What The Founding Fathers Can Teach Us About Our Awful Political Debates

What The Founding Fathers Can Teach Us About Our Awful Political Debates

Why are so many of our political debates little more than vapid mockery? 'Common Sense Nation' explains how our current would be enriched by looking at what America's Founding Fathers had to say.
Bill Zeiser
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In June, Hillary Clinton sent a tweet to Donald Trump advising him to “Delete your account.” Her swipe at Trump doubled as a reference to a social media meme popular with millennials. Trump fired back to inquire as to how many of Clinton’s 823 staff members were needed to think of the tweet, and asked where Clinton put the 33,000 emails she deleted. This monumental political exchange apparently warranted a New York Times piece.

Political speech today is often either so banal as to be pleasing to almost any audience, or it is a series of witticisms and verbal jabs designed not to persuade, but to elicit laughter at the expense of the other side. Anyone who has recently browsed the breathlessly adoring coverage of outlets such as Slate and Salon knows that comedians-cum-newsmen such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver regularly “obliterate,” “own,” and even “blowtorch” their political enemies through jokes.

While political speech in our age might be generally pleasing, or even entertaining, it is often vapid and devoid of articulations of principle or other serious content. This helps, in part, explain the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In an era of instant polling and message testing, both fearlessly articulated visions that were far from the polite political mainstream.

Principles Become Platitudes

Robert Curry’s new book Common Sense Nation: Unlocking The Power of the American Idea is part of a project to elevate our political discourse and our understanding of the principles that underpin the nation. It arrives not a moment too soon. Curry is a member of the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute, a think tank whose slogan, “Recovering the American Idea,” succinctly encapsulates their mission of bringing the oft-neglected wisdom of the Founders to the political challenges of today. (Full disclosure: I was a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. I have never met Mr. Curry, however.)

The mission of Curry’s book is very much in the same vein. Curry argues that there are certain pieces of reasoning from the time of America’s founding that we believe are familiar to us. For example, most of us are aware of the self-evident truths with which Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence. As Americans, we say that we hold dear the lines that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But Curry’s provocative claim is that we don’t really know what those words mean. They have effectively become platitudes.

Our political arguments are shaped by the media, by policy studies, and by the words of “experts,” but not by Jefferson’s self-evident truths. We have discarded the ideas of the Founders as the Founders understood them. It is only after we recover a true understanding of their arguments, according to Curry, that we will come to properly understand our rights and duties as American citizens.

Progressivism Doesn’t Mean Progress

The author takes the reader on a philosophical and historical journey in order to uncover the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and to show how we drifted away from it. He introduces figures as varied as English philosopher John Locke and French philosopher Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle to make the case that America was the site of her own unique Enlightenment, one which emphasized a shared sentiment of moral and social obligations—the common sense of the book’s title.

Curry takes the election of Abraham Lincoln, a “supreme master of moral logic in politics,” to be the high point of this American common sense. “The ways of thinking which the Founders had embodied in the Declaration and in the Constitution,” argues Curry, “had over time permeated America, making Lincoln’s life, election, and legacy possible.” But just a few decades later, American progressives such as political scientist-turned-politician Woodrow Wilson, guided by idealist philosophers such as Hegel, pushed the idea that progress meant America turning away from the ideas of the Founders.

In fact, the Progressives rejected the notion that any ideas can be true past their own age, including the “self-evident” truths of Jefferson. They successfully replaced the common sense preference for liberty and constitutionally limited government with an expansive new vision of government as a driver of rapid social change.

Curry links this project of the early Progressives to today’s postmodern brand of progressivism, in which President Bill Clinton was able to save his own skin by compellingly arguing that there are different definitions for the word “is,” and under which even basic American sovereignty is held in doubt.

Reclaiming the Founders

It is clear that Curry’s understanding of the Founding is encyclopedic; aside from a voluminous list of Founding era documents and philosophical influences, he makes his case by citing heavyweight scholars such as Harvey Mansfield, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harry Jaffa, and Richard Rorty.

But Common Sense Nation is not a scholarly book. It is not intended to be. Curry offers a tome which, in his own words, is for “the intelligent citizen who simply wants to understand the Founders,” and to achieve “the maximum of understanding in the minimum of pages.”

If we reclaim the Founders’ understanding of limited government and hold it above the newer vision, Curry convincingly argues that there will be a “bountiful harvest of progress to be gained.” To that end, Curry presents an intelligent, concise, and well-researched argument that is accessible to anyone. If we all read Common Sense Nation, we would hold much deeper—and more vital—political discussions than who got “destroyed” on last night’s comedy shows.

Bill Zeiser is a PhD. student at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.

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