A lot of conservatives, myself included, put a huge premium on the notion of “American identity” and bemoan its passing, the left’s rejection of it as a concept, the creeping wave of cosmopolitanism, etc. etc. etc. There’s some justification for this declinism, I would argue, but not as much as I’ve hitherto thought.
If you want to define American identity as something aspirational, something we are trying to push towards, something you can sacrifice for- then of course it’s on the decline, as so many civic life surveys exhibit. It’s probably verifiably true that you have lower rates of broadly-shared and inclusive “patriotism.”
But American patriotism and American identity are two different things. What you love is not what you are, however much it might influence and be influenced by it.
If you want to think about American identity- those habits of heart, ways of mind, values of daily life and long-term aspiration, that do indeed separate Americans as a whole from other peoples around the world- it might be better to start looking from the outside in. How do foreigners view us?
I don’t have any hard data on this, though I’m sure I could find some if I wanted to. But the general perceptions I’d anecdotally say seem to characterize Americans abroad include:
-pragmatism, sometimes ruthless pragmatism, regardless very innovative. Americans know what they want to do and how to do it, and if they don’t they’ll be the first to find out how.
-A very non-romantic here-and-now focus that sometimes devolves into crass materialism and acquisitiveness. That’s why Americans are so good at taking over the international business scene whenever a new market opens up.
-A simple conception of honor- “my word is my bond,” that sort of thing, as opposed to complex customs and traditions and arrangements. In fact, oftentimes a callous disregard for those arrangements. “You might consider yourself straightforward, but I consider you rude,” says the foreigner to the American businessman.
-Nonetheless a kind of dreamy idealism, a belief that fate and providence and progress is on their side, because as an American one is doing the world’s work.
These four characteristics- and there are more I’m missing- aren’t particularly positive or particularly negative value judgments. They’re just kind of there, they are what they are. The “real American” archetypes who display these characteristics include the “GI” soldierly archetype, the American military men who, as Churchill said, will always do the right thing once all other options have been exhausted, and they’ll do it goddamn well too! There’s the entrepreneur/inventor/captain of industry archetype who’s very good at organization, profit maximization, and the peculiarities of hard sciences, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about ideas. (These usually are rumored to have come from a rags-to-riches background as well.) There’s the cowboy archetype, the lone individual made rugged by the rough life of frontier politics in the wilderness or in the suburbs, who doesn’t need ostentatious ceremony and wordplay to get what he wants done. And of all of these figures, not one is a philosopher, a revolutionary, a poet- but they each have visions and passions as deep as those of the philosophers, revolutionaries and poets, and are simply much more eminently practical men of affairs.
Sound familiar? Again, this isn’t a celebration or a condemnation of what Americans are or are presumed to be- it’s just a humble attempt to illustrate what, exactly, it is we’re talking about when we say “American identity” and presume our fellow Americans know what we mean. (As mentioned, there are many more of these archetypes- look at my writing and Wilfred McClay’s writing for some guides to those- but we can’t go too in-depth to them here.)
Now these archetypes are, it’s true, made possible by certain historical experiences America has gone through- the fact that you can better imagine these sorts of people to be roaming the world doing manly things between, say, the 1830s and the 1940s, is testament to the fact that these archetypes were developed in response to the American historic experiences of capitalism and enterprise, the expansion across the American West, Jacksonian Democracy, and of course our great Iliads, the Civil War and the World Wars. But archetypes and memes have a staying power that long outlives their birth, especially when they are institutionalized into narratives and repeated over and over again to new generations.
It is this that we’re really talking about when we talk casually about American identity- “that’s so American of you,” or “You really think that’d happen in America?” But when we talk gravely and seriously about American identity- “that’s Un-American!” or “do you even love America?” we are not talking about this. Then, we are talking about how we ought to define patriotism.
I want to make it absolutely clear that there is a big distinction between being an American and being an American patriot- you can certainly be both, but you can also choose not to be a patriot. You can’t choose not to be an American- it’s just in your cultural style, for better or for worse, and there’s no simple-opting-out of it. And pretty much everybody who grows up in America is about as American as you can get to some degree, whether they make a big deal out of it or not.
Whereas other nations are defined by interactions between physical, racial features and the cultural habits and loyalties practiced by folks with those features, the American nation is defined rather by people of all sorts of different physical racial features subconsciously practicing certain cultural habits and loyalties, and believing that those are connected more to a certain set of ideas than to anything else. In a sense they’re right; in other senses they’re wrong; but that’s why it’s so hard to pin down what exactly an American is, short of describing one of them.
