Interview
with Ambassador Alan Keyes
Restore a Sense of Moral Purpose 
Alan Keyes spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on July 6, 1999 in studio in Rosslyn, Virginia after doing his radio show "The Alan Keyes Show: America's Wake-Up Call."  Keyes was fresh off a July 4th weekend which included a barbecue in Rochester, New Hampshire and a Family Day gathering at First Church of the Nazarene in Burlington, Iowa.
Keyes | News



  • QUESTION [In] your political philosophy, you place heavy emphasis on the Declaration of Independence.  Can you talk about the origins of that?  The Constitution, we learn in U.S. history classes, is the basis of our laws; why do you start with the Declaration of Independence?

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  • QUESTION How would you describe the level of political discourse in this country, comparing it to back in the days of the Founding Fathers?

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  • QUESTION On a related theme, political participation is very low in this country, at least if you look at voter turnout.  Is this a problem in your view?

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  • QUESTION How do we foster more participation?  How do we encourage people to think along the lines that you're suggesting? 

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  • QUESTION You've said that part of the problem started after World War II.  Gary Bauer talks about a virtue deficit which he pegs at happening in the last 35 or so years.  Are there specific government actions that have been taken that have fostered the moral problem, if you look at the origins?

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  • QUESTION There have been several Republican candidates who have been toying with the idea of a third party.  Would you consider such a course of action?

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  • QUESTION You set up an exploratory committee recently.  How is this campaign shaping up to be different from '96?  What did you learn from '96?

  •  
  • QUESTION You have a very different style of campaigning from a Bush or a Dole; they have their national headquarters and it's all very regimented with staff, whereas you seem to have a grassroots approach.  Why do you have that approach?

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  • QUESTION On risk, there's a sense some people have that we've become a risk-averse society.  Do you see that as well?

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  • QUESTION Why are you running?

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  • QUESTION You've been one of President Clinton's harshest critics.  What has he done that's been most damaging in your view?

[In] your political philosophy, you place heavy emphasis on the Declaration of Independence.  Can you talk about the origins of that?  The Constitution, we learn in U.S. history classes, is the basis of our laws; why do you start with the Declaration of Independence?

KEYES: Well because the Declaration states the principles in light of which the Constitution was put together.  It's the same--as I often tell people, the Constitution is kind of like a blueprint or architect's drawing for a building.  But obviously in order for that blueprint to be worth anything the person who drew it has to be somebody who has some kind of knowledge of the basic principles of engineering and things of that kind.  So if you have a blueprint for a bridge, the blueprint for the bridge may look wonderful but its only worth as much as the knowledge with which the principles of engineering have been applied in drawing it up. 

The Declaration is the principles on the basis of which the Constitution was put together, in light of which different elements of that Constitution were constructed.  It states also the sense of justice that the Constitution was intended to embody.  It gives us an answer, for instance, to the question why elections.  There hadn't been elections in most forms of government throughout human history.  Why are there elections in the U.S. Constitution?  Why is there a sense of due process in the U.S. Constitution?  Why are there limits placed on executive power in the U.S. Constitution?  Why were the state governments given such special respect and so forth in the U.S. Constitution. 

You can't understand the Constitution if you don't understand the philosophy of government and the idea of justice on which it's based, and that was summarized in the Declaration of Independence.  In essence, those are the principles from which the founders began.  And it's like anything else, if you want to operate the Constitution in such a way as to achieve the results the Founders wanted to achieve, then you have to kind of understand how and why it was put together the way it was.

Is there someone who influenced your line of thinking on that?

I concentrated when I was in undergraduate and graduate school, I was a government major, and one of my main focuses of attention had to do with the background of the U.S. Constitution--my dissertation was on that, and so I all my adult life had a strong sense of interest in it, which I guess then carries over into the work that I do and in fact is partly the motive for what I do in political life.

We are in the midst of a time when if you don't have some understanding of these basic ideas and principles, then you're like somebody who's operating a piece of machinery who does not understand why different things are there.   You can push a couple of the buttons and it whirs and it makes the right noises but you don't really know what's going on.  So if somebody comes along and says, "Take out that part; it doesn't matter."  You don't know whether they're right or wrong and you might do something carelessly that then leads the whole machine to break down.

