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.
Everyone, sorry this is long and sappy. I am not a wise or prudent man, but I am at least honest and sincere. This is probably not a wise or prudent thing to share publicly, for many reasons- but it must be said, and written down.
Los Angeles friends, I’ll be coming back from New Mexico early. I was discharged from my job at Philmont Scout Ranch earlier this week due to a mental health emergency and a suicide attempt, and it was determined that I would be safer coming back to Los Angeles and receiving psychiatric treatment there with the therapists and psychiatrists I’ve been working with for years.
So, I’ll be back soon- let’s hang out in early August.
D.C. friends, I plan to be in Washington D.C. from August 31st-September 5th, visiting family and coordinating plans for my permanent return to the City of Power in December 2017. Let’s meet up- I’ll be making pilgrimages to various sites around the city and would welcome companions, and aside from that, I’ll be hosting the usual “Luke’s DC Network Happy Hour” at Tortilla Coast, Capitol Hill- date to be determined. See you all there, and bring your friends and colleagues.
Philmont staff, all the new friends I’ve made in the last two months- thank you for everything. Thank you for your professionalism and personality, thank you for all the amazing experiences now imprinted on my mind and heart in both base camp and backcountry, thank you for showing me the kindness and friendship and love that every Scout owes to every other Scout and to every other human being. Thank you for being a part of my journey and helping me steer onto the higher path.
To the staff at every Backcountry camp I passed through– thank you for being welcoming, warm, hospitable, and friendly, yet professional, rugged, independent, and capable- the virtues of the great American pioneers and frontiersmen who did so much to shape our nation’s soul, virtues which you now embody and transmit not only to the young participants who pass through your realms, but to your lucky fellow staff who visit as well. (It is as our great patron Waite Phillips intended for this ranch!) Thank you for showing me that fellowship and allowing me to observe those virtues in action, and for helping me to realize the certain beauty of the simplicity of traditional American life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to visit you at the camps again, but I won’t forget this summer when I witnessed the soul of America as I traveled through time in the Philmont wilderness.
To the Philmont Conservation Department- thank you for being the hard men and women of the backcountry, who work by both hand and head, who taught me again to appreciate hard work and physical creation as a means of service. Thank you for being to me in my development as the cowboys of North Dakota were to Theodore Roosevelt in his development, a rugged and principled band of great Americans who showed an unsure young man a crucial aspect of what makes people and nations great- a willingness to work hard, a stewardship of sacred inheritance consummated by sweat and labor, and an undying conviction that with right comes responsibility. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the honor of toiling alongside you again, but I will never let die in my breast the commitment to serve the public on the trail- a promise I made six years ago upon the death of the Park Ranger who supervised my Eagle Scout Project, which I now renew to all of you. Regardless of which trails and landscapes I help to conserve in the future, be they out west or back east, I won’t forget what I learned from all of you.
To my Foreman brothers and the administrators of the Order of the Arrow Trail Crew– I have nothing more to say to you that has not already been revealed to all of us, in the reflective silence of our hearts, in the ordeals through which we have gone together. Nothing I could say could augment in our minds the tests and experiences- the choice to step forward in so many ways, the hours and days of silence and meditation, the lonesome vigils of leadership and responsibility, the paths of arduous toil in the name of cheerful service, the self-denial of our worldly pains, the long nights awake and talking about our feelings, which I have shared with you all vicariously in our journeys through the Order of the Arrow, and even moreso, in our collective physical presence here in the wilderness of Philmont, as brothers bringing the OA Trail Crew program to new generations of Arrowmen. But this summer, as I climbed these Western Mountains, I heard more in the silence of my heart, upon reflection on our Order’s texts, than I have in nine years a ceremonialist. You each, and you all collectively, helped me to reflect on Brotherhood, Cheerfulness, and Service in ways I’ve never known before, and for that I will always be grateful. In my future paths, I will not forget the fellowship I shared with you all this summer.
In the short time I had out here, I realized a lot of things, and some of you on staff helped me in ways you’ll never be able to understand.
I realized that a life indoors can never be more than half a life, that a life of the mind must share space with the life of the body for the fullness of the soul. I realized my need, which I did not fulfill over the last five years, to spend more time on outdoor adventure and conservation service. I’m leaving the wilderness, but I don’t want the wilderness to leave me.
I realized that self-obsession in whatever form- be it pole-climbing careerism, or self-indulgent navel-gazing, or a proclivity to use our modern social media technology to elevate one’s own thoughts and whimsies to the center of one’s own existence- is pernicious and destructive, preventing us from being the other-directed best possible versions of ourselves, preventing us from being capable of the best possible service to our fellow human beings, preventing us from living in the unselfish communion, service, and fellowship with others which our untrodden hearts naturally desire to inhabit.
I realized that, in personal relations at least, an ethic of patience, compassion, forgiveness, love, and humility is the proper way to deal with human folly and fallenness; and that both slights to honor and bouts of incompetence are best suffered through and treated gently but firmly. Only thus can resentment be forestalled, and even more- personal enemies can, if treated rightly, perhaps be brought to neutrality, respect, and even friendship.
