Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R., Michigan) is author of the new book Seize Freedom! American Truths and Renewal in a Chaotic Age, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the truths and the chaos therein.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Reverent citizens struggle to make sense of an increasingly perverse society disdainful of — and destructive to — our traditional culture of faith, truth, virtue, and beauty, if the existence of these permanent things is even admitted.” What does a congressmen know about these things?
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter: I once read about them in National Review and Creem magazine.
Lopez: You’re a student of history: What’s so chaotic about this age?
Representative McCotter: We face simultaneously the social, political, and economic upheavals of globalization; a worldwide war against an evil, transnational enemy and its allied rogue regimes; the rise of Communist China as a strategic threat and rival model of governance; and the issue of whether a nation built upon self-evident truths can survive the cancer of moral relativism. Other than this, it’s good times.
Lopez: You write about American exceptionalism, and the president seems to be going there, too, after dismissing such talk, comparing our sense of founding pride to that of any Greek citizen. What do you make of that? Why would you encourage people to be skeptical about what he’s selling?
Representative McCotter: Since our founding, America has not emulated the world; America has inspired the world. Especially in light of the challenges we and the world face, we will not be the first generation of Americans to become followers instead of leaders.
Lopez: Are we really too free to fail?
Representative McCotter: Washington must stop taxing, borrowing, spending, and regulating to prop up the outdated, unsustainable model of Big Government and “Too Big to Fail” businesses. In the Age of Globalization — and its communications revolution, which empowers individuals to purchase goods or contact people around the world in seconds from the palm of their hand or their desktops — the decentralized, horizontal “consumer-driven economy” has compelled private enterprises and, indeed, families to make a difficult restructuring of operations and priorities in order to compete and thrive. Only Big Government and its cohorts in Big Business have been able to resist such restructuring and, when in trouble, borrow money and/or bail each other out. This is not sustainable. To achieve “a free and humane 21st-century economy” requires transforming the highly centralized, vertical Big Government into a “citizen-driven government”; allowing the new economy’s competitive energies to force highly centralized, vertical Big Businesses to be smaller, more entrepreneurial, more responsive, and more accountable to consumers; and holding both accountable to the taxpayers.
Lopez: How is this statement, from your book, fair? “There are still some traditional working-class Democrats who love God and country, guns and their union, but they are an endangered species.”
Representative McCotter: Doubtless it is unfair that culturally conservative Democrats have been marginalized within the party, which is now controlled by its extreme left wing. I hope these abandoned Democrats follow Ronald Reagan’s path to the Republican party, or at least my late father’s path into the voting booth to elect conservative candidates.
Lopez: What conversation would you love to have with every American voter before the next presidential election?
Representative McCotter: How will we make the 21st century the “Next American Century,” just as the Greatest Generation made the 20th the “American Century”?
Lopez: You’re not a truce-er, are you? Was there some sense in what Mitch Daniels said?
Representative McCotter: A truce with whom? This constitutes an unprincipled, unilateral surrender to the Left, which initiated and continues to wage its “culture war” against Americans’ traditional and cherished way of life.
Lopez: What does the human soul have to do with public policy?
McCotter: Everything — unless and until computers rule the world. If public policy isn’t of the people, by the people, and for the people, what then is it?
Lopez: How can policymakers better remember that?
Representative McCotter: They must reject ideology and materialism by opening their eyes to the beauty of life and remembering that, as Russell Kirk said, “the object of life is love.”
Lopez: Do conservatives care enough for the poor, the downtrodden?
Representative McCotter: Yes. Knowing one cannot empower a person by making him dependent upon someone else, conservatives promote the dignity of self-reliance rather than the misery of government-reliance.
Lopez: How can conservatives better capture the imaginations of their fellow Americans, who, as you point out, lean their way?
Representative McCotter: Russell Kirk spoke of the “moral imagination” — the ability to apply virtues and principles to the challenges of the day and achieve constructive change. Following his insight, conservatism must be aspirational. Instead of continually pointing backwards, conservatives have to start pointing forwards; explain how conservative principles are being proven every day within a world that is increasingly entrepreneurial and free; and show how our philosophy will stem the chaos of our age and ensure the America we’ve inherited is better when we bequeath it to our children. I have no doubt we will, for America’s hope remains her free, sovereign people, not their servant government.
Lopez: Is the Republican party good for conservatism?
Representative McCotter: It is if conservatives wish to govern. As human beings are imperfect, no party composed of human beings will be perfect. Thus “politics is the art of the possible.” The Republican party — a historic champion of human freedom — is the best home for conservatives, as political and intellectual leaders such as Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. understood. Should the Republican party cease to be as conservative as some wish, it can be renewed by the activities and elections of conservatives within it.
