You told me that in a class of yours, the question was posed- what is the greatest threat to the United States of America today, the biggest issue? You answered, “foreign policy,” implying that the decaying strategic situation around the globe poses the biggest threat to our republic.
I would both agree and disagree.
In my view, the biggest threat to America- both the physical polity and the cultural way of life- is not any combination of outside powers or even the global situation as a whole. Rather, the thing most dangerous to us is our own inability to handle and manage the global situation- our greatest weakness is our weakness. If a crisis with the proportions of 1812, 1861, 1917, 1941, or 1945 beckoned, we would be unable cope. That weakness is the single greatest threat to the Republic and to the American Way of Life.
American strategic weakness is a multifaceted problem whose components are internal. It boils down to this- Our governing institutions have grown dysfunctional, preventing meaningful strategic action. We are unable to reform our institutions of governance into something modern and functional because of an entrenched plutocratic elite interested in maintaining the system as it currently stands. And we do not have the will to take on the plutocracy or reform the bureaucracy because culturally, we have lost our sense of national identity, mission, and purpose.
Institutional dysfunction, elite decadence, cultural malaise- these three factors combine to preclude our leaders from being able to articulate strategic goals and carry them out. The military, economic, and political levers of power are there, but they are stalled and sluggish because our system is in disarray and, at the moment, unreformable.
We are dying of decadence, and that is weakening us against the prowling threats abroad. Should another crisis flash in the Old World, another World War or Cold War, we would be unable to respond quickly, and at the moment we are unable to prepare for such an event. We have some of the tools we need to manage crises; we just don’t have the system to operate those tools, or, frankly, the wisdom and craft to use them properly.
Shocks to the system usually fix this strategic dearth. If a nuclear weapon detonated in a major U.S. city, if Russian tanks rolled into Poland, if Chinese fleets drove American ships from the South China Sea, we would spring to action. The Arsenal of Democracy would get humming again, and with crisis on our hands, we’d rediscover that the first purpose of government is keeping the nation safe.
But let’s not have that happen. It’s imperative that reformers and nationalists with the true interests of their country at heart articulate and bring to the public discourse a new creed- a creed composed of innovative new governing methods, prudent checks on the power of the elite, and a new sense of national purpose- to steer our country through the difficult times just ahead. We have not seen the worst of human nature, and we need the tools, system, and mindset to bear through the worst.
I’ve written elsewhere about what, precisely, this new nationalism would look like in various fields. Essentially, it would be a government and civil society capable of marshaling America’s cultural and economic resources in the service of key and discrete strategic ends. Think the war efforts of Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Cold War presidents. Mass production in the homeland, technological innovation, gargantuan public projects, a civic identity- all this contributed to the war efforts, and to the general prosperity of the republic in each case. And in each case, the crisis made the country better than it had been before.
We know crisis is on the horizon. It is imperative that we prepare ourselves before it comes, rather than after it hits us. Our greatest weakness is that we are not doing so- and that is the greatest threat to the republic.
Picture this. The year is 2032, and the unthinkable has happened. The United States, an imperfect union for over two and a half centuries, has splintered along cultural and regional lines. The election of President Nathaniel Haas was the last straw in a long line of triggers that defined the conflicts of the Partisan Age of 2007-2032. Increasing plutocratic capture of government and worsening bureaucratic stagnation, rising militant populism on the left and right and in the urban jungles and rural hinterlands, the elite’s increasing disconnect from the masses of the American people and hyperpartisanship among itself, the loss of a coherent and inclusive national identity, and the flourishing of rival economic elites in different regions of the country weakened America over two and a half decades. Four powerful fragments have arisen, and none trusts the others.
The National Bloc, led by the remnants of the Federal government in DC and buttressed by the New York-Philadelphia-Boston elite, controls the territory from New England to the Potomac, west to the Appalachian Mountains. The Midwest Bloc, controlled by the state governments of Illinois and Ohio and based in Chicago, rules the Great Lakes region out towards the Great Plains. The Southern Bloc, commanded by Texas, dominates Dixie and extends its influence north to Kansas. And the Western Bloc, led by California, holds influence along the West Coast into the interior. None of these blocs are formal polities- they are the skeletal remains of the most powerful state governments, bound together by informal treaties and agreements for survival. Dozens of smaller states and city-states dot the land, while the Mexican and Canadian governments are shadows of their former selves. New England, California, Texas, and Illinois now vie for influence on the American continent while predatory empires in the Old World extend their tentacles back to territory formerly guarded by the Monroe Doctrine. Hamilton’s and Lincoln’s deepest fears have come true.
You are the chief economic advisor to Governor Alexander Pinto of California, now one of the most powerful figures in the New World. Your task is to advise him on the proper course to navigate through these tumultuous times.
There are three main imperatives for the government of the new Republic of California- maintain territorial integrity, maintain political autonomy, and ensure a high standard of living for the 50 million Californians living within the state’s borders. A secure, unified, independent, prosperous California capable of defending and asserting itself in a dangerous world is the goal. Getting there- and keeping us there- will not be easy. These are strategic goals few countries have ever managed to fully meet, and California has no history of accomplishing them on its own. We need strategists, and we need them fast.
