A Farewell to ABiasedPerspective: Goodbye, Old Friend
All good things come to an end, so they say, and it is no different with this little blogging project of mine. ABiasedPerspective was many things- in some ways a publication unto its own, in some ways a public diary of my personal intellectual development through my college years, in some ways a snapshot of my state of mind at varying points in life, in some ways my mode of communicating important personal developments to the world, and, most recently and self-consciously, a repository for those writings of mine I wanted to preserve and present, but could not get published anywhere else.
This eclectic, rambling little electron scroll, both my darling conscience and my guilty pleasure, was thus more ragtag than Andrew Jackson’s army of pirates and frontiersmen at New Orleans, or maybe Theodore Roosevelt’s raucous Rough Rider regiment. It never had an overall purpose in the entirety of its existence, try as I did every once in a while to bring order to its chaos with such a purpose. No, it took on a life of its own, and I couldn’t guide it any more than I could guide the eclecticity of my own thoughts. The historical interpretation, political theorizing, news analysis and commentary, theological-philosophical banter, half-rate poetry, and personal messages sprinkled through this archive will probably someday be fodder for readers and maybe biographers trying to understand just what the heck was going through Luke Phillips’s mind all these years.
One of the nice things about having a personal blog is that you have something to brag about, and more, a little personal forum to publish things to send to people you admire. I’ve sent things to favorite writers and thinkers of mine from here, including Morley Winograd, Robert D. Kaplan, Joel Kotkin, Adam Garfinkle, and Geoffrey Kabaservice, and usually gotten a pleasant response and a pat on the head. I’ve received unexpected, out-of-the-blue comments from random readers and subscribers (there are more of you than I ever realized, and I thank you sincerely for your patronage and readership!) I’ve even made a few friends across the blogosphere, surprisingly enough given my sometimes incendiary polemicism. It’s been a good four and a half years or so.
One of the things you learn from maintaining a personal blog is just how hard it is to write, and how much harder it is to write well. I’m very guilty of the solipsistic-prodigy-complex so many of us romantic young writers fall into, when, like Lincoln in his 1838 Lyceum Address, we overuse our newfound rhetorical talent (or lack thereof) in, retrospectively, embarrassingly ostentatious displays of bombastic, tasteless wordiness not unlike this one. Soon, one learns that fancy styles and chiasmic tricks do not a prosist make. You also learn, to your humiliation, that you’re not nearly as smart as you think you are- sometimes less than a week after you publish some brilliant masterpiece, you a) discover or remember a piece of writing by someone else who argued your points much more eloquently, or b) you read it again and realize it makes much less sense, is much less convincing, and has many more spelling errors, than you thought it did. You’re tempted to delete or make private the post, but it’s too late- a lame friend has already shared it, or, as happened once to me to my horror, some low-level news site has quoted it (and it happens to be the one thing from the early years of your blog that sounds a little bit like racist apologia in retrospect…)
But it’s ok- it’s all ok. Especially if you’re an undergrad like I was (and will, hopefully, shortly cease to be) this kind of overenthusiasm is normal. Within bounds, it’s healthy. It’s better to be zealous and calm down a bit when prudence-puberty hits, than it is to be sluggish and failingly attempt to force yourself into action. You just need to realize it in due time.
And again- to write, or not to write, that is the question- it’s * usually * better to write. You get practice sitting in front of a screen, you gradually come to find your voice and internal standard of excellence, you learn how to be original, and sometimes, you write something genuinely interesting and worth remembering. Off the top of my head this early morning of the last day of November 2017, there are a few pieces from over the years I particularly remember, and that I’m particularly proud of.
There was the Progressive Republicans piece that kicked off two years’ worth of failed blogging projects when a college graduate from Iowa reached out and told me I should set up a website. There was the angry op-ed about campus radicalism (which quoted Peter Viereck!!) in which I took my side, in history, against campus “conservative” radicalism and what would become the stuff of Trumpism. There were those unfortunate moments when I toyed with Trump-as-not-so-bad, and there was that one time I realized I was wrong and told the world. There was my endorsement of General Petraeus. There were all those attempts to devise my own theory of American cyclic history, attempts that look silly-ly simple in retrospect. And how could I forget, of all my pieces on California, the geopolitics of California…
And more. I am particularly proud of my Pontius Pilate meditation on political amorality and Christian living. I’ve written (bad) poetry here; one particularly awkward rage poem the day after a hard breakup, a dandy little jingle about Inspiration Point (my favorite little spot on the Potomac,) a tribute to Rudyard Kipling dissing Bill and Hillary Clinton and Co…. The list goes on. My “Why I Don’t Want to Be President” piece was fun to write (and remains one of the most frank and honest things I’ve published here) while my dear friend Sophia Justice Warren’s lambasting of Do You Hear the People Sing gives me chuckles all the time. Some reflections on Odysseus and Aeneas’s manliness were fun to write as well.
I had the opportunity to publish interesting historical tidbits, as well. I’m particularly proud that my blog hosts the only digitally-published version of A Call to Excellence in Leadership, the Ripon Society’s original manifesto condemning Barry Goldwater-style conservative radicalism, on the web- not even the Ripon Society itself hosts the piece. (I painstakingly copied a scan of the original newspaper, which I acquired via the Inter Library Loan system.) I consolidated the teachings of Niccolo Machiavelli, Alexander Hamilton, and Edmund Burke, as interpreted by the excellent thinkers Isaiah Berlin and Clinton Rossiter, into sets of thematically organized meditational aphorisms, and published them here as well.
There was another piece on my epistemology that, for my money, pretty well encapsulated the spirit of what I was trying to get at with the blog’s title- namely, that a skeptical empiricism, tempered further by the humble admission that we each come to every question not with clear-eyed realism, but with a biased perspective, our own set of assumptions and experiences that shape how we understand truth. It is as a lead pipe in a gaseous cloud; we can feel the pipe in there, but we can’t know the pipe, or even see what it actually is. Thus is the human dilemma (and I’ve more recently learned that Hume came up with this understanding before me. That’s ok; Hume’s a brilliant man, as anyone who inspired my hero Alexander Hamilton must be.)
And finally, this blog has been the site of some of my meditations on my six-year (so far) struggle with mental illness. Here I first advocated universal childhood therapy. But here I also published a long, winding meditation on my departure from Philmont Scout Ranch due to a depressive incident. It’s been a real honor, after seeing the responses to pieces like these, to know that people care; it’s been a real release of a burden to know that I’m not hiding anything. Maybe that’ll come to haunt me in due time. But I’d rather be open and honest about it than hide a dark and unfortunate part of who I am and what I live than, as so many others suffer through, lying to myself and the world about one of the things defining my experience.
So there’s a brief survey of some of the highlights of the dozens- hundreds now? I’m not sure- of ramblings I’ve posted at this site over four and a half years or so of blogging. It’s been a lot of fun. Why, then, am I getting rid of ABiasedPerspective?
A couple of reasons, but first things first- we each go through seasons of life. There is a time to reap, and a time to sow; a time to heal, and a time to kill; a time to blog, and a time to archive your blog and turn to other pursuits. So it is with where I am right now; now is the time to turn to other pursuits. ABiasedPerspective reflected my college mind and character; I hope as I move forward, my writings reflect a more matured me, my young professional and budding intellectual mind and character. As habits and places tend to stick, it’s important to change them when you hope to change other things.
