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A Simple Conservative Goal: Return to Normal Government (Washington Examiner) May 13, 2020

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After only a few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, we are all eager to return to normal. There is pent-up demand everywhere for a meal out at a restaurant, fully stocked shelves at the grocery store, an evening with friends, and a regular paycheck. All that will come in due time — we the people will insist on it.

What is not likely to come, at least not without a lot of intentional effort, is returning our government to normal. There is a bad history in our country of government taking on extra powers, increasing regulation, and spending more money in a time of crisis, but never allowing things to return to normal. Instead, the emergency powers and war footing too readily become the new normal for government.

Two periods in our history illustrate the choice. When Warren Harding ran for president in 1920, his slogan following a flu pandemic and World War I was “a return to normalcy.” But it took three conservative presidents most of the decade of the 1920s to bring government to heel after the war. President Calvin Coolidge, especially, inherited a major budget deficit from World War I when he became president in 1923. Amity Shlaes, in her wonderful book Coolidge, describes how he met nearly every week with his budget director to hammer things back to pre-war levels. He vetoed bills and slashed budgets to return government to some sense of normalcy in spending and size.

The contrasting period is Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency during and after the Great Depression and amid World War II. Government size and spending boomed throughout the New Deal and World War II but, unfortunately, were never downsized. A chart of government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product will show peaks during war, but the spike of the Roosevelt administration set the stage for a new normal. Even a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, did not pare back New Deal programs, instead building the interstate highway system, expanding Social Security, increasing the minimum wage, and developing a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Eisenhower called it “new Republicanism,” but it was really just a continuation of the New Deal.

Another cautionary tale is the unwillingness of Washington to cancel national emergencies and its expanded government powers. Most people are not aware that we currently live under some 30 states of national emergency, the oldest one declared by President Jimmy Carter 40 years ago. Although national emergencies may come and go, the emergency powers remain. Will President Trump’s executive order about the coronavirus crisis be revoked, as both the president and Congress have the power to do, or will it continue to be a blank check for increased government control over healthcare and spending?

Regrettably, conservatives have been caught up playing small ball during the COVID-19 crisis. They argue over pandemic estimates and death rates, often without any qualifications for doing so; they argue for more or less emergency spending; they advocate for opening businesses sooner rather than later. Challenging how government responds during a global pandemic is not going to make or break the conservative cause.

What will define the future of conservatism, and the country, is just around the corner: Will government return to normalcy? Will this be a Calvin Coolidge moment or another Franklin Roosevelt era? Democrats are already lining up to try to regularize many of the emergency programs: releasing more prisoners, increasing government spending on homelessness and healthcare. This is the real battle between liberals and conservatives and one that will define the field of political and policy play for decades.

A return to normalcy is not just about whether you can dine out again. It is about whether government will use this crisis to grow government regulation, control, and spending to unprecedented heights. This will be conservatism’s most important test of our lifetimes.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a visiting scholar with the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War.

Davenport Named Visiting Fellow at Hatch Foundation on Civic Education May 12, 2020

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Hatch Foundation Launches New Civics Initiative,
Announces David Davenport as Visiting Scholar
Washington, DC—Today, Hatch Foundation Executive Director Matt Sandgren announced that David Davenport—a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the former President of Pepperdine University—has joined the Foundation as a visiting scholar for 2020. Davenport, whose areas of expertise include federalism and constitutional law, will be working under the auspices of the Foundation to publish a comprehensive report this fall on the state of American civics.
David Davenport, newly appointed Visiting Scholar at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation
“The Foundation is bulking up its research arm, and David Davenport is a critical addition to the team,” said Sandgren. “With David on board as visiting scholar, we are pushing full steam ahead on a project, to be launched this fall, that will help us address our nation’s civics crisis. Our ultimate goal with this project is to advance concrete policy solutions to guide state and federal leaders in their efforts to strengthen civic education in schools across the country.”

“Strengthening civic engagement is one of the core missions of the Hatch Foundation,” said Orrin Hatch, Chairman Emeritus. “And who better to help lead us in this effort than David Davenport? David is a nationally recognized scholar who has dedicated the latter part of his career to improving civic education. His research will bring much-needed attention to the civics crisis and help move the national conversation on this issue in a positive direction. We have big ambitions for this project, and David is just the man to help us meet them.”

