Editors’ note: The following is adapted from remarks that were delivered at The American Conservative’s annual gala, held on October 7, 2021 in Washington.
The American Conservative magazine is one of the most important publications of our time, and I want to congratulate you on your success and give you my best wishes for many more years.
Many people say Sessions, you were a part of this movement, this new Republican agenda, before anyone else. But that’s really not true. This magazine, The American Conservative, was first, on the major issues that were part of the 2016 election cycle. There’s just no doubt about it. You’ve made a valuable contribution to the public discourse, you’re educating while entertaining, you’re welcoming diverse views, discussing without being disagreeable, and advocating with authenticity for the principles that have made America the greatest, freest, most prosperous and most powerful nation on earth. And now we’ve just got to keep it that way, don’t we?
It was at your founding 19 years ago, when the editors wrote, “We believe conservatism to be the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God. And we believe that true conservatism has a predisposition for the institutions and mores that exist.” The ones that already exist, that have been proven over time.
You’ve talked about a sense of place. I remember when I was in college in the ’60s, it was said that our youth were suffering an identity crisis. And I said, I didn’t have an identity crisis. I knew who I was. I was Jeff Sessions from Hybart, Alabama.
Once, I was on a Senate congressional delegation in Israel, where we met with Ariel Sharon at his home. He explained how important the family home was to him. It provided him with a sense of permanence, family connection, and purpose. I shared with him that Southerners don’t use commercial terms like “farm” or “ranch”—they say “place.” And so, it is “the home place.” The McMurphy Place, the Wooley Place, the Kennedy Place, the Reaves Place—all adjoining for over 100 years. He liked that.
We are surely in a much more mobile world today. But I do think we’ve got to work hard to strengthen a sense of traditional identity and confidence in our people. As a college student, I read Russell Kirk’s book, then known as Enemies of The Permanent Things. And it was just an eye-opener for me to understand the concept of authentic literature, and what is normative and what is abnormal in literature and culture.
Our conservative ethos set us apart from the radicals and the totalitarians who seek power and control and submission from those who don’t agree with them. Their hubris and self-importance lead them to believe that their solutions, their values, their commands are right and just and imperative. Thus, the ends justify the means. But we know without rules and procedures, there is no law. And without the rule of law there is no security, no private property, and no freedom.
The Left’s vision presumes that all customs, all beliefs, and all people that preceded them, are worthy of little or no respect. Conservatism rejects this dangerous pretension.
Our conservatism is not an ideology. It is a cast of mind, a way of looking at the world. It does not seek to impose, but to guide, through freedom, history, experience, and intellectual questioning. The humility of conservatism is rooted in recognizing that we don’t know everything. We ourselves are flawed. We are fallen beings who can and should learn from our forebears, and when we depart from them, we better be darned sure we know what we’re doing.
To us, wisdom comes not from theory but honest experience over centuries in which mankind has tried many things and has found many wanting and has discovered others and has treasured them. That inheritance is not locked away or imposed upon a select few but is diffused among us all, as our traditions and beliefs. Most fortunate we are that generations of our forebears built and nurtured a system rooted in our Constitution that recognizes human weakness and lust for power; that gives common people a voice and the ultimate power in this great republic. With the nation’s intelligentsia and President Biden chasing after wild chimeras, it is indeed good that the people have a veto. They exercised it in 2016. May they do so again.
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So let’s talk about what the American people think about some of the biggest issues facing our country today.
As a teen, I believed in the Republican vision and worked hard over the years to be a faithful team member to advance conservative values. But I began to encounter in the immigration debate some things that worried me a lot. You hear constantly from the media and experts that the American immigration system is broken, because they know the people agree on that. Unfortunately, what they mean is it doesn’t let enough people in, nor does it provide sufficient benefits to those who illegally entered. They say, “Let us reform it, we’ll take care of it, trust us.” But their radical policies, when examined, would be no fix. Rather, they would scrap U.S. sovereignty and sell it for parts.
We saw this in the debate over the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The deal to the people was: We give amnesty to some 3 million people, with a guaranteed pathway to citizenship, and we’ll promise you we’ll fix the illegality in the system sometime in the future. Chuck Grassley, who was there in ’86, said, “I will never agree to that again.” Because the enforcement doesn’t occur. Enforcement is hard and takes sustained effort, which the Left has proven to be able to block. And another amnesty of even more monumental proportions will clearly say to the world, “If you can just get into our country illegally, we’ll have another amnesty for you.” It’s a magnet for increased illegality, and it undermines law.
That is not what the American people wanted when they said that they’d like to reform immigration. Polling finds that 71 percent of Americans oppose unlawful immigration. And for at least two decades, Gallup has found that at least two-thirds of Americans want immigration levels to stay the same or be reduced.
