Review of Dennis Prager's Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, (Broadside Books, April 2012) Hardcover, 448 pages; $26.99.
Dennis Prager argues for a rebirth of a particular American exceptionalism: the distinctive aspects of the American ethos rooted in the once considerable but now misunderstood Judeo-Christian moral union. Prager claims that traditional American conservatism is distinctive because of its ethical decency, high ideals, moral values, and intrinsic visionary worth. Rejecting the establishment's liberal vs. conservative rhetorical dichotomy, he depicts today's political liberalism as Leftism, while positioning traditional conservatism as Americanism.
Prager's theory can be used to configure the ideological battlefield so as to make the construct of "Americanism" reflect a scripture based covenant and vision. An acceptance of this approach suggests that the political Left has arrived too late to legitimately claim American resources with the flag of big, invasive government. American soil is not the exclusive domain of the Left, nor should the country's resources be squandered upon a ruinous subsidization of expenditures that lack bona fide merit. Traditionally viewed, the Leftist game plan is adversarial to a rational liberalism or libertarianism, while a robust conservatism can potentially incorporate all that true progress brings—once the Right frees itself from snares laid for it.
This is not to say that Prager thinks the Left is inept. To the contrary: Few other writers so ably place a recognition of the Left's strategic and influential accomplishments alongside an assessment of policy foolhardiness and overarching moral insolvency. Comfortable in his traditional Jewishness, Prager is willing to note the activities of the secular Jewish Left while theorizing about what happened to the Jewish Right.
Prager begins his treatise with the premise that humanity is at a crossroads between three demographically dominant systems of thought. Many formerly competitive world views, like Communism, have fallen out of favor. In the emerging global context, the three final contestants are Leftism, Islamism, and "Americanism" (i.e., traditional Judeo-Christian values are equated with Americanism). A hybridization of the three is not likely, per Prager, as these three systems are largely incompatible. Granted, Prager sees people with admirable qualities in each group.
Leftism, to Prager, involves the welfare state, secularism, and the political positions identified with socialist democratic parties in Europe as well as Democratic Party activists in the United States. Islamism refers to a shared vision by nonmoderate Muslims who wish to see states and peoples governed by Sharia, (i.e., Islamic law). Americanism reflects three aspirations which are coincidentially stamped into American coins: 1) Liberty; 2) In God We Trust; and 3) E Pluribus Unum (i.e., "Out of Many, One"). These three aspirations combine synergistically in what Prager terms, the "American Trinity"—a traditional Judeo- Christian union of moral thought, not theological distinctions. This waning Judeo-Christian union includes beliefs that morality is God-defined, human reason is not autonomous, human life has greater value than the natural world, and that God's existence gives ultimate meaning to life.
Prager spends good effort throughout his book unpacking the contents of what he sees as the three dominant systems. He sees the traditional concept of "liberty" as necessitating small government, a free economy, and belief in ultimate accountability to a Supreme Being. Likewise, he believes the phrase, "In God We Trust," represents a set of human rights and moral values that originated in Judaism and were adopted by traditional Christianity. Finally, he sees E Pluribus Unum as connoting the transformational progress of a polity battling against divisiveness and preferentialism that otherwise rises from clashes of ethnicity, nationality, class, and race. Purportedly, these aspirational commitments give Americanism a competitive edge—an edgy conclusion, since Leftists think their values do the same.
The author's long experience as a radio talk show personality is evident in the provision of arguments that are persuasive, conceptually innovative, and linguistically artful. The result is a sobering yet enjoyable read. That said, while the author is careful to be deferential about his opponents' motives, he nevertheless delivers a devastating critique of the Left's public policy agenda. Equally important, he refreshes readers' memories of what traditional conservatism set out to accomplish, and why. Granted, readers may hold good reasons for differing with Prager regarding certain theories, conclusions and recommendations. Still, there is nothing wrong with a spirited polemic, especially when arguments are sustained by useful observations.
Prager believes that traditional American conservatism could lead the world to a better tomorrow if people held a deep understanding of conservative concepts. However, according to the Federalist Papers it took extraordinary circumstances to prepare early Americans for constitutional self-government built on constructive checks and balances. Consequently, Publius suggests that if America ever declines in its moral rectitude so as to lose its way, a less culturally virtuous America will pay a steep price to recover good character and liberties lost.
As of late, the world is changing at breakneck speed. There is no traditional Judeo- Christianity that is culturally viable now; at least, in a majoritarian sense. It would take a global crisis of unprecedented magnitude—far beyond what governments could manage—to make people pay the price that wisdom requires for sustainable freedom. Still, there will be fewer pains in birthing a healthy future if some of us envision and describe the requirements for goodness to triumph in the polity. No work need be infallible to be valuable.
Still the Best Hope leaves plenty of room for the discussion of important questions. How can traditional American conservatism remain the world's best hope when the values of the Left dominate American public education? How can Americanists expect to win with values that require long-term thinking when the Left seasons its appeals with short-term gratifications? Can small government deal successfully with powerful lobbies that have lost their moral compass? How can a modern conservatism that has sold itself electorally to high finance and corporatism adequately check the excesses of the Left?
Dennis Prager's book is not a timid work. But for people who know how to differentiate weak arguments from strong ones, the book should have value. While many of Prager's ideas are evident in the conservative philosophical literature, one seldom finds these arguments so smartly organized for current affairs. In an age of secularism in which people seek a "politics of meaning" to counter their abandoned confidence in God, it remains to be seen if rational arguments can offset the politically exploitative power of victim-based appeals.
Timothy J. Barnett is an associate professor of political science at Jacksonville State University.