Annapolis Institute Overview


Principle-driven change a new idea

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, December 28, 1995

Reporting and commentary on the budget standoff between the Republican-controlled Congress and President Clinton have been interesting to watch — in the sense that it is interesting to watch a three-year-old try to tie his shoes. Reason: reporting on principle-centered people who are pursuing principle-centered objectives — such as the House Republican freshmen, who ran on a promise to balance the budget and reduce the role of government in our lives — is not a natural act for the news media. Like tying your shoes, reporting on principle-centered politics is learned behavior.

To be fair, media mavens don’t have much experience with this kind of thing, so when they see it, they have a hard time characterizing it. Some might call their treatment of the stand-off between the President and Congress shameful. That’s correct, but it’s too harsh. Real problem: a lack of experience covering principle-centered politics.

We had principle-centered politics at the Founding. Just read the Federalist Papers, originally published to explain, debate and sell the new American Constitution. We had principle-centered politics when Congress, in 1798, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to try to suppress criticism of the federal government. This effort failed thanks to the opposition of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky who pressed for nullification of this noxious legislation.

Principle-centered politics emerged again in the Jackson era around the issue of regional equity, when national economic policy (e.g., the protective tariffs that favored the industrial Northeast at the expense of the agricultural South) sparked a second national debate about the nature of our new federal system.

In this century, principle-centered politics emerged with the Progressive Movement’s drive to eliminate corruption, broaden the franchise, and protect people from the dark sides of rapid urbanization and the new industrial age and, later, with the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

With the last principle-centered movement now more than 30 years old, it’s hard for today’s working journalists to understand what’s going on. For most journalists, watching House freshmen is like try to tie your shows for the first time: You are most likely to entangle yourself, which is exactly what the news media are doing today.

The real problem for the media is this: the Republican freshmen stand for principle-centered change: replacing the centralized, bureaucratic welfare state. Their principles include limited government, fiscal responsibility, and federalism, all rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and keeping your promises (e.g., to balance the budget and cut taxes), which goes back at least to the Ten Commandments. This is difficult for more national media people to cover because principle-centered actions are substantive, often involve self-sacrifice, and are results-oriented.

But this principle-centered revolution will succeed, despite the media, because the centralized, bureaucratic welfare state doesn’t work and is too expensive, wasteful, intrusive, and remote. From monopoly public schools to the welfare system, public support is collapsing. The advocates of principle-centered change are on a winning course. It is only a matter of time.

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