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A New Version of an Old Fight
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A New Version of an Old Fight

It’s hope and freedom versus anger and power, again.

Outgoing Sen. Ben Sasse, pictured in 2021. (Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images.)

Transitions can put a person in a reflective mood, and right now I’m experiencing a double transition. We spent most of last week driving my son from Tennessee to California to start a new life at a new school, the University of California Santa Cruz. Also, the very morning we left I announced another transition, my move from The Dispatch to The New York Times

When you’re driving 2,300 miles across this vast, beautiful land you have lots of time to think, and one thing I’ve been thinking about is the transition of the party and movement I’ve been part of my entire adult life. 

It’s wrong to think of either parties or movements as monoliths. There are always factions, and the right is a famously fractious bunch. If you haven’t already, I’d urge you to read Matthew Continetti’s masterful The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism. I can’t possibly do justice to the story’s twists and turns, but if I had to sum up the dispositional and ideological divides on the right, I’d characterize the modern push and pull as a fight of hope and freedom versus anger and power. 

I’ve always been in the hope-and-freedom wing of the right. I grew up admiring Ronald Reagan. I remember being profoundly moved by George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” inauguration speech in 1988. His son’s vision for compassionate conservatism inspired me, and—for a time—I shared much of his idealism about our ability to spread democracy in the Middle East. One of the highlights of my law school life was sitting for more than two hours with Jack Kemp as he walked through his plan to make the GOP a multi-ethnic party and his ideas for revitalizing America’s inner cities. 

It’s easy to idealize the past, to overlook the mistakes and failures that can turn dreams into dust. My time in Iraq, for example, both taught me of the necessity of opposing our jihadist foe and shattered my idealism about the prospects for liberal democracy there, at least anytime soon. No human movement—no matter how well-grounded in virtuous ideas—is going to be successful all the time or be righteous all the time. Every person and every movement is going to face defeat and disappointment. Every person and every movement will fail to live up to their ideals.

But it’s hard to miss the fact that where the anger and power wing was once eclipsed—living in the shadow, for example, of Reagan, Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney—it’s now dominant, and the representatives of the Reagan right recede. There are few more meaningful symbols of the change than the combination of Ben Sasse’s resignation from the Senate and the triumphant picture below:

There are still good people in the Senate and the House, fighting the good fight. But the broad grin on Marjorie Taylor Greene’s face speaks volumes. She’s winning. She’s gone from disgraced back-bencher to Republican fundraising superstar. She’s beside the new Speaker of the House because he needs her. 

Sasse was once a rising Republican star. He was on the short list to be the next Republican presidential nominee. He could articulate the principles and values of a hopeful brand of conservatism as well as or better than any other politician in the country. Now he’s out of politics, at least for now. He’ll be the new president of the University of Florida.

I like the change for Sasse, to be honest. What better place for conservatism-in-exile than a university, a place to put into practice one of conservatism’s core ideals, building and sustaining virtuous institutions? On the way out of the Senate, he penned an important piece in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the defining fight of our time isn’t between Democrats and Republicans but between “civil pluralists” and “political zealots.” 

“Civic pluralists,” Sasse writes, “understand that ideas move the world more than power does, which is why pluralists value debate and persuasion.” This part is key: “We believe America is great because it is good, and America is good because the country is committed to human dignity, even for those with whom we disagree.”

Even for those with whom we disagree. There are many things that form young minds, and it won’t surprise longtime readers to know that I’m exactly the kind of hopeless legal nerd to be deeply impacted by a Supreme Court opinion. The case is called West Virginia v. Barnette, and it represents one of the finest legal moments in American history. It’s a case that embodies American ideals. 

The background of the case is simple. On January 9, 1942, the West Virginia State Board of Education adopted a resolution requiring students to salute the flag and recite a pledge of allegiance. The consequences for noncompliance were severe. Students were expelled, and expelled students were judged to be delinquent. Parents of delinquent students were subject to prosecution.

If that sounds remarkably oppressive to modern ears, it’s important to remember the context. The board enacted its policy barely a month after Pearl Harbor. A significant portion of the American battleship fleet was sunk or severely damaged, and the United States had endured a series of military disasters overseas. The Battle of Bataan had just begun, and the American Army faced a hopeless fight.

The stakes, worldwide, could not be higher. Our nation was at stake. Our civilization was at stake. If national unity ever mattered before, it mattered then. 

