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American idea

We face great challenges at this moment in history. We face cyber threats. We face a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. We face a jihadi threat. We face the growing threat of nonstate actors, who now can carry out massive attacks and are as able to play on the global stage as state actors. We face the exploding costs of our entitlement programs.

All these challenges are acute, but another dangerous trend is attracting less notice: The crisis of confidence in, and the growing unawareness of, the American idea.

What is the American idea? The American Founding made the bold claim that most peoples and most governments in the history of the world had been wrong about the nature of power and the nature of freedom. Sure, there were moments in history when certain city-states advanced some conception of liberty, but most people in human history said that might makes right: If you have a monopoly on power, you can do what you want. Everyone else in those societies was not a citizen but a dependent subject. If you lived in such a society, you needed the king to give you rights. The passive assumption was prohibition. The passive assumption was that if I want to start a business, I need a charter because it is illegal to run that business unless the king has sanctioned it. Therefore, I go and supplicate before the king in his court, and he decides whether to give me the right to start that business.

Today we would say that is bizarre. The voluntary transaction between two people is the very nature of freedom. The American Founders saw that denying people their freedom is fundamentally wrong because it does not comport with the dignity of people who are created in the image of God. People have been endowed with certain inalienable rights. God gives us those rights; government does not.

Government is merely a tool. It provides a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can live fully flowering lives.

This is why Ronald Reagan said that the American Founders “brought about the only true revolution that has ever taken place in man’s history.” Previous revolutions “simply exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers,” Reagan said. But America’s Founders did something different: They developed and fought for “the idea that you and I have within ourselves the God-given right and the ability to determine our own destiny.”

Founding FathersThink about how the framers of the Constitution wrestled with whether to enumerate any rights. What’s the danger in enumerating rights? Your list will never be long enough. The Constitution does not define any rights because the Constitution is the way that we give the government limited authority. All the powers that we do not give to the government are rights that we still retain. Even when the framers came up with the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights, they could not decide on any one individual right to list first. They had to list five things in the First Amendment: religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to redress grievances. Those five freedoms are all listed as first freedoms because there is no way you can get the list complete.

And that is a crucial point to understand whenever you hear discussions of “limited government.” We talk about limited government not because we are obsessed with government; we talk about it because we are obsessed with the maximal nature of human freedom and human dignity and human potential. The American experience with limited government is not about government. It is about people—about the dignity and the full lives that God envisioned for people created in his image. Limited government is just a means to that end.

That is the American idea. And it has had unbelievable results.

America’s Civil Society

Even after the United States won independence from Great Britain, Europeans were too distracted by their own issues—the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, to name a few—to take much notice of the Americans. In fact, not until the conclusion of the War of 1812 did it become clear to Europe that the Americans would retain their freedom.

Then, beginning in the 1820s, America embarked on a market revolution, as well as transportation and engineering revolutions. This is when Europeans began to take notice: Who are these people, and how is all this economic flowering happening over there?

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville comes to the new world in 1831 to try to answer such questions, to explain American dynamism to Europeans. What does he do? He goes to Washington, D.C. because, if you have a vibrant society, it must be because you have greater bureaucrats than anyone else.

But when Tocqueville arrives in Washington, he finds a swamp. He realizes he must go elsewhere to find the source of American innovation. He spends nine months traveling up and down the United States. Finally, he writes back to Europe and says, “I found the meaning of America. It is… the Rotary Club.”

What Tocqueville found was America’s communal life. Americans had discovered new ways to associate with one another and Europeans wondered, “How can you ever take on shared projects if the government isn’t in charge?” Tocqueville saw that Americans found the answer by building a robust civil society—intermediating institutions that struck the balance between the extremes of collectivism, which means that the government is in charge, and isolated individualism.

That’s what Democracy in America is about: the volunteer spirit of Americans who came together to create communal life. The American dynamism of the 1830s was just a working out of an idea that was clear to those who were drafting the Constitution a half century earlier, and that should still be our idea today.

The American Ideal in Peril 


Ronald Reagan

But now that idea, the American idea, is in peril. Ronald Reagan recognized the importance—and the fragility—of the American idea when he said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed down for them to do the same.”