Lopez: How is the Left engaged in a national disorganizing project? And how is that different from how disorganized I am?
Representative McCotter: As Wisconsin demonstrated, the Left believes the end justifies the means; consequently, viewing crises as opportunities, the Left is bent upon creating disorder from which it can politically profit. I assume your disorganization is neither by design nor a menace to order, justice, and freedom.
Lopez: You contend that America is freedom. The Egyptian/Libyan/etc. streets may feel differently?
Representative McCotter: If so, that is unfortunate for the Egyptians. Conversely, Iran’s Green Revolution is seeking American support for freedom, just as did the people of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Better to share with Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa the view that America is a beacon of freedom than to agree with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hu Jintao, and Vladimir Putin that America is an oppressor.
Lopez: What do you want this president and this Congress to do about China?
Representative McCotter: It must be remembered how, in his time, Ronald Reagan’s concerns about and strategy to defeat the Soviet Union were derided by the GOP policy establishment, which preferred “détente.” While more stealthy than the Soviet Union, Communist China (their term for themselves) is a strategic threat and rival model of governance to the United States. Yet, while Reagan put the USSR into the dustbin of history, some voices inanely claim it is our job to usher Communist China onto the world stage.
Bluntly, Communist China believes the state can provide its subjects with prosperity and security without liberty; we know liberty undergirds sovereign citizens’ prosperity and security. Thus, in the same manner as Imperial Japan before them, the Beijing regime believes our nations will inevitably clash. I do not agree. We must take the following initial and immediate — and by no means exhaustive — steps to deter the dragon.
First, we must get our fiscal house in order to reduce our dependence on the People’s Republic of China’s floating our fiscal deficits and debt, and reduce the tax, regulatory, and litigation burdens on American manufacturers so we can reduce our trade deficit. Further, we must aggressively and comprehensively contest the PRC’s mercantilist trade practices — notably, its currency manipulation and its intellectual-property theft, the counterfeiting and reverse-engineering of our products — and establish the reciprocity of capital investments and reestablish human rights as criteria of trade relations with our nation. Also, we must strengthen our information security against the PRC’s incessant cyber attacks and spying; confront the PRC on its succoring of rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea; and closely work with our allies, particularly in the region, to constructively contain the regime. And, of course, we must support the pro-democracy movement within Communist China just as Reagan did the democracy movements within the former Soviet Union and oppressed Eastern Europe.
Lopez: How does being Catholic affect how you approach public life?
Representative McCotter: Ultimately, our life shall be measured as a whole. Thus, I do not muse on how being a Catholic affects my public life; I think about how being a Catholic affects my entire life. I do not compartmentalize my Catholicism.
Lopez: How do you make sense of the fact that we’ve had two back-to-back House speakers who are Catholic, who are so different?
Representative McCotter: Speaking of compartmentalization, Speaker Pelosi represented the errant thinking that material redistribution compelled by the state was the primary pursuit of a Catholic politician — indeed that it was superior to the protection and preservation of innocent human life. Speaker Boehner represents the correct understanding that the protection and preservation of innocent human life is the primary pursuit of a Catholic politician, and that this virtuous duty forms the foundation for just relations between individuals and with institutions.
Lopez: What’s so wrong about ideology?
Representative McCotter: Philosophy requires one to fit his or her mind to the world; ideology compels one to fit the world to his or her mind. Finding fallible human beings incapable of achieving an earthly utopia, ideologues resort to coercion and compulsion through the powers of the state to achieve their aims with disastrous — and often barbarous — results. It is why Edmund Burke called ideology “an armed doctrine”; why John Adams called ideology “the science of idiocy”; and why Russell Kirk reminds us that “conservatism is the negation of ideology.”
Lopez: What’s so special about Edmund Burke? You sure do cite him often in the book.
Representative McCotter: Burke is the font of conservatism. No Burke, then no Buckley, no NRO, no K-Lo. ’Nuff said.
Lopez: What did you love about book writing?
Representative McCotter: The end.
Lopez: What did you hate?
Representative McCotter: The rest.
Lopez: What did you learn?
Representative McCotter: I prefer reading books to writing books.
Lopez: You’re a regular guest on Fox News’s 3 a.m. show, Red Eye, and you tweet. Have these been helpful, albeit untraditional, message drivers?
Representative McCotter: As measured by Red Eye’s having better ratings at 3 a.m. than CNN’s prime-time line up, it’s fair to say the show has proven Tennyson’s insight that “the truth is always freshest in the fashion of the day.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.