“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” So said Abraham Lincoln as he opened his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858, drawing upon an ancient notion of prudence found in the works of Aristotle. So say I in this opening issue of my newsletter, Doubting Thomas.
This newsletter aims to serve several goals:
- First, it will be a source of information for the American public perhaps not readily available in schools, the media, the Internet, or the rough and tumble of political life. It will combine tested and true elements of classical thought—political as well as philosophic—that have been largely forgotten or ignored, with new messaging materials I am developing. In time, I plan to offer freedom-messaging products that I hope some people will find value in using.
- Second, it also aims to serve as an interactive forum and an editorial testing ground: much of the material presented in the newsletters will be parts of chapters of a new book project on which I am working. I invite readers to offer thoughts, suggestions, and constructive (or even not so constructive) criticism. Each issue will raise questions about how we communicate politically—hence the catchy title I’ve given this newsletter, Doubting Thomas—and offer kernels of ideas that can grow in the minds of people if they choose to nourish them. In short, I want to create a body of work about political relationships and political relational communications by way of building those relationships and practicing that communication.
- Third, this newsletter, and the book that springs from it, aims to offer Americans of all political stripes a new way to think and speak about politics and about each other by placing the politics of freedom in the rhetorical, intellectual, and emotional framework of relationships. I aim to help Americans help each other feel good about freedom, while understanding each other better.
Now, back to our opening question: Where are we going today and what should we do? I see a deeply troubling parallel between our situation in America today, domestically, and the period leading up to America’s greatest crisis and darkest hours: the American Civil War.
Two movements back then fueled a rhetorical fight that became so loud and vitriolic, each side stopped listening to the other. The rhetorical fighting eventually turned into physical fighting. The costs were staggering: over 600,000 dead Americans, white and black, billions of lost dollars, widespread destruction, and a depressive melancholy that left those alive in a deep funk for a generation. So how did Americans talk themselves into a place where wide-scale military violence seemed preferable to speech?
THE RHETORICAL PATH TOWARD IMPENDING CRISIS
Starting in the 1820s, a religious movement swept across the United States. That movement was the Second Great Awakening. It was apocalyptic. Christian leaders and followers became convinced that the end of the world and Judgment Day were imminent, just around the corner. The Second Great Awakening inspired an almost desperate attempt to get right morally as a nation, as well as individually. When the faithful, especially of Northern ilk, looked across their country, the biggest sin they saw was the institution of slavery. This was the beginning of abolitionism.
Literature and sermons of all sorts poured forth declaring that America had lost its way because it did not stand right with God, so long as slavery existed. Some abolitionists proposed that the North secede from the South, separating the self-proclaimed righteous from those they deemed irredeemable. Other abolitionists insisted on the immediate eradication of slavery, by whatever means, with or without the consent of those whose livelihoods depended on slave labor. Across the board, Northern abolitionists denounced Southerners as Satanic, un-Christian, and un-American.
Southerners, in turn, responded by defending the Southern way of life—all of Southern life, including slavery. This was the genesis of the “positive good” school of slavery, viewing slavery not as a necessary evil to be eliminated gradually, as the American Founders had viewed it. Rather, they came to view slavery as a positively good institution, both for the alleged White master class and what they viewed as the inferior Black slave class. Slavery, in their view, should be spread far and wide, in part because a social order going back thousands of years rested upon it.
Various theories of evolution, which were then the cutting edge of scientific and philosophic thought in Europe, were brought to bear, arguing that by natural evolution those of Black and African ancestry were inferior to Whites, and therefore slavery was supported by discoveries of modern science.
This supposed racial “science” was reinforced by textual Biblical arguments: Sin, argued many leading Christian theologians, is precisely what God has declared to be sinful, nothing more or less. Nowhere in Scripture, neither the Old nor the New Testaments, had God declared slavery to be sinful. Nowhere had God commanded that the institution of slavery be abolished. Far from it, the Bible offered regulations for slavery, instructing both slaves and masters how to behave, therefore suggesting that the existence of slavery is somehow right in the eyes of God.
Armed with such arguments, Southerners, who were deeply pious people, assumed the theological and moral high ground by denouncing Northern abolitionists as being godless atheists, as well as uneducated, unenlightened, unscientific fools.
In the course of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, both sides, North and South—both convinced of their own rightness and righteousness—came to shouting louder and louder at each other. As their rhetoric reached unbearable volumes, they were in effect building a wall between them. Few listened to the opposition. Anything coming from the North was dismissed by the South merely because it was Northern, and vice versa.
The stage was set. We know the sad results: A bloody war between brothers, unlike anything the modern world had seen.
ARE WE BUILDING ANOTHER WALL?
I am not suggesting we are on the verge of such a civil disruption today comparable to the Civil War. No! Please let it not be!
But the rhetoric between the political Left and Right today has reached such a screeching tenor that I think it’s fair to say not many on either side listen to or seem to care much about those on the other. Politics has ended many friendships and frequently places obstacles in our relationships at work, at home, with family and others. In terms of our rhetoric, we seem to be going down the same path we’ve been down before.
As the Right and Left fund more organizations, amplify their messages, utilize new media outlets and new technologies, each side gets louder and louder. Yet every loud word from both sides is nothing but another brick. We are building another wall. It is my purpose to tear down that wall, and help us once again communicate about serious political matters as fellow citizens and potential friends.