There are two main baskets of imperatives that will inform strategy moving forward: Geopolitics, and Strategic Economics. They are interrelated, but distinct enough to be examined separately.
The Geopolitics of California
In order to maintain territorial integrity, political autonomy, and a high standard of living, the Californian state must maintain secure borders and buffer zones, command resources capable of supplying a decent military, and control the resources necessary to support a mass middle class. To do this, we must identify the core of what must be defended, and expand outward from there.
The Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area form the population centers and economic hubs of California. These two regions are California’s geopolitical cores- they must be defended at all costs. It’s unwieldy for a nation to have two separate geopolitical cores- for one thing, it creates rival power centers that might sew internal dissension- but it’s the fundamental reality of Californian geopolitics. If ever both came under severe threat, the Californian government would have to choose which to defend more fiercely, and in which to invest more resources. That choice would be contingent on which was more strategically relevant- a judgment which could go either way at this point. Additionally, should internal dissension ever threaten to split California along a North-South axis, the whole project would be finished. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to solidify the bonds between the L.A. Basin and the Bay Area so far as possible, to quell internal conflict.
Aside from beefing up both cores and tightening the bonds between them, Californian strategists need to consider food, water, and energy. California needs a secure water source, and the current use of Sierran rivers is not sufficient. Absent desalination, the two closest reliable water sources are the Colorado and Columbia Rivers, both of which are far removed from California’s population centers. But they would have to be secured, somehow. As for food, the Central Valley is capable of feeding California’s 50 millions with extra for export. It must be defended, too. And if California is unable to make renewable energy work and unwilling to build a fleet of nuclear plants, it still has enough natural gas and oil in the Monterey Shale and off the coast to fulfill its needs for decades. These areas must be defended, too.
So out from the inner cores, there is an outer core region crucial to California’s autonomy- the region stretching from the Columbia River in the North to the Colorado River in the East, to the Central Valley and the Gold Coast in the West. These are all strategically significant, though less so than the inner cores.
To defend all this, two perimeters must be made- one specifically to defend the LA Basin-Bay Area axis, and one to defend the resources and hinterlands securing that axis. Two additional perimeters beyond those must be made- a naval perimeter to protect the coast from naval raids and invasions, and an additional forward perimeter in the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada to serve as a first line of defense against Texas, the Midwest, and the National Bloc.
The primary perimeter that must be defended stretches in an arc from the Siskiyou Mountains around Mount Shasta down the Sierra Nevada Chain to San Diego. It includes coastal fortifications and naval defense. Should the other perimeters be penetrated by invading forces, these are the geopolitical barriers that must be defended at all costs to preclude an invasion of the homeland.
The secondary perimeter stretches roughly from Mount Rainier in the North, South through the Great Basin, and into the Rockies of Arizona. This perimeter defends the lengths of the Columbia and Colorado Rivers significant to Californian water needs.
The naval perimeter would necessarily be far more extensive. California would have to extend a naval presence North at least to Puget Sound and South at least to the Panama Canal, to preclude those harbors from being used as basing areas against the Californian homeland. And the naval perimeter would most likely have to extend West into the Pacific all the way to Hawaii, to deny that strategic island chain to any potential aggressors. This would grant California de facto command of the Northeastern Pacific Ocean, a feat of great magnitude. It would allow the California coastline several layers of defense against raids.
The final continental perimeter would start at the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and extend North to the Canadian Rockies and South to the mountains of Mexico. This would be primarily an early warning system, a continental first line of defense. It wouldn’t have to be heavily defended, but it would still need to be stocked.
All four of these perimeters would need to be secured fortified, manned, and supplied in varying degrees, particularly the secondary continental perimeter in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and the naval perimeter in the Pacific Ocean. This feat would require massive and sophisticated land, naval, and diplomatic capabilities. The borders could either be physically fortified and staffed with Californian troops, or treaties could be made with smaller polities like the city-state of Las Vegas or the State of Washington. Ports and fueling stations would have to be established across the Pacific. It’s probably best to have a combination of diplomatic and military levers to secure each line of defense, to maximize their security.
And naturally, this strategic endeavor would require California to marshal immense resources to build and maintain the weapons, train and feed the troops and diplomats, and generally supply the strategic effort long into the future. That means that California’s domestic economic policy cannot be based on a Hayekian respect for liberty or a Keynesian passion for stability- it rather must be guided with California’s strategic requirements and imperatives in mind. The chief economic advisor to the Governor is less a Treasury Secretary and more a Quartermaster. His trade is not simply economics- it is Strategic Economics.
The Strategic Economics of California
In order to meet its geopolitical imperatives, California should examine how the United States achieved its geopolitical imperatives in the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War. It will find that in each case, the United States government marshaled the resources of the economy to the strategic effort and the war effort, through Hamiltonian means. Massive infrastructure projects, government partnerships with key industries, technological innovation, stable central finance, and targeted education helped turn the American economy into a sort of “Forge of the Republic,” capable of supplying American forces in the field for years at a time. This, and not any particular military genius, is what led the United States to victory over its foes in every case. As Omar Bradley had it, the professionals were thinking logistics while the amateurs were thinking tactics.
So what does California need to do to supply its forces in this terrifying future?
