During his retirement years, John Adams was fond of saying that the war for independence did not constitute the true American Revolution. The war, he said, was only a consequence. The real revolution began 15 years before a shot was ever fired as an intellectual and moral revolution in the minds and hearts of the people.
The very same can be said of the Civil War and the New Deal. Each in its own way was a political revolution, but each was a consequence of a more fundamental revolution in the moral sentiments of the American people.
Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 would not have been possible had northern abolitionists not dedicated their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to educating the American people about the evil of slavery. Moral suasion, they argued, was the first and most important step in preparing the American people for the political action that would ultimately be necessary to free the slaves.
Likewise, the 1932 election of FDR and the implementation of the New Deal were only a consequence of a more profound intellectual revolution that had been taking place in American universities and schools during the preceding thirty or forty years. “Progressive” intellectuals like John Dewey openly challenged the principles of the Declaration of Independence. They attacked systematically, and without opposition, the very idea of natural rights and the principles of limited constitutional government.
But what of 1994? Did the congressional election of 1994 represent a real revolution in American political life? In the light of Adams’s definition, how should we evaluate the so-called “Gingrich Revolution”?
At the very least, it seemed as though a major political realignment was underway. For the first time in several decades, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.
As the old standard-bearers of the Democratic political establishment were sent home, the Republican freshmen rode into Washington waving their “Contract With America.” They proclaimed as their mission a new political movement that would end decades of liberal economic and social policy. Taxes and spending would be cut, the budget balanced, and welfare reformed. As with all true revolutions, it also seemed that a new form of political rhetoric would redefine the political landscape. For the first time in sixty years Republicans were calling Democrats what they really are: socialists.
To many, all this really did seem like a revolution. In the months after the election, the left-liberal political establishment and its apparachik among the cultural elite stood aghast and paralyzed. Even the Republicans seemed surprised by what had happened. During these halcyon days, it did seem like something truly momentous, even revolutionary, had occurred.
Within eighteen months, however, the Republican house of cards had collapsed. Having regained their confidence, President Clinton, congressional Democrats and their friends in the media launched a political and rhetorical counteroffensive. The results were as successful as they were fast in coming.
Day in and day out, Clinton, Dick Gephardt and the media repeated a now familiar mantra: “Gingrich and the freshmen want to cut your medicare, they want to slash your social security and they want to take away school lunches from your children.” Gingrich and the freshmen, they said, were “coldhearted,” “unfair,” “meanspirited,” and “heartless.” Newt was the Grinch who stole our collective Christmas. Republicans were trying to resurrect the “selfishness” associated with Reagan’s “decade of greed.” If this went any further, they warned, children would be starving in the streets—literally!
Worst of all, Newt’s revolutionaries were labelled as “extremists,” as far right-wing radicals outside the mainstream of the American political tradition. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Democrats subtly and successfully associated Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and the GOP freshman with Tim McVeigh and the militia movement.
The implication was clear: elements within the GOP supported terrorism, racism, and anti-democratic behavior. On more than one occasion, Democrats and the media suggested that some Republicans were flirting with fascism.
As if the lie weren’t enough, the most disgraceful role played in the battle over the control of political rhetoric in America was the complete and utter silence of the GOP and conservative intellectuals. Never once did a Republican stand up and demand that the Democrats and the media define what exactly they meant by “extremism.” Never once did conservative intellectuals demand that “far right-wing” be defined by the President.
Whatever political high ground Republicans might have claimed in 1994 was now lost to the moral certitudes and rhetorical hyperventilation of the Democratic leadership.
On the other side, Clinton and the Democrats played the moral card and trumped. Playing off his “I feel your pain” line in the 1992 Presidential debate, Bill Clinton became the compassion President. Wherever there was a funeral, a disaster or sick child, a tearful Bill Clinton was bound to turn up sooner or later.
The Democratic blitzkrieg was a smashing success. Republican ramparts collapsed almost immediately and the white flag of surrender was raised. General Newt fled the battlefield and has been hiding in his bunker ever since. Most of the remaining soldiers capitulated and walked over to the other side.
Not to be outdone by Clinton and the Democrats, Republicans, like the Tinman in the Wizard of OZ, went looking for a heart. Soon, they too, felt our pain. Republicans began to compete with the Democrats to appear “compassionate.” GOP moral appeasement was best summed-up in a Time magazine headline: “Compassion is Back” it said, referring to the Republicans new-found moral compass.
Almost immediately Republicans attempted to explain what they were really trying to do. This was not a revolution, they said; it was a movement to fix a broken system. “Government had grown too big and too inefficient,” they complained. Not only would they save medicare, medicaid, and social security, they were actually going to expand them.
In reality, social spending under the GOP’s five-year budget proposal would have actually increased from $842 billion to $1.03 trillion. The “big-spending” liberal Democrats, on the other hand, proposed a budget of $1.096 trillion. The debate between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals during this last year was not over agreed upon ends, but only over the means to those ends.
To prove their point, ordinary Republicans and the party establishment elected a new general at their National Convention to lead the party and the nation. Bob Dole, once known among his own ranks as a “tax collector for the welfare state,” represented the ultimate capitulation of the Republican Party to the philosophy of the New Deal.
A long-time and consistent proponent of big government, Dole built his career on a legislative record that included expanding the food stamp program, saving Social Security, supporting tax increases, raising the minimum wage, expanding government regulation of the environment, and advocating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Time and again Dole promised on the campaign trail not to cut the welfare “safety net.” A man of “compassion,” he promised to not cut Social Security or Medicare. How could he cut social security when, after all, he’d promised his own mother that he never would.
Our original question bears repeating: Did the congressional election of 1994 represent a real revolution in American political life?
