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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:


Interview on John Batchelor Show (radio) on character and war (10 min.) March 30, 2020

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Looking for American patience, respect for authority and community spirit in the time of the virus. David Davenport @HooverInst

Mar 27, 8:08 PM
To listen to the interview:

A Different Kind of Character for a Different Kind of War (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) March 24, 2020

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America is again at war, but war of a different kind: war against an unknown virus attacking our health, our economy, our social lives. Sadly, there is no quick knockout punch we can deliver to the enemy, no cease-fire agreement halting hostilities.

No, fighting this war will require a different kind of character. It will require the “now” generation of instant technology and immediate gratification to exhibit patience. The “me” generation must become a “we” generation.

This war will be fought on the front lines of medical science, but even more important now is the home front. We will need both rugged American individualism and community concern for one another. The golden rule—do unto others as you would have others do unto you—will be more valuable than a financial bailout or a silver bullet.

This is America’s new test of character.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: A Different Kind of Character for a Different Kind of War

International Criminal Court Prepares a Legal War on the US (Washington Examiner) March 17, 2020

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Since its creation in 1998, many have understood the International Criminal Court to be a way for those in the world who oppose but cannot match America’s military power to attack it legally instead. At last, that has now happened with the court’s recent decision to investigate the U.S. military for potential war crimes in Afghanistan. If successful, the ICC prosecutor may then charge individual Americans for war crimes.

How did we come to this place, where Americans could be ordered to stand trial in The Hague for war crimes? It is a story of good intentions captured by a small but vocal group and turned to this group’s own political ends. After special international criminal tribunals were formed to deal with overwhelming human rights atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia earlier in the ’90s, there was a sense that a permanent court should be established to deal with these. The United States not only supported the idea but was one of its leading proponents and organizers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the creation of the ICC. A group of human rights nonprofit groups and smaller nations formed a coalition to change the entire nature and scope of the proposed court. Instead of seeing cases referred by the U.N. Security Council as was done previously, the coalition wanted an independent prosecutor who could range over the world and bring forward his own cases. Instead of limiting parties to citizens of nations that agreed to the treaty creating the court, as was done historically, the council wanted jurisdiction over anyone who committed a crime on the territory of a signatory state. It also sought to add a new crime to the traditional mix: the crime of aggression.

The point of these politicized human rights activists was to create what they called “a court worth having,” not the sort of institution that would attract wide support. Instead of taking the time to engage in compromise and negotiation to attract most of the nations to join, the court was formed when only 60 of the world’s 190-plus nations signed on.

Rightly, the U.S. refused to agree to this kind of aggressive political institution. We did not sign the treaty and took some comfort in the fact that the court would only act in cases where local judicial systems either could not or would not act. Indeed, that was its original purpose — to be available when local systems were overwhelmed by abuse, as in the Rwandan genocide or when powerful dictators or national leaders refused to investigate their own people.

Especially when you look at questions of war and military force, there really is no true international “law.” Most treaties establish something more on the order of international norms to which nations aspire, but they are easily violated when national interest dictates. There is no international constitution, no global police force, to enforce these norms, so in that sense, it is a misnomer to think of them as law in the way Americans regard law.

Thus, an institution with the bold aspirations of the ICC becomes, in effect, politics by other means. Even though the U.S. has not signed onto the ICC and has arguably the strongest judicial system in the world, the ICC nonetheless creates an opportunity to try to put on a political trial of American soldiers and officials, which is precisely what many of the proponents of the court sought in the first place.

Just as the U.S. said “no” when the court was formed, it must just say “no” again if the prosecutor comes calling on Americans to be investigated or stand up in court.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Bernie Sanders’s Last Gasp: Tie Revolution to Defeating Coronavirus (Washington Examiner) March 16, 2020

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Bernie Sanders has now enrolled in the Rahm Emanuel school of public policy: Never let a good crisis go to waste — it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before. That’s the life preserver Sanders has grabbed onto as his campaign sinks into the depths, seeking to tie his goal of “political revolution” to the coronavirus crisis.

Repeatedly in the Sunday night Democratic debate, Sanders tried to build a link between the coronavirus and our “failed” healthcare system. If we had “Medicare for all,” he claimed, people could be tested and treated. In his next breath, Sanders pointed to the need for an income inequality revolution, which mandates taxing the wealthy much more, so that people could afford to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

The last politician who successfully launched a major political revolution from the crisis of the day was President Franklin Roosevelt, who rolled out his New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression. However, Sanders isn’t Franklin Roosevelt, and this is not the Great Depression.

Actually, Sanders’s and FDR’s revolutionary goals are cut from similar cloths, even if the natures of the crises are quite different. Above all, Roosevelt’s revolutionary New Deal sought security, especially economic security, for the “forgotten man.” Roosevelt not only established Social Security but spoke of the need for the government to take over the economy and guarantee jobs, income, education, and health. He attacked the “economic royalists” on Wall Street who, like Sanders’s big pharmaceutical and oil companies, were making money at the expense of ordinary people. In all this, Sanders’s rhetoric and revolutionary aims are quite similar to Roosevelt’s.

But that’s where the similarities between Roosevelt and Sanders end, in part because this crisis is quite different and also because Sanders’s political gifts come nowhere near those of the masterful Roosevelt.

A viral health crisis that sprang from a province in China is not caused by an American systemic problem. Roosevelt argued that America’s economic and financial systems, which he said needed to transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, were part of the cause of the Depression. It was an economic emergency that Roosevelt managed to tie to fundamental problems in the economic system.

Sanders’s only tie between the coronavirus emergency and his call to revolutionize the healthcare system is in the later cure stage, not in the disease’s initial cause. Joe Biden rightly pointed out that a revolution to change the payment and delivery system in healthcare that could not take effect for years doesn’t even address the emergency of the moment. This present crisis must be tackled by national and state emergency powers, as Biden argued, not by a later debate on a healthcare revolution.

