INTRO TO THE FOURTH REPUBLIC
At this point I’ve probably written three or four versions of the “Three Republics” thesis applied to the 2010s. I’ve even written up and delivered a toast to the Fourth Republic, and an exhortation to those who love it to bring about its existence. I have a long essay/short book outline just waiting for me to sit down and write it, as well. I’ve thought a lot about this subject.
But I haven’t thought enough, not yet.
For those who are as yet unfamiliar with the “Three Republics” thesis, it goes something like this: America, being a nation founded in a conservatory revolution, has the unique opportunity to reinterpret its timeless principles and reinvent its lasting institutions every time the social order decays and disaster strikes. This has happened, with shocking regularity, about every 70-85 years, and by my measure (and those of some people I respect) it’s happening again now, just as it happened in the 1780s, the 1860s, and the 1930s.
A “Republic,” in this context, is the unique constellation of institutions and systems propped up by a founding generation in the midst of crisis, in order to preserve ordered liberty and the American Dream for forthcoming generations and to keep the Union and its republican institutions alive. There have been three thus far- the First Republic of George Washington, established in the fires of the American Revolution and the consolidation of the Constitutional Convention and Washington’s presidency thereafter; the Second Republic of Abraham Lincoln, forged in the Civil War and Reconstruction; and the Third Republic of Franklin Roosevelt, constructed throughout the New Deal and affirmed in the world crisis of the Second World War. Each Republic had antecedents in reforms passed in the generations prior, and this one is no different. Each transformed the country to preserve it. As the institutions of the last several decades have decayed, we enter a socio-political crisis like no other, and will need to rise to the challenge.
Again, I’d like to write an extended essay or perhaps even a short book on this subject, but I will need to read more broadly on American social, economic, political, and biographical history before I have the details I need to sophisticate the narrative properly. Anyhow, aside from discussing the cycles of history, at times I’ve written up platforms of policy proposals theorizing what the Lawgiver of the Fourth Republic’s policy agenda would have to be (and these platforms have mostly succeeded only at reflecting my personal political preferences.) In my soberer moments, I do at times wonder what the general necessary contours of reform would look like.
There are some obvious ones. The fiscal/tax imbalances will need to be corrected somehow, not because “we’re spending ourselves into oblivion,” but because bad bookkeeping can’t go on forever. Entitlements and pretty much every domestic department’s spending will have to be restructured for efficacy, though I hope not reduced at all. Plenty of people, including Lieutenant Governor (and possibly future Governor of California, and possibly future President of the United States…) Gavin Newsom wrote a whole book, “Citizenville,” on the need to reform government for the Information Age using the democratizing power of information technology. (Government Executive Magazine routinely publishes laughably bad articles about how departments of the federal government are revolutionizing this and that bureaucratic process through some interwebz thingie, but hey- at least they’re trying!)
There’s a whole raft of other economic-structural and social-cultural issue areas I could go into, but I’ll withhold for now and do that another time. I’ll focus on something specific in this post- the question of where the political-institutional emphasis of American democracy should be focused.
MY WORK IN LOCALISM
Let me explain. Over the last two years or so, I’ve worked for a couple of scholars- Joel Kotkin and the folks over at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, first, and second, Mike Hais and Morley Winograd- on the deceptively straightforward topic of political and institutional Localism. The fruits of my work for Kotkin can be found here, in his COU report “Our Town: Restoring Localism.” The fruits of my work with Winograd will be published in a paper soon, though I’m not sure if I’m allowed to reveal the outlet and title, so I won’t.
Anyhow, Kotkin and Winograd- respectively a member of Senator Ben Sasse’s informal circle, and a former domestic policy advisor to Vice-President Al Gore- both independently came to the conclusion some time ago that America’s political institutions are more top-heavy and centralized than is healthy in the current age, and that the proper solution is a restoration of some form of increased authority for city halls, county boards, and other institutions closer to the people. Kotkin, having centrist and occasionally quasi-libertarian leanings, comes at this from a different perspective than Winograd, who is an old-line New Democrat with progressive leanings. Kotkin’s report emphasizes the coercive power of the central state, and the need to check it in the interests of preserving individual rights and opportunities and, most importantly, the diversity of social and economic opportunities and systems to choose from.
For Kotkin, people are mobile, markets are benign, and the greatest danger inherent to centralized bureaucracy is the imposition of a socioeconomic order inimical to the flourishing of free society. I don’t think he’s a libertarian by any means, but his reasoning for localism certainly has a libertarian, if perhaps not necessarily anti-government, ring to it.
For Winograd, people are members of communities, local decision-making processes produce results reflective of the values of the people who chose them, and the greatest danger inherent in consolidated power is the loss of sovereignty among local communities to shape their own destinies. Winograd is certainly not an old Bryanite populist in the way the editorial board of the Washington Monthly is; but in some ways he comes to similar conclusions about democratic accountability and decision-making being best done locally, as close to the people as possible.
These are oversimplifications, of course- read the entirety of Kotkin’s published report and Winograd’s forthcoming report to find out more- but they advance a narrative different than those commonly peddled nowadays. Namely, that the chief problems in American politics today rise not from wrongheaded people blocking necessary reform, but from overly zealous reformers attempting to impose their beliefs on others. Rather than seeking national solutions to pressing problems, rather than seeking a restoration of a benign national system, Kotkin and Winograd believe that the way to release the pressure of the current nationalist-cosmopolitan culture wars- and in fact, the way to give people more individual opportunities for the pursuit of happiness and for social innovation- is to relocate power to the lowest possible level, to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” to harness the natural diversity across domains of the American people and let it do its own thing.
