An indictment of liberalism

Craig Shirley President, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs
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On July 4, 1826, the National Intelligencer published a letter written several days earlier by Thomas Jefferson to his fellow citizens, just as the great revolutionary leader was expiring at the age of 83 on a “little mountain” outside the hamlet of Charlottesville, Virginia.

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them, legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.*

Even at the end of his life, Jefferson held out hope for the American people, though he worried about those who would “ride them” for their own malevolent purposes.

In his new bestseller, “Ameritopia,” Mark Levin warns that this is exactly what is happening today. Levin gives readers a tight and rational view of contemporary America, which he argues is under siege from oligarchic collectivists.

What Levin does is tolerantly and methodically deconstruct the contradictions of modern liberalism. Liberals, Levin explains, support laws enforcing the maxim “from each according to needs, to each according to his abilities,” yet they reject the rule of law. They embrace the self-interest of the anointed elites, but reject it for everyone else.

Barack Obama, for instance, will never give up his pampered and privileged lifestyle at the top of the heap, which he acquired in part by saying that the laws of campaign finance were good and righteous — just as long as they were not applied to him.

The swooning, slobbering sycophants of the ruling elites genuflect before his sophistry. As Tocqueville warned, their kind use the very freedom granted them under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to deny these freedoms to others. He called it a “strange paradox.” Levin calls it “post-Constitutional America.”

“Ameritopia” is not a political book in the sense of suggesting that the reader vote for one candidate or party over the other. It is an indictment of the administrative state and its ever-growing threat to the individual and individuality, the human mind and the marketplace as the best arbitrator of success and failure.

It is a political book in the sense that it discusses power and how the liberal administrative state uses its power over the individual and the market. Levin rattles off at various points the goods and services now regulated by Washington — including “pacifiers, rattles and toys, marbles, latex balloons, matchbooks …” The lengthy list is comical. Less funny is the growing regulation of thought.

Levin reminds readers that Ronald Reagan warned his fellow citizens that freedom is just one generation away from ruin, that it is not passed from parent to child in the blood, but must be taught and re-taught if it is to survive. Reagan’s conservative heirs — including Levin — understand that the concept of “maximum freedom consistent with law and order” is an intellectual exercise. One must think about its meaning, teach it and have the capacity to express it as opposed to utopianism, in which one must “feel” and “emote” and “share.” Indeed, according to Levin, utopianism is anti-intellectualism because it is anti-common sense.

“Ameritopia” is not a screed — sometimes the fare of conservative books — but a scholarly work that conjures up Chambers, von Mises, Kirk and Buckley. “Ameritopia” is a warning from history — and to future history.

Levin is one of the best thinkers and writers on the American right today. He learned at the knee of Ed Meese in the heady years of the Reagan Revolution. And like Meese, he is devoted to the American Constitution and the precious documents of the founding. That’s part of what differentiates him from Obama. For the past five years, the president’s defenders have claimed that Obama taught constitutional law. Really he was a part-time professor of civil rights.

Actually, President Obama’s actions make me question whether he’s ever even read the Bill of Rights. Regardless, he has taken a sacred oath to defend the Constitution and now given offense to it by attempting to subvert the First Amendment through the contraception mandate. Does this not at the very least constitute a “misdemeanor” against the Constitution and the rule of law? The question bears debate.

In fact, the American Robespierre has little regard for the rule of law or the civil rights (see American Catholic Church, French Reign of Terror) of those who stand in his way. Americans who still cherish individuality are fortunate that he and his fellow Jacobins have shown their true nature now and not after November’s elections.

Like their predecessors in the French Revolution, Obama and his merry band of deconstructionists will not cease or desist until they subjugate or grind into the ground every private institution that stands in opposition to their agenda. The country of America continues as a fact, but Obama is bent on the destruction of the idea of America.

I asked Levin whether he thought the idea of America would survive if Obama is re-elected. Here’s what he told me:

There’s no question it will become even more difficult. By now, when Obama says he wants to “fundamentally transform” America he should be taken very seriously. A president does not have the constitutional authority to fundamentally transform America. Moreover, a president who believes America requires a fundamental transformation is a president who rejects the fundamental principles, traditions and institutions that undergird our society. If Obama is re-elected, we have much to be concerned about.

I also asked Levin what he thought of Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War pamphleteer who people sometimes compare to Levin. Paine is a controversial figure among modern conservatives. George Will, the prominent conservative columnist, once said that Paine’s claim that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again” is the most un-conservative axiom ever expressed, but Ronald Reagan loved it and used it often. Here’s what Levin had to say about Paine:

So important was Thomas Paine to the American Revolution that John Adams wrote of Paine that “without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Whether true or not, there is no disputing that Paine’s “Common Sense,” written in 1776 many months before the Revolutionary War, was read by an enormous number of colonists in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War — by some estimates, 1 of every 4 colonists. Even by today’s standards, “Common Sense” was the most widely read book ever in America (as a percentage of the population), except for the Bible. Reagan not only liked the quote you mention, he also would repeat Paine’s famous words from “The Crisis,” which Paine wrote in late 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman ….” George Washington was said to read these words to his troops to help keep up morale.

Paine also had his flaws. He went to France to join in the French Revolution, which could not have been more unlike the American Revolution. Whereas John Locke is believed to have been the most important philosopher relied on by the American founders — his writings were used by Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence, and by George Mason in drafting the earlier Virginia Declaration of Rights — the French Revolution is considered primarily the child of Rousseau, whose approach to equality was seized upon by the Jacobins and others to pursue, among other things, a radical egalitarianism resulting in a reign of terror. Paine was an early advocate of the French Revolution, but he opposed the execution of the King, was imprisoned, and faced possible execution but for the intercession of James Monroe. Paine would later write “The Age of Reason” in which he attacked Christianity and the Bible.

Paine was a very complicated and, in some way, confused man in the end. That said, he was obviously very important. Do we, as Paine wrote, have it in our power to begin the world over again? The answer is no. But we do have it in our power to fight against tyranny and centralized, concentrated government, and to fight for liberty and republican, constitutional government. I believe that is what Paine meant, and I know that is what Reagan meant.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that Reagan was more of a swashbuckling anti-establishment pirate than either Will or Levin realize.

Craig Shirley is a Reagan and Gingrich biographer, a New York Times bestselling author, a First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

*Note: An earlier version of this article misquoted Thomas Jefferson as writing, “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the rights of man.” In fact, he wrote, “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”