So where am I headed from here? Well, if and when I graduate from the University of Southern California (hopefully two weeks from now, my last credits have been completed, inshallah, though they will be over eighteen months overdue) I will head back to Washington D.C. Things are in the air right now- I might be doing communications work for the National Park Service, I might be doing freelance journalism and policy research for my long-time boss Joel Kotkin, or knowing my luck, I might be doing something else entirely. But in a month I am planning on being a young professional with a unique skillset to offer the world, and a unique point of view to offer it as well. My new writing strategy will mirror that, and the rambling reflections and half-baked writings of ABiasedPerspective don’t fit well into that strategy; I need to be sharper in my writing, more purposeful, though no less circumspective and styled.
I’ll be shifting operations to my other site, lukenathanphillips.com, which has hitherto been more of an online resume than anything else. Sometime soon I’ll update it to include another blog. This new blog- just the updateable page on lukenathanphillips.com- will be different in kind from ABiasedPerspective, though I haven’t decided all the details yet. It will probably be more shortform, and focus on sharing articles others have written, articles I’ve written, and brief “hot takes” on big news issues and stories. In that sense it’ll be less a diary-repository and more a traditional blog the way public intellectuals these days host blogs. That, I hope, will make it more useful and readable to people other than me.
In any case, this is not the end, but a transition- a transition to a new beginning, which will, I hope, be grander and more interesting than anything so far.
I want to thank everyone who’s been with me on my writing journey thus far, all of you who’ve stuck by me, supported me, even just read my work up to this point. I promise you this is not the end, and you won’t be disappointed. Just follow me at lukenathanphillips.com, where I’ll be posting links to all my subsequent work and continuing blogging. And as usual, you can contact me on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For anyone who hasn’t blogged before and has been thinking of starting one- stop thinking about it and just do it. It’s a rewarding experience, requiring nothing but the desire to start and a laptop computer. It’ll take you places, and it’ll help you remember the places (term used broadly) you’ve been. I wouldn’t trade the experience of having had a college blog for the world.
But again- all good things come to an end. So ABiasedPerspective, old friend, thanks for the good times.
INTEGRATION, THE AMERICAN WAY OF ASSIMILATION
The recent spats over President Trump’s rescindment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) opened up a renewed debate over American immigration policy, as usual shedding more passionate heat than illuminative light on the subject. But the lines of debate and questioning all sides have considered- from basic immigration law to cultural effects to social justice to America’s mission to long-term national strategy- have opened up a trove of useful perspectives for those considering the ultimate direction of American immigration in the 21st Century.
John Adams did not believe there was a “special providence” for the United States of America, and in a purely empirical and rational sense this is obviously true. Nonetheless, as an observer of the serendipitous and fortuitous cycles of American political and social history, I wonder sometimes.
The great waves of Latino and Asian migration to the United States, underway since the mid-1960s, have only in the last few decades begun to foster great political questions and strike at the very core of American political divisions. But here’s the rub- it’s happened before, twice in American history, as beautifully documented by my friend Nicholas Gallagher a few years back in the pages of The American Interest. Irish immigration to the United States in the early 19th Century, and Eastern and Southern European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, set off similar divisions and controversies amid times of great economic and technological changes; but in due time, the country adapted, the immigrants and their descendants were assimilated and accepted into the mainstream of American society, and today nobody would question whether Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, or American Jews are “real Americans.” The same process has been underway among Latino Americans and Asian-Americans, with an immigrant-driven “multiculturalism of the streets” gradually shaping American society and culture even as it Americanizes itself. Over the long run, many immigration analysts suspect that similar assimilation will occur at some rate, regardless of what federal policy dictates.
In this sense, America really is relatively unique. Other countries in the New World- Brazil, Peru, and Mexico especially come to mind- have been mestizo societies as well, mixing the races of four continents into new, somewhat syncretic, somewhat disparate, national identities. But none of these countries is both mestizo and individualistic, as the United States is, and in those other countries the process of assimilation is really a process of amalgamation of multiple groups. In America, there are similar trends of decades-long amalgamation, but there’s another process as well. An individual can Americanize in the course of a fraction of their own lifetime, highlighting the very real facet of American identity that is individualistic and ideational rather than purely communal and cultural. This, of course, means there are paths to American-ness for both the immigrant wave and the immigrant individual. No other country really seems to have this dynamic, certainly not so close to the very core of its national identity.
Compare these New World melting pots with the ancient civilizations of the Old World, where the legacies of cosmopolitan empire and city-state gave way in modern times to largely ethnically-homogenous nation-states. Multiethnic empires have of course remained with us to the present day- Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India- but with the possible exception of India, these generally have a dominant ethnic group, membership in which is an unspoken requirement for “real” citizenship. You don’t “become” Russian or Chinese the way you can “become” American, and Russian Muslims have a categorically different role in that national experiment than Russian Orthodox Christians. Even partially cosmopolitan Old World states, such as Singapore and Great Britain, do not have quite the same dynamic as Americans enjoy.
Witness the recent immigration problems in Germany, which continues to accept refugees and migrants with no real plan to incorporate and integrate them into society, and the continued vigilance of the Japanese and South Korean governments in keeping their citizenries relatively ethnically homogenous. The notion of nationhood in most Old World countries is based on shared national experience and is often tied to ethnic bonds; the Americans and a few other countries around the world are not similarly attached to blood.
This is certainly not to say that “America is an idea” and that its constant reinvention, reformism, and disdain for tradition itself nullifies the very real role of national experience in American identity. But it is to imply, at the very least, that the United States of America- perhaps by a special providence- is blessed with opportunities for immigrant integration other countries can only dream of.
So there’s the American situation in relation to the rest of the world. What should we do about it? How can we capitalize on our strengths?
REDUCE, REFORM, REOPEN
At a basic level, the United States can be most effective as an integrator of the world’s peoples into its own national story if it reduces present immigration levels, emphasizes social integration and healing at all levels across the national community, and waits to adopt freer immigration policy until the further future, when the American identity has been redefined and reopened.
Generally, as April Lawson argued and Shanna Ratner conceded in Better Angels’s recent symposium on immigration, the big task on immigration for American politicians nowadays is national reconsolidation rather than national openness (something many of our elites don’t seem to quite understand.) As Tamar Jacoby suggests in her edited volume “Reinventing the Melting Pot,” assimilation/integration seems to be happening everywhere in America except in the public discourse and public imagination. For the most part, recent immigrants from Latin America, East and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are behaving and adapting much as any former group of “white-ethnic” immigrants did in previous centuries. They’re serving in the military and learning English at the same levels, organizing politically in the same ways, and preserving yet adapting their original cultures just as the Irish and Italians and Jews and Germans did. We have nothing to worry about in terms of immigrants “stealing” our national culture, or refusing to become Americans, or fundamentally transforming America, or doing any of the things the paranoid side of the right thinks they are doing.
But that’s due, I would think, more to the enduring strength of American culture and political economy, than anything the American-born and American-raised are doing; polarization on these issues among American citizens remains huge. If for no other reason, one of the biggest arguments for reducing immigration rates is to calm down the divisiveness amongst Americans and grant current immigrant communities the time they need to further integrate into the American way of life, and shed their “target of the right/prop of the left” status and take on a positive role of their own in American public life.
