A Statesman Adored
Something I’ll never forget, I’d wager to the day I die, will be the evening I watched 2017’s Super Bowl 51 from a hospital in Pasadena. I may or may not forget seeing Tom Brady win his record-breaking fifth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. But I’ll never forget what happened a few short hours before.
As the opening ceremonies ended, former President of the United States George H. W. Bush was wheeled out onto the field with former First Lady Barbara Bush. By this time confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak, the elder President Bush still had a grin the size of a bus on his face, and looked like a kid in a candy store having the time of his life. Despite his clearly aging physique and inglorious wheelchair entry, President Bush presented an air of dignity and moment, almost an air of statesmanship, as he rolled towards the center of the field- the viewer could almost sense that here, they watched a piece of history come forth, a piece they’d not get to see again. The smooth soundtrack accompanying Bush’s entry only deepened this impression.
Someone handed the President the coin for the fabled toss, and Bush flipped it as best his ailing hand could flip. The hand that had rested steady to guide the American ship of state as the Berlin Wall came down, as the Soviet Empire broke apart, as the guns of Tiananmen Square blazed, as the New World Order was forged atop the smoldering wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s armored divisions, the hand that had shaken so many other world-shaking hands over two and a half decades of public service and two and a half more decades of post-presidential public life, now determined by the toss of a coin whether the Falcons or the Patriots would get the first play. The man who had led the world from one era to the next looked as pleased and cheerful as he ever had.
Perhaps more compelling than that image- of the former most powerful man in the world, a world-historical figure, consigned to the frailty of age, yet defying human destiny with ethereal joy – was the atmosphere surrounding him. Here was a former U.S. President, who like every other U.S. President once had domestic friends and domestic foes, showing himself to a broad section of the public, and receiving only praise. There were no audible jeers or boos or insults, no large sections of the crowd taking the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with such a well-known public figure. Bear in mind that American Presidents and presidential candidates probably suck up more slanderous abuse than just about any other class of human beings the world has ever seen- but it seems that all 70,000 fans present in the stadium that night momentarily gave up whatever reservations they might have had, and honored a great man.
Can anyone see any of the subsequent Presidents- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and especially Donald Trump- receiving such a universally warm welcome? In every case, it’s harder and harder to envision. Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama are all currently more polarized figures than the elder Bush; whatever becomes of their legacy in the coming decades, none of them holds the gravitas of Bush 41 does at the present moment.
Now, there are some caveats to this- of course President Bush Sr. would be more popular and less slandered in 2017, a quarter-century and three two-term presidencies after he left the Oval Office, than he would have been had he flipped the coin in 1993. Time heals most wounds, and the Super Bowl-attending public clearly was so kind to President Bush partly because most of the controversies attending his presidency- the response to the Rodney King Riots, to Tiananmen Square, “No New Taxes,” the Panama operation- had faded into the mists of obscurity. And certainly, had Bush Sr. been more active in politics lately, as Bill Clinton has obviously been, his star would have been a bit more tarnished than his relative silence on public issues has made it.
But even so, Bush Sr. is a unique case- had former President Jimmy Carter flipped the coin, it’s harder to envision the crowd being as receptive and adoring. There’s just something about President George H. W. Bush, which may defy easy categorization, that sets him apart. The cynics will call it PR; romantics might call it character.
Way of the Public Servant
George H. W. Bush, I would argue, seems to represent something that Americans pine for these days without knowing that they pine for it: the old-fashioned cult of experienced, country-first public service, of bipartisan gentility towards political foes, of a consensus-building moderation and prudence mixed with a true, lived dignity by the bearer of the office of the Presidency. Figures like this- in my opinion, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush exhibited it best- used to be more common in public life, alongside the mischievous Nixons and Johnsons and the charismatic Reagans and Kennedys. But in the Post-Cold War epoch, they’ve been increasingly rare. Whatever superficial similarities there might be in policy or political strategy, no one would equate the character and statecraft of Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama with that of George H. W. Bush (try as some might.)
