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.