Make America Principled Again
Saturday, September 17th marked 229 years since the signing of the United States Constitution. This year, the United States celebrates 240 years of Independence.
It helps to remember that the men of the Second Continental Congress were not radicals. They were educated, accomplished lawyers and businessmen, all British subjects well-versed in the rights and responsibilities that came with such a distinction. When they first met to discuss petitioning King George III, most wanted nothing more than the restoration of their rights. After the British invaded Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill, no such illusions prevailed. Principle dictated no other recourse; there would be nothing less than total separation, independence.
Never before had so many sacrificed so much for something so uncertain as liberty. When the world first heard of our “certain unalienable rights”, the concept was entirely new. It has become common practice to question American exceptionalism, but in 1776, America was the exception. The colonists were not the first to cast off the chains of oppression, but they were the first to assert that man is meant for freedom and self-governance.
Their fight would have been nothing more than a footnote in history if they hadn’t taken the opportunity to codify and fortify the cause of ordered liberty in the Constitution some six years after the British surrendered at Yorktown. It is our Constitution that makes the United States exceptional. The Constitution makes ours a republic unique among the world’s nations, founded on the lasting notion that only with respect for the rights and values of all citizens comes a sense of unity and common purpose. Self-governance only works when The People respect each other’s power and when we work to protect one another’s rights, especially when we disagree. In the preamble, We The People secure our rights in order realize a shared vision of “a more perfect union” for ourselves and posterity.
This is our Founding Principle. And 229 years later, it is still our most precious pursuit.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, may be trademarked, but he lifted it from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Reagan’s presidency was exemplary of principled, presidential leadership. He compromised with Democrats but engaged fortuitously in a contest of ideas. Supply-side tax relief, slashing inflation, a defense buildup even in the twilight years of the Cold War — all novel ideas that won because they were based on superior principles, guarded above all in the unyielding belief in the capacity for free individuals to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. None of it could be accomplished if not for determined, principled leadership.
This wasn’t lost on his successors. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, once declared “the era of big government is over” and Barack Obama, another Democrat, further explained that he saw in himself the potential to be atransformative president like Reagan, someone that could unleash an entirely new era of confidence in America. Though he had different principles and priorities, Obama figured that American exceptionalism transcends ideology and party lines. By writing his own chapter in “the story of America”, he lauds his impact on the concept itself.
And now the next would-be successor to the transformative power of principled conservative leadership is the populist, Donald Trump. Trump comes not from Reagan’s conservatism and instead hails a different set of ideals— a more nationalistic pursuit of “putting America first” and making the country “strong,” “safe,” and “great again” through “law and order”, less overseas engagement, and fair trade. He’s adopted the majority of conservative policies on taxes and regulations, but stands in stout defense of the entitlement state. This approach stands twofold as an example of Reagan’s transcendent optimism and modern conservatism's failure to live up to its promise.
The truth is that conservatism has fallen out of favor with a growing majority of Americans because they don’t see it as the type of principled leadership America needs today. We haven’t done the very best of explaining what principled leadership means and what it doesn’t.
Principled leadership means:
Protect the Constitution, the whole Constitution. We cannot protect our constitutional rights by forfeiting any one of them.
Preserve the separation of powers established by the Constitution. This entails vigilantly supervising the Supreme Court, vetting every nominee for the bench, and, insisting that activists on both sides advance our causes through the amendment process - not usurpation, not nullification, not judicial fiat, and never ignorance or indifference.
We aim to appoint judges who will defer to the Founders’ intent and the text of the Constitution, who will rely on established, relevant precedents, asking which principles underlie each provision and how to applythem in our modern world.
Congress and the President have a vested interest in vigilantly defending their constitutional prerogatives. Executive orders are to be used sparingly and never used as a means of circumventing legislation. Executive orders, letters, and memos that have unconstitutionally usurped Congress’s or the state's’ priorities must be stricken from the record and debated in the chamber of Congress tasked with the matter, or left to the states as the Tenth Amendment demands.
We must extend the promise of free enterprise to everyone and pick up those that have fallen into pits of poverty and despair, leading by example in our own communities to make the poor richer without making anyone poorer.
The goal must be equal opportunity for all, illuminating the entire country with the reach of unparalleled access to the American Dream. Where there is ruin, there must be recovery. Only lasting recovery can end the cycles of generational poverty. After all, slavery and segregation were a result of government policy and so government has a role to play in mitigating their lasting consequences. We aim to replace the War on Poverty, which merely treats poverty, with a Pledge of Empowerment.
