I believe in American exceptionalism. America truly is the greatest country in the history of the world — but not for the reasons many suppose. America is not great merely because of our mighty military, free-market capitalism, or representative democracy. Don’t get me wrong; I am incredibly grateful to the men and women who serve our nation in uniform, and I want our armed services to continue to be stronger than any other. I strongly prefer our systems of economics and government, which empower individuals rather than centralized authority. What has truly set America apart, however, has been something much more foundational — our culture. Our Founding Fathers created a limited government dedicated to protecting, not creating, our God-given rights, and thus enshrined freedom into our foundational documents and ethos. That freedom presupposes a healthy culture and particular values, our civic religion derived from but not limited to our particular Western Judeo-Christian heritage.
Leaders from both political parties, including Presidents Bush and Obama, have made the mistake of believing that imposing elections on other societies, without the necessary prerequisite civic values, would result in pluralistic, peaceful societies like our own. Democracy without respect for minority rights, human dignity, the rule of law, property rights, and freedom of expression is merely mob rule. We have seen this lesson again and again with Gaza and Hamas, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, Iraq and Shiite militias, Russia and the oligarchs, etc. Majorities, sometimes in the guise of terrorist groups, have transformed “one man, one vote” into “one election, one time” as they hold on to power.
In America, civic values like individualism, frugality, delayed gratification, striving, private charity, and temperance have served us well through many generations. Combined with healthy, though not absolute, tendencies towards libertarianism and isolationism, these values have not been identified with a particular political party or religious denomination. Despite their roots in the beliefs of the first Protestant immigrants to the colonial settlements, they have been embraced by Americans from all backgrounds.
I worry because these values are under assault. Indeed, the middle class — the traditional repository of these values and the backbone of America — is under increasing assault, economically and otherwise. As it sees a Democratic party more concerned with making individuals dependent on government and a Republican party more concerned with protecting the wealthy, no wonder many are flocking to Trump to defend them.
Liberals have been remarkably successful in transforming America’s culture from within, dominating the media, universities, and the entertainment industry, where so many ideas originate.
I believe America is strong enough to confront any external threat, but I worry more about our weakening from within. Even as we resist enemies determined to take away our freedoms, I worry that we are more vulnerable to simply giving away our incredible heritage.
Liberals have been remarkably successful in transforming America’s culture from within, dominating the media, universities, and the entertainment industry, where so many ideas originate. Elites have adopted new values of government dependency, the universalization of victimhood, instant gratification, political correctness, and group identity well before mainstream America. To be sure, we are not merely passive recipients; but families, busy paying bills and raising kids, are not immune to the relentless proselytization. Just as previous eras’ kids had their parents’ values reinforced from not-so-subtle television shows, movies, and celebrities, today’s children are similarly influenced by today’s popular culture.
Diversity and tolerance (for all except those who disagree with the liberal elites) are becoming the most sacred values in today’s more secular society. Nobody is arguing for their opposite, but values originally designed to protect the minority view have instead become tools with which to bludgeon into conformity all who hold dissenting views. Conservatives are no longer to be tolerated, much less debated with — all in the name of tolerance. The quickest way to silence those who have illiberal views on gay marriage, transgender bathrooms, or quotas is to simply label them bigots. Case closed.
A lifetime ago, during a very different Clinton presidential campaign, the candidate engineered a confrontation with Sister Souljah, and by extension Jesse Jackson, to prove he was not too liberal for mainstream voters. Today Hillary Clinton will have to manufacture a very different kind of moment to prove to the Black Lives Matter crowd that she is sufficiently attuned to their group grievances. The shift within the Clinton family is hardly surprising; they are masters at adapting to the times. What is noteworthy is how much has changed, both within the Democratic party and in the country as a whole. The Clintons are not to blame for this transformation; they merely serve as the weathervane, showing us the direction in which the cultural winds are blowing.
There is much self-satisfaction and heroism in being countercultural against great odds. Being salt and light in a world needing both can be its own reward, and we are certainly called to rewards in a life after this one. But I think it is time for conservatives to fight not just to win elections, but for a greater and more enduring victory — to reclaim our culture. One does not need to be a communitarian to realize the importance of reasserting America’s traditional values before it is too late.
— Bobby Jindal is the former governor of Louisiana.