After the force estimates and strategic requirements have been established, no time should be lost in maximizing California’s productivity through strategic investments and the fostering of a better business climate. Key resources and assets should be identified. Goals should be set, and economic strategy should be carried out with military-political strategy in mind.
So let’s look at California’s economic assets.
First off, the geopolitical cores- Los Angeles and the Bay Area. These are massive economic hubs with respectable industries. Los Angeles is a hub for shipping, heavy manufacturing, and aerospace, and may soon possibly be a major energy producer. The Bay Area is a hub for education, information technology and cybersecurity, medicine, and biotechnology. Both are major financial centers. And both have elements of the other’s economy- there is major shipping in the Bay Area, and the LA Area has its own share of tech companies. These industries should be supported- the government should partner with them to accomplish key technological and production goals, like complete cybersecurity, a sizable navy, and next-generation energy technology. The regulatory and tax climate should be relaxed enough to allow them to attain their full effectiveness. It is these industries that will drive the Californian economy and support the Californian strategic effort. But the resources that fuel them must come from somewhere.
In particular, the populations of the Bay Area and Los Angeles must be fed adequately. This can be done using the farmland of the Central Valley, but that should be augmented by technology and improved techniques as much as is feasible. Industrial agriculture and GMO’s can potentially triple the food yield of the Central Valley, and because of the sheer possibility of crisis, we should make sure that California can produce more than enough food to feed itself.
Farms and people need water, and as has been noted, the rivers of the Valley and the Sierras are insufficient to water all of California’s agricultural and human needs. Having secured the Columbia and Colorado Rivers, California should build new pipeline networks to deliver their water to the homeland. But there is another option that can potentially eliminate the state’s reliance on outside water sources, and help it consolidate its resources over a smaller geographic area. California should build a desalination plant fleet along the Pacific Coast, watering its citizens and farms using desalinated seawater rather than river water. The ocean will never run out of water, and using it as a source will enable the state to consolidate its resources.
But desalination, as well as intensive agriculture, requires power, as do all the strategic industries based in the hubs and as does the well-being of a mass middle class. Power must be plentiful and cheaply available, and shortages are intolerable. Renewable energy from solar and wind farms aren’t going to serve our purposes, and our oil and natural gas reserves will all run out someday. The state should invest in the construction of a fleet of nuclear plants, which can provide cheap and plentiful power veritably forever. It would be an expensive upfront cost, but it would truly make California energy-secure and serve our strategic interests.
Finally, California is a state that has been blessed with significant reserves of natural resources, from soil to water to minerals to timber fossil fuels to fish to everything in between. Uninhibited exploitation will waste these and render them useless to the strategic effort. A conservation regime ought to be established, and the resources protected by the state. Private ownership of certain resources, particularly forests and fisheries, may lead to better conservation practice if the right incentives are put in place. Overall, public-private partnership is the best way to manage California’s resources.
There are five general baskets of Hamiltonian economic policies California should follow to achieve these goals, alongside basic institutional reform to make the state government leaner and more solvent than it has been in generations.
First off, massive infrastructure funding. Infrastructure like improved highways and railroads and ports, water pipelines, nuclear and desalination plants, and better internet access can smooth the flow of people, ideas, and goods, while simultaneously uniting the disparate interests and identities of Californians from various regions. A significant section of the state budget should be set aside for this investment, and a state strategic infrastructure board should be convened, probably in tandem with economic and military planners.
Second off, public-private partnerships with key strategic industries. California’s government should target industries like the aerospace, tech, and heavy manufacturing industries that will be necessary for supplying the strategic effort, and work with them towards key strategic goals. These goals can include certain production quotas, new technologies, and the application of current technologies to particular problems. The government should make life easy for these industries and companies, too, through favorable tax and regulatory policy, easy access to grants and loans, and acting as a customer for companies whose products have an otherwise low demand in the private sector. This is Hamiltonianism at its finest.
Thirdly, massive technological innovation funding. California contains at least five major research universities- Cal Tech, UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Berkeley- and several major research labs, including the Lawrence Livermore Labs and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It also has several military testing grounds out in the Mojave Desert. These assets should be used to their fullest extent, and Hamiltonian public-private partnerships and innovation spending should be used to attain key technological goals. Some of these goals might include complete cybersecurity, A2/AD missile technology, advanced nuclear power, better medicine, automation, advanced GMO’s, advanced desalination, and more. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what technologies are going to change the face of the game, but the California government indeed has a crucial role in finding them. This is how we keep our edge over our rivals.
Fourth, stable central finance. The state of California should establish a State Bank and centrally regulate finance in order to keep the state’s credit high to encourage investment, and to keep the state markets stable enough to be predictable.
Fifth, targeted education. The high-skilled industries that technological innovation abets will require a new class of highly-skilled workers, and California’s public-private education system- from K-12 through community college and university through graduate programs- should focus on training the workers and thinkers we need to man this economy, which will be diverse enough that there can be any number of specialists across various fields. We need to increase our education funding and ensure that it is spent wisely and strategically, in the interest of crafting the best citizens, making the most opportunities for students to pursue useful careers they love, and strengthening the complex economy of the state.
