Two Letters to My Dad on My Ambitions
“I would willingly sacrifice my life, though not my character, to exalt my station…” –Alexander Hamilton
Some time after writing my “Warrior-Scholar-Statesman” letter to my Dad, I wrote these two follow-up letters. (They may well be the first of many; I have a habit of reflecting and fantasizing through writing.) The proximate cause was my final realization that I’ll never be able to formally serve the United States of America in its Armed Forces due to my mental health disorders and treatment. This was and will always remain one of my greatest shames; but as with all great shames, it is only the fodder of great redemption. Though I cannot serve the United States in uniform and shape my character through military life, there are plenty of other ways I can serve and grow, and these letters were partly explorations of those possibilities.
The other proximate reason I wrote these letters was to develop a sort of benchmark to which I can return to measure my progress as the years go by. As I like to say, no plan goes according to plan; but on the other hand, it’s better to move forward thinking you know what you’re doing, than to move forward with no goals or plans at all. Adjustments can only be made to substance, not to nothing. So I lay down these goals and outlines for my future, knowing full well that they’ll likely change as dramatically as the plans I laid out five years ago changed. I’ll reflect on the end result once I get there.
All that being said, here, in the following two letters, are my aspirations as of early 2017 concerning what, exactly, I hope to do with my life, as expressed to my father over the imperfect medium of email:
First Letter: Things to Do to Be the Man I Want to Be
I wrote up this brief little planning guide earlier today, as I was thinking about how to move forward into becoming the man I want to be. Given that military service is now permanently off the table, I need to find something to replace it and, rather than being a Scholar-Soldier-Statesman, be a Scholar-Servant-Statesman. How to do that is yet to be determined, but I presume working as a Diplomat in the State Department would be a good way to do that, or possibly as a government civilian like a Park Ranger or otherwise a political appointee somewhere in government. Regardless, I’ll be following the party-hack/political-operative route too, I think.
I also added a lot more stuff about personal life and personal character in this one, since I think that’s important.
Anyway, you get the idea. Gotta follow a similar path to Robert Kaplan, Joel Kotkin, Michael Lind, etc., leverage that to become someone like Kissinger, Moynihan, or Shultz, etc., while living the adventurous and public life of Machiavelli, Hamilton, or Roosevelt, a life of the body, the assembly, and the mind.
The first part is a list of things I want to be, and the second part is a listing of ways I can get there. Basically, I just need to be doing exactly the things I want to be doing, and applying to jobs where I can also be doing what I want to be doing.
I think the key, career-wise, at the moment, is to do The Public Interest Fellowship for the next two years in DC, which’ll be a good opportunity to write, study, and network. I can regroup and push forward into other things from there.
Stuff I want to be-
SCHOLAR, STATESMAN, MAN
-Expert on geopolitics, grand strategy, national security (SCHOLAR)
-Expert on Hamiltonian political economy and government affairs (SCHOLAR)
-Expert on Hamiltonian constitutionalism and political realism (SCHOLAR)
-Expert on American history, esp. political-social history, history of the Hamiltonians, etc. (SCHOLAR)
-Expert on world history, esp. political-social history, diplomatic/strategic/geopolitical history, history of the great statesmen, etc. (SCHOLAR)
-Prolific writer and scholar- Books, longform essays, op-eds, reports (SCHOLAR)
-Moderate Republican operative and policy advisor and strategist (STATESMAN)
-Talented statesman, negotiator, administrator in diplomacy and national domestic politics (STATESMAN)
-Excellent public speaker (STATESMAN)
-Excellent networker (STATESMAN)
-Man of good character (MAN)
-Man of interesting personality and wide experiences (MAN)
-Family man and lover (MAN)
-Devout Catholic (MAN)
-Rough Man of adventure and action, particularly outdoors and through extensive travel (MAN)
-Moderately talented poet (MAN)
The way to get to all of these places is simply to do all of them. In order:
-Read on geopolitics, grand strategy, national security, etc. extensively
-Read on Hamiltonian political economy and government affairs, etc. extensively
-Read on Hamiltonian constitutionalism and political realism, etc. extensively
-Read on American history- political-social history, history of the Hamiltonians, etc. extensively
-Read on world history- political-social history, diplomatic/strategic/geopolitical history, etc. extensively
-Write books, longform essays, op-eds, reports, etc. prolifically.
^^Find a job that pays you to read and write. PhD? Think Tank? Magazine Staff Writer?^^
-Connect with and work for Moderate Republicans and their causes
^^Find a job working for Moderate Republicans. Consultant? Caucus director? Policy/Legislation advisor?^^
-Get into the State Department or other diplomatic branch of government
-Run for elected office
-Find more opportunities to speak publicly
-Find more opportunities to network
-Improve character through reflection, study of biography and ethics, practice in dealings with people
-Cultivate an interesting personality and wide experiences through reading, having wide experiences in cultural things, adventure, travel, conversation, etc.