“Many of our country’s greatest challenges—from lack of civility to declining faith in institutions—are merely symptoms of a larger problem: a crisis in civic education,” said Davenport. “The success of the American experiment hinges on the strength of our civic education programs.  That’s why I am proud to partner with the Hatch Foundation on a special project that will not only identify the origins of this crisis but propose actionable solutions to restore civic virtue.”

The Foundation’s report will outline the scope and scale of the civics crisis and examine its root causes, including lack of emphasis on civic education in public school curricula and lack of testing on the subject. It will likewise examine the connections between poor civic literacy and low rates of civic engagement, rising support for socialism, and declining faith in institutions. In addition, the report will highlight best practices in states that are leading the way in civic education and outline policy strategies to help our nation’s leaders improve civic knowledge and understanding across the board.

Conservatives Are Stuck in a Covid-19 Stew (Washington Examiner) May 5, 2020

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is easier to make an appealing liberal case on social and domestic issues than a conservative one. Liberals essentially feel your pain and design government solutions and spending to address them. I love the story of President Lyndon Johnson, who, in his 1964 presidential campaign, demanded a brief unscheduled stop of his limo, grabbed a bullhorn and said, “We’re for a lot of things and against mighty few.” That should still be the liberal mantra today, more than 50 years later.

Conservatives, on the other hand, mostly play defense against big government solutions and spending. Conservative godfather William Buckley famously said that conservatives “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” Unlike Johnson, conservatives are not at all certain what they are for, but they have generally known what they are against, namely more government, especially more federal government.

When we the people have a serious problem such as a pandemic, the liberal message comes through loud and clear. We need the government to do more, to take over our lives, to rescue us. We need to be regulated. And while you’re at it, pass a few government spending bills to tide us over, the more, the better. As an Italian policy scholar said to me during the 2008 recession, one big advantage you have in the United States is that, unlike those of us in the European Union, you can still print money. At each point, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposed a spending bill, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were right there saying “more.”

Liberals are already celebrating the big advances they might make from the crisis. To prevent the spread of the disease, we are letting people out of jails and reducing bail, long a liberal cause. Government is taking greater responsibility for the housing and homelessness crises, another plank in the liberal platform. Government spending is growing like Topsy the elephant, along with a burgeoning regulatory state. Soon enough, liberals will be asking whether much of this shouldn’t be the new normal in this complex and problematic world.

So what, then, has been the conservative message during the COVID-19 crisis? Unfortunately, it is as muddled as a stew and generally negative, as usual. Many conservatives have asked why are we allowing scientific experts to run the country? Why are we allowing the government to take away people’s freedom to attend worship or go to the beach? Conservatives do like the greater exercise of federalism in the crisis, allowing state and local leaders to step forward instead of federalizing everything. But then they want to criticize liberal governors, such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who use their power in ways they don’t like. Even Trump has found it easier to stand on the sideline and criticize than to take the lead on the reopening.

My suggestion is that conservatives should be willing to accept that a crisis requires an increase in government power and spending. That’s why the founders allowed for a larger government role in a crisis; it’s why the government can declare a national or state emergency. Quibbling over whether the government should go faster or slower in an emergency is not a great look for conservatives.

No, instead, conservatives should be taking their stand on what President Warren Harding and other Republican presidents of the 1920s called for: A return to normalcy. The key is whether and how quickly government gives back its emergency powers and spending when the crisis has abated. With Harding, especially Calvin Coolidge, and then Herbert Hoover in charge in the 1920s, government power and spending from World War I was effectively dialed back. Unfortunately, President Franklin Roosevelt (successfully) intended that the increase in government power and spending following the Great Depression and World War II should become the new normal.

That must be the conservative message in this decisive moment: Can they lead a return to normalcy following the COVID-19 crisis?

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:


David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

Coronavirus Crisis Revives Federalism (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) April 28, 2020

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One silver lining in the dark coronavirus cloud is the revival of federalism, the old-fashioned idea that not every issue has to be decided in Washington. While most every policy issue—from education to health care and beyond—has traveled a one-way road from states and local governments to Washington, the coronavirus crisis rediscovered a leadership role for state and local government.

Early on we learned that states like New York, California and Washington needed to address the crisis more quickly and their governors began to lead. In California, there were higher concentrations in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, so mayors and county commissioners took action. Important work was done well before there was a national consensus, and these laboratories of experimentation informed larger policies.

