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The Road Back

Speaker Newt Gingrich has a well-earned reputation for rhetorical flourish, which I witnessed during his recent appearance at The Economic …

Speaker Newt Gingrich has a well-earned reputation for rhetorical flourish, which I witnessed during his recent appearance at The Economic Club of New York. One would not ordinarily expect him to single out FDR as the “single greatest political influence in American political thought in this century,” or remark that the Democratic party historically has been the most successful. The Newtster later added, however, that FDR, unlike the current generation of Democrats who profess to carry on his ideals, would never have handed over a dime in federal money to people who did no work in return for government assistance. FDR may have saved the Republic in the 1930s, but his ideological descendants took the country on “the great detour” during the 1960s.

Warming up to his own philosophical pitch, Gingrich retailed an alternative vision, based on what he calls “a return to American exceptionalism.” By this, he means a society based on equality of opportunity, not equality of result. To his credit, he recognizes that everything depends on “the ability to deliver….lf we don’t, we aren’t different from the Democrats.” He nailed himself and the Republican-controlled Congress to the mast on three aims: first, legislation that will balance the budget by 2002; second, wholesale reform or replacement of Medicare and Medicaid; and third, welfare reform. All this, he pledges, will be accomplished or put to the president by Christmas.

Much of this is familiar stuff. Less so was Gingrich’s response to a question about affirmative action. Opposed to quotas and set-asides, Gingrich nonetheless said he was committed to an integrated society as defined by the 1965 Civil Rights Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This isn’t your grandfather’s Bob Taft, laissez-faire Republicanism. With President Clinton’s ringing endorsement of affirmative action last July, followed by Gov. Pete Wilson’s banning race and gender preferences at the University of California, the stage is set for a battle over one of the more contentious social issues of our time.

Gingrich believes the best way to help people is to ensure full social mobility, something that tax reform and fewer government regulations would permit. But he goes further by advocating “private-sector discrimination,” in preference to government-imposed, mandatory quotas.

Glenn C. Loury, an economics professor at Boston University and author of “Race and Responsibility in America,” contends that conservatives now have a chance to wrest from liberals the moral high ground on the race issue, provided they proceed with patience and generosity. Loury joins black social critics such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams in criticizing how affirmative action encourages a sense of group entitlement that makes it difficult for Americans to see one another as individuals rather than as representatives of a social collective.

“A case can be made,” argues Loury, “that [past] efforts were necessary during the transition from the era of Jim Crow to the era of equal opportunity. But it strains credulity to argue that the barriers of racism are now so great that the black child of two professional parents, with a family income in six figures, cannot be expected to compete on the merits in whatever venue he or she may choose. It is morally unjustified and to an African-American, humiliating that preferential treatment based on race should become institutionalized for those of us now enjoying all of the advantages of middle-class life.”

It is an issue on which business leaders need to step forward. The most critical challenge confronting any person arises from a common human, not racial, condition. Loury argues that Martin Luther King “understood that empathy and persuasion reaching across racial lines are crucial for attaining social justice, yet impossible unless we understand that the aspirations of all people are of equal value.” Loury continues, “Many Americans, myself included, are now convinced that affirmative action retards the attainment of this vision.”

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.