It’s an amazing vision, and I can’t see a reasonable path forward into the American future that doesn’t incorporate some form of renewed localism. As both Kotkin and Winograd argue, and as Walter Russell Mead argued in his essays on the “Blue Social Model,” the current trends towards localism and decentralization are myriad- information technology makes more local democratic participation possible than ever before. Complexifying economic trends across state and national borders make it harder for arbitrary state and national capitals to regulate already-complex economic activity. An electorate more diverse than ever before in American history (and America was plenty diverse among even its different sorts of white people before the demographic shifts of the 1960s changed the racial equation) clearly is a different sort of governing situation than a largely homogenous electorate. Internal contradictions within the bureaucratic state that have been underway at least since the 1960s, when the First Generation of Neoconservatives started writing excellent stuff about bureaucracy, have only gotten worse.
Moreover, people have faith in local institutions at levels surpassing respect for any big institutions save the Armed Forces. Not many people participate in local governance, but those who do solve a lot more problems than those who participate in state and national governance, simply because problem-solving in city hall is more pragmatic, numbers-based, and face-to-face than lawmaking in the assembly hall. (Though it’s somewhat different in bigger cities, as my fellow Angelenos can attest.) Officials at lower levels can actually interact with their constituents- most lawmakers at the state and federal levels just can’t do that.
So what does “Localism” mean pragmatically?
Kotkin’s version calls for a strategy of rollback- strip the administrative state of much of its regulatory power, in Sacramento and Washington, and let Peoria and San Francisco make their own damn climate policies and housing rules. In its place, voluntary associations a la “Associations of Municipal Governments” or the Hanseatic League, perhaps, are more efficacious and responsive to local needs.
Winograd’s approach is less concerned with legislative policy reforms and more about government-to-government interactions and cultural shifts- staying in the current constitutional framework, cities and counties and other entities should experiment with policies on their own and engage in information-sharing or innovation diffusions to spread new ideas around. And of course, local citizen participation should always be encouraged, in as many ways as possible.
I don’t really disagree with either of these approaches, in principle or practice. I think both Winograd and Kotkin would probably be open, as well, to more concrete measures like Nixonian Revenue Sharing or the replacement of federal rules with regional consortiums for rulemaking.
DISAGREEMENTS WITH LOCALISM
But I do think it’s a more complicated story than just a restoration of localism and a toppling of bureaucratic power or a revival of republican virtue. I have two problems with the whole “localism” idea as a program, even though I heartily adopt it as a principle alongside my other principles and will try to fit it in where possible.
First off, it is something of an anti-program, and an anti-program without much meat at that. Neither Kotkin’s nor Winograd’s reports, both of which I helped with, goes particularly deep in the way of policy proposals. Kotkin’s reads like a description of what’s wrong with bureaucracy, and less like a description of what ought to replace it, if anything. Winograd’s at times sounds like a plea for a “revolution in consciousness” about governing, with a few bits of advice for how to manage it. I think both would agree with me on those partial characterizations, though they’d qualify it by saying they’re not out to start new movements, but to highlight shifts in the public debate that need to happen. And, being far less wise than either of them, I would of course defer.
But there’s a second problem. As anyone who reads this blog knows, my number one intellectual influence is Michael Lind, formerly of New America, and the last Hamiltonian in America for some time. Lind is a nationalist through-and-through in every way, a liberal nationalist in the Rooseveltian-Lincolnian vein. Though he has occasionally been known to advocate some manifestations of localism- see his NYT column on restoring local democracy or his co-written report with Joel Kotkin on industrialism in the Midwest– he is generally a thinker who more than most favors big institutions and central solutions.
Whereas in the last few years, populists on the left decried big banks and big businesses and populists on the right decried big governments, Lind has been arguing for decades that big institutions like big government and big business are what make America great. They, of course, need to be regulated in the public interest and balanced against each other, so as not to destroy liberty and transform the whole of America into an oligarchic-industrial version of the Antebellum Plantation South. But generally, Lind argues that you can’t have a strong national defense and a productive industrial economy and basic social welfare protections without having a centralized, industrial state. He’d be arguing on the same side as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and most of the postwar Presidents.
He’s not wrong at all. Big government and big business, that unholy combination, have been the source of much of what is good about America, the motor driving what is so American about America. And with Theodore Roosevelt’s caveat- that it must be regulated for public interest rather than private profit- this public-private nexus can indeed do great things.
It’s just so often inimical to localism.
Let me state this in no uncertain terms:
Michael Lind’s Hamiltonian Nationalism remains, I think, the primary paradigm necessary to move forward with restoring American nationhood and greatness to something worthy and capable of protecting our ideals of ordered liberty and the American Dream as we advance into the 21st Century. There are threats around the world and we have a lot of people we need to feed- so we need a strong centralized state apparatus to sustain the necessary internationalist foreign policy, and we need a productive neo-industrial economy to maintain our people’s quality of life.
At the same time, Morley Winograd and Joel Kotkin have identified serious, serious problems with that model, problems that cut to the core of what it means to be an American. And most of their solutions, which I assisted them with researching, reject national solutions in favor of the wisdom and mobility of American communities and citizens. I wouldn’t quite say their reports advocate Jeffersonian localism, but they lean that direction for sure.
And at a fundamental level, I’m not sure if it is even possible to mix the big-state centralizing tendencies of Hamiltonianism with the local-control decentralizing tendencies of the New Localism.
Well, perhaps it is- I did, after all, do some work for the Richard Nixon Foundation, and one of the insights I gleaned from that is that President Nixon’s failed reforms of the New Deal had exactly that as their goal- to retain the benefits of being a modern industrial state with a strong foreign policy, while restoring as much power to the localities and states as was feasible in the 1970s. So even if it failed, there is an extant model to perhaps revamp and work on for a combination of nationalism and localism.
