Privilege and its Discontents

Stuart Whatley

Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide into Socialism, by Jim DeMint (Nashville, Tenn.: Fidelis Books, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8054-4957-0) 304 pp. Cloth $26.99.

To Save America: Stoping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, by Newt Gingrich (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2010, ISBN 978-1-59698-596-4) 356 pp. Cloth $18.95.

If crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part to us, do they? —George Carlin

One moral hazard of an open society is that free speech occasionally aids the illusion of mass oppression. In the current era of economic hardship and political polarity, the ground is fertile for a wave of freedom fighters to enter the scene in the form of politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals—all warning of tyranny and promising to protect American freedom. Or in the words of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint to the current president: “Just because you are good on TV doesn’t mean you can sell socialism to freedom-loving Americans.”

In fact, the title of DeMint’s most recent blueprint to save America from tyranny echoes that suspicion. In Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide into Socialism, South Carolina’s junior senator and leading Tea Party champion on Capitol Hill describes the United States as the gingerbread man and federal government as the fox who beguiles the gingerbread man into dropping his guard long enough to be devoured. DeMint exudes a starry-eyed nostalgia for the American Revolution, writing: “There is no better metaphor for America than the gingerbread man. When we came out of the oven in 1776, we were hot. We sent the British packing, formed a constitutional republic, and were soon off and running. . . . Like the Gingerbread Man, Americans valued their freedom above all else. . . . But in 1929 America ‘came to a wide, deep, and swift-flowing river with no bridge to cross.’ That river was the Great Depression. That’s when the federal government became our ‘fox.’”

It is useful to cite the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, in part because this is when the language of freedom that DeMint is leveraging was first so effectively promulgated to revolutionary ends. By his reckoning, late-eighteenth-century America was the high point for freedom, and it has been a downhill tumble ever since. No matter that the Revolution did nothing for the rights of blacks in slavery, women across all social classes, white men who did not own property (this included, well, most of them), or indentured laborers whose status was altogether unaffected by the ouster of the British. What’s more, the term secularist had not yet even been coined. The Protestant stranglehold over public education would last into the twentieth century. In aggregate, these groups comprised a majority of the population; that so many would remain in, as Howard Zinn described it, “mean and vile condition” during the paragon era of “freedom” seems odd.

DeMint continues, zooming forward to the twentieth century: “As Americans lost confidence in our free-enterprise economic system and our ability to cross the river on our own, the federal government came to our rescue. At first the expanding role seemed harmless enough, and the people were safely positioned away from the fox’s mouth. But as America endured one politically manufactured ‘crisis’ after another the fox has invited us to move ever closer to his mouth.”

Specific events are identified to have led to DeMint’s realization of an overbearing federal government. Much import is put on the states’ ceding of limited power to the new central authority in 1787, Andrew Jackson’s patronage system in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, veterans’ and widows’ benefits after the Civil War, and, of course, Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. DeMint breezes through this history and never seems to entertain the possibility that perhaps government “consolidation” was made necessary following periods of deregulation and free enterprise run amok. Or in other words, perhaps there were “politically manufactured crises,” but they were the result of policies derived from an ideology mirroring his own. Needless to say, DeMint does not bother exploring this possibility. He is a politician who has found his niche and knows how to serve up the red meat to an already captive audience. He has also established himself, in some eyes, as a purveyor of falsehoods. In 2009 he notoriously asserted that a provision in that year’s stimulus bill would ban Bible studies for college students. That claim was found to be untrue.

Much of what DeMint writes is predictable. But he also has some things in common with the more prestigious author of another similar treatise that follows in his tailwind: To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine by Newt Gingrich. Both are (or were) like-minded Republican lawmakers hailing from Southern states who have written books to challenge the current leadership and, in turn, “save” America. Neither man minces words. In 356 pages, Gingrich gives his reader an explicit warning about the coming oppressive tide. Taxes will mount, government will bloat, and religion will be banished from the public square. Gingrich writes that there is no way to describe the American Left other than as a “secular-socialist machine” dead-set on expropriating all that remains of individual liberty. By this account, all decisions will be made for us by dispassionate state bureaucrats who are paid with ever-increasing taxes imposed through dictatorship against the people’s will. “The most disturbing aspect of President Obama’s first year in office is the machine’s brazen willingness to use the power of the state to coerce and intimidate his opponents while rewarding his political allies,” he writes. To most this will sound far-fetched, but to Gingrich it is all there in plain view—or at least prophesized in the Obama policy tea leaves.

Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House often credited with the GOP’s 1994 resurgence to which this year’s election has been directly compared, has maintained an active involvement in national politics since he left Congress in 1998 (just before DeMint arrived). He is an established Washington intellectual with close ties to such esteemed establishments as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. Many on the American Right consider him a cerebral voice in the movement, capable of reasoned and refined discourse, with a wealth of ideas to address problems in government. Unfortunately, against this venerable backdrop, To Save America will be disenchanting to not already captive audiences. It becomes abruptly obvious that it is not meant for stringent intellectual consumption. Most of what can be gleaned policy-wise is standard fare along the lines of Reagan-era conservatism. But far more interesting is Gingrich’s indulgent use of the exaggerated freedom rhetoric one would expect more from a politician or radio shock jock than a public intellectual.