I realized that pain and confusion, aside from being natural to our broken condition, are also the only route to the discovery of purpose in struggle and meaning in suffering. Holding a stiff upper lip and a cheerful attitude, even in the midst of irksome tasks and weighty responsibilities, helps us discover the truths of life more truly than the modern conceit that we must merely “follow our passions.” I wondered many times (and still wonder) what the hell I was doing at Philmont this summer. But enduring through it as best I could, I found more answers, and more questions, than I would have had I thrown up my arms and quit in frustration.
I realized that duty, commitment, responsibility, or whatever else you’d like to call it is what separates the adult from the child and the flake from the servant. It is central to manhood and womanhood, and we abandon it not only at our own peril, but at the peril of those to whom we have duties. I’ve held it as an ideal for my entire adult life; I have never been tested in my commitment to it before this summer, and I am told that I passed the test. I hope that when it comes back, I pass again.
I realized other things, helped on by people here on the ranch- that Philmont really is a special place, that not everyone is interested in politics (and that that should give pause to those of us who dedicate ourselves solely to politics!) that there is a certain pleasure to knowing that you are useful in many ways. I cannot write them all here, nor would I dare to write an “Epigrams” of my own til I’ve had several decades’ longer life experience and reflection and study.
But suffice it to say that I learned and realized many things here at Philmont, and must thank the entire ranch staff for helping me along.
I don’t think I’ll be invited back to staff Philmont in the coming summers, because my mental illness creates unacceptable liabilities both to myself and to Philmont. But I’ve found, in my summer in the mountains, a renewed passion and commitment to live a different sort of life than the life I lived for the last five years- moving forward, a life whose existing vigor in intellectual exploration and public service is matched by renewed vigor in outdoor adventure, hard labor and community service, and most of all a renewed and undying commitment to serve as best I can the Boy Scouts of America and the Order of the Arrow, those great institutions that did so much to forge my character and influence the way I orient myself towards myself, my community, my country, and the world.
So moving forward, I’ll be recommitting myself to Scouting. I’ll be getting active in the Order of the Arrow’s Amangamek Wipit Lodge in the DC area upon my return to the Nation’s Capital in December 2017, assisting with ceremonies training and perhaps other things. I’ve offered members of the National Order of the Arrow Committee my services in promoting OA High Adventure, so that younger Arrowmen can find in the mountains of Philmont (and BSA’s other high adventure bases) the things it took me seven years to find. I’ll be proposing, to the same OA National Committee, a plan for a new program- an OA Seminar in Public Service- that would wed the ideals of Brotherhood, Cheerfulness, and Service to a practical educational and professional experience in the halls of power of Washington D.C.
If the OA Seminar in Public Service takes off, it will be designed to inspire young Scouts and Arrowmen who, like the Luke Phillips of seven years ago, want so badly to serve their country but don’t know how. This, so that someday these growing leaders might find in themselves the ability, knowledge, and enlightened, indomitable will to emulate our great contemporary bipartisan, country-first public servants, who were first formed as Boy Scouts- men with the Scout Oath and Law etched on their hearts, and a commitment to the noble cause of country inscribed in their minds. These public servants represent the last, best hope for order, stability, and dignity in American governance in these troubled times, and the creation of more like them ought to be an imperative of those who can make a difference. I hope to do my part to get that ball rolling.
Aside from striving to use my meager talents to give back to Scouting, I’ll be continuing my professional development and self-education- finishing my degree at the University of Southern California, studying and writing and publishing and advancing public discourse in this age of extremes, striving to enter service to Uncle Sam’s Federal Government in some degree, and generally shaping myself into the Scholar-Servant I am temperamentally fit to be, and am vocationally called to be. I want to serve my country, and regardless of the roadblocks I have faced along the way, I will continue along that journey.
But those roadblocks are intense, and I must confront and overcome the one that keeps haunting me and coming back to take away the things I love most in life.
My fundamental psychological instinct, the root of my neurosis, is a self-loathing and self-deprecating tendency towards self-torture and self-destruction in all forms. It is central to my self-conception and was central to my psychological development; for as long as I remember, I have hated myself. This has resulted in years of frequent, low-level, subconscious or habitual, self-inflicted putdowns, and less frequent but still common episodes of active self-harm. These latter episodes have resulted in four hospitalizations at hospitals and psychiatric institutions, as well as innumerable suicide attempts and self-beatings. I have been going to therapy for about six or seven years, including a long-term Partial Hospitalization Program at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, California. I have also been on various psychiatric medications in this time. These struggles, aside from their obvious effects, have ended or precluded multiple relationships and friendships, and with my recent termination from staff, they have now taken away my ability to serve an institution I love dearly for the second time. The first time was in 2015, when I left the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band to deal with my mental issues. This time, I have been discharged from the Philmont Scout Ranch staff to take care of the same issues.
If things continue along these lines, I fear I will either continue to lose opportunities and experiences and relationships, as I lost the Trojan Marching Band and Philmont Scout Ranch; or that I may go the whole way and kill myself in a furious fit of self-hatred. I came to Philmont thinking the beauty of God’s nature, the toil of hard labor, the fellowship of Scouting would heal me, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about proper treatment and care during or after my time at the ranch. I was wrong, and I now accept that no matter where I am or where I go my demons will follow me- I must learn to manage and defeat them on my own. So I am committing myself to addressing my problems again, more vigorously than ever before.
First, I will be giving up alcohol in entirety, since I am unable to separate pleasurable and social drinking from self-medicative and depressed drinking.
