I wrote this piece some time ago and meant to edit and rethink it, but never got around to it. In any case, I’ve developed my thoughts past these ones, but it’d be good to reposit them somewhere. I’ll probably eventually return to the idea of melding Mead’s and Lind’s thoughts, but today is not that day.
The National Liberal Tradition
Over two decades ago, Michael Lind wrote his own excommunication from the modern conservative movement, Up From Conservatism. It’s a fantastic book, and all thinking progressives should read it to get an understanding of the dangerous excesses of blind ideology. For that matter, conservatives should read it, in order to amend the very real contradictions and utopianisms their ideology espouses.
As part of his argument, Lind documents five political temperaments- the “Left-Liberals,” extreme social liberals and quasi-socialists a la George McGovern and Bernie Sanders; the “National Liberals,” social moderates who espouse strong state action in the economy, in the tradition of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt; the “Neoliberals” like Thomas Dewey and Bill Clinton, who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative; the “Libertarian Conservatives,” like Barry Goldwater and Marco Rubio, who are both socially and fiscally conservative; and the “Populist Conservatives,” who espouse a populist anti-government ideology and are best represented by the likes of Pat Buchanan and, nowadays, perhaps Ted Cruz.
Of the five temperaments, most have been present at various times throughout American history, but Lind’s own self-identified temperament- National Liberalism- is conspicuously absent from the post-1968 American political constellation. Lind has written a lot about National Liberalism (sometimes calling it Hamiltonianism, Vital Center Liberalism, or Developmentalism,) and has traced it from the Founding all the way to the mid-20th Century. Lind’s National Liberals start with Hamilton himself, and George Washington, followed by the Whigs like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and then the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Next in the apostolic succession are Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly, and the tradition then jumps parties to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Republicans like Henry Stimson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller tagged along, but it was Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson who did most of the pioneering nation-building.
So what is a National Liberal? Lind defines them as nationalist statesmen who use Hamiltonian developmental capitalism to achieve the ends of national union, middle-class prosperity, and strategic security. They tend to be economically liberal- supporting entitlement programs, public investments in infrastructure and technology, and public-private collaboration that libertarians would call “crony capitalism.” However, they are socially moderate, and while they might favor abortion rights and gay marriage, they also oppose affirmative action programs and mass immigration. In short, they cater to the needs of the white working class, in the interests of national grand strategy.
The late 1960s and early 1970s spelled the end of the National Liberal tradition in both parties, as Libertarian Conservatives under Goldwater and Reagan took over the Republican Party and Left-Liberals under McGovern took over the Democratic Party. (Libertarian Conservatives would only get more conservative over time; Left-Liberals would be replaced by Neoliberals like Bill Clinton in the 1990s.) Lind blames the Left-Liberals for the death of National Liberalism and the resulting ascendance of Neoliberalism and Libertarian Conservatism. The once-promising first generation of Neoconservatives failed to protect the New Deal and institute National Liberalism in the GOP, surrendering unilaterally to the libertarian wing instead.
The National Liberal tradition has lain dormant since that great turning, and its voter base- the white working class, or the Radical Center- has occasionally rebelled and followed outsiders like Ross Perot, since neither major party speaks to their interests. The white working class now follows Donald Trump, who is in some ways a crude caricature of National Liberalism gone populist.
Lind’s central thrust in all his writings is that a revival of the moderate National Liberal tradition would be beneficial for the country and would help to forge the institutions of what he calls “the Fourth Republic.” These are a New American System based on modernized industrial policy, infrastructure, financial regulation, technological innovation, and trade, and a New Middle Class Social Contract based on reformed universal entitlements, new subsidized social services, and stable jobs in service industries like education and healthcare. Unfortunately, no revival seems imminent at the moment, either on the left or the right, though Lind has occasionally forecast a return of the tradition through certain Democratic figures including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren.
FDR’s and LBJ’s National Liberalism as Liberalism 4.0
So what happened to National Liberalism? Was it really just killed off by activist Left-Liberalism in pitched political combat, and drowned out by the bipartisan neoliberal consensus of the last couple of decades?
That seems to explain a lot of it. But it seems to me that there’s more to the story.
Walter Russell Mead, a former colleague of Lind’s and with Lind a co-founder of the think-tank New America, offers up another model of American intellectual-institutional development in his magisterial essay, The Once and Future Liberalism. Mead argues, essentially, that the philosophical framework of Liberalism- individual rights and ordered liberty- has been updated with every major intellectual and technological revolution, to best preserve liberty and opportunity in a changing world, since the Glorious Revolution’s Liberalism 1.0. Mead traces Liberalism 2.0 to the American Revolution, Liberalism 3.0 to the post-Civil War era of laissez-faire, and Liberalism 4.0 to the Progressive Movement and the New Deal.
Mead also calls Liberalism 4.0 the “Blue Social Model.” It worked admirably from the 1930s to the 1960s, in Mead’s view (incidentally, Lind refers to those decades as “The Glorious Thirty Years” in his book Land of Promise,) but as globalization, technological automation, and the Information Revolution took hold in the late 20th Century, the Blue Social Model’s endemic flaws caused it to grow clunky, stagnant, and unsustainable. (Lind argues that this was due, instead, to the neoliberal overclass’s ascendancy.)
How does this manifest itself? Mead, throughout much of his domestic policy work, particularly at The American Interest’s blog Via Meadia, points out many of the Blue Social Model’s failings- overly centralized regulatory governance, stiflingly inefficient bureaucracies, bloated public pensions and entitlement systems rendered unsustainable by demographic trends, anti-competitive corporate monopolies, wasteful spending, and an economy generally more managed than dynamic. These are not merely problems with administrative execution- they point to deficiencies within the Blue Social Model itself.
It would seem as though Mead and Lind are looking at the same phenomenon, one through rosy-colored glasses and the other through a critical microscope.
In some ways, that’s the case. Mead’s idea of the dysfunction of Liberalism 4.0 does much to explain the excesses and failings of Lind’s National Liberalism. Universal entitlements and basic regulations require a federal bureaucracy, and as society grows more technologically and economically complex, that bureaucracy must invariably grow. Bureaucracy being based on law and process rather than results, there’s a natural tendency towards dysfunction and inefficiency inherent to it. Public-private partnerships and industrial policy invariably lead to some form of “iron-triangle” monopolistic corporatism, which in turn stagnates and tends to grow corrupt. What Lind might see as public-private collaboration for the national interest, Mead might see as crony capitalism that precludes creatively destructive competition.
Bureaucracy/public benefits and industrial policy/corporate monopoly are only two of the contestable characteristics of “National Liberalism 4.0,” as the institutions and intellectual synthesis forged by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson might be called. And there are important cases to be made for both sides- as Mead notes, it’s obvious that our governing institutions are dysfunctional today, in desperate need of reform and more likely than not, decentralization and digitization. But as Lind notes, it’s obvious that the National Liberal tradition has forged the institutions of the American state and generally served the American people better than any other American tradition.
