President Bush and President Obama Condemn Trump, but They Created Trump
The Daily 202 this morning was a great read. It highlighted the parallel speeches of President George W. Bush in New York and President Barack Obama in Richmond, both former presidents condemning the “cruelty” that has begun to eat up American politics, both implicitly castigating Donald Trump for his nativist nationalism and abandonment of American ideals. Neither mentioned President Trump by name, but it was clear who these two elder statesmen were talking about.
And they well should- Trump’s buffoonery and undignified idiocy, checked only by the lingering strength of our institutions and the sterling character of “the Generals,” is eating away at what remained of a shared civic culture throughout the Bush and Obama eras. Now that shared culture is all but gone in the American upper atmosphere, confined to a few subterranean pockets of patriotism like the defense community and local governments and some elements of civil society. The American Dream lives on, the American community hungers for the mystic chords of memory, lived, that once bound it together; but for now, the common air is poisoned with the decadence and vitriol of human nature at its most ludicrous (though perhaps not at its worst.)
Presidents Bush and Obama shouldn’t be so quick, though, to condemn Trump without taking responsibility for him, though. After all, they presided over the trends, and either created or failed to address the problems, that swept Trump into the Oval Office in one of the biggest upsets in American history. Along with Bill Clinton before them, they constructed the neoliberal-marketeering economic order that sapped American productivity in the Heartland while enriching the coasts. They committed America to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and proceeded to fight (or not really fight) those wars in the least successful ways possible. Obama, in particular, institutionalized a liberal cultural ascendancy that was, for my money, the single most important reason Trump’s voters reacted as they did and cast their votes against Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it’s trite to say that Presidents are elected in reaction to the failures of their predecessors; but this does in fact seem to be the case, and the failures of Bush and Obama, and Clinton to a degree, set the stage for the populist-nationalist insurgency that Trump rode into high office, with all his indignity.
This isn’t to say that Bush and Obama’s counselings to the American people are wrong or hypocritical or worth ignoring. It is to say, though, that you can have a civic sense while having the wrong strategic sense- and in both cases, their strategic sensibilities seem to have been lacking throughout the times when they could’ve made the biggest differences.
Some Points of Light of Hope
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a moral beacon in a landscape of moral nitwits and curmudgeons, gave a press conference speech the other day responding to a press kerfuffle over President Trump’s handling of a phone call to the family of a deceased American soldier. (By the way- the politicization of so many combat deaths, from Captain Khan to Benghazi to Niger to Yemen and beyond, is absolutely disgusting and revealing of the moral rot at the heart of American “civic culture” today.) But Kelly had a beautiful line, reminding us all that there are still some heroes out there, and they’re not the ones on TV-
“Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.”
Well I do know a few of them. One of them’s my brother Ensign Jacob Phillips, United States Navy, and I’m prouder and more jealous of him than I am of anyone else in the world. He lives what John Kelly depicts, and defends what is discussed in the following passage.
And meanwhile another former presidential aspirant, this one a failed one, can probably shed some helpful light here. John McCain, who clearly knows he’s on his way out, delivered a fantastic speech at the National Liberty Center the other day, musing on the nature of the American experiment. For my money, it’s the greatest American political speech delivered thus far in my lifetime. It is required reading for all American patriots looking for guidance in these dark times. I copy here only the most beautiful of its beautiful passages:
“The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so very grateful.
What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.
We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.
We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.”
David Brooks’s depiction of John McCain looks a lot like my depiction of George H.W. Bush, in my view, and that sort of gravitas-laden statesmanlike patriotism is what is sorely lacking today- reviled on the far left, ignored on the center left, given lip-service on the center right, disfigured and parodied on the further right. They just don’t make politicians these days like they used to, and we’re suffering as a country because of it.
I don’t have a real purpose in writing these notes, just needed to record some thoughts about the Bush and Obama speeches and record those fantastic quotes from John McCain and John Kelly. This weekend is the California Republican Party statewide convention in Anaheim, which’ll be a parody of patriotism if there ever was one. I probably won’t get a chance to go.
But if I do wind up down there somehow, I’ll have a lot of thoughts weighing on my mind.
Two Tales of Rage
The Republican Party nationwide seems to have lost its head, and its shriveling outpost in California, which once upon a time gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is proving itself to be no different. Two months ago, party activists and the Assembly Republican Caucus ousted former Assembly Leader Chad Mayes from his perch. Mayes, a graduate of Liberty University and a card-carrying conservative, had committed the mortal sin of leading a small faction of the Republican Caucus in voting for Governor Jerry Brown’s extension of California’s Cap-and-Trade program, a big no-no in right-wing circles. Mayes was presumably just making sausages and cutting deals as good politicians usually tend to do, and probably thought he’d be able to curry favor with Democrats so as to advance conservative legislation further down the line. In any case, partly due to Mayes’s last acts as Assembly Leader, the measure passed.
Now California’s Republican activists have turned their sights on a different target- the recently-passed gas tax and vehicle fees increase, signed into law by Governor Brown this April. According to CalMatters, business groups like the Los Angeles County Business Federation and Orange County Business Council support the new law, because the state’s transportation infrastructure is- surprise!- badly in disrepair. Business groups have traditionally been aligned with Republicans on economic issues, but not this time- this time, Republican leaders in California are pushing forward on two ballot measures for the 2018 election that would repeal the new gas tax and the $5.2 billion it would raise to fix the state’s roads. Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio is running one, which would put in place a constitutional amendment preventing increases on transportation taxes and fees without voter approval. Gubernatorial candidate and Assemblyman Travis Allen is leading another that would merely repeal the law. CAGOP Chairman Jim Brulte and new Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle have also put their support behind the Tax Revolt of 2018.
I am no fan of the Rube-Goldberg machine that is Cap-and-Trade, and I’ve even written against the gas tax. Both are examples of piecemeal blue, regulatory, tax-and-spend “solutions” to issues that would be better resolved by broader institutional reform friendlier to businesses and consumers. (On climate change, curb emissions by drilling for natural gas and building nuclear plants; on infrastructure, pay for crumbling roads with money that currently gets squandered through tax evasion by the rich and the black hole of public pension funds.) The conservatives in the CAGOP are right to be disgusted by the waste of the Californian government, but they should still work in the system, and in these cases that would mean supporting the gas tax and Cap-and-Trade in exchange for gains in other areas and long-term capital in the political process.
But rather than playing the messy game of representative government and practical politics, and pushing incrementally towards conservative solutions and bold reforms of our dysfunctional system, they content themselves with self-righteous obstructionism, in the tax revolt case, and even political cannibalism in the case of Chad Mayes. Aside from devouring their own in the quest to be more ritually pure and “constitutionally conservative,” California Republicans are doing exactly what they need to do to keep losing seats at in the legislature and at local levels. For one thing, the infighting impresses no one, and gives off the impression of a party rudderless and without leadership. For another, the gas tax and Cap-and-Trade appear to be more popular among Californian voters than conservative activists would believe them to be. While the median voter might not turn on Republicans over GOP opposition to those policies, it doesn’t appear that Californians will flood to the polls against the gas tax or for Republicans opposed to Cap-and-Trade, either. Serious business interests and serious people: look to moderate Democrats, if you want to get anything done in this state.
Dan Walters called the CAGOP “a circular firing squad” recently, and he’s basically correct in that assessment. But he doesn’t go far enough. The shrinking California GOP is doing more than squabbling amongst its ever-smaller parts. By its unpopular actions in this moderate-to-liberal state, it is hastening its own shrinking and furthering its own irrelevance. A normal California Republican Party would not have invited Steve Bannon to speak at its 2017 statewide convention in Anaheim.
