The New Promise of American Life, published in 1995, came not from some abstract ideological doctrine, but rather from work a number of us were doing on the ground in the low-income neighborhoods of Milwaukee.
For decades, those neighborhoods had been supervised by cadres of social service professionals who claimed to know better than everyday citizens how their affairs should be managed.
The results there, as elsewhere across America, had been disastrous – decaying families, dysfunctional schools, rising crime.
In Milwaukee, though, we saw—and the Bradley Foundation encouraged—the first indications of a populist rebellion against the regime of experts, namely, parental choice in education.
For the first time, low-income parents were able to make one of the most critical life-choices on their own, selecting the school their children could attend with public support. The notion that parents knew better than experts about such matters was of course anathema to the teachers unions.
But it proved equally unsettling to anyone possessing a professional social service credential. That certificate of expertise surely merited willing and even grateful acquiescence from “ordinary” Americans, who would badly mismanage their own affairs without professional supervision.
As a great battle raged in Milwaukee around these questions, Lamar Alexander and Checker Finn — who had managed to overcome their own handsome credentials in order to side with parents in the struggle for education reform — began to explore the intellectual underpinnings of what Lamar came to call government’s “arrogant empire.” And that led us all to Herbert Croly and the progressive movement of the early 20th century.
Croly is best known as a proponent of the centralization of public policy. But he argued for its professionalization as well.
In the complex and interconnected circumstances of the 20th century, he held, the promise of American life could no longer be fulfilled by the idiosyncratic and amateurish workings of democratic individualism.
The promise instead demanded that our national life be turned over to knowledgeable experts immersed in the new sciences of nature and society, which enabled us to manage the growing webs of interdependence.
These purely public-spirited social engineers would be devoted heart and soul to a grand vision of national purpose or national community – a vision all too likely to elude ordinary citizens, trapped as they were in shabby local communities, still clinging to antiquated, parochial moral and religious myths.
By the early 90s, we had seen the results of the Croly vision: once-proud, self-reliant American citizens were being turned into passive, helpless clients, increasingly dependent on social services lavishly funded, but poorly designed and ineffectively delivered.
If this helped fuel the congressional elections of 1994, how much more is it true of the congressional elections of 2010.
Once again, we see the fiercely proud, “don’t tread on me” populist spirit in full rebellion against an arrogant empire of professional elites, whose credentials allegedly qualify them comprehensively to remake our health, energy, and financial systems.
Once again, the elites dismiss resistance to those sweeping plans as remnants of retrograde religious doctrines providing pathetic comfort against the complexities of global interconnectedness.
And once again, the tone-deaf arrogance of the elite’s response only feeds the populist fires.
If we declared war against Herbert Croly in 1995, though, it seems that Herbert Croly won, at least that round. How will things be different this time?
Well, if the professional service state was becoming too expensive in the mid-90s, it is most certainly too expensive in 2010, and cut-backs unimaginable earlier are now going to be unavoidable.
If school choice and charters seemed a quixotic challenge to the unresponsive education bureaucracy in the 90s, consider how far we’ve come since then. Today, major movies like Waiting for Superman promote charters and blame teachers unions, rather than the Bradley Foundation, for the problems of public education.
The New Promise was one of the first conservative projects to suggest that Herbert Croly’s utopian intellectual vision might be more a source of our problems than, say, FDR’s far more practical New Deal.
Since then, it’s become clearer to us how much of our politics spins out of the tension between the progressive nationalist vision of a reign of experts, and the democratic, decentralist vision of the framers of the American Constitution.
Such arguments were once of interest only to a handful of intellectuals. But they have today found their way onto the whiteboards of our nation’s leading news network, while well-thumbed copies of the Constitution now protrude from thousands of pockets at the nation’s Tea Party rallies.
One other thing will be necessary, though, if Croly is to be beaten in the next round. In the summer of 1994, Lamar Alexander traveled across the country spending time with dozens of neighborhood leaders who were successfully addressing our social ills.
Their approaches reflected the everyday common sense and traditional moral and spiritual principles of the American people, rather than elitist doctrines of professional expertise.
In his book entitled We Know What to Do – that is, American citizens, not the elites, know what to do – Mr. Alexander described his visits to sites like Pastor Henry Delaney’s school for low-income children in Savannah, Father Jerry Hill’s shelter for the fragile homeless in Dallas, and Sister Jenny Lechtenberg’s job training program, PUENTE Learning Center, in East LA.
His notion that we must look first to street-level problem solvers for wisdom rather than credentialed elites meant that Lamar was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool.
If things are going to be different in 2010, our new Congressional conservatives will have to follow Lamar’s example, and turn once again to the wisdom and experience of our grassroots leaders.
But this time, they must show a steadiness of purpose that failed them in 1994, once they had their own hands on the levers of national power.
As we seek ways to roll back government, the problems it sought to address aren’t going away.
Alternatives must be found, and we will have to look again at the more effective, less expensive, decentralized solutions that, as Bob Woodson has argued for thirty years, appear in glorious profusion across America’s neighborhoods.
For conservatives, the next successful journey to the White House will begin with a tour like Lamar’s. It will seek out the local wisdom of grassroots leaders, and explore ways to sweep aside the failed solutions of progressivism’s arrogant empire, so that such local wisdom can flourish.
This article is excerpted from Schambra’s remarks on December 3 at Hudson Institute’s event on The New Promise of American Life and the 112th Congress.