Photo Credit: Inez Stepman
Inez Stepman

Every day, it seems, another statue is defaced or torn down in America. At first, vandals targeted statues of Confederate generals, but now they’re destroying statues of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson too.

Many Americans find this development bewildering. Where does such blatant disrespect and hatred for this country’s founders derive? Some conservative thinkers, however, have long warned that this day would arrive. Allow radical leftists to control American education long enough, and you’ll see the rise of a generation of Americans who despise their country, they said.

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In March, The Jewish Press attended the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference in Washington, DC, and was impressed by the remarks of Inez Stepman, a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum and a senior contributor to The Federalist. The Jewish Press interviewed her shortly afterward but did not publish the interview due to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which drew people’s attention to more pressing matters.

With the pandemic winding down, though, and with the vandalization of America’s statues in the news, we thought it appropriate to publish the interview now.

The Jewish Press: At the CPAC conference, you said there’s something very wrong with Republicans if their main accomplishment during the two years they controlled both houses of Congress – 2016-2018 – was lowering taxes rather than addressing the left’s stranglehold on the university system. Can you elaborate?

Stepman: I like tax cuts as much as anyone, but I don’t think using your political capital to pass tax cuts when you control both houses of Congress and the presidency reflects an understanding of where we are right now as a country.

The Republican Party acted as though it were 1961 when there was broad agreement in this country on fundamental questions. Tax cuts won’t save us this late in the game. Republicans and conservatives need to think about how they can change the trajectory of the culture, which is rushing to the left so quickly that we can barely keep up.

Regarding what topics was there broad agreement in 1961?

That the principles of the founding were good. We can disagree about how to apply those principles – and, in fact, the great success of the civil rights movement was calling on that “promissory note” of the founding and saying, “You have yet to fulfill the promises that were laid down at the beginning of this country.”

[But today, many on the left] say that the country was broken from the beginning – that its founding documents and principles are merely a reflection of racist hatred and power. Essentially. the argument of the 1619 Project is that our founding principles never applied to black Americans – or Americans whose heritage isn’t the same as the founders – and never will presumably.

That’s a recipe for ongoing hatred between citizens. And it’s particularly dangerous in a country like America that has always been multi-ethnic. I am second to no one in disliking President Wilson, but Wilson always recalled the founding in his rhetoric. FDR did as well – in a positive sense.

All politicians – even those of the left – drew upon a common understanding and then tried to say why their policies were a fulfillment of it. Now, we have a new left that essentially says, “We don’t want to be a fulfillment of it. The thing was rotten from the beginning.”

What’s the 1619 Project?

It’s a series of essays published by the New York Times detailing how the real founding of America is – not 1776 – but 1619, the year the first African slave was brought to America’s shores. It takes direct aim at the idea that the American founding was good.

The 1619 Project has been criticized by socialist historians, liberal historians, and conservative historians. There’s virtually no serious historian who thinks it doesn’t have serious factual problems. But it’s already being taught in 3,500 schools across America, and my guess is that number will go up dramatically.

You also noted at CPAC that Ronald Reagan said one of his biggest regrets was not institutionalizing the patriotism of the 1980s. What did he mean by that?

The Reagan administration obviously had many achievements, not the least of which was bringing down the Soviet Union. But in terms of domestic policy, I would say it was a failure in the long term.

Republicans still have yet to cut any cabinet-level agency; administrative state agencies have all grown in both power and boldness; spending is up; and of course on cultural issues [the country has moved to the left] to the point that today it’s considered controversial to say there are two biological sexes and that differences exist between them.

Reagan [addressed the shift] in his farewell address – which I think everybody should read. In that speech, he notes that when he was growing up, children received their patriotism from the “ether” – the general culture. If you didn’t get it from your family, you got it from your school, and if you didn’t get it from your school, you got it from watching movies.

You got the message either subtly or not so subtly that America was a great country, that its founding made it great and unique in the history of nations, and that we are part of that American project.

Reagan points out, though, that kids growing up in 1989 were no longer really receiving this kind of education because the family had broken down considerably since his childhood. Divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birthrates were much higher, and schools already were turning away from the traditional civics education and core knowledge that had been considered basic for centuries. Hollywood of course was also moving in a more explicitly anti-American direction.

