Oct 21 2014
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but visiting Hillsdale reminds me of what a special place a college campus can be at its best.
The last time I was on a college campus was this past August when I held a series of town hall events across Utah, many of which were held in college auditoriums.
Every town hall event is unique, but for the most part they all share one common feature. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but, despite often being hosted on college campuses, the average age at most of my town hall events is – how should I say this? – slightly higher than the average age at the college where the event is taking place.
But there was one town hall this year that was different. At this particular town hall I noticed a group of young people sitting in the audience. When I say “young,” I don’t mean young for one of my town hall events – I mean young... young like all the students in this auditorium.
So naturally when I saw them my first thought was: they must be lost. After all, we were on a college campus; chances were that they accidentally stumbled into the wrong event.
Polite Utahns that they were, I figured they were waiting until just the right moment – perhaps when we all bowed our heads for the opening prayer – to get up and make a break for the exit.
But much to my surprise, through the prayer, pledge of allegiance, and even my opening remarks – which usually send at least a couple people to the door – they remained right where they were.
As it turns out, they were students from another nearby college, and they had come with one of their professors. I discovered this because, after my opening remarks, the professor raised his hand and asked respectfully, on behalf of his students: “Could you please explain to these young people why exactly they should care about what you have to say?”
It was a great question, even a profound question. And I have been thinking about it, in particular, since Dr. Arnn invited me to speak here this evening.
As I saw it, this professor was actually asking two separate questions. First, why should young people care about politics, period?
And second, even if young people do care about politics, why should they care about what I – a conservative member of the Republican Party – have to say about it?
Young Americans have the dual distinction of being the age cohort that is most disengaged from politics, and also the cohort most supportive of the Democratic Party.
It occurred to me that, in a way, he was asking these questions not just for the group of students that he brought with him, but for young Americans everywhere.
And so I’d like to use my time this evening to try and answer these two questions.
First, why does politics matter?
To be clear, I’m not talking about the politics you see in popular culture, on Scandal or House of Cards, or the politics of attack ads during campaign season.
What I mean here is politics in the highest sense of the word. Politics in this sense is the activity first of ordering and then of sustaining the regime and the political constitution of a nation. It is the province of common deliberation over the common good, guided by “reflection and choice,” as Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 1, rather than dependent on “accident and force.”
Politics is about self-government... it’s about governing ourselves as a people, and governing ourselves as men and women of good character. And politics always matters.
In Federalist 10, James Madison explained why: “As long as the reason of man continues [to be] fallible, and [as long as] he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
Man’s fallible nature: this is the eternal source of our political disputes... this is the reason politics still matters today.
But for those who have never read the Federalist papers, or been lucky enough to hear Dr. Arnn explain the word “architectonic,” there is a more obvious and practical reason young people should care about politics… because politics shapes the world they inhabit. Politics may not dictate your path in life. But it absolutely will dictate whether that path is clear or obstructed, safe or treacherous.
Young adults are constantly told that they are our country’s future. But in truth, they are a large and growing part of our present. In truth, the world is becoming more and more yours every day, with one glaring exception.
What defines the world around us today? Choice. Customization. Community. Innovation.
When young people today see something that’s not working, they expect that it can be fixed, through some combination of ingenuity, cooperation, and technology. Whatever you need, there’s an app for that.
Tired of sifting through a media filter? Get news straight from the source on Twitter.
Nothing good on TV? Fire up Netflix.
Need a ride? Open up Uber and Lyft on your smart phone.
Hotels too expensive? Get a place through Craigslist or AirBnB.
Local restaurants not doing it for you? There’s probably a food truck with a social media account somewhere nearby.
And when something big needs doing, beyond an individual’s own needs, everyone chips in and comes together to do it. They crowd-source, they Kickstart.
This localized, customized, personalized approach to solving problems through community and cooperation is transforming every aspect of American society, except one – the one with the power to control all the others.