The CAGOP Continues to Lose
California, to put it mildly, is no fan of Steve Bannon (who even worked in Santa Monica for a while.) The state rejected Donald Trump- and presumably Steve Bannon his strategist- by a two-to-one margin (61% Clinton, 31% Trump.) But Steve Bannon will be arriving in Anaheim, the heart of Orange County, formerly the heart of the conservative movement (but a county increasingly going blue) next weekend, amidst one of the most significant election seasons for the California GOP in its post-Schwarzenegger exile. 2018 is significant because, as has been widely reported, the Democrats are targeting the seven GOP-held California Congressional seats whose voters split and voted for Hillary Clinton for President in the 2016 election. Three of those contested seats are in Orange County, and two are in nearby Los Angeles and San Diego. Of those five, three were carried by the GOP incumbents in 2016 by margins of fifteen to twenty points, but two were within seven points.
If the CAGOP seriously thinks that Steve Bannon’s appearance in Orange County will help Steve Knight, Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher, or Darrell Issa, or for that matter Jeff Denham and David Valadao up in the Central Valley, hold onto their seats in 2018, it is beyond delusional. Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Republican voter registration statewide is below that of independents and decline-to-states. And there are no less than three serious Democratic Super PACs- Fight Back California, Red to Blue California, and Flip the 14– specifically targeting these seven California Republicans in a broader Democratic effort to flip the House of Representatives.
Looking at those seven critical races in the context of the Chad Mayes odyssey and the planned 2018 tax revolt, and in the broader context of the Trump presidency, doesn’t give a Republican operative very happy feelings. There doesn’t seem to be much data available on Californian voters’ opinions of the Republican Party statewide, but given the continually declining GOP voter rolls, it doesn’t look good (and it probably offers impenetrable proof that the “activate-the-base” strategy GOP officials seem to be pursuing in this state is doomed to failure.) The seven embattled Congressmen will already have to explain, to the suburban moderates and minorities in their districts who’re considering voting for Democrats in 2018, what exactly the GOP-controlled Congress has accomplished, and why exactly they continue to support, or fail to denounce, a lunatic President. They don’t need the added burden of having to explain, beyond trite tropes, why their colleagues at the state level don’t want the roads fixed and don’t like people who work across the aisle.
The institutional and activist California GOP, in short, is associating itself with three things it doesn’t need to and shouldn’t associate with, if it wants to be relevant in a purple-to-blue state- President Trump, the paranoid populist side of the conservative movement, and a host of unsavory and irresponsible figures from crackpot economists to campus provocateurs. If it wants to win the political center, it shouldn’t run this far to a fading right. The fabled 24% of California voters listed as “Decline-to-State” may well have formerly been mainstream Republicans, before the rightward turn of the party, statewide and nationwide, on social and economic issues in the mid-1990s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 victory revealed a broad centrist-reformism alive and popular in a statewide majority (which the Governator unfortunately squandered) that has generally been defeated time and time again by the state’s Democratic establishment since the mid-2000s. But it’s there, and it would make a mean counter to Brown/Feinstein/Rendon-style moderate leftism- if the CAGOP could get its act together to practice it.
An Opportunity That Will Go Untaken
This is all really too bad, because a golden opportunity appears to be in the offing. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently announced her intentions to run for reelection in 2018, sparking a trickle and then a wave of speculation over whether or not she’ll face a progressive challenger. State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon just hopped into the race, and billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer is also eyeing a challenge. Those two, as well as whatever no-name candidates the California Democratic Party’s increasingly-powerful progressive wing puts up, are certain to run on a more Bernie Sanders-style agenda than a Hillary Clinton or Jerry Brown one. In fact, the current generation of California statewide Democrats has been in power so long, it has generally “lost touch” with the faddier trends among activists and voters, and the next generation- epitomized by Senator Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate President Kevin de Leon- is almost certain to be more uniformly liberal on both social and fiscal issues, despite its ongoing divides between progressives and establishmentarians.
California Democrats, with power locked on the legislature and all statewide offices, as well as the support of Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the public-sector unions, getting ever-more liberal on all issues, despite the rest of the state’s general centrism? A progressive movement that may drag the future Democratic establishment even further to the left?
This is a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurial Republicans to carve out a spot in the cultural mainstream and political center, and re-establish themselves as serious players in the state. It’s not a question of “convincing Latinos that they’re actually conservatives” or otherwise playing the conservative playbook with more minority-friendly tactics. It has to be, rather, what every party at the national level has done after it’s spent half a decade or more in the national wilderness- a question of soul-searching, of reforming and updating policy and philosophy and strategy, a question of redeveloping and reenergizing the question: what does it mean to be a Republican in California?
A slate of California Republican statewide and legislative candidates in 2018 or, more likely, 2022- when the Governor’s seat and a Senate seat are open to election- somewhat left on racial issues like immigration but somewhat right on most cultural issues, somewhat left on spending and somewhat right on regulation and other economic issues, could be the opening salvos of the campaign to rebuild the California GOP into relevance, and establish it as a responsible governing alternative to the excesses of the left we are bound to face in a few short years (and which we are already living now.) A responsible and electable and expandable California GOP would govern in partnership with the Democrats while checking them from pushing forward their worst policies. The state could be governed well again, its intractable problems put on the path towards solution.
But the California GOP doesn’t seem like it’s going to change soon, and thus does a disservice to itself and all those it claims to want to represent. If serious people come back and work, there might be a chance. But that chance looks ever less likely, as does the reelection of the California Seven.
Much hay has been made about on the current wave of political violence in America. Sure, there’s always been this kind of stuff even in recent decades- the urban crime wave of the 1980s, the spates of white nationalist and Christian separatist militia activity in the 1990s, the terrorist attacks at Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center and the Pentagon- and in comparison to those, the recent mass shootings (political or apolitical) and truck attacks, knife attacks, and generally resurgent street brawling look like child’s play. One is almost tempted to argue that minor events are being amped up by a hypersensitive social media culture where opinion has been democratized and outrage sells.
I wouldn’t be so sure; as Jason Willick argued at The American Interest in the aftermath of the Charlottesville incident, the violence of today- with perhaps the exception of senseless mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, but back to those in a minute- has a different feel. Governance in the 80s and 90s responded to the threats, and politicians generally stood against them in a truly united front. Trust in government as an institution was at astronomical highs compared to what we have these days; partisanship was there as it always is, but the genuine radicalism we’ve seen on both left and right seemed conspicuously far outside of the mainstream, rather than intruding on its very borders.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that American polarization in all of its aspects- cultural, political, class, access to the heights of these areas versus outsider status- is more directly tied to the new waves of political violence than it was for previous waves. There’s not necessarily liberal sympathy for leftist murderers or conservative sympathy for rightwing terrorists- yet, and for the most part- so we don’t really run into the problem of institutional support sanctioning political violence. (Yes, Trump waffled over condemning the Charlottesville murderer, but that seems to have been more about ominous political calculations than actual affinities.)
That’s not to say, though, that we’re not approaching that dark phase. You do have liberal and conservative sympathies for political action a few steps short of political violence- say, the liberal love affair with BlackLivesMatter despite its more radical elements, even in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson and 2015 Baltimore protests-with-some-riots-affiliated. (In fact a lot of liberal commentators seemed to haplessly justify the riots, even while denying that they were “really” riots.) On the flipside, had there not been an actual murder at Charlottesville, I doubt you would’ve seen the conservative rebuttals of fascism and white supremacy that followed it for the subsequent week. Probably would’ve been more likely that conservative commentators would’ve argued “you have your free speech, we can have it too!” even as the white “protestors” who descended on the poor college town were armed with torches and, so I’ve heard, occasional firearms as well. We don’t even have to begin to discuss the left’s Rousseauian embrace of the environmentalist/occasionally Native American troublemakers at Standing Rock, or the right’s justification of the Malheur Bend militia’s “stand against big government.”