However, this grace period- Lawson suggests we need ten years, history suggests perhaps longer- would clearly not be an end-all/be-all for immigration policy for the rest of our history. Long-term thinkers should be considering numerous factors, one of which is that the global refugee crisis of the 2010s-the worst since 1945- is unlikely to abate anytime soon. The global flows of migrants and refugees will probably continue as they are, and most would hope they do not worsen. But even if America is not ready to accept refugees now, we should be preparing ourselves to provide haven to the world’s huddled masses in the further future, the next time we’re united enough at home to responsibly open our doors to the world.
Meanwhile, as Ratner suggested in her piece, it is absolutely crucial that the United States reinvest in itself, to reestablish the dynamism and spirit of reinvention that has always characterized the American experience. This kind of reinvestment- in education, infrastructure, technology, social services, and general dynamism and social solidarity- should be able to help re-materialize “the American Dream” as a locus of American identity, allay current conflicts, and build up a better future. (Trite as that all sounds.) There are a few controversies that need resolution first, though.
One of the sticking points currently unresolved, thanks to the failure of the “Gang of Eight” amnesty-for-enforcement bill in 2013, is the status of the eleven million illegal aliens currently living in the United States. Proposals range from legalization without citizenship, to full deportation, to a long-term path to citizenship, and everything in between. Ultimately, for humanitarian and strategic reasons, it seems to me the only viable strategy is to grant an amnesty and some path to citizenship, regardless of the violations of law and precedent and everything else. There are no significant problems associated with having eleven million more Americans living in the country, but they can’t really become Americans and participate in our national communion if they’re not citizens- the assimilation/integration process only works on people granted citizenship, it would seem. After one fell swoop of amnesty, the remainder of the strategy- lock down on enforcement, reduce total rates of immigration from all regions of the world, smooth and rationalize the process of naturalization, and place an emphasis on national social and political and cultural integration- should resume, just as it did after the ends of previous “great waves.”
There are some on the right who argue that we should shift the emphasis of immigration from family reunification to the recruitment of high-skilled labor and economic assets. I don’t disagree with this in principle, but I think as a policy proposal it misses the broader point of long-term immigration policy reform. And that broader point isn’t about decimals of GDP so much as it is the broader vision of what America is as a whole. To that, we now turn.
A VISION FOR THE PEOPLE AND THE CONTINENT
Joel Kotkin, a sometime employer of mine, wrote an excellent book some time ago entitled “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.” It examined demographic, economic, social, and urban geography trends, painting a picture of an America with a revitalized heartland, more and more people living in more and more distinct types of built environment, and a diverse, ethnically melding population at peace and in harmony with itself. This is a rosy picture to imagine in the late 2010s- especially when blue, urban coastal America and red, suburban, interior America are constantly at each other’s throats, while racial issues have burst out again with renewed fury. But I think it may well paint an accurate picture, simply given what we’re seeing with trends in long-term assimilation and urban/suburban architecture and demographics.
Given that this is the long-term trend- which, I might add, involves the children of immigrants increasingly settling the suburban rings around the Sunbelt’s great cities– it seems to me that America will continue to be a land where the material dream, the “Promise of American Life,” makes possible the kinds of political liberty and community immigrants can enter and adjust to and fully join without either fundamentally altering American life or losing their own heritages. Economic mobility and geographic dispersion are key.
This is not new to other immigrant waves- it’s important to note that the last two great waves of immigration, in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively corresponded to the American westward movement and the early waves of suburbanism. The frontier individual ethos that both of these demographic migrations made possible was a one of the expediting factors in making more broadly shared “Americanism” possible. And now that we have increasing levels of suburban and urban development on our country’s still-expansive open landmass, our immigrant populations have places to go where they, in the footsteps of their forebears, can enter the middle class and live the American Dream.
In the long run, we’re fine on the immigration question. Yes, Ross Douthat’s ten theses counseling prudence are important guidelines, especially in the short term. But looking forward, one is tempted to abandon all distress and realize that Hector St. John de Crevecouer’s immortal prophecy has been and indeed remains the American destiny, whether by dint of geography and culture, conscious action, or special providence:
“What then is the American, this new man?… He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds… Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims…”
That Crevecouer penned these words in 1782, seven years before the establishment of the current United States government, testifies to the Americanism of experience we still share with our spiritual ancestors of the 17th and 18th centuries. Inhabiting the same continent, speaking the same language, the same spirits still coursing through them, the new generations of American immigrants will only continue to confirm and verify Crevecouer’s vision.
A social and political vision along those lines- America, the great western continent where opportunity, capital, land, and social equality are available in abundance and make possible self-transformation, the American dream itself- would be a helpful organizing framework. America, the dynamic world leader, the melting pot of something new, and something yet enduring, a place that has been, but is yet to be. America can be a place of redemption and exodus, as it always has been. But it can only be that beacon and refuge if its immigration policy and other national strategies are designed carefully and intelligently, abhorring right-wing nativism, open-borders multicultural cosmopolitanism, and mere incrementalism.
America is not exceptional, but it is unique, and its unique capability to take people in is one of the factors making it so. We have problems to work out, but in the long term, I have full faith that Americans will make the right decisions on immigration (even if, as Churchill suggested, it is after they exhaust all other options.) And we are blessed, because not every other country has quite this capability.
President Bush and President Obama Condemn Trump, but They Created Trump
The Daily 202 this morning was a great read. It highlighted the parallel speeches of President George W. Bush in New York and President Barack Obama in Richmond, both former presidents condemning the “cruelty” that has begun to eat up American politics, both implicitly castigating Donald Trump for his nativist nationalism and abandonment of American ideals. Neither mentioned President Trump by name, but it was clear who these two elder statesmen were talking about.
And they well should- Trump’s buffoonery and undignified idiocy, checked only by the lingering strength of our institutions and the sterling character of “the Generals,” is eating away at what remained of a shared civic culture throughout the Bush and Obama eras. Now that shared culture is all but gone in the American upper atmosphere, confined to a few subterranean pockets of patriotism like the defense community and local governments and some elements of civil society. The American Dream lives on, the American community hungers for the mystic chords of memory, lived, that once bound it together; but for now, the common air is poisoned with the decadence and vitriol of human nature at its most ludicrous (though perhaps not at its worst.)
Presidents Bush and Obama shouldn’t be so quick, though, to condemn Trump without taking responsibility for him, though. After all, they presided over the trends, and either created or failed to address the problems, that swept Trump into the Oval Office in one of the biggest upsets in American history. Along with Bill Clinton before them, they constructed the neoliberal-marketeering economic order that sapped American productivity in the Heartland while enriching the coasts. They committed America to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and proceeded to fight (or not really fight) those wars in the least successful ways possible. Obama, in particular, institutionalized a liberal cultural ascendancy that was, for my money, the single most important reason Trump’s voters reacted as they did and cast their votes against Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it’s trite to say that Presidents are elected in reaction to the failures of their predecessors; but this does in fact seem to be the case, and the failures of Bush and Obama, and Clinton to a degree, set the stage for the populist-nationalist insurgency that Trump rode into high office, with all his indignity.
This isn’t to say that Bush and Obama’s counselings to the American people are wrong or hypocritical or worth ignoring. It is to say, though, that you can have a civic sense while having the wrong strategic sense- and in both cases, their strategic sensibilities seem to have been lacking throughout the times when they could’ve made the biggest differences.