Finally, there’s a host of housekeeping duties. California has been notoriously bad at keeping itself in order, and it reflects in public policies that erode order and waste money. The state debt should be paid off, though it might be used as a source of growth in true Hamiltonian fashion. Pensions and entitlements must be reformed and made sustainable. The tax and regulatory climate needs to be more conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship. Immigration policy needs to include secure borders, tough laws, and generous openings- especially given that citizens of other states and countries may pour into California fleeing chaos and seeking opportunity. And the state’s dysfunctional constitution is long overdue for a rehashing and reformation. Just as good infrastructure is conducive to fluidity, so are good institutions.
This raft of Hamiltonian economic policies is the best way for California to make use of its excellent geopolitical situation and natural resources. But incidentally, it is also this series of policies that will provide the most opportunities for upward mobility and middle-class life for Californians 50 million citizens and the millions more outsiders who will undoubtedly join them. A look at the American economy after any major power war or period of strategic competition, when the United States practiced strategic economic policies similar to these, reveals the mass economic growth and opportunity that accompanies strategic economics.
Now clearly, the United States of America is not about to fall apart, California is not about to be thrust into a life-and-death struggle for survival, and Hamiltonian economic policies will not be the only logical way forward. But even so, California should implement Hamiltonian policies and act as though it were about to enter a period of intense strategic competition, because by preparing itself for war, a state ensures itself a better peace.
A long time ago, my family moved from Seattle to Virginia right before my senior year of high school. I lost what was then the world to me- social life, cadres of friends, organizations I had been institutionalized into, my first girlfriend, all the beauty of the great state of Washington- and I was torn to bits. This was some time after I had begun to suffer from GAD, OCD, and BPD seriously (those make you anxious, obsessive, self-loathing, and depressed) and the shock and trauma of the move exacerbated all those feelings. I sunk into a deep depression and resolved to hate everything I could about Virginia, and just have a miserable time.
It was then, in the darkest of times and the deepest of depths I had ever experienced, that I had the most important dream I’ve ever had. I was sleeping in Uncle Bill and Aunt Neri’s antiquarian basement with the stacks of strategy books and ancient maritime instruments, and my swirling thoughts consolidated themselves into something like this:
All my friends in Washington State were out doing commando stuff, running through the forests and enjoying life. I, meanwhile, had been chained to a rock, and I cried out in despair- I could no longer enjoy life with my friends, and I was forever condemned to suffer on this boulder.
But I noticed that I had a fellow traveler. None other than George Washington himself had been chained next to me. With cool, placid indifference, he calmed me down, and we began a conversation. And I learned.
My interpretation of this dream has generally gone like this: when you lose all the great things in life and sink into hopelessness and despair, other opportunities open themselves up to you, even better opportunities than you could have imagined previously. And in my case, the darkness and misery of the move prompted a hunger for greatness and learning on my part- thus I began my journey to study my own brand of liberal political realism with the greats of American history, and found my life’s purpose. Heck, I was even living within a short drive of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. I suffered, and I grew.
I remember this little dream of mine whenever the darkness closes in around me. I’m still on my journey of finding George Washington, and I find new life missions periodically to add to my list. Reviving the Centrist-Reformist-Nationalist tradition in American politics, becoming an intellectual and political leader in the state of California, and serving my country have all gotten onto the list since the time I was first chained next to the father of our country. And the dark times have intensified and multiplied since then, too. I’ve had an interesting life so far.
Let’s see where you’ll take me next, President Washington.
In most studies of government, too much attention is paid to process, and too little is paid to power. As Isaiah Berlin notes in his splendid essay The Originality of Machiavelli, Old Nick’s greatest gift to the study of politics was a cold-eyed look at the realities of power as the fundamental factor in observing political life. Institutions and processes have their effects, too, in organizing that power- but fundamentally politics is not about how power is distributed so much as it is about who is in charge. Know who’s in the ruling class, and you’ll know their interests and values, and what they’re most likely to do with that power. As James Burnham notes in The Machiavellians, political study ought to focus, then, on the ruling class. And focusing on class structures and their influence on politics makes politics no longer solely the domain of political “scientists” and theorists or Shakespearian dramatists- it requires one to turn to economics, sociology, and anthropology. One must not only understand man in the abstract and the shape of institutions to understand the politics of any nation. One must also know the values and traditions of the rulers, have a feel for their economic interests, and have a grasp on how power is constructed and maintained in any particular society. Only in the fertile context of man as he actually is- a complex, multifaceted creature- can political choice and political power be truly understood. Politics ought to be, therefore, a holistic study of the ruling class of any nation.
In the context of the United States of 2015, this means looking at a couple different strata of power structures and social groupings. Wherever power is consolidated, there is political influence, and wherever multiple poles of power are balanced against each other, there is tension and usually conflict. The United States is somewhat unique among civilizations (but not among republics) in that the governing elite is formally separate from the cultural and economic elites. But informally, the three sorts of elites are in cahoots with each other, as is natural- the economic and cultural elites form the foundation of the political elites’ power (though the political elites claim the Constitution or the American people as that source) and the political elites augment the influence and forward the interests of the economic and cultural elites. Power centers align into blocs, coalitions of sorts, and compete with each other for influence.