So we’re at a point where rather than condemning quasi-violent acts of hatred or principle or wokeness or whatever you want to call this anti-establishmentarian fervor, Americans in general are apt to take sides with the “good guys” regardless of the assaults on public order and precedent. Clearly Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address, where the future Savior of the Union counseled dedication to law and order and subservience to the laws of the United States as the grace of patriotism, is not widely read in either our commentariat or our protestariat these days.
In any case, I digress. It would seem to me that the roots of the current violence are cultural and social, rather than expressly political. They’re tied more closely to the trends Yuval Levin looked at in “The Fractured Republic,” that Charles Murray looked at in “Coming Apart,” and that Robert Putnam looked at in “Bowling Alone,” alongside innumerable other studies and reports and articles by other sociologists and cultural thinkers. Basically, as society atomizes through various unfortunate side-effects of modernization, and civil society decays, you have masses of people, especially young and middle-aged men, who are rudderless, purposeless, and functionally useless to their communities. The kind of psychological things this kind of alienation creates are terrifying to behold, and a population thus stripped of its social capital is more liable to violence of all sorts- in the home, in the bar, on the streets, behind a gun- and to narratives of festering political radicalism that, on various positions on the political spectrum, sanction extreme otherization of these people’s fellow citizens and extreme action against them. Yes, I’m suggesting that the same cultural currents and social decay that more or less got Donald Trump elected as President of the United States, also have been the rotten spigot from which many mass shooters and domestic terrorists and rioters in recent years have gushed forth.
And it doesn’t help that we do happen to be America- a country whose political culture is marked by oscillations of extremely idealistic messianism and apocalyptic eschatology, and incredible bouts of cruel reaction and misplaced nostalgia. To the extent that “right-wing ideology” or “left-wing ideology” is behind the violence rising in our streets, it’s not directly because those ideas have consequences- after all, in other decades those ideas have been the domain of cloistered journalists rather than street activists and violent murderers. No, in the current phase of things, those ideas are just the catalysts for deeper social problems.
Why do I say all this? What authority do I have?
All of this is speculation, of course- I am an amateur cultural commentator rather than a professional social scientist or historian- but looking at the social science aspects of it, and comparing the violent political results to similar periods in the last century of American history, it would seem to me that we’re in social crisis just as we were in the 1880s-1910s, and just as we were in the 1960s-early 1970s. The turn of the 20th Century saw, as everyone who took AP US History is aware, unprecedented levels of violence- lynchings of African-Americans in the South, anarchist bombings and assassinations of political leaders, labor strikes of gargantuan proportion, and mob violence at times by the ascendant populists. Some of the sources of this strife include the transformation of the Industrial Revolution, the systemic dislocations and migrations it forced, and cultural changes on the horizon. The 1960s and 70s saw a different sort of situation, one less marked by economic and technological change and more imbued with cultural shifts and political realignments. The Civil Rights Movement and the Counterculture were the prime reactions to the former stultification and repression of culture in the 1950s, and both reflected decades-long trends in the offing; the violence that accompanied them was inflamed by various trends besetting America in midcentury, especially including urban decay and the prolonging of the Vietnam War.
In both cases, the violence largely stopped after a few years’ worth of significant reforms- as Walter McDougall says of the aftermath of President Nixon’s domestic legislation, “the ghettoes and campuses fell silent.” Teddy Roosevelt’s labor, consumer protection, and social welfare reforms largely addressed the concerns of the populists of his era without conceding the moral or political ground to them, while Richard Nixon’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War and advances on social and regulatory legislation pulled the rug out from under his liberal rivals and critics. Social and political violence as a whole did not “stop” after the Roosevelt and Nixon presidencies, but for the most part, the reforms they pushed sufficiently allayed national concerns about dramatic changes, and more importantly convinced majorities of Americans that the government was addressing the concerns of the age (even if, as Roosevelt’s and Nixon’s greatest enemies believed, these reforms were done for cynical reasons.) The bombings and assassinations were an anachronism as America entered the First World War in 1914, and as Nixon resigned the Presidency in 1974, public mistrust in government did not spill over into street violence. Reform worked, even if it didn’t fundamentally resolve the great issues the nation faced in 1901 or 1968. But it did help the nation adapt.
I’d argue that we’re in a similar place now. The question is not “how do we fix alienation?” as some commentators like David Brooks have been putting it- rather, I’d say the question is how to address it, and allay the very real concerns Americans have about government and society, while making whatever steps possible to rebuild or reforge lost social capital and weave again the fabric of society into something resembling connectivity. And that’s a long process that a few new laws and nice speeches aren’t going to resolve.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, many have been arguing we need tougher gun laws. That’s pretty much right, but it misses the point, and misses the complexity of the gun situation in America. Stricter gun regulations- not including the removal of the Second Amendment, because that’s not going to happen- are just good policy, beneficial for the industry, the gun owners, and the public alike. But no amount of gun laws, including confiscations and outright bans, will preclude these kinds of mass shootings from happening when people purchase guns illegally off of illegal markets or, more ominously, when terrorists plot things like this. I certainly believe it would be harder for these kinds of things to happen under stricter gun laws, but I think liberals are assuming their solution is a full and total solution- and such things rarely if ever exist in politics.
But it goes beyond that. Removing the gun from a madman’s hands doesn’t change the violence sewn into his heart by human nature, doesn’t remove the options to knife people in the street or plow trucks into crowds or plant bombs in subways, doesn’t reduce the capacity for other forms of lethal violence that are becoming increasingly and unfortunately common in the America and more broadly the West of the late 2010s. Removing the gun from a madman’s hands does work to preclude one of the manifestations of social violence in America today; it doesn’t do much at all to address the deeper issues of social dislocation and cultural decay, and if those issues are not addressed, gun control will probably neither be popular nor have more than a minimal effect in precluding these violent incidents.
What is desperately, desperately needed is reformist leadership and reformist policy tackling a wide array of social issues, as Roosevelt and Wilson did once and as Johnson and Nixon did later. And more importantly, that leadership and policy needs to be conducted in a way that restores social capital and the social contract, and at least nominally secures Americans’ faith in government, society, and themselves. That won’t happen while people in power and in cultural heights retreat to the edges of their own sides’ coalitions; it might happen if you can get some evidence of competence in government, which is sorely lacking these days.
The Obama years provided a glimpse of what that policy competence might look like, as Ross Douthat argued today that in the age of an imperial presidency the policy action must come from the top and trickle down. But for whatever virtues his approach had, President Obama’s tenure resulted in increasing levels of polarization and social decay, and while his healthcare legacy and other things might be helping around the edges, they certainly did not do much to allay the violence that towards the end of his Presidency was becoming all the more common. It need not be said that Trump has only needlessly inflamed and divided the country in this situation.
I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know what reforms we need to put in place, what rhetoric would be helpful, who the leader should be. I don’t know any of it. But I do believe something must be done, and someone must do it, to get America’s government back on course alleviating the social decay and cultural rot that has been underway for at least the last three decades and whose chickens are finally on their way home to roost. Yes, pass gun control, get the guns out of the damn madmen’s and terrorists’ hands- but don’t be deluded that that’s anything like a long-term solution. The long-term solution has to deal with the overall problem, which is social decay and cultural disintegration- and as of this writing, I don’t think anyone, even those who’ve identified the problem, really knows what to do about it yet.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH CALIFORNIA?
California, as usual, has been making headlines nationwide for a number of reasons. Democrats in state government, primarily under the ringleader-ship of State Senate President Kevin de Leon and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, continually go out of their way to snub the Trump Administration on everything from immigration to healthcare to the environment. Its rising crop of Democratic stars- Senator Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, even tech titan Mark Zuckerberg- are routinely cast as prospective presidential candidates for the 2020 cycle. Seven GOP-held Congressional seats whose populations voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are under intense targeting by California Democrats in the national party’s bid to take back the House of Representatives in 2018. California’s a happening place these days.
