This post is the third in a series by Christopher Flannery (author of The American Story podcast) reflecting on America’s identity and founding ideals—and their implications for 2020. Here are the first and second installments.—Eds.
If you’re driving through Wright, Wyoming (a few hundred miles east of Jackson, 5,000 feet or so above sea level, population about 1,850), and you’re road-parched and hungry, you might stop in at Hank’s Roadside Bar & Grill. It’s not fancy; more honky-tonk than family restaurant, as some online reviews will tell you. But on the right day, you can get a good buffalo burger made from buffalo who used to roam just a few miles down the road; and you might see this sign on the wall outside, in white capital letters with a Stars and Stripes background:
IF YOU DON’T STAND FOR OUR FLAG
AND IF YOU DON’T STAND FOR OUR COUNTRY
DON’T SIT IN OUR BAR
I’M HANK PRIDGEON
& I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE
Anyone who is a fan of American professional football, or anyone loosely following the headlines since August 26, 2016, will know that this sign refers to all the Colin Kaepernicks in the country. Mr. Kaepernick, then a professional football player, chose not to stand at a preseason game when players and fans were standing for the traditional playing of the National Anthem.
As he explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He thus became a poster boy for the multicultural Left in America—and for their corporate sponsors, like Nike, for whom he now makes politically correct shoe commercials.
More recently, Mr. Kaepernick ventured into foreign policy. Following the January 3 drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, Kaepernick tweeted: “There is nothing new about American terrorist attacks against Black and Brown people for the expansion of American imperialism.”
Mr. Kaepernick possesses no qualification of which I am aware that would give any serious person a reason to care what he thinks about American politics or military strategy. But as Abraham Lincoln said in his first debate with Senator Stephen Douglas (and as these meditations repeat for stray readers who may not yet have committed it to memory):
In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
Mr. Kaepernick’s kneeling and tweeting are expressions of a public sentiment that has come to rule this country over the past couple of generations. In government, business, religion, education, entertainment, and culture, every American has felt the ruling power of this multicultural sentiment, self-righteously enforced by the henchmen of political correctness in all their different uniforms.
This is the public sentiment the New York Times’s 1619 Project aspires to teach to every school child in America: “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” America was founded on a “racist ideology” according to which “black people belonged to an inferior, subhuman race,” and this racism infects to this day everything in America, from medical care to military strategy.
On December 20, the New York Times Magazine published a letter signed by a handful of prominent historians criticizing the 1619 Project and a response to the criticisms by Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein. For those who want to follow the public debate over the 1619 Project, this bibliography is helpful. Among other things, it offers links to several interviews conducted by the World Socialist Web Site elaborating historians’ criticisms of the 1619 Project.
As the conversation continues among the few thousands who are following it, virtually all American institutions of higher learning join America’s powerful media, wealthy non-profit funders like the MacArthur Foundation, corporations like Nike, and cultural institutions like the Smithsonian Institution to drive the sentiment of 1619 in countless variations down the throats of millions of Americans year in and year out.
Mr. Pridgeon’s sign represents an opposing sentiment. The gulf between these two public sentiments is the great divide in the American House today—the divide between what I’ve called the Party of 1619 and the Party of 1776. Roughly speaking, Mr. Kaepernick, whatever his party affiliation, if any, expresses in his kneeling and tweeting the sentiments of those who tend to register and seek election as Democrats. And just as roughly, Mr. Pridgeon, whatever his affiliations, expresses in his sign the sentiments of those who tend to register and seek election as Republicans.
Still speaking roughly, Republicans these days find it easier to stand up for the flag and publicly honor their country than do their Democratic neighbors. Democrats, driven by the multicultural Left, find it more and more difficult every day to speak of America as anything other than a racist, sexist, genocidal oppressor.
The most important thing at stake in the 2016 elections was which of these public sentiments would prevail, and this will be the most important thing at stake in November 2020. All policy questions are secondary and derivative. The elections are about what kind of public sentiment will rule the country. It is Hank’s Roadside Bar & Grill vs. the New York Times, Nike, and the Ivy League.
The Meaning of MLK Day
Of course, as the country has seen since 2016, the Party of 1619 is so deeply entrenched in American institutions that just winning elections is far from enough. A long and hard reckoning must follow. Still, winning, and being seen to win, on these terms is a necessary beginning.