This is exactly how the founders saw our government working. Hooray for the revival of federalism.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Coronavirus Crisis Revives Federalism

Bad Student Scores in History and Civics Flatten the Wrong Curve (Washington Examiner) April 25, 2020

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Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, the expression “flattening the curve” has entered our vocabulary. We understand that the major public health objective is to reduce the spread of the disease so that our healthcare system is not overwhelmed.

It turns out that some curves need to be flattened, but others do not. I am sorry to report that one important curve that was already flat just got flatter, but we should not be happy about it. If possible, our children’s understanding of U.S. history and civics is reportedly now even worse.

This week, the Department of Education released the latest student test scores on eighth-graders’ understanding of U.S. history and government. There was essentially no change in student scores in civics, with a pitiful 24% of eighth-graders testing “proficient” in that field. Meanwhile, proficiency in U.S. history dropped by more than 15% from the last testing in 2014 to an embarrassing 15% total. This drop occurred in virtually every category of student tested.

Such results would result in a code blue in hospitals, but it was just another day at the office for the Department of Education. Results were “stable” in civics (yes, but stably poor) and “lower” in history (yes, they’ve now dropped through the floor). Yawn. Only Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seemed willing to tell it like it is, calling the results “stark and inexcusable.”

Of course, we don’t really know how bad it is because, as in the COVID-19 crisis, we do not have enough testing. While other subjects, such as reading and math, are done at several grade levels (four, eight, and 12) and conducted every two years at most grade levels, the history and civics are tests are of eighth-graders only and carried out every four years. I would hate to see the numbers if we reached into the high school grades. The frequency and intensity of testing sends a definite message to teachers and students alike about what we prioritize in education.

As we are learning, it takes a lot of data to study curves, so let me add another focal point: how much civics and history are offered in the school curriculum. If you don’t teach it, students aren’t likely to learn it.

A 2018 study showed that only 10 states require as much as a year of study in civics or government, meanwhile, nine states do not require any. While math and science courses have grown in the curriculum, teaching students to understand how our government was designed and how it operates today has declined. Students in Rhode Island have even brought a federal lawsuit against educators for failing to teach them the basics of U.S. government and civics.

We should not be surprised then that trust in government has declined when, according to an Annenberg Public Policy Center study, 75% of Americans are not even able to name the three branches of government. While we insist that immigrants take a citizenship test, few realize that only 36% of citizens could pass that same test, one which immigrants pass at a 97.5% pace. Don’t even start with me about students who think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court or that climate change was caused by the Cold War.

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that we now face a civic education crisis and make the learning of history and government a priority in our schools and, as President Ronald Reagan said, at our dinner tables? Otherwise, we will be asking people to run our country who never had the opportunity to learn about it.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Coronavirus Brings Federalism Back in Style (Washington Examiner) April 21, 2020

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Most of the big policy issues are not actually problems to be solved but dilemmas to be managed. A problem stands between point A, where you are, and point B, where you want to go, and you have to solve it. A dilemma, on the other hand, presents two or more competing and yet fundamental values, so there is no final solution; instead, it requires managing.

In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, on the one hand, we want to keep people safe. So public policy demands quarantines, distancing, shutdowns, masks, and gloves. On the other hand, we do not want to foster another Great Depression, so economic well-being creates pressure in another direction: to open things up and get them moving again. You do not solve that — you manage it, giving due weight to each horn of the dilemma, adjusting the balance constantly.

What is different in this policy crisis is that the president himself has abandoned the traditional role of synthesizer and decider in favor of advocating one side of the dilemma. Instead of synthesis, President Trump gives us antithesis, turning the whole decision process on its head.

We could say that science and public health give us the thesis here: We need strong government intervention and action to keep our health system from being overwhelmed and to keep people safe. The antithesis, naturally, comes from the business and economic community: America has to eat, sustain itself, travel, and keep the financial wheels turning.

Normally, then, we would look to government to balance the thesis and antithesis and give us some kind of reasonable synthesis. That’s what the senior decision-makers must do; that’s why they’re paid the big bucks. Government is the neutral arbitrator that can study, listen, weigh, and manage these difficult questions.

Except in this case, the president has abdicated the synthesis throne. After first saying he was in charge and he would decide when to reopen the economy, Trump quickly retreated and told the governors they should decide. Having left the middle of the field, the next day he was on the business/economy sideline, leading the cheers and jeers for governors to move away from the shutdown. Described as “chomping at the bit” to get the economy going, he has sided with protesters of stay-at-home orders, saying some governors have “gone too far.”