Today we are not doing a good job of fighting for or handing down the American idea. Think of President Barack Obama’s response when asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This is exactly the opposite of what American exceptionalism means.

President Obama’s misunderstanding of American exceptionalism was deeply wedded to the philosophy that the Democratic National Committee followed throughout the 2012 election. The videos used to introduce the president on the campaign trail and celebrate his first term featured a troubling line from then-congressman Barney Frank: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” That is an abandonment of the core American understanding of what government is. Remember, government is the tool by which we create a framework for ordered liberty; it guards the natural liberties of the people so they can go out and build flourishing lives.

That flourishing rests, of course, on individual rights, but as Tocqueville saw, individualism alone is not the answer. The American idea of freedom centers on civil society and mediating institutions, the ways that we form real communities—communities of the heart and communities of the soul; communities of voluntarism, not of compulsory institutions.

We often hear that politics has become too polarized and that characterization is a fair one when it comes to political elites and the nationally attentive. But I think our more fundamental crisis is a crisis of disengagement. We have so many people who have little understanding of what it means to transmit republican ideals to the next generation, that we now see a drift toward the assumption that it is the government’s job is to solve every problem. The framers of the Constitution were quite clear about what governments do and do not do, and about what powers and responsibilities reside at the federal level versus the state and local levels. But, as a people, we have lost that clarity.

Constitutional ConventionGovernment is not “the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” No, as the Founders and Alexis de Tocqueville would have recognized, it is in coming together in voluntary communities outside the sphere of government—in civil society—that we get things done together.

We have big battles to fight to persuade people that the American idea is in crisis because so many of our fellow citizens have never even heard what it is. To say that the solution to virtually every problem is a government solution, and especially a federal government solution, represents a regression from the American idea. The true greatness of America is the ability of people to build institutions together and to fully flower.

In the economy, in higher education, and in so many other fields, what we need at this moment is more innovation. We need more entrepreneurs. We need more civil society. We need more striving for independence, not more homogenization and standardization. We need to preserve and enhance the communities that have made America great, not seek to become more European in the way we embrace the future.

The full flowering of America has always depended on the private sector. The private sector is not just for-profit entities; the private sector includes all of civil society, all those mediating institutions that have defined Tocquevillian American greatness for two centuries.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2016).

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Published: Apr 16, 2016
Ben Sasse
Ben Sasse is a United States Senator representing Nebraska. Before his election to the Senate in 2014, he served as president of Midland University, where he turned around a failing institution and made it one of the fastest-growing colleges in America. Senator Sasse holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, and a PhD from Yale.
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6 replies to this post
  1. Senator Sasse, very well done. A very clear concise presentation of the intended nature of our government and the basis for it’s nature. Your comment about a loss of belief in the “cult,” the culture of America and its’ form of government, reminded me of a similar statement by Arnold Toynbee in his “Study of History.” He identified many factors contributing to the growth, maintenance and decline of civilizations but he identified one as being paramount: the “X Factor,” which was belief in one’s civilization. Lose that and it’s all down hill. He identified, back in the 1930’s that Western Civilization, the only remaining civilization standing, was going down, in decline because it had indeed lost belief in itself. He held out some hope for it as it’s gone down and recovered in the past (unlike most other civilizations) and he pointed to Black Americans as a potential saving force as he noted they were the only slaves in history who had taken on the faiths of their masters, an astonishing thing and completely contrary to what one would expect; an acknowledgement of the truth of the beliefs their masters held of the Judeo Chrisitan basis, American style, that informed the construction of the American Republic. Of course those masters were cherry picking the Bible but within the Bible itself and the “all men created in the image of God,” truth it held, the illiterate slaves saw the ordained destruction of the slavers system and the freedom to come. “Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Pharoah’s army got drownded…” I can’t think of a more fantastic way to save western civilization than to see it come from such a historically belittled population. I’m reminded of the previous saving of “the world,” by the Irish when all of Europe had gone under to the pagan goths, vandals, huns, etc. And the Irish at that time and indeed up to not too recently, were considered the most unlikely ones to save “their betters.” Very analogous to the idea of civilizational salvation emanating from today’s black populations would be. Such a movement would be truly glorious, says this white mutt. Could it happen?