So perhaps both localism and nationalism can be had, but even if they both can be had, one must clearly take precedence. I want to say that in a dangerous world, that must be the nationalist side; but I’m not sure right now.
There are other things to consider- class and culture structures, divisions between different American regions and their relative power over each other, etc. Burnhamite elite theory might be helpful here, as well. There’s a lot to think about.
Ultimately, I’ve written this meandering screed primarily to organize and systematize my own thoughts on a dilemma I’ll have to confront soon enough- how to reconcile two good and basically incompatible things, two good and basically incompatible systems, two good and basically incompatible ideals. There probably isn’t a rational solution, but there probably is a practical and livable solution that can’t be rationally justified. One of the things I intend to do in due time, when I return to these issues, is to look at localism vs. nationalism issues in American politics, at both the local and state levels and federally, and think of them in this context. And eventually, when I turn to prognosticating (futilely) the contours of the Fourth Republic’s great policy and political debates, perhaps I’ll take a firmer stab at trying to reconcile Lind’s nationalism with Winograd and Kotkin’s localism.
But that will have to wait for another time.
 I was formerly involved with a futile and frankly kind of dumb ballot initiative campaign called the “Neighborhood Legislature” and one of the best arguments I took out of it was the sheer non-representative nature of the California and United States legislatures- when you’re a California State Senator with 1.2 million constituents in your district, you’re effectively trying to represent nearly twice as many people as a U.S. Congressman represents. Neither can truly do anything in a way that confers anything like democratic legitimacy. (I now disagree with the utopianity of the proposed reform, though.)
 It’s ironic, actually- Lind is normally the more idiosyncratic thinker among the three, and Kotkin and Winograd are normally slightly more conventional in their conclusions. But in the issue of where attention ought to be focused, Lind argues at the level of Congress and the White House; Kotkin and Winograd argue for City Hall.
As a Trojan, a student at the University of Southern California, and as a disciple and student of American history, in particular the history of the Presidency, I recently made a point of reading the speeches delivered by three Presidents of the United States to the assembled USC student body- John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign speech, Richard Nixon’s 1960 campaign speech, and Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign speech.
Two of these presidents, Kennedy and Ford, are forever memorialized on the steps of Doheny Library at USC. The other one, Nixon, married a Trojan and remains the only president to have attended a USC football game. They all have a certain sort of connection to the university, then, and in a sense, they all have a certain connection to me.
There’s the surface-level things. Kennedy was Catholic, and I’m Catholic. Ford was an Eagle Scout, and I’m an Eagle Scout. Nixon was my kind of Republican- I’ve called myself “an old-line Richard Nixon Republican” many times before.
But it goes deeper than that. These three presidents who spoke at Troy, in varying contexts, all fundamentally took on themselves the same mission in different ways. Kennedy took a stagnating America, well-managed but elitist and stuffy, and sought to inspire the public to do great things. Nixon found a torn and broken America in need of reform, and did what he could to put the pieces together and set it on the right direction. Ford, inheriting the failures of Nixon, bound up the country’s wounds in an age when things could’ve gotten much, much worse.
I am reminded, in these cases and perhaps in the case of every President, of Aeneas’s speech to the Trojans in Book I of the Aeneid- “Call up your courage again.” (Every year I’ve been here, USC administrators read this speech to the graduating classes in Latin, Greek, and English.) It’s a testimony, perhaps, to the eternal nature of leadership that such things don’t change.
I’ve often thought that the purpose of the University of Southern California, as inscribed upon the statue of Tommy Trojan, is exactly as it was written: “Here are provided seats of meditative joy… where shall rise again the destined reign of Troy.” The prophecy, if we can call it that, is straightforward; here at USC shall be cultivated the talent and skill for a new generation of leaders, who shall rise to do great things for civilization in due time.
I take it a bit more literally, though. Troy was to Rome, I think, as America, up to this point in our history, can be and will be to an even greater future for our descendants. I don’t know what form this “Destined Reign of Troy” will take- but whatever it is, it is the duty of we historians and political thinkers coming out of the Trojan school to get ready to build it. I want to be part of that effort, and am working to shape my character, intellect, and career towards it.
It’s not that every statesman or every President is an Aeneas, but in a way they follow his footsteps. Aeneas, the noblest Trojan and the first Roman, embodied the kind of self-control, sacrifice for the broader good, and delicate political skill needed in any leader. The Roman virtues- pietas, dignitas, virtus, and gravitas- are necessary, absolutely necessary, in any leader.
One could argue that Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford failed to exhibit these qualities, which I think is a fair assessment. Kennedy’s sexual affairs were legendary, as was Nixon’s paranoia. Ford was nowhere near as competent a politician as Kennedy or Nixon. Nonetheless, they did their best to keep things moving in America, and to the best of my understanding, I believe Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford more or less succeeded.
As we sail through these turbulent times upon us, it’d be helpful to remember these legacies and the men behind them.
Eric Greitens, Republican Governor of Missouri
Seth Moulton, Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts
A while back, as he inaugurated his series of implausible proposals for an American reformation, Ross Douthat wrote something to the effect of “sometimes counterfactuals and hopeless ideas can help expose very real problems, and equip us to think more proactively and reasonably about them.” (That’s a butchery, but I can’t seem to find the column where he made the argument.) In any case, what follows is another wildly improbable proposal which, for various structural and cultural reasons, will never ever go anywhere. But it’s an argument worth making, I think, because it highlights some very real problems with American politics these days, and perhaps can help someone to think a little more clearly about it.