Then let’s put to rest the idea that being an American is just subscribing to the civic triad of freedom/justice/equality, whatever the hell those things might mean. Being an American means being an American, and we all know what that means, but can’t define it. You can become an American over time; you can probably become less of an American over time as well. You can be an American citizen without really being an American; you can love America and fight and die for her without being an American. You can be an American and not be a citizen (not too common) or you can hate everything America stands for and still be, unfortunately for you, an American (far more common.) It’s a way of being, first, and in other ways and definitions, it can be a citizenship contract, a conscious choice to follow certain ideals, or a geographic affiliation. But when we’re talking casually (and thus anthropologically and culturally) about it, we all know what it means, and it’s a thing of habits and the soul rather than anything else.
A Statesman Adored
Something I’ll never forget, I’d wager to the day I die, will be the evening I watched 2017’s Super Bowl 51 from a hospital in Pasadena. I may or may not forget seeing Tom Brady win his record-breaking fifth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. But I’ll never forget what happened a few short hours before.
As the opening ceremonies ended, former President of the United States George H. W. Bush was wheeled out onto the field with former First Lady Barbara Bush. By this time confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak, the elder President Bush still had a grin the size of a bus on his face, and looked like a kid in a candy store having the time of his life. Despite his clearly aging physique and inglorious wheelchair entry, President Bush presented an air of dignity and moment, almost an air of statesmanship, as he rolled towards the center of the field- the viewer could almost sense that here, they watched a piece of history come forth, a piece they’d not get to see again. The smooth soundtrack accompanying Bush’s entry only deepened this impression.
Someone handed the President the coin for the fabled toss, and Bush flipped it as best his ailing hand could flip. The hand that had rested steady to guide the American ship of state as the Berlin Wall came down, as the Soviet Empire broke apart, as the guns of Tiananmen Square blazed, as the New World Order was forged atop the smoldering wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s armored divisions, the hand that had shaken so many other world-shaking hands over two and a half decades of public service and two and a half more decades of post-presidential public life, now determined by the toss of a coin whether the Falcons or the Patriots would get the first play. The man who had led the world from one era to the next looked as pleased and cheerful as he ever had.
Perhaps more compelling than that image- of the former most powerful man in the world, a world-historical figure, consigned to the frailty of age, yet defying human destiny with ethereal joy – was the atmosphere surrounding him. Here was a former U.S. President, who like every other U.S. President once had domestic friends and domestic foes, showing himself to a broad section of the public, and receiving only praise. There were no audible jeers or boos or insults, no large sections of the crowd taking the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with such a well-known public figure. Bear in mind that American Presidents and presidential candidates probably suck up more slanderous abuse than just about any other class of human beings the world has ever seen- but it seems that all 70,000 fans present in the stadium that night momentarily gave up whatever reservations they might have had, and honored a great man.
Can anyone see any of the subsequent Presidents- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and especially Donald Trump- receiving such a universally warm welcome? In every case, it’s harder and harder to envision. Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama are all currently more polarized figures than the elder Bush; whatever becomes of their legacy in the coming decades, none of them holds the gravitas of Bush 41 does at the present moment.
Now, there are some caveats to this- of course President Bush Sr. would be more popular and less slandered in 2017, a quarter-century and three two-term presidencies after he left the Oval Office, than he would have been had he flipped the coin in 1993. Time heals most wounds, and the Super Bowl-attending public clearly was so kind to President Bush partly because most of the controversies attending his presidency- the response to the Rodney King Riots, to Tiananmen Square, “No New Taxes,” the Panama operation- had faded into the mists of obscurity. And certainly, had Bush Sr. been more active in politics lately, as Bill Clinton has obviously been, his star would have been a bit more tarnished than his relative silence on public issues has made it.
But even so, Bush Sr. is a unique case- had former President Jimmy Carter flipped the coin, it’s harder to envision the crowd being as receptive and adoring. There’s just something about President George H. W. Bush, which may defy easy categorization, that sets him apart. The cynics will call it PR; romantics might call it character.
Way of the Public Servant
George H. W. Bush, I would argue, seems to represent something that Americans pine for these days without knowing that they pine for it: the old-fashioned cult of experienced, country-first public service, of bipartisan gentility towards political foes, of a consensus-building moderation and prudence mixed with a true, lived dignity by the bearer of the office of the Presidency. Figures like this- in my opinion, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush exhibited it best- used to be more common in public life, alongside the mischievous Nixons and Johnsons and the charismatic Reagans and Kennedys. But in the Post-Cold War epoch, they’ve been increasingly rare. Whatever superficial similarities there might be in policy or political strategy, no one would equate the character and statecraft of Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama with that of George H. W. Bush (try as some might.)