But all the national political posturing and gossip going on within the Golden State’s borders is a distraction from the real story- the absolute dereliction and failure of California’s governing class to address the very real problems afflicting the state. On everything from housing shortages and soaring costs of living to bloated, out-of-control spending apparatuses and a hemorrhaging statewide debt, California’s politicians have hitherto only been able to offer piecemeal and token reforms, policy Band-Aids, even as they pursue symbolic campaigns to cleanse the history books and promote “international climate leadership.” There are many reasons for this dreamy situation, especially including the absence of a competitive opposition Republican Party, but the biggest problem remains a classically Californian one.
In short, in the late 19th century, California was largely under the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad and other major industries that dominated statewide politics. The Progressive Era saw a successful revolt against this oligarchic rule by the Lincoln-Roosevelt League and others, and the imposition of progressive and democratic reforms that radically altered- and hardened- state government structures. The decline of bipartisan progressive politics in the mid-20th century saw a partisan golden age, and California throughout the Second World War and Cold War seemed to be the kind of middle-class utopia Norman Rockwell spent his time depicting in his paintings.
But that middle-class utopia, for various reasons, gave way to the rise of a new oligarchy allying itself with the progressive structure of the post-Progressive Era California Constitution. Thus, as California weathered the crises of the 1990s and entered the 21st century, it found itself shackled by the ghosts of its past- the domineering tech sector in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, which was on its way to becoming a new nexus of wealth and power, and the mutated legacy of the Progressive Era in the form of century-old reforms that now made state government dysfunctional, and empowered a new interest group in the form of public-sector unions. These forces, both sympathetic to the state Democratic Party (as they had begun to rise in influence while the California GOP was still dominated by the Cold War’s aerospace industry and military-industrial complex of Southern California) have in the last two decades risen further in prominence, to the point that they possess a negative veto power against certain reforms and a budding positive power to push their own reforms without opposition.
Furthermore, most of the intractable problems in California remain intractable primarily because these interest groups benefit from the current structure, and dominate decision-making in the left-leaning Democratic legislature. And they have the money to back up their proposals, as well. Public-sector unions, as a rule, oppose restructurings of overly-generous statewide pension systems; teachers’ unions oppose any new oversight and reform of the teacher hiring system and school districts in general; the tech, media, and other upper-middle class industries, and the coastal liberal homeowners who work for them, support increased environmental regulations on principle, without feeling, particularly harshly anyway, the effects of higher energy and housing costs. It’s not the “Green-and-Blue conspiracy against the middle class” some anti-establishment rhetoric suggests; but it is an unchecked domination of the state’s Democratic Party-dominated political structure by “Green” and “Blue” forces. In a nutshell, California faces massive fiscal and cost-of-living problems, because the groups that benefit from those problems’ remaining unresolved, all dominate statewide politics.
The California Republican Party, meanwhile, is negligible in influence. It doesn’t really have opposition power in the legislature anymore, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego is just about the only Republican of significance in statewide politics. It does represent the redder businesses and industries that still have a presence in the state, but even these typically take to negotiating directly with moderate Democrats to preserve their interests against the coastal elites and public-sector unions. Meanwhile, the urban working classes, nominally represented by Democrats, tend to go unrepresented, their interests considered only third, after those of public-sector unions and the green coastal gentry have been sated.
While the ideal solution, as is a typical ideal solution in American politics, would probably be to restore partisan competitiveness and economic diversity to the state, the current dominant groups have no interest at all in making that happen. So some real institutional creativity is required for those hoping to work within the current system and structure to allay these major problems.
A potential source of institutional creativity and inspiration can be found in theaters across America- the career of Alexander Hamilton.
A USEFUL HAMILTONIAN PRINCIPLES
The “ten-dollar founding father” has been appropriated and abused over the last two years, since his 2015 Broadway debut endeared him to the hearts of millions of liberal fans. In fact, many of the “Green” and “Blue” types being critiqued here have probably shared memes of Lin-Manuel Miranda/Alexander Hamilton exhorting the blessings of mass immigration or condemning police racism/slavery or encouraging higher levels of spending, etc. In many ways the charming musical can be seen as a liberal rebuttal of the Tea Party right’s appropriation of the Founding Fathers- “We on the left have a Founding Father too!”
This was probably predictable, but it’s also unfortunate- because Alexander Hamilton’s vast corpus of political writings contains quite a bit of useful political and policy insight that both contemporary liberals and contemporary conservatives would do well to learn from[i], and those nuggets of wisdom go deeper than the bite-sized slogans contemporary liberals pull out of the musical. A few of these principles follow.
First, and most importantly, is the principle of private interests aligned towards the common good. Hamilton understood, in ways his republican rival Thomas Jefferson never could quite stomach, that one of the three or four driving factors in an individual’s political life was private interest, be it financial and economic, political, cultural, or social. Like James Madison, Hamilton agreed that these private interests ought to be balanced against each other so that one might not dominate the others- the New Deal’s “iron triangle” of business, labor, and government would later be the most explicit example of this- but Hamilton went a step further.
Rather than merely seeking to preserve liberty by balancing faction against faction and ambition against ambition, Hamilton believed that certain important social and political goals could be attained by directing those balanced forces down certain public channels with the use of carrots, sticks, and sermons. In his view, good government was not so much about merely preserving liberty and letting individuals pursue their interests- it was also about harnessing those interests to pursue a concrete conception of the public good.
Hamilton was notorious for associating with the rich and powerful, often in his life being castigated as, alternately, a corrupt plutocrat or an unfortunate dupe of the Federalist aristocrats. But there was a reason for this- the fledgling United States federal government could only maintain its sovereignty, he reasoned, if it had the backing of the most influential and powerful economic interests located within its borders. Those interests could just as easily favor Britain or France, and it was important to keep them loyal to the new Congress and the Constitution that governed it.
This was the real purpose behind Hamilton’s famous financial plan for the assumption of the thirteen states’ Revolutionary War debts. It did indeed empower creditors over debtors, and it did subvert the individual states to the federal will. But it did so to ensure that the rising capitalist merchant class would have faith in, and therefore cast their lots with, the new federal government, giving that government the indispensable support of the most powerful element of domestic American society. The creation of the Bank of the United States and the federal encouragement of manufacturing, whatever their other roles, certainly helped secure the support of major economic interests for the new government as well.
There are other useful principles that can be taken from Hamilton’s public philosophy and political career. The public’s confidence is another one of the indispensable supports of government, so no matter how much backing the government secures from the moneyed classes, it must always maintain, in practice and in the public’s perception, a true level of dedication to the common good and the needs of all society’s groups, lest it become a rentier state dominated by major economic interests. The best way to maintain this perception and reality is by running a government that accomplishes its tasks efficiently and effectively- the government must have energy, and neither succumb to bloat and waste, nor retreat to a laissez-faire conception of public power. Good public administration is therefore key to a government’s success. And on the question of fiscal health, debts can be blessings, provided that they are equipped with adequate funding systems and monetized over time.
Alexander Hamilton had innumerable good ideas, empirically observed, about politics and policy that ought to be examined in greater detail by our governing and scholarly classes. If those classes in California examined them, a blueprint of their subsequent plan to serve the public interest might look as follows.