Well I think we're doing that now with our whole system of self-government, because we have too many people, including too many leaders, who are no longer familiar with the theory and underlying principles that in fact informed our Founders when they put the Constitution together, we are being careless about different elements of our constitutional system which are vital to the survival of liberty.
 
"...because we have too many people, including too many leaders, who are no longer familiar with the theory and underlying principles that...informed our Founders when they put the Constitution together, we are being careless about different elements of our constitutional system which are vital to the survival of liberty."

One example, the power of Congress to declare war.  We've become utterly careless with that.  We just went through a war in which it was totally disregarded, and even the effort Congress made back in 1973 to try to insure that some kind of respect would be given to Congress' role was violated.  And if you don't understand the importance of the system of checks and balances and of the checks that were placed on the executive in the war-making power, if you're not familiar with the history of how the Founders regarded that military power as a tool of despots and how they thought perpetual war could be used to subjugate people, well then you won't understand why it's important that we should pay attention to the clause that has to do with declaring war. 

And that's just one example of how, if you don't know the background, you will be careless.   And ultimately we end up giving up rights, giving up elements of the constitutional system that are vital to the survival of self-government.
 

 


How would you describe the level of political discourse in this country, comparing it to back in the days of the Founding Fathers?

KEYES: Well see I don't even think you have to go back that far.  I see that somewhere in the course of the years since the Second World War we've achieved a debasement of our political discourse that's unparalleled in our history.  And you can go back and you can talk about the era of the machine politician, you can go back to the 19th century, the frontierspeople and the backwoods people who were sending an Abe Lincoln to the Congress, and you look at what was being said, for instance, on the floor of the Congress or in political speeches, and whatever you might think, at a certain level of basic understanding about what self-government was about and what its prerequisites were, they were far more sophisticated than we are today. 

And this I think may be a function of the fact that since the Second World War, we've seen the development of this mass media politics that has placed the emphasis on manipulation instead of persuasion, and I think that has contributed a great deal to debasing our political life.

In addition to which I think we've developed a concept on the part of a lot of the political leaders where the aim is power.  They've gone to universities and they've learned in their classes, the American elite, that politics is about power and the pursuit of power, the power elites, the competition for power.  And so it's all a game being played to see who gets the seats of power.  And on that basis principles don't matter, on that basis persuasion doesn't matter, on that basis you don't want any kind of level of discourse that might introduced controlling factors that would then interfere with your pursuit of power.

Or get people to think?

KEYES: Well exactly, get people to think.  Get them to realize that maybe the idea of politics isn't power.  Maybe the idea of politics is liberty.  Maybe the idea of politics is justice.  Maybe there are things that ought to be considered more important than whether you or you or you get that seat of power.  And I think there are a lot of people in this country today--political leaders, special interests, others--they don't want a concept of politics that actually gets back to citizenship, that looks for justice, that talks about things that would limit power for the sake of liberty.
 
"...maybe the idea of politics isn't power.  Maybe the idea of politics is liberty.  Maybe the idea of politics is justice.  Maybe there are things that ought to be considered more important that whether you, or you, or you get the seat of power."

 


On a related theme, political participation is very low in this country, at least if you look at voter turnout.  Is this a problem in your view?

KEYES: I think it is.  But you're not going to get a lot of participation if people think, one, that it doesn't matter, if they no longer are led to take seriously their citizen responsibilities, if they're led to define themselves, as we are these days--  I mean how are people asked in this mass culture to define themselves?  Well mostly as consumers.  People who are out to buy this product or that product, and even in terms of their labor at work its mostly so you can have a little money to be a successful consumer. 