However, the cultural and economic elites do not exist alone- they depend on the favor and interest of broader swathes of non-elite citizens for their power and influence. Aside from the cultural and economic elites, there are economic classes and cultural identities that are in some ways dependent on those elites. In turn, the elites rely on these masses for their legitimacy. Given that America is culturally egalitarian and democratic, the opinions and interests of the masses count far more for influencing the political process than in other countries and societies. This doesn’t mean that the people rule, in any way- it merely means that the Hollywood moguls and Texas oiligarchs are required to be more sensitive to the needs of their corresponding classes and identities than their counterparts in, say, Russia or Saudi Arabia. The same is true of America’s governing elite, which is why modern American politics seems to be so mindlessly driven by opinion polls.
Now that the basic picture has been sketched out, let’s take a look at some of the actual political manifestations. There are at least four governing elites that cycle in and out of power in the various state and national offices. Beneath them, the real power (though not the real decision-making) lies with the economic and cultural elites, in about equal proportion. And those economic and cultural elites tend to various economic classes and cultural identities, whose shifts and evolutions are the study of economists and demographers.
The four governing elites in this country are the Republican Establishment, the Democratic Establishment, the Conservative Insurgency, and the Progressive Insurgency. Mainline Republicans like Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Boehner generally work with the interests of the manufacturing/energy/shipping elite and Wall Street in mind. Republicans like Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump form a sort of populist Conservative Insurgency premised on smaller government, lower taxes, and conservative social policy to degrees the Republican Establishment does not dare tread. The Democratic Establishment includes such figures as Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Al Gore, Chuck Schumer, and Harry Reid, and generally works with the media elite, the federal bureaucracy, Wall Street, and Hollywood. Populist Progressive Insurgents like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders run an ongoing fight against money in politics, climate change, and inequality.
Clearly, the Republican and Democratic Establishments hold significantly more power among the cultural and economic elites than do the populist Conservative and Progressive Insurgencies, but the insurgencies have a kind of popular power that the establishment lacks. This doesn’t translate into true policymaking power, but it does reveal a profound lack of legitimacy and trust between the public, the economic and cultural elites, and the ruling governing elites. This kind of tension can only truly be resolved by shifts in power and the imposition of new institutions.
Under the decadent Republican and Democratic Establishments are a host of other power centers, most located far outside the Beltway. (That’s one of the unique things about American politics- rather than all of the elites being concentrated in the capital, they’re dispersed across the entirety of the American continent.) These are the economic and cultural elites.
The most powerful of the economic elites is, and has been for decades, Wall Street. The financial power of the American banking and banking service industry is overwhelming, and forms the core of the Democratic and Republican Parties’ power. Wall Street is split- it doesn’t uniformly support either party- but the massive amounts of capital the banks are able to marshal strongly augment their political power and their attractiveness to the governing elites.
The Democratic Establishment also has the support of the Silicon Valley tech elite, shepherds of a rising sector whose innovations are transforming the American economy. The Silicon Valley elite is not uniformly liberal, however, and their libertarian economic tendencies have led Republican operators to woo them in recent years. More solidly behind the Democrats is the Hollywood cultural elite, for obvious reasons, and generally the federal bureaucracy- what James Burnham might call the “managerial elite”- works with the Democratic Party, too. Finally, the academic cultural elite tends to lean in favor of the Democrats.
The Republicans, on the other hand, generally command the loyalty of what might be called the Industrial elite- the major corporations dealing in energy, manufacturing, shipping, and other “hard” services. Republicans also have the support of the Christian Right cultural elite, which maintains significant power over the hearts and minds of many Americans (though not quite as many as does Hollywood.) The longevity of the Republican Party is testimony to the sheer mass appeal the Industrial elite and Christian Right have among large segments of the American population.
These elites are not static or uniform- they include many dissidents and politically uninvolved, and none has a formal relationship with either major party. But they do exist, they do generally seek to influence the political process in favor of their particular interests, and they do hold the real power in American political life, setting the agendas and debates that political actors in the governing elites then carry out. The coalitions are not at all entirely stable, and are riven by fissures and conflicts. But generally, those wishing to have influence in American public life must have friends in high places, and those high places tend to be in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the corporate offices of a few dozen major corporations of all sorts. That’s just how power works.
But it is not only conscious elites who hold influence in American politics. The large masses of people, divided into economic and cultural groupings, are the titans whose lumbering shifts alter the actions and mentalities of the economic and cultural elites and elected officeholders. After all, the members of these elites fundamentally came from cultural and economic groupings themselves, and shaped their worldviews and interests. Therefore, it’s important to understand the class and cultural structures of American society to understand its politics.
Economically, there are large proportions of the population that make their living off of jobs stewarded by the various economic elites. White collar business services, blue collar labor, and personal services are among the largest employment sectors in American life, and at the moment, the lower middle class and middle class tend to align with the Republican Party and its elites, while the educated upper middle class and the poor tend to align with the Democratic Party. There are differences, of course, and among the very rich loyalty is much more evenly split. But class politics is nonetheless important to understand to get a sense of how economic distribution affects policymaking.
