Throughout human history, of the great orators and thinkers who wielded profound influence on the hearts of their countrymen, none were more effective than Demosthenes of Athens and the Englishman John Locke. Separated by more than 2,000 years, these two men, intelligent, public spirited, with a perfect command of language, pursued two very different strategies in their public lives.
Demosthenes, known as “the blazing thunderbolt” for his devastating rhetorical skills, fanned the flames of Athenian patriotism, incited a rebellion against Alexander the Great, and committed suicide rather than submitting to arrest, choosing, as the historian Plutarch wrote, to “rather forsake his life than his purpose.”
Locke, on the other hand, known as the father of classical liberalism whose writings inspired Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and other founding fathers, believed that reason, not passion, must govern the affairs of mankind; that persuasion rather than coercion was the most effective political tool; and that rationality and tolerance are the hallmarks of human nature.
A few weeks ago, I voiced my concern that Sen. Mike Lee’s long-term effectiveness in the United States Senate would be damaged by his relentless efforts to defund Obamacare that resulted in the government shutdown. I was worried that Lee had chosen the roll of a modern day Demosthenes, willing to force his colleagues and his country, no matter the long-term cost, into a hold or break-but-never-bend position, valuing intransigence over tolerance, pressure over persuasion. I have been pleased with Lee’s efforts these last weeks to demonstrate, through clear, unequivocal language, that there is much of John Locke within him.
In a speech before the Heritage Foundation in Washington last week, Lee eloquently made the case for developing a unifying conservative agenda. Three themes stood out as he delivered his address.
First, Lee clearly demonstrated his belief in the “big tent” tradition of the GOP, welcoming input from all sides of the Republican spectrum, from moderates to conservatives, libertarians to traditionalists, grassroots to the establishment, acknowledging that “all are part of our movement, and all are vital to our success — so all should be welcome”.
Second, Lee focused on issues upon which the GOP can build consensus and a robust platform for the future, arguing that “the great challenge of our generation is America’s growing crisis of stagnation and sclerosis — a crisis that comes down to a shortage of opportunities immobility among the poor trapped in poverty; insecurity in the middle class, where families just can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyism privilege at the top, where political and economic elites unfairly profit at everyone else’s expense.”
Finally, Lee closed his remarks by eschewing Demosthenes and embracing Locke, saying “Frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative For us, optimism is not just a message — it’s a principle. American conservatism, at its core, is about gratitude, and cooperation, and trust, and, above all, hope. It is also about inclusion. Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics. To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than pick a fight. We have to win a debate. And to do that, we need more than just guts. We need an agenda.”
It was a brilliant speech; one that people of all center-right persuasions can embrace, feeling that, in the brave new world of 21st century politics, there is a home for them within the Republican Party. This is a most welcome development for a party that desperately needs unity. I am glad that Lee’s inner Locke is starting to shine through.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.