Well there is no sense of one's self that I think so undermines the kind of attitude needed for citizenship as this notion that you're consumer.  Consumption is a passive thing, right?  Whereas citizenship is the active business of participating in order to create, to produce the political life of your country.  So far from being a passive subject bombarded with advertisements so that you can play a little game and choose what product you're going to get, real citizenship requires that you have an active sense of your own interests, of your own faith, of your own sense of what's important in life, so that you can act in such a way as to try to use the political instruments to achieve those things that you think are right and necessary.   We're not encouraged to think of ourselves that way; almost everything in our society pushes people in a direction that is passive and that is more suitable to subjects of power than to citizens wielding power.
 

 


How do we foster more participation?  How do we encourage people to think along the lines that you're suggesting?

KEYES: Well see I think that it then becomes all part of the challenge of our moral life.  Because I believe that at the end of the day you're not going to be motivated to be an effective citizen unless you think of yourself, and therefore of your political participation, in the context of transcendent goods--goods that go beyond what you eat and drink and consume and enjoy today.  People who feel a link that has them responsible to God, that has them responsible for their children, for posterity, who have a sense that they are part of something that transcends their immediate gratification.  These are citizens.  These are folks who are going to be out there working and participating in ways that will help to help to shape what's going on in their society.  Passive consumers, interested only in their immediate gratification, they can be manipulated, but they're not going to be citizens.

As a matter of fact even the whole way we talk about our political life reflects this because it's like a horse race right?  And all the media people will talk about dark horses and the front runners and all this sort of stuff.  Well what's a horse race?  A horse race is a passive spectator sport.  A few people are out there running around; you're just sort of sitting there trying to pick the winner.  But you don't pick the winner in the sense that you make the winner do you?  No, the winner is made by something else; made by the horse's stamina or the jockey's skill or something.  You don't make the winner.  The truth of the matter is that in our politics people are supposed to make the winner, not pick the winner.  Do you see the difference?  One is a passive, kind of subject/consumer kind of thing, the other is an active citizen thing.

So I think that the key is a restoration of a sense of moral purpose in the citizen's life, which then sees certain goods, among them liberty and justice, as important enough that we should dedicate ourselves as people, at least in part of our time, to the service of these things so that we and our children can enjoy them. 

That sense that's there in the Preamble to the Constitution: "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity"--a commitment to a transcendent good for yourself and for your future.  That is the essence of the motivation to citizenship, and I think there's so much in our society that destroys it.

But, it's one of the reasons why I consider the most important challenge in American life today to be the restoration of a sense of our character.  To deal with the issues that I think are undermining it like abortion and other things, but also to approach issues--taxes, education, whatever--in terms of trying to restore the way of life that both reflects and helps to build the character we need for self government.
 

 


You've said that part of the problem started after World War II.  Gary Bauer talks about a virtue deficit which he pegs at happening in the last 35 or so years.  Are there specific government actions that have been taken that have fostered the moral problem, if you look at the origins?

KEYES: Oh sure.  In the last thirty, forty years, in terms of the origins, is that we abandoned the Declaration of Independence, abandoned it.  It's sort of like the soul leaving the body.  The body can twitch around for a while after that happens, but its still dead.  And we've been twitching around since we turned our back on our essential principles.  It's not working any more the way it should obviously.  And by that I mean, and this is one of the reasons--people think, "Oh you're a one issue candidate."  No I'm not.  I actually am not.  But I think there is an issue that epitomizes what is destroying our conscience and our character, and that issue is abortion.

And to put it very simply, the Declaration of Independence, which states the basic principle of self government--that basic principle is clear, and whether some people are comfortable with it or not, it's there; there's no substitute for it that I've ever been able to find:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...
What does that tell you?  Oh, we talk about rights, we talk about this, we argue over "men" and all this other trivial stuff, but the basic idea that's contained in those words is that our claim to rights, dignity and justice depends not on human will, but on the transcendent will of the creator, God.  That is powerful.
 
"...our claim to rights, dignity and justice depends not on human will, but on the transcendent will of the creator, God.  That is powerful."

That is a powerful source of courage, inspiration.  It's what can lead people who are downtrodden and oppressed and abused, to look people in the eye and say, "I don't care what wealth you have.  I don't care if you control the police force and the government and the laws and the legislature.  You don't have the right to trample on my dignity and my rights because they come from somebody more powerful than you.  They come from God."