Second, I will be reinstituting, as I have so many times in the past, a regime of consistent mental illness treatment- daily mass attendance as frequently as possible, weekly meetings with priests and other spiritual counselors, daily Alcoholics Anonymous attendance as frequently as possible, weekly meetings with a therapist and a psychiatrist, a healthier diet and moderate weekly exercise, monthly vigorous exercise including conservation service projects and backpacking trips, and constant study of spiritual texts.
Finally, I will be committing myself to doing something I have never done before, but have desperately needed to do since I first conceptualized my own struggles so many years ago- I will explore, through spiritual, philosophical, psychological, and self-reflective studies, the roots of my self-destructive impulse- its origins and formation, its development, its application to my life and my treatment of myself, and its mechanics. And, far more importantly, I will investigate through various means- intellectual, spiritual, lifestyle changes, etc.- the best ways I can consciously alter that fundamental negative instinct, and replace it with either a positive, self-affirming, self-loving attitude, or at the very least, with a neutral, accepting, non-judgmental attitude. The latter, even, would be a great accomplishment.
It all boils down to this- every minute of my life, I make the choice to hate myself, and I must find a way to change my minutely choice to one of self-love or at the very least self-acceptance. I can say without reservation or equivocation that this will be the hardest thing I have ever done, so accustomed as I am to earlier habits of self-hatred.
But my mental health goes far beyond me and my own comfort, self-esteem, and dignity, and to my broader ambitions to serve my country. As I hope I have made clear above, I do not intend to live for myself- I intend fully, with the fullest approval of my inmost conscience, to live primarily or solely for the preservation, betterment, advancement, and perpetuation of the United States of America, both as a nation and heritage existent in the 21st Century, and as an idea which will live down throughout the ages long after the Lords of Washington have been extinguished from the Earth. I want to live and die for my country, and if I cannot die for it, I want to live all the more fully for it. I aspire, as did my great mentors Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Theodore Roosevelt, and so many others, to spend my life cultivating my character, my intellect, my skill, and my legacy, to do for this country what must be done, now and moving forward. I want to so live and excel that I may serve, and I need to be alive and mentally stable to do that.
If I kill myself- or even if I don’t kill myself, but still force myself to live a living death- I can’t serve my country, I can’t explore the mysteries of the human experience and write them down for all posterity, and I can’t give a speech on the Tricentennial of the United States of America on July 4th, 2076- one of my lifelong goals. I need to be alive and well to do any of this, and I suspect that if I achieve any of my ambitions, there will be enough people trying to kill or maim me that it would be of the utmost harm for me to assist them in that endeavor.
We stand at an awkward and tumultuous point in our national history as Americans, with so much in the air, so much uncertain, so little firmed on solid ground and accessible for us to observe and interpret. We are at one of those times, or are swiftly approaching one of them, where we’ll need great leaders to make wise and prudent decisions while reassuring the American people of the sanctity of our values, institutions, and existence, and embodying them.
We inhabit an age of small souls, but still we stand on the shoulders of giants. One of those giants- Eagle Scout, Navy veteran, Congressman, Speaker of the House, Vice-President, and President Gerald R. Ford, an underappreciated servant to our country- lived humbly and dutifully, without the ambition or dramatic flair of his predecessors or successors. But in the moment his country called him to lead, he did his duty to bind the nation’s wounds and restore what confidence he could to a people broken, divided, and despairing. He could neither anticipate nor resolve the crises we’ve inherited since the Bicentennial, but his example- in his public life, in his private character, in what he strove to do- is worth examination and emulation by all who aspire to serve.
It is the example of Gerald Ford that I hope to communicate to others through every task I do and every office I hold. It is the example of Gerald Ford that I hope to follow, by marrying a commitment to the principles and mission of the Boy Scouts of America with a commitment to public service and humanistic scholarship for the advancement of the United States of America. As I continually reiterate, I do not aspire to be President of the United States, but I do hope to do for our country, through other roles and vocations, the sort of things that Gerald Ford and so many other public servants across our history have done and will do. And if, through the yet-unborn OA Seminar in Public Service or other undertakings, I can help to train and inspire the next Eagle Scout to ascend to the Presidency, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
For these realizations, for these new commitments, and for a summer of spiritual and personal growth which set the stage for what I hope is a new summer of life, and for the life, the opportunity, the friendship, and the fellowship accorded to me in the summer of 2017, I will always be grateful to the staff of Philmont Scout Ranch. It’s time for me to get back to work in the civilized world, but I won’t forget what I learned out here.
July 28th, 2017
Raton, New Mexico
Here I copy some passaged that were important to my experience this summer.
“A Man of Perfect Manhood”
“I had a vision for my people- a man of perfect manhood, a being physically robust, an athlete, an outdoorsman, accustomed to brunt of flood, wind, and sun- rough road and open spaces- a man wise in the ways of the woods, sagacious in council, dignified, courteous, respectful to all, a good-natured giant; a man whose life was clean, picturesque, heroic and unsordid; a man of courage, equipped for emergencies; possessing his soul at all times, and filled with a religion that consists, not of mere occasional observances, not of vague merits horded in the skies, but of a strong kind spirit that makes him desired and helpful here today.”
-Ernest Thompson Seton
“The True Joy in Life”
“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations…”
-George Bernard Shaw
“You Are a Marked Man”
“…The Boy Scouts of all nations constitute one of the most wholesome and significant movements in the history of the world, and you have been counted worthy of the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.
