The American Way of Life?

John ArmstrongAmerica and Americanism

Flag The oft-used phrase "The American way of life" or "the American Way" is often heard in the oratory associated with July 4th in the United States. The term has its origins, interestingly enough, in the free enterprise system. It was used by Alf Landon in his 1936 campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had a slogan that was "Save the American Way of Life." This was aimed at FDR's radical new measures advanced in the New Deal. At the Chicago Tribune telephone operators answered the phone by saying: "Only ___ more days to Save the American Way of Life."

An American diplomat named Eric Johnson, who was also a film studio executive, said this phrase was a euphemism and that the word used should really be capitalism (1958). Richard Nixon, who was not a strong political conservative, used the ideas and words in a different way. Perhaps the most interesting development came in the 1980s when the television producer Norman Lear used the phrase in the title of a new liberal group, People for the American Way.

So what value is there in this kind of rhetoric when we hear it today? Likely very little. It is a political piece of oratory that no longer rings in the hearts of modern voters. If you believe the era of expansive government is a growing problem, and I do, then you need to find new language that will clearly communicate this problem. Even the terms capitalist and socialist, used so broadly in the most recent election, do not resonate with people deeply today. (I am not sure these are the options anyway since unfettered capitalism is not the best option for a just and compassionate society.) I think there is a great challenge here for genuine intellectual conservatives to find a more nuanced and effective way to argue that bigger government, with its massive entitlements and the tendency to bad management because of political patronage, is almost always a bad option for a just and truly good society.