I think we've forgotten, partly because we don't care to look any more, how important that has been in our history as a motive for the people, who, when everything was against them, were still willing to fight.  And I mean the abolitionists--I mean the anti-slavery movement.  I also mean the people who fought for women's rights and suffrage, I mean the people who organized the labor unions.  When every power was against them--the police power was against them and the legislative power was against them--they were still willing to stand there and battle for their rights.  Why?  Because that sense of their basic dignity was, "I don't depend on you for my dignity, I depend on something more powerful than you, God, and you can't take that away from me." 

The Declaration states that fundamental truth clearly, unequivocally, as it was stated never before in the history of the world, and it gives to every downtrodden individual the sense that no matter how the world's powers are arrayed against you, you've got the best power on your side.  Be of good courage.  Sacrifice everything if you have to because you'll win in the end.  That's remarkable, and I think that it has been the source of remarkable courage.

So when we adopted a view in this abortion thing that changed all that--what the Supreme Court said on the abortion thing was this whole business with rights, the most basic right of all, the right to life--can't have many rights without that--it's no longer a matter of God's will, it's a matter of a women's choice.  Who is a woman?  A woman is a human being.  That means that instead of the Declaration principle, rights come from God, we're back to the same old view that our rights depend on somebody else's judgement.  Could be your mother's judgement, but once you've put it in human hands it's human beings who are once again deciding.  You have worth; you don't; you live; you die, according to my whim.  This doesn't work.  This kills the very heart of American self government and life.  And I think that's the first mistake, where we abandoned that.

That's reflected in other areas, right, where we've turned our back on a willingness to acknowledge that there's a connection between justice and God.  We have so many people trying to drive every semblance of any acknowledgement of the Creator out of our whole way of life and everything else.  They haven't convinced me, and I don't think they will either, that they've got some substitute for that great principle which encouraged the abolitionists to fight against slavery and therefore free my ancestors so I could be here talking to you.  Now why should I give up the public principle that our rights come from God?  For what?  What is the substitute for that that will provide for the fight for justice and the maintenance of liberty.  What is it?  They don't have it.  They don't have it all.  And so I think that that's the first basic mistake, and then we can see reflections of that in so many other areas of our lives where we have departed from these essential principles.

So are you putting it at Roe v. Wade or were the problems there earlier, in 1968…?

Well I just use that as a kind of epitomizing moment.  I think that that marks in our public policy the point at which the break with the founding tradition actually led to a pronouncement in public policy that then began to produce in dramatic ways, I believe, practical effects that are destroying us.  Obviously that decision was prepared by kind of decades-long developments in our life intellectually, in the social sciences, in the law, in the medical professions, in the universities and so forth and so on, where the tradition of our Founders, which was basically the natural law tradition that said, "Yeah, we're here, but not everything depends on our human will.  There are laws that are higher than human laws and our human laws have to respect the requirements of those higher laws, and we have to answer to the author of those laws for our conduct no matter how powerful we are as human beings and human rulers."  That basic understanding of things has been systematically rejected in whole areas of our life: the law, the positivist tradition and the law, to a certain extent the godless version of evolution and things like that.  All of them tend in the same direction: to remove us from a realm where there is any natural support for our claim to justice and dignity.
 

 


There have been several Republican candidates who have been toying with the idea of a third party.  Would you consider such a course of action?

I have said repeatedly, I think that all that speculation is actually part, consciously or not, of an effort to undermine conservative strength in the primary season.  Conservative people at the grassroots need to be focused on this and this alone: what's happening in the primaries and caucuses on the Republican side--in my opinion.  To be distracted at the moment by talk of third party and all this, this is simply a way of, I think, confusing and distracting and demoralizing people.  So that at the end of the day, instead of having a good solid conservative turnout for the primaries and caucuses, you'll get a diluted, distracted, diffuse kind of activity amongst conservatives at the grassroots. 

Now why would that work?  Because the moral conservatives are actually a majority in the Republican Party.  I think the only way you get a G.W. Bush winning is if those conservatives are somehow kept out of the arena, distracted, divided, and I think this third party talk is part of that.