Some Points of Light of Hope
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a moral beacon in a landscape of moral nitwits and curmudgeons, gave a press conference speech the other day responding to a press kerfuffle over President Trump’s handling of a phone call to the family of a deceased American soldier. (By the way- the politicization of so many combat deaths, from Captain Khan to Benghazi to Niger to Yemen and beyond, is absolutely disgusting and revealing of the moral rot at the heart of American “civic culture” today.) But Kelly had a beautiful line, reminding us all that there are still some heroes out there, and they’re not the ones on TV-
“Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.”
Well I do know a few of them. One of them’s my brother Ensign Jacob Phillips, United States Navy, and I’m prouder and more jealous of him than I am of anyone else in the world. He lives what John Kelly depicts, and defends what is discussed in the following passage.
And meanwhile another former presidential aspirant, this one a failed one, can probably shed some helpful light here. John McCain, who clearly knows he’s on his way out, delivered a fantastic speech at the National Liberty Center the other day, musing on the nature of the American experiment. For my money, it’s the greatest American political speech delivered thus far in my lifetime. It is required reading for all American patriots looking for guidance in these dark times. I copy here only the most beautiful of its beautiful passages:
“The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so very grateful.
What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.
We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.
We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.”
David Brooks’s depiction of John McCain looks a lot like my depiction of George H.W. Bush, in my view, and that sort of gravitas-laden statesmanlike patriotism is what is sorely lacking today- reviled on the far left, ignored on the center left, given lip-service on the center right, disfigured and parodied on the further right. They just don’t make politicians these days like they used to, and we’re suffering as a country because of it.
I don’t have a real purpose in writing these notes, just needed to record some thoughts about the Bush and Obama speeches and record those fantastic quotes from John McCain and John Kelly. This weekend is the California Republican Party statewide convention in Anaheim, which’ll be a parody of patriotism if there ever was one. I probably won’t get a chance to go.
But if I do wind up down there somehow, I’ll have a lot of thoughts weighing on my mind.
Two Tales of Rage
The Republican Party nationwide seems to have lost its head, and its shriveling outpost in California, which once upon a time gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is proving itself to be no different. Two months ago, party activists and the Assembly Republican Caucus ousted former Assembly Leader Chad Mayes from his perch. Mayes, a graduate of Liberty University and a card-carrying conservative, had committed the mortal sin of leading a small faction of the Republican Caucus in voting for Governor Jerry Brown’s extension of California’s Cap-and-Trade program, a big no-no in right-wing circles. Mayes was presumably just making sausages and cutting deals as good politicians usually tend to do, and probably thought he’d be able to curry favor with Democrats so as to advance conservative legislation further down the line. In any case, partly due to Mayes’s last acts as Assembly Leader, the measure passed.
Now California’s Republican activists have turned their sights on a different target- the recently-passed gas tax and vehicle fees increase, signed into law by Governor Brown this April. According to CalMatters, business groups like the Los Angeles County Business Federation and Orange County Business Council support the new law, because the state’s transportation infrastructure is- surprise!- badly in disrepair. Business groups have traditionally been aligned with Republicans on economic issues, but not this time- this time, Republican leaders in California are pushing forward on two ballot measures for the 2018 election that would repeal the new gas tax and the $5.2 billion it would raise to fix the state’s roads. Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio is running one, which would put in place a constitutional amendment preventing increases on transportation taxes and fees without voter approval. Gubernatorial candidate and Assemblyman Travis Allen is leading another that would merely repeal the law. CAGOP Chairman Jim Brulte and new Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle have also put their support behind the Tax Revolt of 2018.
I am no fan of the Rube-Goldberg machine that is Cap-and-Trade, and I’ve even written against the gas tax. Both are examples of piecemeal blue, regulatory, tax-and-spend “solutions” to issues that would be better resolved by broader institutional reform friendlier to businesses and consumers. (On climate change, curb emissions by drilling for natural gas and building nuclear plants; on infrastructure, pay for crumbling roads with money that currently gets squandered through tax evasion by the rich and the black hole of public pension funds.) The conservatives in the CAGOP are right to be disgusted by the waste of the Californian government, but they should still work in the system, and in these cases that would mean supporting the gas tax and Cap-and-Trade in exchange for gains in other areas and long-term capital in the political process.
But rather than playing the messy game of representative government and practical politics, and pushing incrementally towards conservative solutions and bold reforms of our dysfunctional system, they content themselves with self-righteous obstructionism, in the tax revolt case, and even political cannibalism in the case of Chad Mayes. Aside from devouring their own in the quest to be more ritually pure and “constitutionally conservative,” California Republicans are doing exactly what they need to do to keep losing seats at in the legislature and at local levels. For one thing, the infighting impresses no one, and gives off the impression of a party rudderless and without leadership. For another, the gas tax and Cap-and-Trade appear to be more popular among Californian voters than conservative activists would believe them to be. While the median voter might not turn on Republicans over GOP opposition to those policies, it doesn’t appear that Californians will flood to the polls against the gas tax or for Republicans opposed to Cap-and-Trade, either. Serious business interests and serious people: look to moderate Democrats, if you want to get anything done in this state.
Dan Walters called the CAGOP “a circular firing squad” recently, and he’s basically correct in that assessment. But he doesn’t go far enough. The shrinking California GOP is doing more than squabbling amongst its ever-smaller parts. By its unpopular actions in this moderate-to-liberal state, it is hastening its own shrinking and furthering its own irrelevance. A normal California Republican Party would not have invited Steve Bannon to speak at its 2017 statewide convention in Anaheim.
The CAGOP Continues to Lose
California, to put it mildly, is no fan of Steve Bannon (who even worked in Santa Monica for a while.) The state rejected Donald Trump- and presumably Steve Bannon his strategist- by a two-to-one margin (61% Clinton, 31% Trump.) But Steve Bannon will be arriving in Anaheim, the heart of Orange County, formerly the heart of the conservative movement (but a county increasingly going blue) next weekend, amidst one of the most significant election seasons for the California GOP in its post-Schwarzenegger exile. 2018 is significant because, as has been widely reported, the Democrats are targeting the seven GOP-held California Congressional seats whose voters split and voted for Hillary Clinton for President in the 2016 election. Three of those contested seats are in Orange County, and two are in nearby Los Angeles and San Diego. Of those five, three were carried by the GOP incumbents in 2016 by margins of fifteen to twenty points, but two were within seven points.
If the CAGOP seriously thinks that Steve Bannon’s appearance in Orange County will help Steve Knight, Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher, or Darrell Issa, or for that matter Jeff Denham and David Valadao up in the Central Valley, hold onto their seats in 2018, it is beyond delusional. Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Republican voter registration statewide is below that of independents and decline-to-states. And there are no less than three serious Democratic Super PACs- Fight Back California, Red to Blue California, and Flip the 14– specifically targeting these seven California Republicans in a broader Democratic effort to flip the House of Representatives.
Looking at those seven critical races in the context of the Chad Mayes odyssey and the planned 2018 tax revolt, and in the broader context of the Trump presidency, doesn’t give a Republican operative very happy feelings. There doesn’t seem to be much data available on Californian voters’ opinions of the Republican Party statewide, but given the continually declining GOP voter rolls, it doesn’t look good (and it probably offers impenetrable proof that the “activate-the-base” strategy GOP officials seem to be pursuing in this state is doomed to failure.) The seven embattled Congressmen will already have to explain, to the suburban moderates and minorities in their districts who’re considering voting for Democrats in 2018, what exactly the GOP-controlled Congress has accomplished, and why exactly they continue to support, or fail to denounce, a lunatic President. They don’t need the added burden of having to explain, beyond trite tropes, why their colleagues at the state level don’t want the roads fixed and don’t like people who work across the aisle.
