Most Americans look for America in their politics, only to meet disappointment when one of two things happens: either they are asked by politicians to think small–”your taxes,” “your schools,” “your family,” “your free lunch.” Or, they are told that America is unworthy.
In 1996 conservatives struggle to avert the disaster courted by ’60s critics of America, including Martin Luther King. It will be too cute by half, though, to imagine that one does so by asking Americans to place their narrow interests above their interest in a republic waxing greater. Pride in America must be the conservative banner, but rather pride in what she can become, fulfilling the dreams of the founders, than pride in what has become of her.
For a generation after FDR, liberals could not tire of asking America to change. Thus they prevailed over prudent skepticism about the lure of policy pretending to solve human ills once for all: salvation on earth! For the past generation liberals have not tired of asking Americans to defend the status quo, the liberal status quo. They employ an eminently conservative banner to defend an edifice built upon rejecting founding principles.
It now falls to conservatives seek change, guided by founding principles. The change to be wished is not a change in my or your annual income but a change in America’s future prospects–America in the world. Against those who harp on the country’s past failures, conservatives must point to its future successes as more relevant.
Remembering America means simply making American interest in the fullest sense the touchstone of every policy, foreign and domestic. That requires restating the hope that is America–a nation in principle and not merely in blood. We oppose the regime of multiculturalism, for example, not because this or that blood family is disadvantaged by it, but because America was never meant to be a nation in blood, whether one or plural. We must end affirmative action, not because it harms this or that group; and we must not sustain or merely mend it, even if it does help this or that group, because affirmative action is repugnant to American principles.
Americans never celebrated the greatest military victory man has yet known, the end of the 50-year war that came with the fall of the Wall in 1989. Conservatives should celebrate that victory in order to celebrate the America who, with her allies, gained it. That victory was won by our principles, demonstrating how our principles can lead to greater strength still. Conservatives can lead to re-engagement with the world on a basis of strength sufficient to assure justice in accord with our own interest.
In our domestic concerns conservatives must equally make American principles–not utilitarian calculations and not generic “family values”–the foundation of proposals for change. They must clearly enunciate that, while economists and various policy wonks may occasionally hit upon clever ideas, nothing so consistently operates to
increase human happiness than the application of American principles. In this sense it is a mistake to demand of presidential candidate Bob Dole that he “find a vision.” His campaign needs only to make Clinton oppose Clinton in order to become the bearer of a true conservative platform.
The competition lies not between Clinton’s “vision” and Dole’s “vision,” but between Clinton’s performance and America’s promise.
Voters, if given the chance, will always buy America long before they will sell their birthright.
William B. Allen, former Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is Dean of James Madison College, Michigan State University.