Parents must be empowered to choose the best schools to educate children and anyone guarding a failing a status quo, for any reason, is blocking the pathway to the American Dream for communities suffering from cycle after cycle of debilitating poverty. Our nation’s children must be educated in order to become virtuous and productive citizens, and this is best accomplished by focusing on each individual student and relying on proven practices, not one-size-fits-all dictates from bureaucracies that are hardly held accountable.
Limit government to the few tasks enumerated in the Constitution and ensure that it does them well, while leaving the rest up to free people so they may pursue their loftiest ambitions — accepting risk in order to attain reward, investing in themselves and their own social capital instead of relying on bureaucracy.
There is no greater empowering force than the true independence of gainful employment with the potential for benefits and financial security. This is not something the government can provide for everyone. Principled leadership recognizes that government has a role to play, but it is limited to providing the environment for help each person and company thrive on their own.
The government cannot engage in picking winners and losers and there is nothing conservative or principled about handouts, bailouts, or unfair treatment for favored industries and donors. We must accost this cronyism and close the opportunity gap between millions of Americans and the ability to realize their dreams.
America must accept the mantle of leadership at home and abroad, insisting that America’s interests are global interests and vice versa. Vigilance against terrorism comes without vilifying the innocent, and deterrence is achieved through military preparedness, economic strength, and meaningful accountability. Diplomacy, alliances, and trade negotiations are the best means of asserting American interests in world affairs and trade. Our continued maintenance of global stability must come with fair agreements, as well as understood and enforced rules so that no nation can dominate another, and no country becomes a despotic hegemony that threatens global commerce or cooperation.
We care for those that cannot help themselves and for the elderly and those that have served and sacrificed in our defense and law enforcement. Health, retirement, and anti-poverty programs must be sustainable within all circumstances and any trade-offs in taxes or fees must be based on solid, working principles that empower individuals, not corporations, including hospitals, drug producers, and insurance companies.
Our aim is safety for all - from terrorism, from crime, from scams, from cyber attacks, and enforcing a well-understood rule of law that protects everyone’s rights.
Secure our borders and points of entry, finding a home for immigrants and well-vetted refugees, and zero tolerance for future unauthorized migration. It means a working immigration system that serves America’s legitimate economic needs and does not create incentives to replace the existing workforce with cheaper competition.
Our free market principles dictate a commitment to property rights, intellectual property, and financial property.
Government is never entitled to what one earns, inherits, or leaves behind in the event of death.Taxation must be limited to what is needed to fund basic constitutional government functions and leave the rest in private hands to save, invest, and spend to one’s desire.
We believe in the unbridled potential of civil society — the capacity of individuals, families, and communities to come together and accomplish what is best for everyone.
Local control is best and easiest to oversee. It’s easier to hold local leaders accountable but our system also insists that all leaders are subject to public approval. Other than lifetime-tenured Justices, we reserve the right to recall and remove all elected officials that fail to uphold trust in government. We must reserve this right for only the most principled reasons, however, not mere disagreements over policies and leadership decisions. Only the gravest threats to the republic necessitate the impeachment of an elected official outside of regularly scheduled elections.
We show respect for our opponents and are genuinely disappointed when they fail to live up to their oaths of office.
And when we fail, when we surrender, or when we are fooled into following the wrong course, we admit it. We will honestly state our disagreements, pledge to do better at the next opportunity, and then try again for the best at that time. We demand this of all our fellow conservatives and every public servant.
Negotiate in good faith and take disagreements into consideration in order to forge a lasting consensus. State where we will compromise, where we will not, and understand that we own every detail of every final deal.
We must maintain our integrity and our founding principles at every cost. When we are asked to choose party loyalty over our principles, we resist the urge for we understand that the preservation of our principles does not allow for the surrender of any of them for the sake of politics. Politics will be a factor — the tactics, trade offs etc. but above all the sacrifice of a conservative principle can only come from experience and results.
We need not, and we will not, agree on every issue and we believe that there is much to learn when conservatives disagree.
When a leader is tasked with a deciding vote, or Congress is considering legislation that will eventually be signed into law as a matter of importance or necessity, such as a budget authorization, the imperative is for a workable solution. Principles come first, not politics, and deliberately confusing the two will shortchange leaders, their constituents, and our country. A dispute about tactics is not always a dispute about principles and honest disagreements declared honestly represent a healthy measure of representation within a constitutional republic.