So to begin: ever since about 2am Eastern Time on November 9th, 2016, people have been speculating about who will run for President in 2020. This has mostly been the domain of Democrats horrified at the Trumpification of the White House, who’ve been leaping from Hillary-esque Kamala Harris to new generations of Berniecrats. But the remnants of the NeverTrump Republicans, alongside some new Republican allies disillusioned by various aspects of the Trump presidency, have been putting names forth as well- John Kasich, of course, tops the list. And then, of course, there’s the usual speculation about Mark Zuckerberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and a host of small-name Senators and Governors scattered around the country.
I hate to add another fantasy-football ticket to this mix and stoop to the level of political tabloid-ism, but I’ll do it anyway. So- let’s look at the current situation of the Presidency as it relates to American political culture more broadly.
There probably have been times in American history where faith in the Presidency as an institution has been lower than it is today- the 1850s and 1890s come to mind- but none in recent memory. Many of our voting adults lived through the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush years, which, for whatever other flaws they had, nonetheless restored a sense of dignity and trust to the Presidency which had been destroyed through Watergate and was not helped by the stagnant Ford and Carter presidencies. But since Bush Sr., things seem to have gone downhill again.
That’s not to say Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have been complete buffoons- many people, including me, can point to good aspects of their leadership and character. But as a whole, the Post-Cold War presidents have been pale shadows of presidents past, in everything from overall policy achievements to strategic acumen to inspirational abilities. The institution of the Presidency has gone down a few pegs in respectability, even as public opinion has polarized across every dividing line imaginable. In this context- and a lot of pro-Trump West Coast Straussians have noted this, to their credit- Trump is merely the reaction of a disillusioned electoral bloc to the perceived failures of their elite, failures expressed most vividly in the Presidency. Trump doesn’t happen in a healthy polity that’s going in the right direction, so the argument goes.
So what we have, according to this analysis, is a negative feedback loop: we have a decadent political culture that produces and elevates less-than-great leaders, and less-than-great leaders worsen the decadence of our political culture. It spirals to the bottom regardless of which party controls the White House, and after the division and relative incompetence of the Obama years, the pendulum has swung to the right-wing populism of Donald Trump. The right-wing populism of Trump’s excesses will likely result in a 2020 or 2024 pendulum swing back to the elite far left, depending on a host of factors. All this in an increasingly imbalanced constitutional system which steadily concentrates more and more political and administrative power in- you guessed it- the Presidency.
Can this cycle be stopped?
I don’t know- the question of “social physics” vs. Great Man theory, and the answer that inevitably lies unseen somewhere in the middle, is unanswerable, but our answers to it are critical to how we’ll decide to act. And if, like me, you believe great leaders can make a dent in the historical process even if they can’t change the currents of history, you might have some futile hope in whichever particular dog you have in this fight.
THE QUALITIES OF MEN
“Though there never was a golden age where all men were noble and wise,” I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that we live in an age of distinct public debauchery and ineptitude. The daily sewage spewing from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account is certainly a proof of this, as is the generally somewhat hollow nature of contemporary political life (fraught though it is with existential questions.) While I have no doubt that individuals going into politics usually have all the best reasons, and are probably very dedicated and honest people trying to stick to their ideals, the simple fact of the matter is that our system does not place a particular premium on qualities like character, devotion, disinterestedness, unity, unselfish service, and other idealistic Boy Scout things that make consultants laugh and sneer. David Brooks lamented the decline of magnanimity in our leaders, and noted that in the entire Trump administration, only the generals seem to display manliness in the classic Periclean sense. That sounds right to me. (This is not the place to examine the complex interweavings of virtue, values, institutions, interests, and human nature, but rest assured it’s a fascinating can of worms.) There’s a very real reason Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt are the presidents many Americans yearn for nostalgically, rather than, say, Warren G. Harding or Richard Nixon.
It’s not just character, though. There’s a newfound competence problem with our leaders as well. In an interview, Craig Smith, President Gerald Ford’s speechwriter, suggested to me that Presidents with decades of prior experience in public life- Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, H.W. Bush- tend to be more responsible and competent than those with less experience. Compare those presidents, particularly in their foreign policies, with their Post-Cold War successors Bill Clinton (two-term Governor of Arkansas,) George W. Bush (one-term Governor of Texas,) and Barack Obama (one-term Senator from Illinois.) I need not examine Trump’s nonexistent prior public life. It seems to me that qualification is a qualification for the Presidency and for most other high offices, and that qualification is for whatever reason in dearth these days.
There are a lot of reasons for and aspects of this decline in character and competence, institutional and cultural and sociological in nature. There’s the shifting moral paradigms of the American cultural and political elite. There’s the series of well-intentioned reforms, starting after Watergate and going through the 90s, that unwittingly disempowered practical politicians and placed power in the hands of the ideologues who control for-profit media. There’s the declines in social capital and social trust so many astute social scientists have been observing for decades.
Regardless of the long-term problems, there is at least one short-term solution that can have some long-term effects. That solution, trite though it is to say, is good leadership- at a community level, at a city level, at a state level, at a Congressional level, and most importantly at the national level in the Presidency. Remember that Gerald Ford did much to heal the country after the fall of Nixon. For better or for worse, American politics revolves around the Presidency like the planets around the sun, and the caliber of person who assumes that office bodes highly, well or ill, for the destiny of the republic. Leadership does matter for politics, and character and competence- or at the very, very least, the perception of character and competence- matters for leadership.
So basically: we need to elect a President and Vice-President who the public, broadly defined as both the elites and the voting masses, believes exemplifies character and competence in service to the country. In my reading, there’s a trifecta of requirements for that-
-A strong record in public service;
-The appearance of a relative outsider uncorrupted by politics;
-A simultaneously no-nonsense yet let’s-work-together temperament.
