Wesley Allen Riddle is Assistant Professor of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, where he teaches the elective course in the American political tradition.
To Renew America is a good book worth reading. That said, one hastens to add that it is not a profound book; moreover, it is not as good as it should have been. Indeed, while the book is provocative and far superior to anything on the other side of the ideological aisle, it lacks depth and even coherence in some places. To Renew America fails to develop the essential philosophical groundwork for cultural and spiritual renewal or the economic and political rationale for any other type. The argumentation is built on platitudes and an almost boyish, naive optimism. Hence the book does little to achieve the purpose implied by its title. It leaves the serious reader annoyedly disappointed.
Gingrich writes instead for popular consumption. His style is straightforward like the conservative talk radio commentary he celebrates. There is nothing inherently wrong with the approach, but the approach is persuasive as opposed to reasoned. To Renew America does give the reader some heavy doses of common sense, an increasingly uncommon commodity. The book’s treatment of welfare and health-care issues is particularly good in this regard. Gingrich also writes lucidly about the wrongheadedness of the current tax code, as well as the incessant running of budget deficits. But few conservatives and libertarians will take the simplistic and programmatic approach in this book as seriously as the liberals.
Gingrich is at his best when he explains history. The former history professor presents a clear exposition of what amounts to an emerging neoconservative revisionist interpretation of the modern period. Slowly but increasingly, this new school of thought is also affecting established academe. Gingrich assesses the American predicament today as one of cultural disintegration and civilizational decline. In Reaganesque fashion, he asserts it is within our power to mold the future—to succumb or forge ahead toward a boundless bounty. “To renew or to decay”—that is the question. Got problems? Take six steps and all will be well when it’s morning again in America: (1) reassert American civilization; (2) accelerate entry into the Third Wave Information Age; (3) become more competitive in the world market; (4) replace the welfare state with an opportunity society; (5) decentralize power by shifting it to states, locales, and individuals; and (6) balance the federal budget.
Few would disagree per se with the six steps, which are really goals. Many should be a bit wary, however, because every step entailing an active verb above also employs the agency of the federal government. Gingrich reveals a so-called pragmatic conservatism in the book, which smacks of means justifying ends. Even the step to decentralize power is a bit disingenuous, since he does not predicate his argument on constitutionalism or morality.
Gingrich pictures a kind of political internet, in which the devolution of power plan goes out through the modem of centralized state policy. The policy exists as long as Republicans happen to be in charge—and while everyone behaves. Jack Kemp has identified this central inconsistency, namely the faith that individuals must be empowered but also harnessed to inexorable historical forces such as technology (helped along by government).
Waves don’t make history. People do. In the final analysis, To Renew America lacks imagination, even as it sports a futuristic and sometimes far-fetched vision. Gingrich conceives of everyone marching to the beat of the same Third Wave Information Age drummer. By doing so, he fails to give people proper credit for their ability to envision and pursue still greater potentialities. He also fails to acknowledge people’s natural right to choose one or a combination of such—or to reject them all.