I think there’s a reason for that. As Ford speechwriter and Bush Sr. consultant Craig Smith told me in an interview once, Republican and Democratic Presidents with decades of experience in public life, particularly in the Executive Branch and military-intelligence communities, always tended to be more reserved, realistic, and holistically-oriented than their counterparts from the governorships or the Senate. They tended to be less ideological than these colleagues of theirs, and less visionary, but more practical managers of government and certainly far less polarizing figures in the public eye. Others like them who never attained the Presidency- George Marshall, George Shultz, and Brent Scowcroft, all public servants hailing from the famed “military-industrial complex” of the professional U.S. foreign policy community, come to mind- exhibited these traits even more fully.
In an age where politicians with the experience and charisma of a Kennedy or a Reagan tend to ascend to the Presidency more frequently than more experienced public servants, it’s not hard to see why the public- which elects the Clintons and Bushes and Obamas and Trumps to high office in the first place- often seems dissatisfied with its choices. It’s not that modern presidents are incompetent or pernicious or undeserving of the Presidency- it is simply that one of the archetypes of “a good President,” the humble career politician-bureaucrat with military or civil service experience and a bipartisan or nonpartisan record, is far less common these days than it used to be.
And that is unfortunate, because in these days of unprecedented division and divisiveness, a leader with the temperament, aura, and judgment of George H. W. Bush might be just what we need.
George H. W. Bush, Last of the GI Generation
Others have other explanations of the behaviors of different generations of political leaders. My own sometime employers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais are famous for their application of Strauss-Howe Generational Theory to the Realignment Theory of American critical elections and partisan demography; they argue that the cultural and social predilections of any generation, combined with that generation’s reaction to formative experiences around it, interact to shape that generation’s attitudes and behaviors when it attains political maturity.
And there is a cyclical pattern of generations in the Anglo-American world, as well. Winograd and Hais isolate two main types of political generations of importance to American institutional and ideological development- the “Civic” Generations, and the “Idealist” Generations. To oversimplify greatly, Idealist Generations- like the Baby Boomers who currently dominate our political and economic institutions- are more concerned with morality and righteousness than with the interests of the broader group, whereas Civic Generations pragmatically pursue the opposite. The last Civic Generation- the “GI Generation” that came of age during the Depression and the fires of the Second World War- subsequently assumed leadership over the country throughout the Cold War, and produced such great Civic-oriented leaders as John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush (all World War Two veterans.)
But the Civic Generations inevitably are replaced by Idealist Generations. The Bush biographer Jon Meacham opens his magisterial biography[i] of the 41st President by highlighting Bush Sr.’s journal entry the night he lost reelection to the upstart Bill Clinton:
“How do you be the commander in chief when you duplicitously avoid service to your country?…Maybe it is time for a new generation… I’ve always assumed there was duty, honor, country. I’ve always assumed that was just part of what Americans were made of- quite clearly it’s not….
…The values are different now…. I feel I have the comfort of knowing that I have upheld these values and I live and stand by them. I have the discomfort of knowing that they might be a little out of date…”
This passage explains it all, it would seem, according to Winograd and Hais’s theories of generational change. George H. W. Bush was the product of his upbringing and his times, an old-line WASP with the cult of public service engrained in his bones. He was typical of his generation; his successors, being of the later generations, had a different, more supposedly self-serving constellation of values.
It’s an interesting idea, and I don’t dispute any of the empirical data on attitudes and opinions Winograd and Hais cite in their voluminous works,[ii] though I would tend to think personal experience and professional upbringing distinguished Bush from most of his generation. The implications, though, for what the generational cycle means for the Millennial Generation- the next “Civic” Generation- are fascinating.
A Neo-GI Generation?
At a purely empirical level, I’d say Winograd and Hais pretty accurately paint the general attitudinal trends and demographics of my (young and philosophically diverse!) generation. According to Winograd and Hais, Millennials tend, by large majorities, to be:
-inclined, by rearing, towards positivity, optimism, and accomplishment;
-ethnically diverse, more ethnically diverse than any prior generation in American history, and importantly, very open to and tolerant of that diversity;
-strongly community-oriented, particularly at a local and nonprofit level;
-very egalitarian on the question of sex roles;
-inclined to “think global and act local;”
-very technologically savvy;
-politically in favor of activist government;
-disinclined to question the motives or patriotism of their political opponents;
-committed to public participation in democracy.
For the most part, I think anyone looking at the university undergraduate populations in the Obama and Trump eras would see that most of these trends generally have held true, particularly during the 2008 and 2016 election seasons, and even to some degree amid the cultural controversies and anti-elite outbursts of the early 2010s. And some of these- the favoring of activist government, community orientation, commitment to public participation- do make Millennials look like another Civic Generation just as the GIs were.