As the federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, approaches, I thought it worth noting that the “architect” of the 1619 Project professes to believe in the truth of what Lincoln called “the central idea” from which all American ideas radiate—that “all men are created equal.” She merely denies that the white Americans who wrote those words—who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in support of those words—believed they applied to black slaves.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, at his best, seemed to know better. His famous Dream speech practically outlines a “Project 1776” curriculum, inviting all Americans to rally around America’s central idea and the Constitution built upon it. The curriculum would be based on three documents from three different centuries of the American Experiment: the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776; Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863; and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963.
For MLK Day, I recorded a few thoughts about this “Project 1776” curriculum over at The American Story podcast. I said something like this:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
These are among the most well-known words uttered by an American in the 20th century. To exaggerate a little, every American is familiar with the speech in which they were spoken. To exaggerate a little more, leaving aside a few history buffs, no American is familiar with any other American speech in the whole 100 years of the 20th century. Or, to get closer to the truth, even most educated Americans can count on one hand the 20th-century American political speeches from which they recall any words, and this would certainly be among them.
The words were spoken, of course, by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. King opened his now-famous speech with a phrase already familiar to Americans: “Five score years ago.” By the number of the years, King meant to link his speech with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln a hundred years earlier: the “momentous decree,” as King said, that “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves.”
But by the familiar Biblical language in which he expressed these years—“five score”—King also connected his speech to the opening of America’s greatest speech, the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” To exaggerate a little again, every American is familiar with these words. And again to exaggerate a little more, aside from a few history buffs, no American is familiar with any other words from an American political speech in the entire 100 years of the loquacious 19th century.
In calling our attention to the American “creed,” King invokes the most familiar of all American words, from the Declaration of Independence, made official on July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” To test your patience and exaggerate a little for the last time, every American is especially familiar with these words, and, leaving aside the Constitution and “Give me liberty or give me death,” no American is familiar with any other words from an American political document in the entire 100 years of the 18th century.
What King called a “creed,” Lincoln called a “proposition,” and Jefferson called a self-evident truth—the idea that “all men are created equal”—is, as Lincoln thought, the central idea from which all other American ideas radiate. It is the standard by which Americans from the beginning have judged the successes and failures of their experiment in self-government. King’s dream, the American Dream, is the aspiration, which has defined every generation of Americans so far, to live up to this high standard.
Proclaiming that all men everywhere and at all times possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American founders undertook the historic effort to secure these rights, so far as they thought they could then be secured, to a small people in a particular place and time. They were acutely conscious of the limits of their ability to secure these rights.
According to their revolutionary principles, the “just powers of government” are derived from the “consent of the governed.” Much depended on what the governed were prepared to consent to. The Constitution they were able to get approved and ratified contained tragic compromises with the institution of slavery. It was all the new republic could do in the first century of its existence to keep the unprecedented experiment in freedom from failing miserably at home as the principles espoused in the American Revolution slowly and uncertainly began to take hold on the minds, if not yet in the politics, of other peoples in the world.
The Content of Our Character
In the course of their history, the American people have many times fallen beneath the high standard they set for themselves at the beginning. They have strayed from their principle, fought a civil war over it, become confused about it, and allowed misunderstood self-interest to obscure it. But through it all, as King’s speech attests, Americans never abandoned what Lincoln called:
a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
King was born on January 15, 1929, and the national holiday in his honor is celebrated on the third Monday of January every year. If Americans are going to remember just one speech from the 20th century, his Dream speech is certainly a good candidate. It casts a golden thread across three centuries, connecting us to the source of the American Dream.
Some time back, Claremont Institute Senior Fellow and old friend Seth Leibsohn called my attention to a passage of the text of the Dream speech at the King archives. When King speaks of “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” the audience responds, “Yeah.” This is the spirit of 1776 (and 1787!). All Americans of all colors should rally to it.
A Final Thought
The recent killing of General Qasem Soleimani seems prudent, but whatever may be the prudence or imprudence of the action, it offers occasion to reflect that all American freedoms and American justice depend on successful American strategy.
Mr. Kaepernick’s public sentiments, the sentiments of the Party of 1619, are grounds not for a successful national strategy, but for national self-loathing. Tyranny, like freedom, comes in all colors. Khamenei’s Iran, Xi’s China, Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Assad’s Syria—all seek to shape the world around them, with whatever means they have, according to what they see as their interests.
If America is going to preserve for its citizens a better alternative in the world, it will need to be ruled by public sentiments that seem to be at home in Hank’s Roadside Bar & Grill.