While decentralized networks of mutual benefit adapt to an ever-changing world by providing better, more personalized services, faster and at lower cost all the time, government’s approach to new challenges is always and everywhere to keep things exactly the same.
Resist the change. Preserve the status quo. Punish the disruptive innovators.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. In fact, in every single sector I mentioned above – the media, entertainment, travel, food service, investing – the leading incumbents have urged government to restrict the change. And in many cases they have been successful.
Americans are moving in a direction of greater individual and community empowerment – while public policy is moving in the opposite direction, toward consolidation and centralization. It’s going to be up to America’s next generation to decide which way we go.
So the answer to the first question – why should young people care about politics – is, on a certain level, pretty straightforward: politics matters because it will in many ways define the world you inherent, and set the parameters of the good you can do in it.
What about question number two? If the young should indeed be interested in politics, why should they pay any attention to what a Republican politician has to say?
After all, most of you have probably heard the old adage, often attributed to Churchill: “If you are young and not liberal, then you have no heart; but if you are old and not conservative, then you have no brain.”
There’s probably some truth to this – though, for what it’s worth, I’ve been heartless all my life.
But in truth, I believe young Americans’ recent opposition to the Republican Party has much less to do with young Americans than with the G.O.P. itself.
For too long – at least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan – conservatives have failed to make our case to young people. We have failed to explain how the conservative view of politics is truly distinct from – and superior to – the progressive view.
The most important disagreements between conservatives and progressives today are often over the biggest things: our conception of justice and the common good, our understanding of the good life and human flourishing.
But I think the most clarifying way to bring out these differences between the Right and the Left is to compare the visions of American life underlying our immediate political and policy agendas.
These visions represent the basis for how each side understands the present and what they hope for in the future... they inform how we diagnose a problem and they shape the solutions we propose.
One of the clearest and most revealing illustrations of the progressive vision of American society that I have ever come across was the Obama campaign’s web slideshow from the summer of 2012 called “Life of Julia.”
Anyone remember it? For those fortunate enough to have avoided it, the “Life of Julia” was a series of animated slides telling the story of a fictional woman who was meant to represent the average American woman. Viewers could scroll through the slides and see how, at every stage of life from age 3 to 67, Julia was not just enriched – but fulfilled – by a federal government program.
When I saw it, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry... I think I did both.
But I also learned from it, because it revealed the Left’s extraordinarily thin and empty view of American life. Theirs is a vision of society in which there are only two players: Julia and Washington, D.C.... the individual and the state.
All other relationships and pursuits are virtually non-existent. And to the extent they appear in Julia’s life, they are incidental to – and also dependent upon – the benevolence of the state.
Julia’s family is mentioned twice, but only in passing and only as a conduit to additional government benefits.
Community makes just a single appearance, and it’s not until the age of 67, when Julia begins receiving Social Security benefits, which – somehow, someway – [QUOTE] “allows her to volunteer at a community garden.”
But this isn’t what life looks like, is it?
The conservative vision of American society begins from a very simple observation: in the real world – not Julia’s world – we are not isolated individuals and we’re not wards of the state.
Indeed, our lives are lived – and made meaningful – in the space between these two extremities... as husbands and wives; parents and children; teachers and students; neighbors and neighborhoods; volunteers and congregations; bosses and employees; businesses and customers; clubs, teams, and associations.
We are, in a word, citizens... who deliberate, participate, self-govern, and consent to be governed by our fellow citizens.
It is in this vital space between the isolated individual and the impersonal – often oppressive – state where lives intersect, relationships are formed, knowledge is shared, opportunity is created, and happiness is pursued.
It is in this space where Americans have always come together, in the free-market economy and voluntary civil society, to meet each other’s needs, improve each other’s lives, and overcome common challenges.
We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks – networks of people and information and opportunity, where your success depends on your service.
The miracle of these networks – what makes them uniquely powerful – is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth – to depend not just on themselves or the government, but on each other.
It is these relationships of interdependence and these communities of mutual cooperation that are at the heart of the conservative vision of America. They form the very fiber of our Founders’ vision of a self-governing republic.