At the same time, one can throw a couple of wrenches into this picnic. Most can recall the World Values Survey data implying that Millennial-aged voters around the Western world are less inclined to support liberal and democratic norms, and even democracy itself. One can look at the overwhelming young character of the skinheads at the Charlottesville rallies to see a sect of Millennials rabidly intolerant of those unlike them. On the flipside, there’s always the speech-suppression growing increasingly normal on elite college campuses these days, always spearheaded by Millennial college students. And in terms of political activism, who can forget that the Millennial Generation has been popularly associated- and poll numbers seem to back this up- with the decidedly non-GI, not particularly “Civic” or “pragmatic” presidential candidates Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders?
This is not to contradict the attitudes and behaviors Winograd and Hais have observed and measured- it is merely to suggest that the Millennials, just like the Boomer and GI Generations before them, are internally diverse, and their internal diversity is at least as important as whatever commonality they have among themselves, distinguishing them from their elders. It is also to suggest that, just as the days of GI Generation domination of government were full of every kind of division from racism to McCarthyism to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s to the polarization of the parties in the 1970s, so the forthcoming years of Millennial America will probably be just as divided, or more so, regardless of whatever consensus lies underneath.
This is no reason to despair, though, particularly for those Millennials who aspire to high leadership. They just need to actively take inspiration the 41st President and others like him on their own, there being no iron law of history fating their generation to produce similarly great statesmen without effort.
Dear Aspiring Millennial Statesmen and Stateswomen: Be Like Bush 41
The foundational experiences and attitudes of Millennials do, empirically it seems, appear to parallel those of the GI Generation to some degree. I’ll concede to Winograd and Hais that this probably makes it more likely that Millennials who rise to middling, upper, and high levels of societal, economic, and political influence may practice the virtues of a bygone age, updated for the challenges of today. And for those who aspire to do this, there can be no better living model to emulate than George H. W. Bush.
Now, I’m not really holding my breath for Millennials en masse to become patriotic servant-statesmen of the caliber we’re examining here. I sometimes question my peers’ propensity to love America as a country; they certainly love its society, and their communities at the local levels, but if the country includes those things as well as the broader American historical heritage, the institutional American state and government, the sort of “covenant” between our forebears and us and our posterity, it would seem there’s a mixed bag of responses. The generally antiwar attitudes of Millennials sometimes seem to extend to become critiques of the military-industrial complex’s existence itself, and as briefly mentioned earlier, the military-industrial complex is one of the main bastions of the country-first civic virtue temperate statesmen like Eisenhower and Bush Sr. represented. Millennials’ “think global, act local” mentality implies loyalties and preferences distinct from Kennedy’s admonition to “ask what you can do for your country.” Many of the social justice and racial justice attitudes of Millennials seem to be driven by an embarrassed shame in the American past and present, rather than an acceptance of what it is.
Winograd and Hais don’t seem bothered by these trends, noting that the social liberalism and soft globalism of Millennials is the way of the future. (Incidentally, Walter McDougall painted these attitudes dystopian in the conclusion of his recent book on the American Civil Religion[iii].) I’m not necessarily personally bothered by these attitudes, though I have my own disagreements.
But I simply wonder if it’s possible for a generation to be a “Civic” Generation, and give rise to great leaders of the stature of the GI Presidents, Cabinet Secretaries, and Congressional leaders of the mid-to-late 20th century, if that generation has mixed feelings about the polity they’re supposed to be “Civic” towards. Indeed, the most vocal of Millennials seem to me, at times, to be more of an “Idealist” Generation more interested attaining social justice at any cost, and keeping their consciences untainted by the messy compromises and moral stains that come with consensus governance.
I hope that’s unfair, and I hope I’m wrong. I do think, though, that if the Millennial Generation is going to produce leaders who can, as Winograd and Hais so dearly hope, reinvigorate American civic life, reform our institutions, establish a new consensus based on respect and service, and reestablish a country-first Civic Ethos as a guiding pole of public life, it would be important for those leaders to study role models from the last “Civic” Generation. And the last living President of that generation, and the best living exemplar of that temperament and politics, is George H.W. Bush.
How the Millennials in general and aspiring Millennial leaders in particular react to H.W.’s future death, I think, will have a lot to say about whether or not the generation has its values in the right place. If they honor the President, and reflect on his legacy, we’re probably in a good place. If they jeer him as a warmonger or an unsympathetic racist or a neo-colonialist- three things he certainly wasn’t- we probably have a long ways to go.