All who know you rejoice in your achievement. Your position, as you well know, is one of honor and responsibility. You are a marked man. As an Eagle Scout, you have assumed a solemn obligation to do your duty to God, to country, to your fellow Scouts, and to Mankind in general. This is a great undertaking.
As you live up to your obligations, you bring honor to yourself and to your brother Scouts. Your responsibility goes far beyond your fellow Scouts, to your country and to your God. America has many good things to give you and your children after you; but these things depend for the most part on the quality of her citizens.
Our country has had a great past. You are here to make the future greater. I charge you to undertake your citizenship with a solemn dedication. Be a leader, but lead only toward the best. Lift up every task you do and every office you hold to the highest level of service to God and to your fellow man. So live and serve that those who know you will be inspired to the highest living. We have too many who use their strength and brains to exploit others and to gain selfish ends. I charge you to be among those who dedicate their skills and ability to the common good. Build America on the solid foundations of clean living, honest work, unselfish citizenship, and reverence for God, and you will leave behind you a record of which every Scout can be justly proud.”
-Excerpt from the Eagle Charge
“Our Proper Destiny”
“These properties are donated and dedicated to the Boy Scouts of America for the purpose of perpetuating faith, self-reliance, integrity, and freedom- principles used to build this great country by the American pioneer.
So that these future citizens may, through thoughtful adult guidance and by the inspiration of nature, visualize and form a code of living to diligently maintain these high ideals and our proper destiny.”
-Waite Phillips’s Dedication of Philmont Scout Ranch
“The Iron Qualities of True Manhood”
“We need, then, the iron qualities that must go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must be done, and to persevere through the long days of slow progress or of seeming failure which always come before any final triumph, no matter how brilliant. But we need more than these qualities. This country cannot afford to have its sons less than men; but neither can it afford to have them other than good men. If courage and strength and intellect are unaccompanied by the moral purpose, the moral sense, they become merely forms of expression for unscrupulous force and unscrupulous cunning. If the strong man has not in him the lift toward lofty things his strength makes him only a curse to himself and his neighbor. All this is true in private life, and it is no less true in public life. If Washington and Lincoln had not in them the whipcord moral fiber of moral and mental strength, the soul that steels itself to endure disaster unshaken and with grim resolve to wrest victory from defeat, then the one could not have founded, nor the other preserved, our Federal Union. The least touch of flabbiness, of unhealthy softness, in either would have meant ruin for this nation, and therefore the downfall of the proudest hope of Mankind. But it is no less true that had either been influenced by self-seeking ambition, by callous disregard of others, by contempt for the moral law, he would have dashed us down into the black gulf of failure. Woe to all of us as a people if ever we grow to condone evil because it is successful. We can no more afford to lose social and civic decency and honesty than we can afford to lose the qualities of courage and strength. It is the merest truism to say that the nation rests upon the individual, upon the family- upon individual manliness and womanliness, using the words in their widest and fullest meaning.
To be a good husband or wife, a good neighbor and friend, to be hardworking in business and social relations, to bring up strong children- to be and to do all of this is to lay the foundaitons of good citizenship as they must be laid. But we cannot stop even with this. Each of us has not only his duty to himself, his family, and his neighbors, but his duty to the state and to the nation. We are in honor bound each to strive according to his or her strength to bring ever nearer the day when justice and wisdom shall obtain in public life as in private lie. We cannot retain the full measure of our self-respect if we cannot retain pride in our citizenship. For the sake not only of ourselves but of our children and our children’s children we must see that this nation stands for strength and honesty both at home and abroad. In our internal policy we cannot afford to rest satisfied until all that the government can do has been done to secure fair dealing and equal justice as between man and man. In the great part which hereafter, whether we will or not, we MUST play in the world at large, let us see to it that we neither do wrong nor shrink from doing right because the right is difficult; that on the one hand we inflict no injury, and that on the other we have a due regard for the honor and the interest of our mighty nation; and that we keep unsullied the renown of the flag which beyond all others of the present time or of the ages past stands for the confident faith in the future welfare and greatness of Mankind…”
-Theodore Roosevelt, Chief Scout Citizen, “Manhood and Statehood”
When I think of the role of government, I think of three things that ought to be preserved, reformed, and enhanced by positive and energetic governmental or quasi-governmental action: the security of the state, the stability and order of society, and the prosperity of the economy. Government does not merely protect these things; it actively encourages them, either through direct action or through partnership with lower entities in society and the economy.
The first responsibilities of statecraft are the preservation of the state, through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic war; and the preservation of society, through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic revolution. Human society and states being organic and evolving entities, there is no single constellation of institutional arrangements that can preserve the state and society perpetually. Therefore constant reform, constant reorganization, constant vigilance and responsibility on the part of statesmen, is crucial for the maintenance of what stability and tradition can be maintained.
A society and state undergoing too much reform becomes radical, while a society and state undergoing too little reform becomes decadent. Wise statesmen must advance reform at the right pace, preserve tradition in the right degree, balance interests in the right order, and impose order with the right methods, in order to keep what is best of the state and society in a competitive, changing, and dangerous world.
