When Amherst College President Alexander Meiklejohn gave tribute to the school’s most renowned graduate, Calvin Coolidge, he realized that Cal was a teacher in his own right. What Coolidge taught he first practiced. It was both natural to his character and so diligently applied that Cal made it seem effortless. Meiklejohn called him, “A Teacher of the Lesson of Adequate Brevity.” We could all use less talk. This is nowhere more true than in politics.
The 2016 Republican Party platform at 35,467 words (4,774 more than in 2012) is well beyond an approachable statement of principles and broad ideals. Are we really so overwhelmed with complexity that we can no longer say what we fundamentally believe in fewer words? Our legislation now runs in the thousands of pages. Media commentary on events now operates around the clock. The speeches of candidates drone on in length but lack substance. Granted, we live in a very uncertain age with immensely difficult problems. But how is compounding the challenge with more verbiage going to fix that? Could we not do with a more direct, straightforward, and concise vision? Could we not use adequate brevity?
The platform of 1924 – in fact, most of that year’s Republican Convention proceedings – bear the imprint of Coolidge’s incisive style. He could say more in twelve words than most do in twelve pages. When Boyd Matheson delivered his seventeen-point proposal for future platforms in Cleveland last month he hit upon something that deserves serious consideration. Who is going to read our 35,000, 54-page treatise when we could contain it to a mere dozen or so universal principles? After all, if Americans no longer read our Constitution, what makes us think the GOP platform is any more accessible?
Our presentation, ever so clunky and cumbersome, fails to resonate and we routinely blame it on the principles year after year. The problem is that we have not lived consistently with those principles either privately or publicly, not the principles themselves. Republicans have a notorious problem getting the message out even back when they were actually keeping platform pledges. The loss of credibility is not just a packaging issue but a failure to live conservatism authentically.
We have been fed so long with talking points that a simple expression of our heartfelt ideals is not only a foreign concept but hailed as revolutionary. Have we become so verbose and inconsistent in every part of public business that we can no longer articulate the essentials of what we believe and why in a sincere, coherent, and most of all, brief form? We have opted to lose ourselves in the details. Will that problem lose the election in November? If we can no longer distill down what is most important without a teleprompter or a heavily-crafted policy paper, we aren’t likely to win much of anything in the future. This is not a game. This is not just another crazy campaign year. This is not a time for consulting a brain trust of Beltway wonks to carve the perfect “Elevator Speech.” We will lose if we fail to reach the heart in pursuit of the head.
We are not only face to face against a short attention span, something that both Coolidge and Lincoln (whose 1864 platform was a mere 895 words) understood and mastered in their days. We face annihilation through our own political tone deafness. We are in desperate need of clarity and conviction, consistency and character, competence and qualifications. We condemn fear and coercion in “the other side” but use those weapons in rhetoric to coerce conscience and press voters to act from a spirit of fear rather than faith and courage. We condemn lawlessness and expediency but then surrender to them when we get elected or sent to Washington.
We need some difficult truths spoken plainly and delivered ably. We are on the precipice because the heart, the seat of our emotions, is being misled by fear and faithlessness. Speaking to the intellect alone will not salvage the situation. We have to live our principles and internalize them so personally that they are as natural to us and as explainable as the air we breath. We need a communicator who listens first then delivers the essentials like Cal Coolidge, empowering the whole people not a single party system in DC. We need a communicator who speaks not with a list of Party pronouncements but who reaches the country with the principles universal to us all as humans and children of God. After all, we know in our hearts that conservatism isn’t an allegiance to a specific political structure or some access card to power but a way of life.
Finally, to practice some Coolidge brevity, shortening the Platform is but one small step. It is not even the first step. The larger test to each of us as we go about our day, is living conservatism. We don’t call it that but we respect and honor it in our lifestyles unconsciously. Is it truly a part of who we are as voters, candidates, elected officials? Is it what we exemplify as parents, cherish as husbands and wives, nourish as neighbors? Or do we relegate it to some abstract, impersonal duty someone else must bear? Is it something we put on and take off like a change of clothes or a pair of shoes? Is it just a polarizing label, carted out every election year, but one that you indolently dismiss as irrelevant to you? We should not expect in our public affairs what is missing in our private lives. Rediscovering the liberating power of conservative ideals in all of life is the first step forward to restore homes, rebuild neighborhoods, and revitalize culture across America. First, though, let’s drop the labels, cut down the noise, and simply share with each other openly and honestly what it means to be free. If we do not, we can be sure of one thing: We are forging the chains of our own slavery.