But I hope there are maybe 50 or 60 young people out there, serving over in Afghanistan or South Korea, or pushing papers in a Capitol Hill legislative office, or debating their older peers in statehouses and city halls, or writing reports for obscure magazines and think-tanks, who hear of President Bush’s death, and weep inside. And I hope they then commit themselves to becoming public servants of his caliber- men and women, citizens of the 21st century United States of America, Millennials committed to duty, honor, country, regardless of whether their peers will follow them or not.
For if they do, then when the next Boston Tea Party or Fort Sumter or Stock Market Crash hits, they’ll be in positions of responsibility, ready to serve, ready to preserve, ready to reform. They’ll be the ones who, like President Bush, steward our troubled country from one great epoch to another. And because of their character and service- duty, honor, country- the American Dream will live on.
And maybe one of them will be wheeled out for Super Bowl 121, and inspire the next great Civic Generation.
[i] Meacham’s biography is entitled Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush, 2015.
[ii] Winograd and Hais’s main works on Millennial politics include Millennial Makeover: Myspace, Youtube, and the Future of American Politics, 2008, and Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, 2011.
[iii] McDougall’s book is entitled The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, 2017.
A few weeks ago I was scheming with some friends and contacts on the usual “how to save the state” topics, and something hit me. The California GOP “establishment” moderate types don’t really have much in the way of formal organization, grassroots or otherwise. Their numbers are clearly on the decline- evidenced most vividly by the Chad Mayes ouster a few weeks ago- and aside from fundraising networks, they don’t really appear to work together on many things.
Meanwhile, the conservative side of the California GOP is very, very well-organized at the grassroots level. I don’t know enough to be able to speak about the formal level or even most of the grassroots, but if the statewide network of Republican Assemblies hosted by the very conservative California Republican Assembly is any indicator, there are many more conservative Republican footsoldiers than there are establishmentarians ready to be mobilized.
I’ve interacted with the California Republican Assembly a few times- I went to their statewide convention in 2016 with my then-boss, Duf Sundheim (who, being the perceived moderate he is perceived to be, was not well-favored in the nomination votes for the CRA endorsement…) I’ve informally attended a bunch of events with the South Los Angeles-Inglewood Republican Assembly, the CRA’s lone outpost in heavily-Democratic South Central Los Angeles. SLAIRA even recruited me to run for the California State Assembly in the 59th District, and I believe I recall registering as a member of the CRA (however uncomfortably) for some institutional reason or other. My impression, generally, is that the CRA is very well-organized, very committed to a Goldwater-Reagan conception of conservative Republicanism, and if perhaps not influential in a voter mobilization sense, certainly influential in a checkmating, narrative-directing sort of sense. I don’t know how much it’s an organization politicians pay attention to versus how much it is a conduit for activism. But it’s there and it’s big.
Nothing similar exists on the moderate side of the Republican spectrum. Apparently there have been multiple attempts- the abandoned WordPress blog for one “Republican Leadership Council of California,” a defunct Facebook page for the “California Republican Reformers,” a no-longer-used Facebook page for the “California Republican League” – but nothing current. There is, perhaps, the fundraising organization New Majority; but that has a pretty steep entry fee, as I understand, and is not particularly wide-based or widespread. Nothing to complement and counter the CRA on the ground, and to help out Neel Kashkari, Pete Peterson, and Duf Sundheim in the endorsement pages and the precincts.
So, in my newfound tradition of writing wildly implausible proposals that just might work– what about filling that space with a moderate Republican grassroots organization, aimed at doing the same things the CRA does, but for Republican mainstreamers? And good heavens give it a good name, not the boring and undefined acronyms the others ones have had. (Nonetheless, I’ll use a boring and undefined acronym as a placeholder name here.)
The “California Reform Republican League” could be a statewide big-tent association and network of moderate, mainstream, and reformist Republican operatives and policy entrepreneurs, committed to a few primary goals:
-Reestablishing and reforming the Republican mainstream in California politics.
-Actively courting moderate Democrats and Independents/Decline-to-States into the CAGOP field.
-Supporting moderate, mainstream, and reformist Republican party officials and elected officials, both in their runs for party or elected office, and in maintaining their positions against Democrats and more conservative Republicans challengers.
It could serve a smattering of potential practical functions, similar in practice to what CRA types do:
-Maintain a statewide network of political operatives and policy entrepreneurs- legislative aides, campaign staff, consultants, journalists, policy researchers, etc.- that can be mobilized for particular short-term goals and achieve the CRRL’s three aforementioned long-term goals.
-Train new political operatives and policy entrepreneurs for specific and general purposes.
-Host a weekly CRRL newsletter and blog.
