Politics & Policy

Principles Before Policies

Conservative reconnection.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan singlehandedly turned around the American economy. On the heels of the lackluster Carter years that saw high inflation and a poorly performing economy, Reagan proposed sweeping income tax cuts that transformed the American tax system. Indeed, Reagan’s policies have been credited for ushering in a new era of American prosperity.

By all accounts, the tax cuts of the 80’s were a massive success as were many other conservative wins over the last two decades. Defeating the “Evil Empire,” reforming the failed welfare bureaucracy, and winning confirmation of conservative judges — these are just some examples of conservative victories that made America better. And on these victories we must always defend the ground we have won because in Washington, no victories are permanent.

But today we have a problem.

A kind of mental lethargy now exists in my party. We are relying on these brilliant and successful policies of the past to be our principles of today. This is completely backwards. The greatness of conservatism has been an understanding that policies are derivatives of principles. Principles never change, policies do. The trick is finding the correct application of principle-based policies that fit our time.

In his later years, the late great William F. Buckley Jr. seemed to understand this. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he complained about an American Right that seemed rudderless. “I think conservatism has become a little bit slothful,” Buckley told the Wall Street Journal. The Journal went on to write that Buckley’s private criticisms cut to the core even more; “Part of it, [Buckley] believed, was that what used to be living ideas had become mummified doctrines to many in the conservative political class.”

As Buckley once put it, these “old rigidities” are holding our party back.

The tax cuts of the 1980s were not only a timely elixir for an ailing economy, they were right in and of themselves because they were consistent with founding American principles.

Cutting taxes means shifting power from the federal government to the American people. It forces the government to be smaller, so that Americans can have more freedom. In doing this Reagan aligned himself with the principles of liberty and economic opportunity for all. It was Reagan’s firm understanding of these principles that allowed him to sell his policy.

When promoting his tax plan Reagan spoke of an “opportunity society” that lay ahead if only we had the courage to embrace the principles of freedom. “We will encourage all Americans — men and women, young and old, individuals of every race, creed, and color — to succeed and be healthy, happy, and whole,” said Reagan. “This is our goal.”

Contrast this approach with the recent effort by my party to sell personal accounts for Social Security. Instead of focusing on the principle of economic opportunity for all, we focused on “solvency.” Instead of explaining that this approach to Social Security would allow every American — rich and poor, black and white — to retire a millionaire, we talked about wage indexing and rates of return. By the end of the debate, Republicans were running for the hills as liberal scare tactics about “privatization” had won the day.

We suffer this fate because we do not take the time to understand the principles that berth our policies.

Jefferson’s idea of individual liberty, Lincoln’s championing of equal rights for all, Teddy Roosevelt’s heart for conservation and Kennedy’s call for American volunteerism — these are principles embedded in the American experience. Appealing to them tugs at our fellow Americans’ heartstrings as well as “headstrings.” In other words, as Americans we all understand these principles at an intuitive, gut level because they are part of who we are.

A renewed embrace of first principles will refresh a movement that of late has seen better days. Furthermore, this approach will allow us far greater latitude when it comes to the actual policies we promote today.

It has been in part our strict adherence to the lifeless “mummified doctrines” of the past that has contributed to our diminished standing with the American people.

There was a time when the Republican party was rightly seen as the party of ideas. Under Reagan in the Eighties and the congressional revolutionaries of the mid 1990s, ideas were free flowing as our leaders focused first on American principles as the foundation for their policies. Somewhere along the way we lost this and began replacing principled convictions and forward-looking policies with nostalgia for policies and politicians of past eras. When that happened we stopped connecting with the American people.

Given the choice between policies that spring forth from American principles and those that do not, the American people will chose the former every time. These are the principles that are engrained in the American character. Our fellow citizens agree that principles like liberty, economic opportunity, self-government, equal rights, and the rule of law should form the bedrock of public policy.

Now, if we can just get the politicians to agree.

– Jim DeMint is a Republican senator from South Carolina.

This is the first piece in a series of op-eds from Senator DeMint. The following entries will examine the principles that are foundational to the American experience and suggest policies that align with those principles.


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