I think there’s a reason for that. As Ford speechwriter and Bush Sr. consultant Craig Smith told me in an interview once, Republican and Democratic Presidents with decades of experience in public life, particularly in the Executive Branch and military-intelligence communities, always tended to be more reserved, realistic, and holistically-oriented than their counterparts from the governorships or the Senate. They tended to be less ideological than these colleagues of theirs, and less visionary, but more practical managers of government and certainly far less polarizing figures in the public eye. Others like them who never attained the Presidency- George Marshall, George Shultz, and Brent Scowcroft, all public servants hailing from the famed “military-industrial complex” of the professional U.S. foreign policy community, come to mind- exhibited these traits even more fully.
In an age where politicians with the experience and charisma of a Kennedy or a Reagan tend to ascend to the Presidency more frequently than more experienced public servants, it’s not hard to see why the public- which elects the Clintons and Bushes and Obamas and Trumps to high office in the first place- often seems dissatisfied with its choices. It’s not that modern presidents are incompetent or pernicious or undeserving of the Presidency- it is simply that one of the archetypes of “a good President,” the humble career politician-bureaucrat with military or civil service experience and a bipartisan or nonpartisan record, is far less common these days than it used to be.
And that is unfortunate, because in these days of unprecedented division and divisiveness, a leader with the temperament, aura, and judgment of George H. W. Bush might be just what we need.
George H. W. Bush, Last of the GI Generation
Others have other explanations of the behaviors of different generations of political leaders. My own sometime employers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais are famous for their application of Strauss-Howe Generational Theory to the Realignment Theory of American critical elections and partisan demography; they argue that the cultural and social predilections of any generation, combined with that generation’s reaction to formative experiences around it, interact to shape that generation’s attitudes and behaviors when it attains political maturity.
And there is a cyclical pattern of generations in the Anglo-American world, as well. Winograd and Hais isolate two main types of political generations of importance to American institutional and ideological development- the “Civic” Generations, and the “Idealist” Generations. To oversimplify greatly, Idealist Generations- like the Baby Boomers who currently dominate our political and economic institutions- are more concerned with morality and righteousness than with the interests of the broader group, whereas Civic Generations pragmatically pursue the opposite. The last Civic Generation- the “GI Generation” that came of age during the Depression and the fires of the Second World War- subsequently assumed leadership over the country throughout the Cold War, and produced such great Civic-oriented leaders as John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush (all World War Two veterans.)
But the Civic Generations inevitably are replaced by Idealist Generations. The Bush biographer Jon Meacham opens his magisterial biography[i] of the 41st President by highlighting Bush Sr.’s journal entry the night he lost reelection to the upstart Bill Clinton:
“How do you be the commander in chief when you duplicitously avoid service to your country?…Maybe it is time for a new generation… I’ve always assumed there was duty, honor, country. I’ve always assumed that was just part of what Americans were made of- quite clearly it’s not….
…The values are different now…. I feel I have the comfort of knowing that I have upheld these values and I live and stand by them. I have the discomfort of knowing that they might be a little out of date…”
This passage explains it all, it would seem, according to Winograd and Hais’s theories of generational change. George H. W. Bush was the product of his upbringing and his times, an old-line WASP with the cult of public service engrained in his bones. He was typical of his generation; his successors, being of the later generations, had a different, more supposedly self-serving constellation of values.
It’s an interesting idea, and I don’t dispute any of the empirical data on attitudes and opinions Winograd and Hais cite in their voluminous works,[ii] though I would tend to think personal experience and professional upbringing distinguished Bush from most of his generation. The implications, though, for what the generational cycle means for the Millennial Generation- the next “Civic” Generation- are fascinating.
A Neo-GI Generation?
At a purely empirical level, I’d say Winograd and Hais pretty accurately paint the general attitudinal trends and demographics of my (young and philosophically diverse!) generation. According to Winograd and Hais, Millennials tend, by large majorities, to be:
-inclined, by rearing, towards positivity, optimism, and accomplishment;
-ethnically diverse, more ethnically diverse than any prior generation in American history, and importantly, very open to and tolerant of that diversity;
-strongly community-oriented, particularly at a local and nonprofit level;
-very egalitarian on the question of sex roles;
-inclined to “think global and act local;”
-very technologically savvy;
-politically in favor of activist government;
-disinclined to question the motives or patriotism of their political opponents;
-committed to public participation in democracy.