The first two requirements seem paradoxical and, for the most part, are. To serve the public you usually need to serve in government; but to serve in government you earn the unsavory distinction of being a member of “the Establishment.”
There’s one exception, though- military service. If the polls are to be trusted, the United States Armed Forces are just about the last highly-trusted big institution in America these days, for a multitude of reasons- the perception of purity of sacrifice and of disinterested, nonpartisan service to the public are probably the biggest.
So- the easiest way to find this kind of public servant is to find a distinguished veteran of the United States Armed Forces. I don’t know if mass psychological studies have been done on veterans, but I would not be surprised if general trends were observed suggesting a kind of cooperative pragmatism coupled with individual independence among veterans in politics. (AEI’s Rebecca Burgess has done some work on these kinds of issues, and has written some great pieces on them.) Find any veteran at all who’s even a little bit less combative than Douglas MacArthur, and you have the foundations of a compelling candidate.
Intelligence would be nice, as well- so perhaps pick someone who has an advanced degree or multiple fellowships under their belt, someone who’s maybe written some books- and it would be nice if this person had relatively moderate views as well, and a history of reaching across the aisle like Americans claim they want their politicians to do.
And by a stroke of luck or an act of the divinity, there happen to be two elected officials rising in prominence in this country who fit that description to a “T.”
It’s as though someone wrote a fanfiction about the kinds of public servants America needs and the gods, looking with sympathy upon we mortals, made it happen. Governor Eric Greitens of Missouri and Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, by their “resume” virtues at least, would make a formidable team.
Eric Greitens is pretty much Theodore Roosevelt. Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow in the George W. Bush administration, author of multiple books, humanitarian, Navy SEAL with tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia under his belt, and founder of a notable veterans charity, the man’s a legend. He was formerly a Democrat and has listed Harry Truman as his favorite President, though he switched registration to Republican before he entered politics. Greitens was elected Governor of Missouri in 2016, running on an anti-corruption platform, and despite pursuing unpopular policies, appears to remain popular among his constituency. Before he was elected he was continuously cited as a future presidential candidate, and it’s not hard to imagine a Greitens 2020 campaign. I need not go on- just read his interview with Brett McKay at The Art of Manliness to get an idea of this man’s intellect and prowess.
Seth Moulton is also pretty much Theodore Roosevelt. An attendee of Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard University, he was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps upon graduation and served in some of the fiercest fighting in the early years of the Iraq War. He ultimately would serve four tours in Iraq, and spent the last two working directly for General David Petraeus. He apparently is loved by many generals in both the Army and the Marine Corps, the same generals who’re reining in the excesses of President Trump right now. He’ll be publishing a book next year. He ran for Congress in his home state of Massachusetts in 2014 and has been serving since then; he is a Democrat with no clear affiliations with either the progressive wing or the centrist wings of the party. But in a party that is increasingly less and less identified with “Americanism” and classic patriotism, military veterans-turned-Democratic elected officials hold a lot of power to recast the Democratic Party’s image. Politico published a glowing profile of Congressman Moulton recently, suggesting he’s in line for the Presidency as well; I need not go on.
Individually, these two men will go on to do great things in politics. It is hard to see them working together for multiple reasons, including, I would presume, probably overweening ambitions and egos that would be as scorpions in a bottle if put too close together. There’s also a partisan and even regional-cultural divide- Greitens is a populist Republican from the Midwest and Moulton is a progressive Democrat from the Northeast. But just imagine all the great things that would flow from a Greitens-Moulton presidential ticket in 2020…
First off, we’ve had a whole quarter-century now of relative incompetence and boringness in the Presidency. No distinguished public servants, not even any veterans of the military, intelligence, or diplomatic communities. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump are neither Roosevelts nor Churchills. Greitens and Moulton, by contrast, have both had distinguished and worldly military careers, as well as fantastic academic credentials.
Second off, it would be a bipartisan, trans-ideological, multi-regional ticket. Greitens is a Republican and Moulton is a Democrat. Greitens leans far to the right, Moulton somewhat to the left. Greitens hails from Trumpistan, Moulton from Clintonistan. Stranger presidential tickets have been formed; this one would unite the regions that don’t usually get along with each other, and could be a formidable, if unlikely, electoral coalition. And moreover- Americans these days say they want something vaguely called bipartisanship (even while calling for the destruction of their enemies or at least the obstruction of their healthcare or immigration proposals. Whatever.) Why not give them true bipartisanship in a truly bipartisan ticket populated by two men who, ostensibly and outwardly at least, value public service?
Third, the character aspect. The writings of Greitens and Moulton ringer richer than the writings of most politicians who prattle on about service and patriotism, because Greitens and Moulton spent the earlier parts of their careers becoming embodiments of service to country. There have been plenty of objections to the sincerity of either Greitens or Moulton- both have been accused of power-hunger and unfathomable ambitions, and the accompanying will to destroy that inevitably comes with the will to power- but outwardly at the very least, they display a kind of dedication to country that no mere political hack can imitate, no matter how hard they try. It shouldn’t be underestimated how important this aspect of image is to political capital.
It might be objected that neither has had sufficient political experience to assume the Presidency or Vice-Presidency, a critique with which I sympathize. But- Donald Trump is President of the United States with no prior public service under his belt. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all came in with minimal public life experience as well. Experience just doesn’t matter much in presidential politics these days, and is no longer the public qualifier it once was. Might as well have competent, all-American heroes as our unqualified presidents.