The institutional and activist California GOP, in short, is associating itself with three things it doesn’t need to and shouldn’t associate with, if it wants to be relevant in a purple-to-blue state- President Trump, the paranoid populist side of the conservative movement, and a host of unsavory and irresponsible figures from crackpot economists to campus provocateurs. If it wants to win the political center, it shouldn’t run this far to a fading right. The fabled 24% of California voters listed as “Decline-to-State” may well have formerly been mainstream Republicans, before the rightward turn of the party, statewide and nationwide, on social and economic issues in the mid-1990s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 victory revealed a broad centrist-reformism alive and popular in a statewide majority (which the Governator unfortunately squandered) that has generally been defeated time and time again by the state’s Democratic establishment since the mid-2000s. But it’s there, and it would make a mean counter to Brown/Feinstein/Rendon-style moderate leftism- if the CAGOP could get its act together to practice it.
An Opportunity That Will Go Untaken
This is all really too bad, because a golden opportunity appears to be in the offing. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently announced her intentions to run for reelection in 2018, sparking a trickle and then a wave of speculation over whether or not she’ll face a progressive challenger. State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon just hopped into the race, and billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer is also eyeing a challenge. Those two, as well as whatever no-name candidates the California Democratic Party’s increasingly-powerful progressive wing puts up, are certain to run on a more Bernie Sanders-style agenda than a Hillary Clinton or Jerry Brown one. In fact, the current generation of California statewide Democrats has been in power so long, it has generally “lost touch” with the faddier trends among activists and voters, and the next generation- epitomized by Senator Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate President Kevin de Leon- is almost certain to be more uniformly liberal on both social and fiscal issues, despite its ongoing divides between progressives and establishmentarians.
California Democrats, with power locked on the legislature and all statewide offices, as well as the support of Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the public-sector unions, getting ever-more liberal on all issues, despite the rest of the state’s general centrism? A progressive movement that may drag the future Democratic establishment even further to the left?
This is a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurial Republicans to carve out a spot in the cultural mainstream and political center, and re-establish themselves as serious players in the state. It’s not a question of “convincing Latinos that they’re actually conservatives” or otherwise playing the conservative playbook with more minority-friendly tactics. It has to be, rather, what every party at the national level has done after it’s spent half a decade or more in the national wilderness- a question of soul-searching, of reforming and updating policy and philosophy and strategy, a question of redeveloping and reenergizing the question: what does it mean to be a Republican in California?
A slate of California Republican statewide and legislative candidates in 2018 or, more likely, 2022- when the Governor’s seat and a Senate seat are open to election- somewhat left on racial issues like immigration but somewhat right on most cultural issues, somewhat left on spending and somewhat right on regulation and other economic issues, could be the opening salvos of the campaign to rebuild the California GOP into relevance, and establish it as a responsible governing alternative to the excesses of the left we are bound to face in a few short years (and which we are already living now.) A responsible and electable and expandable California GOP would govern in partnership with the Democrats while checking them from pushing forward their worst policies. The state could be governed well again, its intractable problems put on the path towards solution.
But the California GOP doesn’t seem like it’s going to change soon, and thus does a disservice to itself and all those it claims to want to represent. If serious people come back and work, there might be a chance. But that chance looks ever less likely, as does the reelection of the California Seven.
Much hay has been made about on the current wave of political violence in America. Sure, there’s always been this kind of stuff even in recent decades- the urban crime wave of the 1980s, the spates of white nationalist and Christian separatist militia activity in the 1990s, the terrorist attacks at Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center and the Pentagon- and in comparison to those, the recent mass shootings (political or apolitical) and truck attacks, knife attacks, and generally resurgent street brawling look like child’s play. One is almost tempted to argue that minor events are being amped up by a hypersensitive social media culture where opinion has been democratized and outrage sells.
I wouldn’t be so sure; as Jason Willick argued at The American Interest in the aftermath of the Charlottesville incident, the violence of today- with perhaps the exception of senseless mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, but back to those in a minute- has a different feel. Governance in the 80s and 90s responded to the threats, and politicians generally stood against them in a truly united front. Trust in government as an institution was at astronomical highs compared to what we have these days; partisanship was there as it always is, but the genuine radicalism we’ve seen on both left and right seemed conspicuously far outside of the mainstream, rather than intruding on its very borders.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that American polarization in all of its aspects- cultural, political, class, access to the heights of these areas versus outsider status- is more directly tied to the new waves of political violence than it was for previous waves. There’s not necessarily liberal sympathy for leftist murderers or conservative sympathy for rightwing terrorists- yet, and for the most part- so we don’t really run into the problem of institutional support sanctioning political violence. (Yes, Trump waffled over condemning the Charlottesville murderer, but that seems to have been more about ominous political calculations than actual affinities.)
That’s not to say, though, that we’re not approaching that dark phase. You do have liberal and conservative sympathies for political action a few steps short of political violence- say, the liberal love affair with BlackLivesMatter despite its more radical elements, even in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson and 2015 Baltimore protests-with-some-riots-affiliated. (In fact a lot of liberal commentators seemed to haplessly justify the riots, even while denying that they were “really” riots.) On the flipside, had there not been an actual murder at Charlottesville, I doubt you would’ve seen the conservative rebuttals of fascism and white supremacy that followed it for the subsequent week. Probably would’ve been more likely that conservative commentators would’ve argued “you have your free speech, we can have it too!” even as the white “protestors” who descended on the poor college town were armed with torches and, so I’ve heard, occasional firearms as well. We don’t even have to begin to discuss the left’s Rousseauian embrace of the environmentalist/occasionally Native American troublemakers at Standing Rock, or the right’s justification of the Malheur Bend militia’s “stand against big government.”
So we’re at a point where rather than condemning quasi-violent acts of hatred or principle or wokeness or whatever you want to call this anti-establishmentarian fervor, Americans in general are apt to take sides with the “good guys” regardless of the assaults on public order and precedent. Clearly Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address, where the future Savior of the Union counseled dedication to law and order and subservience to the laws of the United States as the grace of patriotism, is not widely read in either our commentariat or our protestariat these days.
In any case, I digress. It would seem to me that the roots of the current violence are cultural and social, rather than expressly political. They’re tied more closely to the trends Yuval Levin looked at in “The Fractured Republic,” that Charles Murray looked at in “Coming Apart,” and that Robert Putnam looked at in “Bowling Alone,” alongside innumerable other studies and reports and articles by other sociologists and cultural thinkers. Basically, as society atomizes through various unfortunate side-effects of modernization, and civil society decays, you have masses of people, especially young and middle-aged men, who are rudderless, purposeless, and functionally useless to their communities. The kind of psychological things this kind of alienation creates are terrifying to behold, and a population thus stripped of its social capital is more liable to violence of all sorts- in the home, in the bar, on the streets, behind a gun- and to narratives of festering political radicalism that, on various positions on the political spectrum, sanction extreme otherization of these people’s fellow citizens and extreme action against them. Yes, I’m suggesting that the same cultural currents and social decay that more or less got Donald Trump elected as President of the United States, also have been the rotten spigot from which many mass shooters and domestic terrorists and rioters in recent years have gushed forth.