Sanders is not Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s leadership wisely called for a comforting and rallying of the public before he turned to revolution. He initiated fireside radio chats to come into people’s living rooms. The most memorable line from his first inaugural address was, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Unfortunately, Sanders looks and sounds like a revolutionary, waving his arms and calling for major change in the heat of a crisis.

A recent CNN poll underscored that what people seek in a crisis is a steady hand, not a revolutionary. The poll showed that 65% of Democratic voters would prefer Biden to handle a major crisis compared to 23% for Sanders. Somehow, Roosevelt had the ability to both reassure people while also, ultimately, leading a political revolution. Unfortunately for Sanders, he appears to drive only in one gear, the hot drive of a revolutionary.

“You say you want a revolution,” the Beatles said in the 1960s. “No, thank you,” say Americans in 2020.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Democrats Don’t Want a Revolution After All (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) March 16, 2020

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In the twinkling of an electoral eye, frontrunner Bernie Sanders’ campaign is near death and Joe Biden’s has been resurrected. How could this happen?

Bernie said the American system needed a “political revolution,” and his revolution was “for all”: Medicare for all, free college for all, housing for all and jobs for all. The price tag was tens of trillions of dollars and a revolution in how America operates.

Even Democrats were not ready for that.

Perhaps it was about stopping the Trump revolution: a CNN Poll shows that 66 percent of Democratic voters thought Biden could best oppose Trump, 26 percent for Sanders. Or maybe concern over the coronavirus revolution changed things: the same poll showed Biden could best handle a major crisis by 65 percent over Sanders–at 23 percent.

It turns out 2020 is not the year for a revolution.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Democrats Don’t Want A Revolution After All

Republicans’ Murky National Security (Washington Examiner) February 21, 2020

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The Republican tent has historically been big enough to hold several varieties of foreign policy conservatives. It was a little easier in the days of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, with anti-communism as the center holding things together, though even isolationists found a home in the party. From the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, however, it has been a struggle to find a foreign policy common denominator for Republicans. George W. Bush test-drove neoconservatism and nation building as his approach, but foreign policy realists were not impressed. The war on terror provided a core national security policy for a while, at least until the era of President Trump.

Even though we think of Republicans as the party of national security, could we actually describe what that means? Trump himself doesn’t seem to be sure. At first, he clearly liked “my generals” and appointed former military leaders to a broad range of roles, including secretary of defense, White House chief of staff, and national security adviser. Since then, like the public, Trump seems to have grown weary of the “endless wars” an aggressive national defense policy has delivered. He said in his 2019 State of the Union address that he was bringing our troops back home. Yet even when he reduced slightly in one place (Syria, for example), he expanded elsewhere (the Middle East) so that there is little change overall.

Meanwhile, the days of a foreign policy “grand strategy,” practiced by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, appear to be over. Perhaps in an era in which threats come from terror groups, rather than nation-states, a grand strategy is no longer realistic. Rather than a Truman Doctrine, we may have to settle for being “the world’s policeman,” responding to dangers on an ad hoc basis as they arise. Yet Trump warned in October 2019 that “the job of our military is not to police the world.” Less than three months later, however, America assassinated a top Iranian general perceived to be an imminent threat. Trump, at least, seems to be fulfilling his campaign proposal that foreign policy should be more unpredictable.

Republicans missed a recent opportunity to lend greater deliberation and consistency to national security when they failed to support legislation to restore to Congress the power to declare war, in this case, against Iran. The Constitution makes the president commander in chief, but it empowers Congress to declare war. By now, however, the exceptions to congressional war declarations have almost swallowed up the principle, and the president is largely able to go to war unilaterally. This places national security policy in the hands of a single person rather than building a consensus of national leaders, leaving the nation vulnerable to a president who wishes to drive toward war, such as Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, or who prefers an unpredictable foreign policy, such as Trump.

One thing is relatively clear: The public is ready to move on from the era of endless wars. Both a recent Eurasia Group Foundation survey and a 2018 poll by the Committee for a Responsible Foreign Policy found that Americans wanted to spend less on defense and engage in fewer military interventions. A Pew Research Study of veterans found that even they thought the invasion of Iraq was not worth fighting. Therefore, it would seem as if the party of national security needs to find a way to pursue its goals at a lesser price.

It seems time for Republicans to engage in a debate over how to pursue national security without endless wars. For starters, we will have to acknowledge that sending in the military is a tactic, not a strategy. Long before we commit troops, we need an understanding of why we would use military force and what victory would look like. Then, too, we need to build a stronger national consensus about when to use force, which means we have to bring Congress off the sidelines and back into the forefront when we declare war.

Perhaps Trump’s failure to reduce our military commitments as promised will become a campaign issue in 2020. More likely, it’s one more important policy can to kick down the road until the post-Trump era.

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 view the column at the Washington Examiner:



Coronavirus and the National Debt (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) February 20, 2020

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What do coronavirus and the national debt have in common?  The answer is China.  Due in part to secrecy and poor management in China, suddenly the world confronts a major pandemic.  We’re reminded how interconnected our world is and how vulnerable we are to China.

Perhaps this is a reason to take the national debt more seriously.  China owns approximately 5 percent of our debt and some surprise there could have a major economic effect on the US.  It could be the next housing bubble and we are woefully unprepared.

A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office says our debt will equal 98% of the nation’s total economic output by 2030.  President Trump promised to eliminate the deficit in 8 years but what we’ve seen is a nearly 50 percent increase.

Let’s tell Washington to take the debt seriously and beware a bad surprise.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Coronavirus and the National Debt