ELEMENTS OF FREEDOM
Everything produced and published by Krannawitter.com will be informed by and contain what I believe are the three irreducible elements of freedom:
- Equal, Individual, Natural Rights
- The Proper Role of Constitutional Government
- Informed, Responsible, Active Citizenship
Not unlike the atomic parts of any naturally occurring element, natural rights, constitutional government, and active citizenship are the elements of a free, prospering, just society. Everything freedom lovers and freedom advocates want politically—from property rights and free enterprise, to strong national defense, to limited government and the rule of law, to religious liberty and freedom of speech, to freedom in all the areas of life about which we care—are contained in and flow from the combination of these three elements.
These elements are irreducible in the sense that if one is missing, the framework falls apart:
- The purpose of constitutional government is to protect us from domestic and foreign threats to our equal, individual, natural rights, while we remain free to protect ourselves as well.
- When government does more or less than it is supposed to, violating our rights or leaving us unprotected, it is up to citizens to get their government back in constitutional line.
- When citizens are responsible for themselves and their families, they don’t rely much on government and therefore there is little demand for expansions of government power or scop
- When citizens enjoy the protection of their equal, individual, natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the free pursuit of happiness, they tend to be creative, entrepreneurial, and productive.
This is precisely how America went from a poor nation of subsistence farmers to the greatest, most prosperous among the nations of the world. It is precisely why many people risk everything to get into America today, while very, very few want to get out—and even for those who want to leave, they are free to do so. What a marvelous thing America is!
MESSAGE FOR THE MIDDLE
Our challenge today is not that the political Left or Right has a shortage of outlets for their message. The problem is the message.
Political organizations, campaigns, schools, media, etc., broadcast their messages daily to a massive number of people in all kinds of inventive ways. Groups on both sides are very good at packing large hotel ballrooms with people who think like themselves, while they all congratulate each other on being so smart, so good, and so right. They walk away having inspired their choirs—and indeed there are moments when choirs need a boost—but realistically, politically, they have accomplished little.
Consider the American population as a kind of bell curve. At one extreme of the curve are those who always, or almost always, make choices in their personal and political lives informed by the elements of freedom. At the other end of the political bell curve are those who always, or almost always, make choices opposed to the elements of freedom.
But the most interesting and important part of the bell curve is neither extreme. It is the big, fat, kind of squishy middle. That’s where most Americans live, and that is what determines the fate of the American political future.
The key to building a better, freer, more prosperous and just America is to move opinions and actions in the middle part of the curve ever so slightly in the direction of making choices according to the elements of freedom. But we need a new way to talk to one another if we are to be persuasive. The more the extremes talk to themselves, the more they construct a barrier wall between themselves and the middle. The result is political defeat and unrealized hopes.
The political Right, which seeks to restore limited government and maximize individual freedom—a cause of which I have been part—has experienced loss after loss. There is no better label for the past century, in my opinion, than the “century of progressivism.” For the better part of a hundred years, America has witnessed the continued growth in government and bureaucratic regulation, all at the expense of individual and entrepreneurial freedom.
The modern conservative movement has been a force in American politics for six decades, reaching back to the 1950s. Since then, conservatives and libertarians have produced mountains of books and magazines and sound research. They’ve established national news networks, talk radio, schools, think tanks, and more Internet outlets than one can count. They even saw the election of a popular conservative president, Ronald Reagan, and a less popular one, George W. Bush. What are the results of all this money, time, and energy?
- The 2012 re-election of a president openly hostile to the U.S. Constitution and, more importantly, the elements of freedom that informed the design and purpose of it.
- A national debt that now exceeds the entire U.S. economy.
- More regulations and restrictions on free enterprise and entrepreneurialism than every before in American history, with more on the way.
If those are not signs of a failed message, I don’t know what might be.
For the Left, they seek genuine human goods—food, shelter, and medicine for the poor, better education for more Americans kids, a decrease in the income gap, a cleaner environment, and much else they include under the rubric of “social justice.” Many of these goods are things the Right wants as well, they and the Left just disagree on how to achieve them.
Still, despite considerable electoral victories, from FDR and his New Deal to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, many of the Left feel short-shrifted. They have not gotten all they want, and they are looking for ways to make life better for more people. But their political successes raise an important question for the Right: If the Left has been so successful at making people feel good about bigger government, massive wealth redistribution, and less individual freedom, why has the Right faired so poorly at making people feel good and confident about their agenda?
WHICH WAY DO WE GO?
So where are we and what are we to do today? We are free to continue down the path we are going. Both sides can continue to shout their failed messages. The conservative and libertarian Right, in particular, can continue to trot out their graphs and charts filled with data and numbers, and the Left will continue to ignore them and label them uncaring. We can keep building the wall that is increasingly separating us as a nation. We know how that turned out before. Perhaps some think it will turn out differently this time? Of course, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
Or we can try something different. We can incorporate all we know about real human relationships—the ones all of us care about, relationships with co-workers, friends, family, a lover—and we can apply that knowledge and experience to our political relationships. We can speak to one another in a tone, and with a heart, that cares about the other. No amount of graphs or charts or data will make for a persuasive message, if the audience views the speaker with suspicion and a guarded heart.
Many people mock the injection of feelings into politics. But feelings matter. They always matter. Each and every one of us is guided in part by our feelings when making important decisions, and even not-so-important decisions. Feelings should not be the sole criteria for any important decision, granted. But those who ignore the feelings of others ignore something important about others and do so at their own political peril.
I want to help people feel good about freedom, who in turn can help others feel the same. I hope you will join me. For those interested, stay tuned for the next issue of Doubting Thomas. Invite your friends to sign up at Krannawitter.com. Hey, it’s free!
This new conversation about freedom turns on how we talk to each other. So let’s talk. I invite you to comment below.