By Ronald Glenn
Because of yesterday’s presidential inauguration, a lot of discussion and introspection has been dedicated to and spent on a nagging question — What is the appropriate behavior for conservative Americans at this time?
Consider the historical context in which such a question should be answered. America always had two fundamental attitudes toward the American citizen’s relationship with his or her government, attitudes which formed long before the country was created. The first attitude is based on the Greek and Roman model of citizenship, a model which revolves around the idea of the citizen-soldier, most notably represented by Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In fact, our very first president, Gen. George Washington, liked to present himself as Cincinnatus, the Roman who left his farm, saved the city, and then returned to his former life after he had accomplished his duty. The most important aspect of this attitude, the Greek and Roman model to the relationship between a citizen and his government, is the belief that no person is capable of defining himself separately from the society to which he is duty-bound. Under such a model, any given republic survives based on the efforts of those pledged to defend it, each member charged with a sacred duty to the society from which he receives his life and livelihood.
The second attitude is quite different, however, if not in total opposition to the first. Many early settlers came to America to live lives utterly separated from government, including many that attempted to set up isolated religious communities. This attitude is based on the idea that America was the new Eden, where humanity could go back to living a life in the innocence and equality that existed before corruption had infested Europe with its wars and imperial families. We must not disregard this attitude as silly or dismiss it as naive, as it has had a powerful hold on America and many of its most conservative elements, and still does to this day. With this attitude, the idealized America is the traditional family living on a farm — self-sufficient in all things. This point of view, however, appears less attractive to every generation, since America is becoming increasingly urbanized.
A few weeks ago, I was given a pamphlet from a very conservative religious sect describing the tenets of their faith. It stated, among other things, that they did not believe a follower of Christ should vote in a civil election. This underscores the central point, that America has a deep tradition which associates involvement with a government, no matter how good that government is supposed to be, with corruption of the individual or the group to which that person belongs.
I believe this attitude has begun to invade the thinking of many conservatives who, over the last eight years, feel betrayed by the two elections of George W. Bush. For example, take the presidential candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul in the months before this most recent election. While Dr. Paul represents the more secular aspects of the separatist conservative attitude that citizens should be left alone to live as they see best–he is against international meddling, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, and interventionist courts–his detractors instead see him as an unrealistic idealogue out of touch with reality. Indeed, however, I believe he serves as a fantastic example of the current state of the conservative movement, as many people feel that both the Republican and Democratic parties under George W. Bush’s tenure were members of the same criminal cartel. How many dissenting voices beside Ron Paul’s, after all, have we heard during the recent and ongoing bailout debate in the United States Congress?
The most telling facet of Ron Paul’s candidacy was that, unfortunately, he had no chance for victory. Once this was accepted as fact by his campaign workers, many of his devout simply had nowhere to turn. Several times, I attended meetings held by local factions of Dr. Paul’s national campaign here in Pennsylvania, and found those in attendance to be devoted, educated on the issues, and sincere. After Dr. Paul’s fate was decided, however, much of these sentiments did not carry over to the larger campaign for the Republican party — so what did his people do? Many had a natural reaction, falling back into their own personal morality. If they live good, free lives, then whatever evil is later manifested by government action was certainly not their doing. The federal government, therefore, was given carte blanche to be as misguided as it wished, as there was no desire on the part of most Ron Paul supporters to join the current “criminal gangs.”
In my college days, there a phrase was used to describe the destruction of Eden in America. It was “the machine in the garden,” a phrase which harkened back to onslaught of the industrial revolution in the pristine American wilderness. Today, many conservatives think the government itself is the machine in the garden, wrecking Eden one more time. If government indeed does fill that role, it does no good for anybody to simply go about our daily lives and pretend it is not there. It becomes the 400-pound gorilla in the living room, just daring people to ignore it.
That being said, the best way to start removing the proverbial gorilla is to demand a political dialogue from our leaders that has more purpose than simply getting re-elected and maintaining power. Many years ago, for example, I remember watching a political debate between two Democratic and Republican senators. The topic of the debate was the federal budget, then hovering around $1.5 trillion. The Republican actually boasted, pridefully, that he was ready, willing and able to trim $10 billion from the budget — apparently, the first $1.49 trillion was just fine!
It was insulting. And nothing has changed.
Conservatives, as we steam ahead toward 2010 and beyond, need to end this kind of insulting banter through the use of the Internet, by attending public political meetings at the local level, and by taking an active interest in the bills before Congress before it is too late to speak out against them. If instead we choose to stay home and lock our doors, if instead we choose to chase ghosts and shadowbox, we will go broke trying to keep that 400-pound gorilla fed. Vigilance and curiosity must be perceived as a duty and, for even a chance at another glimpse of an American Eden, we must find the Cincinnatus in all of us.
Ronald Glenn has worked in real estate and law for more than twenty years. He now works in Philadelphia, and lives outside the city with his wife. Ron has been writing for America’s Right since January 2009.
Excellent Ron Paul artwork by Leah Tiscione.