For the most part, I think anyone looking at the university undergraduate populations in the Obama and Trump eras would see that most of these trends generally have held true, particularly during the 2008 and 2016 election seasons, and even to some degree amid the cultural controversies and anti-elite outbursts of the early 2010s. And some of these- the favoring of activist government, community orientation, commitment to public participation- do make Millennials look like another Civic Generation just as the GIs were.
At the same time, one can throw a couple of wrenches into this picnic. Most can recall the World Values Survey data implying that Millennial-aged voters around the Western world are less inclined to support liberal and democratic norms, and even democracy itself. One can look at the overwhelming young character of the skinheads at the Charlottesville rallies to see a sect of Millennials rabidly intolerant of those unlike them. On the flipside, there’s always the speech-suppression growing increasingly normal on elite college campuses these days, always spearheaded by Millennial college students. And in terms of political activism, who can forget that the Millennial Generation has been popularly associated- and poll numbers seem to back this up- with the decidedly non-GI, not particularly “Civic” or “pragmatic” presidential candidates Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders?
This is not to contradict the attitudes and behaviors Winograd and Hais have observed and measured- it is merely to suggest that the Millennials, just like the Boomer and GI Generations before them, are internally diverse, and their internal diversity is at least as important as whatever commonality they have among themselves, distinguishing them from their elders. It is also to suggest that, just as the days of GI Generation domination of government were full of every kind of division from racism to McCarthyism to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s to the polarization of the parties in the 1970s, so the forthcoming years of Millennial America will probably be just as divided, or more so, regardless of whatever consensus lies underneath.
This is no reason to despair, though, particularly for those Millennials who aspire to high leadership. They just need to actively take inspiration the 41st President and others like him on their own, there being no iron law of history fating their generation to produce similarly great statesmen without effort.
Dear Aspiring Millennial Statesmen and Stateswomen: Be Like Bush 41
The foundational experiences and attitudes of Millennials do, empirically it seems, appear to parallel those of the GI Generation to some degree. I’ll concede to Winograd and Hais that this probably makes it more likely that Millennials who rise to middling, upper, and high levels of societal, economic, and political influence may practice the virtues of a bygone age, updated for the challenges of today. And for those who aspire to do this, there can be no better living model to emulate than George H. W. Bush.
Now, I’m not really holding my breath for Millennials en masse to become patriotic servant-statesmen of the caliber we’re examining here. I sometimes question my peers’ propensity to love America as a country; they certainly love its society, and their communities at the local levels, but if the country includes those things as well as the broader American historical heritage, the institutional American state and government, the sort of “covenant” between our forebears and us and our posterity, it would seem there’s a mixed bag of responses. The generally antiwar attitudes of Millennials sometimes seem to extend to become critiques of the military-industrial complex’s existence itself, and as briefly mentioned earlier, the military-industrial complex is one of the main bastions of the country-first civic virtue temperate statesmen like Eisenhower and Bush Sr. represented. Millennials’ “think global, act local” mentality implies loyalties and preferences distinct from Kennedy’s admonition to “ask what you can do for your country.” Many of the social justice and racial justice attitudes of Millennials seem to be driven by an embarrassed shame in the American past and present, rather than an acceptance of what it is.
Winograd and Hais don’t seem bothered by these trends, noting that the social liberalism and soft globalism of Millennials is the way of the future. (Incidentally, Walter McDougall painted these attitudes dystopian in the conclusion of his recent book on the American Civil Religion[iii].) I’m not necessarily personally bothered by these attitudes, though I have my own disagreements.
But I simply wonder if it’s possible for a generation to be a “Civic” Generation, and give rise to great leaders of the stature of the GI Presidents, Cabinet Secretaries, and Congressional leaders of the mid-to-late 20th century, if that generation has mixed feelings about the polity they’re supposed to be “Civic” towards. Indeed, the most vocal of Millennials seem to me, at times, to be more of an “Idealist” Generation more interested attaining social justice at any cost, and keeping their consciences untainted by the messy compromises and moral stains that come with consensus governance.
