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.

We look back through the past and through the great books, old and new, and wonder what solution can be found to this crisis. It turns out that there are examples both of thinking and of acting that can help guide us. We require today a devotion to two things that are on the surface contrary. The first of them is constitutionalism, and the second is statesmanship.

It is obvious why these do not seem to go together. The work of statesmen is only a sharp example of something we all must do daily. We hold convictions that are elevated above practical circumstances, but we must apply those convictions amidst the pressures of the day. We compromise all the time: Shall we see our child’s basketball game or shall we go to the meeting at work? It is necessary to spend time with one’s children, and it is necessary to earn and provide for them. Our ends come into conflict all the time. Statesmen are people unusually adept at finding ways to get the best and avoid the worst, and constantly they adapt and compromise.

Constitutions on the other hand are grand laws written a long time ago. They get in the way all the time, and statesmen constantly have reasons to be impatient with them. Any list of the most influential heads of state in the 20th century has to include the names of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. They are not famous for their constitutionalism, but for being tyrants. The greatest opposite example in the 20th century is found in the remarkable career of Winston Churchill, which I have been privileged to study. The British Constitution, and for that matter the American, are among his favorite themes. He served them faithfully through his more than 50 years of active political life, through war such as has never been seen, and also through unprecedented economic depression.

These two solutions, constitutionalism and statesmanship, come together then in the careers of certain remarkable people. On the one hand they are good at getting power, and on the other hand they are quick to give it back and to set examples that serve to distribute power long after them. One need think only of George Washington and his repeated resignations from office just at the moment when he had gained such credibility that some called for him to become king. If you want to see a contemporary example, watch the victory speech of the newly-elected U.S. Senator from my home state of Arkansas, who spoke of the need to find ways for our government to address our many problems, including those of the poor and the weak, while still running the government under the Constitution so that the people can control it, and not it the people.

Although we have plenty to worry about in the management of the College that stems from these great trends, still we see reason to hope for more waves in the direction of the Constitution. Our crisis may be grave and threatening, and yet it cannot be worse than others we have survived in the past. Those others can supply a guide to us today. And just like the pursuit of wisdom, so the life under free and constitutional rule is a beautiful life, and it sings to the heart of every man and woman.