Look, in this country we’re open to immigration. We admit 1.1 million people every year to permanent legal status. We have some 800,000 here on work visas, and more on other visas. We’re one of the most generous countries in the world on immigration. The American people are good and decent. They believe their nation is a sovereign entity, that its borders should be secure, and that our immigration policy should serve the national interest, the people’s interest. In that, they are moral and just and right—and, of course, conservative.
I’ve got to say, President Trump worked on it; we worked on it. The Department of Homeland Security, of course, had the biggest responsibility. And progress was being made. The numbers were down significantly. If continued, control of our borders would have been achieved. Yet in one of the most colossal blunders of public policy in our nation’s history, the Biden administration gave it all away. The situation is far worse now than before. This is a terrible tragedy for America. It’s going to be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle, to move forward toward a lawful system. It can be done, and we learned a lot in the four years of the Trump administration about how to get it done, but it’s not going to be easy. A great nation can’t have open borders when you have a welfare state. We’ve got to control our borders, and the people know it. This next election, many politicians need to suffer. They need to lose their seats as a result of this blunder. Losing power is the one thing these people fear.
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On foreign policy, this magazine from its beginning advocated realism in foreign policy. People are rightly concerned about the endless wars that produce tremendous human and financial costs. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the stated mission transformed from protecting American interests—which I supported—to some sort of vague democratic vision, revealing a Wilsonian naivete about the nature of the world we live in. It’s been a tremendously painful thing for me to watch. I, and other members of the Congress, did not think deeply about what we were doing. As conservatives, we should have asked, “Are you sure this is going to work? How does it end? What’s your goal? How much is it going to cost?” Not enough of those questions were asked effectively. Solid answers were not demanded. This must never happen again. We have high ideals, and we want to be a positive world leader, but we can’t be the world’s policemen. We can’t fix every problem in every place around the globe.
One of the things that bothered me the most, that was such a dramatic failure, was our action in Syria. I remember the Obama administration somehow got it in their head that the “democratic” revolution that was ongoing in Syria, which Assad was about to crush, could win if we supported it, and that Assad could be removed. Then a democratic leader could be elected.
And what happened in Syria? We started supporting the so-called “democratic revolutionaries.” They were quickly taken over by the terrorists, not democratic warriors. I remember in a hearing I asked General Austin, now the Secretary of Defense, who was then in charge of the plan to train the democratic forces in Syria, how many had been trained? And his answer was “seven.” At least he was honest.
Remember, the people of Syria are mostly educated, and the country had a functioning economy. Christians and other minority religions were given a measure of protection by the regime. One could just not cross Assad.
So, what is Syria like today? How did our dream to make Syria a democracy turn out? More than 500,000 Syrians are dead. Millions displaced. They poured into Europe, causing all kinds of turmoil there. Ancient cities are in rubble. The Russians gained more influence than before. And Assad is still in power. Now, how could one possibly not understand the colossal humanitarian disaster that was? Of course, I regret to say, much the same could be said about Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Good intentions” is not enough. A great nation needs leaders and members of Congress who are realistic, whom you can depend on to make good judgments, and who do not commit us, first of all, to actions that do more harm than good.
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The American Conservative has also been a strong voice for smart trade and for protecting the American people’s interests. Of course, free enterprise is fundamental to conservatism. And good trading policies, properly executed, make life better for all. But government leaders time and again support or tolerate trade policies that are detrimental to the people they serve. They are seduced by ideologues and global business interests. They tolerate anti-competitive policies from our trading partners.
Many respond, “America has always been a free trading nation.” No, we haven’t. Have you heard of Hamilton and Washington? The biggest building in Mobile, Alabama, and in seacoast towns all over the United States in the early 1800s, was the customs house, where they collected the tariffs. They balanced pure free trade with the need for American manufacturing.
Now, I’m not saying we need a whole bunch of tariffs. We’d like to have good trading relationships. But you can’t just say, “America will follow the rules but it’s OK if others cheat.” Nor can we say “We’re only going to buy ships from the lowest bidder.” So now the United States can’t produce ships? You expect to be a great nation and can’t produce ships? Can’t have a steel industry? Can’t have an automobile industry? We’re going to have our technology bought up and transferred to an economic competitor that is also a threat to our national security. We want Huawei to run our 5G system in the United States of America? Or China to produce our medicine? At some point, you’ve got to defend security interests as well as the job interests of the American people. A great nation can do no less.
The trade issue crystallized in Congress with the debate over the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. A critical vote succeeded in putting the agreement on a fast track. This fast track would eliminate amendments and the 60-vote requirement when the agreement came for a vote. This agreement was to be followed by a similar Atlantic agreement. The fast track passed 60-38. It was a closed-door vote.
The legislation had the support of President Obama, Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader McConnell, and, of course, Silicon Valley, the Chamber of Commerce, The Cato Institute, and all globalists.
It would have created a union of 12 Pacific nations, with an enforcement commission with each nation having one vote. The President of the United States and the Sultan of Brunei each got one vote. Why would the world’s greatest trading nation and economy place itself in such jeopardy? We hold the power. They all lust for access to our markets.