Moreover, the state and society coexist and have always coexisted- there has never been a society not protected by some form of government, nor a government not sustained by some form of society. To privilege one over the other is a rationalist conceit that can lead only to excesses. For that matter, the economy has always existed too, though it is not quite so influential in the affairs of men as society and the state are.
All this is to suggest that, though the conditions of the state, society, and economy may and certainly do change with the tides and winds of history, the principles of human nature and the nature of politics stand with the stars and planets of the human soul. The ultimate objective of any truly empirical political science is not the discovery of the best form of society; it is rather the discovery of those axioms and maxims that best encapsulate the truths of human behavior in political settings across time and space. This, then, may be applied towards the devising of better systems of politics, administration, economy, society, and more. But it ought to go unspoken that before prescriptions can be made, the nature of the problem of politics ought to be understood- and thus political science ought to be geared first towards understanding, and then towards action.
The author, portraying Pontius Pilate at USC’s Live Stations of the Cross, April 14th, 2017.
Memoirs of Pilate, Memoirs of Mine
“On the Jewish holiday, anxious to preserve the peace of Rome, I tried a just and innocent man before a crowd of his own people. I found no fault with him; but had I let him live, the high-priests would surely have fomented rebellion, and many lives would be lost without reason.
I washed my hands of the blood I knew was on them, and uttered two words- “Crucify him“- as I sent him to die at Golgotha. I am not proud of my decision- but then, no one in public life can be proud of much. The peace of Rome was kept, for a time, and I had done my duty. I will not rest easy, but I will have the respite of knowing a greater crisis had been averted.”
So might Pontius Pilate, Procurator and Governor of Roman Judea, Servant of Tiberius Caesar, have written in his diary in 33 A.D.
Such thoughts flashed through my mind, too, on April 14th, 2017- Good Friday. I had dressed in a cheap toga, stood before the Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California, and condemned a friend portraying Jesus to “death” as the extras jeered and chanted “crucify him!” I was portraying Pontius Pilate. It was the USC Catholic community’s annual Live Stations of the Cross performance, complete with cheap Halloween costumes, a full cast of principles and extras, and a makeshift wooden cross stained with syrup-blood. We walked the path of the cross from Tommy Trojan to the courtyard of the USC Catholic Center’s chapel, pausing after every act to read the Station and recite a prayer. The guards whipped and taunted Jesus the whole way, as did the crowd, while confused onlookers watched and snapped photos with their iPhones. And beneath the church bells we crucified our lord and savior. I crucified our lord and savior- it happened, in the play, at my orders. It was a powerful experience.
Being Pontius Pilate was a symbolic task for me. I study and write on politics, history, political theory, and a dozen other subfields- the art of the state and the study of human nature are my provinces. Further, I seek not only to understand this most fraught and relevant of subjects, but to practice it as a political operative, policy advisor, or public servant in some capacity someday. I already do practice politics, in a way- I’ve worked for various Republican campaigns in California. A friend laughed when I told him I’d been chosen to be Pontius Pilate- “They made you the politician? Of course they did!” It was fitting.
But it wasn’t fitting only because I study and work in politics and Pilate did too. There are other, deeper reasons. But first, a look at why Governor Pilate did what he did.
Killing Jesus to Save Rome
As I read up on Pontius Pilate and reflected on his choice, in the weeks before the 1,984th anniversary of the Crucifixion of our Lord, my childhood sympathies with the Procurator of Judea received a rational boost, and took firmer shape. Back on Ash Wednesday, 2016, the fantastic military/international affairs web magazine War on the Rocks published an interesting little piece entitled “Jesus as a Security Risk: Intelligence and Repression in the Roman Empire” by Rose Mary Sheldon. Looking at the events from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, 33 A.D., through the eyes of “a fictional [intelligence] chief of station in Jerusalem” who presumably advised the military governor Pontius Pilate on how to maintain security in the province, the piece paints a different picture of the Passion than most of us Christians consider. It looks sympathetically through the eyes of those Romans who made, and carried out, the decision to crucify Christ.
First off, as any ancient historian can affirm, Roman Judea under the reign of Tiberius- roughly corresponding to the time of Jesus’s ministry- was every bit as tumultuous and bloody a place as any conflict zone in the Middle East in the 21st Century, complete with foreign powers striving for influence and dominion, local insurgencies fighting for various messianic or less-than-messianic objectives, and a tenuous peace maintained only by the balancing of forces and the strict disciplining of dissent.
Second, Governor Pilate and other Roman authorities routinely dealt with such dissent with overpowering and often absolutely brutal force. Ms. Sheldon cites the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions that dozens of men claiming to be the “Messiah” had been assassinated or executed by Pontius Pilate and other Romans, for spearheading popular uprisings. Timothy B. Shutt, in one of his phenomenal lectures on the origins of Western political thought, notes the historian Philo’s contention that after one such Jewish revolt, several hundred dissenters were crucified at once, so much that all the trees for miles around were harvested for cross-beams, leaving behind a decimated landscape. There are even hints of this regional chaos in the Gospels- note that John refers to Barabbas as a “revolutionary,” and while history remembers the two men crucified at Jesus’s right and left as “thieves,” Matthew refers to them as “revolutionaries.” Looking at the historical context, it’s not hard to guess what crimes these three had been guilty of- quite possibly crimes against the Roman state governing their lands.