Perhaps more important are the cultural groupings and differences across American society. Historian David Hackett Fischer identifies four original cultural tendencies- Yankee, Cavalier, Scots-Irish, and Quaker- and three newer ones- American Hispanics, New York Dutch culture, and Inland Western Mormon culture. Colin Woodard argues that these cultures and a few more are distinct enough to be considered separate cultural nations, while Michael Barone traces the migrations of various immigrant groups and original settlers to observe their dispersion across the country. The details of which cultural groups actually exist, and their geographic distribution at the moment, are not important for this essay- what is important is the fact that there are many diverse regional cultures in the United States, oftentimes served by the various economic and cultural elites, and that these cultural groupings will not be reconciled anytime soon.
Generally, at least three tendencies are important for national politics- the highly moralistic and collectivistic Yankee culture, concentrated on the West Coast, on the Northern Tier, and in New England and New York, with additional influence in every major urban area; the highly individualistic and traditionalist Scots-Irish culture, which permeates the American South and West and rural areas in every state; and the temperamentally “moderate” Quaker/Midlander culture, which is more suburban than the Scots-Irish or Yankees and which is concentrated in the middle tier of states from New Jersey to Iowa. There are many more cultural groups and subgroups of political significance- including Latinos, urban Blacks, rural Blacks, the last remnants of the Cavaliers, and more- but generally, the Democrats get the votes of the urban Yankees, the Republicans get the votes of the rural Scots-Irish, and both parties squabble over the moderate Quakers.
The economic and cultural elites have influence over these cultural groupings, too. As is to be expected, the elites favoring Democrats tend to have more influence over urban Yankees, while the elites favoring Republicans influence rural Scots-Irish. But the reality is more complex than this simple dichotomy, and warrants a study beyond the scope of this essay.
Looking forward, what can we expect?
Elite coalitions and political parties evolve over time, as do class structures and regional cultures. It should not be expected that at the end of this current era of instability, something completely new emerges- though it is likely that whatever the reality of the American political situation is in 2030 or 2040, it will be some different combination of the current trends, with some elites gone and some elites arisen.
It appears that if major conflict is to break out again, it will be a populist uprising rather than a true political split- our two political elites in power are too closely aligned to fight each other, and both take money from Wall Street. There is no truly pressing crisis of the union like that of 1820-1865. However, the fact that larger and larger proportions of the American population feel increasingly out of touch with their elites, and that populist movements get more powerful with every passing year, suggests that the next major conflict and realignment will be a populist-vs.-elite conflict, perhaps based in the urban cores or the rural hinterlands. The recent spate of black riots and the Cliven Bundy incident may be harbingers of greater instability to come, as the American political class and cultural and economic elites grow ever further removed from the concerns of the increasingly disenfranchised average American. The continuing rise of Silicon Valley, too, and its apparent conflicts with the federal bureaucracy and some of the legacy sectors of the economy, poses questions for the future of the parties- a West Coast-based tech political machine may well become the dominant class in the coming decades, and such a class replacement would have huge implications for Wall Street, the Industrialists, and other elites.
This is an age when we need reformers among the elite- people who understand power and its ugly realities, yet who earnestly seek a more stable and equitable American republic for all. The threat, at least right now, does not seem to be a country torn apart. Rather, it is a country decayed, digesting itself. Such a reality would be more dangerous to the American way of life than even a civil war, for it bespeaks a loss of the sense of purpose among all Americans.
We need visionaries and reformers, and it does not appear that they are here yet. May they come quickly.
Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of men
Who rise this rosy dawn
To fire coursing through their veins
The fire of Genghis Khan
Sing anger, shame, betrayal, loss,
Those demons haunting they
Impelling them to greatness
Further with each passing day
Fathers of eras, they’ll be all
These men who lost their hopes to fate
And answered glory’s call
In purifying fires
Is the human soul set free
To search, to build, to rule, to love,
To be what it must be
So Muse, sing of these Phoenixes
Their glorious journeys, tell
That they’ll inspire future kings
When boys are faced with Hell
The tapestries of History
Are laced with stories bold
Of the rage, the pain, the hope, the might
Of noble men of old.
Friends, all who know me know the magic sway words hold over me. If I find something that inspires me, I stick to it neurotically and never let anyone around me forget it. I have a variety of inspirations- from the Book of Sirach to Odysseus and Aeneas, to Disney’s Captain Shang, to the parable of the chariot, to the exhortations of Theodore Roosevelt, and I have recorded many on this blog.
But there is a virtue in conciseness, not least because it makes such glorious passages more easily memorizable. And there are a few passages that have inspired me more than any others. I have copied them in a little book I carry around in my satchel, and I will republish them here in case I lose the book in some terrible accident. These six passages, taken together- manifestos and exhortations, mostly- better define my values and beliefs (though not necessarily my worldview or cultural bias) than any poor words I have composed on my own. The two brief original statements of mine at the end- a statement of principles and a statement of purpose- are my feeble attempt to consolidate the wisdom of the immortalized words I admire, a feeble attempt I live by.
There is still much space in my little book, and eventually I may copy the best passages of Sirach, Homer, Virgil, Donny Osmond, Brett McKay, and Theodore Roosevelt into it. Perhaps I will include my quest, “Finding George Washington,” in time.
But for now, I will merely link some of those documents to this compendium, and copy the six passages and two statements here. Happy reading, dear readers, and if you don’t know me well, perhaps this will help you understand me.
