‘I have pretty much seen it all,” Cal Thomas writes in the introduction to his new book, What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America. “Why does each generation behave as if it is the first?” he writes. “Why does so much of our politics resemble the film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character wakes up each morning to repeat every event of the day before, ad infinitum?” The book, he writes, is “especially” a response to “man’s futile attempts to perfect himself and alter certain behavior through government, specifically the federal government.” Thomas talks What Works with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why do you consider doing “what works” a novel idea? Sounds like common sense! Have we lost that? In our lives and in our politics and culture?
Lopez: Do you see your book as imparting wisdom to a culture that is addicted to what’s new?
Thomas: I want them to look at what’s old, because in many cases, what is old became old because it worked. We don’t want to live in the past, but we can learn from the past and what others who have “been there” can teach us.
Lopez: “I have pretty much seen it all, especially man’s futile attempts to perfect himself and alter certain behavior through government, specifically the federal government.” What does that mean for people who for one reason or another currently rely on the federal government for help or housing?
Thomas: One can either accept one’s lot or refuse to. In many nations you have no choice. In America, you do. Inspiration, followed by motivation, then perspiration improves any life. As the old song says: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” But where are the inspirers, the leaders, the motivators today? The Left prefers to have more people addicted to government because that’s how they gain and keep political power and their offices.
Lopez: What does it mean to “Concentrate on People, Not Politics”? Politics is important too, isn’t it?
Thomas: Yes, but politics cannot improve a life to the extent an individual can by the choices he or she makes. Character, integrity, virtue, and fidelity can’t be imposed through politics or government. Those are internal qualities that come from elsewhere.
Lopez: You write that “the American public is being gamed by politicians, big media, and other ‘elites,’ whose main interest centers on themselves.’” Is that being a bit tough on pols, media, and others? Not everyone is so bad, right?
Thomas: No, I have sat in fundraising meetings and know how this works. Ideas are focus-grouped and poll-tested. They don’t necessarily reflect the real beliefs of the politician, only what that politician needs to say to get elected or reelected. I once asked a fundraiser why he never sent out positive letters. He said: “You can’t raise money on a positive.” How cynical is that? To them it’s a game.
Lopez: You write that “solutions exist, mostly at the state level, but the major media, of which I have been a part most of my professional life, prefer combat or resolution. Real solutions would give them nothing to talk about, and thus lower ratings, which would lead to smaller profits.”
Thomas: Yes, there have been occasions when a TV booker called to find out my opinion on a topic and then rejected me because I wasn’t “edgy enough.” They want the rhetorical equivalent of pro-wrestling. So much of our political discourse is fake, like professional wrestling, and who looks for real solutions today? It’s all about the comb, who’s up and who’s down in the polls.
Lopez: You talk about not “not playing on the liberals’ field and by their rules.” What does that look like practically beyond having alternative media?
Thomas: You can’t prove a negative. You can’t provide evidence you’re not a racist, or a misogynist, or homophobe. But that’s how the mainstream media frames the question when interviewing a conservative. I always turn it around on the questioner. Are blacks and women, especially, better off with the policies of the Obama administration? And what does “better off” mean? And why do you always refer to “women’s issues” as if all women think alike? Isn’t that stereotyping? Something like that.
Lopez: Why do you wish everyone could know Khadijah Williams and Joni Eareckson Tada?
Thomas: These are people from completely different backgrounds — one born into poverty, the other who became a paraplegic at age 17 — who have overcome and serve as examples to all. But we don’t teach overcoming today. We teach victimhood.
Lopez: “For the left,” you write, “it is always about expanding the size (and cost) of government, though a fair and objective look at government and how it has failed to solve the problems it is asked to solve should lead us to conclude, as Ronald Reagan said, that government isn’t the answer; government is the problem.” That sounds like typical Right–Left boxing, doesn’t it, though? How can you get someone who is more inclined to government solutions to listen in? And how can you get a conservative to more compellingly and constructively make use of government where it can help?
Thomas: We have a history. The Founders established boundaries for government. They wanted people to be unlimited in their quest for success, happiness, and liberty. We have exceeded those boundaries and that’s why we are in trouble. If we focus on what has a track record of working and update it as necessary, we can solve problems. That’s what many states are doing. I have a chapter on what is succeeding at the state level. I want to see a revitalized Grace Commission, which Reagan appointed, to do an audit of the federal government, but this time with real teeth, like the Base Realignment and Closing Commission. Every agency and program has authorization legislation or a charter which announced its purpose and goals. If it is living up to those goals and its purpose at a reasonable cost and the private sector can’t do a better job, we keep it. If it’s not, we get rid of it.
Lopez: What is the future of the family and marriage?
Thomas: It doesn’t look very bright, but not just for the reasons you might think coming from me. Heterosexual divorce is a greater problem than homosexual marriage for a number of reasons, chiefly the detrimental effect it has on children.