HAMILTONIANISM FOR 21ST-CENTURY CALIFORNIA
The overarching aim of Hamiltonian legislators in California state politics- be they “Mod Squad” business-class Democrats like Senator Steve Glazer, pragmatic Democrats like Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, or blue-city Republicans like Mayor Faulconer, would be this: take the interest groups- public-sector unions and tech companies, primarily- who are politically dominant and have a stake in precluding fiscal reform and economic openness, and give them a reason, be it incentives, penalties, or sweet deals of some other sort, to support the reform of their sectors.
For public-sector unions at a statewide or even a municipal level, the task would be for Hamiltonian reformers to convince them to drop their knee-jerk opposition to pension reform. This would seem to be an insurmountable task, given that public employees like their overly-generous benefits and sometimes ludicrous protections, both of which are usually protected by law. If some understanding could be arrived at whereby these legal barriers to pension reform were repealed, but the unions would have a stake in the pension systems’ being adjusted through multiparty talks (which would include union members, government representatives, taxpayer advocates, and others,) some progress might be attainable. A gentlemen’s agreement-style guarantee of, say, increased job security for union members in return for the unions’ openness to pension reform, might be one way forward. Of course, it’s difficult to see the currently-dominant public unions to back such a compromise under current circumstances.
On education and the question of teachers’ unions, the task might be somewhat easier. It could be a question of offering more generous funding and services to school districts in exchange for reforms to the teacher hiring/firing process and greater school accountability. It could be a pledge to tank the mixed-results charter schools project, thus giving public school districts effective monopoly over the education process, in exchange for those school districts and teachers’ unions submitting to a variety of reforms, including oversight and hiring/firing procedure reforms.
As for the “Green Gentry” of the employees of tech, media, and entertainment companies along the California coast, one could imagine pledges of further funds for infrastructure and anti-poverty services, and perhaps even a better climate for those entrenched businesses against startup competitors, in return for relaxation of support for restrictive energy, environmental, and housing construction policies that drive up the cost of living for California’s middle and working classes. True, those funds would be better spent in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, but it could prospectively be worthwhile to bail out the coasts in exchange for their flexibility on regulatory issues that harm denizens of the interior. The question is whether or not the Gentry would allow it, given that sentiments in favor of environmental regulations run deep.
In a way, this looks like Trumpian deal-making and transactional politics, as it should. But it is indeed Hamiltonian in that it privileges certain “public goods-“ flexibility on fiscal structuring, first, and a climate of reduced costs and hence greater opportunities for the working and middle classes, second- over narrower conceptions of “a vision for the state.” And it is flexible enough that it opens room for reformers to work with the entrenched, nearly-parasitic interest groups in power, in ways that strive to align those groups’ interests with the public goods of fiscal flexibility and a middle-class climate.
The strategy- a version of “relief for reform,” perhaps a form of bribery- is designed to be a two-step process. First, reformers gain the trust and cooperation of those interests opposed to reform, and the reins of power over fiscal and regulatory structuring. Second, these reformers do that fiscal and regulatory restructuring, this time without the blue-green wall of opposition from public-sector unions and the coastal gentry. The result should be a more sustainable and workable fiscal model, and a better regulatory climate resulting in lower costs and perhaps more opportunities for lower-income Californians.
There are, as always is the case in politics, consequences and tradeoffs. For one thing, this proposed set of compromises destroys many pretenses of free market economics and competition between the public and private sectors, at times even callously allowing for the withering away of such treasured projects as the struggling charter school movement. It is destructive, as well, to most conceptions of “fiscal responsibility” at least in the short term. The bailouts and subsidies it offers to these various interest groups will have to come from somewhere- Borrowing? Extra taxes on the rich, or on the poor?-and will more likely than not increase the state’s deepening debt.
But then, politics is not- at least should not be- about realizing the best possible version of an ideal, abstract principle like freedom or equality or virtue. Politics is about, first, preserving “ordered liberty” of a sort by preventing groups from dominating, enslaving, or destroying each other, which is done by building institutions; and second, by advancing particular social goals necessary for the survival of the broader community, by whatever compromise means is necessary. The remnants of the California Republican Party would not like this morally compromised strategy any more than most elements of the California Democratic Party would like the constraints it imposes. But if their interests could all be harnessed in the general public interest, it becomes at least a little more likely that some motion towards the attainment of that public interest can be attained.
WANTED: A FEW GOOD MEN
To help California’s public interest escape from the clutches of public-sector unions and green coastal elites, it would be helpful to gain the support of those factions, and Alexander Hamilton’s methods of aligning the interests of the powerful with the public good might be helpful on that regard. Human nature being what it is, this would be a monumental undertaking no matter what, but given the deepening crisis nationally and its effects on California, now would be a good time to start.
The alternative to this sort of public-interest politics would probably be more of the same- a California GOP continually striving and failing to become relevant, simply because its donor and voter base has by and large left the state since the end of the Cold War. Recent internal spats within the California GOP-notably the inglorious ouster of pragmatic Assemblyman Chad Mayes from his position as Assembly Republican Caucus leader- reveal that the party is simply not capable of doing what it needs to do to be relevant as a counterforce to the California Democrats. The small-dog-biting-the-lady’s-leg image conveyed by California’s rump Republican Party just doesn’t inspire confidence, and it is hard to see the party returning to its days of relevance anytime soon.
There’s always the chance that that rump minority could try to effect policies that encourage the growth of the businesses- energy, aerospace, manufacturing, etc.- that have tended to support Republicans in California in recent decades. But those strategies clearly haven’t been working, and in any case if they did, it would be a long-term process before a state Republican minority would be able to make significant changes to statewide policies. Furthermore, such a situation would be adversarial and quite likely very messy, making the necessary compromises harder to strike and the necessarily razor-like policy fixes harder to attain. A collaborative effort on the part of good-government reformers would be preferable even to increased Republican power in the state, at least in the sense of getting these fiscal and regulatory reforms accomplished.
There’s one last question: who would actually be carrying out these reform efforts? Would it be Democratic politicians who, presumably, are already under the influence of these groups that are opposed to reform? Would it be Republican politicians whose own backers would advocate for some reforms and not for others?
More likely than not, yes. But there is a hope for otherwise, in one final bit of political wisdom from Alexander Hamilton’s pen. Hamilton’s schemes often assumed that a few “choice spirits,” dedicated public servants, aristocrats of the soul, talented administrators and benign politicians, would be necessary for the carrying-out and proper administration of the public’s interests. These men (and women!) of character, of dedication to the government and the polity it represented, would be something like Platonic philosopher-kings, more worthy of managing the public weal than most standard self-interested political hacks and ideological demagogues.
Who gets to determine who these choice spirits were never seems to have been one of Hamilton’s concerns, and he never goes into significant detail on the question. But if virtue cannot be entrusted to the citizenry or to the interest groups, perhaps at the very least a few good men and women could do good work in politics to shepherd the state and keep it moving in the right direction. We all know who these people are, but would probably be unable to define their qualities if asked.
Hopefully some cadre of such choice spirits- Californian Hamiltons- soon ascends to power in the Golden State, with some of Hamilton’s precepts on the public interest and effective administration in mind. The state’s residents could use them.
[i] Most of the articulation of Hamilton’s principles here is inspired by Clinton Rossiter’s magisterial treatise, “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution.” (1964)
In years past I’ve made a point of reading the first 15 Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address once a year, as well as passages from Alexander Hamilton’s reports on manufacturing, the public credit, and a national bank. These, I’ve argued, ought to stand beside the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as founding documents of the United States of America.
I am considering delving into the excellent American tradition of political oratory, as well, to add to my “every American’s required reading list” passages from John Adams’s “Discourses on Davila,” John Quincy Adams’s Inaugural Address, and Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address. These, I think, do testimony to the tempered Jeffersonian spirit of American democracy with the same intellectual fire as Hamilton’s and Madison’s testimonies on the mechanics of government, and with a smoother poetic style.
