(By John Andrews, Centennial Fellow) It’s now almost a year since Jeff Hunt succeeded me as director of Centennial Institute, and he is taking it to new heights. Meanwhile, having kicked myself up stairs with the lofty but (I hear you saying) gauzy title of Distinguished Fellow in American Thought, I am overdue in explaining that what on earth that might mean — and why it matters.
In other words: Give an account of yourself, Andrews, and make it good.
That won’t be hard, for my account rests directly on our mission as a think tank. When we talk about American thought, we’re inquiring into who Americans think they are, and how they think about the country’s essence, and why they think it’s exceptional or special — if they even still do. Questions like that.
Probing into those questions, starting to map the answers, has everything to do with Centennial Institute’s chance of continuing to realize its ambitious goals for policy reform, political impact, and cultural renewal.
Two centuries ago in the Founding era, American thought was confident, coherent, expansive, and bursting with possibilities. The Old World marveled at us. The far horizon beckoned, spiritually as well as geographically. The sky was the limit.
Back then, St. John de Crevecoeur wrote of “this new man, this American.” Thomas Paine enthused that “we have it in our power to begin the world again.” And Thomas Jefferson remarked that the Declaration of Independence was “an expression of the American mind,” not just some ideas of his own.
So the visionaries who birthed our nation clearly understood themselves to be embarked on a world-historic endeavor with a unique identity and a grand destiny. “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” they proclaimed in Latin on the Great Seal of the United States: “A new order of the ages.” Did they think America was exceptional? You bet.
That bright flame has burned low and several times almost flickered out during my lifetime, however — the years since World War II. By 1950, anti-constitutional Wilsonian liberalism was so dominant that critic Lionel Trilling could dismiss conservative arguments in defense of the Founding as nothing but “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas.”
Yes, the Right counterattacked during that decade with Russell Kirk’s definitive work, The Conservative Mind (1953), and Bill Buckley’s launching of National Review (1955) — and the next decade saw the rise of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
By 1981 Reagan had gained the presidency, and GOP senators (with my mentor, the late great Bill Armstrong, prominent among them) held a majority after a quarter-century out of power.
But even at the height of conservatism’s political success, campus Marxists and the intellectual Left were smugly imposing a rigid new orthodoxy that classicist Allan Bloom called in his 1985 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind.
Barack Obama, then a hemp-toking hipster at Harvard, was imbibing the resentful relativism that would eventually lead him to shrug (as president in 2009) that, sure, America is exceptional to us in the same way that Britain is to the Brits and Greece is to the Greeks — no more, no less.
So much for “American thought” in the brave new world of multicultural globalism.
Today as the Obama transformation gives way to an almost-certain Clinton restoration, the regnant political and cultural realities contemptuously brush aside what we the people “thought” our country was all about.
** Americans thought constitutional limited government set bounds on the trustees of power in all three branches. But progressive elites now inform us their agenda must prevail by any means necessary.
** Americans thought the First Amendment protected nuns and pastors and the faithful in the pew. But progressive elites now inform us sexual freedom overrides freedom of religion — though we’re still allowed, for now, a symbolic stay-indoors substitute called “freedom of worship.”
** Americans thought “all created equal” in our founding documents meant exactly that, so every human life would matter to the utmost in law and morality. Progressive elites now inform us such an assertion is racist toward blacks and repressive toward women.
Why did I ask to be a Fellow in American Thought? Because I believe unless we really think hard about such “how you look at it” battle lines as these, we’ll get nowhere in making the 21st century a rewarding time of liberty and opportunity for my young friends in the CCU student ranks and for all their Millennial contemporaries.
Politics has been a big part of my life since I was a Republican volunteer in high school, a government major in college, and an eager-beaver White House staffer in my twenties — just about those Millennials are right now. But today as a grandfather and a legislative used-to-be, I have become convinced that culture is upstream of politics, and that our worldviews, our core beliefs, are upstream of culture.
Hence… American thought. Now I can hear someone saying, Okay, John, aren’t you just talking about the American dream, and why is that a big deal? We all believe in that in our own way. To which I have two replies.
First, “in our own way” is the whole point, the essence of a think tank’s analytical challenge. Some people’s way of pursuing the dream starts with individualism and faith, other people’s with collectivism and secularism. It makes all the difference.
Second, the American dream as commonly understood in these consumer-oriented times is barely an inch deep. Google that sardonic folkie anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” update for cyber fads, and you’ve pretty much got it.
American thought, by contrast, is a mile deep. The inheritors of Athens and Jerusalem and Rome and Geneva, the descendants of Augustine and Luther and Shakespeare and Milton, ventured to a new continent and “thought up” the freest society mankind had ever dreamt of (that word again).
How’s it working out, four centuries on? That’s the oceanic depth of national self-appraisal and self-understanding we’re diving into when we begin to think about American thought.
Our thinking substantially shapes our identity and our destiny, warns the Book of Proverbs, and Shakespeare agreed. Is there an enervation, an exhaustion, or even a senility that can overtake the thought-faculty of a great nation and bring it down? Historians like Alexander Tytler and John Glubb have concluded there is, and they put the onset at about 200 to 250 years.
I’ve explored the relevance of this for America in my book Responsibility Reborn: A Citizen’s Guide for the Next American Century. With our most recent birthday having been number 240, the actuarial tables augur ominously for us.
And one urgent reason we need a campus-based think tank like Centennial Institute is that polls now indicate today’s rising generation in America is the first to ever believe they won’t live as well as their parents did. What an alarm bell. I hope it’s unacceptable to you. It is to me.
However my book contends that the 21st century, the heyday of the Millennials in adulthood, in parenthood, in their societal contributions and leadership roles, can indeed be another American century as glorious as my generation’s heyday in the 20th century — or more so.
Material factors, some in our control and some not, will partly determine whether this comes to pass. Yet our future is ultimately up to us, for the decisive factor will be… American thought. Upon this I am honored and excited to apply myself for Centennial Institute’s ongoing work. After all, as Richard Weaver taught us, ideas have consequences. Let’s embrace the truest ideas and from them forge grand consequences.
John Andrews served as founding director of Centennial Institute from 2009 to 2015. He is a former Colorado Senate President, past Republican nominee for Governor, appointee of four US presidents, and author of several books on faith and politics. He blogs daily on faith and freedom at BackboneAmerica.net. A different version of this post originally appeared on the website of the Millennial Policy Foundation, where John is also a fellow in American thought.