New-Wave Conservatives and the Lesson of Churchill
The political backlash engendered by the election and actions of President Obama and the Democratic congressional majorities has encouraged a new wave of conservatives to run for political office. Effective leaders need to be convincing on and off teleprompter, in debate, and when answering random questions at press conferences or on the road, and must also be able to reach out to skeptics who honestly feel that big government is the best way to solve problems.
It's no coincidence that Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest statesman in living memory, was remarkably well-versed in history and classic literature, earning a Nobel Prize for his writing, much of it on history and the philosophy of government. His profound grasp of human knowledge and behavior, something transcending both time and culture, allowed him to distill and express the essence of complex issues in a way that made them both approachable to ordinary people and effective politically.
His quip that "[t]he inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries" is an example, as apt in our day as it was in his. This is not only why so much of his wisdom remains with us today, but was also the source of the legendary foresight that allowed him to recognize the significance of events, such as the rise of Hitler, well before most others.
Yet despite attending the finest schools, at the end of his formal education, Churchill felt himself poorly prepared for political leadership. To remedy this Churchill undertook, on his own, an intensive study of the classics, which he supplemented by a painstaking analysis of two decades of Parliamentary Proceedings (as recorded in the Annual Register). As expressed in a letter  to his mother, dated March 31, 1897:
... The method I pursue with the Annual Register is [not] to read the debate until I have recorded my own opinion on the paper of the subject - having regard only to general principle. After reading I reconsider and finally write. I hope by persevering continuance of this practice to build of a scaffolding of logical and consistent views which will perhaps tend to the creation of a logical and consistent mind.
Of course the Annual Register is valuable only for its facts. A good knowledge of these would arm me with a sharp sword. Macaulay, Gibbon, Plato etc must train the muscles to wield that sword to the greatest effect. This is indeed a nice subdivision of the term "education". The result of one kind of learning is valued by what you know. Of the other by what you are. The latter is far more important - but it is useless in the total absence of the former. A judicious proportion should be observed. How many people forgot this! The education of the school-boy - and of nearly all undergraduates aims only at stocking the mind with facts. I have no ambition to "stifle my spark of intelligence under the weight of literary fuel" but I appreciate the power of facts. Hence my toil[.]
Churchill understood that although facts were important, they were less important than how those facts were interpreted and acted upon -- wisdom that comes only from experience and a properly prepared mind. Aided by his self-education, he began his own political experience at age 26 armed with a worldview as subtle and sophisticated as most politicians twice his age. For the next 50 years he applied his growing wisdom to the most difficult problems of his day, including the Second World War, where he, more than any single individual, provided the clear vision that spurred the Allies on to victory. Churchill didn't win every political battle, but he always understood why there was conflict and what was at stake.
How do our current political leaders stack up to Churchill in terms of intellectual preparation? From the moment he appeared in the national spotlight, President Obama has appeared to be intellectually unprepared to lead a great nation. For him, the history of civilization before 1965 seems as inconsequential as the lands beyond the Hudson are to a New Yorker. The cost of this attitude has been monumental, perhaps in part because lack of exposure to the great thinkers and ideas of history leaves one vulnerable to specious counsel, muddled thinking, temporary fads, and poor decision-making. We cannot undo the past, but in the future, it would be wise to pay closer attention to what our candidates really know. In Mr. Obama's case, the legacy media largely concealed his deficiencies, but even so, beyond the most superficial aspects of formal education, the public has rarely scrutinized a candidate's intellectual background really, preferring instead to focus almost entirely on past experience. Since, as noted above, wisdom comes from knowledge and experience, it would seem sensible to demand both in our prospective leaders.
Most candidates for office are no doubt well-educated in the conventional sense, but do they have "the muscles to wield" the sword of their knowledge? They may have majored in political science or have a law degree, may have even read The Federalist Papers, but have they also studied de Tocqueville? If they have studied Democracy in America, will they still support federal plans to computerize health care data, the key element of big government's plan to take over health care? They favor capitalism and have probably read Adam Smith, but do they really understand socialism? Have they read von Mises' Socialism, or Hayek's The Road to Serfdom? If they have, they can clearly explain why capitalism creates wealth while socialism destroys it. They may tout democracy, but do they understand its limitations as described by Plato in The Republic?
If so they might do a better job of countering Democratic Party efforts to undermine it. They may defend religious freedom, but have they read and compared the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran? Do they understand why modern Judaism and Christianity are compatible with our civil government while Islam remains inimical to the separation of church and state? Have they read Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Churchill, The History of the English Speaking Peoples? If they have, perhaps we can stop relearning so many of history's lessons. These works, among many others, constitute the wisdom of the ages and contain the lessons of history, something our leaders remain ignorant of at our peril.
The United States is not the first great nation to face truly existential challenges, but we are now far down the dangerous path Churchill describes. With "want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking," and "confusion of counsel," the emergency has come, and self-preservation is "striking its jarring gong." Meanwhile, instead of applying the needed remedies before its too late, our leaders in Washington argue trivialities, oblivious to the decay around them. This is no longer acceptable, and the public, particularly the Tea Party, knows it. They are even now educating themselves through a national conversation via talk radio and the internet, and the increasing sophistication of their interchange is unmistakable. Our politicians need to follow suit. We need enlightened leaders who, like Isaac Newton and Churchill, can see a little farther by "standing on the shoulders of Giants." To get them, the American people must look past demagoguery and disinformation for candidates with wisdom -- and the courage to use it.
1. Churchill RS. Winston S. Churchill (The Official Biography). Vol. 1, page 333. Heinemann 1966.