But two Jehovah’s Witness sisters said no. Gathie and Marie Barnett didn’t hate America or side with the Nazis or the Japanese Empire. Instead, like other members of their faith, they sincerely believed that the book of Exodus’s admonition that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them” prohibited them from making the pledge. 

The case went to the Supreme Court, and the outcome was hardly certain. After all, this was the same court that would soon decide Korematsu v. United States, one of the most shameful court decisions in American history. In Korematsu the court held that internment of American citizens of Japanese descent was constitutionally permissible. 

But people (and courts) are complicated, and the court that would issue the Korematsu decision issued a very different decision in Barnette. In Barnette Justice Robert Jackson wrote these immortal words: 

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us. 

Most First Amendment attorneys can quote these words by heart. They represent a powerful legal and moral declaration about the nature of the American republic. Even when our civilization is at stake we will preserve its moral and constitutional core. 

But it’s a mistake to remember Barnette for only those words. The end of the opinion contains paragraph after paragraph that defines the American experiment, and these words in particular resonate in our present moment: 

We apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.

And read these words in the context of modern efforts to enact speech codes in American schools, regardless of whether the speech codes come from the left or the right:

As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be. Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing. 

What was the impact of Barnette on my young self? It helped teach me about the power of appealing to free minds. It helped teach me that efforts demand conformity instead create division rather than foster unity. It taught me that persuasion is superior to coercion, as a matter of both morality and practicality. Persuasion is more respectful and more powerful.

And so you can start to see the root of not just my departure from the new right, but the root of the deep discomfort experienced by so many millions of conservative citizens, including conservative citizens (like me) who possess deeply traditional and conservative religious values.

We can track through issue after issue where hope and freedom conflict with fear and power, where two groups who share conservative values can disagree so sharply in responding to dissent and disagreement. 

For example, I disagree with kneeling in protest during the national anthem. Our nation has many faults and many sins, but there is also an immense legacy of service and sacrifice that has liberated untold millions from oppression, both at home and abroad. Yet when an angry president declares “Get that son of a bitch off the field, now” the answer has to be no. Let the man kneel.

To take another example, there are elements of critical race theory that I find deeply problematic, even destructive. At its worst, it can be illiberal and oppressive, inspiring censorship and intolerance. Yet when governors and legislatures respond by banning expression, and pass laws so poorly drafted that they make it dangerous even to include Martin Luther King Jr.’s most provocative words in the curriculum, then the answer has to be no. Let the ideas be heard. 

As I’ve argued many times, if social media companies want their platforms to participate in the marketplace of ideas, they should center their moderation policies around the concepts cultivated by generations of First Amendment jurisprudence. Yet when states decide to force private citizens to platform speech or speakers they find repugnant, the answer has to be no. The government must not compel citizens to amplify ideas they hate.

Elements of the sexual revolution have been profoundly harmful to American life. I’m a believer in the crucial importance of lifelong, covenant marriages between a man and a woman. But when conservative states threaten to destroy loving families or when they attempt to limit the freedom to speak opposing ideas, then again the answer has to be no. The blessings of liberty belong to every American.

There are those who would tell you that the refusal to wield power is a form of weakness, that embracing freedom—even for those with whom we disagree—is a form of capitulation. But this is fundamentally wrong. A changed mind or a transformed heart is far more desirable than mere sullen compliance.

I’ll end where I began, with transitions. The transition of the Republican Party and the broader American right from a focus on hope and freedom to a dedication to anger and fear is no more permanent than the Reagan Revolution that many of us (wrongly) thought had vanquished some of the darker parts of the American past. 

In the words of T.S. Eliot, “There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” We fight on “because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.”

There is no triumph until the Last Day, but there is still truth, and when we ponder the future of American freedom, it’s worth remembering still more words from the Supreme Court in Barnette

Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

Those are dramatic words, written in the midst of a cataclysmic war. Thankfully we’re not yet engaged in the kinds of conflict that have ripped our nation (and the world) apart, but history teaches us exactly where the embrace of anger and power leads. 

One last thing …

I love the Eliot quote above, but it’s a bit too bleak. There is such a thing as triumph, but it’s not a political triumph. It’s the monumentally greater triumph over death and hell, and while we spend our days on this earth pushing back against the effects of the fall, we do so secure in the knowledge that the great battle is already won. This song captures that truth beautifully:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.