Once limited to certain basic functions, the federal government today has an all-but-unquestioned dominance over virtually every aspect of American life.
Congress passes massive pieces of legislation with little deliberation, and yet the majority of “laws” are promulgated by bureaucrats who are invisible to the public and, worse, mostly unaccountable.
An “imperial” president exerts massive administrative power over a vast web of government policies and procedures without the clear authority of law.
Federal and state courts don’t adjudicate the law as much as they rewrite it, regularly usurping the power of the political branches and diminishing popular consent. The consent of the governed is, for them, at best an afterthought.
Growing streams of money flow from Washington, D.C., to every state and locality, to thousands of private and nonprofit organizations, and to millions of individuals, who in turn are increasingly subject to “strings attached” federal rules and regulations.
We are nearing the point where a majority of our citizens will have no federal income-tax liability, and yet the government continues to act without limit, leaving the bill for future generations. At the current rate, the debt accumulated during the current administration will be greater than the combined debt built up over the course of all previous American history.
Is this to be the failed destiny of the American experiment in self-government?
Happily, there is another way.
The primary reason the United States has not yet gone the way of Europe — though there are troubling parallels — is that our country has long maintained a political culture grounded on certain moral and constitutional principles, which has kept it moored in the Western tradition of reason and faith, protected from the radicalization of modern thought that has devastated Europe.
What we need is a great renewal of these permanent truths about man, politics, and liberty. These are the foundational principles and constitutional wisdom that are the true roots of our country’s greatness. In a world of moral confusion, and of arbitrary and unlimited government, the American Founding is the best place to gain access to permanent truths and the best ground from which to question the whole foundation of the “progressive” project.
American politics should be understood in the light of the country’s founding principles. We need to study these principles as they were understood by America’s Founders.
A deep understanding of, and commitment to, core principles is the key to the practical, prudential decision-making we so desperately need in our ideologically divided politics. American politics should be understood in the light of the country’s founding principles. We need to study these principles as they were understood by America’s Founders and explore the relationship of these principles to the Constitution and their fate in the development of modern America. We need to do this not just on Constitution Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, but every day.
This education must not be confined to the classroom. We must teach the principles of liberty and the rights and responsibilities of self-government to all Americans — not as a matter of historical curiosity, but in order “to refine and enlarge the public views,” as James Madison put it. To transmit this knowledge is the most important requisite for sustaining American democracy.
Despite constant criticism and scorn from academic elites, political leaders, and the popular media, most Americans still believe in the uniqueness of this country and respect its noble ideas. We must give voice to all those who have not given up on their country’s experiment in self-government, have not concluded that the cause of liberty and limited constitutional government is lost, and have not accepted America’s decline as inevitable.
Thomas Jefferson called the Declaration of Independence “an expression of the American mind.” Our aim must be a clear expression and forthright defense of America’s principles in the public square so that they become, once again, an expression of the American mind. As it has been for most of American history, so it can be again.
— Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies & Citizenship in Washington, D.C.