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McCotter’s Book Serves as a Call to Citizenship

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter is probably not the only Member of Congress who would write a treatise on political philosophy pitting Jean-Jacques Rousseau against Edmund Burke with Russell Kirk as moderator. But he’s probably the only one who would do so while working in references to “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Tricky Dick” and Saul Alinsky. 

The Michigan Republican’s well-
deserved reputation for wit is on display in “Seize Freedom: American Truths and Renewal in a Chaotic Age.” Although McCotter’s name has come up in some quarters — such as S.E. Cupp’s column — as a dark-horse 2012 presidential possibility, this is not a trot-out-the-truisms campaign book.  

If McCotter went to Iowa and started talking about conservatism being “the negation of ideology,” voters would shrug and the political press would roll its collective eyes. But it makes for good reading.

The other tip-off that “Seize Freedom” is not a standard campaign book: McCotter is not reluctant to offend, and he takes some chunks out of both sides. 

For a Stratocaster-playing baby boomer, he seems to have a particular affinity for ripping hippies. Invoking T.S. Eliot’s “barbarian nomads,” McCotter applies the term equally to “a camouflaged panzer at the Maginot Line or a psychedelic VW ‘Love Bug’ at Woodstock.”

He doesn’t spare his own, however. Just at the moment when Republicans had reclaimed a House majority for the first time in 40 years, he argues, they fell for Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history,” forgetting the basic conservative tenet that the human race is imperfectible and instead acting like a bunch of souped-up utopian leftists.

“Buying into this ideology that claimed freedom would magically happen sooner or later,” McCotter writes, “the Republican Party dimmed the lights of America’s ‘shining City on a hill’ and abdicated its historic role as the champion of American exceptionalism. Instead it became the middle managers of American monotony.”

That goes to the heart of McCotter’s premise: Real conservatism is philosophical, not ideological. It aims to build on what has come before rather than sweep away what exists and replace it with the ideological vision of the moment, whether that ideology is leftist or rightist or something else altogether. 

He ridicules the “wilted flower children” of the left who “discarded hard hats for raspberry berets” and thus drove people like his father out of the Democratic Party (a story related in the best personal anecdote in the book). He heaps only slightly less scorn on the ideologues of the right. “In their ample leisure hours, these cosmopolitan conservatives prefer the febrile climes of the Potomac, and while they date everyone but Americans, they mate only within their class,” he writes. No names are given, unfortunately.

Probably not the best way to win friends and influence people, but McCotter seems to relish poking a stick in the eyes of the “New Left loons and ‘checklist conservatives’ who bitch about everything that doesn’t fit their myopic ideological platforms.”

He enjoys himself so much, in fact, that his rhetorical flourishes take him a bit overboard on occasion. Did anyone really think that free trade “would solve all problems between people,” as McCotter claims. All? I don’t recall such a sweeping claim being made, even on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. McCotter is closer to the mark when he writes that free traders “placed a greater value on saving five dollars on an imported shirt from a sweatshop than on defending the inherent dignity of individuals.”

So what’s a Burkean nation-state to do? McCotter suggests what he calls a freedom paradigm that chooses “a humane, innovation-empowered economy” over “the soulless Servile State,” a phrase borrowed from French historian Hilaire Belloc. More freedom, less government, in a more American political idiom.

Amid all this philosophy, McCotter does offer some specific policy recommendations. Here is where he shares plenty of territory with the contemporary Republican Party.

He wants to fight what he calls not the War on Terror but the “War for Freedom,” against both “bin Laden’s death cult and Middle East fascism.”

McCotter also promotes resistance to the “China Fantasy lobby” and “Monte Hall Maoists” by enhancing U.S. military assets in the Pacific, defending Taiwan, tying trade to human rights, barring sovereign wealth funds from buying U.S. assets, reducing U.S. debt held by China and developing a democratic alternative to the United Nations.

At home, McCotter wants to resist moral relativism and defend American exceptionalism while building civil society and civic institutions as a counterweight to an ever-growing and increasingly intrusive government, to provide people the time and means to perform, in a felicitous phrase, “the indispensable acts of virtuous citizenship.”

McCotter does not moan that “the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth wrote. His book, above all else, is a call to citizenship. We are what we choose to be in McCotter’s world, and accordingly, we’d better get choosing. Like Ronald Reagan, McCotter does “not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”