RePost: Adam Garfinkle on the Proper Political Temperament



Years ago, as I was just breaking into my political-writing and policy-research career, I chanced across Dr. Adam Garfinkle’s essay series “What’s Wrong and How to Fix It,” which began with a deep institutional investigation into the roots of American political dysfunction and concluded with a series of 10 policy fixes for various issue areas in contemporary politics. The whole boatload of essays was gathered together and published in EBook form by The American Interest. This was midway through the Obama Presidency, probably sometime in 2012 or 2013; Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party were going strong, but the contemporary waves of protests and political violence had yet to begin.

 Dr. Garfinkle’s short treatise served as a springboard and crystallizer of my thought, and was the main impetus for me to organize and systematize my political philosophy. Given my general agreement with large sections of the series, and my ambitions as a writer, I took it upon myself to 1) reach out to Dr. Garfinkle for mentorship, then through inviting him to speak to the Political Student Assembly at USC and eventually through an internship at TAI, and 2) to start composing a little book, a manifesto of 21st Century Whiggery that would expand on Dr. Garfinkle’s insights and adapt them to a new political party, or something.

The second project largely failed, thank God. Manifestos are among the most boring kinds of political writing, useful though they are as an intellectual exercise for any young writer. I believe I have the draft of that damn piece of work lurking in my 2013-2014 email archives, but I’m scared to look at it. Anyhow, the first project- getting access to Dr. Garfinkle- was somewhat more successful, and I’ve chatted back and forth with him over the last few years since the USC event and my internship. (I get the impression he has better things to do than talk to college students, but I’m persistent anyway, perhaps to my own detriment.) Dr. Garfinkle has even generously published some of my work over at TAI, and I’m currently working on a long-overdue project for him, to format and prepare for publication a series of EBooks archiving TAI’s 2005-2015 essays. (How soon it’ll be done, with my propensity to grab every project I can and work on them all at once, no one knows…) 

I mention this to preface the following passages I share from “What’s Wrong and How to Fix It.” This series of essays had a real and profound impact on my early intellectual development, imbuing in me the sensibility of a centrist reformer and inspiring me to think systematically outside of the most popular contemporary systems of thought. Dr. Garfinkle does this very, very well, probably better than most other intelligent thinkers, and I aspire to his level of sophistication.

God knows we need someone to do it, if not me. I share the following passages- basically the opening and the closing of the policy proposals part of the series- because of their continuing relevance a few years after their original publication. They are only more important, now, though, in the aftermath of Charlottesville and so many other divisive and murderous acts of political violence- because unless we can restore a leadership class with the proper temperament to govern this country and reform its institutions, any hope of building a more united national identity and promoting the development of social capital must effectively be lost. 

I’m not saying the ten solutions Dr. Garfinkle proposes are the right policy platform for victory or even reform. But the whole spirit of this book is important. Dr. Garfinkle once told me that “everyone should run for President, sometime” as an intellectual exercise in informed citizenship. I think he was promoting political independence of thought in the form of individualized policy agendas for each of the 300 million new presidential candidates. But there’s another reason one should “run for President” with no serious intent. 

That reason is that such an exercise and the mock-government activities associated with it- talking to voters who’ll never vote for you, commenting on great issues of state you’ll never influence, organizing pragmatically for a putative campaign you’ll never win- can, prospectively, train one in the necessary and fine arts of democratic citizenship and decency in public discourse, pragmatically and idealistically. And those, in today’s climate, are virtues we need in more people. This is a thought-exercise, of course- don’t take it as me literally suggesting we all run for the Presidency (as certain good friends of mine might interpret it and act upon it!)

But the background still stands. If we’re going to resolve the great ongoing and worsening national crisis that threatens to descend into a national nightmare, if we’re going to learn to live with each other in this great American experiment with sufficient harmony that we can agree at least to fix and renew our institutions, we’ll need statesmen and stateswomen with good habits and benign intentions. And Dr. Garfinkle’s passages below point out one way, I think, we can begin to approach that, short of actually setting up a mock presidential campaign.

Without further ado, here’s Dr. Garfinkle-

Part 4: Television and Politics (Introduction)

Now that the three groups of explanation for American political dysfunction have been laid out and their mutual connections sketched (in parts onetwo and three), we can begin to discuss programmatic solutions for our problems. The ten proposals below represent “torque points” in American politics—places where positive change would resonate throughout our political culture. This is the only way to proceed, for disaggregated fixes for specific problems will never get far, given the plutocratic maw into which they will surely fall.

My ten proposals do not fall neatly into any conventional ideological category. I’m neither a registered Democrat (anymore) nor a registered Republican (never have been), and I have already suggested why: I don’t want to go back to 1965 or to 1925. But let me briefly restate my antipathy to both sets of party orthodoxy in somewhat different language before getting to my ten proposals.