Why on earth would moral conservatives need a third party if they simply do their homework and come together in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and other states, and exert their real strength, rather than being fooled and manipulated and distracted by all this other stuff.  So I think that all that talk of third party is not only entirely inopportune, I think it could actually end up helping to defeat the cause of conservatism in the Republican ranks. 

So I eschew all of that that.  I don't see myself in that context.  I am operating in the context of what I believe to be a strong and clear grassroots majority for the things that I believe.  And I'm going to try to call out enough people at the time of the caucuses and the primaries, if I do get involved, to win.
 

 


You set up an exploratory committee recently.  How is this campaign shaping up to be different from '96?  What did you learn from '96?

Well I'll tell you the main difference is that in '96 when they held straw polls at different places I tended to come in third, fourth, occasionally second.  In Iowa they've been holding some straw polls at different events that Republicans have been having, and I've been coming in first.  I think that's the main difference.

But you can't put too much on the straw polls.

Well it depends on the straw poll, because I think some of them are just rigged nonsense.  But I know there was a straw poll recently in the most populous county in Iowa, in Polk County, and they were meticulous in terms of how they conducted it and getting people and so forth and so on.  I count that a solid victory in terms of indicating the kind of organizational strength that one needs to win the Iowa caucuses.  You've got to turn those people out and we did.
 

 

You have a very different style of campaigning from a Bush or a Dole; they have their national headquarters and it's all very regimented with staff, whereas you seem to have a grassroots approach.  Why do you have that approach?

Well there are two reasons.  One is simply because that's the reality of what I'm doing.  I got involved last time to carry a message that I thought it was critical to bring before people in the party.  The response to that message came from grassroots people who then proceeded in response to it to organize, put my name on the ballot, do various things.  It was their initiative; it was their effort.  And insofar as we had a national campaign it was just a few people who got together and tried to raise money and do other things to make sure I could go out and respond to what people at the grassroots were doing. 

I think there's also a second reason though.  Because to me that reality of people working together themselves at the grassroots out of a clear sense of what is right for the country and their deep faith and conviction about the right direction for America, they then put together what is needed for candidate X, Y or Z to do what they're going to do--that's self government.  That's what it's about.  It's not just an accident of my campaign.  It is what I believe to be the right way to go about it.

This notion that well you sit and consider with yourself and then you decide for whatever reason that you're the guy who should be president.  And you're then going to go out and in a brash, heuristic way you're going to go on the shows, and you're going to say, "I'm the best man to be president because I'm so great at this, and so great at that and so great at the other thing."  And then you're going to go out and you're going to get pollsters and consultants, and they're going to find ways to manipulate enough people into backing your ambition, to becoming your tools and your instruments as you pursue this.  That's un-American in my opinion.  I know it's the way they're going about it now, but it's as if they're the rulers and they're just using people.  I thought that the concept was a concept of public service and that therefore the people who stand up to run for office, they're the tools.  They're the instruments; they're used by the people to achieve what's right for the country. 

If that's what's going on, then the right way to go about politics is that people organize and they then look for a standard-bearer who can be the instrument of what they believe to be right for the country and the community and for their family.  That's the spirit of the effort that we're making; that's the only way that I think it's right to go about it.  I know there are some people who think, "Well you win this way, and then when you get in there you're going to be something else."  That's nonsense. 

As you conduct yourself in politics, the things you stand on, the way you organize yourself, how you go about it, that's the way you're going to be when you get there.  And so if I believe in self-government and then run a campaign that's dictatorship and that basically uses and manipulates people, then I'm going to get in there and use and manipulate people.  On the other hand if I'm true in my belief to self-government then what I'm going to have as a campaign is what we do have.  And it can't work without it.  The only place where we have viable efforts are places where there have been enough people willing out of their heart to commit to the effort and then organize friends, neighbors and so forth to get things moving.  It's the only way it works…

It's a bit unmanageable though.