-Host an annual CRRL convention.
-Form a moderate caucus in State Legislature.
-Articulate particular strategic ends in terms of elections, ballot initiatives, changes to the CAGOP platform and bylaws, voter registration targets, fundraising, campaign messaging, etc.
I wrote up a prospective mission statement as well, highlighting these purposes and aims, and also highlighting the unique conditions that make California a potential place to tap into centrist discontent-
The California Republican Party has created great moderate public servants over the course of the last century, including two Presidents of the United States and numerous Governors and Senators. But in the last few decades, this moderate Republican tradition has faced significant decline statewide.
The mission of the California Reform Republican League is to reestablish, reform, and rebuild the moderate, mainstream, and reformist wings of the California Republican Party, in the interests of greater ideological diversity and policy dynamism within the CAGOP, and party expansion to moderate Democrats, Independents, Decline-to-States, and ethnic and geographic groups presently outside of the GOP fold. In the interests of building a California GOP more capable of challenging the ascendant, dominant, and increasingly liberal California Democratic Party, we believe it is important for California Republicans to look to new ways to rebuild and reform, and for moderate and reformist Republicans to organize themselves for political effectiveness.
So yeah. Perhaps not the most practical idea at the moment, given that the number of “fiery moderates” still working in GOP politics these days is probably much lower than would be needed to start a statewide effort of this magnitude.
But, best to keep your powder dry and your plans in your back pocket…
How I feel when I write “Notes on ________”
Let’s assume that my friend Jason Willick’s pessimism about American institutional and civic decay is overly bullish; that the staying power of American democracy will get us through our current identity crisis, even if we do get as close to low-grade civil war as we got in the late 1960s. Let’s assume, too, that the general contours of the American state we all know and cherish but don’t necessarily love, are durable enough to last through this storm, so much so that the basic calculus of American politics fluctuates only gradually over the course of the next few decades.
Big assumptions, I know. But for projection’s sake, let’s assume that we’re going to make it through this mess easily enough.
SOME TRENDS TO THINK ABOUT
First, some trends. Willick has noted time and time again that the constitutional system, ideological inertia, and geo-demography make it increasingly likely for the Republicans to maintain their lock on Congress and most of the state legislatures. And although Trump is President, Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, and John Judis and Ruy Texeira, have pointed out that we appear to be at the end of an era of one-party dominance of presidential politics (GOP 1968-2004) and at the cusp of another one (Dems 2008-20??) not dissimilar to such eras in decades and centuries past.
Look at those two political trends in two other lights- first, the culturally conservative and geographically disparate nature of the current Republican Party, and second, the culturally progressive and geographically concentrated nature of the current Democratic Party- and it becomes clear that there is something like a significant chance that the next decade, and quite likely the next few decades, will see the Obama years, rather than the Trump years, as the model: powerful Democratic Presidents from the elite social liberal wing, extending the power of the Administrative State against an obstructionist and reactionary Republican Congress and network of Republican state legislatures. Of course the Democrats will still maintain some congressional and state legislative seats and governorships, sometimes edging into the majority, and of course the Republicans will sometimes win the Presidency. But the norm to be expected ought to be the dystopia Joel Kotkin keeps painting and the reality Michael Lind keeps seeing: hyper-powered coastal oligarchic Democrats battling and trying to suppress boisterous inland reactionary populist Republicans.
The reality of American politics will of course be much more complex than that, having to do with the underlying coalitional shifts of the parties, class structure trends, the shifting waves of public opinion, and the personalities and whims of ambitious individual men and women, alongside the institutional powers of the parties and elite classes. And in this reality there will of course be huge roles for benign public servants in the civil service, for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans to temper their own parties’ extremisms and check the ruling parties in their states, and for moderates across the board in the middling levels of governance and civil society to reclaim a degree of sovereignty for the community.
This last point raises interesting questions. It should be assumed that if the Democrats find their main strength to be in controlling the Presidency, they’ll favor executive orders and regulatory edicts as their primary instruments of political power. If the Republicans find themselves consigned to Congress and the statehouses, they’ll of course argue for checks and balances and localism, with a passion they never did in the years their party generally controlled the White House.
There will be many interesting battles- unionists versus soft secessionists, cultural conservatives versus cultural progressives, globalists versus nativists versus internationalist nationalists, more- but one of the most interesting will probably be between coalitions of radical localists on the left and right, and radical centralists on the left and the right. The main fault line in this case, of course, would be control of the Presidency- the left will demand more sovereignty for blue urban cores and metropoles against the depredations of future Trumps, while the right will howl for states’ rights against the advances of future Obamas. Bipartisan and transpartisan thinking on localism, such as the type I’ve worked on with Joel Kotkin and Morley Winograd, will only increase in importance.
