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Trent Lott and the Republican Party By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 20, 2002


Trent Lott and the segregation he has defended for decades both are an affront to the true values of the Republican Party, which are the same core ideas that make not just America but the West unique. If Republicans want to affirm their commitment to those values, and if they want to expose the Democrats’ allegiance to bankrupt ideas that betray those same values, then the party must demand that Lott go right now.

Legalized segregation of the sort fondly remembered by Lott represented a world-view diametrically opposed to the basic principles of Western and American civilization. Going back to the Greeks, the respect and acknowledgement of the value of the individual have been the key idea underpinning Western culture and politics. While the rest of the world imprisoned people in clans, sects, or tribes, and limited their freedom on the basis of those categories, the Greeks first recognized that each person no matter what his tribe has the freedom and capacity to become something else. The Greek orator Isocrates expressed this view when he affirmed that "Greeks are not a race but an intelligence" and that the name "Greek" applies to all who "share our culture" rather than "common blood."

This was, and still is in much of the world, a novel idea, and it has had a long, hard fight against the more typical human tendency to limit and define people by tribe or class or caste or sect or some other category. Nor was Christianity a departure from the idea of the individual’s worth, no matter how much its later history is stained by exclusion and persecution of whole categories of people. Echoing Isocrates, Paul wrote that in Christianity "there is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female." Each person is unique, and comes before God not as a member of a category but as a free individual who chooses and takes responsibility for those choices, for which he will be judged.

These ideas, often in the West betrayed and compromised, sometimes hovering on the brink of extinction, nonetheless bore fruit in the political ideals of the American founders, who crafted a political order designed to protect individuals from the power of the state and granting rights not to categories but to those same individuals. Right from the start slavery was acknowledged to be inconsistent with those principles, as Thomas Jefferson revealed when he wondered if "the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God." The pseudo-science of racism attempted to paper over this contradiction by rooting segregation in an immutable nature, but it was only a matter of time before racialist distinctions collapsed under the weight of their obvious lack of foundation in reality. More important, the promise of America––that here in a new land one would not be imprisoned by the old world’s categories––was tainted by the continuing existence of race-based segregation, which smacked of the class and caste hierarchies of the Old World.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, this nation reclaimed its heritage and affirmed the primacy of the individual and his freedom. No matter what the claim of community or region or sect or clan, in America the individual is free to honor those claims or to set out to find and honor others. But no power––particularly the state–– has the right to limit those legitimate pursuits of happiness and self-identity. Each of us will be judged on our character, our worth, our values, and our actions apart from the accidents of race or religion or sex.

But at that historical moment when the legalized barriers that had kept black people from pursuing happiness as individuals were torn down, there arose an identity politics that resurrected the categories of race and enshrined them in various state policies and institutions, most notoriously in affirmative action, but also in our universities and schools where, aided and abetted by the state and its money, the old categories once more were used to define individuals and erase their variety and uniqueness. At that critical moment many liberals and the Democratic Party betrayed their heritage and endorsed race-based categories, the latter for a mess of electoral pottage. The stereotypes and generalizations of old-fashioned racists were recycled and given a positive spin––but they remained for all that demeaning to the individual and contrary to the true spirit of America.

But at that same moment the Republican Party began to emerge as the champion of the free individual who should not be subject to state-sanctioned definitions of his worth and potential. While the Democrats endorsed ever increasing state control and power over our lives, the Republicans fought for a limitation of those powers, trusting in free individuals rather than in the self-proclaimed expertise of various social engineers backed by the coercive power of the state. This to me is the essence of conservatism and the most powerful idea of the Republican Party.

Bruce Thornton is a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno and author of Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books) and Greek Ways (Encounter).


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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