There might be a further objection that the presence of two veterans in the White House and the Naval Observatory (that’s the Vice-President’s house, for those who didn’t know!) would be indicative of or otherwise lead to some kind of military rule of sorts. The intelligent bearers of this critique would point not to third world autocracies rift with coups, but to the waning years of the Roman Republic, when military veterans like Sulla and Marius usurped the power of the Senate and eventually paved the way for the Triumvirate, Caesar, and the rise of the Empire. I don’t have a real answer to this critique, since the ambitious men of today are certainly not unlike the ambitious men of Rome.
That said, perhaps we are at a phase in our national history- not unlike the age of the Roosevelts, or perhaps the Lincoln Presidency- when strong and enlightened leadership must assume the unprecedented power of the presidency to stabilize the liberal, constitutional order into something functional again. Better disciplined and patriotic veterans than, say, Kid Rock.
Anyhow, this isn’t going to happen. Governor Greitens and Congressman Moulton aren’t about to cross party lines and save the country. That’s not how the world works.
Nonetheless, we can open some important conversations that aren’t really being had publicly right now- conversations about the role of character formation in education, broadly defined; conversations about how to get more qualified and dutiful people into public office and high office; conversations about what kind of leaders can actually unite the country by representing timeless principles, rather than merely the kind of leaders who suit our preferences and consciences.
I wish the best to Governor Greitens and Congressman Moulton in their forthcoming careers, especially if and when they each run for President of the United States. We’ll see what happens with them, and with the country.
Alexander Hamilton and Me
AHA! Essay Contest
Today a friend told me I reminded her of my great historical mentor, Alexander Hamilton. I was flattered, of course, and recalled an essay I wrote for the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society’s essay contest a year or so ago. (They never got back to me, which is probably for the best.)
Some things have changed since the writing of this piece; I have a deeper understanding of Hamilton, now, and I am no longer on track to join the Army National Guard. Nonetheless, I think this is a relevant piece of writing to record here on ABiasedPerspective, and so deposit it here.
Introduction to a Great Man
My first exposure to the self-conscious legacy of Alexander Hamilton was through the same venue through which literally every other American Millennial encountered the ten-dollar founding father: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s majestic Hamilton: An American Musical. Few remember, but Miranda performed the opening number of Hamilton way back in 2009, invited to the White House Poetry Jam by President Obama. I was lucky enough to have had an AP U.S. History teacher then, Mr. Schuchart, who thought it’d be fun to play it for his class.
Like everybody else with a soul, I was smitten by the message. I was an angsty teenager who could relate to the “young, scrappy, and hungry” feel Miranda conveyed, so I began watching the White House performance over and over again. It became something of a life anthem for me, not least because I felt I could relate- a few months after hearing “Alexander Hamilton” for the first time, my family moved across the continent, from Seattle to the suburbs of Washington D.C. I felt as though I had lost everything but my family- my friends, my legacy and reputation in the community, my very happiness and everything I had come to know and love. I turned the tune on to repeat and soldiered on through the first of several depressive episodes, while Miranda sang to me about how the young Hamilton got through that kind of thing:
“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 new land.
In [DC] you can be a new man…”
Beginnings of the Intellectual Journey
Now around this time, the Tea Party phenomenon was bubbling up. Having been a very non-Hamiltonian Tea Partier back then, I of course thought it would be prudent of me to read up on the works of the Founding Fathers so I could be extra-self-righteous in political discourse with anti-Founding Fathers liberal types. The first Founding Father I chose to pick up, of course, was Alexander Hamilton.
I went ahead and printed off some of Hamilton’s speeches and letters, including the speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, and locked myself in the library with them. By the time I finished that first round of Hamilton papers, I was very confused. Wasn’t Hamilton a Founding Father? Weren’t the Founding Fathers for small government and fiscal austerity and strict constructionism and all these other things the Tea Party told me they were for? What gives? (Alexander Hamilton, of course, was not a small-government, fiscally conservative, strict constructionist kind of guy, though he certainly was a Founding Father.)
That was the spark. Hamilton was the spark. I stood, in the Brooke Point High School Library with my Hamilton papers, at a crucial decision point: do I stand with the major political currents of the present and go with the crowd, and its false interpretation of the American Founding? Or do I do the long hard slog and go study what Hamilton and all the rest actually said, even if that means sacrificing my “conservative” credentials?
I made the right choice and decided to read what the Founders actually wrote, and joined the great historical conversation, rather than enslaving myself to popular opinion-makers with their own axes to grind. I wanted to pledge my loyalty to Alexander Hamilton, not to Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh; so I embarked on an intellectual journey then, studying the great state-builders and nationalists, the foreign policy realists, the political liberals and temperamental conservatives, the historians of civilizations and diplomacy political economy and the philosophers of human nature and political theory. I’m still on that journey and plan to be journeying until I die, and stepping onto that road- choosing to study the depths of politics rather than merely follow the opinion-making hacks- was probably one of the best choices I’ve made in my life. Alexander Hamilton was the direct catalyst who brought the issue to a stark choice.
On that intellectual journey, I’ve always made sure to keep Hamilton on my version of what Art of Manliness blogger Brett McKay calls your “Cabinet of Invisible Counselors.” Some of my other historical mentors included there, for various reasons, are Niccolo Machiavelli, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon. But Hamilton holds the first and most honored place, and I will always measure up my new insights and discoveries against his standard first, and then to those of the others.
In many ways, my political journey, and thus my life journey- both intellectual and activist- has been a question of discerning the apostolic succession from Hamilton on down. I’ve been guided by a couple of lights on this subject- Michael Lind on the “Hamiltonian tradition in American politics,” Clinton Rossiter on the modern-but-not-modernist, philosophically conservative but politically liberal intellectual roots of Alexander Hamilton and Hamiltonianism, and Forrest McDonald on the “man in the arena” nature of public life.