The progressive, Life-of-Julia vision conceives of only two possible scenarios in life: radical, you’re-on-your-own individualism or all-encompassing government collectivism.
Conservatives reject this as a false choice – and reality proves us right.
America has always been – and continues to be – a place where the most frequent, the most effective, and the most enriching forms of common action occur in that vital space between the individual and the state.
Tocqueville famously marveled at the robust, vibrant, dynamic, and sometimes even boisterous public and civic life in America.
Unlike any other country in the world, he admired, “In the United States ... There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”
If you think about it, that’s just another way of saying... “There’s an app for that.”
In Tocqueville’s mind, the American people’s capacity – and penchant – for joining together in pursuit of a common cause represented their chief virtue not because of what they did, but because of what they learned.
When “common affairs are treated in common,” he explained, “each man [comes to learn] that he is not as independent of [his neighbors] as he at first fancied,” and he learns that to obtain the support of his neighbors “he must often lend them his cooperation.”
In other words, in America freedom has never meant “you’re on your own” – it will always mean “we’re all in this together”... we all have mutual responsibilities to each other and all of our fellow citizens.
And it’s important to note that this conservative vision is not anti-government.
Constitutional government is necessary to protect and expand the space for the institutions of the free market and civil society to thrive. It is also – especially at the local level – one of the most important institutions of civil society.
In Tocqueville’s time, the township was the most common form of local government, and he praised its centrality in American life. “Without the institutions of a township,” he said, “a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom.”
Progressives, of course, reject all of this. For them, everything that stands between the individual and the federal government is viewed with suspicion.
Compared to the objectivity and sophistication of bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, families, neighborhoods, religious and civic associations, businesses, and local and state governments are instruments of prejudice and sanctuaries of privilege.
As the Left sees it, only government workers in the nation’s capital are sufficiently enlightened and detached from their own self-interest to act in the common good... and of course it’s just a coincidence that Washington, D.C. is surrounded by six of the ten wealthiest counties in the country.
As the Life of Julia demonstrated, community is not a place to find opportunity – it’s not where you learn critical skills and habits like empathy, self-control, and cooperation. No, in the progressive vision, community is where you go when you retire.
The trouble with the progressive, Life-of-Julia vision isn’t just its hollow view of life or the creepy omnipresence of the state, but rather its success in establishing the terms of the debate.
For too long their binary view of society has been firmly imprinted in the minds of America’s youth not because it’s more attractive than the conservative vision, but because it’s gone virtually unchallenged.
Even worse than surrendering the field, too often the Republican Party has actually embraced the progressive caricature of conservatism as radical individualism.
Thus the task facing conservatives today is, quite simply, to offer an alternative... the true conservative vision that rejects the false choice peddled by progressives and proves there is a path between “Galt’s Gulch” and Detroit.
Exposing the ugliness and emptiness of the progressive vision won’t be enough to advance our cause. We also need to tell our story – we need to demonstrate, in word and in deed, the virtues and the humanity of our vision.
We will fail if we continue to limit ourselves to opposing government dependency. We must also celebrate the dignity of our interdependence with each other, and embrace the responsibilities that are indivisible from our freedoms.
It will always be our duty to reject the intolerance, conformity, and coercion of hyperactive government. But we must do more. We must also bear witness to the true diversity – of thought and of character – that naturally flourish when individuals, families, and communities are free to live in accordance with their convictions and the dictates of their conscience.
We don’t need to give up our support for investing in physical and financial capital. But we must also insist that the most important investments we make as a nation will be in human and social capital.
Above all we must recognize that breaking the progressives’ monopoly on the imagination of America’s youth is going to take much more than a politician giving a speech, or hosting a town hall event... it’s going to take the persistent, determined efforts of everyone in this room.
Bringing in the rising generation to the conservative movement is about more than winning votes – it’s about changing hearts and minds. It is a cultural project with political implications.
And I’m here tonight to ask all of you not to join me in this effort, but to lead it.