  2. A very nice essay, Senator.

    However, I have a quibble (not so much a disagreement with what you write, as an elaboration on it). The practice of voluntary association as a foundation of civil society was not the creation of the Constitution, or of the framers. It has its roots deep in the colonial period of American history. For example, in Philadelphia alone, Franklin and others collaborated to found a lending library, a system of fire protection, and what eventually became the University of Pennsylvania., among their other activities. The colonials were, quite simply, used to creating institutions that existed alongside government. They were used to a relatively loose imperial system, and a fair degree of benign neglect. The move to independence was, at least in part, a response to increasingly heavy-handed attempts by London to exercise greater control.

    President Reagan may have been off the mark when he described the American Revolution as the one “true revolution.” When I was an undergraduate, the great Edmund Morgan invited us to ponder whether the American Revolution was in fact a revolution at all, but instead an evolution of the institutions that had developed during the colonial era. The question is debatable (and was intended to prompt debate). But this much is clear, the American Revolution left much of the civil society that already existed in place. It left much of the structure of local and regional government also in place, with adaptations to the new fact of independence from Britain. It was not a wholesale uprooting of an old order (as with the French and Russian Revolutions), and left the mediating institutions between the new national government and the populace largely intact, retaining space for new institutions to develop.

    However, the American Revolution was one revolution that did not make things worse than they had been before. Perhaps that is because it was a conservative (and hence incomplete) revolution.

  3. What is the American idea? The problem with posing such a question is the reality that seems lost on most so-called “conservatives” today and that is the U.S. isn’t an idea or a project. The U.S. is a concrete reality forged by real men with a common ancestry who mutually pledged to each other their Lives, their Fortunes, and their Sacred Honor. It would terrific if Conservative Inc.would disabuse itself of this notion that America is an abstract idea or that it is a “propositional” nation. Such views are ahistorical and ultimately, an insult to the great MEN who founded this republic.

    • Actually many Americans at that time did not share a common ancestry, and to posit to them at that time that Scots (Lowlanders, Highlanders, Borderers), Irish (Catholics, Protestants, Dissenters), Englishmen, Welshmen, Cornishmen all shared a “common ancestry” (to say nothing of the upstate New York Dutch, the Pennsylvania Germans, the Huguenot French) would be laughed at by those who lived then.

      • Mikey Joe is referring, I believe, to Federalist No. 2, Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence, by John Jay. He writes, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”

        Large numbers of Irish and other non-English peoples did not immigrate until the nineteenth century, mostly after the War (the real division was between New England and the South, both from English stock). Jay may gloss over some minority groups, but the English character of the colonies and the Union they formed is unquestionable. It is the notion of eighteenth-century America as some kind of multi-ethnic pluralist society that is laughable.

        And those who founded this republic did so, as they put it, “For Ourselves and Our Posterity,” not for everybody who shows up from the four corners of the Earth demanding citizenship.

        • The problem with positing Mr. Jay’s experience as common through the entire United States is it speaks primarily to the Anglo-American circles he traveled in. The notion that French Huguenot, New York Dutch, Pennsylvania Germans, Irish (Protestant & Catholic) and Scots were not common is just not so. We have the immigration logs, we have the oaths of naturalization. Half a million from Ireland arrived between the 1600s and the American Revolution. 250,000 of which arrived between 1720 to 1775 alone. By 1775 one third of the Pennsylvania colony was either of German descent or German born. So the only way to continue this fiction is to either posit that Welsh, English, Cornish, Irish (Ulster Prods/Southern Catholics), Scots (Lowlanders/Highlanders), Germans, Dutch, and French are just all English for the purposes of fiction making (a laughable claim to many Anglo-Americans like Ben Franklin at the time who complained about how many swarthy Germans were in America) or simply deny the verifiable migration documents historians now possess. The American identity is forged between these groups after the American Revolution.

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