I hope that’s unfair, and I hope I’m wrong. I do think, though, that if the Millennial Generation is going to produce leaders who can, as Winograd and Hais so dearly hope, reinvigorate American civic life, reform our institutions, establish a new consensus based on respect and service, and reestablish a country-first Civic Ethos as a guiding pole of public life, it would be important for those leaders to study role models from the last “Civic” Generation. And the last living President of that generation, and the best living exemplar of that temperament and politics, is George H.W. Bush.
How the Millennials in general and aspiring Millennial leaders in particular react to H.W.’s future death, I think, will have a lot to say about whether or not the generation has its values in the right place. If they honor the President, and reflect on his legacy, we’re probably in a good place. If they jeer him as a warmonger or an unsympathetic racist or a neo-colonialist- three things he certainly wasn’t- we probably have a long ways to go.
But I hope there are maybe 50 or 60 young people out there, serving over in Afghanistan or South Korea, or pushing papers in a Capitol Hill legislative office, or debating their older peers in statehouses and city halls, or writing reports for obscure magazines and think-tanks, who hear of President Bush’s death, and weep inside. And I hope they then commit themselves to becoming public servants of his caliber- men and women, citizens of the 21st century United States of America, Millennials committed to duty, honor, country, regardless of whether their peers will follow them or not.
For if they do, then when the next Boston Tea Party or Fort Sumter or Stock Market Crash hits, they’ll be in positions of responsibility, ready to serve, ready to preserve, ready to reform. They’ll be the ones who, like President Bush, steward our troubled country from one great epoch to another. And because of their character and service- duty, honor, country- the American Dream will live on.
And maybe one of them will be wheeled out for Super Bowl 121, and inspire the next great Civic Generation.
[i] Meacham’s biography is entitled Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush, 2015.
[ii] Winograd and Hais’s main works on Millennial politics include Millennial Makeover: Myspace, Youtube, and the Future of American Politics, 2008, and Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, 2011.
[iii] McDougall’s book is entitled The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, 2017.
A few weeks ago I was scheming with some friends and contacts on the usual “how to save the state” topics, and something hit me. The California GOP “establishment” moderate types don’t really have much in the way of formal organization, grassroots or otherwise. Their numbers are clearly on the decline- evidenced most vividly by the Chad Mayes ouster a few weeks ago- and aside from fundraising networks, they don’t really appear to work together on many things.
Meanwhile, the conservative side of the California GOP is very, very well-organized at the grassroots level. I don’t know enough to be able to speak about the formal level or even most of the grassroots, but if the statewide network of Republican Assemblies hosted by the very conservative California Republican Assembly is any indicator, there are many more conservative Republican footsoldiers than there are establishmentarians ready to be mobilized.
I’ve interacted with the California Republican Assembly a few times- I went to their statewide convention in 2016 with my then-boss, Duf Sundheim (who, being the perceived moderate he is perceived to be, was not well-favored in the nomination votes for the CRA endorsement…) I’ve informally attended a bunch of events with the South Los Angeles-Inglewood Republican Assembly, the CRA’s lone outpost in heavily-Democratic South Central Los Angeles. SLAIRA even recruited me to run for the California State Assembly in the 59th District, and I believe I recall registering as a member of the CRA (however uncomfortably) for some institutional reason or other. My impression, generally, is that the CRA is very well-organized, very committed to a Goldwater-Reagan conception of conservative Republicanism, and if perhaps not influential in a voter mobilization sense, certainly influential in a checkmating, narrative-directing sort of sense. I don’t know how much it’s an organization politicians pay attention to versus how much it is a conduit for activism. But it’s there and it’s big.
Nothing similar exists on the moderate side of the Republican spectrum. Apparently there have been multiple attempts- the abandoned WordPress blog for one “Republican Leadership Council of California,” a defunct Facebook page for the “California Republican Reformers,” a no-longer-used Facebook page for the “California Republican League” – but nothing current. There is, perhaps, the fundraising organization New Majority; but that has a pretty steep entry fee, as I understand, and is not particularly wide-based or widespread. Nothing to complement and counter the CRA on the ground, and to help out Neel Kashkari, Pete Peterson, and Duf Sundheim in the endorsement pages and the precincts.