To be a revolution in the sense in which I and Adams use the term would have required that four preconditions be met. First, the explicit purpose of the “Gingrich Revolution” would have had to denounce the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, the New Frontier and much of the legislation passed during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Second, Gingrich and the freshmen class would have actually had to believe in what they were doing. Third, and most importantly, a moral revolution in the minds of the people would have been an absolutely necessary precondition. And finally, the election results of 1994 would have to be duplicated time and again over the course of several decades.
Sadly, the congressional elections of 1994 did not represent the fourth revolution in American politics. In fact, it represented the last great act of the New Deal. Not one of the first three pre-conditions necessary for a real revolution was met, thereby making the fourth irrelevant.
In the weeks since the ’96 Presidential and congressional elections, the Republican leadership has been falling over itself with promises to the American people that the next Congress will be more “practical” and “pragmatic.” It will be grounded, says Gingrich, in “consensus building” and “bi-partisanship.”
Gingrich and the Republican freshmen never denounced the aims and purposes of the New Deal. In fact, Gingrich (not to mention Ronald Reagan) said on many occasions that he supported the objectives of the New Deal, that he wasn’t trying to dismantle but only to fix it. Sure, the Republicans were going to cut welfare but only back to a pre-Great Society level. The moment they met opposition, however, they all ran for cover.
Not only did Republicans not disavow the New Deal, they couldn’t even stand up and defend what it was they were actually trying to do. The GOP, supposedly the party of family values and the traditional American way of life, could not make a principled argument against the moral claims of liberal-Democrats. How could they, when they shared the same moral foundation?
In the end, however, it was the American people themselves who resisted revolution and most wanted to defend the status quo. It was the American people, and the white middle-class in particular, who started to think twice about the aims and objectives of the Republican Congress. Senior citizens didn’t want their social security cut or medicare coverage reduced, the so-called soccer moms wanted the Family Leave Bill continued and expanded, the middle-class wanted college loans for their children, big business wanted their subsidies and, most of all, Americans didn’t want the government shut down.
What would a real revolution have entailed? First, it would have required that Gingrich and his new-model army openly and publicly denounce the New Deal with the promise that American government would be returned to its pre-1932 state. More importantly, it would have required that the new revolutionaries defend not only on political but on moral grounds, and without guilt, the eventual elimination of the welfare state.
The Republican leadership would have had to say on television night after night that welfare is immoral, that it is fundamentally unjust to redistribute wealth from one person to another and that no individual has a moral claim to one cent of another person’s property. In other words, they would have had to resurrect America’s original founding principles: the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the politics of the Constitution.
But that in and of itself would not have been enough. The American people would have had to support and applaud such a position. That would have been the real revolution. A revolution after all must be a moral revolution that affects the minds and hearts of the people. Instead, they cravenly protected their middle-class entitlements.
In the end, the great question that we must answer is why Republican politicians and a majority of the American people are not willing to give up the nanny state?
In part, the answer is simple: the American people are addicted to government handouts. Like drug addicts, even those who want to “go clean”, they fear life without government assistance. Generation X demands college loans, the thirty-something crowd demands free child care, and the seniors demand old-age pensions and free health care. Across the board, Americans have lost all confidence in their ability to govern themselves. No less important, Republican politicians are too timid, too cowardly and too guilt-ridden to tell the American people that welfare is immoral.
More invidiously, though, it would appear that a majority of Americans actually believe in the morality of the welfare state. Most Americans believe that the needy, the suffering, and the poor should be taken care of by the government which, of course, means by you and me. The poor have a moral right to welfare and we have a moral obligation to serve their needs. Would Newt Gingrich ever deny such a moral claim?
Do I blame the American voter? Yes, in part. We’re not talking about children; we’re talking about adults who have more than enough capacity to discern moral alternatives.
The central villains in all this, though, are the members of the left-liberal political and cultural elite who shape the substance and rhetoric of our political discourse. Standing behind and directing the war against America are the college professors who produce year after year hundreds of thousands of teachers, lawyers, social workers, journalists, and, in the end, voting Americans. It simply goes without saying that in the lecture halls of our best universities and seminaries limited government, capitalism and individualism are denounced as immoral and the bureaucratic-regulatory-welfare state is pronounced as morally good.
There will never be a genuine political revolution in this country until there is a moral revolution. That means that the American people must be willing to renounce the ethics of altruism—that is, the moral philosophy that requires from you a moral obligation to support the less fortunate whether you want to or not. And yet this is precisely the moral principle that Republicans and conservative intellectuals seem unwilling to renounce.
In fact, they seem more frightened by the idea of having to defend the true principles of the American Revolution than in attacking altruism. Republicans are constitutionally incapable of defending the notion that individuals have an inalienable right to their own lives—which means, that each and every individual owns his or her own life and all the fruits of one’s labor.
In any political battle between two camps that share the same moral principle, it will always be the more consistent advocate who wins. Until Americans stop feeling guilty about redistributing wealth and eliminating the handouts given to the “needy,” socialist ideology will continue to govern America regardless of which party is in power.
Nor should we rely on the realm of politics for genuine change. We must reject the concrete-bound, range-of-the-moment mentality offered by Republican politicians and their academic cheerleaders for quick-fix political solutions. Unfortunately, conservative intellectuals don’t seem to understand that politics is an effect and not a cause.
In the end, what is most needed in America is an intellectual revolution, a revolution in the minds and hearts of the American people. That will not happen as a consequence of political victories. Indeed, it’s the other way around. There will never be a political revolution in this country until there has been a moral revolution and that will not happen until there has been an intellectual revolution in our universities.
C. Bradley Thompson is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and History at Ashland University