Woodrow Wilson once called British history a continuing thesis against revolution.
So it might be said that American history is a continual warning against confusing theory with reason. Reason may not surface in human affairs as clearly and quickly but, tested by real-life experience at every turn, it may prove far more effective and enduring. Call it a self-correcting system. When government doesn't work, it's changed. Yes, it may take a while, but there's a reason for all those constitutional amendments and landmark Supreme Court decisions that overturn failed policies: Reason itself, which cannot be forever denied.
Listening to the jumble of Republican candidates for president debate the other night, if debate is the right term for that random collection of one-liners, sound bites, cheap shots and even an occasional insight, a rough division between two kinds of prospective leaders began to emerge from the clouds of rhetoric:
In one group were the scattershot demagogues like The Donald, whose candidacy remains more about himself than any challenge facing the country. He's a one-man reality show. Then there are the ideologues like Rand Paul, still selling his neo-isolationism long after its shelf life has expired. It's an old, old delusion, as old as the country itself -- that America can live apart from the rest of the world -- but it wasn't real then and certainly isn't now, no matter how much the Rand Pauls wish it were.
Then there were the voices of candidates as dull as they are reliable. Candidates more interested in solving problems than exploiting them. Once again Ohio's John Kasich emerged as a decent, hard-working, experienced governor who's actually had to make and carry out workable policies. A leader who's had to compromise with others, uniting people instead of forever dividing them, reaching practical compromises rather than yearning for a golden past that never was.
The differences between the Republican candidates were particularly pronounced when the long neglected subject of immigration rose to the fore, and Gov. Kasich joined Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in urging their fellow Americans to finally fix this country's broken immigration "system," which is less a system than an ad-hoc patchwork of uncertainties.
All three of these candidates had the courage -- and practicality -- to advocate some kind of pathway to citizenship for these immigrants who may have come here illegally but over the years have raised their families, worked hard, paid their taxes, obeyed the law and generally been good citizens without being citizens.
Isn't it time, way past time, that Americans adopted a practical approach to this long neglected problem instead of just letting it fester any further? Those of us who believe in practical solutions, which used to be an American specialty (remember?), would surely respond to such a suggestion with an emphatic Yes!
Other societies were supposed to represent the Wave of the Future from deluded time to time because they had a shiny ideology that was supposed to be the answer to every challenge. But somehow they became the wave of the past. (Fascism and communism, for infamous example.) Back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan offered little but the old copybook maxims (be patient, balance the books, respect the law, hold fast to principle, and persist, persist, persist), it was Japan, Inc., that was going to dominate the world's economy. It didn't.
As far back as 1919, Lincoln Steffens visited the still new USSR and came back to establish a long tradition in American journalism and liberalism by declaring, "I have seen the future, and it works." It didn't.
More recently, that popular sage Thomas Friedman of the ever reliable New York Times expressed a yearning for a "one-party autocracy" led by a "reasonably enlightened group of people, as (still Communist) China is today." (Any similarity between Thomas Friedman's slippery grasp of reality and the real world has to be only coincidental.)
In the meantime, the good ship America sails on, adjusting its course to weather every new storm, avoiding simple "solutions" to questions not at all simple. No, such an approach may not work perfectly, but it does work. As all those immigrants still flocking to these shores every year testify.
Lest we forget, there should also be a Democratic candidate for president next year, easy as it is to overlook Hillary (The Inevitable) Clinton. That's not just because of her scandal-pocked personal history but because her party hasn't had a new idea since the 1930s and the New Deal, but only more of the same: more regulation, ever higher taxes, and more beneficiaries of government largesse -- whether they're college students looking to dump their debts or union bosses seeking more power.
Ms. Clinton has confused more-of-the-same-thing with progress. It's not. It's just repetition on an ever bigger, more confusing scale. Examples abound: The simple, one-page Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial from investment banking (a nice name for speculation) back in 1933 was one of the great, practical reforms of American history.
But the combination of President Bill Clinton and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who was all theory and no common sense, proved deadly for such practical, even long-standing reforms. And the country got a whole encyclopedia of confusion instead: the Dodd-Frank bill that no one seems to understand or can even put in final form. "Too big to fail" has been replaced by "too small to succeed," as one little Main Street bank after another has discovered. Even now new bureaucratic monstrosities -- like Obamacare -- are still slowly, painfully emerging. Ill-shapen and ill-considered, they litter the legislative landscape in Washington as America the Practical morphs into becoming America the Theoretical, and hopeless.
Here's hoping the American people will see through all the political nostrums next year and realize that smaller and simpler is better, and that grandiose plans lead only to a failed past -- not the future of a free and practical America.