So, in my newfound tradition of writing wildly implausible proposals that just might work– what about filling that space with a moderate Republican grassroots organization, aimed at doing the same things the CRA does, but for Republican mainstreamers? And good heavens give it a good name, not the boring and undefined acronyms the others ones have had. (Nonetheless, I’ll use a boring and undefined acronym as a placeholder name here.)
The “California Reform Republican League” could be a statewide big-tent association and network of moderate, mainstream, and reformist Republican operatives and policy entrepreneurs, committed to a few primary goals:
-Reestablishing and reforming the Republican mainstream in California politics.
-Actively courting moderate Democrats and Independents/Decline-to-States into the CAGOP field.
-Supporting moderate, mainstream, and reformist Republican party officials and elected officials, both in their runs for party or elected office, and in maintaining their positions against Democrats and more conservative Republicans challengers.
It could serve a smattering of potential practical functions, similar in practice to what CRA types do:
-Maintain a statewide network of political operatives and policy entrepreneurs- legislative aides, campaign staff, consultants, journalists, policy researchers, etc.- that can be mobilized for particular short-term goals and achieve the CRRL’s three aforementioned long-term goals.
-Train new political operatives and policy entrepreneurs for specific and general purposes.
-Host a weekly CRRL newsletter and blog.
-Host an annual CRRL convention.
-Form a moderate caucus in State Legislature.
-Articulate particular strategic ends in terms of elections, ballot initiatives, changes to the CAGOP platform and bylaws, voter registration targets, fundraising, campaign messaging, etc.
I wrote up a prospective mission statement as well, highlighting these purposes and aims, and also highlighting the unique conditions that make California a potential place to tap into centrist discontent-
The California Republican Party has created great moderate public servants over the course of the last century, including two Presidents of the United States and numerous Governors and Senators. But in the last few decades, this moderate Republican tradition has faced significant decline statewide.
The mission of the California Reform Republican League is to reestablish, reform, and rebuild the moderate, mainstream, and reformist wings of the California Republican Party, in the interests of greater ideological diversity and policy dynamism within the CAGOP, and party expansion to moderate Democrats, Independents, Decline-to-States, and ethnic and geographic groups presently outside of the GOP fold. In the interests of building a California GOP more capable of challenging the ascendant, dominant, and increasingly liberal California Democratic Party, we believe it is important for California Republicans to look to new ways to rebuild and reform, and for moderate and reformist Republicans to organize themselves for political effectiveness.
So yeah. Perhaps not the most practical idea at the moment, given that the number of “fiery moderates” still working in GOP politics these days is probably much lower than would be needed to start a statewide effort of this magnitude.
But, best to keep your powder dry and your plans in your back pocket…
How I feel when I write “Notes on ________”
Let’s assume that my friend Jason Willick’s pessimism about American institutional and civic decay is overly bullish; that the staying power of American democracy will get us through our current identity crisis, even if we do get as close to low-grade civil war as we got in the late 1960s. Let’s assume, too, that the general contours of the American state we all know and cherish but don’t necessarily love, are durable enough to last through this storm, so much so that the basic calculus of American politics fluctuates only gradually over the course of the next few decades.
Big assumptions, I know. But for projection’s sake, let’s assume that we’re going to make it through this mess easily enough.
SOME TRENDS TO THINK ABOUT
First, some trends. Willick has noted time and time again that the constitutional system, ideological inertia, and geo-demography make it increasingly likely for the Republicans to maintain their lock on Congress and most of the state legislatures. And although Trump is President, Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, and John Judis and Ruy Texeira, have pointed out that we appear to be at the end of an era of one-party dominance of presidential politics (GOP 1968-2004) and at the cusp of another one (Dems 2008-20??) not dissimilar to such eras in decades and centuries past.
