Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back by Tom Pauken (Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press, 2010)
I must immediately enter a disclaimer. As Tom Pauken notes at the outset of his book, he was a student of mine during his undergraduate days at Georgetown in the 1960s. He was, I should add, a bright, inquisitive, and introspective student, the kind of student who makes teaching a pleasure. In many respects, as he acknowledges at various places in this work, his education at Georgetown provided him with an understanding of both the American political tradition and the underlying principles of the Constitution that has served as his benchmark for determining the degree and direction of change in our political and civil order. While he has been active in political and civic affairs—for example, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, director of ACTION during the Reagan administration, and presently chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission—as well as in establishing firm roots in the business community, he has always viewed politics from the broader and loftier perspective of our basic traditional values and constitutional heritage. Bringing America Home reflects this approach.
The subtitle, “How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back,” indicates the general organization of the book—that is, it consists of two main parts: the first detailing how and in what ways we have wandered off course; the second with how we can recover our proper bearings. Now, in claiming that America has lost its way, Pauken means, in effect, that we have abandoned conservatism, the more traditional conservatism associated with Goldwater and Reagan. While, he remarks, this brand of conservatism prevailed with the election of Reagan, it was short-lived. In retrospect, he maintains, “we can see that conservatism peaked during President Reagan’s first term.” And, although he believes it enjoyed a “resurgence” in the mid-1990s when the Republicans gained control of Congress, it did not long survive. “For all practical purposes,” he writes, “the post-Reagan era has been a disappointing period for American conservatives, who had once seemed on the verge of restoring and revitalizing a nation that had lost its way in the 1960s and 70s.”
The Turn Away from Traditional Conservatism
Pauken’s concerns are wide-ranging; they are cultural, economic, and political. In many ways, his second chapter, “The Hijacking of the Conservative Movement,” is the most interesting, given his personal observations and intimate knowledge of Texas politics. From his vantage point, Reagan’s selection of George H.W. Bush as his running mate was a “fateful decision” that eventually changed the character of American conservatism—“fateful” because it put Bush in position to run and win election in his own right. Without George H.W. Bush’s ascendance, in Pauken’s view, “George W. Bush…would not have won election as governor,” nor would he have been elected president. In any event, with the election of George H.W. Bush the “pragmatic wing” of the Republican Party, troublesome during Reagan’s second term, assumed complete control, while the “ ‘corporate liberal’ crowd regained its dominance over the decision-making processes of the Republican party”—a dominance that also marked the younger Bush’s entire tenure.
Despite their differences, Pauken has some kind words for George H.W. Bush. From the time of their first meeting in 1965, he writes, “in all my dealings with him…[he] has always shown himself to be a true gentleman.” One gathers, however, that he does not hold George W. Bush in equally high regard, but rather looks upon him as an individual who “never exhibited much of an interest in political issues,” and who depended on a power-hungry Machiavellian, Karl Rove, for his electoral successes. Moreover, Pauken contends, during George W. Bush’s first term, with Rove exercising a predominant influence over domestic policy, “the conservative principles of limited government and federalism” were abandoned as “big government conservatism” came into vogue. With this came deficit spending on a scale “eerily reminiscent of the excesses of the Lyndon Johnson administration…during the Vietnam War.” To make matters worse, his administration opened its doors to the neoconservatives “whose philosophy,” Pauken observes, “was closer to the political liberalism of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt” than to that of either Goldwater or William F. Buckley.
In subsequent chapters, Pauken points to and enlarges upon the consequences of Republican policies that have deviated from traditional conservatism. In one chapter, “Big Government Conservatism Is an Oxymoron,” he emphasizes the profligate spending during George W. Bush’s presidency, including the all-out push for a “large new Medicare entitlement for prescription drugs” that added considerably to the system’s already enormous $74 trillion in unfunded obligations. Such an action Pauken rightly regards as irresponsible, the abandonment of “sound economic policy” for “short-term political gain.” In another chapter, “The Bubble Economy and the Destruction of the Middle Class,” he turns his attention to the greed of the hedge fund managers and credit card companies by way of illustrating “the loss of any ethical compass in the business world.” Here, he points also to the trade imbalances attributable to a mindless commitment to free trade “at all costs,” the ineptitude of the Federal Reserve in setting monetary policy, and, inter alia, the significant losses in the manufacturing sector of the economy as contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the plight of middle-class America.