Why National Liberalism 4.0 Died
So ultimately, National Liberalism did not die solely due to the Left-Liberal takeover of the Democratic Party between 1968 and 1972, though that was the proximate cause. Nor did it fail to rise again simply due to the shifts rightward of several first-generation neoconservatives in the early 1990s, though that didn’t help either.
These are simply manifestations of the larger story- National Liberalism 4.0, for all the reasons Mead discusses, was simply too decadent by the late 1960s to achieve the ends it sought to accomplish. It no longer had the answers. It did not adapt quickly enough to keep up in a changing world. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s iteration of National Liberalism, which the Republican Party of the late 19th Century generally followed, had resulted in plutocratic decadence by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt’s days, so the National Liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt, carried forth by the rest of the New Deal presidents, grew to bureaucratic decadence up through the days of President Nixon.
Lind has written that George Washington forged America’s “First Republic,” Abraham Lincoln its “Second Republic,” and Franklin Roosevelt its “Third Republic.” I would argue that these Republics grew decadent within decades of their founding, and necessitated “Reformations,” which were contested between Hamiltonian nationalists and Jeffersonian populists. Each “Reformation” did not fully heal the Republic it sought to reform, but each did restore public faith in national institutions and set the blueprint for the next “Republic” to come after them. The great duels over Reformations took place between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, and Nelson Rockefeller/Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan/Barry Goldwater.
Theodore Roosevelt’s great accomplishment was reforming Lincoln’s Second Republic into a system with greater legitimacy among the American people, and laying the blueprint for the Third Republic of the United States. He contested romantic Jeffersonian populists like William Jennings Bryan and, taking the best of their radical ideas, moderated them into institutions fitting the contours of the National Liberal tradition. Ultimately, the spirit of Bryan echoed faintly in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was consciously based on Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, which in turn sought to allay the problems Bryan addressed, among others.
Franklin Roosevelt was an institution-forger on the level of Abraham Lincoln, and his National Liberalism followed Lincolnian and Teddy Rooseveltian contours. But just as Lincoln’s Republic grew decadent within a few decades, so did FDR’s.
In the early decadence of the Third Republic’s institutions, the primary reformers were Jeffersonian populists like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and Barry Goldwater, and National Liberal Republicans like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson are better viewed as standpatters, who prescribed the same solutions their forebears had offered up, not unlike Chester Arthur or Benjamin Harrison in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. To continue the analogy, Reagan and Kemp were the William Jennings Bryans; Rockefeller and Nixon were the Teddy Roosevelts.
Ultimately, it was President Nixon whose policies on governance, regulation, and entitlements would have been able to reform the New Deal’s American System and Social Contract, had it not been for Watergate. Nixon’s demise thoroughly discredited the National Liberals in the Republican Party just as the National Liberals lost control of the Democratic Party to the Left-Liberals. This, as Lind correctly points out, led directly to the Conservative ascendancy and Neoliberal reformation.
So rather than having a pragmatic National Liberal reformer like Nixon restore the American people’s faith in the institutions of FDR’s Third Republic, as Theodore Roosevelt had done for Lincoln’s Second Republic, a Jeffersonian populist- Ronald Reagan- did the restoration, while tearing down too many of that Republic’s institutions. Something similar had happened in the 1830s, when Andrew Jackson- another Jeffersonian populist- had restored the public’s faith in Washington’s First Republic, while still destroying the Bank of the United States and slashing infrastructure funding. Ultimately, the vision of Henry Clay, the National Liberal of Jackson’s day, would influence President Lincoln’s construction of the Second Republic, with Jacksonian Democracy a mere whisper in Lincoln’s ear. Similarly, it will not be Reagan’s ideas that inform the next great Republic-founder, but Nixon’s.
The important thing, though, is that Nixon was both an establishmentarian and a reformer. He was steeped in the old traditions and methods of the New Deal, yet still understood their shortcomings and worked pragmatically- through the New Federalism’s decentralization and revenue-sharing, and through an attempted reorganization of the Federal Government- to restore the public’s faith in the New Deal and make it work better. He did not merely attempt to complete the New Deal, as did Lyndon Johnson through Medicare and the War on Poverty. He worked to extend it, but also to reform it.
Mead does not consider Nixon to be an authentic example of Liberalism 5.0, but Nixon’s ideas nonetheless should be mined for guidance by prospective reformers. In particular, Nixonian decentralization and bureaucratic methods reform can be useful for getting beyond the Blue Social Model and onto something new.
However, resurgent Nixonianism will not be sufficient to forge the institutions of National Liberalism 5.0. Nixon operated just as the modern iteration of globalization was taking off, and before automation and the Information Revolution had begun to truly transform economic and social life.
We find ourselves at the precipice of the Fourth American Revolution, in which our leaders will forge the Fourth Republic of the United States. Using the general American System/Social Contract model of Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, and Nixon, we must forge National Liberalism 5.0 in a way compatible with the economic, technological, and social changes of the last few decades. Lincoln and FDR have provided the basic model for us to use, while Nixon has offered guidance on how to reform it. In the intervening four decades since Nixon left the White House, technological and institutional change has come, as history has happened, and our institutions have further decayed under neoliberal and conservative management. How shall we reform them?
Marrying Mead and Lind’s paradigms is a good place to start.
Towards National Liberalism 5.0
Theoretically, it shouldn’t be too hard to take the best of Lind’s and Mead’s ideas and forge a new intellectual synthesis- let’s call it “National Liberalism 5.0.” Such a synthesis could accept the fundamental precepts of National Liberalism- heavy state activism to forge an American System and a middle-class Social Contract- while acknowledging the deficiencies of the mid-20th Century iteration of it and modernizing the tradition to account for the Information Age, automation, and globalization, as well as demographic trends and cultural opinion.
One of the most notable and interesting parts of the National Liberal tradition is its emphasis on productive investments in public infrastructure. Henry Clay’s canals, Abraham Lincoln’s railroads, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower’s highway system, and plenty of other examples testify to the “build-stuff” mentality of the National Liberals. And for good reason- infrastructure is too expensive and risky for private investors to consider it on their own, and its benefits are widely distributed across the population, so the public-interested state is the best entity to construct it.
However, various impediments to infrastructure construction have raised the costs unacceptably high in the 21st Century. As Mead notes in a post at Via Meadia, the costs of infrastructure construction are unreasonably high due to several factors endemic to the Blue Social Model- excessive permitting and NIMBYism, price-raising negotiations with interest groups like unions and construction firms, and overlapping layers of regulations. This is by no means an indictment of infrastructure as a whole- but due to the Blue Social Model’s deficiencies, we are a lot less capable of fulfilling a core National Liberal goal than we could be. Similar things can be said of education, healthcare, regulatory, and other policies, but it seems to boil down to this- we need to make critical investments, but we need to reform how we carry out those investments.
So there’s one idea to start the process of forging Lind’s and Mead’s thought. The task of developing National Liberalism 5.0 will be a long and arduous one, replete with policy disagreements, rival schools of thought, and all the ups and downs any human endeavor undergoes.