While it was clear from the start that Trump would be a disruptor president, taking sides in a national emergency, rather than leading from the center, has been unsettling to many. The good news, however, is that the federal system is resilient enough to adapt. Governors have, in fact, stepped forward to manage the crisis. Governors are the ones who are publishing guidelines for getting back to work. Governors are reaching out to each other and forming regional agreements about when and how to move forward.

In reality, the government response to the COVID-19 crisis has swung the policy pendulum back from Washington to state and local governments. Some counties and states that were hit harder and earlier had to mobilize more quickly and did. Governors rallied businesses and nonprofit groups to help build supply lines and open up new facilities for healthcare. Now, the primary responsibility for returning things to normal also rests with state and local governments.

For decades, government power has traveled a one-way superhighway to Washington and specifically down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Traditional state issues such as education, welfare, and healthcare have become federal matters. A national state of emergency would have been an obvious time for the president to consolidate even more power, but whether you like or not, he largely has not done so.

When this is over, you can bemoan the lack of presidential leadership, or you can celebrate the resilience and return of federalism.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Celebrating Rugged Individualism (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) April 14, 2020

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One lesson from the coronavirus crisis is that American rugged individualism is still alive.  While many wait for government to solve the problem, countless Americans are at work on it.

Perfume companies and distilleries retooled to make sanitizer, automakers manufacture ventilators, architects make face masks. Everything from education to funerals has reinvented.

Rugged individualism was prized on the Western frontier but is now attacked as selfish and out of date.  But when a crisis comes, we’re glad it’s there.

One misunderstanding about rugged individualism is that it stands against community, but just as pioneers traveled in wagon trains and built houses together, Americans today help one another with meals, hotel rooms, and groceries. Generosity abounds.

When the story of the Covid-19 crisis is written, rugged individualism should be a hero.

To listen to the audio:

Davenport: Celebrating Rugged Individualism

Rugged American Individualism Comes to the Rescue (Washington Examiner) April 9, 2020

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While many wait and watch for government to solve the coronavirus problem, rugged American individualism is already hard at work — not just the labs and medical researchers that are working 24/7 on drugs to cure or prevent the disease but also the many individuals and companies that have quickly filled gaps and dislocations caused by the crisis.

Where would we be without creative types who turned their perfume companies and distilleries into manufacturers of hand sanitizer? Automobile companies have been retooled to produce ventilators, and architects are busily running their 3D printers to create face masks. Restaurants quickly reinvented themselves for takeout and more recently have provided needed produce and other grocery items to their neighborhoods. Everything from how we educate to how we conduct funerals is being reinvented on the fly.

Thank goodness for the speed and creativity of American individualism.

As Gordon Lloyd and I chronicled in our book Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?, rugged individualism had become a whipping boy until we needed it. It is often criticized as selfish and antiquated, an idea better suited to the frontier West than the complex and interdependent society of the modern world. But this caricature of rugged individualism is both inaccurate and unfair.

The term rugged individualism was coined by Herbert Hoover when he ran for president in 1928. Hoover had been a leading mining engineer and businessman in other countries before leading the food relief effort in Europe during and following World War I. He was shocked to see Europe succumbing to various forms of totalitarianism: communism, fascism, and socialism. When he returned home to the United States, he celebrated the uniquely American ideal of individualism in a powerful 1921 essay on the subject. America had prospered largely because of the energy unleashed by this doctrine, Hoover claimed.

Then, along came Franklin Roosevelt and the liberals who argued that with the closing of the American frontier, rugged individualism was no longer possible. People would now live in crowded cities, not on Western frontiers, and would need more government regulation. Rugged individualism had become, as one liberal of that time put it, ragged individualism — or as another said, a myth.

It turns out, however, that despite calls for its death or reports that it has already died, rugged individualism has survived. It is, as President Barack Obama acknowledged, part of America’s DNA. And it seems to come to the fore in especially powerful ways on new frontiers. It was rugged American individualism that helped the country survive World War II, as manufacturers, farmers, and households moved to support the war effort and to accept sacrifices at home. John F. Kennedy called for new creativity in space and elsewhere through his New Frontier. It has fueled the development of our present information economy.

And now, the coronavirus demands a new chapter of rugged individualism.

One misunderstanding about rugged individualism is that it stands against any form of community or collaboration. You need only look at the rugged individualism of the American frontier to see that is wrong. People formed wagon trains to travel together in greater safety. They settled in villages and towns. They helped each other build houses and establish churches. But this was done largely through voluntary efforts, not government mandates. It came out of the very spirit of American individualism.