In the course of looking for some of these passages, I was reminded of the sheer, shining ebullience of the 28-year old Abraham Lincoln’s prose. I’ve copied some of my favorite passages from the Lyceum Address, bearing in mind the surprising relevance one can interpret out of each of them- not least the notion that “the last trump” shall “awaken our Washington!” I just hope when I’m 28 I’m this eloquent, thoughtful, and prolific.
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
IDENTITY POLITICS *IS* POLITICS
A common complaint of conservatives- and, recently, Bernie Sanders-supporting liberals- is the notion that the cultural left in America, and the West more broadly, practices “identity politics” to the detriment of national unity and focusing on real issues. I’ve been guilty of this as well, as my American unity piece at Glimpse From the Globe a few years back reveals. Even now I am no fan of the identity politics idea, and generally agree with Jason Willick that minority-group identity politics stokes white identity politics, and with Mark Lilla that some form of cultural and socioeconomic unity program is absolutely crucial.
But my personal preferences aside, I’m also realizing something else that really should be obvious to anyone who listens to people’s “why’s.” And that is that “identity politics” is basically at the root of politics. It’s at the root of how we define ourselves, our worldviews, and our values, and thus what ends we pursue politically and socially. It’s much broader than just a question of race- religion, class, culture, ideology, profession, and so many other group identifications can have identity politics of their own as well, but race is just a powerful one in contemporary American politics for various historical reasons.
We like our communities, or at the very least affiliate with and identify with them. We construct our values based on what is handed down to us and what we experience, and how our rational minds interact with such diverse bundles of experience and evidence. Because of the multiplicity of modes of human life, humanity is diverse enough that there will always be different aspirations, values, loyalties, identities- and that’s not intrinsically a good or a bad thing. It just exists, shapes how we think about everything including politics, and like everything else human, must be taken account of when we work in politics.
This doesn’t mean that objective truth doesn’t exist, or that we are incapable of thinking for ourselves beyond our identity-politics-influenced minds, or that we can’t empathize with others with different experiences-far from it. It just depicts the usual realities we inhabit. But we should all acknowledge that the construction of identity and identity’s influence on values and ties has been, and remains, one of maybe four or five driving forces in human political life, the others including political economy, political institutions, the desire for security or power, passion and attachments, and others. 20th Century postmodern thinkers did a lot of harm, but their emphasis on social construction and psychology has been a useful addition to the field of political studies.
It’s just a basic question of anthropology and epistemology, I would guess- it is probably theoretically possible to transcend identity issues by crafting broader, more wide-encompassing identities, or maybe being a nihilist. Those who wish it away are like those who would wish politics away- they’re pissing in the wind, complaining about the human condition and human nature to no avail. Those who overemphasize identity politics, meanwhile, are like those who reduce every action to geography or economics or institutions- they’re intellectual simpletons who can follow a straight line and nothing else. (They probably have some money on the matter as well.) No, identity politics is just a normal, typical element of human political life that can be alternately harmful or hurtful. It’s not so much a question of wishing it away, but figuring out how best to contain and possibly use it. The multiracial identity politics left and the white identity politics right have made their choices. Temperamental conservatives, accepting human nature, ought to make other choices.
EMPIRES OF THE MIND IN AMERICA
So we’ve established that this psychological principle of identity construction is just kind of how human beings operate, how they provide or find meaning to themselves and their communities. It follows that there have been ebbings and flowings of these “empires of the mind” just as there have been ebbings and flowings of the empires and city-states and churches and nation-states of human beings; generally, these correspond with self-conceived factions or interest groups of all sorts, including institutions, religious groups, ethnic groups, classes, polities, and others, and there can be infinite permutations of a single individual person’s membership in multiple tiers of these “empires of the mind” at once. Complicated situation, of course, but then, humans are complicated beings.
In America, the veneer of a “national community” has always been something of a veneer; in very few cases has it gone politically deep enough to move the nation, and it has always masked far deeper contradictions and diversity. Since before the Founding, the various Anglo colonists of the Eastern Seaboard had to learn to live with each other, and over time developed institutions that could tolerate what was in effect a multicultural civilization with only the broadest unity. (John Jay was wrong, wrong, wrong when he talked about cultural unity among Americans in Federalist #2. His “one united people” professing the same language, gods, customs, and government, only did so in a very technical degree; read Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer.) Because the Articles of Confederation and eventually the Constitution were pockmarked with sufficient compromises and inconsistencies so as to secure the loyalty of Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scots-Irish, who had many different conceptions of “liberty” and “order,” the institutions of the United States became sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of political cultures underneath a broad and general Anglo, republican national culture. I am effectively arguing that, had America been only Puritan Massachusetts or only Scots-Irish Appalachia, it would have developed institutions that could not support the kind of cultural diversity that it has supported in the last two and a half centuries.
All these founding groups were Anglo. But most of America is not Anglo in 2017- something like only 10%, I believe, of Americans trace their ancestry to England. The majority of white Americans hail from elsewhere in Europe, while there are of course burgeoning minority populations descended from African slaves and Latino, Asian, and other immigrants. Nonetheless, as Fischer argues, these other groups have all generally assimilated into the original Albion’s Seed groups to one degree or another.
Generally, America has always assimilated “non-white” immigrants, and over time they- the Irish in the 19th Century, the Italians and Poles and Jews in the 20th Century, and Latinos and Asians today- have over time mixed with the native “white” American population in culture, intermarriage, and political participation to the point that, a few generations in, they’re basically considered white people. This is currently happening with East Asians, Latinos, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and other minority groups (heck look at ME- I’m half-White, half-Asian, all-American, and racially confused) and has been for decades, and will only continue moving forward.
There’s a very, very dark side to this assimilation, depending on how you look at it. And that is: there’s a general assumption inherent to assimilation that non-white immigrants are assimilating into something. And that something is purportedly the real America. And that something, the real America, is white, Anglo, Protestant, middle-class, suburban, consumerist, etc. The real American culture, this narrative might seem to imply, would not be “republican idealism” but rather some iteration of White Anglo-Protestantism. To some, this is just a fact of life; to others this is evidence of white supremacy, the fact that WASPs have so dominated American culture in the past as to imprint their own image onto it, and reprint it in their own image.
I understand that point and probably agree technically, but I’m inclined to see WASP Americanism as just another fact of life. (I have not much to gain from that because I am mixed, non-Anglo, and Catholic.) WASP culture- not necessarily being white, Anglo, or Protestant, but generally subscribing to the outlines of WASP culture to include the English language, the English interpretation of the rule of law, Protestant ideas about religious liberty and teleology, and Scottish/English rationalism- certainly, certainly, certainly provides the baseline of what it means to be an American. Is that white supremacy? Again, I can understand the arguments of those who define this as structural racism, but for better or for worse it is the way it is, and it seems petty to complain about it while there are other justice issues that are, like, relevant.
THE END OF IDENTITY POLITICS, OR ITS IMPENDING TRANSFORMATION?
Now, for all intents and purposes, “identity politics” as we understand it now- in the sense of the distinctiveness and power of particular formerly disenfranchised minority groups, from the 1960s onwards, including both immigrants from all over the world, and African-Americans- will quite possibly be weakened by the mid-21st Century, given current demographic trends. Various analysts of immigration and policy, including John Judis and others, have said that Asians, Latinos, and other immigrants now intermarry with Whites at such a degree that their children start identifying as “white” by the third or fourth generation, or at least “white with some heritage.” This same thing happened with the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans, and other formerly-apparently non-white immigrants. Over time, the communities blend together, while retaining some lesser distinctiveness. This doesn’t mean Asians and Latinos will disappear into the white populace by any means- it simply means that they will be integrated, at cultural, political, and social levels, enough that La Raza-style advocacy just won’t tug as many hearts as it once did. (That would also mean that more people look like me, and I sincerely apologize for the poor aesthetics of that…)
This suggests that by the 2040s or 2050s, America will only be “majority-minority” in the sense that many of its white-identifying people will be partly descended from Latinos and Asians, being mixed-race offspring. The effect of this could be something like the gradual decline of Irish-Catholic political machines in the cities after the JFK Presidency- the Irish, becoming gradually “whiter,” were no longer as distinct, activated, and potent a political force as they had been in the days of their separation. They still loved their St. Patrick’s Day, but at a political and social level they gradually were becoming just any other Americans who happened to have Irish backgrounds. It takes time, but this is part of the beauty of the American experiment. This doesn’t mean identity politics will stop in entirety- it just means it’ll lose some of the force it has nowadays.