That said, it is a worthy cause. We’re at a moment in the Republic’s history when the old institutions no longer work, and new ideas are not only interesting- they’re necessary. The true conservative is progressive, and the true progressive is conservative, in that both take the best institutions and traditions of the past and seek to preserve them by updating and reforming them to propel society into the future.
That is what must be done for Lind’s National Liberal tradition, the tradition that literally built this country. It won’t work for us the same way it worked for Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson, as Lind acknowledges at the end of Land of Promise. But its fundamental precepts- government activism in the economy, a government-guaranteed middle class social contract, public-private partnerships in strategic industries, and the national union as the overriding end- are good, time-tested, and fundamentally American. It would be a waste for us to lose them to the past by failing to update them for the future.
With one major party’s orthodoxy in shambles and the other’s orthodoxy fundamentally changing, and the Millennial generation coming of political age, now is the time to develop new ideas and peddle them in the political arena. When the old answers don’t work, it’s time to provide new ones.
National Liberalism 5.0 can help answer a lot of problems. A further discussion of these ideas is warranted.
There’s a centrist Republican consultant named John Weaver who’s almost single-handedly borne the torch of Republican moderation into the 21st Century. He’s done this, among other means, by advising the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain (in 2000, not 2008,) Governor Jon Huntsman (2012,) and Governor John Kasich (2016,) all of whom attracted national attention for being “mavericks” or “reformers” who could pull the party out of its conservative past. (Correspondingly, they were all loathed in the popular conservative press.)
Outside of the McCain, Huntsman, and Kasich campaigns, there’s really been no moderate Republican national infrastructure of any significant influence. Other leaders- moderate governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Baker, moderate senators like Mark Kirk and Olympia Snowe- never seem to capture the imagination of any faction, regardless of how successful or unsuccessful they are in office. Groups like the Republican Leadership Council usually flop or fold within a few years, and intellectuals like David Brooks tend to be more widely-read among liberals. There’s just no infrastructure- and without major infrastructure, including people, money, ideas, and organization, no amount of presidential campaigning by John Weaver and Co. can bring the Party of Lincoln to the center.
But lack of moderate infrastructure is only one of many reasons the GOP has shifted so far to the right culturally and politically. Intellectual shifts to the economic right among our bipartisan political elite, the transition from an industrial economy to a finance/services-based economy, and the shuffling of rural and suburban voters into the GOP and urban voters into the Democratic coalition, have helped to create a reality where Republicans are most electorally successful when they are fiscally and socially conservative, at most levels of government and in many parts of the country. With conservatism dominant, conservatism and Republicanism have become one and the same in the eyes of many Republican operatives and voters. My own opinion is that this was cemented by the successes of the Reagan Presidency, but the long-term factors must not be overlooked.
In any case, merely building new infrastructure for modern moderate Republicans like McCain, Huntsman, and Kasich would not really help resolve the long-term problem of the party’s shift rightward nationally. It might set up a new pole of influence within the GOP, provided it were well-endowed with money, people, good organization, and smart propagandists and operatives. But even then it would be a long, hard slog against the grain before moderate Republicanism would be anything more than an eccentric holdout occasionally featured in articles at The New Republic and The New York Times, or for that matter The Onion.
It wasn’t always this way, though.
As late as the 1970s, moderate and progressive factions within the GOP held national office and maintained significant pull over the Republican coalition. They had been engaged in an epic struggle with the ascendant conservative movement since at least the early 1950s, and even before the Eisenhower-Taft rivalry of 1952 there had been a tension between progressives and traditionalists within the party (note the differences between, say, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.)
But from the founding of National Review magazine in 1955 to Governor Ronald Reagan’s securing the GOP nomination for President of the United States in 1980, the battle between moderates and conservatives for the future of the GOP hit levels it hadn’t reached since the turn of the 20th Century, and the backdrop of the Cold War and New Deal gave it a more intensely ideological flavor than anything that had existed in TR’s time. My friend and mentor, the historian of the moderate Republicans, Geoffrey Kabaservice, chronicled this thirty-year’s war in his 2011 book “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”
The basic point of Rule and Ruin is that the GOP didn’t have to become conservative- there was no historical force moving it in that direction, no foundational principle in the 1854 charter that bound it to a Buckleyite fate, no constellation of exterior forces that would turn the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower into the party of Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush. It was rather a clash of wills between powerful human actors, and the result of decisions and mistakes made throughout that clash, that hollowed out the GOP’s center and pushed it rightward after 1980. George Romney, William Scranton, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Richard Nixon could have stopped it, had their judgment been better and had fate been kinder. But in a broad sense, the Republican moderates of 1950-1980 failed- the conservative ascendancy post-1980 and the transformation of the Republican Party was history’s verdict on their failure.
But it was a tumultuous fight. The moderate Republicans did not give up easily. After Vice-President Nixon’s narrow defeat in 1960 at the hands of John F. Kennedy, his old congressional colleague, the conservatives took to the streets and rallied their troops. By 1964’s Republican National Convention, Senator Barry Goldwater was the leading candidate for President of the United States, despite his well-known penchant for rhetorical overreach. Forgetting Edmund Burke, Goldwater proclaimed in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
He won the Republican nomination at San Francisco’s Cow Palace that day, and led the GOP to ignominious defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson a few months later. But despite his defeat, Goldwater had infused the conservative movement with a sense of cause, purpose, and confidence it had not previously known. The 1968 competition for the presidential nomination was a bruising slog more or less between Reagan, Rockefeller, and Nixon, and Nixon edged out Rockefeller primarily because he knew how to win over conservatives where Rockefeller did not.
Nixon went on to become President of the United States, and operated more or less as Eisenhower had- a pragmatic reformer of the New Deal, interested in adjusting its administration but preserving its benefits. Conrad Black, his most adoring biographer, suggests that had Nixon’s presidency been a success, he would have gone down with Franklin Roosevelt as one of the greatest domestic policy presidents of the 20th Century.
But it was not to be- Nixon’s own Shakespearian flaws of character defeated him in the end, and the Watergate Scandal blackened his reputation for the rest of his life. President Ford’s pardoning of Nixon became an albatross around the neck of Ford’s administration, and neither Ford- nor Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller- was really capable or talented enough to rebuild the edifice upon which Nixon once stood. Ford narrowly beat upstart Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1976, and went on to lose to Governor Jimmy Carter, of all people. Ford’s loss in 1976 completed the de-legitimization of the old Eisenhower-Nixon-Rockefeller Republicans, and sealed the party’s fate, delivering it to the conservative movement with Reagan’s ascendancy to the Presidency in 1980. Republicanism would thenceforth be about free markets, social traditionalism, and “small government.”
So what did these old-fashioned moderate Republicans of midcentury look like? What did they think, and what did they do? What was a Republican before Reagan defined the ideological limits of what a Republican could be?
In short, the thing that differentiated them from New Deal Democrats to their left and conservative Republicans to their right was their position on the institutions of the New Deal. Moderate Republicans were truly centrists, in that regard.
The New Deal Democrats saw Franklin Roosevelt’s programs as foundational to the midcentury American economy and, importantly, without flaw. Democratic Presidents and Congresses throughout the decades expanded the New Deal with their own programs- Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy’s failed New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson’s legendarily expansive Great Society. What all these programs held in common was that they did not fundamentally change anything FDR had put in place, they only expanded it- even as FDR’s programs had begun to grow dysfunctional under their own weight.
The conservatives of the Republican Party, meanwhile, vociferously reacted against these expansions and against the New Deal itself. Foreshadowing the contemporary conservative movement, conservative Republicans of the day opposed “big government” for reasons of a strict interpretation of constitutionalism, for fear of social decay and the decay of the family, and most importantly, out of a newly libertarian economic sensibility imported by thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and eventually Milton Friedman. William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review magazine, organized these different sensibilities- often held by very different groups of Americans- into “fusionist” conservatism, a creed practiced in varying forms by influential conservative Republicans in the era. These titans included Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, and the rising star Ronald Reagan.
Where conservative Republicans had no use for the New Deal and pledged, among other things, to repeal Social Security, eliminate large sections of the federal bureaucracy, and institute a flat income tax, the moderate Republicans of the time saw the New Deal’s institutions as extensions of a great American tradition that had extended through Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln himself. But unlike the New Deal Democrats, they accurately recognized the shortcomings of the New Deal and its successors- its overcentralizing tendencies, the stagnant bloat of the bureaucracy, the toxic effect urban policies could have on families, and the iron wall of regulations.
Moderate Republicans pledged to reform, but not to repeal or roll back, the administration of the federal government- they saw its role as giving a hand up to people rather than a hand out, and paving the way to national prosperity rather than getting in the way or out of the way. Like Dwight Eisenhower and his famous dictum to “be conservative when it comes to money, liberal when it comes to human beings,” they were fiscally conservative but made no efforts to repeal New Deal legislation, sometimes even expanding the New Deal where necessary. They uniformly backed the Civil Rights Act and the broader Civil Rights Movement, unlike many Goldwaterite conservatives concerned with federal overreach. And, most tellingly depicted in President Nixon’s unfinished plans to decentralize governance, reform welfare, and reorganize the bureaucracies of the Executive Branch, they wanted to preserve and expand the blessings and protections provided by the New Deal’s institutions, while correcting their mistakes and establishing more efficient administration.
Justin Sherin has written that had Nixon not humiliated himself through the disgrace of Watergate, (and, I would add, had the Ford Administration been more inspiring and politically savvy,) this sort of centrist, pragmatic pro-New Deal Republicanism might well have survived and strangled Reagan/Goldwater-style conservatism in its infancy. The New Deal Democrats had imploded and their party had turned to the social left by the time of the McGovern revolution of 1972, and the centrist path was open to Republicans throughout the 1970s. But for reasons of human agency and human drama, this path was not taken- though many advised it.
Among those advising it were Republican activists and thinkers with a very different vision of what Republicanism should be than Republicans of the conservative movement.
Senator Jacob Javits of New York was not a particularly influential politician, but he did have the unique talent of writing prolifically and well. One of his books, “Order of Battle: A Republican’s Call to Reason,” was published in 1964 and intended as a moderate’s response to his Senate colleague Barry Goldwater’s legendary conservative manifesto, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” To put it mildly, Senator Javits’s book did not have anywhere near the influence Goldwater’s treatise enjoyed, but Order of Battle still makes for interesting reading as a historical document and a call to moderation.
One of Javits’s ideas, in particular, is relevant to these dark days upon us, as it was upon him as he wrote in 1964. It is the question of ideological purity in parties.
The conservative movement was dedicated to making the Republican Party a purely conservative party, and expunging the GOP’s liberals and moderates and driving them into the Democratic Party. This strategy also assumed that conservative Democrats would flow into the GOP (and by the way, this strategy became a reality after the otherwise moderate President Nixon’s Southern Strategy was implemented.) It was premised on the notion that voters should have “a clear choice” in presidential elections, between liberal and conservative ideas, and not be forced to compromise their beliefs.
Javits picked this idea apart and noted, among other things, that politics is basically a matter of compromise between different groups rather than the imposition of an ideologically pure system from on high. He destroyed the conservative movement’s pretensions to being more truly in line with the American spirit: “Nothing… could be more remote from the central reality and the genius of American politics. In all its experiences to date save one, our political system has shunned the doctrinaire and ideological approach to public affairs. It has accepted the fact that life is larger than logic, and that the main function of politics is to serve the practical needs of life as those needs present themselves in different forms and in different settings.”
Javits continued, “At all other times [than the American Civil War] to date, American politics, by a kind of bipartisan secret wisdom, has taken care to avoid a proliferation of the one-interest, extremist, dogma-haunted fractionalized parties like those which paralyzed and later led to the death of Germany’s Weimar Republic and France’s Third Republic. American politics has cast up two major political parties which do in fact differ from each other in general temperament, outlook, and in their order of priorities. But they have also allowed for a variety of internal opinions, often sharply conflicting opinions, within each party.”
The Senator clearly wanted to maintain a moderate faction in the Republican Party so he could maintain his job. But more important than that was the truth he held dear from the experiences of Germany, France, and antebellum America- that monolithically ideological parties, taken over by monolithically ideological factions, can tear nations apart. It is the polar balance of ideas within parties, and not just between them, that keeps stability- hence the value of there being a progressive, moderate, and conservative wing all in the same GOP.
But Javits wasn’t alone in arguing for moderation. Younger folks did, too.
Around the time Senator Javits was writing his underappreciated little gem of a book, a group of college kids and graduate students- all Republicans- in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was coming together to talk about politics frequently. They were dismayed with the ideological hostile takeover underway in the GOP, and eventually decided to set up a group that would promote moderate candidates, publish moderate commentary and policy work, and generally work to save the moderate and progressive tradition of Republicanism in American politics. They called themselves the Ripon Society, named after Ripon, Wisconsin- the town in which the GOP was formed in 1854.
In an interview, one of Ripon’s early members- Tom Petri, who would go on to serve in the Nixon White House and then as a U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin from 1979 to 2015- told me that in the early 1960s, the newly-founded Ripon Society met with former Vice-President Richard Nixon to discuss their ideas and plans. Nixon apparently told them they should write their ideas into a manifesto, a public statement of sorts, and they began drafting it.
Then, on November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
After the shock subsided, the Ripon Society edited their manifesto, “A Call to Excellence in Leadership: An Open Letter to the New Generation of Republicans,” to honor the late President and exhort the Republican Party “to seek in its future leadership those qualities of vision, intellectual force, humaneness, and courage that Americans saw and admired in John F. Kennedy, not in a specious effort to fall heir to his mantle, but because our times demand no lesser greatness.” They explained that Kennedy had been attempting to build a coalition of the political center, that his successor Johnson would do no such thing, and that the Republican Party should reject the extremism of Barry Goldwater and move to build the center again. And, of course, to do honor to the humane but inspired moderation of politics President Kennedy so embodied.
But beyond that, the Ripon Society members outlined in their manifesto an ambitious statement of pragmatism, moderation, and, paradoxically, “a passion to get on with the tasks at hand.” They argued, in some of the most beautiful passages on the nature of moderate politics I’ve found, that problem-solving in the modern age would be necessarily complex and anti-ideological, and that complex and anti-ideological thinking would be required of anybody in politics hoping to make a real difference in the world.
“The moderate recognizes that there are a variety of means available to him, but that there are no simple unambiguous ends. He recognizes hundreds of desirable social goals where the extremist may see only a few. The moderate realizes that ends not only compete with one another, but that they are inextricably related to the means adopted for their pursuit. Thus he will most likely set a proximate goal. While working for limited realizable objectives he will be especially concerned with the means, the environment in which the goals are achieved. The moderate chooses the center- the middle road- not because it is halfway between left and right. He is more than a non-extremist. He takes this course since it offers him the greatest possibility for constructive achievement….
Moderation is not a full-blown philosophy proclaiming the answers to all our problems. It is, rather, a point of view, a plea for political sophistication, for a certain skepticism to total solutions. The moderate has the audacity to be adaptable, to seek the limited solution most appropriate to the needs of his nation, its institutions, and its people.”
In words that ring as true today as they did then, they concluded:
“Without this vision and sense of purpose, the Republican Party will most certainly fail in the broadest sense of providing America the responsible leadership it needs.
“The moderates of the Republican Party have too long been silent. None of us can shirk the responsibility for our past lethargy. All of us must now respond to the need for forceful leadership. The moderate progressive elements of the Republican Party must strive to change the tone and the content of American political debate. The continued silence of those who should now seek to lead disserves our party and nation alike. The question has often been asked, “Where does one find ‘fiery moderates’?” Recent events show only too clearly how much we need such men. If we cannot find them, let us become them.”
The Ripon Society’s members went on to become just such men, though it is unfortunate that none of them ever became quite prominent enough to run for President of the United States and campaign on a Ripon-esque message of moderation. The Ripon Society still exists in Washington today, though in much-changed form- since the 70s, it has generally been absorbed into the conservative mainstream, opposing the far right but working to inform standard Paul Ryan-type conservatives. It remains moderate in temperament and demeanor; it is no longer truly moderate in policy or politics.
The Ripon Society slid rightward with the rest of the GOP following the election of Ronald Reagan and especially after the success of the Reagan years. As Kabaservice recounts in Rule and Ruin and as E.J. Dionne notes in his history of and commentary on the modern Republican Party, “Why the Right Went Wrong,”1989 through 2015 was basically a duel between the newly-established conservative “establishment” and even more conservative populists coming up from the right. No one now questioned the efficacy of fiscal conservatism, free markets, small government, social traditionalism, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution- the question, now, was whether a politician held these beliefs sufficiently strongly, or whether they might secretly be a traitor- or worse, a Republican-In-Name-Only (RINO.) The “No Enemies to the Right” philosophy of Republican strategists and officials of the 1990s and 2000s led, of course, to presidential debates becoming contests of “I’m more conservative than you!” on every conceivable issue. It didn’t matter if Republicans were in or out of power- the dynamic held true all the way.
Then in June of 2015, Donald Trump announced that he would run for President of the United States, breaking most of the norms of political conduct and breaking even more of the sacred maxims and truths of post-Reaganite conservative orthodoxy. The rest is history; he is now President of the United States.
President Trump’s election has been a sign, for some, that the GOP’s tradition of moderation is dead and gone, now, forever. My friend Chris Ladd, formerly a staunch liberal Republican holdout and now the author of a blog called “Political Orphans,” has come to this conclusion.
In some senses this is true. While the GOP is not yet a “white nationalist party” as Ladd sometimes says it is, it looks a lot more like a white nationalist party than it did before Trump came on the scene. Blatant appeals to white identity politics have now been normalized at the national level, and simple Trumpian bravado- the least moderate of all temperaments- has made it into the most powerful position in the world, the Oval Office.
But I see room for hope.
First, though Trump is by no means a moderate in temperament or, given his Cabinet picks, in policy, he has done moderate Republicans one big favor that some have been trying unsuccessfully to see accomplished for decades- he dislodged the conservative establishment, dreamt up by Goldwater and founded by Reagan, from its preeminence. “Moderates” John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, and John McCain, not to mention “establishment” types Jeb and George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and most others, were all part of that Reaganite establishment, to varying degrees. They were once unstoppable. Trump beat all of them.
With the Reaganite Republican establishment proved beatable, the hegemony of conservatism in the Republican Party is no longer a given. Yes, it was a thoroughly immoderate opportunist who did the beating, but the vacuum is now there and nothing appears to be filling it. Even the conservative Ryan congress, paired with Trump’s standard conservative Cabinet looks like a house of cards ready to overreach and collapse. There may well be an opportunity for a conservative reformation in the near future, especially if the Trump Administration is embroiled in scandal and delegitimizes the present mix of conservative wonks and Trump himself, just as Watergate delegitimized the old Nixonian moderate Republicanism.
Second, Trump has brought old, formerly heretical ideas back into the realm of utterance, if not quite acceptability, in Republican circles: industrial policy and economic nationalism, fiscal liberalism, and more. With the taboo removed, the next generation of Republican reformers and moderates might do well to assimilate these economically activist ideas under a more socially benign President. Writers like Michael Lind, Reihan Salam, and Sam Tanenhaus have been recommending more or less that.
Because of the massive changes in American politics today, it simply appears that there will soon be more opportunities for Republican moderates to reassert themselves, rebuild a new wing of the party, and take up the work the Ripon Society tried to do a half-century ago. The opportunity to redefine Republicanism- hopefully back to the political center- is an opportunity that should not be ignored.
May those of us moderate Republicans do well in that quest. It’ll be a long, hard slog.
What is America? What do we mean when, backing President Donald Trump, we say “Make America Great Again?” Or alternatively, backing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, we say “America already is great.” What is it that is great or needs to be made great again? What do we inhabit, what do we fight for, what is the idea of America?
This debate has raged for centuries, with some proclaiming America to be a set of universal ideals, others claiming it to be a blood-and-soil nation with institutions and culture, and most arguing that it’s something of the latter that happens to have the former.
I view America as something even more obscure and complex- a set of historical experiences linked by common themes, through which a nation of people, a cultural legacy, and a great institutional state have been built over the course of nearly four centuries. America cannot be understood merely as the agglomeration of peoples or a single people, a creedal code of universal liberal ideals, or a state just like any other. It is all of these and more. I choose to identify it through its experiences.
The great decades-long historic experiences described below- each of them a set, too, of ideas, experiences, and institutions with a physical and human legacy and a cultural and nearly spiritual print upon the idea of America- are by no means a comprehensive historical catalogue of the entirety of the American experience. Perhaps one day I will investigate the American legacy in full and chronicle the development and forecast the future of the American nation, state, and idea. But here I will only describe in brief what, exactly, I mean by “America.”
It is important to note that some of these experiences fly in the face of others, and seem incompatible at first thought. All are entirely American, but none is the entirety of America. Together, in their creative tension, they contribute to the great American story and conversation, full, as it is, with contradictions and irregularities. But that’s the beauty of it.
As a temperamental conservative, I view the preservation of what alloyed good exists as the first imperative of statecraft; the reformation and augmentation of it, the second. If any of these ten American experiences were to be lost, our civilization would be all the worse for it. On the other hand, if we limit our historical development to these ten experiences, and fail to develop an eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and beyond, our civilization will fail to thrive beyond its fourth century of existence. The task of American patriots, then, is to cultivate understanding of and reverence for our glorious past; and with that knowledge and the qualities of our national spirit, to build a yet more glorious future.
Here, then, are the experiences that have heretofore defined America.
Albion’s Seed is the title of a magisterial study on American colonial culture by the historian David Hackett Fischer, and I adopt the name as shorthand for America’s British heritage bequeathed us by the settlers from Great Britain. Anglo traditions of common law, the Protestant influence upon American individualism, philosophy, and civic culture, and the English language itself are all undeniably components of the American identity, and the settler experience of the 17th and 18th centuries- the development of a new world from the seeds of the old- is crucial to the American story. We were Americans long before we fought for independence in the Revolutionary War, and the intermingling of English culture with the American wilderness made us something other than Englishmen. Everything comes from somewhere, and in America we came from Britain- yet grew beyond it.
It was the War of Independence, the American Revolution, that shot our nascent nation into the realm of nationhood. The struggle with our British brothers and overlords forged a triumphalism of liberty, of the rugged band of volunteers fighting for an ideal universal to Mankind, that has remained integral to the American self-image ever since. Moreover, the snows of Valley Forge and the fields of Yorktown won for the American people self-determination over their own destiny, an independence to take our place among the nations of the Earth.
The Constitutional Republic
The War of Independence won but did not secure America’s nationhood and liberty- that work was done by the Framers of the Constitution, who through toil and conflict and reflection and compromise designed the framework and foundations of a constitutional republic- a Constitution of checks and balances, a working federal system of government, energetic and powerful while limited and constrained, capable of addressing the great issues of the day and many days beyond, and a culture of reverence for the laws of the land and for the system of government a sovereign people had designed. They created the American state and system of government, and guaranteed that the constitutional republican tradition rather than any other would be the safeguard of American liberty.
But the Framers and their subsequent heirs, for all their brilliance in designing a Republic and a Constitution, did not have the final say on the animating spirit of the growing nation. That decision was shaped by the statesmen of the antebellum, and especially the Jacksonian democrats, who transformed the abstract sovereignty of the people into the people’s active participation in their own mode of governance. The Jacksonian revolution infused American politics forever after with a common man’s ethos of simplicity, tradition, people’s wisdom, and folk culture, and rearranged the governance system into one of mass democracy of culture and society. Alexis de Tocqueville vividly described this culture in his masterwork, Democracy in America; de Tocqueville’s insights have remained relevant to the present day.
The American Continent
But it was not only our culture and our system of government that shaped who we were and who we would become- our physical environment had its share of influence, too. Sam Walter Foss, speaking as the American continent, asked for “Men to match my Mountains;” and by all measures, the American people obliged and provided them. Generation after generation of rugged frontiersman, pioneers, engineers, Indian fighters, surveyors, and more pushed ever further westward, bringing the mantle of American civilization with them and transforming the nature of American civilization in the process. By the time we stretched from sea to shining sea, the rugged individualist ethos of the cowboy was more than mere myth- it was a driving reality of innumerable American men and women, accustomed to self-reliance, simplicity, and honor. Additionally, the American people’s relationship with their land gave them an incalculable strategic asset- dominion over the majority of an entire continent, with access to both of the world’s greatest oceans and full of immeasurable stocks of natural resources.
Over the course of the antebellum period, the debates over secession and slavery and union raged violently on the streets and plains of America and in the halls of the statehouses and Congress. When the war broke out, its violent prosecution and conclusion guaranteed two critical things- first, that the moral cause of liberty and equality would forever be enshrined in the American civic ethos at the level of the practice of democracy, rather than merely at the level of public discourse and philosophy. And second, that the union, which stretched over the American continent, would be preserved in whole and not in parts, and remain the great power it was, positioned towards even higher greatness in the decades and centuries to come.
Matching the individualist ethos cultivated by the experience of the West was an entrepreneurial ethos, a great knack for management and organization and innovation, a brilliance and genius rooted in benevolent acquisitiveness that fueled American inventors, investors, and captains of industry. Over the course of several great industrial revolutions, still ongoing, and fueled by ample investment and a healthy business climate, Americans built titanic industries, infrastructure, and cities, harnessed the power of every natural resource conceivable, and invented contraptions and machines that sent men to the moon and conquered atomic science. The great industrial might of America would not have been possible without the spirit of enterprise, nurtured by governments and powered by businesses. The business of America, in at least this sense, has always been business.
The New Deal
The excesses of industrialization had by the turn of the 20th Century necessitated reforms in America’s governing institutions, and over the course of several decades- the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, and more- Americans built up a federally-sponsored safety net and welfare state, a system of collaborative enterprise and regulation with roots across American history, and a government promising a better quality of life for all its citizens. These institutions, which I collectively call “The New Deal,” represent a preservation and extension of the American Dream, the promise of American life, for the citizens of this great republic. The notion that the government ought to serve its people in all ways possible, and marshal national resources for national ends, is now integral to American political culture.
The Liberal International Order
After the defeat of Fascism in 1945, the Americans inherited from Britain command of the then-growing liberal international order (a process that had taken some decades.) The prospect of a peaceful, orderly world order, governed by peaceful relations between states and open societies, was a dream the architects of American foreign policy in the postwar period sought first to preserve, and then to expand. It involved stewardship of international institutions, the maintenance of a Navy that could command the seas and keep open the sea lanes of trade, and most importantly the preservation of a peaceful balance of power between great nations of all sorts. American internationalism had its roots going all the way back to the Founding, but the consummation of America’s role as a “city upon a hill,” a “light unto the nations,” took its fullest form when America assumed the mantle of world leadership.
The American past has always been marred by grave injustices against those who were not white, even after the Civil War decreed all Americans free. The offenses went against the slaves brought from Africa and their descendants, against the original native inhabitants of the American continent, and against the multitudes of immigrants from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere who migrated to American shores over the course of two centuries. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s enshrined equality before the law of all races into the American identity, and paved the way for a fuller integration of peoples of all backgrounds into the broader American experience. This last experience is still underway, and we have not yet reached an equal and harmonious society yet, where all men and women will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. But thanks to the Civil Rights experience, we are slowly making our way there.
What Comes Next?
We stand, now, at a dangerous point of American history, with many of these facets of American identity under threat from all sides, and with the American people more often than not forgetting who they are, and being divided against each other by demagogues.
I am of the opinion that to advance as a nation, it is important, first, that we remember who we are. A study of the roots of American identity- and a healthy debate over it- would be useful in that regard.
But we must also press forward with advancing the American identity into new centuries. What will the next great narratives be? In recent decades, there’ve been two possible next great steps, in my opinion.
First, the reform of the New Deal towards a more localized, sustainable, and fundamentally workable system, which President Nixon started with his New Federalism programs and which some scholars have taken up intellectually today. Such a revolution- a New New Federalism, fueled by the power of the Information Revolution- could transform American governance at the same level that the Progressive Era and New Deal did.
Another great quest with historic antecedents is the conquest of space- the rejuvenation of the American space program and the exploration and colonization of other worlds beyond the Moon. Another great period of exploration can bring out the greatest facets of the existing American character and transform them into something new.
Whatever we choose, we must begin moving soon. History will not wait.
I must note, before I close, that all of these facets of American identity have played an important role in shaping the American experience, and should any be lost, it would fundamentally change the American legacy in a worse way than the positive addition of new experiences would.
All of these ten experiences and assets- a fundamentally Anglo cultural and philosophical heritage, political independence and liberty, a working constitutional and republican system of government, a democratic political culture, the resources and character of a great continent, an unbreakable union, the innovative and industrial power of our system of free enterprise, our modern social contract through the New Deal, a liberal international order, and basic fundamental rights and equality for all citizens of all races- these are the things our statesmen and stateswomen must preserve, defend, reform, and expand. And they must add onto these new experiences- in my opinion, we must reform the institutions of governance for the 21st Century, and expand our civilization beyond the stars. All of these collectively are what I speak of when I speak of America the idea, America the nation, America the state, America the experience.
The chroniclers, storytellers, and promoters of the American legacy have a twofold task, then- first, to serve as bards to the public, singing the glory of the past, reminding Americans of who they are; and second, as prophets of the future, sketching the glorious things to be and dreaming up the future greatness of the American nation. I hope to someday turn to that great task- to write a great cultural, political, and intellectual history of the American experiment- but for now I must direct my studies and efforts elsewhere.
Americans, remember who you have been, who you are, and who you will be.
I’ve always thought there are no greater lovers of country- quiet patriots, invisible servants- than the men and women of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations/National Clandestine Service. To give your life to your country so fully as to surrender your judgment to a code of pure and silent duty to a cause greater than self, to live no other life- is a high order not all of us are worthy of bearing, or called to take.
Patriotism isn’t flags and eagles. It’s a way of life, replete with a demand for virtues we moderns are uncomfortable with thinking about in this age of rights and feelings- honor, duty, sacrifice, service, and yes, love- a love that transcends self-interest and conscience, what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” We’ll never hear about the silent heroes of the CIA- they’ll never be grand marshals of parades, they’ll never stand before adoring crowds and wear gold medallions around their necks. They don’t do their work for glory- they do it out of love. They are superior, but they’d never say it, or, frankly, think it.
They are patriots. They are our best, and their patriotism ought to sober us into emulation.
So when Donald Trump goes and mocks the CIA, when Donald Trump accuses them of falsehoods and favoritism, when Donald Trump has the nerve to make a self-gratifying campaign speech in front of the wall of heroes at Langley- all patriotic Americans ought to be offended and offended deeply.
Above all the things that offend me and disgust me about our new President- and there are many- by far the most egregious is his obnoxious mockery of patriotism, turning a noble devotion and creed of liberty and service into a childish parody of real patriotism. When he delegitimizes true Americanism with his antics, wrapping himself in the flag, he does a disservice to those who died for this country and only got a nameless star on a wall.
I despise the godless sophisticates of the left who disparage patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels and the first cover of racists, because they don’t and never will understand why soldiers and spies do what they do. But they don’t have a pretension to be patriots. Far worse are those boorish buffoons who claim the mantle of patriotism for their own, dumb it into a high school fight song, and never reflect on the meanings of honor, duty, sacrifice, service, and love. President Trump numbers among these.
(This is an edit of an older piece, which has been sitting in my queue for quite some time. The writing quality is not as good as I wish it had been at the time, but I suppose we all get wiser as we age.)
The Case for Universal Childhood Therapy
Crazy About Mental Health!
Whenever a mass shooting dominates American headlines, a portion of the media assigns blame to America’s subpar levels of mental health care and awareness. These tragic moments are some of the few times when mental health comes into the national discussion, which is really too bad. It is estimated that some 30,000 Americans die from gun violence every year, not all of which could possibly be related to mental illnesses, while 40,000 die from suicide– a cause of death much more directly related to mental illness. Other, less fatal statistics abound- 6.7% of Americans are estimated to suffer from clinical depression at some point in their lives, while 18% will deal with General Anxiety Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder afflicts 2.3%, while some 2.7% suffer from various forms of manias and panic disorders. 6.8% are bipolar or schizophrenic. These are only some of the most common mental ailments afflicting Americans- dozens of other, less well-known illnesses plague countless more. And given that data collection on these statistics tends to focus on cases where the patients come seeking help, we have no way of knowing the real statistics of mental illness sufferers who do not seek treatment. The numbers could well be far higher.
Now, most of these disorders- OCD, anxiety, depression, and the rest- are relatively manageable if properly treated early on, and modern psychiatry has advanced to the point where practitioners have both a neurological and psychological understanding of most ailments. And most health insurance plans by major providers in this country offer coverage for therapy and psychiatric drug treatment, so access to mental healthcare for the majority of Americans is not a major problem. The uninsured don’t have this coverage, which is a pressing problem that must be fixed, but for the most part Americans have access to quality care.
Yet millions still suffer. The problem is not that the care isn’t there; the problem is that, while available, it isn’t widely used or emphasized to the same extent that, say, dietary or sanitary health is emphasized. The notion that there is a “stigma” against the mentally ill is overblown, but their problems are certainly not given as much attention as other more purely physiological health issues.
It’s common practice for doctors to pay attention to children’s physical health- from the counting of toes and fingers at birth to the constant checkups and physicals administered throughout childhood- but there is no equivalent emphasis placed on mental health. This is unfortunate, because most neurological disorders can be detected by early to mid-childhood. It would make sense for health policy officials to insist that, alongside the standard physicals and checkups, children undergo a few therapy sessions at an early age.
The idea is simple. To the existing battery of physical examinations, vaccinations, and other physical health checkups would be added a couple of rounds of psychotherapy. This could be as simple as a series of questions administered to the patient on their personal history and emotional cycles, and if the therapists detected any potential disorders or problems, additional sessions of psychotherapy using various techniques would be recommended. Three introductory sessions per child sounds about right, placed strategically at important points in early childhood, adolescence, and just before adulthood. Kids would go to a therapy session before starting elementary school, before starting middle school, and midway through high school. This way the patient’s formative experiences can be monitored and, in the event that any traumatic experiences in that time threaten the patient’s mental wellbeing, the resulting disorders can be dealt with at an early age rather than festering and deepening over the years.
What about the majority of Americans and American children who don’t suffer from mental illnesses and wouldn’t need the therapy?
In short, there’s no real downside to therapy. If anything, it helps individuals have a better, more well-rounded view of their emotional state, something many Americans pursue through other practices like yoga anyways. And three sessions separated by a few years each is a relatively small commitment. There’s certainly a stigma associated with therapy at the moment, but it’s a stigma not particularly founded in reality- an estimated 27% of American adults report having gone to therapy at some point in their lives, no trivial portion of the population.
There are some- most likely far-left outfits like the “Mad Pride” movement and far-right anti-government paranoiacs- who would shriek bloody murder at such an extension of a government mandate into people’s personal lives. Who is the state to judge what is “normal?” and what is “deviant?” the lefties might ask. Why does the government want the people conforming to a certain mental state? the rightists might wonder. And there is indeed something almost Orwellian about a state insistence on mental wellbeing. But like most Orwellian-seeming plots, this one is not actually totalitarian. Patients would not be coerced into doing anything against their wishes, and therapists would make only recommendations- not commands. The purpose of this addition to healthcare policy would be to help people who otherwise wouldn’t find help, before they need that help.
Meanwhile, the potential benefits of early childhood therapy and mental illness detection are innumerable. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives could be made happier or even saved. There would be lower rates of suicide and homicide. Throngs of Americans could be made more productive and innovative in their newfound ability to manage their disorders. Decreased costs in emergency mental healthcare could save countless public dollars, as preventative mental healthcare will have nipped those cases in the bud. More people could be free from the demons that otherwise would haunt them.
It would be expensive, of course, and before this could be feasible the government would need to find some way to pay for it. But once that means is found, the benefits would be well worth the costs.
American policymakers should act to make early childhood therapy and mental illness detection standard parts of every American child’s health program, to complement the current focus on physical health. At a certain level, we have to realize- mental health is health. Just as it’s important that we identify individuals with pancreatic cancer and strive to help them with the best care possible, so must we search out those suffering from depression and anxiety and work to help them as best we can. There’s a difference in the kinds of health, but they carry equal moral weight.
And as someone who’s been in and out of mental hospitals over the course of my adult life, this issue hits home to me. I wish I had been forced to talk to a therapist back when I was 8 years old, so that the patterns that would eventually culminate in terrible mental illnesses could have been discerned and dealt with by professionals. I always knew I was different, but I never knew it was treatable until I sat down with a pshrink in college. But by that time OCD, anxiety, and depression had already done their dirty work on me.
We should make a point of it, as a society, to make sure our kids don’t have to go through what we’ve gone through. We should devise and implement a system whereby we treat the issues of the brain as proactively as we treat the issues of the body. I’m no health professional or healthcare policy wonk, so I’m in no place to give specifics. But if we can tilt the conversation towards some form of universal childhood therapy, and start having vicious arguments about how to provide it, the world will be much better for our kids.
By Luke Phillips
Outside of California, many Americans- even the well-read- have not heard of Dr. Kevin Starr, who died this last week at the age of 76. But inside California, particularly among those active in public life, Starr was a master- the legendary historian of California, the Californians, and the California Dream, towering above the other literature like Mt. Shasta over the Siskiyou plains. Gregory Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Times put it well- “[Kevin Starr] is one of [California’s] greatest treasures…” Starr’s unique mix of social and political history with epic, almost poetic human drama and beautiful prose makes his scholarship not only valuable in an analytic sense, but as a series of literary works, loving odes to a state whose heritage is as great as it is flawed. In our age of statistical, quasi-scientific academic history, Starr was one of few professional historians of the older, story-telling mold- and he was unquestionably one of the best.
I’m not qualified to write a comprehensive obituary of Dr. Starr- others have done so already, others who knew him much better than I did. I only have a cursory familiarity with his body of work, and I only knew him for a year and a half or so. I took his course on modern American history at the University of Southern California and said hello to him at university lectures and events over the course of the following year, until his untimely death. I cannot record what he meant to all. But I will record what he meant to me.
So who was Kevin Starr? Like his great native love, California, he was many things- a scholar and professor whose primary focus was history, but whose interests and specialties ranged from urban planning to literature. A soldier, a military officer stationed in Europe during the Cold War. An author- a bard, more like it- who wrote 11 books chronicling the epic history of the Golden State. A librarian, the State Librarian of California who served three governors- Republican Pete Wilson, Democrat Grey Davis, and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger- for a decade before being named Librarian Emeritus of California. And an inspiration to students, scholars, and others across his life.
He was something of a partisan for California- in his magnum opus, California: A History, he wrote “Where did it come from- this nation-state, this world commonwealth, this California?” He never dreamed of secession, yet always insisted that California, aside from being the most American of American places, was a place unto itself. In some mystical way, shrouded in the aura of lore, California captured the American spirit, yet was unique. And therefore its history- aside from being fascinating- was crucial to any understanding of the broader American project. No one knew that history better than Dr. Starr.
About six months before he died, I called Dr. Starr in regards to an essay project I was considering- a geopolitical history of California, on the significance of the Golden State to America’s security policy from the westward expansion to the present. He was very supportive, and gave me advice on how to shape it. As our conversation ended he admonished me- “Go! Write it!” But the idea subsequently languished in my brain and papers for the next couple of months.
I encountered Dr. Starr for the last time at a historian’s lecture at the USC Town and Gown club, and stopped over to shake his hand. He told me to send him “the book” once I had finished it, and when I remembered what he was talking about, I hastily assured him that I would. A month later I received news that he had died of a heart attack.
Well, I owe Dr. Starr a book, and when I get around to writing the Geopolitical History of California, it’ll be dedicated to him and his memory. But that’s not all I hope to dedicate, for that’s not all I learned from him during the brief time I knew him.
Dr. Starr was of the old breed of historians, but also the old breed of scholar-servants who straddled the divide between academia and public life, taming it and riding it to great heights. Oftentimes PhD’s- particularly humanities PhD’s- will remain cloistered in the Ivory Tower, barricaded from the reality of public life. Oftentimes politicos, bureaucrats, and other public servants will never write a thoughtful piece in their career. Starr never succumbed to either fate, actively engaging the great questions of the day facing the state of California, actively serving the people of the state as State Librarian, and actively shaping its future through both his storytelling and his government service. In this regard he walked the same steps, albeit in California, as such figures on the national stage as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Lippmann- great intellectuals who were also great public servants. Starr’s love was California, and he lived that love through his life’s work.
In this regard, Starr was more than a professor, more than a mentor- he was a model to those of us younger folks who want to serve our country, while advancing the life of the mind for the public. He was the model of public intellect, public service, public life well-done.
In these tumultuous times for America, it’s hard to see the future Kevin Starr’s on the horizon, moderate and public-spirited scholar-servants ready to write history and serve in government. They’re out there, ready to put their minds to work. But most of them aren’t in leadership yet. Perhaps that will change in due course; but for now, those of us who so aspire to follow the path of Dr. Starr must prepare for those future days. That would be the best way to honor his memory. And Dr. Starr’s love, California, offers an insight into where we ought to put our affections- “a place, a society, in which the best possibilities of the American experiment can be struggled for and sometimes achieved.”
May a scholar-servant like Starr, who loves America the way Starr loved California, rise to chronicle the life and soul of our nation as Starr did for California. When they do, more likely than not, Kevin Starr will be in their citations.