And it doesn’t help that we do happen to be America- a country whose political culture is marked by oscillations of extremely idealistic messianism and apocalyptic eschatology, and incredible bouts of cruel reaction and misplaced nostalgia. To the extent that “right-wing ideology” or “left-wing ideology” is behind the violence rising in our streets, it’s not directly because those ideas have consequences- after all, in other decades those ideas have been the domain of cloistered journalists rather than street activists and violent murderers. No, in the current phase of things, those ideas are just the catalysts for deeper social problems.
Why do I say all this? What authority do I have?
All of this is speculation, of course- I am an amateur cultural commentator rather than a professional social scientist or historian- but looking at the social science aspects of it, and comparing the violent political results to similar periods in the last century of American history, it would seem to me that we’re in social crisis just as we were in the 1880s-1910s, and just as we were in the 1960s-early 1970s. The turn of the 20th Century saw, as everyone who took AP US History is aware, unprecedented levels of violence- lynchings of African-Americans in the South, anarchist bombings and assassinations of political leaders, labor strikes of gargantuan proportion, and mob violence at times by the ascendant populists. Some of the sources of this strife include the transformation of the Industrial Revolution, the systemic dislocations and migrations it forced, and cultural changes on the horizon. The 1960s and 70s saw a different sort of situation, one less marked by economic and technological change and more imbued with cultural shifts and political realignments. The Civil Rights Movement and the Counterculture were the prime reactions to the former stultification and repression of culture in the 1950s, and both reflected decades-long trends in the offing; the violence that accompanied them was inflamed by various trends besetting America in midcentury, especially including urban decay and the prolonging of the Vietnam War.
In both cases, the violence largely stopped after a few years’ worth of significant reforms- as Walter McDougall says of the aftermath of President Nixon’s domestic legislation, “the ghettoes and campuses fell silent.” Teddy Roosevelt’s labor, consumer protection, and social welfare reforms largely addressed the concerns of the populists of his era without conceding the moral or political ground to them, while Richard Nixon’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War and advances on social and regulatory legislation pulled the rug out from under his liberal rivals and critics. Social and political violence as a whole did not “stop” after the Roosevelt and Nixon presidencies, but for the most part, the reforms they pushed sufficiently allayed national concerns about dramatic changes, and more importantly convinced majorities of Americans that the government was addressing the concerns of the age (even if, as Roosevelt’s and Nixon’s greatest enemies believed, these reforms were done for cynical reasons.) The bombings and assassinations were an anachronism as America entered the First World War in 1914, and as Nixon resigned the Presidency in 1974, public mistrust in government did not spill over into street violence. Reform worked, even if it didn’t fundamentally resolve the great issues the nation faced in 1901 or 1968. But it did help the nation adapt.
I’d argue that we’re in a similar place now. The question is not “how do we fix alienation?” as some commentators like David Brooks have been putting it- rather, I’d say the question is how to address it, and allay the very real concerns Americans have about government and society, while making whatever steps possible to rebuild or reforge lost social capital and weave again the fabric of society into something resembling connectivity. And that’s a long process that a few new laws and nice speeches aren’t going to resolve.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, many have been arguing we need tougher gun laws. That’s pretty much right, but it misses the point, and misses the complexity of the gun situation in America. Stricter gun regulations- not including the removal of the Second Amendment, because that’s not going to happen- are just good policy, beneficial for the industry, the gun owners, and the public alike. But no amount of gun laws, including confiscations and outright bans, will preclude these kinds of mass shootings from happening when people purchase guns illegally off of illegal markets or, more ominously, when terrorists plot things like this. I certainly believe it would be harder for these kinds of things to happen under stricter gun laws, but I think liberals are assuming their solution is a full and total solution- and such things rarely if ever exist in politics.
But it goes beyond that. Removing the gun from a madman’s hands doesn’t change the violence sewn into his heart by human nature, doesn’t remove the options to knife people in the street or plow trucks into crowds or plant bombs in subways, doesn’t reduce the capacity for other forms of lethal violence that are becoming increasingly and unfortunately common in the America and more broadly the West of the late 2010s. Removing the gun from a madman’s hands does work to preclude one of the manifestations of social violence in America today; it doesn’t do much at all to address the deeper issues of social dislocation and cultural decay, and if those issues are not addressed, gun control will probably neither be popular nor have more than a minimal effect in precluding these violent incidents.
What is desperately, desperately needed is reformist leadership and reformist policy tackling a wide array of social issues, as Roosevelt and Wilson did once and as Johnson and Nixon did later. And more importantly, that leadership and policy needs to be conducted in a way that restores social capital and the social contract, and at least nominally secures Americans’ faith in government, society, and themselves. That won’t happen while people in power and in cultural heights retreat to the edges of their own sides’ coalitions; it might happen if you can get some evidence of competence in government, which is sorely lacking these days.
The Obama years provided a glimpse of what that policy competence might look like, as Ross Douthat argued today that in the age of an imperial presidency the policy action must come from the top and trickle down. But for whatever virtues his approach had, President Obama’s tenure resulted in increasing levels of polarization and social decay, and while his healthcare legacy and other things might be helping around the edges, they certainly did not do much to allay the violence that towards the end of his Presidency was becoming all the more common. It need not be said that Trump has only needlessly inflamed and divided the country in this situation.
I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know what reforms we need to put in place, what rhetoric would be helpful, who the leader should be. I don’t know any of it. But I do believe something must be done, and someone must do it, to get America’s government back on course alleviating the social decay and cultural rot that has been underway for at least the last three decades and whose chickens are finally on their way home to roost. Yes, pass gun control, get the guns out of the damn madmen’s and terrorists’ hands- but don’t be deluded that that’s anything like a long-term solution. The long-term solution has to deal with the overall problem, which is social decay and cultural disintegration- and as of this writing, I don’t think anyone, even those who’ve identified the problem, really knows what to do about it yet.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH CALIFORNIA?
California, as usual, has been making headlines nationwide for a number of reasons. Democrats in state government, primarily under the ringleader-ship of State Senate President Kevin de Leon and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, continually go out of their way to snub the Trump Administration on everything from immigration to healthcare to the environment. Its rising crop of Democratic stars- Senator Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, even tech titan Mark Zuckerberg- are routinely cast as prospective presidential candidates for the 2020 cycle. Seven GOP-held Congressional seats whose populations voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are under intense targeting by California Democrats in the national party’s bid to take back the House of Representatives in 2018. California’s a happening place these days.
But all the national political posturing and gossip going on within the Golden State’s borders is a distraction from the real story- the absolute dereliction and failure of California’s governing class to address the very real problems afflicting the state. On everything from housing shortages and soaring costs of living to bloated, out-of-control spending apparatuses and a hemorrhaging statewide debt, California’s politicians have hitherto only been able to offer piecemeal and token reforms, policy Band-Aids, even as they pursue symbolic campaigns to cleanse the history books and promote “international climate leadership.” There are many reasons for this dreamy situation, especially including the absence of a competitive opposition Republican Party, but the biggest problem remains a classically Californian one.
