Published on June 25th, 20141
Sean Jacobs: A tale of two Wests
Allen West, Guardian of the Republic, Crown Forum, New York, 2014
‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people,’ said Kanye West awkwardly during the Hurricane Katrina appeal. Observing the United States from afar one often hears she is ‘a nation of contrasts.’ Only in America, Chris Rock suggested a few years ago, can the best golfer be a black guy, the best rapper a white guy and the tallest basketball player a Chinese guy.
A contrast, therefore, between narrow-minded commentary and a serious assessment of America’s current state of affairs is unsurprising. Former Republican Congressman Allen West’s memoir Guardian of the Republic symbolises the difference not just between two Wests but two sides of the American political divide.
One side, it seems, favours slogans like ‘hope and change’ while the other is more grounded in traditional realities. One team thinks spend now and the other sees hazard in passing on generational costs. Some see the individual as the enduring source of prosperity while others view government as the true catalyst of progress.
These are broad generalisations but they form core themes to Congressman West’s memoirs. West, who lost Florida’s 22nd District in early 2013, peppers Guardian of the Republic with personal anecdotes and principles growing from good parents and the early disciplines of a military career. West’s parents, he says, enabled him ‘to appreciate service to our country. They taught me about fiscal responsibility, the quality of a good education, and personal responsibility. They showed me what it was like to be strong yet caring.’
West’s appreciation of family interlocks with an impressive knowledge of political science and an understanding of the ideas that shaped American democracy. Whether taking apart the competing theories of Hobbes and Rousseau, or underlining Charles de Montesquieu’s influence on James Madison, his transmission of these ideas is readable to a general audience.
A lack of appreciation, by contrast, among the wider population leaves him stunned. ‘Our electorate doesn’t have a freaking clue,’ he observes bluntly, ‘about who we are or from whence we came.’ This invites both easy politics and poor leadership. He adds, for example, that ‘Too many voters seem to be mindless lemmings who fall pretty to droning gimmicks and slogans like “Hope and Change” or “Forward.”’ Even worse, he says, is a media and intellectual class ‘who are complicit in not taking to task or challenging the empty, rhetorical, poll-tested crap being fed to our country.’
An apathy toward democracy, which is growing not just in the United States but in other Western democracies, creates a gap that’s easier filled by West the rapper and not West the Congressman. The former is of course greatly successful, talented and hard-working – accolades that no one would deny – but perhaps not the first port of call for the kinds of challenges America faces. This is not to enforce an intellectual elitism or disqualify certain points of view, but to recognise George Santayana’s observation that if we forget the past we are condemned to relive it.
A key example is the economy. ‘We have excessive debt,’ the Congressman observes of America’s current economic situation, ‘growing poverty, exploding deficits, an expanding nanny state, and an anemic economy.’ West implores Americans to rediscover the ideas of self-agency, persistence and reducing governmental reliance as a way forward. ‘Through entrepreneurship,’ he writes, ‘you develop economic freedom, not economic dependency.’
An alternative economic future where government not only crowds out the individual but is seen as the exclusive catalyst of progress is not a long-term remedy for success. He re-broadcasts the nineteenth-century Frenchman Alexander de Tocqueville’s warning that, once voters discover ‘they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury… the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits.’ The turmoil Mitt Romney faced during the 2012 Presidential election after making similar comments suggests a tipping point may have already been reached.
The passion that West has for his country is not for everyone. The frenzy he can generate in some public speeches also puts many people off. Yet his memoir secures relevance in other democratic arenas beyond the United States where individuals serve as their own ‘guardians of the republic.’ Standing up for tried and tested fundamentals will remain current as long as democratic nations seek to secure liberty and create space for individuals to flourish.
About the Author: Sean Jacobs is an Australian and co-founder of New Guinea Commerce – a website he runs in his spare time which promotes good governance, economic growth and next generation leadership in the Indo-Pacific. He has previously worked as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development to Fiji, a consultant to the United Nations in Papua New Guinea and as a federal policy adviser in the area of national security. He currently lives in Brisbane, Australia.