Excerpts From the Eagle Charge
The Boy Scouts of all nations constitute one of the most wholesome and significant movements in the history of the world, and you have been counted worthy of its highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.
All who know you rejoice in your achievement. Your position, as you well know, is one of honor and responsibility. You are a marked man. As an Eagle Scout, you have assumed a solemn obligation to do your duty to God, to country, to your fellow scouts, and to Mankind in general. This is a great undertaking.
As you live up to your obligations you bring honor to yourself and to your brother scouts. Your responsibility goes far beyond your fellow scouts, to your country and your God. America has many good things to give you and your children after you; but these things depend for the most part on the quality of her citizens.
Our country has had a great past. You are here to make the future greater. I charge you to undertake your citizenship with a solemn dedication. Be a leader, but lead only toward the best. Lift up every task you do and every office you hold to the high level of service to God and your fellow man. So live and serve that those who know you will be inspired to the highest living.
We have too many who use their strength and their brains to exploit others and gain selfish ends. I charge you to be among those who dedicate their skills and ability to the common good. Build America on the solid foundations of clean living, honest work, unselfish citizenship, and reverence for God, and you will leave behind you a record of which every scout may be justly proud.
The American’s Creed
I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a Republic; a sovereign nation of many sovereign states; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.
I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag; and to defend it against all enemies.
Preamble to the American Legion’s Constitution
FOR GOD AND COUNTRY WE ASSOCIATE OURSELVES TOGETHER FOR THE FOLLOWING PURPOSES:
To uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America;
To maintain law and order;
To foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism;
To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the Great Wars;
To inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state, and nation;
To combat the autocracy of both the classes and the masses;
To make Right the master of Might;
To promote peace and goodwill on Earth;
To safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom, and democracy;
To consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.
Inscription at the Rockefeller Center
I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, and obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business, or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character- not wealth or power or position- is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of Mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individual’s highest fulfillment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.
“If,” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head while all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise,
If you can dream, and not make dreams your master,
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same,
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or see the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop, and build ‘em up with worn-out tools,
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss,
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them, “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Then yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And- which is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!
“The Coming American,” by Sam Walter Foss
Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose
And new eras in their brains.
Bring me men to match my prairies,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thought shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies,
Pioneers to clear thought’s marshlands
And to cleanse old Error’s fen
Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men!
Bring me men to match my forests,
Strong to fight the storm and blast,
Branching toward the skyey future
Rooted in the fertile past
Bring me men to match my valleys,
Tolerant of sun and snow,
Men within whose fateful purpose
Time’s consummate blooms shall grow
Men to tame the tigerish instincts
Of the lair and cave and den
Cleanse the dragon slime of nature-
Bring me men!
Bring me men to match my rivers,
Continent cleavers, flowing free
Drawn by the eternal madness
To be mingled with the sea;
Men of oceanic impulse
Men whose moral currents sweep
Toward the wide-unfolding ocean
Of an undiscovered deep
Men who feel the strong pulsation
Of the Central Sea, and then
Time their currents to its earth-throb-
Bring me men!
Statement of Principles
Prudence and Vigor
Honor and Duty
Goodwill to All
Humility Before God
Statement of Purpose
To Know the Ways of Man
To Writer with Fire in my Pen
To Lead with Vigor in my Chest
To Live with Prudence in my Breast
What follows is a long letter I sent to my girlfriend Emily when she inquired about what I meant by the “four folkways” of American culture. This is my basic understanding of the cultural argument of Albion’s Seed, the masterwork of David Hackett Fischer.
I have primarily discussed the role of culture in American history and politics here, without delving into conclusions I reached on the significance of culture (it matters A LOT) the construction of ideas (they’re not JUST constructed but they are largely contingent on previous ideas and current situations) or philosophical musings on the nature of Americanism (true Americanism involves a healthy tension between various competing and contrasting ideals and values.)
Perhaps I will write such an essay.
“so the folkways theory, or the “Albion’s Seed Thesis” (Albion is an old word for England, and then seed as in its descendents) basically argues that there are four distinct and broad American cultural regions rather than one singular American culture, and that those four regions have differing ideals and have competed over the course of centuries, defining the American identity and determining American politics. There are some other cultural regions, but they are less influential and widespread; and most immigrant groups assimilate and take up the characteristics of one of the cultural regions, anyway, or at least bind themselves to it culturally.
Those four cultures were the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of the Mid-Atlantic colonies, the Cavalier Virginia gentlemen of the coastal South, and the Scots-Irish frontiersmen of Appalachia. In addition to these four Americas, there are the Dutch-influenced New Yorkers, the French-influenced Louisianans, and the Caribbean-descended deep Southern planters. Blacks brought their own folkways but, interestngly, have largely grafted onto the Scots-Irish and Cavalier cultures, while Hispanics have largely grafted onto the Scots-Irish culture and Asians have largely grafted onto the Puritan cultures. Meanwhile the flood of European immigrants that populated the cities of the East Coast and the Midwestern states largely assimilated into the Puritan (or Yankee) and Quaker (or Midland) cultures.
So let’s say Yankees and their descendants are dark blue, Midlanders are purple, Cavaliers are pink, and Scots-Irish are red.