It is a very different case with African-Americans, at least in the sense that “identity politics” will for the foreseeable future be much more relevant to that community. First there’s the ethnic mixing thing- whereas other minority groups, upon intermarrying with white people, tend to identify as “white,” the offspring of black and white parents tend to identify as “black” more often. I don’t have any idea why that is, though I would suspect one reason might be that black-white children “look black” in ways that white-Asian or white-Latino children “look white” in general.
But there’s a far more important and far darker reason for African-Americans’ ongoing identity politics situation, and that is sociological and historical- African-Americans are not like other minority groups, who generally came to these shores as immigrants or imported labor. African-Americans were brought here as slaves before the founding of the country. In a sense, they have more of a claim to being “the real Americans” than any other ethnic minority, because they’re the only ones who’ve been a major demographic and cultural- though not political- force since the colonial era. And they’ve been distinct from WASP culture that whole time as well, somewhat intermingling with it and of course adopting the political and social traditions and attitudes, but yet retaining a cultural distinctiveness.
Unfortunately, they’ve always participated from the bottom of society, forced there by the realities of institutionalized white supremacy. For the greater part of American history, African-Americans have been at the bottom of formal or informal racial caste systems. Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and their lingering effects and prejudices have set back that community for centuries, struggling to attain full representation in justice, economics, politics, culture, etc. with the rest of white-or-assimilated America, for reasons entirely out of their control. The fact of formal, then informal, then lingering discrimination against blacks in this country is the social fact that must be the backdrop of any discussion of policies affecting African-Americans as a community.
It’s actually remarkable that throughout this experience and its aftereffects, African-Americans have held the outsized cultural influence they have held over the rest of the country, starting at least as early as the 1920s. That’s a story for someone more culturally informed than me, like my good friend John Wood. But it’s fascinating and testifies to the reality and success of individualism in America, at least, despite the lingering inequality between communities.
Anyhow, those two factors- the fact that African-Americans don’t assimilate into the white population nearly as quickly as other minority groups, and their unique circumstances of discrimination mean that, in all likelihood, the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation will be with us Americans as a whole until the American project has been extinguished from the Earth. The “original sin” of slavery really lives up to its name, because there is no true redemption from it available to the country by its own force of will. So America does and always will have a unique relationship with the African-American community, and will in all likelihood forever have to wrestle with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the like. That shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but it should always give us pause.
The above notes have argued that identity politics, so construed, is an unescapable facet of the human condition, and in America has always been with us, and will never leave us. This is not an apologia for the notion, nor a concession to the skilled practitioners of identity politics on the political left or the political right. Rather, I hope to illustrate the human terrain we will be working with as we strive for political reconciliations and unity in the future; if you don’t understand that terrain and how it views itself, you probably won’t get anywhere with it.
I’m worried that, due to some convergences in my overall political philosophy and temperament with some of the background worldviews of the “Alt Right” movement in the West, I might be more similar in thinking to the Alt Right than is appropriate to be, than I would hope to be. I hope that I am wrong, and that I am indeed just a culturally conservative American realist-nationalist like, say, Teddy Roosevelt. But I feel I must at least be honest in this inquiry, provided here in the dying format of “Notes.”
“YOU HAVE MORE IN COMMON WITH THE ALT-RIGHT THAN WITH THE LIBERTARIANS”
For a few weeks, a friend and colleague-in-thought has been metaphorically whispering in my ear- “you have more in common with the alt-right than you do with libertarians.” That statement has made me pause, first in denial, then in confusion, then in realization, and finally in terror, whenever it comes to mind. Am I Alt-Right? Do I just claim to be a political realist and cultural traditionalist and American nationalist, and really share nothing in common with these neo-Nazi thugs and losers? Am I part of the problem? Is all this really something I’m a part of?
I’m taken by the thought and horrified by the implications. But in time I convince myself otherwise- I’m nowhere near these people, hold nothing like their racist resentments or their bones-deep prejudices, I avoid their publications like the plague. I happen to be on the same side and wavelength as they are on certain issues, not out of sympathy for their causes, but out of agreement with others like Robert Kaplan, Michael Lind, and Ross Douthat, who are not particularly sympathetic to Alt-Right ideas but happen to align with them nonetheless out of a broader realist/conservative/nationalist context that was once more prevalent than it is now. (I’d argue, actually, that the current association of things like nationalism and “Western heritage” with kooks like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mencius Moldbug, American Renaissance Magazine, and friends, is more due to the center/center-left’s abdication of those things in favor of more cosmopolitan ideals; the Alt Righters took advantage of the vacuum and monopolized the terms.)
Anyway, I read Joseph Bernstein’s exquisitely well-researched Buzzfeed News essay “Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate,” and found it interesting. A couple of quick observations: first, it’s absolutely clear that Bannon, Milo, Marlow, Bokhari, Yarvin, Saucier, and all of them are living in a self-righteous bubble, unquestioning of any of their assumptions, fighting a fight they believe passionately to be right. It’s equally clear that, far from being blinded into delusion and folly, they remain clear-eyed and entrepreneurial enough to rationally and strategically exploit the online media climate in ways few other political operative/activist networks have been able to do. Finally, there are real divisions in the Alt-Right- it would seem that the Bannon/Milo/Bokhari spokesmen and figureheads, like Trump, are primarily driven by cultural resentments against the left, and a Nixonian willingness to act on them unmoored from any moral constraints to exploit real divisions; whereas the actual white supremacist/identitarian bloggers and editors don’t seem to command anywhere near so large an audience, but are a driving force and faction in the broader Alt-Right, existing in sufficient numbers to provide Milo’s foot-soldier following.
But that last factor- the blurry line and tacit alliance between those who may well be without a racist bone in their bodies, but who harbor deep cultural resentments towards the modern left; with those actual “deplorables” who are beyond resentful and actively identitarian, desirous of a white ethnostate and actively racist against nonwhites- that is a factor that cannot be ignored.
At a personal level, I think I’ve skimmed over it too long, not realizing its full implications. A Republican Party and American center/center-right/right that operationally now includes Alt-Right operatives as planners and voices at the table, rather than just that crazy uncle in the attic/coalition who you don’t kick out but you don’t pay attention to either, is a Republican Party even more morally compromised than it’s been in the decades of the Southern Strategy and the Religious Right and talk radio and xenophobia. This is a party that, as Chris Ladd might say, is in thrall to powerful factions that no longer bother to decry racism anymore.
(For the record, I don’t think this represents anywhere near the majority of the still-Reaganite/Gingrichite/Bushite/Romneyite GOP operative network; but that conservative GOP must now deal with this anti-establishment swell in ways I’m not sure it is capable of at the moment.)
Anyway, people like me- cultural conservatives, political realists, American nationalists- who are opposed to the excesses of modern American liberalism, its countercultural idealism, its historical amnesia, its epistemological hubris- people like me who nonetheless value the open and pluralistic society America has always sheltered, must tread carefully forward, lest we walk alongside these racist kooks on the Alt Right. Because my friend was right- we do look more like them than is comfortable to admit. And that’s something I’ll be thinking on and struggling with a lot moving forward.