Before the seemingly inevitable passage, however, candidate Donald Trump started pounding it and promised to withdraw it on day one of his presidency. The people were with him. Support collapsed. Even Hillary Clinton switched and said she was opposed to it. No vote was ever held.
The Trump policy was to negotiate good deals bilaterally, with no enforcement commissions, with either party able to withdraw if things weren’t working. This was a strong America First action.
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A couple other things: Crime. I’ve been as student of the criminal justice system for many years. When Reagan was elected, he was elected in a large part on crime, in case y’all have forgotten. Certainly, many libertarians have. The people were sick of being cowed by criminals and having to put burglar bars on middle class homes. It took about 15 years, but the homicide rate in America, which had more than doubled in the ’60s and ’70s, started going down. It dropped over half by the mid-nineties. Things had gotten so bad, there was actually strong bipartisan support for anti-crime action. So, we made progress, with increased professionalism and more support for law enforcement.
Now, this woke crowd dismisses proven crime policies and wants to defund the police. As Attorney General, I strongly defended the police and law enforcement professionals all over the country and warned the leftists’ strategies would not work. And I predicted that we would see a surge in crime. Protecting the American people is a core responsibility of government. Public safety is particularly important for our minority communities and our poor communities; they’re the ones that are most often victims of crime. And when homicides dropped by over half after Reagan, that was good for everyone, and particularly for our minority communities. That’s government doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
Sadly, the predictable crime surge has been faster and greater than I imagined. It’s been a national catastrophe. It’s going to be so hard to fix this. In truth, the president doesn’t control crime policy; police departments are products of local governments. It is the mayors and city councils of Chicago, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Birmingham, that set policy. Police departments are local things. Eighty-five percent of law officers are state and local, and we want to keep it that way. Yet, this anti-police mindset has spread particularly, in progressive jurisdictions. There was a 29 percent increase nationwide—29 percent!—in homicides from 2019 to 2020. This is the largest single increase since the FBI started collecting data in 1960. There was a 35 percent increase in homicides in the 70 biggest cities—many of which, as you know, are very woke cities. And the estimates are for an additional 20 percent increase on top of that for 2022.
Meanwhile, complying with woke policies, arrests by police fell 25 percent in 2020 alone; they’re down 50 percent in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and a 72 percent decline in stops and searches in Philadelphia, where murders have surged. Police retirements are up 45 percent nationwide since the George Floyd riots. There are huge vacancies in most police departments, and it’s hard to get the talent we used to be able to get, because police officers feel disrespected, not supported, and they know there’s growing danger on the streets.
So the progressives did not listen. For them, their ideology, their vision, must be implemented, no matter the reality. The result has produced a huge cost. Polling shows 93 percent of inner-city residents want more or the same amount of policing. Ninety-three percent. Sixty-eight percent of South Side Chicago residents want more police, not less. Seventy-two percent of African Americans are satisfied with their local police.
Conservative, common sense Americans have opposed these radical progressive actions from the get go. Now the experiment has had its tragic run. The failure is plain for all to see.
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There’s much else we could say, but I’ll just conclude with these thoughts. While these ‘betters’ control so many powerful institutions in our country—government, academia, the media, big business (certain big businesses, at least)—the American people, in their great wisdom, on the issues I’ve just discussed and others, are conservative. They’re realistic. They’ve got common sense. The American people want a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest. They don’t want to see our borders abolished, or our citizenship, or our sovereignty eroded. They want a strong America that acts with restraint, with wisdom, and with realism. This too is right, and it is conservative.
The American people are not against trade, but they want it to be done fairly, and they want our leaders to protect them against cheating. They want the security interests of the United States fully protected. They know we cannot be dependent on hostile powers for essential needs. Americans want to be safe in their homes, on their streets, and in their communities, and they expect government to provide that safety. And Americans treasure their rights, and that of their neighbors, to speak, to believe, and to worship as they see fit.
In all of this, the people have been right. Indeed, the Trump campaign and his policies captured the moment. He showed the way to victory, and his movement terrified the left.
It’s the elites who have been wrong, and they are in the minority. While Madison warned against a tyranny of the majority, our nation is now plagued by a tyranny of the minority. These special interest insiders and radicals intend to suppress the views of the rest of us. That’s why the charge of this magazine, The American Conservative, is so important. The wisdom that our people have accumulated over the years has to be intellectually honed and publicly defended, so that we can win these great battles. This magazine and those gathered here today are doing important work. Without this kind of intellectual effort, conservatives will be outgunned in the battle of ideas and the leftists will continue their dominance throughout our country.
Thank you for the honor of letting me be with you. I appreciate your beliefs and your courage to stand up against this mindset of the left. You’re doing the right thing. It’s not too late. The people are with us. We can prevail.
Jeff Sessions served as attorney general of the United States and a senator from the State of Alabama.