The whole northern tier of America is blue, from DC up the coast to Maine, inland to Chicago and Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, and still blue in the rural belt across the Great Plains and Rockies to Seattle, and blue from Seattle south to San Francisco. Additionally, all the major urban cores have some level of Yankeedom, because the Yankees have largely influenced American elite educational and corporate culture.
The Ohio Valley from Philadelphia out to the Mississippi River is purple, as the descendents of Quaker midlanders, no longer practicing that faith but still influenced by it, fanned out in a straight line moving West. And their descendents in turn settled the Salt Lake City area and the central Great Plains and Rockies, including Colorado.
From DC south to Florida and west to Houston, it’s all pink along a narrow strip on the coast. The lowlands of the South are dominated by the once-powerful planter elite; after the Civil War they were neutered, and after the New Deal they’ve largely been reduced to modern libertarian and corporate movements. But something of theculture still survives on the southern coastal strip, and ironically, in every major American city where there are concentrations of wealth.
And the Scots-Irish territories- Appalachia, Missouri, Texas, the Southwest and Southern Great Plains, and the Southern Rockies- are deep red. So are a bunch of other rural areas, actually, because the Scots-Irish fanned out more widely than any other ethnic group. And so vast stretches of the American hinterlands from central California to west Virginia to Montana to Texas feature their culture.
Now, the only solidly-colored regions are the East Coast heartlands of these cultures, because as they moved West they intermingled- for example, the Southwest is a blend of Scots-Irish folkways and Hispanic folkways, while California is a curious mix of all four types and the northern Rockies and northern Great Plains had a cultural fusion of Midlander Quakers and Scots-Irish. And other dynamics, especially class and the rural/urban divide, come into play very prominently. But generally, there are these divides.
What’s interesting is how this comes into play politically and culturally.
Yankee Puritans primarily favor social reform and activist government- they animated every major refrm movement in American history, and they’ve always been on the side of the Big-Government party (Federalists, Whigs, early Republicans, New Deal Democrats.) There are liberal ones (Franklin Roosevelt) and conservative ones (Theodore Roosevelt.) They largely influenced America’s corporate and educational elite.
Quaker Midlanders are temperamentally more moderate and favor an ethic of industrialism and a a nonviolent, egalitarian ethic. They’re currently the swing states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc) and have historically followed suit with the Yankees, almost but not quite grafting themselves onto them. Figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln represent this actually pretty boring tradition. They’ve largely informed the development of American industry and labor.
Cavaliers have always favored a strong, traditionalist, conservative society, an ethic of temperance and self-control and greatness, and minimal government oversight. They’re basically dead now as a regional force, but again, they live on through the libertarian movement and some great gentlemen from the south. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson- reserved, quiet gentlemen of strong character and elitist pretensions- characterize Cavalier society.
Scots-Irish or Jacksonians are also very anti-government, and even more, incredibly individualistic and violence-prone. They are moral traditionalists who prefer an ethic of survivalism. Andrew Jackson was the archetype Scots-Irish, though you can see this movement alive in every populist movement in Americanhistory. They’ve been the pioneers and frontiersmen since the Founding.
You can probably guess where these cultures fall politically these days; the far right is a mix of Scots-Irish and the remains of the Cavaliers, while the far left is a bunch of radical Puritans with some Cavalier finance. The establishment wing of the Democrats is Yankee/Quaker, while the establishment of the Republicans is Scots-Irish/Quaker. And the cultural divides follow regional lines, too- coasts and northeast for the Blue-Purple Democrats, West and South for the Red Republicans.
So the first two things you’re probably wondering are 1) what are you? and 2) what am I?
I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know you politically well enough to say for sure, but my instinct is that you are of the conservative wing of the Yankees, with some rugged folk Scots-Irish in you. Sacramento was settled by the Scots-Irish and, you know this because the area around it votes Republican, it remains a region fiercely proud of its pioneer heritage. But you’re also middle class and somewhat progressive,which adds the Yankee strain.
As for me, you know the dilemma- I don’t have a homeland, so I wasn’t brought up geographically in any of these cultures. My family does have Scots-Irish and Quaker roots, though, my dad being from Ohio and my family being conservative traditionalists. But all my political heroes, or a great many of them, were Whigs- and Whigs were typically Northeastern conservative Yankees. I complain about the activists all the time, but I favor activist government as much as they do. I think I would describe myself as a Southern Whig, then- holding some of the values of the Scots-Irish traditionalists (andhoping to emulate the Cavalier gentlemen) while viewing government the way the Yankees do. And with some Quaker industrialism mixed in.
The big question I have is 1) how have these four cultures evolved 2) how has the presence of non-Anglo migrants altered that dynamic and 3) what does the cultural-politicacl climate of 2016 look like in Fischerian terms. I don’t really know how to answer any of these at the moment.
America is locked in regional-cultural-political conflict between the Scots-Irish and the Yankees, broadly defined, with Cavaliers generally financing the Scots-Irish and the Midlanders generally aligning with the Yankees. The moderate-conservative Whig temperament, I think, would seek to build up a cultural middle ground- probably over Quaker Midlander culture- with a Scots-Irish conservative temperament, and a Yankee willingness to tolerate activist government.”