Not unmanageable no.  No.  As a matter of fact it may be the most manageable.  I know we've forgotten this, but the great secret of American life is not top-down management.  The great secret of our life, even the secret of our victory in wars, has been the fact that the American people, up until the present time at least--who knows what we are becoming but--have been a people who are willing to take risk and initiative, who aren't just cogs in some bureaucratic wheel.  And I think we've got to know if we lose that, we run great risks…

…This notion that somehow you've got to manage things from the top down--no.  What works in America when we're thinking with our right minds is you give to the American people an arena in which they can apply their common sense, in which they can take the risks and the initiative, and then they'll come up with results you never dreamt of. 

That's how we built this economy.  They can lie all they want and try to pretend it politicians and the President and all this.  Nothing of the kind goes on in America…

…The genius of the American people from the beginning has been that Americans have by and large been folks who take their own path, take their destiny in their hands, don't wait for somebody else to do it, but get in there and try to get in there and try to get it done themselves even at the risk of being wrong and failing.
 

 


On risk, there's a sense some people have that we've become a risk-averse society.  Do you see that as well?

I believe to a greater degree than we ever have been, yes.  I wouldn't go so far to say it's a characteristic, because I see too many signs that it's not.  We are still a people who see a wrong and move to fix it pretty much on our own.  And I can cite examples in recent years that could range from, I don't know, Promise Keepers to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  All about what?  All about people who say, "This is wrong; I'm going to do something to fix it.  I'm going to get out there and I'm going to start something."  Right.  And lo and behold, before you know it other people say, "That's right."  And they join in.  They don't wait for some government bureaucrat to decide things; they do it.  And then in that effort they then re-shape reality and the government then follows.  That's the way it should be.  People should be in the lead.  And that's the way Americans I think still are. 

But we've become more risk averse without any doubt in various ways.  And I believe that part of it is because we've undermined that which was in some ways the greatest source of individual courage.  Individual courage doesn't come I think, at the end of the day, from the thought, "I'm so smart, I know everything, I'm right, I'm strong, I'm well-trained and prepared and all this."  No.  Because most people most of the time don't feel that smart, they don't feel that well trained, they don't feel that prepared for life.  As a matter of fact when they're honest, they feel kind of beaten down by it.  What I think has been the source of the great courage has been that throughout most of American history, there were enough people in our society who didn't believe it all depended on them.  Who could get up every morning and think, "I'm weak, I'm stupid, I don't have what it takes to do this, but God knows what he's doing and I'll just do my best to do what he wants."  And people who had that kind of faith then had the courage to get out and take risks and be wrong, if they were going to be wrong, and leave it in His hands.

I think that that's been critical, and insofar as we've undermined respect for that--I don't know that we've undermined the reality of it, because I still meet an awful lot of people in this country who live that way--but I think we've kind of talked ourselves out of respecting it, and that I think has contributed to this risk-averse mentality.
 

 


Why are you running?

To get this message out.  I think we're in the midst of a great moral crisis.  I think the only way to deal with that crisis is to return to our allegiance to the fundamental principles of the country, and then to apply those principles in each area--starting with the areas of social policy like abortion, going into taxes and everything else--so that we will have the confidence and courage to reclaim our role as citizens who are supposed to control our own destiny in this country.  That's what I'm about.  And we will carry that message everywhere.  And last time around and this, I've told all the people who work with me, we don't run a candidate, we run a message.  To get that truth out, I am the standard bearer, not the standard.  And therefore if I happen to fall somebody else can pick the standard up just as was always the case in…battle.  If you focus on the right thing then you'll always find somebody to do the job as best they can.
 

 


You've been one of President Clinton's harshest critics.  What has he done that's been most damaging in your view?

…He is the moral equivalent of a nuclear holocaust in this country, that's what I think.  I think it's as if, in a moral sense, a huge thermonuclear device went off all over America and did incredible damage to lives, consciences, children, perceptions, decency, shame, all kinds of things that are necessary for moral character.  He hasn't caused our moral crisis, but I think the crisis during his presidency has been probably the clearest symptom of our decline.
 

 

Copyright 1999  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action
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