It doesn’t take a leap of faith to go from this situation, to the notion that Jesus himself was such a revolutionary with the same sorts of political and military ambitions as the two “thieves” and Barabbas. Certainly, there were political implications in his teachings (as his persecuted followers, starting with St. Stephen, knew very well as they went to their deaths in the subsequent decades.)
But such an interpretation seems far-fetched, and against the basic point of Jesus’s teachings of the non-earthly nature of his kingdom to come. In any case, Pontius Pilate himself does not even seem to have come to this conclusion as the events unfolded in real-time. (Remember that all four Gospels portray Pilate as trying to convince the crowd to let Jesus live.)
Rather, as Ms. Sheldon argues, the mere fact that Jesus was stirring up trouble and quasi-dissent against Rome, and simultaneously enraging local Jewish sectarians and inspiring their violence, in a time when such revolts happened every year at great human cost, was enough for the Romans to seek proactive action, however reluctantly, to preclude what might have become a full-fledged revolt. And innocent people dying was not the only thing at stake. If peace could not be kept in Judea, more legions would have to be deployed there to restore the fragile peace- legions that could otherwise be parrying the Parthians further north, or keeping order in Libya, or pacifying the Gauls and other Celtic barbarians in Northern Europe.
What if the Pharisees launched massacres of Jesus’s budding following, or vice-versa, requiring Pilate to request further reinforcements to quell the violence? What if the nearby Parthian Empire, always a thorn in Rome’s Eastern side, took advantage of the chaos to expand its own influence to the shores of the Mediterranean? What if chaos and war broke out in another part of the Empire, sucking away sparse resources from Pilate’s command?
One of the cardinal political beliefs of the Romans was the primacy of political order, regardless of its fleeting nature and the tremendous sacrifices and unpleasant actions required to achieve and maintain it. Whatever the merits of Jesus’s teachings and life, it seems that his existence and actions were a threat to the stability of Roman Judea, both in the long-term geopolitical sense (depicted in Ms. Sheldon’s article) and in the immediate political sense (depicted excellently in Mel Gibson’s interpretation of Pilate’s dilemma, in the film The Passion of the Christ.) Sheldon summarizes the political and security nature of Pilate’s choice:
“Pilate was acting in Rome’s self-interest. In the context of the first century occupation of Palestine, this meant nipping any revolutionary action in the bud…. The governor of Judaea made a political and military decision for the protection of his province.”
In a way, Pilate literally had no other choice- he was doing his duty as a political figure and assuming responsibility for Judea’s stability, regardless of the consequences for justice. He in fact believed that what he was ordering was unjust, and washed his hands to symbolize his innocence of Jesus’s blood. (It goes unsaid that he was not, in actuality, innocent of that blood.)
Pilate’s duty was to Caesar, and to Rome. In carrying out his duty, he crucified Christ. He had to, given the circumstances and his imperatives. But that is not all- the reasons for Pilate’s crucifixion of Christ were nascent in his very nature as a public leader, even his very nature as a human being living in political society. The crucifixion of Christ was not a mistake, nor a miscalculation, nor an exemplification of pure and pernicious evil, nor even a small utilitarian sacrifice in the name of the greater good. Rather than any of these things, it was a tragedy- a tragedy depictive of the greater tragedy of human social and public life. It was representative of the social and political manifestation of Original Sin which we all inherit and practice, simply by being human and living in and participating in and partaking of organized society.
The Choice of Gods
Jesus himself recognized the tension his fellow (non-divine) human beings experienced, between following divine command and maintaining temporal order. His admonition to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21) would seemingly resolve this tension- a hierarchy of authority with God at the top and world order, the civilization, the state, the city, the family, etc. further down, or some permutation of those, might conceivably be possible (and indeed is the division of authority Catholic subsidiary theorists seemingly endorse.)
But almost any theologian will tell you that “render unto Caesar” is not as simple as a 1st Century A.D. endorsement of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” It’s too complex to delve into here, but in short, bear in mind the fundamental connectedness and unity of social mores and public order. Jesus, too, complicates the picture with an apparently contradictory order: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24.) He was talking in context about “mammon,” or worldly wealth, but his statement presumably applies to the state, the lord, the king- in a word, to Caesar- as well.
What are we to make of this? A literal reading of Matthew 6:24 would imply, depending on context, one of many potential courses of action- perpetual civil disobedience even to the point of death, or Christian anarchism, or a theocratic fusion of divine and temporal authority, or monasticism generally divorced from the laws of the state, or something that similarly refutes the authority of Caesar and affirms only the authority of Christ. Indeed, these have been some of the responses Christians have answered with when figuring out how to order society to bring about the Kingdom. None of them have brought the Kingdom to Earth.
The fact is, all people who live in a civilized society- and in particular, the leaders of civilized society, and even more particularly, the leaders of civilized society who happen to be Christians of any sort- necessarily serve two masters: Caesar and Christ. Our non-Christian brothers and sisters do not necessarily believe they serve Christ, but all the same, the universal moral demands of kindness and selflessness C.S. Lewis documents in The Abolition of Man as “The Tao” generally tug upon every civilized human heart, regardless of cultural or experiential conditioning. There is a universal human nature that features benevolence and love. Meanwhile, James Burnham’s “objective science of politics” dealing with raw configurations of social power common to societies of men everywhere, which he explores in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, seems to be more or less applicable to polities across recorded history. There is a universal human nature that features amorality and force.
