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Mitch Daniels Isn’t Done Yet


This article by Jack Butler, Novak ’22, originally appeared in National Review. You can find the original article here.

When last I checked in on former Indiana governor and former Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, I was a little disappointed. Not by his sterling career, which I have long admired: The quality of his record — which also includes stints in two White Houses and leadership of other institutions, political and non — is impossible to deny.

My disappointment instead arose from his declining to run for Senate in Indiana in 2024. I understood the choice. Daniels, whom I once had occasion to meet, is perhaps the most spotlight-adverse politician of our age, a characteristic that has somehow not inhibited his political success. He is part of a vanishingly small group of people who seek public office not out of a desire for power but out of a genuine aspiration to help others.

His decision pained me all the more because these are precisely the people we need in public office. His announcement was, moreover, a tantalizing tease of the kind of senator he would have been. Then, later in the year, the closest we can get today to a Calvin Coolidge–style politician teased us further by saying that “America would benefit greatly from the arrival of another ‘great refrainer’” like Coolidge “on the national stage.”

But to my great delight, it appears that Daniels isn’t quite done with his time in public life. Last Tuesday, he gave the Neal B. Freeman Lecture for The Fund for American Studies to an audience of many young people. (I will happily “disclose” what I am proud to share: Neal is a longtime friend of National Review, and I was a 2022–23 Robert Novak Fellow at TFAS.) Daniels’s remarks provide further evidence of his humility and profundity and give us all something to think about as we attempt to make sense of the challenges facing this country.

And there are challenges. Daniels observed that he wrote a book a dozen years ago “that was in essence an ode to the American people,” who are “born to liberty, who can and should be fully free to make our own individual life decisions, and who collectively can combine to make sound judgments about our common future.” Such a people, he believed, “would support the restraint on federal spending and statist expansion.” Alas, in the time since, the nation’s fiscal situation has deteriorated. Few politicians show any interest in doing anything about it. The previous two presidents, and this year’s major contenders, have promised to make it worse. A possible “national catastrophe” caused by “wanton, mindless borrowing” looms. To make things worse: Free-speech and property rights, as well as our national security, have weakened, while our enemies grow stronger.

In the face of such headwinds, Daniels has sought insight from a group he cleverly labels “cyclists”: cultural observers who believe in cyclical theories of history. That is, they hold that there are patterns in history that one can identify and apply to seemingly disparate situations. Some of them — Jim Piereson, Ray Dalio, John Mauldin, Neil Howe — believe that the U.S. today is set for some kind of great disruption. They could be wrong, he granted . . . but they might not be.

In Daniels’s view, historian Arnold Toynbee, the greatest “cyclist” of them all, has identified a pattern for civilizations across the world and throughout history that starkly resembles America’s present situation:

He concluded that their fate was determined by their response to the crises that sooner or later confront any society. And, he claimed, that response and therefore their survival or failure depended on the performance of their elites, their “creative minority,” at the time crisis arrived. The decisive factor, Toynbee wrote, is “the reaction of (those) actors to the ordeal when it comes.”

He spotted a consistent pattern linking the eclipsed civilizations, across the continents and across the ages. A once-energetic leadership minority loses its creative power to move society forward. That leads to a withdrawal of “mimesis” by which he means imitation and acceptance of their norms and leadership, by the majority. That is followed by a “loss of social unity in society as a whole.”

Daniels told his audience that “it is not improbable that your generation will be the one called upon to react to America’s next great ordeal,” if some cyclists are right that it will arrive fairly soon. If so, it will present a great challenge, obviously. Many malicious actors will seek to take advantage of the chaos: the “farm teams” we saw active on various campuses throughout the spring, the slanted journalists, the central-planners — all these and more will seek to exploit the occasion to remake America in their own twisted image.

But it will also present a great opportunity for those who believe in the best of America. A time of great tumult may shake up existing institutions and norms, including those that aren’t working as they ought to and are currently being employed for the benefit of those who reject America’s greatness. It could be a chance for believers in America “to show their fellow Americans that the way back to a successful society is to adapt to this century the principles which made our nation the most successful humanity has ever seen” and “to offer them a vision of the greater freedom to which they are entitled, and a confidence that they can be trusted to exercise that freedom wisely.”

Nobody said it would be easy. Howe’s cyclical theory classifies each succeeding generation as a different type; the current group of young people, loosely defined, would be the “Heroes.” Heroes need to be courageous to rise to the moment, something which is by no means inevitable. Nor is success guaranteed, especially “given the head start and the ruthlessness of the statist opposition,” the decline of patriotism among the young, and the background dysfunction of American politics that is practically all recent generations know. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that would-be heroes must summon the requisite courage from “within”; other institutions and people, however great, cannot provide it.

Of the many stops along Daniels’s career was a stint in the administration of Ronald Reagan. So it is natural for Daniels to turn to Reagan’s remark about the pony being somewhere in the manure, and to counsel optimism. Daniels might also have cited a passage from Reagan’s First Inaugural address: “We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”

Reagan, Daniels reminded us, also applied a useful heuristic to considerations of public office: Some people seek it to be something, others to do something. To an audience he encouraged to enter public service, Daniels stressed the importance of being “a person people can trust,” who lives “up to your own words,” deals “honestly with people,” actually does something one promises to do, and keeps a confidence one is asked to keep. Modern politics may not, at the moment, select for such people. “There’s no question,” in his mind, “that at least the current environment in which we ask people to operate publicly is deterring too many people who I think could serve very, very well and honorably, from doing it at all.” But he is confident that, eventually, it will. “At some point, I think they’ll be sufficient revulsion at the toxic nature of our public discourse that people will demand something else, something better.”

Something, that is, like Mitch Daniels. By Howe’s cyclical theory, Daniels is a “prophet,” a label he demurs at: “Most of my predictions miss the mark badly.” I think he has been a hero as well, and he could have remained one. But if he is content in the prophetic role he appears to have accepted for himself, he is right to continue to believe in this country, to exhort our young to do the same, and to remain engaged in the patient, perennial labor of making and keeping America the best it can be. Those looking for ideas about how to do so have, in him, a ready example.


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