Look at those two political trends in two other lights- first, the culturally conservative and geographically disparate nature of the current Republican Party, and second, the culturally progressive and geographically concentrated nature of the current Democratic Party- and it becomes clear that there is something like a significant chance that the next decade, and quite likely the next few decades, will see the Obama years, rather than the Trump years, as the model: powerful Democratic Presidents from the elite social liberal wing, extending the power of the Administrative State against an obstructionist and reactionary Republican Congress and network of Republican state legislatures. Of course the Democrats will still maintain some congressional and state legislative seats and governorships, sometimes edging into the majority, and of course the Republicans will sometimes win the Presidency. But the norm to be expected ought to be the dystopia Joel Kotkin keeps painting and the reality Michael Lind keeps seeing: hyper-powered coastal oligarchic Democrats battling and trying to suppress boisterous inland reactionary populist Republicans.
The reality of American politics will of course be much more complex than that, having to do with the underlying coalitional shifts of the parties, class structure trends, the shifting waves of public opinion, and the personalities and whims of ambitious individual men and women, alongside the institutional powers of the parties and elite classes. And in this reality there will of course be huge roles for benign public servants in the civil service, for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans to temper their own parties’ extremisms and check the ruling parties in their states, and for moderates across the board in the middling levels of governance and civil society to reclaim a degree of sovereignty for the community.
This last point raises interesting questions. It should be assumed that if the Democrats find their main strength to be in controlling the Presidency, they’ll favor executive orders and regulatory edicts as their primary instruments of political power. If the Republicans find themselves consigned to Congress and the statehouses, they’ll of course argue for checks and balances and localism, with a passion they never did in the years their party generally controlled the White House.
There will be many interesting battles- unionists versus soft secessionists, cultural conservatives versus cultural progressives, globalists versus nativists versus internationalist nationalists, more- but one of the most interesting will probably be between coalitions of radical localists on the left and right, and radical centralists on the left and the right. The main fault line in this case, of course, would be control of the Presidency- the left will demand more sovereignty for blue urban cores and metropoles against the depredations of future Trumps, while the right will howl for states’ rights against the advances of future Obamas. Bipartisan and transpartisan thinking on localism, such as the type I’ve worked on with Joel Kotkin and Morley Winograd, will only increase in importance.
WHAT TO DO WHILE LOCKED OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE
If we do end up inhabiting an era where fiscally liberal and socially progressive Democrats control the Presidency, and thus the government, more often than not, and therefore can push forward a generally liberal, multicultural, big-government agenda for America (look at how far the New Deal advanced before the 1970s, and how far neoliberalism advanced before the 2010s!) one must beg the question- what are Republicans to do in the brief interregnums when they control the presidency?
The reasonable answer would seem to be, to do what Eisenhower did after the FDR presidency, and what Clinton did after the Reagan presidency: if the order is generally reasonable and just, and simply poorly administered and prone to excess, don’t bother building a new consensus- run the newly-established one better than the other side ever could. I despise many aspects of the left-liberalism of the Obama-Clinton Democrats and their certain successors, but I’m beginning to understand that making peace with that coalition, should it become dominant, and altering it from the inside, is probably more productive than the policy-free scorched-earth-ism of the Trump Presidency or, for that matter, what most other 2016 Republicans would’ve done. The union and the order beneath it is the most important thing; all political goals beneath that are secondary to the consensus that sustains our civilization.
If the order established is not reasonable and just, then it probably isn’t much of an order at all, and the majority of the American people probably aren’t buying into it. The founding of a new order is still necessary at that point, and it would be wise for a President Huntsman coming on the heels of a failed President Harris or President Newsom to depart from their follies as much as President Roosevelt departed from President Hoover (while of course taking what best can be taken from their experience.)
WHAT TO DO AS A BLUE-STATE REPUBLICAN OR RED-STATE DEMOCRAT
I mentioned earlier that there’d clearly be a big role for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans. Senator Jacob Javits argued very eloquently, in the 1960s, that parties need to be multi-regional and multi-factional, so that they don’t devolve into becoming purely ideological parties prone to witch-hunts and such. Everything I’ve written now assumes that the Republicans stay in their suburban rings and rural areas, while the Democrats remain cloistered in their urban citadels. Blue states become ever more blue, red states ever more red.
Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states can, ever so slowly, help moderate the parties by diversifying their constituencies and factional constellations. A Republican Party competitive in New York and California is clearly going to have to appeal to a broader coalition than Republican Parties in Texas and Iowa; same can be said of Democrats in Texas and Iowa versus in California and New York. Moreover, Republicans in blue cities and Democrats in rural areas and small towns have work to do on these issues, as well. Build up a fiscally liberal and socially moderate faction in the GOP, or a socially conservative and fiscally reformist faction among suburban Democrats, and you reduce the dogmatism of American politics, increasing its transactionalism. Pure transactionalism isn’t a good thing, but a little more of it nowadays, in these days of extremes, would be nice.
It’s not that moderation is important for its own sake. Rather, governance gets to be less a high-stakes winner-take-all game when the stakes are lowered a bit, which happens when officeholders are incentivized to compromise among multiple groups rather than tank successful bills to impress donors and activists. Distinct but muddier ideological coalitions in both parties would be welcome; and since that clearly is not coming on from a top-down intellectual strategy, it could be better achieved, perhaps, through a bottom-up electoral strategy.
TO THE FOURTH REPUBLIC
I’ve spilled too many pixels speculating what the fabled “Fourth Republic” will bring, and most of it’s been based on my own intellectual explorations and ideological preconceptions. I’ve realized, too late, that the contours of the next Republic are really not up to any group of intellectuals, and are more up to whoever the next Lincoln-like or FDR-like “Lawgiver” happens to be, and which circle of advisors influences him or her. And who that Lawgiver is, and what they’re able to do, is dependent largely on the complicated interplay of virtu and fortuna.
But there are some things that can be broadly prognosticated, I think. I have yet to publish my “Prolegomena to the Syncretic Theory of the Lawgivers” piece, which will be a historical interpretation explaining away what the hell I mean by “The Lawgivers,” and will document the complex historical “physics” at play in that theory. But for now, suffice it to say, in a nutshell: great, nation-shaping leaders synthesize multiple strains of thought as they forge civic ethoses and new institutions, and reactions to those institutions and ethoses shape subsequent movements and their strains of thought.
In the current iteration of this theory, Franklin Roosevelt synthesized some traditions from his own time, but mostly those of the generation before his- Woodrow Wilson’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, and William Jennings Bryan’s. These in turn gave us the institutions of the Third Republic, which is almost dead, whose walking corpse we inhabit. But the traditions the Third Republic housed- New Deal Liberalism, Modern Republicanism, Conservative Republicanism, Progressive Radicalism- as well as their late-20th-century children, all of which are somewhat more neoliberal and market-friendly- will be the traditions for the next great Lawgiver to synthesize into a new set of institutions.
I continue to think Modern Republicanism (which in some ways looks like the Democratic Third Way, and in other ways certainly does not) offers a healthy “Ike-Nixon-Ford” model of policy reform for the next Lawgiver, just as FDR’s main inspiration was Woodrow Wilson and Lincoln’s was Henry Clay. And if that’s the case, the next Lawgiver will be a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat- Jon Huntsman, maybe, or god help us, Martin O’Malley.
But then, this may be very, very wrong- while they certainly won’t be any further right than Huntsman, they may be significantly further left, given where the values of the Millennial generation tend to lie. I hesitate to believe that a staunchly progressive Democrat like Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom could inhabit the same historical stance as Lincoln or FDR- in fact, I don’t believe it- but then, they might have similar Lawgiver-like effects if they do attain not only the Presidency, but that role in history.
Still- in terms of being the kind of Lawgiver who can unite the country, I really don’t see any way for someone not in Huntsman’s or Lieberman’s or Kasich’s temperament to make it. But given the probable likelihood of Obama-like liberal Democrats holding and even dominating the Presidency between now and, say, 2047, it is not too far off to expect them to have their Lawgiver either.
Or maybe I’m just too tired to write all this and should go to sleep, and think more about historical physics after I’ve finished more of my actual work. I don’t know.
But I will be writing that “Prolegomena to the Syncretic Theory of the Lawgivers” soon enough. That’ll clear a lot of this up.