The “Tao” of C.S. Lewis, those behaviors and principles of virtue and dignity which order our treatment of each other, more or less corresponds with our service to Christ. The “objective science of politics” of James Burnham, those behaviors and principles that order our social relations and promote peace and order to preclude chaos and destruction, more or less corresponds with our service to Caesar. Both are in us; due to how we are wired, due to our nature, due to our Original Sin, we must necessarily serve two masters, both Caesar and Christ.
That is a tension we must confront. It’s not as simple, as Isaiah Berlin insists it is in his magisterial essay The Originality of Machiavelli, as a choice between one way to be good and another. There are indeed at least two ways to be good, as Berlin recounts- the life of the statesman and the life of the monk, the one oriented towards a healthy polity, the other oriented towards a healthy spirit. And a monk should not attempt to be a statesman, nor should a statesman attempt to be a monk. But a mere focus on which path of life we ought to take is not the sole question we must ask, for statesmen still have souls, and monks still live in societies.
There is a deeper question, a deeper tension.
Original Sin and Political Reality
The great question before us is this- can we be truly good human beings while being good citizens? Can we truly serve both Caesar and Christ and retain sanctity of conscience as good Christians?
Reinhold Niebuhr’s answer is a resounding “No!”
Niebuhr, the great American Protestant theologian of the mid-20th Century, infamously argued that it is quite possible for individuals to be good, but quite impossible for larger groups including states and societies to be good, if goodness is defined, as it ought to be, as the capacity for self-transcendence and service and sacrifice to higher causes, finally including service to God through sacrifice for fellow human beings. A man can give himself up for those around him. A society cannot- and any statesman who would sacrifice his country for other countries would be committing the worst of evils upon his own people. Niebuhr argues that such a statesman would deserve nothing less than execution by hanging.
This little snippet of Niebuhr’s political philosophy- excellently detailed and presented in full in the collection Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics: His Political Philosophy and its Application to Our Age as Expressed in His Writings, edited by Harry Davis and Robert Good- is worth pondering. Niebuhr’s political writings overflow with the social and political application of Original Sin, and his basic thesis on political and social life can probably be formulated in a single sentence:
Because of the Original Sin latent in human nature, human society and politics will always be fundamentally unjust, corrupt, and brutal, in need of both secular order and spiritual guidance- which are fundamentally incompatible
In other words, there can be no Heaven on Earth. The City of God is celestial, beyond our collective reach; though individuals might live generally holy and humane lives, saints- regardless of their sacrifice- still acknowledge themselves to be sinners, and are correct in at the very least a socio-political sense, and a sense of their human nature. We are forever condemned to inhabit the City of Man.
Any study of history, when informed by a realistic appraisal of human nature and political society, will support this claim. The glorious and virtuous city-states and empires Machiavelli celebrates- the Roman Republic, Athens, Persia, Israel- all acquired their states through conquest, and built their cities on the skulls of the vanquished. Machiavelli himself argues that every just order is founded on some prior injustice of sorts. And this is not limited to the empires and city-states of antiquity- the great Medieval civilizations, especially Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate-Empire, were attained through conquest and bloodshed- and kept order by the same means. Jack Weatherford’s interpretation of the Mongol empire reveals similar moral dichotomies. Turning to modernity, we see Europe’s great, free nation-states- Holland, France, and most of all Great Britain- build empires abroad on the bones and through the sweat of the natives of their domains, while by the 19th Century suppressing their own working classes. We Americans are no different, having conquered our continent through the veritable genocide of Native American cultures, or at the very least the extermination of their political power and freedom.
Who can say, though, that the order, stability, and freedom of Rome, Athens, Persia, Israel, Tang China, Abbasid Islam, the Mongol Khanate, France, Holland, and America was all for naught? Who could say it was pernicious? Who could say that the world would have been better off had none of these great empires come to prominence and ruled their domains with brute force and wise statecraft combined?
Great cities are built on the skulls of the vanquished. The innocent are slain along with the guilty. Poverty stands next to prosperity, peace next to violence, all existing in a broader, morally repugnant yet morally necessary whole. And the fate of Christ in the empire of Caesar is certain. As Niebuhr tellingly and fittingly said, “nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals upon the same Golgotha…” And here’s the rub- the moral rebels, the Christs, who rail against the temporal order are right, more right in the ultimate sense than the legionaries who crucify them. But they are a threat to the temporal order in which humans live, laden as it is by Original Sin, an order that for all its sinfulness and cruelty and temporality must be preserved. For that Christ goes to the cross.
Here, then, is the dilemma of the statesman, and in particular the Christian statesman- St. Thomas More, perhaps.
By the very nature of the statesman’s profession, he manages, protects, and advances, through unsavory means, a finite, morally compromised political order whose very existence was brought forth and is maintained through such unsavory means. The statesman, in a very real way, must sacrifice his capability to live a good and Christian life in the interests of the broader public good, so that others may live good and Christian lives or whatever sorts of lives they please, kept in safety, harmony, and comfort by the statesman’s responsibility and vigilance. George Orwell meant, but never said, apparently, that “we rest easy at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” And to paraphrase Machiavelli, “A true statesman must love his country more than his soul.” The ways of Caesar are not and can never be squared with the ways of Christ.