Michael Lind and the Politics of Hamiltonianism
Michael Lind, whom I reached out to about a year ago and whom I consider a master teacher and wise advisor, traces the Hamiltonian tradition- nationalist in economics, both liberal and yet conservative in culture, reformist and nationalist in government, realist in foreign policy- across American history. Institutions across American history and sometimes surviving to the present day like the railroads, the Erie Canal, the Federal Highways, the National Banks, the Federal Reserve, the Military-Industrial Complex, the public funding of education and healthcare, the mixed-market system of managerial capitalism, the federal research pipeline, the professional military, and, frankly, the subordination of the authority of states to the ultimate authority of the federal government, Lind argues, are the legacy of Hamiltonian political thought and institution-building, and are to be celebrated, reformed, and extended, not condemned as they so often are by populists of all stripes.
In “Hamilton’s Republic,” one of his most useful works, Lind follows Hamiltonians from the Founding to the mid-Cold War; from Alexander Hamilton himself and George Washington; through the Whigs Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster; into the Lincoln Republicans; arisen again under what Samuel P. Huntington called the “Neo-Hamiltonian” Republican friend group of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elihu Root, and John Hay, as well as the turn-of-the-century Progressives. Somewhere between the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, the tradition jumped parties into the New Dealers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt being the greatest among them, and continued along Franklin Roosevelts grand New Deal Democrats Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. After Johnson, Lind contends, the tradition ends, someday to resurface and guide America along the developmental nationalist course.
I am not so pessimistic; after all, Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, as well as the Rockefeller Republicans, continued the economic nationalism and political reformism of the earlier Progressives, and only tweaked the New Deal and Great Society. And the first-generation neoconservative intellectuals Lind admires in “Up From Conservatism” like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer tended to provide policy for moderate Republicans like Richard Nixon.
My argument, adjusting Lind’s, is that the Nixonian Republicans of the early 70s could have transmitted the Hamiltonian tradition further along, especially because the New Deal Democrats imploded between 1968 and 1972, and the great Democratic Party was taken over by college activists and economic neoliberals by the 1990s. But thanks to Richard Nixon’s character flaws- more tragic than even Alexander Hamilton’s- the tradition was discredited by 1973, and we have since labored under neoliberal and socially right-wing and left-wing paradigms in both parties, rather than the old Hamiltonian tradition that sustained American greatness (and whose contributions continue to provide the bulwark institutions of our decaying Republic.)
The great Hamiltonian leaders- Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon- have provided an intellectual model for the next great epoch of nation-building and national union for our country. I have dedicated my life to informing and building a new Hamiltonian coalition within the Republican Party, and we will see where it goes.
So Michael Lind has been my teacher primarily on the historical legacy of Hamiltonianism and its policy contours (and in his innumerable books, reports, and essays for various outlets, he has done America a valuable thought-service to exploit. See the footnotes for a list of good books of his and archives of his reports and essays.) So much for practical policy- what about philosophy and political temperament?
Clinton Rossiter and Hamilton’s Constitutionalism
On that topic, I turn to another great Hamiltonian author whose life, unfortunately, was cut far too short. Nonetheless, before his untimely death in 1969, Clinton Rossiter provided us with the overlooked masterpiece Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, a tome reviewing Hamilton’s conservative philosophy, liberal-modern political temperament, and administrative acumen. It is probably the closest extant work to Hamilton’s planned and unfortunately never-written magnum opus, his “Full Investigation of the History and Science of Civil Government, and the Practical Results and Various Modifications of it upon the Freedom and Happiness of Mankind.” (If I ever am blessed by Hamilton-like intellectual acumen, I plan to write a Hamiltonian Full Investigation doing honor to the stillborn original, and examining the history of free governments and national economies since Weehawken.)
Rossiter looks at Hamilton’s philosophy of human nature, his liberal Enlightenment theory of government, and his loose-interpretation constitutionalism, both in abstract general contexts and in the context of Hamilton’s colorful career in public service. The most useful and frankly inspiring part of Rossiter’s work, though, is his litany of “The Political Principles of Alexander Hamilton” (I provide it in the second appendix at the end of this document.) Here’s Rossiter’s closing admonition–
Hamilton the political scientist, like Hamilton the constitutionalist, is both the teacher and the property of the whole nation. He speaks to the Right but also to the Left, and speaks perhaps most intelligently to those who mill about in the middle and seek for ways to save both America and American democracy. He is a useful man to know because he tells us harsh truths that we are not told by Jefferson, useful because democracy needs skeptics as well as enthusiasts to acclaim. Hamilton the political thinker was a skeptic who was honest, acute, and specific about his doubts and fears, and such a thinker as he has a message of unique perception for this generation of Americans. As Eliphalet Nott warned in 1804, if this government of ours, the “illustrious fabric” on which Hamilton’s “genius” was “impressed” should ever fall, “his prophetic declarations will be found inscribed on its ruins.”
In conclusion, let us look again at the whole Hamilton, whose relevance for our times goes well beyond his teachings as constitutional lawyer and political scientist. It is not alone our indulgent Constitution and energetic government that should remind us daily that he lived and achieved and prophesied, nor even our mixed, balanced, productive, regulated, and occasionally guided economy. It is, rather, the very existence of America as a nation that spreads its sway over most of a continent and its influence over much of the world. We have achieved the power and glory he foretold in his most hopeful hours because we have become a far more perfect Union than all his enemies and even most of his friends wanted us to be…
… Accustomed as we now must become to thinking in terms of a progressive industrial society served by an energetic national government under the liberating Constitution of a sovereign Union, we are bound to pay homage to the man who first set this image before the American people.
But enough of Hamilton’s theories. How did Hamilton live?