In short, in the late 19th century, California was largely under the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad and other major industries that dominated statewide politics. The Progressive Era saw a successful revolt against this oligarchic rule by the Lincoln-Roosevelt League and others, and the imposition of progressive and democratic reforms that radically altered- and hardened- state government structures. The decline of bipartisan progressive politics in the mid-20th century saw a partisan golden age, and California throughout the Second World War and Cold War seemed to be the kind of middle-class utopia Norman Rockwell spent his time depicting in his paintings.
But that middle-class utopia, for various reasons, gave way to the rise of a new oligarchy allying itself with the progressive structure of the post-Progressive Era California Constitution. Thus, as California weathered the crises of the 1990s and entered the 21st century, it found itself shackled by the ghosts of its past- the domineering tech sector in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, which was on its way to becoming a new nexus of wealth and power, and the mutated legacy of the Progressive Era in the form of century-old reforms that now made state government dysfunctional, and empowered a new interest group in the form of public-sector unions. These forces, both sympathetic to the state Democratic Party (as they had begun to rise in influence while the California GOP was still dominated by the Cold War’s aerospace industry and military-industrial complex of Southern California) have in the last two decades risen further in prominence, to the point that they possess a negative veto power against certain reforms and a budding positive power to push their own reforms without opposition.
Furthermore, most of the intractable problems in California remain intractable primarily because these interest groups benefit from the current structure, and dominate decision-making in the left-leaning Democratic legislature. And they have the money to back up their proposals, as well. Public-sector unions, as a rule, oppose restructurings of overly-generous statewide pension systems; teachers’ unions oppose any new oversight and reform of the teacher hiring system and school districts in general; the tech, media, and other upper-middle class industries, and the coastal liberal homeowners who work for them, support increased environmental regulations on principle, without feeling, particularly harshly anyway, the effects of higher energy and housing costs. It’s not the “Green-and-Blue conspiracy against the middle class” some anti-establishment rhetoric suggests; but it is an unchecked domination of the state’s Democratic Party-dominated political structure by “Green” and “Blue” forces. In a nutshell, California faces massive fiscal and cost-of-living problems, because the groups that benefit from those problems’ remaining unresolved, all dominate statewide politics.
The California Republican Party, meanwhile, is negligible in influence. It doesn’t really have opposition power in the legislature anymore, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego is just about the only Republican of significance in statewide politics. It does represent the redder businesses and industries that still have a presence in the state, but even these typically take to negotiating directly with moderate Democrats to preserve their interests against the coastal elites and public-sector unions. Meanwhile, the urban working classes, nominally represented by Democrats, tend to go unrepresented, their interests considered only third, after those of public-sector unions and the green coastal gentry have been sated.
While the ideal solution, as is a typical ideal solution in American politics, would probably be to restore partisan competitiveness and economic diversity to the state, the current dominant groups have no interest at all in making that happen. So some real institutional creativity is required for those hoping to work within the current system and structure to allay these major problems.
A potential source of institutional creativity and inspiration can be found in theaters across America- the career of Alexander Hamilton.
A USEFUL HAMILTONIAN PRINCIPLES
The “ten-dollar founding father” has been appropriated and abused over the last two years, since his 2015 Broadway debut endeared him to the hearts of millions of liberal fans. In fact, many of the “Green” and “Blue” types being critiqued here have probably shared memes of Lin-Manuel Miranda/Alexander Hamilton exhorting the blessings of mass immigration or condemning police racism/slavery or encouraging higher levels of spending, etc. In many ways the charming musical can be seen as a liberal rebuttal of the Tea Party right’s appropriation of the Founding Fathers- “We on the left have a Founding Father too!”
This was probably predictable, but it’s also unfortunate- because Alexander Hamilton’s vast corpus of political writings contains quite a bit of useful political and policy insight that both contemporary liberals and contemporary conservatives would do well to learn from[i], and those nuggets of wisdom go deeper than the bite-sized slogans contemporary liberals pull out of the musical. A few of these principles follow.
First, and most importantly, is the principle of private interests aligned towards the common good. Hamilton understood, in ways his republican rival Thomas Jefferson never could quite stomach, that one of the three or four driving factors in an individual’s political life was private interest, be it financial and economic, political, cultural, or social. Like James Madison, Hamilton agreed that these private interests ought to be balanced against each other so that one might not dominate the others- the New Deal’s “iron triangle” of business, labor, and government would later be the most explicit example of this- but Hamilton went a step further.
Rather than merely seeking to preserve liberty by balancing faction against faction and ambition against ambition, Hamilton believed that certain important social and political goals could be attained by directing those balanced forces down certain public channels with the use of carrots, sticks, and sermons. In his view, good government was not so much about merely preserving liberty and letting individuals pursue their interests- it was also about harnessing those interests to pursue a concrete conception of the public good.
Hamilton was notorious for associating with the rich and powerful, often in his life being castigated as, alternately, a corrupt plutocrat or an unfortunate dupe of the Federalist aristocrats. But there was a reason for this- the fledgling United States federal government could only maintain its sovereignty, he reasoned, if it had the backing of the most influential and powerful economic interests located within its borders. Those interests could just as easily favor Britain or France, and it was important to keep them loyal to the new Congress and the Constitution that governed it.
This was the real purpose behind Hamilton’s famous financial plan for the assumption of the thirteen states’ Revolutionary War debts. It did indeed empower creditors over debtors, and it did subvert the individual states to the federal will. But it did so to ensure that the rising capitalist merchant class would have faith in, and therefore cast their lots with, the new federal government, giving that government the indispensable support of the most powerful element of domestic American society. The creation of the Bank of the United States and the federal encouragement of manufacturing, whatever their other roles, certainly helped secure the support of major economic interests for the new government as well.
There are other useful principles that can be taken from Hamilton’s public philosophy and political career. The public’s confidence is another one of the indispensable supports of government, so no matter how much backing the government secures from the moneyed classes, it must always maintain, in practice and in the public’s perception, a true level of dedication to the common good and the needs of all society’s groups, lest it become a rentier state dominated by major economic interests. The best way to maintain this perception and reality is by running a government that accomplishes its tasks efficiently and effectively- the government must have energy, and neither succumb to bloat and waste, nor retreat to a laissez-faire conception of public power. Good public administration is therefore key to a government’s success. And on the question of fiscal health, debts can be blessings, provided that they are equipped with adequate funding systems and monetized over time.
Alexander Hamilton had innumerable good ideas, empirically observed, about politics and policy that ought to be examined in greater detail by our governing and scholarly classes. If those classes in California examined them, a blueprint of their subsequent plan to serve the public interest might look as follows.
HAMILTONIANISM FOR 21ST-CENTURY CALIFORNIA
The overarching aim of Hamiltonian legislators in California state politics- be they “Mod Squad” business-class Democrats like Senator Steve Glazer, pragmatic Democrats like Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, or blue-city Republicans like Mayor Faulconer, would be this: take the interest groups- public-sector unions and tech companies, primarily- who are politically dominant and have a stake in precluding fiscal reform and economic openness, and give them a reason, be it incentives, penalties, or sweet deals of some other sort, to support the reform of their sectors.
For public-sector unions at a statewide or even a municipal level, the task would be for Hamiltonian reformers to convince them to drop their knee-jerk opposition to pension reform. This would seem to be an insurmountable task, given that public employees like their overly-generous benefits and sometimes ludicrous protections, both of which are usually protected by law. If some understanding could be arrived at whereby these legal barriers to pension reform were repealed, but the unions would have a stake in the pension systems’ being adjusted through multiparty talks (which would include union members, government representatives, taxpayer advocates, and others,) some progress might be attainable. A gentlemen’s agreement-style guarantee of, say, increased job security for union members in return for the unions’ openness to pension reform, might be one way forward. Of course, it’s difficult to see the currently-dominant public unions to back such a compromise under current circumstances.
