Renewing America

The Central challenge to our generation is to reassert and renew American civilization. By definition, any civilization goes only a generation deep. If the next generation falls to learn what makes America tick, our country could change decisively overnight.

This is not a mere academic abstraction. Look at how rapidly Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan changed from previous generations--and how quickly these malignant cultures were replaced by American models of the rule of law, free speech, and democracy once the war ended. Look at how rapidly Communism supplanted fascism in East Germany--and how rapidly West German rules and habits have replaced the Communist model since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Look at how quickly countries in the former Soviet empire have asserted new ways of doing things.

America is an idea, the most idea-based civilization in history. To be an American is to embrace a set of values and living habits that have flourished here for nearly four hundred years. Virtually anyone can become American simply by learning the ideas and habits of being an American. When I talk With Henry Kissinger or Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is clear from their accents that they started somewhere else, but it is equally clear from their attitudes and behavior that they have become Americans.

It is stunning to immerse yourself in the visionary world of the American experience--to listen, for example, to Lincoln raising cheers from white working-class audiences about Negro slaves' inherent right to keep the fruits of their own labor- and then to realize how much of this serf-confidence and pride in our own accomplishments has been lost. A strong, self-reliant, vigorous society is now a pessimistic one that celebrates soreheads and losers jealous of others' successes.

If you think I exaggerate, look at the speeches and letters of the Founding Fathers, of Lincoln, and of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Compare them with the querulous whining and petty grievances of so many columnists and academics today. I came out of my two years of reviewing American history convinced that our first need is to rediscover the values we have lost.

The Spiritual Dimension: The fastest way to learn about America is by immersion in our history as a people and our emergence as a nation. From the Jamestown Colony and the Pilgrims to the very founding of the nation, the centrality of God and religion is unmistakable. All of our rights come from our Creator. Even today this is a very radical idea. In nearly all countries, power belongs to the state. It would be hard to imagine a greater difference in first principles.

What a sense of Divine Order gives us is not the God of any one group's particular religion, but a sense that there is something larger than ourselves and our petty concerns of the day.

Individual Responsibility: Precisely because our rights are endowed by our Creator, the individual burden of responsibility borne by each citizen is greater than in any other country. This is why our newfound sense of entitlement and of victimization is exactly wrong-and so corrosive to the American spirit. In America, the fact that God, not the state, has empowered us puts an enormous burden on our shoulders. Our rights are pale shadows of our responsibilities. By blaming everything on "society," contemporary liberals are really trying to escape the personal responsibility that comes with being an American. If "society" is responsible for everything, then no one is personally responsible for anything. But when confronted with a problem, a true American doesn't ask, "Who can I blame this on?" A true American asks, "What can I do about it today?"

This brings us to another American characteristic: the work ethic. Captain John Smith's 1607 statement, "If you don't work you won't eat," is the complete opposite of today's redistribution ethic that subsidizes idleness. Nothing could be less traditionally American than the modern welfare system. It violates the American ethic that everyone should work hard to improve both their own lives and the lives of their children. If you are not prepared to shoulder personal responsibility, then you are not prepared to participate in American civilization.

The classic American is an independent, self-reliant, hard-working, honest person of no great wealth or social status who nonetheless has good sense, great courage, and a fierce love of country. Without personal responsibility there cannot be freedom. It is just that simple.

The Spirit of Free Enterprise: Americans get up every day hoping to put in a good day's work, create a little more wealth, provide a little better service to their customers, or invent a slightly better mousetrap for the world. From our rounding we have been an astonishingly entrepreneurial society. People from every walk of life have embraced the dream that, given the opportunity, all individuals will be able to create a better future for themselves, their family, their community, and their country.

Part of the American genius has been that, at every level of society, people can improve their own lot. We have no caste system, no class requirements, no regulated professions, no barriers to entry. Despite the best efforts of modern elites to discount upward mobility and to argue that America is no different from Europe or other class-dominated cultures, the fact remains that we are an extraordinarily fluid society. Our society is so fluid and democratic that seven of our last ten Presidents did not attend elite colleges. Even a professor from a small college in Georgia can aspire to the highest levels of government.

Generosity, trust, optimism, and hard work--these are the elements that have driven the American entrepreneurial system, creating the most powerful and vibrant economy the world has ever known. Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as it used to be. Taxes, regulation, and litigation have all thrown a blanket over the entrepreneurial spirit. Elite criticisms of the can-do spirit have undermined the ethic. Credentialing of the professions has raised barriers to entrepreneurial inventiveness. The welfare system has sapped the spirit of the poor and made it harder to climb the first rungs of the economic ladder.

Despite these impediments, the spirit of free enterprise remains at the heart of American civilization. We need to comb through our educational system and laws to clean out the barriers to starting businesses and creating new wealth. We need to alter tax codes that virtually punish people for working as independent contractors or starting their own businesses. We need to change state and federal laws that give huge advantages to unionized employees of giant corporations and force small businesses and self-employed people to make up the difference. We must clear a path for the next Tom Edison or Ray Kroc. New Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses must be able to emerge from the black and Hispanic communities. The lesson of American civilization is that inventing new forms of wealth is the key to a better future. The Spirit of Invention and DIscovery: More than any other country in history America has been committed to the spirit of invention and discovery. From Robert Fulton's steam engine (and his little-known submarine) to Eli Whitney's cotton gin (and his even more significant mass production of standardized parts), from Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph (in a congressionally subsidized effort to link Washington and Baltimore) to the Wright brothers' invention of the airplane, America has had a remarkable history of new people pursuing new ideas without worrying much about the risks or what the last generation's received opinion might be.

But a sense of anxiety has increased in America. Nor are these anxieties groundless. How can any American watching the local television news not have a sense of alarm? Children being abused or killed, mothers being murdered in car-jackings, innocent customers shot in robberies. Young men are without education, without jobs, without hope for their own or their younger brothers' futures.

I did not write "To Renew America" to convince you that this anxiety is inappropriate. Just the opposite. I wrote this book to convince you that you should be worried. I want you to understand that your future, your children's future, and your country's future is at a crossroads.

I want you to turn that anxiety into energy. We will create a better future and renew America only if enough people decide that there is a problem and that we can do something about it. If we can take the energy aroused by danger and opportunity and channel it into useful efforts, we may be astounded at the excitement and progress in the 21st century. If we do our job right, the 21st century could be an age of freedom, an age of exploration, an age of discovery, an age of prosperity.

From "To Renew America." (C) 1995 by Newt Gingrich. HarperCollins Publishers.

100 years from today, will the United States still exist as one nation? Yes, exist as one nation BLACKS WHITES HISPANICS 41% 61% 54% No, not as one nation BLACKS WHITES HISPANICS 48% 26% 38% THE NEWSWEEK POLL, JUNE 19-25, 1995 NEWSWEEK POLL Was there a time when people in this country felt they had more in common and shared more values than Americans do today? 86% Yes 12% No THE NEWSWEEK POLL, JUNE 19-25, 1995