Forrest McDonald and Hamilton’s Dark Romanticism
Another forgotten work that was, for some time, the go-to biography of Hamilton (it has since been surpassed and replaced by Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton) is Forrest McDonald’s Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. Aside from being a useful account of Hamilton’s life, McDonald theorizes about the driving forces behind Hamilton’s passion and character. He characterizes Hamilton a Romantic- a man ruled by his heart rather than his head, but far grittier and realistic. than the idealists of all ages. As I read McDonald’s famous passage on Hamilton’s romanticism, I realized I was reading a description of myself:
“A passion for immortal fame is characteristic of the romantic…
Romanticism, perhaps the most sublime of afflictions, is a congenital psychic disorder whose symptoms are evident throughout life. In childhood the romantic writes poetry and dreams of grand and noble exploits. As a youth he embraces causes and fights for them with reckless bravery— which is easy enough for him to do, since he is unable to imagine that failure or defeat is possible….
He is spirited, gallant, and bold and sees high drama where others see blandness. He inspires admiration and loyalty in some, envy and hatred in others; he can be charming and witty but not genuinely humorous, for though life to him is always a joyful affirmation, it is never funny. Like the sentimentalist, the dreamer, and the do-gooder, the romantic is ruled by his heart rather than his head. Unlike them, he is also tough-minded and realistic, and that creates within him a turbulence they never know: he drives himself to excel, requires discipline of himself far beyond that of other men, is ever concerned with honor, sometimes obsessively…”
This is the stuff of greatness. I do not claim to be a budding Alexander Hamilton myself- I am too aware of the limits of my talent and drive to assume that I’ll ever go down in history next to or even near the stature of this greatest of Americans.
But we must all have our inspirations, and the brilliant, tortured mind and spirit of Alexander Hamilton is something some of us admire and less of us share. But those blessed and cursed with it- and to the best of my judgment, I identify with this “congenital psychic disorder,” and it is probably clear through the dreaminess of this essay- have a duty to the country to use that gift in its service.
A Model for Duty to Country
And there are few greater models of this last charge-duty to country- than Alexander Hamilton. From the soldier of the revolution to the delegate of the founding conventions to the de facto Prime Minister and Grand Strategist of the Washington Administration to the young elder statesmen of the post-Washington years, Hamilton never ceased to serve, and never sought to profit from his service- he died a poor man.
Now, as a bad Catholic, an Eagle Scout indelibly influenced by my Scouting experience, a Navy brat, and an aspiring Army National Guard officer (if I can finally get that darn paperwork in,) duty to country and the honor of public service is not a mere resume point for me- it’s a way of life I seek to live up to and be worthy of. And I must admit that though my instincts on the matter were formed well before I “met” Alexander Hamilton, it was my study of his life that helped me discern how, precisely, I hope to practice that service. Simply, I want to follow his footsteps- as a soldier and defender of the Republic, as a political operator in these tumultuous times, as a servant to “my George Washington,” as an advisor to great men and women in the service of the public.
There are so many other lessons Hamilton taught- that you must teach yourself, that you must always strive, as two later Hamiltonians put it, as a “man in the arena,” that good character, whose fruit is good reputation and whose cost is good works, is a good in itself, and so many more. He was a man of action, a man of intellect, and a man of useful service.
In all, he was the greatest American, for he wrought American greatness, among other reasons. He was a great citizen, a great statesman, and a great man. He is a model to me, and I would hope, a model to us all.
Long live his memory, and whatever I can do to do him honor, I will do and more. Loyalty to and emulation of Hamilton, to answer the prompt directly, is the way Alexander Hamilton influenced my life. I am a better man for it.
APPENDIX A: Sampling of Michael Lind’s Books, Essays, and Reports
“Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition”
“Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States”
“The Next American Nation”
“The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life”
Major Articles and Essays:
“Taking Modernization Seriously,” Breakthrough Journal
“The Coming Realignment,” Breakthrough Journal
“Raiding Progress,” Breakthrough Journal
“Against Cosmopolitanism,” Breakthrough Journal
“The Liberal Roots of Populism,” Demos Quarterly
“Spreading the Wealth: Decentralization, Infrastructure, and Shared Prosperity,” NewGeography
Reports at New America (in conjunction with other authors) :
“Beyond the Low-Wage Social Contract”
“The Next Social Contract: An American Agenda for Reform”
“Renewing the American Social Contract: A New Vision for Improving Economic Security”
“Expanded Social Security”
“Value Added: America’s Manufacturing Future”
“Public Purpose Finance”
“The Dignity Voucher Program”
“The Manufacturing Credit System”
“Made in America Bonds”
APPENDIX B: Clinton Rossiter’s “The Political Principles of Alexander Hamilton,” from Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution
The lessons we learn from Hamilton the political thinker will reinforce and energize the liberal tradition, not sap or corrupt it. And the best of those lessons would seem to be:
Men are driven to strive and achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.
Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings.
It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.
There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.
The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.
Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.
No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.
No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.
As the opinions of the people are the decisive force n the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.
Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.
It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.
The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”
The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next step beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.
The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.
In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.
The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest- which is the indispensable quality of good government.
The executive is the chief source of political energy.
An energetic government is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.
The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of government, not merely to keep order and protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.
Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for these instruments of society.
This is not, be it remembered, the whole of Hamilton’s political thought, for he had many other things to say on many other subjects. Nor is the whole of his thought, I repeat, a political philosophy for American democracy. But this is a catalogue of opinions and judgments of which he was the first and most explicit exponent among the Founding Fathers- in several instances the only exponent- and Americans may go to it confidently for instruction in the problems and possibilities of twentieth-century statecraft.