Lopez: Pointing to Modern Family and other pop-culture depictions of family life, you write “Are these reflections of culture, or instructions to culture? Maybe some of both.” Do you see any bright spots in the culture that are possibly both reflections and could be rallying cries to culture to rebuild?
Thomas: I don’t see it in culture, not in an age of the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and our focus on sex and depravity. I do see some good films, but most seem to be “preaching to the converted.” As a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I’m not looking for culture to improve in a fallen world. That transformation will occur in one of two ways — a spiritual revival or the Second Coming of Christ.
Lopez: Why do you encourage people to support pregnancy-help centers? Is it imperative not just as a lifesaving issue but a political issue?
Thomas: Most people can have little effect with judges (unless we vote in conservative politicians who will name conservative judges to the federal bench). But any one of us can volunteer or donate to a pregnancy center where women are told the truth (men, too) and babies are being saved by the thousands. It’s another example of real power existing at the local level. But abortion is a result of our decadence, not its cause.
Lopez: In writing about crime and violence, you say, “Today’s extreme can quickly become tolerable and then acceptable when there are no unchanging moral guardrails for a society.” What are the extremes that are acceptable that we need to tackle first and how do we do so most productively?
Thomas: This may surprise you, but two major contributors to reductions in crime are a father in the home and a child in a school where he or she feels safe and loved. The latter means school choice and the former means a serious strategy that ennobles fatherhood. Everything in culture now is about women because they are the ones advertisers want to reach. When men appear, they are portrayed as stupid, incompetent, rapists, and the like. Men used to lead and be appreciated for their leadership. Now they mostly follow. Is it any wonder that men no longer know who they are, or what they are supposed to be, or why the number-one complaint among women I know is that men can’t commit?
Lopez: How is gun violence “a moral and spiritual problem”?
Thomas: Along with disrespect for unborn life comes disrespect for other categories of life. No kid murders another kid for his jacket or tennis shoes unless he ascribes no value to another life. If he doesn’t value his life, why should he value someone else’s life? If God is not the Author of life who endows our rights, a gun in the hands of someone with intent to kill is merely an extension of a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality.
Lopez: You write: “If biblical truth were taught to our children in greater numbers than we teach it today, and if its principles were embraced more widely in culture as they used to be, does anyone deny that there might be less violence, fewer divorces, and fewer abortions?” How do we repropose biblical truth in such a way that people feel welcome, not judged?
Thomas: The late British theologian John Stott once told me that God’s principles work whether or not you acknowledge their source. Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are some of the best guides to life one will ever read. One doesn’t have to accept their source to notice they have a prescription for leading at least a successful and more productive life on Earth.
Lopez: What would you hope people might consider the Sermon on the Mount as as we celebrate Easter? As a political and personal proposal? As something to welcome and encourage whatever one’s faith?
Thomas: Try putting into practice just one of the Beatitudes, as they are also called, and be amazed at the results. You then might be encouraged to try the others. It’s difficult at first, but becomes easier when you see the change it makes in you, which is their point.
Lopez: Over your years of column writing, what’s your conversion rate like? What do you find readers find most compelling?
Thomas: Conversion is above my pay grade. I simply try to proclaim truth as I see it and ultimate Truth as I know it.
Lopez: What’s your best advice to young writers?
Thomas: Read good writers, especially those you think you disagree with. It will help sharpen your skills and your mind.
Lopez: What’s your best advice to young fathers?
Thomas: Love your children’s mother the way Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it, and let your children see you do it.
Lopez: What’s your best advice to young men reading National Review Online today feeling a little lost for one reason or another?
Thomas: Renew your subscription! The path will become clearer after you have cleared away the wood, hay, and stubble placed in your way by secular progressives.
Lopez: What’s the back-story of your blurb from Jay Leno?
Thomas: Jay and I have been friends for many years. It started when I wrote a column praising his wife’s efforts to help save women in Afghanistan. I admire his talent, but more than that, he is a genuinely nice guy.
Lopez: How can a politician or policy maker make use of What Works? Is Ted Cruz an example of what works and that is why you let him blurb the book?
Thomas: We still have a remnant of what I call Puritan DNA in us. Most of us had parents who told us not to waste things, clean your plate because people are starving in the world, etc. I believe that if we can point out where our money is being wasted on unnecessary programs, we can began to reduce their size, cost, and reach. Because we live in a superficial age, we will probably have to begin on that level before getting down to substance. The Great Society, for example, was “well-intentioned,” but many of its programs failed objectively because they did not take into account human nature. A lot of people would rather get a check than earn one. 47 million people on food stamps is — or ought to be — a disgrace.
Lopez: If readers only walk away with one thought from What Works that sticks, what would you hope it be?
Thomas: “There is nothing new under the sun; everything you think has been thought before; everything you do has been done before.” (See Ecclesiastes 1:9–10.)
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.