We need real disruption of the political establishment, replacing it with “a New Conservative Establishment” that relies on these principles, as well as modern experiences, evidence, standards, rules, and processes to achieve real change that will outlast political terms. Policies and processes work because they are based on timeless principles. After all, policy is an expression of principle.
And so we insist on honest debate about every detail, every assumption, every consequence, timeline, result, risk, and reward inherent in making policy to befit a nation of over 300 million people. It is their livelihoods, our livelihoods, that hang in the balance. Public service is a calling, not a self-serving career. Policymakers must be held to greater scrutiny and show greater deference to reform and rule-making so that every American is best served by the decisions they make.
Above all, principled leadership is not about winning elections. At least it’s not just about that. It is about doing the right thing for the American people and accepting the consequences.
Principled conservatives must continue to search for the most effective means of advancing our cause, by electing proven leaders to positions of power and overseeing their machinations, legislative priorities, and their ability to enact effective policies. Principled leaders will only prove themselves after they win elections, and while we expect nothing like 100% fidelity, we must insist on honest representation. Where we disagree, we agree to work constructively toward real change for the American people if it is a necessity, and to resist if it is not.
Pragmatism is principle too. After all, conservatives cannot act on our principles if we fail to win elections and cannot enact policy without making compromises. A principled leader without followers is no better than a shepherd without sheep to herd. Principled leaders will understand the imperative win elections and to campaign on the most exceptional of our American principles, to unite the country and represent the best interest of all Americans. Good leaders unite factions. Great leaders unite the whole.
Principled leaders seek to work for every American because our principles are the proper domain of every American. Principled leadership is just the latest, best opportunity for conservatives to serve the nation, but progressives have just as much claim to their own principles of governance and we must insist that this fight, which is the essence of representative democracy, takes place openly, always asking “if we are to tear down the establishment, what is to replace it? Who gets to become the new establishment? What are their principles, their values, and what, precisely, makes them better? Why should the American people trust them over us?” We can answer these questions. Can they? It’s time to find out. The American people need answers.
We will not be met with deference. Progressives, as they challenge the established orthodoxy, hold nothing sacred. Every institution will be challenged, every assumption questioned. It’s easy to join them as this discourse devolves further but unity is harder to achieve than division. Indivisibility has come at enormous cost, and it’s true that it is much harder to reach out to a closed fist than an open hand. It is also true that in our contest of ideas, we must insist on the basic preservation of our most treasured institutions - our minority rights, a Constitution of principles, a country founded on the assumption that power is safest when it is jealously guarded and resides in the people. We will not always win, but we must fight: effectively, intelligently, with principle and conviction. At the same time, we must listen, especially if we’re not likely to agree with what we hear. After all, democracy depends on dialogue. We will not always succeed in every regard. We will have to learn to tolerate, understand, and respect those who disagree and resist those who attempt to divert us from our purpose.
We cannot be cynics. We cannot be disinterested. Progressives and conservatives should never give up fighting for what we believe in. But in this contest, we can insist on fighting on principle, with sincere respect for different beliefs and values.
For in America, we have the capacity to work past our differences, in the pursuit of fulfilling every dream and desire, and, together, building a more perfect union for ourselves and posterity. We believe America is exceptional because of these principles, and because of our commitment to them throughout history. From our Founding, through the Civil War, segregation, and countless recessions, our perilous fight for American principles endures in every living example. We have risen above our challenges, living up to our promise to always be striving, always trying to realize a vision beyond where the republic is today, and having the temerity to take it where it ought to be tomorrow.
This is about a great renewal of the republic. The nation has lost sight of what truly unites us — the shared values of freedom, equality, and justice for all that buttress a nation founded, and so tested, to be a constitutional republic before all else. Nothing less than the identity of the nation is at stake — how we solve problems, debate differences, reach meaningful compromise, and protect that which we cherish.
Only the principled conservatives can credibly offer such a direction. We are the worthy successors to the spirit of Independence. We recognize that there are enormous, gargantuan challenges for both sides going forward, battles to win and battles to lose, wars over principles that will demoralize activists on one side and hardly satiate activists on the other. Above all, there is still a nation here — a nation of millions of people, with different values, different beliefs, different levels of patience, fear, and anger.
We’re all in this together, one way or another. We can be a United States in name only, united only in our enmity for one another, or we can choose to unite as we have before, in common purpose, with shared values and respect for ourselves and our Founding principles. America deserves nothing less.
Only principled leadership can make America great.
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