WHAT TO DO WHILE LOCKED OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE
If we do end up inhabiting an era where fiscally liberal and socially progressive Democrats control the Presidency, and thus the government, more often than not, and therefore can push forward a generally liberal, multicultural, big-government agenda for America (look at how far the New Deal advanced before the 1970s, and how far neoliberalism advanced before the 2010s!) one must beg the question- what are Republicans to do in the brief interregnums when they control the presidency?
The reasonable answer would seem to be, to do what Eisenhower did after the FDR presidency, and what Clinton did after the Reagan presidency: if the order is generally reasonable and just, and simply poorly administered and prone to excess, don’t bother building a new consensus- run the newly-established one better than the other side ever could. I despise many aspects of the left-liberalism of the Obama-Clinton Democrats and their certain successors, but I’m beginning to understand that making peace with that coalition, should it become dominant, and altering it from the inside, is probably more productive than the policy-free scorched-earth-ism of the Trump Presidency or, for that matter, what most other 2016 Republicans would’ve done. The union and the order beneath it is the most important thing; all political goals beneath that are secondary to the consensus that sustains our civilization.
If the order established is not reasonable and just, then it probably isn’t much of an order at all, and the majority of the American people probably aren’t buying into it. The founding of a new order is still necessary at that point, and it would be wise for a President Huntsman coming on the heels of a failed President Harris or President Newsom to depart from their follies as much as President Roosevelt departed from President Hoover (while of course taking what best can be taken from their experience.)
WHAT TO DO AS A BLUE-STATE REPUBLICAN OR RED-STATE DEMOCRAT
I mentioned earlier that there’d clearly be a big role for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans. Senator Jacob Javits argued very eloquently, in the 1960s, that parties need to be multi-regional and multi-factional, so that they don’t devolve into becoming purely ideological parties prone to witch-hunts and such. Everything I’ve written now assumes that the Republicans stay in their suburban rings and rural areas, while the Democrats remain cloistered in their urban citadels. Blue states become ever more blue, red states ever more red.
Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states can, ever so slowly, help moderate the parties by diversifying their constituencies and factional constellations. A Republican Party competitive in New York and California is clearly going to have to appeal to a broader coalition than Republican Parties in Texas and Iowa; same can be said of Democrats in Texas and Iowa versus in California and New York. Moreover, Republicans in blue cities and Democrats in rural areas and small towns have work to do on these issues, as well. Build up a fiscally liberal and socially moderate faction in the GOP, or a socially conservative and fiscally reformist faction among suburban Democrats, and you reduce the dogmatism of American politics, increasing its transactionalism. Pure transactionalism isn’t a good thing, but a little more of it nowadays, in these days of extremes, would be nice.
It’s not that moderation is important for its own sake. Rather, governance gets to be less a high-stakes winner-take-all game when the stakes are lowered a bit, which happens when officeholders are incentivized to compromise among multiple groups rather than tank successful bills to impress donors and activists. Distinct but muddier ideological coalitions in both parties would be welcome; and since that clearly is not coming on from a top-down intellectual strategy, it could be better achieved, perhaps, through a bottom-up electoral strategy.
TO THE FOURTH REPUBLIC
I’ve spilled too many pixels speculating what the fabled “Fourth Republic” will bring, and most of it’s been based on my own intellectual explorations and ideological preconceptions. I’ve realized, too late, that the contours of the next Republic are really not up to any group of intellectuals, and are more up to whoever the next Lincoln-like or FDR-like “Lawgiver” happens to be, and which circle of advisors influences him or her. And who that Lawgiver is, and what they’re able to do, is dependent largely on the complicated interplay of virtu and fortuna.
But there are some things that can be broadly prognosticated, I think. I have yet to publish my “Prolegomena to the Syncretic Theory of the Lawgivers” piece, which will be a historical interpretation explaining away what the hell I mean by “The Lawgivers,” and will document the complex historical “physics” at play in that theory. But for now, suffice it to say, in a nutshell: great, nation-shaping leaders synthesize multiple strains of thought as they forge civic ethoses and new institutions, and reactions to those institutions and ethoses shape subsequent movements and their strains of thought.
In the current iteration of this theory, Franklin Roosevelt synthesized some traditions from his own time, but mostly those of the generation before his- Woodrow Wilson’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, and William Jennings Bryan’s. These in turn gave us the institutions of the Third Republic, which is almost dead, whose walking corpse we inhabit. But the traditions the Third Republic housed- New Deal Liberalism, Modern Republicanism, Conservative Republicanism, Progressive Radicalism- as well as their late-20th-century children, all of which are somewhat more neoliberal and market-friendly- will be the traditions for the next great Lawgiver to synthesize into a new set of institutions.
