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What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?

Since Senator Ted Cruz left the stage of the Republican Convention last week, the press and the pundits have been obsessed with the last three minutes of his twenty-three minute speech – the “vote your conscience” bit – and the angry reaction of the Trump brown shirts in the arena. This is juicy and dramatic stuff and it is not surprising that it has gripped the attention of the reality TV types who dominate our media.

The myopic focus on Cruz’s non-endorsement misses the far more interesting part of his speech: the first twenty minutes in which he revealed, with incredible clarity, the intellectual bankruptcy of his right wing ideology.

I am not sure if Cruz gave his speech a title, but if he did it would probably be “Freedom Matters.” He uttered the word freedom 23 times – that’s one time per minute – and he attempted to position himself as one of the idea’s greatest champions.

Although Cruz never quite defined the term, he did lay out a “freedom agenda” that would seem to provide the contours of his understanding. Freedom, he asserted, demands we adopt school voucher programs to give parents “freedom to choose” where they send their children to school, medical voucher programs to give patients “freedom to choose” their medical care, freedom from most taxation, free speech to say politically incorrect things, freedom to own as many guns as we want, religious freedom (to discriminate if you’d like, just so long as you don’t violate the Bill of Rights in the process), freedom from an overbearing Supreme Court, freedom…er…to not have an abortion, and the capper: “freedom means recognizing that our Constitution allows states to choose policies that reflect local values.”

Cruz then proceeded to offer examples from “our collective legacy” that he believes ought to give us hope that we can make freedom matter again in our own time. His three examples were startling because it would have been almost impossible to imagine three cases more deeply at odds with his Tea Party agenda: the Emancipation Proclamation, the moon landing, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Emancipation Proclamation has, of course, a complex legacy. As many critics have pointed out, it did not, in fact, liberate any slaves (since it applied only to states in rebellion). But several historians have rehabilitated its importance as part of an overall strategy to kill “the Slave Power.” What is revealing, though, is the fact that the principle at stake in the debate over slavery strikes at the heart of Cruz’s idea that we ought to “allow states to choose policies that reflect local values.” After all, wasn’t slavery consistent with “local values” in the Confederacy? And isn’t a quintessentially liberal idea that the federal government ought to play an active role in protecting minorities from those “local values” that undermine human dignity?

The moon landing is a slightly more complicated case and Cruz’s invocation of it is ambiguous: it was “the power of freedom,” he said, that “put the very first man on the moon.” Again, there seems to be a principle at stake that runs contrary to Cruz’s anti-government ideology: our ability to put a man on the moon required a significant investment of taxpayer money and plenty of bureaucrats. Insofar as the “space race” was motivated by national security concerns, one might argue, a strong case can be made that the space program is perfectly consistent with the philosophy of Ted “Let’s Carpet Bomb Them” Cruz. After all, Cruz is not so against government spending when the tax dollars are directed to killing people or locking them up. But if we consider the broader principle at stake – the idea that the investment of taxpayer dollars for the advance of, say, scientific discovery is worthwhile – it seems that Cruz again gave an example inconsistent with his “principles.”

Surely, he’d get things right the third time around. Oops. This one may be the worst yet. Cruz was right to say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which provided, among other things, that “all persons shall be entitled to be free, at any establishment or place, from discrimination or segregation of any kind on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin” – was supported by many Republicans. What he fails to point out is that the Act was passed in the midst of a profound political realignment that would lead, ultimately,  those liberal Republicans to become a distinct minority in the party and to many Southern Democrats quitting their party to join the Republicans. To take only the most famous example, it was very soon after the Civil Rights Act was passed that Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina – an arch-segregationist who had filibustered the Act for 14 hours – would switch parties and campaign at the side of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who also voted against the Act. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the principle at stake in the Act are deeply at odds with Cruz’s values. Those supporting the Act argued that the Constitution’s promise of “equal protection of the laws” (and various other constitutional provisions) empowered the federal government to intervene to protect the rights of minorities, “local values” notwithstanding.

So here is what’s the matter with what Ted said: when he descended from the realm of rhetoric about freedom to real cases in which freedom made this country a better place, he revealed the utter bankruptcy of his political philosophy.

Nicholas Buccola is Associate Professor of Political Science and the Founding Director of the Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, and Justice at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. His most recent books, The Essential Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy, were published this spring. He is at work on a new book on the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union in 1965.

Nicholas Buccola’s books include The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, The Essential Douglassand The Fire is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Professor of Political Science at Linfield College. 

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