Reagan’s solution was discussing these issues around the dinner table, but it seems to me that this solution has long outlived its usefulness. We are now in a much more critical period where we need to think about what our K-12 schools are teaching. The challenge of our time is how to win [the culture] battles, and that should be the priority of the conservative movement – because if we don’t win these cultural battles [we will lose the country].

Virtually all of academia and Hollywood is controlled by leftists. Yet, conservatives scramble to get into places like Harvard University and beg movie houses to feature one or two conservative films a year. At this point, wouldn’t it be wiser to ignore mainstream culture and create an alternative one – a conservative Harvard, a conservative Warner Bros., a conservative elementary school system, etc.?

The thing that’s missing from your analysis is the fact that the taxpayer is heavily subsidizing the leftist system. We currently spend $700 billion on education. That means that families who pull their kids out of school are double taxed, so that’s only an option for a small number of people.

About 10-12 percent of the country sends their kids to private schools or homeschools them. That means 88-90 percent of students are attending public school. Those are numbers that I don’t think you can [work your way around by creating your own schools].

You are graduating a generation where 9 out of 10 have gone through government schools that are increasingly teaching leftist indoctrination. To think you can keep your 10 percent of free schools when 90 percent of kids are learning that there are no differences between men and women – and it’s bigotry to think there are – is unrealistic.

So what do you advise?

I think it’s essentially a matter of survival for the right to get parents their share of the enormous amount of money we spend on K-12 education and to be able to direct it to schools that actually are harmonious with the values they want to teach their children – because if it remains 90-10, the 10 percent will go away really quickly.

We see this happening already. School choice programs in Florida, Maryland, and Montana are all under attack. Why? It’s actually not the teacher unions. The most pernicious and successful line of attack is that taxpayer dollars are being given to schools that “discriminate.” And what do they mean by discriminate? They have boys and girls bathrooms.

How about universities?

Universities are different. In some sense, it’s simpler, although it requires a certain amount of political courage. The lifeblood of the entire university system is student loans backed by the federal government, so the taxpayer directly holds all of these checks.

Conservatives should be asking themselves: “Why are we subsidizing an enormous university sector when only 1.5 percent of university faculty at places like Harvard University is conservative and where many of the ideas we are now struggling against originated?”

It’s not clear to me why a mechanic in an auto shop should be subsidizing the Women’s Studies degree of a wealthy child at Brown University. But that’s exactly what our system does. So the solution is to first freeze and then draw down the student loans.

Going back to K-12 education: How would school choice solve the problems you mentioned?

Every state has a formula that assigns a dollar amount per year to every student in the system. [Many school choice proponents propose] giving that dollar amount to parents instead. They’re called education savings accounts. You put that money – which is an average of $15,000 per student right now – into a bank account that can only be used for education and the parent can use that money anywhere he or she chooses.

Some states already do this for a portion of their population. Arizona is probably the leader. To make a difference, though, in terms of the ideas we’re talking about, it would have to be available to middle-class families as well. All parents should be able to choose where those dollars go. Conservatives are taxpayers too. We deserve to have access to taxpayer dollars just as much as the left does.

How would having access to this money help?

Because the public education system right now doesn’t care if parents are unhappy about what they’re teaching. They get their money either way. The only way that’s going to change is when parents can walk away. In my very liberal hometown of Palo Alto, 1,600 parents were upset with [a certain] curriculum being taught there [that they found morally inappropriate] – so you can imagine how left-wing it must have been – and signed a petition to prevent the curriculum from going into place.

Guess what? It went into place anyway because parents have very little power – even affluent parents in a very wealthy suburb. That would change, though, if those parents had $15,000 [in an education account that they could threaten to spend at a different school]. All of a sudden, the district would have way more incentive to listen to parents.

Last question: Why do you have a dog named after an 18th-century Polish hero?

[Laughs] It’s actually a cat. My family is Polish, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko was a hero who came over and helped us fight the Revolutionary War, so we named our cat after him as a small tribute.

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