like those of Michigan and Illinois are edging toward bankruptcy. The city of Detroit became the largest U.S. city in history to file for bankruptcy. Young people are graduating from high school or college into a world of minimal job opportunities. Cohabitation is up and marriage is down. But the most serious casualty of big government and negative politics may be the loss of what Burke called “public affections.”
“Public affections” means love of country, love of community, and love of our fellow man. It involves pride in our country and gratitude for our way of life. It is the source of patriotism and the fuel of responsible citizenship.
As Burke put it, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”1 He is saying that the indispensable glue that holds a country together comes from our association with the people and institutions that are closest to us. I believe his insight is the most convincing explanation of America’s exceptional success in the past and of our present decline.
The Founders of our Republic agreed with Burke about the importance of public affections to a united nation. In Federalist No. 46, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, challenged both state governments and the national government to rise above their parochial interests to “partake sufficiently of the spirit of both” state and national interests.
In his farewell address to the American people, President George Washington said that their new country “has a right to concentrate your affections.” He reminded his fellow citizens that they had fought and triumphed together “in a common cause.” “The independence and liberty you possess,” he said, “are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
In his first inaugural address, following a prolonged and bitter election campaign, Thomas Jefferson urged his fellow citizens to “unite with one heart and one mind.” “Let us restore to social intercourse,” he said, “that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
How, you may ask, is this possible? I think the only reasonable answer is through the kind of voluntary groups observed by French author Alexis de Tocqueville on his visit to America in the 1830s. He saw that within our states (there were twenty-four of them by then) were hundreds and hundreds of communities composed of individuals engaged in self-government. These communities were sustained by what he called “associations”—civic associations, religious and charitable organizations, business groups, local newspapers, and political parties. They built schools and hospitals and churches and in so doing deepened and widened the spirit of America.
Tocqueville identified two major factors that sustained that spirit—active local governments operating within a federal system, and the belief of the American people that they were masters of their own fate.
It is that American spirit—based on the first principles of the Founding but weakened by progressive big-government presidents from Wilson to Obama—that we must rejuvenate without delay.