John Ashbrook: Lycurgus of the Tea Party?

Jay Hartz

September 1, 2010

With the final round of major primaries now complete, candidates have been selected for this November’s general election. The impact Tea Party candidates will have on the general election and on policy following that election is a question worthy of thought and debate by conservatives. While the nuts-and-bolts questions of which party will control Congress and the possibility of implementing a “refudiate socialism” agenda are important, there is also an interesting discussion to be had concerning “what does this all mean?”

It is worth noting that today’s Tea Party movement has a historical if not a philosophical connection to John M. Ashbrook’s primary challenge to Richard Nixon in 1972. While it will be for someone else to argue Ashbrook was the proto-Tea Party candidate, the extent to which Ashbrook was vilified by the party apparatus for challenging the “establishment” candidate has seen several parallels during this year’s election cycle.

Which brings us to an interesting question: What thoughts and suggestions might Ashbrook offer to conservatives during an election in which the major issues track so closely those he championed during his political career. Luckily, we have a source to consult.

In 1986, just a few years after the untimely death of Ashbrook, Randy McNutt published a slim volume entitled No Left Turns: A Handbook for Conservatives Based on the Writings of John M. Ashbrook. McNutt, then a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, was able to secure a heartfelt foreword from Congressman Jack Kemp and assembled several of Ashbrook’s speeches, newsletters, newspaper editorials and letters to constituents. From these pages leaps the mind of Ashbrook. Not only his firm grasp of domestic issues, but a foreign policy based on his opposition to totalitarianism in the form of communism and an understanding that a strong America is freedom’s last best chance for success.

Three Ashbrook speeches speak directly to today’s concerns regarding deficits, taxes and the dangerous relationship between big business and big government.

His “Deficit Deconstruction” speech from the early 1970s demonstrates Ashbrook’s firm grasp of economics when discussing the devastating impact deficits have on the economy. He says, “liberal economic theorists argue that a large budget deficit will stimulate the economy and produce jobs. In reality, however, large deficits destroy jobs.” Ashbrook goes on to argue that government financing of the deficit by printing and borrowing money crowds private capital out of the market. He also makes an interesting connection between unions and deficits, “(b)ut look at what unions advocate. They want more welfare, which would push up the deficit. They also want a national health program, which would push up the deficit borrowing… This waste of investment hurts all Americans, but it hurts industrial workers most of all.”

Ashbrook ends “Deficit Deconstruction” with an admonition which rings as true today as it did then: “For a nation to be successful, it must have a system of private enterprise in which the capital required by industry is supplied by the people and the industry is owned by the people who supply the capital. The opposing system—socialism—in which the government supplies the capital and owns the industry, has never succeeded.”

“The New Revolt” from 1980 takes up the issue of the “tax revolt movement,” a referendum driven movement which enjoyed its greatest success with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 in California which limited property taxes. Ashbrook begins by stating the tax revolt was the newest single issue movement and liberals “suddenly face insurrection from the very group they had been counted on to keep divided, distracted and plundered: taxpayers.” Ashbrook next observes “liberals fear this revolt even more than all the others because it threatens to choke off the fuel on which their engines run” and “Liberals want to think the tax revolt is just a fad, which they hope will vanish after achieving a few victories at the state and local levels.” Ashbrook is spot on when he points out that liberals have created a “con game” to confuse taxpayers so no one understands how the “tax collecting machine” operates allowing them to continue their “favorite vote-buying social programs.”

“The Iron Triangle” from 1976 gives us an interesting glimpse into Ashbrook’s political thought. Ashbrook argues the most “potent force” assisting liberals achieve their ends is not the media or unions but the leaders of big business. These “leaders” seek to tie the interests of their companies to policy makers at the highest levels by moving from “foundations, eastern big business board rooms to the government and back.” Ashbrook calls this shuffling between leftist foundations, board rooms and high-level government appointments a “hidden government.” To them people are just numbers and “they know best and will lead.” Ashbrook warns us to beware of what he describes as “trojan republicans” who don’t agree with conservatives and are used by Democrats to ensure nothing ever changes.

Ashbrook does offer us some hope for breaking the hold of the hidden government. He says after studying the hidden government for twenty years he has determined “sometime, someplace average Americans must elect people who will be true outsiders.” This is the only method available to take our government back from the iron triangle of big business, leftist foundations and government appointees.

Ashbrook’s political thought remains as relevant today as it did in the years leading up to the election of Ronald Reagan. He would have made a potent ally for Reagan in the Senate battling the liberals and “trojan republicans” opposed to Reagan’s tax cuts, budgets, and aggressive opposition to communism. While we lost John Ashbrook, we have not lost the principled example he set for conservatives in the political arena. It is fitting then that we offer a 1972 observation from Ashbrook directly applicable to this year’s election:

We are gradually being brainwashed through semantics, and little by little we are coming to believe that government action and control are good and individual action is bad. One of these days we will wake up and believe that individual freedom is tyranny and government control is really liberty. It will largely have been accomplished by the polished art of political semantics.

Jay Hartz is a 1993 graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar program.