Nor is he unmindful of the ways in which American culture has declined over the decades. In a separate chapter, “The Coarsening of the Culture,” using Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard commencement address as a touchstone, Pauken identifies six areas of cultural deterioration. Suffice it to say, he believes that relativism, secularism, the loss of ethical standards, overreliance on legalisms, and the lack of “Christian unity” are among the major developments responsible for our cultural malaise. As for foreign policy, he castigates the neoconservatives for their miscalculations and blunders surrounding our invasion of Iraq, taking care to emphasize again and in various ways that “the neoconservatives are not really conservatives at all, but liberals masquerading as conservatives.”
The Way Back
And what of the “way back?” On his showing, this involves dealing with a wide range of problems. To begin with, Pauken views “Militant Islam” as “an even greater threat to Western civilization than international communism was.” This is a theme he emphasizes repeatedly both in a chapter specifically devoted to this threat (“A New Strategy to Address the Threat of Militant Islam”) and in his conclusion (“Traditional Values for a New American Century”). To deal with this threat, he believes, requires that we abandon the neoconservative policy of using force, since this radicalizes and unites “the Islamic world against us” and produces “more foot soldiers for radical Islam.” In essence, he contends, this is a religious war that requires we mend the “badly damaged relationships” with the nations of Western Europe. In addition, in his view it is imperative that we cultivate friendly relations with Russia, a “re-Christianized” nation that “may become our most important ally in the battle against militant Islam.” On the domestic side, we need to restore the health of our economy (“Putting America Back to Work”) and revamp our educational system (“Reforming our Educational System”). Among his more controversial suggestions in the economic realm is a modest, “border adjusted, value added tax (VAT)” that “would not apply to U.S. exports,” but rather “to all imports.” As for education, Pauken finds himself in agreement with Charles Murray’s “Four Simple Truths:” “ability varies; half of the children are below average; too many people are going to college; we have to do a better job of educating the academically gifted.”
On the more political side (“A Return to Constitutional Principles”), he emphasizes the need for a viable federalism, urges terms limits (twelve years), points to the need for budgetary reform, and, most importantly, calls for the reassertion of congressional powers to curb both the activist judiciary and the imperial presidency. He concludes by calling for a return to the nation’s Christian roots. “Our faith and our families,” he writes, “are the indispensable foundations to a free society.” Yet, he laments, the “Christian values” that stand at the “center of our national character” have been under siege, which, in turn, “has taken a heavy toll on the traditional family.”
Politics and Principles
What marks would I give my former student? Clearly, he deserves very high marks for explaining how the Republican Party lost its way by abandoning the core principles of conservatism, and kudos as well for delivering in such a thorough and convincing manner a long overdue message: To wit, the Republican Party, principally under George W. Bush, betrayed its long-standing commitment to fiscal responsibility and antipathy toward Wilsonian interventionism. To the extent, however, that he is suggesting—and this does seem to be the underlying thesis of his book—that a return of the Republican Party to its true conservative moorings would solve or mitigate many of the moral, economic, or political problems confronting the nation, I believe he is mistaken.
To begin with, American political parties are not really based on principle. The fact that the congressional Republicans, save for a few lost souls in the House, willingly followed George W. Bush off the cliff is evidence to this effect. But, more importantly, the solutions to the problems he cites and explores in this volume require more than what any political party can possibly deliver. Can, for instance, the Republican Party (or for that matter the Democrats) restore that “belief in God” or provide that “strong ethical compass” he regards as essential for “true liberty?”
Realizing this, I think, leads to an important lesson that traditional conservatives, like the Tom Paukens of this world, should take to heart—namely, that their conservatism will never find a congenial home in either political party. Parties will always be dominated by individuals who seem genetically disposed to seek and retain political power. Nor can these individuals be counted on to abandon their short-term interests or political advantage to embrace the long-range interests of the country. Quite the contrary, as this book so clearly reveals.
Conservative principles—say, as we glean them from Burke and Tocqueville—must somehow permeate the American soul if they are to change the course of American society and politics. The path to success and rejuvenation, then, is not through political parties but instead through social persuasion. This is what, I believe, Bringing Home America really teaches us.
Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back by Tom Pauken, as well as other books related to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of The Modern Age (Winter/Spring 2011).