America is bitterly divided because there are two Americas. Each has its own concepts of justice, the common good, and human flourishing. And both are vying for supremacy. The way out of this mess is the same as it’s always been: through. We need a realignment, which, once accomplished, will embody and reflect a broad agreement on principles of justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence and actualized by the Constitution. This realignment will transform our disputes; they will become about means and not ends, as they are now.
The last major realignment in American politics was the imperial presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Regardless of what you think of him, Ronald Reagan only managed to effect a partial realignment. Besides desperately and fervently praying that Providence might provide us with an historically once-in-a-century-or-so a realignment for the 21st century, what can we do to hasten its arrival?
The deepest hurdle to our longed-for domestic peace—the fruit of unity, grounded in a shared vision of ends—is that Red America and Blue America do not agree on the nature and purpose of the human person and, by extension, government. We are hopelessly divided on basic things; each side is watching “two different movies,” as Scott Adams would put it. Thus, one side’s appeal to “justice,” “fairness,” “what is right,” and the like is immediately interpreted by the other as despicably partisan, i.e., not aimed at securing the good of the country and her people. Even appeals to the Constitution have a sectarian ring for far too many.
This is, of course, a serious obstacle to achieving anything at all, let alone effecting a necessary regime-level shift. What to do?
I propose that Republicans, in the short- and medium-term, forgo any talk of first principles because they serve only as sources of rancor, discord, and distraction in the present moment, and instead shift to talk of securing limited ends for the people. Because enough of us still agree on what those are, they are viable launching points to move us to the ultimate goal. In other words, for now, we should lower our gaze to make it possible, one day, to raise it as high as the Declaration of Independence tells us we should, to recognize the full meaning of “all men are created equal.”
Political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, a devout student and defender of America, explains that the people’s “Safety and Happiness” are the end of government, and they are secured when the government protects the people’s natural rights. But we disagree about whether natural rights even exist and, if they do exist, what their scope is. As paradoxical as it sounds, then, we need to look to the ends themselves for a plan of action. However, the Declaration’s statement of ends—securing the people’s safety and happiness—must be made more concrete if it is to serve as a springboard for political action.
I would do so by quoting George Washington’s letter (which itself draws upon Micah 4:4) to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island perfectly illustrates our common goal: “[E]very one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This is the promise of America: that everyone shall be able to live safely in peace and productive prosperity, in his own way, respecting the lives of others to do the same. This is the drum beat the Republicans must pound, day in and day out, and offer as their plan for the country.
Our job is to protect you and your way of life. To that end, we will ensure economic opportunity on a broad basis. We will exterminate criminal aggression in your community, and your right to defend yourself where necessary will be vigorously upheld. You will be free to speak your mind. And you will not have to be physically, economically, or spiritually afraid of your fellow citizens.
Chris Rufo’s assault on critical race theory provides a great template for how and why my proposed strategy works in practice. Rufo’s most successful strike has been against the education sector. The reason that parents are reacting so strongly against the teaching of CRT in K-12 schools is not that it’s immoral claptrap (though it is). They reject it so vehemently because they can see it for what it plainly is: a moralistic cudgel used to beat their children into servile submission, not to mention a frivolous, decadent distraction and projection of racialized envy that materially detracts from actual instruction in subjects like chemistry and mathematics that matter to their children’s long-term economic prospects.
In other words, Rufo’s anti-CRT campaign has been successful not because it finally makes the Goldilocks “just right” appeal to “justice” in the pure sense of the word but, rather, because it connects CRT in schools to the eventual destruction of families’ obvious self-interest. Education is a key component in attaining a good and decent life for many people. If that is poisoned, then the promise of America, to enjoy the prosperity that our great nation holds out to all who aspire to it, is gone. No complex moral arguments are needed, and none would work anyway, given how divided we are. The successful path forward is a simple, direct argument that links CRT madness to people’s inability to dwell “safe[ly] under [their] own vine and fig tree” and to live unafraid in their own communities and country.
We can see also how this message will play out in a few other key areas.
Big Tech. You have a right to speak your mind about things that directly impact your life and the direction of the nation; tech dweebs in Silicon Valley have no right to censor ordinary speech, least of all in a politically motivated way. Your safety and happiness are directly impacted by your ability to speak your mind because if we can’t talk with our neighbors and reason about how to live together, then we will fight.
Immigration and jobs. Untold millions of people pouring into the country is not a recipe for safety and happiness. As a matter of simple supply and demand, more people in the country means wages are depressed. America is about being able to live a decent life. To do that, you have to, in part, work a decent job that pays you well and helps you propel your children further along the path of success than you are today. If you cannot decide who your neighbors will be, and they’re taking your jobs, your safety and happiness are directly impacted for the worse.
Crime. Nobody can be safe and happy amidst crime. We do not need to navel gaze about “racial disparities” in how police deal with dangerous, violent suspects or “mass incarceration.” We can’t do so productively, anyway. And besides, ordinary people want and deserve safety, to be able to live their lives in communion with friends and family, before they can productively address such systemic issues. You cannot consider how to secure justice for all in the long-term, macro sense when you’re forced to struggle to preserve your very life against lawless, vicious criminals right now.
Transgenderism. There is no reasoning with people who do not see that men are men and not women, and women are women and not men. What we can assert, however, is that those with male genitalia should not be in the same intimate spaces as women and girls. Metaphysical questions aside, the safety (and happiness) of women and girls is at issue, and we have a right to secure that.
Elections. There is no way to secure the long-term interests of the country if we do not trust the electoral process. Regardless of your political beliefs, being confident that the election apparatus in this country are functioning smoothly and transparently is a good thing. Our safety and happiness is secured when we have a system we all buy into that allows us to work out our disputes with ballots, not bullets.
COVID. Governor Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), is wrong to suggest that private entities cannot abridge her constituents’ safety and happiness. “Workers whose employers are mandating a vaccine for continued employment have the power to say no. Our robust economy and job market gives them the option to find a new employer that values personal choice and responsibility, and doesn’t force mandates on their employees,” she wrote on Twitter. But this is wrong. Government properly sticks up for people when their rights are abridged by individuals, criminal or otherwise, as well by corporations. Businesses are not a special, protected class; they must respect the rights of citizens, whose safety and happiness are attacked by coercive COVID policies.
The key takeaway is that the winning strategy is to appeal to basic goods that the vast majority of the country still sees as desirable without getting bogged down in their explicitly moral dimensions. I should be clear: I do not reject the importance of a substantive moral vision of justice, the common good, and human flourishing in forging true unity, which is the “glue” by which a nation is held together. I think that, in the present moment, such talk is neither helpful nor effective. It is only after we secure more limited, “lower” goods, those connected to people’s obvious self-interest, that we can rebuild a shared vision of America atop “higher” goods.
Whoever delivers for the people along the foregoing lines will spark a genuine realignment which will shape American politics for at least a generation. For now, we cannot deliberate explicitly and productively about the meaning and import of the core, animating principle of America—that “father of all moral principle,” namely, that “all men are created equal”—because attempts to do so are immediately trapped in a partisan vortex. So, we have to go directly to the ends: securing the “safety” and “happiness” of the people.
We have a plan now. But the necessary condition of executing it is to elect courageous leaders, at all levels of government, who believe in this mission: delivering real benefits for the American people by wielding the political and moral authority that their elevation to public office affords them.