So onto a look at the belief network I hold strongly in my worldview where convergence with Alt Right thought worries me most: the anthropological-political understanding of the communal/divided origins of human society.
DIVIDED COMMUNALISM, THE STATE OF NATURE
Ramon Lopez published an excellent piece in this fall’s issue of National Affairs, “Answering the Alt Right,” which is useful for understanding the nature of the problem, but in my view less useful in answering and resolving it. Here’s the passage where Ramon, paraphrasing Milo Yiannapoulos and Allum Bokhari’s manifesto “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right,” describes how the Alt Right’s factions generally view themselves:
“[Richard] Spencer, however, claims that the alt-right has nothing to do with neo-Nazis or white supremacy. He prefers to refer to it as “identitarianist,” which he describes as the belief that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life. The alt-right claims to defend white or European identity, not to oppress those with other backgrounds but in order to maintain and care for their own.
Bokhari and Yiannopoulos echo this view in their article: “[J]ust as [the alt-right] are inclined to prioritise [sic] the interests of their tribe, they recognize that other groups — Mexicans, African-Americans or Muslims — are likely to do the same.” The alt-right draws upon social psychology that highlights our tribal nature: We are all members of certain social groups, which fundamentally define who we are and incline us to support that group’s interest over the broader public good. Doing so is not simply natural but right — we are who we are, and are primordially bound to defend that state of being. Politics in a multicultural society is therefore a zero-sum contest among fundamentally competing identity groups.
This view leads the alt-right to call for firm divisions between identity groups within society.”
Except for those last three points- that there is no way out of personal identity, that identity politics need be zero-sum, and that there ought to be “firm divisions between identity groups within society” (read: legal segregation)- it would seem to me that most of the other points Spencer, Bokhari, and Yiannopoulos are suggested to have made, would be accepted by most political psychologists and, in fact, by other “identity politics” advocates on the left. Jason Willick over at The American Interest has written a few times something along the lines of “stirring identity politics among non-white people inspires a reaction of identity politics among white people,” and I would only amend this to say that it seems there is something of an identity politics simply endemic to the human condition among all people and groups.
The claims- that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life, that people are inclined to support their own tribes, that social psychology influences all this heavily- all seem to be more or less accurate to me. If a “state of nature” exists, it’s not a “war of all against all” at the beginning of time that can be transcended by a social contract of reciprocal obligations- no, the “state of nature” would seem to be the enduringly violent, communal, vindictive, collective nature of man, expressed under whatever institutional condition, whereby we work in groups with those we affiliate with against those we don’t affiliate with. Identity is inseparable from affiliation (though it is also multiple and complex.) Faction, empirically observed as a principle and a reality across the spectrum of the human experience, is salted by the passions of love and hate that come with the territory of our natural connections to the ethereal group.
These Alt Right theorists oversimplify on the basis of race, of course- race/ethnicity/physiology is only one of many, many identity poles around which factions can coalesce, though it is probably one of the more powerful ones. More importantly, though, race is a fluid concept (and I don’t mean that in the way lefty constructivists talk about it as “something that doesn’t exist.”) Race is fluid in the fact that it just mixes, usually seamlessly and beautifully, and new genetic combinations in individuals and populations are cropping up all the time- just kind of the beauty of being physical beings as well as spiritual beings who can appreciate biology aesthetically, I suppose. Some people just don’t fit in any of these groups. I’m an example of racial mixing given my mixed Asian-European blood (did I ever say I’m a big fan of interracial marriage?) and that should throw wrenches into both the “race-isn’t-real” and the “race-is-everything” camps. (No equivalency morally, by the way- the race-is-everything Alt Right people are far worse than the left on this issue.) For a great illustration of how that dynamic plays out in ethnic trends in America, just read essays or books by Michael Lind on identity. The American “new man” concept is just fascinating, and far more fascinating than anything Richard Spencer cooks up while praying to the skull of Hitler or whatever.
But despite the wrongness of the Alt Right’s manipulations of the principle of group affiliation, I cannot deny that the principle itself is 1) apparently empirically sound and 2) rejected by most traditional American political theory, which tends to be less empiricist or anthropological, and more liberal-individualist-republican or class-based. And it is a principle that is generally either explicitly rejected or generally not considered by our somewhat more individualist and ideological cultural commentators and ruling elites. It seems to me that in the second half of the 20th Century, as Mark Lilla argued in his recent book, what had been developing in terms of notions of “national community” was discarded by American elite political operators in favor of various breeds of liberal-principled individualism. As Robert Putnam, Yuval Levin, and Charles Murray have all implicitly and perhaps unknowingly argued, the resultant social atomization and cultural decay has fueled new fervors towards otherwise unthinkable constructions of identity, etc., and the force of the Alt Right- while it clearly has its roots in the unholy marriage of the segregationist Southern right and imported European conceptions of ethno-nationalism, probably both activated after the Second World War and during the early Civil Rights Era- has been greatly amplified because of the dramatic social upheaval over the last several decades.
So I suppose what I’m trying, failingly, to say is that the Alt Right, for all their sins and evils and overemphasizations and overgeneralizations, is at the very least premised on a basic principle that many Americans understand but few put into institutional practice- that identity does indeed matter and conflict between identity groups is a normal consequence of identity’s mattering. And when you are blind to reality, reality will beat you every time. The Alt Right is un-American and racist for celebrating white identity politics and fighting to disenfranchise or delegitimize other groups, but it has its finger on the pulse of a basic unspoken reality that most small-“l” American liberals don’t admit much- that tribe matters and tribalism is a consequence of tribe. Only when you admit that 1) people have a legitimate and natural stake in their own group identity, and 2) the multiplicity of identities can create conflicts, then rather than throwing up one’s hands and wishing everyone were a 100% American or an End-of-History cosmopolitan, can you get down to the absolutely crucial work of containing the effects of passionate faction and working towards higher syntheses of identity, two of the great ongoing achievements of American small-“l” liberals in their soberer, more realistic iterations in centuries past.
I had planned a longer piece, but have probably already gotten myself into enough trouble with this one alone. Some other themes I’m thinking on below, though-
-Is America a nation with an idea, or an idea with a nation? If it is indeed a nation with an idea rather than a set of abstract principles, as I have taken many pains to argue, then what is the dividing line between us traditionalists and the Alt-Righters who completely reject any founding principles? Can such a line be drawn rationally, or must we always be vigilant? (I sense the latter.)
-Does the superficial convergence between my views with some of those of the Alt Right’s imply any guilt in me for happening to be in coalition with them? (This is a species of political question I am still trying to figure out, and it has a leftists/liberals counterpart as well.) Moreover, does the general viewpoint of so many pre-Cold War American statesmen- philosophically as temperamentally conservative as I, just as nationalist, just as realist, and just as cognizant of the enduring nature of group identification and group conflict- implicate, say, Alexander Hamilton as a proto-Alt Righter? (Hamilton, after all, was the arch-aristocratic conservative of his day, and famously wrote “the seeds of war are sewn thickly in the human breast.”) Or, as I hope, is the superficial convergence of viewpoints purely superficial?
In any case, conservatives of all stripes- save maybe doctrinaire neoconservatives and libertarians- do in fact have to wrestle with these notions and figure out what their relationship is to the Alt Right. (I suspect many honest philosophical conservatives will find more similarity than is comfortable- that ought to be worked around.) If we don’t actively explore the question, we’ll deserve any comparisons to the Alt Right left-leaners make of us upon hearing superficial similarities.
And those of us young conservatives beginning to fall under the Alt Right’s trance- just bear in mind what you’re doing. I’ll leave it at that.