Senator Cory Booker (D, N.J.) delivered a fiery sermon at the Democratic Convention Monday night, closing with a classic preacher call and response with the audience: We will rise. But he also played fast and loose with American history, rewriting it to suit his rhetorical needs.
First, Booker took off on a favorite Democrat strawman: rugged individualism. His words indicated that he liked it–”I respect and value the ideals of rugged individualism”–but the context in which he used it showed that he both dislikes and misunderstands it. He argued that rugged individualism didn’t defeat the British, get us to the moon, build highways or map the human genome. All those, Booker said, were done “together.”
Rugged individualism was coined by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential campaign to contrast with the soft despotism and collectivism of Europe. Think today of America versus Denmark. At its heart American individualism has always been about individual liberty and conquering new frontiers. And Americans have often joined together to live out their rugged individualism with others, whether in the western wagon trains of an earlier day or building houses with Habitat for Humanity today. The key is that Americans have historically been free individuals who could voluntarily consent to cooperative efforts.
But what Senator Booker and his fellow Democrats seek is not more individual liberty and voluntary collaboration. Instead they want more government and greater government control over more things. They want government healthcare, federal control over K-12 education, free college, and income equality, all to be accomplished not by individuals cooperating and consenting, but by government mandates.
From The Progressives and Franklin Roosevelt of the last century to Cory Booker this week, there has been a concerted effort to caricature and trivialize rugged individualism in its most extreme John Wayne, devil take the hindmost form. But that woefully mischaracterizes American rugged individualism for political purposes. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville worried about the possibility of Americans withdrawing from public life in a kind of selfish individualism, but noted the generous correctives in American society: the impulses to join associations and churches, to do good, to help their neighbors. When Herbert Hoover spoke of American rugged individualism he added that it worked because it was combined with equality of opportunity. So, except in the fiery sermons and cartoons of Progressives and Democrats, American individualism is not some kind of naked selfishness.
President Obama has had his own stumbles over rugged individualism. In a speech during the 2012 presidential campaign, he famously said, “I’ve you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” No, he added, government built the roads and infrastructure, so you cannot take credit for building your business. Perhaps he should ask who pays the taxes so that government can develop all that infrastructure? The answer is: the taxpaying rugged individual who built a business. Concerning Obamacare the president said it was an example of people being their brother’s keeper, not just rugged individualism. But again, he took away all voluntary consent to his brother’s keeper idea since government mandated that each individual buy into the system.
Even more ridiculous was Booker’s effort to rewrite America’s founding document into a “declaration of interdependence.” What the founders sought was to be free of collectivism, of monarchies, of state religions and rule by social classes. I don’t object to Senator Booker’s call to help each other out, but let’s be honest about America’s history and the fact that the Democrats seek neither individualism nor voluntary collaboration. Instead, as Booker did at the Democratic Convention, the Democrats prefer to paint an ugly picture of America’s history and heroes in order to make their case that only more government can save us.