This is not a mere the-ends-justify-the-means utilitarianism, nor is it a fanatical and revolutionary egg-cracking omelet-making in the sake of worldly salvation. As Isaiah Berlin’s Machiavelli says, “the moral ideal for which no sacrifice is too great- the welfare of the polity, is the highest form of social existence attainable by man.” But “in choosing the life of a statesman or an active citizen, one commits oneself to a rejection of good behavior.” It is necessary that someone does this- this way of life is the only way to “create or resurrect or maintain an order which will satisfy men’s most permanent earthly interests.” And as any political realist knows, without order- the most prominent of men’s earthly interests- there can be no civilization, no virtue, no justice, no society, no progress. All this is tainted by the original sin of political reality, which in turn is tainted by the Original Sin endemic to the human breast and to our fallen human nature. There is no Heaven on Earth.
The Fullness of Christ’s Sacrifice and Love
In a way, the statesman is simultaneously Christ and Anti-Christ. He is a Christ in that he sacrifices a thing fundamental to his life- his conscience and, very likely, even his soul- so that order might be maintained, so that his countrymen might live more happily and in no fear of death or anarchy. This is sacrificial love in a form almost more sublime than mere earthly death in the protection of the state and people- it is a forfeiture of one’s own conscience to a cause greater than self. Christ gave up his life on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven; statesmen give up their consciences at the throne so that their people might live.
On the other hand, the statesman is most certainly the Anti-Christ- he practices the wicked Machiavellian doctrines and cults of power and order and war, his hands are unwashably stained with Christ’s blood and the blood of innocents, he must practice force and fraud and treachery to maintain a political society whose nature is not love, but is force and fraud and treachery. He is the realization, and defends the unholy realm, of Original Sin.
And in a way, it is not only the statesman who is the Anti-Christ- for every citizen and subject of any political society is similarly guilty, for they partake in the fruits of political order which is purchased through force and fraud. They did not commit the crimes, but their happiness rests on the fact that rough men committed such crimes for their sake. It is not only Pontius Pilate who crucified Christ- it was the Roman citizens who stood by, the Pharisees and their followers who demanded the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers who did the dirty work, and all the rest. Every political order is basically cruel, at least as cruel as the Roman one; every inhabitant of any political order has such cruelty as the price of their safety.
Is it not now obvious how Original Sin most vividly manifests itself in the City of Man? But such barbarity is not the ultimate reality.
God, in his infinite love, mercy, forgiveness, and wisdom, knows that Man will be imperfect- knows that Man will sin against him, and in fact does sin against him by the mere fact of his living in naturally unjust political society. He knows all this, and loves us anyway.
We cannot build a Heaven on Earth- we can never behave, in an ultimate sense, as we ought to behave, for we are laden with Original Sin. We cannot save ourselves.
And that is why, in the broadest sense, Christ died for us, to save us- we need his salvation, and he, in his love for us, saves us from our sin, our sin which is endemic to all our actions and all our institutions. Nothing earthly, nothing of man is ultimate reality, valuable though it is; God is the ultimate reality, and we in our weakness approach him only through the sacrifice of Christ- His sacrifice of himself for us. His sacrifice for us, remember, at our hands- at my hands. At the hands of Pontius Pilate, the statesman, the defender of the temporal order of Rome.
Why I Portrayed Pontius Pilate
As the FOCUS missionaries here at USC remind me often, “we crucify Christ every day.” How much the more in public life, in the life of the state and society? How much the more for he or she who accepts the responsibility of the statesman? As I argue, the duty of the statesman is as follows:
“The first imperatives of good statecraft are the preservation of society through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic revolution, and the preservation of the state through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic war. The best way to do this is to promote the preservation and ameliorative reformation of political order, domestic and international.”
I played Pontius Pilate for many reasons, but above all, for a reason of ritual importance to me. I wanted to have the experience of crucifying Christ in the name of the public good- the experience of having his blood on my hands in a figurative sense, and vainly attempting to wash it off- the experience of the tragedy of statecraft- to humble myself, in preparation for a potential future in public life. For the knowledge that we always do some form of evil in statecraft, it seems to me, does not engender a moral cynicism. It seems to me that, rather, it would inculcate a moral humility in the leader- the knowledge that no action of his is ever fully good, ever fully justified, ever fully just, and that he forever has the blood of Christ on his hands. This, in turn, would make him ever the more sensitive to the preservation of human dignity where possible, through preserving and reforming society and the state; meanwhile it would steel him against the utopian and perfectionist illusions so many earnest young activists and new politicians destroy themselves with, or, at times, destroy the world with.
Given the tragedy of human life and the tragedy of the statesman’s responsibility, I thought it was only fitting that I learn it now. Such is why I volunteered to portray Pontius Pilate- to remind myself of the solemn obligation of the statesman and citizen; to remind myself of the humility in which I, broken flesh, must hold myself; to remind myself that nothing I ever do will ever be perfect or lasting such as God’s good work, and that we in politics do not bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth, nor should we try to build an equivalent; to remind myself that I, and all mankind, need Christ’s love and grace and sacrifice and salvation, for we have sinned merely by our social organization.
I only wish I could communicate this understanding, if it is correct, to others like me, with similar ambitions. For we are all Pontius Pilate, in public life, and we all need Christ’s salvation- the love and forgiveness of the man we condemned to the cross.