The Left in this country, generally speaking, tends to excoriate corporations, even to disparage the profit motive itself, and to think of government as a proper vehicle not only for battling the depredations of capitalism but also for forcing on the nation the kinds of multicultural, politically correct social biases it likes. It has inculcated within itself the old countercultural notion of consciousness-raising, in which it presumes to know more about what’s good for you than you do. It is the self-appointed Robin Hood of our political soul, though its populist pretensions are belied by its elitist ways. The Left displays a blindness to the benefits of a non-distorted market economy, and an even more grievous blindness to the limits of what government can accomplish—especially a government that tries to do more than it should in what has become a misaligned Federal system.

The Right these days, generally speaking, tends to excoriate government, to dismiss the idea of an inclusive and fairly governed national community, and to blame those who are genuinely poor for their own poverty. Much of the Right, having regrettably abandoned its own Burkean heritage, sees through a crude Social Darwinist prism that acknowledges only individual judgment, ignoring the social context in which that judgment is seated.1 It is blind to plutocratic corruption and doesn’t see, either, the widening cultural gap between an isolated elite and those Americans who are falling out of an often recently won and still fragile middle-class status.2 It is particularly blind to the fact that a distorted market system dominated by large corporate oligarchies that deploy increasingly sophisticated advertising methodologies can be responsible for undermining both social trust and the founding virtues.3

Again, there’s no reason to choose between the problems caused by the public sector (a sclerotic, dysfunctional and wildly expensive government) and the problems caused by the private sector (a predatory corporate leadership class, and especially an increasingly powerful parasitic financial elite, that has become an extractive rather than a productive asset for the nation as a whole). Both problems exist, and both are getting worse.

Moreover, these problems are not really separate; they feed one another. Private sector abuses feed the appetite for government protection, but government is too dysfunctional to provide that protection; instead its efforts tend to harm small businesses that lack the arsenals of specialist lawyers and accountants that huge businesses use to evade government attempts to hem them in. You get a hint of this by looking at what the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have had in common, which is a fair bit more than either group likes to admit.

We need an active and bold Federal government for several key but discrete purposes beyond national security; but we can well do without the nanny-state soft despotism it otherwise drapes over our society. If we need a model, a hero from our past who epitomizes this combination, we have at least three to choose from: Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt—Federalist, Whig and Republican….

I emphasize a single principle, one that my TAI colleagues imply. This principle, I think, is central to the renewal of American government and American democracy: Government can and must act to increase American social capital or, as some call it, social trust. Existing Federal programs should be judged on the extent to which they at least do not destroy extant social capital residing in organic communal processes at local and state levels. They must, in other words, respect the principle of subsidiarity. New programs should be judged on their potential for enlarging social capital, of which we are in sore need as we face the relentlessly individuating influence of a range of new technologies. Unless we harness those technologies in the service of worthy social goals, they will likely tear us asunder, making us easy prey for both rent-seeking parasites at home and, in due course, possibly even ambitious adversaries abroad…

Part 14: Dreaming the New/Old Liberalism

Some of my ten ideas are compatible with a “small is beautiful” or “government is the problem” ideological perspective. I affirm subsidiarity and the return of appropriate government authority from the Federal to state and local levels. But other of my ideas demand that government, including the Federal government, do more, not less. This may seem contradictory to small or rigid minds, but it isn’t contradictory at all to the sort of liberal, now evidently all but obsolete, who thinks that government’s role is to insure a level playing field and maximum feasible democratic participation where it matters most to citizens in their communities.

I am not for government “getting out of the way”, as libertarians would have it, but I am also not for government “getting in the way”, as when government doesn’t level the playing field but occupies, dominates and smothers it with social engineering schemes that never work as intended. The original 19th century liberalism tilted to the former impulse, postwar American liberalism toward the latter. I prefer the more balanced kind in between the extremes, the kind championed by the first Roosevelt. It is the balanced liberalism whose progressive goals need to be approached carefully, that is, with a conservative temperament: the “pave the way” approach, let’s call it. We tried the “get out the way” approach and it did not suffice; we tried the “get in the way” approach but now that tack is or ought to be exhausted. Goldilocks to the rescue: The “pave the way” approach is just right. We already have a model that works; it just needs to be retooled for the 21st century…

The larger point is that we will never be able to right our damaged political economy and our country with it unless we fix our political institutional frameworks, and we will never, ever be able to do that unless we confront and defeat the plutocratic menace that is stalking our country from, as Damon Runyon once put it an admittedly different context, dimple to duodenum.

That, above all, is what we need to fix. We’ve done it before and, while past achievement is no guarantee of future success, we can do it again. We have to try. To give in to despair is deadly. I, for one, am not yet ready to stick a fork into the American project.

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