We see this important voluntary and community side of rugged individualism today as well. People are wearing face masks and social distancing to protect not so much their own health as the well-being of others. Stores have established special hours for seniors and the most vulnerable. Caterers and generous individuals are delivering free meals, and hotels are providing rooms for healthcare workers. Neighborhood watch programs are being revitalized and created.

Like premature reports of Mark Twain’s death were, as he said, “greatly exaggerated,” we are fortunate that similar reports of the death of rugged individualism are also mistaken. Indeed, when the story of the COVID-19 crisis and recovery is written, rugged individualism should be a central hero.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Democracy Depends on Civic Virtue (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) April 6, 2020

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Some say authoritarian governments are better able to manage a crisis like coronavirus than a democracy. But I say, not so fast.

The Founders wisely provided for emergency powers when needed, and both the president and governors have used these. We have institutions such as the Federal Reserve able to take quick action when needed.

But beyond that, our democracy depends on the virtue of the people. Benjamin Franklin stated what the founders understood when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

The jury is still out on whether people get this. We still have far too many people, especially young people, out and about, ignoring social distancing. People are still hoarding sanitizer, masks, and toilet paper.

Yes, we need everything medical science can bring to the table but, more than that, we need the American people to step up their sense of civic virtue.


Coronavirus Crisis Exercises Democracy’s Flabby Muscles (Washington Examiner) April 1, 2020

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Not so fast.

For one thing, our democracy has emergency tools that allow for a timely response in selective situations. First governors, and then the president, have declared states of emergency that consolidate powers and reduce checks and balances on a selective, and hopefully temporary, basis. Government institutions such as the Federal Reserve are empowered to act unilaterally when the situation calls for it. Ideally, when things return to normal later, our government does as well, although this has been a problem given the 30-plus states of national emergency still on the books, the oldest declared by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. As I have written before, national emergencies may come and go, but emergency declarations have a tendency to remain.

More encouraging, however, is that this crisis has prompted our democracy to begin exercising some muscles that we had allowed to become flabby — namely federalism, deliberation, and civic virtue.

Federalism, the increasingly old-fashioned idea that not everything is a matter for the federal government, has been vital to addressing this crisis. We learned early on that the way in which states such as Washington, California, and New York addressed the crisis needed to be faster than and different from other states, and federalism allowed those governors to do so. In California, there were much higher concentrations in the early days in Silicon Valley and San Francisco than elsewhere, so again, federalism empowered county and city governments to act as their circumstances demanded. These early and smaller-scale interventions also provided the kind of laboratory of experimentation that informed larger state and federal policies later. Two of the leading battlefield commanders are in Sacramento, California, and Albany, New York — not in Washington, D.C.

In an era where government power has long traveled along a one-way street toward Washington, it is good to see federalism alive and well.

Deliberation, also an old-fashioned idea, holds that our leaders go into government to talk and work through difficult problems together. The Senate, once called the greatest deliberative body in the world, hardly deliberates anymore, and most policy issues quickly devolve into partisan warfare. In the present crisis, however, we see evidence of some deliberation and bipartisanship.

President Trump and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, both Republicans, were at the table with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats. The latest bill, deemed urgent by everyone, was nevertheless delayed a few days to reach an actual compromise. Even within the administration, you see some back and forth in pursuit of the truth, with leaders openly discussing how to balance the needs of the economy with public health. All this is a “healthy” development.

Finally, the crisis demands greater civic virtue of a nation whose civic and virtue muscles had all grown flabby. It calls for greater patience from the “now” generation used to instant technology and immediate gratification. It calls for the “me” generation to become a “we” generation. It demands a long-term patience along with a willingness to listen and respond to authority. Frankly, the jury is still out on this one. Too many people, especially younger people, are still out and about, ignoring social distancing requirements. Some pastors are still holding church services. People are still hoarding masks, sanitizer, and even toilet paper. Benjamin Franklin articulated the founders’ view on this quite well when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” This is truly the front line of our democracy today: Can we put community above self and exercise civic virtue?

Yes, we need everything medical science can offer to address this crisis, especially the silver bullets of a cure and a vaccine. We will also need some golden eggs from the federal budget. But this is also a great opportunity to restore democracy’s flabby muscles by cheering on federalism and deliberation in government and exercising civic virtue at home.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner: