A Letter to a Friend- My Intellectual Origins and Evolutions to February 2016
No worries about boring me (you didn’t- experiences of my fellow young politicos interest me) and no worries about the length (I hope I can equal if not exceed you in vociferousness.) Now it’s my turn to apologize, for two things- first, for being late by a few days in my reply, and second, a preliminary apology in the event that what you’re about to read offends. I trust it won’t, as I like to believe that the conservatively-tempered are less prone to reactive oversensitivity than our progressive colleagues, but I’ve pissed off a few conservatives with my RINOisms and thought I should give you fair warning.
Where to begin, where to begin; I grew up in a Navy family (my dad’s a Captain in the Supply Corps) traveling coast to coast every few years as my dad was redeployed to new duty stations. I gained an appreciation for the vastness and beauty of the American continent and the ruggedness of the men and women who conquered it; early on, my heroes were the pioneers, trappers, frontiersmen, and soldiers of the West, reliant upon none but themselves (or so I thought) for the fundamentals of life. I still hold that the greatest Americanism lies not with the inventor nor with the capitalist, but with the rugged explorer, the homesteader, the pioneer who conquers new worlds and lays the progress for civilization in their tracks. The inventor and capitalist make close seconds in the American experience, though overshadowing them all in my now-older mind is the Lycurgus or the Solon- the lawgiver, the empire-builder, the forger of institutions. But now I’m getting ahead of myself- back to Oregon Trail.
It should make sense that I quickly identified Boy Scouting as my favorite activity in youth, given my romanticism of adventure. Sure, I was active in school and sports and I devoured the library books my mom picked up and the 24-volume encyclopedia my dad bought from a door-to-door salesman, but beneath all these pursuits was a burning desire to be a pioneer, a soldier, an American. In Scouting I found my home- self-reliance, public service and citizenship, handicraft and appreciation for the outdoors and the ruggedness that must come with outdoor living, and the like. Incidentally, one of the original patrons of the Scouting movement back in the early 20th Century was President Theodore Roosevelt, a great hero of mine. I can’t be sure whether my adoration of him stems from my love of Scouting or vice-versa. Neo-Hamiltonian (to use the late Samuel P. Huntington’s term) militaristic citizenship like that encouraged by both TR and General Leonard Wood never took off in a Jeffersonian Republic, but it gained a small but loyal foothold in the Boy Scouts of America. And it has done its duty many times over- it produced the greatest public servant alive today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
When I was old enough to go backpacking, I seized upon the opportunity and quickly stacked up mountains and canyons under my belt. Havasupai, the Colorado River Gorge, Mount Whitney, Mount St. Helens, the Olympic Range, northern New Mexico- these were my stomping grounds, where I lay beneath the thousand stars and pondered my existence and my purpose. There’s a certain awe instilled in your breast when you see the sights ancient man once looked upon. I also entered the cult of service in Boy Scouts, a Masonically-based secret society called the Order of the Arrow, and quickly joined the ceremonies team, dressing up (in true culturally appropriatory style, to use a college term) as a Native American and reciting pages upon pages of symbolic poetry for new inductees in some of the most powerful ceremonies I’ve ever taken part in. I still have the lines etched on my heart; I can’t tell you them because of my oath, but I can tell you that the BSA and its secret society have a very, very profound understanding of service, sacrifice, and brotherhood rooted in traditions across the broad swathe of Mankind, and I owe those two institutions everything I think I know about service. Such concerns played a part in my first encounter with the real world, my Eagle Scout Project (carried out while I was still in the innocent years of 15-17) at Kitsap Memorial State Park, near Seattle. With a lot of help from a lot of people, businesses, and the state park service, I built an amphitheater that could seat a hundred people, and subsequently held my Eagle Scout Court of Honor in it. Perhaps the experience engendered in me a bias for public-private-civic partnerships over mere public projects or private contracts; in any case, it taught me that I’m a great dreamer and a terrible doer. I can’t manage people for my life.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that my formative years were spent in Scouting, and to understand the apolitical roots of my political theory, you must understand how it influenced me: a faith in the duties of the citizen to the state and nation; a love of adventure and individualism; a premium on character as the determinant of destiny; and a spirit of service, brotherhood, and sacrifice as the “purifying fire in which the dross of selfishness is cleansed,” to imperfectly quote a Rockefeller.
Equally important is my Roman Catholic upbringing- herein I understand the importance of tradition and the reality of culture, the necessity of hierarchy and traditionalism for social stability, the sheer ugliness of Man, his imperfection, his sinfulness, his crookedness, his flaws, the beauty of forgiveness, redemption, and acceptance of that imperfection, and what other means of correcting all that wrongness than Love itself? Not the love between man and woman, powerful though it is, nor between brother and brother; but the love of a parent for a child, a guardian for the protected, of a creator for the creation. It’s irrational. It’s oftentimes contrary to interests, materially speaking. But it is beautiful, and it is the font from which social trust and social cohesion flows. It is the most wonderful thing in the world, and none exemplified it better than did Jesus Christ.
From my Catholicism I gain a pessimism about human nature, yet an optimism about human salvation and the capacity for every man and woman to be a saint. From my Catholicism I gain a respect for tradition, for hierarchy, for social trust. From my Catholicism I gain a love of Mankind Universal, and despite my Machiavellian political understanding, and my knowledge that tragedy and division is the lot of Man on Earth, I carry in my heart the belief that there is something beautiful about the human that I must not forget. Machiavelli’s good friend Guicciardini said “the statesman must love his country more than his own soul” and this, I believe, is true- if I achieve any of my ambitions, I’ll be doing a good amount of burn time in Purgatory.
So you get the gist of my cultural upbringing- Catholic, Boy Scout, Yankee values, communitarian temperament with an individualist ethos, etc. No illusions about progress or perfection, but a pure, shining hope in the betterment of Mankind’s lot. Moral sadness at the blood that has been spilt and will be spilt so long as mankind dots the Earth, for hatred is in our hearts. A view that politics must harness what is best in us, and control what is worst. Also a neurotic desire to be Jack Ryan, as I had read all the Tom Clancy books as a middle schooler.
I am thoroughly a conservative- but a conservative in a different sense than Russell Kirk or Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater might define it. I don’t espouse traditional values, neoconservative militarism, or neoliberal/Friedmanite ideology, and in fact usually oppose the excesses of all three. To me, conservatism has a far nobler past than the comparatively annoying last sixty years since the founding of National Review- its Bible is not The Conscience of a Conservative or Atlas Shrugged or Capitalism and Freedom. Its Bibles are The Federalist Papers, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Democracy in America- vast tomes of timeless wisdom, steeped in an understanding of human nature that transcends the ages, more a temperament than an ideology. That is my problem with most self-described “conservatives” today- they are sheer ideologists but have the nerve to call themselves a temperament that they most certainly are not- moderate, nuanced, balanced, etc.
I say it again- I don’t see conservatism as an ideology, as National Review and the post-1955 “conservative”movement have made it. I see it as a political and social temperament applicable to ideologies of all sorts. There are conservative nationalists (Hamilton, Disraeli) conservative liberals (Burke, Tocqueville) conservative socialists or semi-socialists (Franklin Roosevelt, De Gaulle) conservative traditionalists (basically every non-Marxist third-world leader of the last century, esp. Lee Kuan Yew) and a thousand other varieties. Only a few American “conservatives” are truly conservative- Yuval Levin, the late Jack Kemp, this kind of person. “Fusionist” is a better term for the post-1955 movement- fusing, as it does, libertarian economics, social traditionalism, and neoconservative strategy. I laugh when demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham talk about “conservative” values, and then go on to expound free markets and lower taxes (historically “liberal” policy ideas!)
So that’s a basic intro to my understanding of conservatism- more to come later. But first, a brief intellectual history of myself, starting at the point, after my Eagle Scout Court of Honor and Confirmation, where I had reached the point of no return in my cultural imprinting-
In 2011, I was very depressed, as my family had moved across the country from Seattle to Virginia (beautiful road trip if you ever get the chance, by the way.) I had lost all my friends and all the world I had known, carrying only what I had with me- my character, my experiences, my ambitions. And my family and my cat Jingles for that matter. There was a a rap I had heard in high school (here is the polished version, now a hit Broadway musical) about the upbringing of Alexander Hamilton and the struggles he went through growing up, and how he used the pain to attain greatness. Being both in pain and neurotically ambitious, the song became the anthem of my life-
“Scanning for every book he can get his hands on
Planning for the future, see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship, headed for a new land
In [DC] you can be a new man…”
Now bear in mind my political evolution hadn’t started yet at that point. I grew up as an O’Reilly-worshipping, Levin-listening, Fox-watching Fusionist “conservative” inasmuch as I followed politics, which was around the dinner table but not much beyond that (interesting that my life literally revolves around it now.)
In 2011, while I was living in the Virginian suburbs of DC, the Tea Party movement was still going strong, and being me, I decided I was going to be EXTRA self-righteous and go read the works of the Founding Fathers, so I could trash all the liberals with my founding knowledge. It was a beautiful plan. I had just read Atlas Shrugged and expected I’d find in the Founders fancier versions of Rand’s work.
Naturally, the first Founder I read was Alexander Hamilton (given my love for his rap.)
And boy, was I wrong about the Founders.
I saw in Hamilton (I read his speech to the New York ratifying convention, in which he declared that men are reasoning rather than reasonable creatures) true conservatism- true love of country- true pragmatism for a dangerous world- true belief in the power of the individual to shape that world. I was awestruck into hero-worship, and began voraciously reading anything by Hamilton I could find online. Thus began my political evolution, when I discovered the “realist” school of politics and determined to master it, so I could shut down any liberal (or pseudo-conservative, for that matter) in conversation.
I should note two other things- first, I was intent on going into a military career, so I could serve my country and win glory. Because of various mental-health problems, I was deemed ineligible for full-time service (which is just as well- I couldn’t take that kind of bureaucracy full-time) but I am now working at getting into the California National Guard, which is going pretty well. I want to join and serve for the same reasons I did Boy Scouting- excellence, service, ruggedness, a better understanding of human nature and Americanism.
And around the time that I first read my great mentor Hamilton, I had a dream that I was chained to a rock next to George Washington while all my friends were off being commandos. The first lesson I took from this was that despite my misfortunes I’d always find better opportunities; the other lesson I’ve since realized is my true life purpose- to be a modern Hamilton (who was figuratively chained next to Washington for most of his career), an aide to great men, a great intellectual, a great leader, a great warrior- and to work hard, get smart, and make myself worthy of being all these things, that I might best serve my George Washington when I find him or her, and that I might best serve my country through my own personal excellence.
Back to intellectual evolution. I mentioned the “realist” school of politics- this led me to Machiavelli, Hume, Hobbes, and others. I started studying international relations at USC because I viewed it as the most relevant field of study for my career (for the longest time I wanted to join the CIA- and Langley has now rejected me three times…) but my interests remained as eclectic and diverse as political theory, economics, American history and culture, and the like. I am a humanist in the best sense of the word, a thinker who fits neatly into no discipline.
Early on I discovered an excellent writer named Walter Russell Mead and started reading him religiously; not much longer later I discovered Michael Lind and bought and read all his books; Mead is too Jeffersonian for me to be a Meadian, Lind too FDRooseveltian for me to be a Lindian. But I’ve worked for both and the two men have had a huge influence over my thought- the importance of culture, the permanence of politics, the goodness of America and Americans, and the virtues of moderation and intensity- “prudence and vigor,” to quote the first line of my personal ethos.
I read Francis Fukuyama and determined that democracy does not form naturally, but must be preceded by liberal political climate and good institutions. I read Robert D. Kaplan and learned about the tragedy of human nature and the permanence of conflict. I read Joel Kotkin and learned about the beauty of decentralization (and now I’m working for him.) There are so many others- journalists, scholars, public intellectuals, and more. My favorites are David Brooks and Jim Manzi, but there are more. Just too many to name here.
My core ideas, however, have been impressed upon me by Michael Lind and Walter Russell Mead. From Mead, I take the “four-schools” or “Albion’s Seed” theory of American cultural divisions, which argues that most cultural and political divides we see today and across American history can be traced back to the simultaneous settlement of the American continent by Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Scots-Irish. From Mead I take the idea of the “Blue Social Model”- the notion that the heavily technocratic institutions put in place by the New Deal and the Greaat Society have ceased to work since the 70s and have only grown more decadent with increased globalization, information technology, and automation, and that the key task of reformers today is reinterpreting American principles to forge a “Liberalism 5.0” governing ideology capable of taking the promise of American life into the next century. From Lind, I take the notion of the “Hamiltonian tradition” in American politics- the centrist-reformist-nationalist line of governing that goes from Washington and Hamilton through Webster and Clay through Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and splits in the 20th Century between the New Deal Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans, and now no longer exists. Hamiltonians favor massive public investments, industrial policy, social moderation, and an economy focused on national defense- and I am in every sense a strong-government Hamiltonian, as is most of the military-industrial complex, the defense establishment, and the intelligence community, to include Robert Gates. Also from Lind I take the “three Republics” theory of American history, whereby the institutions of the Republic decay and are re-forged in great crises- the Founding, the Civil War, the Great Depression and Second World War- and we now near the end of the Third Republic, FDR’s Republic, and it’ll be the task of our generation to lay down a new set of institutions beyond the Blue Social Model and even beyond Reaganism. These four ideas- the Four Schools, the Blue Social Model, the Hamiltonian Tradition, and the Three Republics- are my paradigms for conceiving of American history and politics, and I think they’re pretty damn good ones at that.
Where does that put me in 2016, when I am 22 years old?
I am a centrist Republican in the Huntsman/Pataki/kinda-Kasich RINO camp. I’m supporting Rubio for the GOP nomination because in my mind he’s the least crazy of all those capable of getting the nomination. But if I had power, I would nominate someone who was economically Hamiltonian, politically federalist, administratively reformist, socially moderate, culturally conservative, fiscally prudent, and strategically internationalist.
I cannot be a Democrat for the primary reason that the Democratic coalition includes interest groups that are fundamentally tied to the Blue Social Model- and therefore Democrats will not be the great reformers of our age. I look with disdain upon many elements of the Republican coalition- the radical libertarian economists who fail to realize that their policies inevitably lead to plutocracy, the rabid social traditionalists who occasionally border on the racist line, the neoconservatives who aggressively seek to impose American values on other nations, the Fox Newsies who are occasionally blind to reality. You mentioned Ted Cruz favorably in a recent Facebook post; I personally think Cruz is more dangerous and divisive than any other candidate in the field right now, up to and including Bernie Sanders. (Not that I would vote Sanders in that matchup- I’d throw my vote to the dogs first.) My old mentor, Adam Garfinkle, pretty well summarized the dilemma a moderate thinker like me faces-
I don’t want to go back to 1965 or to 1925. But let me briefly restate my antipathy to both sets of party orthodoxy in somewhat different language before getting to my ten proposals.
The Left in this country, generally speaking, tends to excoriate corporations, even to disparage the profit motive itself, and to think of government as a proper vehicle not only for battling the depredations of capitalism but also for forcing on the nation the kinds of multicultural, politically correct social biases it likes. It has inculcated within itself the old countercultural notion of consciousness-raising, in which it presumes to know more about what’s good for you than you do. It is the self-appointed Robin Hood of our political soul, though its populist pretensions are belied by its elitist ways. The Left displays a blindness to the benefits of a non-distorted market economy, and an even more grievous blindness to the limits of what government can accomplish—especially a government that tries to do more than it should in what has become a misaligned Federal system.
The Right these days, generally speaking, tends to excoriate government, to dismiss the idea of an inclusive and fairly governed national community, and to blame those who are genuinely poor for their own poverty. Much of the Right, having regrettably abandoned its own Burkean heritage, sees through a crude Social Darwinist prism that acknowledges only individual judgment, ignoring the social context in which that judgment is seated.1 It is blind to plutocratic corruption and doesn’t see, either, the widening cultural gap between an isolated elite and those Americans who are falling out of an often recently won and still fragile middle-class status.2 It is particularly blind to the fact that a distorted market system dominated by large corporate oligarchies that deploy increasingly sophisticated advertising methodologies can be responsible for undermining both social trust and the founding virtues.3
Again, there’s no reason to choose between the problems caused by the public sector (a sclerotic, dysfunctional and wildly expensive government) and the problems caused by the private sector (a predatory corporate leadership class, and especially an increasingly powerful parasitic financial elite, that has become an extractive rather than a productive asset for the nation as a whole). Both problems exist, and both are getting worse.
Moreover, these problems are not really separate; they feed one another. Private sector abuses feed the appetite for government protection, but government is too dysfunctional to provide that protection; instead its efforts tend to harm small businesses that lack the arsenals of specialist lawyers and accountants that huge businesses use to evade government attempts to hem them in. You get a hint of this by looking at what the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have had in common, which is a fair bit more than either group likes to admit.
We need an active and bold Federal government for several key but discrete purposes beyond national security; but we can well do without the nanny-state soft despotism it otherwise drapes over our society. If we need a model, a hero from our past who epitomizes this combination, we have at least three to choose from: Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt—Federalist, Whig and Republican.
Nonetheless, I remain a Republican because I am conservative, I am a realist, and I want to serve my country- and serve it through politics I will. Currently I’m working for Joel Kotkin at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism doing centrist market-based policy research, writing columns weekly for the California Republican website Fox&Hounds and now the centrist millennial group Action For America, doing policy work and body man work for U.S. Senate candidate Duf Sundheim, working for the California GOP Associate Delegates Caucus in a newsletter-writing capacity, doing historical research at the Nixon Presidential Library, working on essays to submit to The American Interest and National Affairs, and finding other opportunities. A year from now I’ll either be in DC or California, depending on Duf’s electoral results. But my core mission will remain the same- fighting for the lost Hamiltonian Republicanism, temperamental conservatism, American nationalism, and the like, and working to rebuild dead traditions. I’m a party activist, a political writer, and a real pain in the ass- it’s what I do. And I’m gonna keep doing it.
OK. I’m exhausted now. I apologize, I got so burnt out writing my intellectual origins that I couldn’t do justice to my 2011-2016 intellectual evolution. I’ll write a deeper piece on my policy viewpoints later on. Perhaps when we get coffee the next time I’m in DC that might come up; but no matter. You have a basic read, now, on who I am and what I stand for; take what you will and judge as you might.
We’re definitely different types of thinkers, but as you said- party unity is important. In my opinion we need to expand leftward and break the power of the extreme right wing over dialogue (and sometimes policy, as the recent gov’t shutdowns and McCarthy’s fall demonstrated.) I expect in under a decade we’ll both be in positions to fight for the GOP moving forward, and it’ll be interesting to see where things go from there.
I look forward to continuing the conversation. I’ll send a follow-up email with some of my published “manifesto” pieces for you to read if you’re interested; I’ll also send you thoughts I sent to a friend on Ted Cruz.
As I said at the beginning of this message, I apologize if I offend. Looking forward to continuing the conversations.