On education and the question of teachers’ unions, the task might be somewhat easier. It could be a question of offering more generous funding and services to school districts in exchange for reforms to the teacher hiring/firing process and greater school accountability. It could be a pledge to tank the mixed-results charter schools project, thus giving public school districts effective monopoly over the education process, in exchange for those school districts and teachers’ unions submitting to a variety of reforms, including oversight and hiring/firing procedure reforms.
As for the “Green Gentry” of the employees of tech, media, and entertainment companies along the California coast, one could imagine pledges of further funds for infrastructure and anti-poverty services, and perhaps even a better climate for those entrenched businesses against startup competitors, in return for relaxation of support for restrictive energy, environmental, and housing construction policies that drive up the cost of living for California’s middle and working classes. True, those funds would be better spent in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, but it could prospectively be worthwhile to bail out the coasts in exchange for their flexibility on regulatory issues that harm denizens of the interior. The question is whether or not the Gentry would allow it, given that sentiments in favor of environmental regulations run deep.
In a way, this looks like Trumpian deal-making and transactional politics, as it should. But it is indeed Hamiltonian in that it privileges certain “public goods-“ flexibility on fiscal structuring, first, and a climate of reduced costs and hence greater opportunities for the working and middle classes, second- over narrower conceptions of “a vision for the state.” And it is flexible enough that it opens room for reformers to work with the entrenched, nearly-parasitic interest groups in power, in ways that strive to align those groups’ interests with the public goods of fiscal flexibility and a middle-class climate.
The strategy- a version of “relief for reform,” perhaps a form of bribery- is designed to be a two-step process. First, reformers gain the trust and cooperation of those interests opposed to reform, and the reins of power over fiscal and regulatory structuring. Second, these reformers do that fiscal and regulatory restructuring, this time without the blue-green wall of opposition from public-sector unions and the coastal gentry. The result should be a more sustainable and workable fiscal model, and a better regulatory climate resulting in lower costs and perhaps more opportunities for lower-income Californians.
There are, as always is the case in politics, consequences and tradeoffs. For one thing, this proposed set of compromises destroys many pretenses of free market economics and competition between the public and private sectors, at times even callously allowing for the withering away of such treasured projects as the struggling charter school movement. It is destructive, as well, to most conceptions of “fiscal responsibility” at least in the short term. The bailouts and subsidies it offers to these various interest groups will have to come from somewhere- Borrowing? Extra taxes on the rich, or on the poor?-and will more likely than not increase the state’s deepening debt.
But then, politics is not- at least should not be- about realizing the best possible version of an ideal, abstract principle like freedom or equality or virtue. Politics is about, first, preserving “ordered liberty” of a sort by preventing groups from dominating, enslaving, or destroying each other, which is done by building institutions; and second, by advancing particular social goals necessary for the survival of the broader community, by whatever compromise means is necessary. The remnants of the California Republican Party would not like this morally compromised strategy any more than most elements of the California Democratic Party would like the constraints it imposes. But if their interests could all be harnessed in the general public interest, it becomes at least a little more likely that some motion towards the attainment of that public interest can be attained.
WANTED: A FEW GOOD MEN
To help California’s public interest escape from the clutches of public-sector unions and green coastal elites, it would be helpful to gain the support of those factions, and Alexander Hamilton’s methods of aligning the interests of the powerful with the public good might be helpful on that regard. Human nature being what it is, this would be a monumental undertaking no matter what, but given the deepening crisis nationally and its effects on California, now would be a good time to start.
The alternative to this sort of public-interest politics would probably be more of the same- a California GOP continually striving and failing to become relevant, simply because its donor and voter base has by and large left the state since the end of the Cold War. Recent internal spats within the California GOP-notably the inglorious ouster of pragmatic Assemblyman Chad Mayes from his position as Assembly Republican Caucus leader- reveal that the party is simply not capable of doing what it needs to do to be relevant as a counterforce to the California Democrats. The small-dog-biting-the-lady’s-leg image conveyed by California’s rump Republican Party just doesn’t inspire confidence, and it is hard to see the party returning to its days of relevance anytime soon.
There’s always the chance that that rump minority could try to effect policies that encourage the growth of the businesses- energy, aerospace, manufacturing, etc.- that have tended to support Republicans in California in recent decades. But those strategies clearly haven’t been working, and in any case if they did, it would be a long-term process before a state Republican minority would be able to make significant changes to statewide policies. Furthermore, such a situation would be adversarial and quite likely very messy, making the necessary compromises harder to strike and the necessarily razor-like policy fixes harder to attain. A collaborative effort on the part of good-government reformers would be preferable even to increased Republican power in the state, at least in the sense of getting these fiscal and regulatory reforms accomplished.
There’s one last question: who would actually be carrying out these reform efforts? Would it be Democratic politicians who, presumably, are already under the influence of these groups that are opposed to reform? Would it be Republican politicians whose own backers would advocate for some reforms and not for others?
More likely than not, yes. But there is a hope for otherwise, in one final bit of political wisdom from Alexander Hamilton’s pen. Hamilton’s schemes often assumed that a few “choice spirits,” dedicated public servants, aristocrats of the soul, talented administrators and benign politicians, would be necessary for the carrying-out and proper administration of the public’s interests. These men (and women!) of character, of dedication to the government and the polity it represented, would be something like Platonic philosopher-kings, more worthy of managing the public weal than most standard self-interested political hacks and ideological demagogues.
Who gets to determine who these choice spirits were never seems to have been one of Hamilton’s concerns, and he never goes into significant detail on the question. But if virtue cannot be entrusted to the citizenry or to the interest groups, perhaps at the very least a few good men and women could do good work in politics to shepherd the state and keep it moving in the right direction. We all know who these people are, but would probably be unable to define their qualities if asked.
Hopefully some cadre of such choice spirits- Californian Hamiltons- soon ascends to power in the Golden State, with some of Hamilton’s precepts on the public interest and effective administration in mind. The state’s residents could use them.
[i] Most of the articulation of Hamilton’s principles here is inspired by Clinton Rossiter’s magisterial treatise, “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution.” (1964)
In years past I’ve made a point of reading the first 15 Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address once a year, as well as passages from Alexander Hamilton’s reports on manufacturing, the public credit, and a national bank. These, I’ve argued, ought to stand beside the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as founding documents of the United States of America.
I am considering delving into the excellent American tradition of political oratory, as well, to add to my “every American’s required reading list” passages from John Adams’s “Discourses on Davila,” John Quincy Adams’s Inaugural Address, and Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address. These, I think, do testimony to the tempered Jeffersonian spirit of American democracy with the same intellectual fire as Hamilton’s and Madison’s testimonies on the mechanics of government, and with a smoother poetic style.
In the course of looking for some of these passages, I was reminded of the sheer, shining ebullience of the 28-year old Abraham Lincoln’s prose. I’ve copied some of my favorite passages from the Lyceum Address, bearing in mind the surprising relevance one can interpret out of each of them- not least the notion that “the last trump” shall “awaken our Washington!” I just hope when I’m 28 I’m this eloquent, thoughtful, and prolific.
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.