Freedom Rising … or Floating Away?

Published August 5, 2016

Heartland’s theme for this year, and perhaps future years too, is “freedom rising.” It expresses our dedication to the most powerful idea ever discovered by mankind – freedom – and our optimism about its future.

But not everyone agrees freedom is rising. One donor wrote to say, “You see freedom rising. I see it floating away.” The truth is, freedom has been lost at a frightening pace at the national level at least since the election of Barack Obama. If we want to restore it, we need to recognize how the world has changed and how we need to change, too.

How has the world changed?

In the past seven years, President Obama has wiped away many of the modest gains achieved by the free-market movement in the previous three decades. Modest progress in education, energy policy, health care reform, and even battling the national debt seemed to peak around 2006.

Obama benefitted from the concurrence of two mega-trends. The first was completion of the “Gramsci project,” the Left’s tactic of capturing the culture in order to clear the path for political revolution. The Left began to capture the media, universities, and political bureaucracies in the 1960s and effectively finished its “march through the institutions” during the past decade. This is documented by numerous polls of journalists and college professors and recent pronouncements and actions by universities, church leaders, and bureaucrats.

The second mega-trend is the unprecedented concentration of power in the office of the President of the United States. Frank Buckley in The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (2014) does a great job explaining how the checks and balances and constitutional barriers erected by the Founders to ensure the president would be subservient to Congress and the states were repealed or circumvented. Today, just as they feared, the president is virtually a king, ruling over a staggering $3 trillion annual budget.

Obama had a historic opportunity to advance the Left’s agenda, and he took it. Let the record show, however, that while Obama advanced a socialist agenda at the national level, many states were privatizing, deregulating, reforming, and cutting taxes. Governors and state attorneys general fought valiantly, if not always successfully, against Obamacare, the Clean Power Plan, and other expansions of federal power.

Who is to blame?

Are the losses of the past decade due to the failure of organizations on the Right (including The Heartland Institute) to win their encounters with the Left? Is there anything we could have done to prevent them?

We “all” thought we could win the war with an issue-by-issue strategy by producing superior research and commentary and appealing to the heads or the hearts of voters and elected officials. We thought the sum of winning battles would be to win the war. This is now exposed as a failed strategy.

We defeated, repealed, or at least reformed many bad laws and government programs, but with each passing year we lost control over more institutions to the Left, and the size and power of the president increased. We were too busy writing op-eds defending Uber’s right to compete with taxicabs in Cleveland to see and write about the Left’s existential threat to our way of life.

Groups on the Right only infrequently observed and wrote about the Gramsci campaign, not wanting to risk offending media, opponents, or donors by questioning the motives of people and organizations on the Left. In retrospect, that decision appears to have been a mistake. It allowed the Left to pose (as Malcolm Muggleridge once put it) as referees when in fact they are players. One result is we now have left-wing ideologues posing as journalists, teachers, judges, and even scientists.

Groups on the Right more frequently commented on the growing concentration of power in the executive branch, but most often in eloquently written op-eds and seldom-read books. We eschewed the only viable solution – constitutional reform via Article V conventions of the states. Had we been talking about this during the Bush I and Bush II days, we might be in a very different place today.

How should we respond?

Knowing all this, what should we be doing differently? The Heartland Institute has responded with several new projects: