Wave Elections: What They Mean

Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College

Larry P. ArnnLarry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on December 5, 2014, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

We have had a wave election. For those of a conservative disposition, it is a satisfying wave. According to Michael Barone, speaking recently here at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center, this wave is like several recent wave elections in its magnitude and decisiveness. There was a wave in favor of the Republicans in 1980 and again in 1994. There was a wave in favor of the Democrats in 2006 and again in 2008. There was a wave for the Republicans in 2010. There was a stalemate in 2012. Now there is a Republican wave in 2014. Looked at one way, these waves appear more like tides, ebbing and flowing.

These waves have something to do with a change in opinion over the last 50 years. Increasingly large majorities of the people consistently profess themselves afraid of their government. They think it too big. They think it does not account to them—that it is beyond their control and does not operate with their consent. They think it should be smaller, even if that means they receive fewer services. It seems that the growth of government has not made people feel safe and happy.

Nonetheless, two of the recent waves elected people who support larger government, and Americans continue to depend upon government more than ever. At all levels, government consumes something close to 40 percent of the economy, not even counting regulatory costs, which are nearing $2 trillion. People seem to be groping for a solution to this, and they do not seem to think they have found it.

This picture is not unprecedented. In the period leading up to the American Revolution, loyalists or Tories contested with revolutionaries, and these two groups alternated having the upper hand between 1763 and 1776, and even later, after the war had begun. The people were making up their minds about something fundamental, and a consensus was slow in forming.

In the period before the Civil War, there were those who advocated destroying slavery in the slave states, where the national government’s constitutional authority to do so was weak or nonexistent. There were others who supported slavery where it existed, and even the extension of slavery into new regions. Others still would find some compromise that would do the least dramatic possible thing. And then there was the new Republican party, founded to stop slavery’s expansion and seek a constitutional path to its eventual abolition. This too was a fundamental question, and it took a long time and eventually much blood to decide it.

This controversy over slavery grew up in the course of one generation. One may mark it by two of the most important statutes in American history—the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Northwest Ordinance brought the territory that became Michigan and other states into the Union, and it was the first time that a government like ours, ours being the first such government, had grown. It did not choose to grow by establishing colonies, but rather by treating the citizens of the new regions as full citizens as quickly as they could get organized. The Northwest Territory had belonged to Virginia, and Virginia, a slave state, on the motion of Thomas Jefferson, a slave holder, gave the land to the Union for free on condition only that there be no slavery allowed in it at any time. Although Virginia also insisted on a provision to return escaped slaves from Virginia back to their servitude, the document must be read as a sign of a consensus about slavery. We have it, those early Americans said, and we do not know what to do about it, but we know that it is wrong and should not be extended elsewhere. Many in the Founding generation stated this, often in beautiful terms. And eight states either abolished slavery or set up laws for gradual emancipation relatively quickly after the Revolution.

A generation later, Missouri was to come into the Union, and the Senate was evenly balanced between slave and free states. A compromise was necessary because the slave states insisted upon keeping that balance by admitting as many slave states as free states. Not long after that, agitation began to extend slavery even further into the vast territory still not incorporated as states. At the same time, the argument began to appear that slavery was in fact a good thing, based on the idea that some human beings had evolved to a state of superiority over others. The principle that “all men are created equal,” the very basis of American liberty in the Declaration of Independence, was condemned by a U.S. Senator from Indiana as “a self-evident lie.”

This dispute had something in common with the dispute with the king during the Revolution. In 1776, the king had a message from the throne distributed across the lines in Boston to the American Army. He was confident that this would make them abandon the cause of Revolution. He made the argument that he was born to be king by divine right, and that his children must obey him for the same reasons he, occupying his station of nobility, was obliged to care for them. The Declaration of Independence had said that no one may be rightly governed except by his consent because “all men are created equal.” The king understood his position to be built upon the opposite notion. But the American troops besieging Boston, whose enlistments were soon to expire, reenlisted in vast numbers in rejection of the king and in support of the Declaration. Soon enough the whole country followed.

Our times are like these previous times in terms of the alternation and number of political waves. But is there a principle at stake today that is as deep as the one that divided the nation in those two fateful periods?