-Develop personally into a good man capable of being a good husband and father; find willing wife
-Attend church regularly, study the Catholic faith
-Have outdoor adventures in various fields; steel yourself to adventure; travel widely through America’s wildlands, especially in the West; travel widely around the world; backpack, shoot, kayak, hike, ride, and do other outdoor adventure sorts of things
-Read more poetry, write poetry frequently
-Study great lives of people you admire: Machiavelli, Hamilton, Roosevelt life-wise, and Kissinger, Moynihan, Shultz / Kotkin, Lind, Kaplan career-wise
Second Letter: Ten Golden Years?
I went the Nixon Library the other day and discovered that Richard Nixon became a U.S. Congressman at the age of 33. As someone who wants to go into a life in politics and public life, I figure that’s as good an arbitrary age as any to use as a goal. Other figures I admire, like Teddy Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, and Winston Churchill, spent their 20s and early 30s training themselves for their future public lives, becoming American (or British!) heroes with impressive resumes, and generally developing their character, style, worldview, and intellect for what would become fascinating political careers.
Additionally, I’m 23 right now- I’ll be 33 in ten years. That gives me a decade to live a life of preparation, study and reflection, action and adventure, socializing and networking, to build myself into the man I want to be who will eventually serve the public in as many ways as possible.
So below, I copy (rearranged) the list of life objectives I outlined earlier today on a yellow notepad. All these are goals I feel I should strive to accomplish before I turn 33, so that by the time I turn 33 I’ll be qualified, prepared, and positioned to enter American public life in a formal leadership role. I have intentionally left most of them rather vague, and added commentary in brackets for some of them. There are many paths I can take to most of these accomplishments. It’ll keep me busy and active for quite some time, probably shuttling around and traveling around the country and maybe the world for a good long while. No matter- should be interesting.
Goals Age 23-33, 2017-2027
-Complete Research Fellowship [Hopefully New America’s Millennial Public Policy Fellowship, possibly Public Interest Fellowship]
-Work in Legislature- DC or Sacramento, or both [either as staff, in Capital Fellows Program, legislative aide, etc.]
-Travel across America and report on it [as a writer, perhaps as a scholar, perhaps as a journalist; need to learn more about my country as it is today, in addition to studying its history and culture in great depth.]
-Travel through the world’s geopolitical hotspots [and great centers of civilization] and report on it [as a writer, perhaps as a scholar, perhaps as a journalist; would be very interested to embed with U.S. military and other militaries in conflict zones. In this regard, my models are Robert D. Kaplan and Winston Churchill. Additionally, must read world history, civilizational history, regional history, etc. alongside getting a feel for each place in itself.]
-Write 2+ books [options outlined elsewhere, but some potential masterpieces I could write include a study of American public philosophies of Clay and Lincoln and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt; a Geopolitical History of Civilizations; a Geopolitical History of the United States; and Alexander Hamilton’s great unfinished Full Investigation of Civil Government, updated for the experiences of civil government since Weehawken, especially the United States Government.]
-Write 20+ reports [on various policy issues]
-Write 20+ essays [on various stories and philosophical issues]
-Write uncountable op-eds
-Develop expertise in 5 fields [probably including geopolitics, political economy, government administration, American history, and political theory] and mastery of 2 of these fields
-Conduct many speaking engagements and become a legendary orator
-Develop at least 3 big ideas or frameworks [in the sense of becoming a useful public intellectual who people go to for specific ideas]
-Consult for and advise elected officials and government officials regularly [at all levels]
-Develop vision for mid-21st Century America [to spend the rest of my intellectual and political career in public life fighting for and turning into a reality] [A Great Spacefaring Republic, an Empire of the Stars, a Republic and a Union protective of Liberty and the American Dream]
-Build national network of contacts and power-brokers all across the country, in various fields and walks of life
-Build a winning and governing Reform Faction of the California Republican Party, capable of electing a GOP Governor and Senator in California
-Prepare myself, physically and intellectually and skills-wise, for National Service of any sort- military, intelligence, diplomatic, emergency management, etc.- in the event of a national emergency in my lifetime that calls for good men to save the country and lowers standard barriers to service [my mental health issues]
-Serve in state and national government bureaucracy
-By age 33, 2027, prepare to be worthy and qualified to attain either: 1. Congressional seat. 2. Statewide office in California. 3. Undersecretary position in Federal Government.
-Sharpen and deepen life philosophy and political philosophy
-Find home base- probably somewhere in California, like Orange County or San Diego
-Become and remain rugged, strong, useful, and self-reliant through adventure and service, including backpacking and conservation work [hopefully Philmont this summer will only be the beginning of frequent excursions across the country to build trails and camp]
-Improve my skills in prose writing, poetry writing, singing, and instrumental music [ukulele and guitar in particular]
-Steel my character and intellect and judgment for the storms ahead
-Develop true and lifelong friendships, especially with siblings, with colleagues in higher causes, and with intellectual comrades
-Find my George Washington mentor figure to spend my life consulting and working with
-Meet, cultivate relationship with, and marry the love of my life- an equal, a friend, a partner, and a companion across life [and I hope to God that she’s Catholic, Republican, and loves politics and history, and loves adventure, like me]
So there’s my goals I want to be working on. Clearly there are many challenges along the way, and it’ll be hard work; if I attain even a third of these, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
I’ll keep you in the loop as I work on all this!
Towards National Liberalism 5.0
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.
When RINO’s Ruled the Earth
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.