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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 left and some on the right, in both political parties in America, have styled themselves “progressive” for more than 100 years. Progress to them is a process of history. In that process, people and peoples are transformed and can be elevated. Time and circumstance define the being of man and of everything else. This process of social evolution makes our grandest universal statements in any time not really universal, but merely products of their own time. When the Declaration of Independence says, “all men are created equal,” it understands itself to be asserting an abiding and universal fact. When it appeals to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” it refers to laws above the authority of man and continuing without fail through all time and everywhere. Progressives understand such laws as only time-bound assertions, the product of prevailing circumstances. Early Progressives were fond of saying that those universal assertions were good things for their time, and history was made better for them, even though they were wrong at the time in their claims of being universal. They can have permanence, by this way of thinking, only if they can assume new meanings as new circumstances arise.

For Progressives, we discover the real truth about these matters by a certain kind of scientific inquiry, an inquiry into history. And once we begin that inquiry, it becomes sovereign. If everything is to change, and we are simply creatures of that change, we can win our freedom by taking control of the process of change. Guided by highly-trained people, scientists and social scientists, we can direct the society to become a new society, its people a new people. The work of these scientific people is very important, perhaps even sovereign. They have a standing independent of the will of the governed, previously thought self-governing by nature. These scientists are the makers of the future, and in making the future the people are the subject of their experiments.

Since the wave election last month, we have been treated to videos of Professor John Gruber, an MIT social scientist. He has been dining out since 2010 on his experience as one of the “architects of Obamacare.” He was paid, at last count, $400,000 by the federal government, and something over $1.5 million by several state governments in aggregate to practice his architecture. Now he is on video telling the story. The architects of Obamacare figured out that if they described the health care law as it was, the American people would not go for it. They are “stupid,” in Professor Gruber’s estimation. They are stupid at least in this respect: If the complex bill could be called something other than it was, then the bill could pass and people could be introduced to its wonders. They would be able to enjoy those wonders only through experience, as they lacked the intelligence to figure it out in advance.

Dr. Gruber apologized when the initial video appeared, but since then several other videos have surfaced that show him saying the same thing on other occasions. This means that conversations like the ones he describes were going on among many people, apparently one of them in the White House with President Obama, at the time of the bill’s passage. And the videos of his speeches mean that there are many people, generally highly educated people, who enjoy stories like this, pay Mr. Gruber when he tells them, and respect him for his achievement. To these people, the passage of Obamacare is apparently a delightful episode in American history.

Nor is this an isolated achievement. The Dodd-Frank law sets up a power in the federal government to investigate anyone and everyone who lends money to any consumer. The agency that performs these investigations gets its budget directly from the Federal Reserve, and the Congress is forbidden by its own statute, signed by the President, to inquire into the agency’s budget. This is a perfect example of a violation of separation of powers that the Constitution was written to prevent. There are many others.

Now the President has legalized the residence here of several million people who have entered the nation illegally. Immigration and illegal immigration are of course tangled and difficult issues. There are so many illegals, and many of them have been here for a long time. Many of them have children, and the children are citizens under the current reading of the Constitution (there have been others). The President himself spoke about amnesty by executive order to a Hispanic group called La Raza, which means “The Race”: saluting by race and categorizing by race have reached epidemic proportions in our country. Obama was pressed by La Raza, as he has been by many others, to provide amnesty by his authority alone. He replied in his La Raza speech, “I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books.” “Believe me,” he continued, “the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. . . . [But] that’s not how our system works. That’s not how our democracy functions. That’s not how our Constitution is written.” Now he has changed his mind, however, and has done what the Constitution, by his previous admission, prohibits.

There are many reasons why one must sympathize with illegal immigrants and their children. There are many reasons to rue the generation or two of bad policy that has admitted them here, designed and implemented by people who simultaneously failed to make the case for a wide immigration policy, legally sanctioned, that pays attention to ability to work and emphasizes the practices and beliefs that constitute the United States. But now that we have this situation, it must be resolved by constitutional processes. These are specifically contrived to include everyone in the debate and to make decisions over time, not suddenly and not partially. To circumvent those, which by his own words President Obama has said executive amnesty would do, is to circumvent the only system of self-government that we have.

Of course there is a partisan aspect to all of this for both political parties. The President appeared at a gathering of La Raza because he was courting the votes of Hispanics, who are growing in number, and who vote more heavily for his party than the other. There is a well-developed and heavily-funded strategy to win a majority based in part upon this fact. That means that the President has an interest in amnesty, and so does his party. This fact reminds one of the actions of the British king, cited in the Declaration of Independence, to expand the territory of the British government in Quebec in 1774, and to give that government more control over territory previously associated with the American colonies. He gave it control of much of the Northwest Territory, eventually the subject of the Northwest Ordinance. The king was picking the constituency that he wanted, and by this means, our Founders thought, he was circumventing the will of the people.

These issues are of concern to Hillsdale College for several reasons. There is the fact that we were founded, as every old liberal arts college was founded, to study the nature of man, his place in the order of creation, and his relationship to God and to the other creatures. It was organized to find the good of each kind of being, especially the human being. This work, much more than any contemporary political question, is the heart of the work of the College and its main substance.

Because of this work, the College was founded in loyalty to the principles and institutions of this country. Its oldest building was dedicated on the Fourth of July, and this is one of many testimonies to this loyalty, some of them written in blood. America’s Founders believed, and the founders of our College agreed, that the regime of freedom was the best to protect the ability of each to seek his virtues, moral and intellectual, and especially wisdom and the knowledge of God. These activities cannot be commanded in detail from above.

Another reason we care about these matters is because we wish to continue as we have always done, according to the mission explained in our founding document. We wish to continue to teach the moral and intellectual virtues, which include the personal, the family, and the civic virtues, and which include the pursuit of prudence and wisdom. We wish to continue to teach that the family, established in nature and established in the same way in faith, is the best way to raise children, and the raising of children is necessary to the well-being of everyone in every generation, young, middle aged, and old. And if the current political trends continue, of replacing constitutional processes and self-government with administrative or bureaucratic command and control, the activities we have continued to pursue here for 170 years will be endangered.