Perhaps conditions on the ground forced Gingrich’s hand. The most receptive audience for conservative authors are readers sympathetic to the Tea Party movement, a dispersed group of predominantly white middle-class Christians (according to a widely circulated New York Times/CBS News poll) who invoke the American Revolutionary period to equate any form of taxation or government intervention with a despotic requisition of personal liberty. Gingrich laces the tyranny-through-taxation specter throughout his book in order to paint everything from health care to climate-change mitigation as nothing but an added expense with no real benefits. Inherent in his argument is the removal of all historical context. There is no mention to his readers that taxes are in fact the lowest they’ve been since Harry Truman was in office or that the man to whom most acrimony is directed—Barack Obama—made it one of his first orders of business to pass possibly the largest tax cut in American history and has continued down that path by fighting for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for another two years.

The other side of Gingrich’s dictatorship diptych deals with social issues, namely religion. The secular and the socialist in “secular-socialist machine” are mutually inextricable, and it is the Left’s supposed onslaught against religion that establishes the framework wherein despotic abuse will supposedly be doled out. Without the slightest hint of irony, Gingrich equates secularism to an “egocentric worldview,” writing, “[Secular elites] believe religious expression should be private, marginal, and irrelevant. It’s okay to be religious as long as religion has no meaning. It’s fine to be vaguely spiritual as long as you don’t try to translate it into some kind of historic religion, especially Christianity.”

When reading To Save America, one cannot help but suspect Gingrich isn’t really defending religious freedom per se but rather Christian privilege. Moreover, almost all his claims about the Left’s resurgent secularism are debunked by the observable reality. Like his predecessors, Obama ends all public addresses with the expected “God bless America” and ended his first Oval Office address with a call for prayer. Early in his tenure, he expanded Bush-era faith-based initiatives with a new executive office: the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, headed by Pentecostal pastor Joshua DuBois.

This foggy lens hovers over most of the book. As such, To Save America is not the work of a thinker but of a politician intent on rallying an already well-off portion of the electorate by convincing them they’re oppressed—a rhetorical method thrown into stark relief by 2010’s tax debate. It behooves readers to recognize the non sequitur in play when any form of taxation, bureaucracy, deficit spending, social welfare/entitlement programs, or measures that uphold the separation of church and state are described as acts of a “dictator.” There is a large hole in that argument, forcing Gingrich to retreat into speculation and contrived historicism to fill the gap. He substantiates his absolutist connection between central authority and dictatorship solely by citing a work of fiction: democratic socialist author George Orwell’s 1984. (Orwell would later explain to a critic that his famed novel should be read as satire, writing, “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive.”)

Much of Gingrich’s message comes off as sullied by exaggerated absolutism, partisan talking points, and surprisingly unsophisticated arguments for the role of God in society (he writes that secularists’ lack of a Ten Commandments leaves them liable to do anything). Tragically, there are exigent-issue areas where he has sterling credibility and could effectuate meaningful reforms, such as in cutting wasteful spending and increasing efficiency in government. But even in these instances, he falls prey to politics rather than levelheadedness. As with most deficit hawks, Gingrich’s crusade against spending is hypocritically selective, applying to welfare programs and social benefits but not to an unnecessarily extravagant military (or to government-funded faith-based initiatives for that matter). He links the Obama administration to 1984, and yet he supported Bush-era illegal wiretapping, the most Orwellian act of government in recent history (he is however against wateboarding). He also accuses the Obama administration of being too wedded to giant corporations—and he is completely right—but his attempt to put special-interest favoritism solely on one party or politician comes off as frivolous. He decries the unconstitutionality of the new health-care-reform package’s individual mandate, and yet just a few short years ago he proposed the idea himself. These are some but not all of the instances where Gingrich’s substance suffers at the hands of his heightened rhetoric.

Like DeMint’s Saving Freedom, Gingrich’s To Save America ends up being a smattering of blasé partisanship bedizened in absurdist apocalypticism. These authors are not wrong to posit that oppression still exists in America; they’re simply wrong about who feels the brunt of it. Freedom is an inclusive, all-American brand. But these texts’ rhetoric seems aimed at exploiting the prideful, possessive claim of many Americans that their specific version of God is the fons et origo for that freedom. If the “Creator” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is the god of the New Testament, as both of these authors insist, then the implication is that followers of that particular faith have first dibs on the freedom provided (never mind the fact that the actual U.S. Constitution reads “We the People” and never makes any mention of a god or creator).

More often than not, the notion of tyranny depicted by DeMint and Gingrich is incidentally anything that would erode the leveraged privilege furnished to those who share their socio-ethnic-religious standing. If these authors are freedom fighters, George Carlin’s quip may best describe them.

Stuart Whatley

Stuart Whatley is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C.

Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide into Socialism, by Jim DeMint (Nashville, Tenn.: Fidelis Books, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8054-4957-0) 304 pp. Cloth $26.99. To Save America: Stoping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, by Newt Gingrich (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2010, ISBN 978-1-59698-596-4) 356 pp. Cloth $18.95. If crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, …

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