I continue to think Modern Republicanism (which in some ways looks like the Democratic Third Way, and in other ways certainly does not) offers a healthy “Ike-Nixon-Ford” model of policy reform for the next Lawgiver, just as FDR’s main inspiration was Woodrow Wilson and Lincoln’s was Henry Clay. And if that’s the case, the next Lawgiver will be a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat- Jon Huntsman, maybe, or god help us, Martin O’Malley.
But then, this may be very, very wrong- while they certainly won’t be any further right than Huntsman, they may be significantly further left, given where the values of the Millennial generation tend to lie. I hesitate to believe that a staunchly progressive Democrat like Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom could inhabit the same historical stance as Lincoln or FDR- in fact, I don’t believe it- but then, they might have similar Lawgiver-like effects if they do attain not only the Presidency, but that role in history.
Still- in terms of being the kind of Lawgiver who can unite the country, I really don’t see any way for someone not in Huntsman’s or Lieberman’s or Kasich’s temperament to make it. But given the probable likelihood of Obama-like liberal Democrats holding and even dominating the Presidency between now and, say, 2047, it is not too far off to expect them to have their Lawgiver either.
Or maybe I’m just too tired to write all this and should go to sleep, and think more about historical physics after I’ve finished more of my actual work. I don’t know.
But I will be writing that “Prolegomena to the Syncretic Theory of the Lawgivers” soon enough. That’ll clear a lot of this up.
Chad Mayes, former Assembly Republican Caucus leader.
THE FALL OF MAYES
Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) was ousted from his leadership rank by his own caucus yesterday, as the fallout of his recent political maneuvering in favor of Cap-and-Trade legislation came to a close. The Politico California Playbook this morning noted that Shawn Steel and Harmeet Dhillon- respectively the CAGOP’s GOP National Committeeman and National Committeewoman- pushed hard for the ouster and were “instrumental” in bringing it about.
The Press-Enterprise has a helpful story on this front, looking at the different perspectives and dynamics at work in Mayes’s fall from grace. One of the interesting things noted in the article was that Mayes “voluntarily supported the move to make [Assemblyman Brian] Dahle his successor…” suggesting that Mr. Mayes had calculated, by the time of the vote, one of two things: either he was sure to lose the vote and should support an orderly transfer of power, or that he had concluded he could no longer maintain order and unity among the Assembly Republican Caucus, and would therefore be impotent as its leader.
The new caucus leader, Brian Dahle, looks reasonable at first glance, perhaps a Marco Rubio-esque figure- a moderate member of the respectable establishment, with reasonably moderate views, who nonetheless enjoys the support of conservatives because he is as of yet uncontaminated by unpalatable political choices.
But how long will Dahle’s leadership last? A look at the reasons Mayes’s caucus turned against him, and why California conservatives ranging from grassroots activists to state party officials unceremoniously chanted for his crucifixion, reveals Dahle to be almost as vulnerable as Mayes, perhaps a bit less so because he hails from a more rural Northern California county.
Mayes, in short, convinced seven other Assembly members to vote for a cap-and-trade compromise bill because he thought he’d be able to extract important concessions from the Democrats on other issues (the concept of linkage.) Moreover, I suspect Mayes believes that building goodwill with the dominant Democrats is really the only way to get any legislative work done, no matter how miniscule. He also purportedly focuses his speeches and efforts on issues like poverty and inequality, rather than on the cultural and social issues- abortion, immigration, gender, etc.- that the conservatives in the party prefer.
If Mayes was ousted because he worked with the “enemy,” betraying small-government principles, how much safer is Dahle? The Press-Enterprise story describes the new caucus leader as a “Mayes ally” who “knows how to work with both parties” and is “not at either left or right extremity…” Sound familiar?
I’m not predicting Dahle’s subsequent ouster, though- I suspect he’ll learn from Mayes’s experience, that the needs and passions of the caucus that elected you cannot be neglected even as you try to steer that caucus in new directions and towards new things. In politics, everything is about balancing competing responsibilities, not achieving particular goals or promoting particular principles (an eternal verity the conservatives don’t seem to understand. They should read their Aristotle.)
And unfortunately, that decision to stay in his position of responsibility by carefully pleasing conservatives and, perhaps, following his own political preferences, will render Assemblyman Dahle incapable of advancing the image of the CAGOP’s elected officials as a responsible governing alternative to the Democratic legislature. The GOP will remain rumpy unless and until the edifice the supermajority Democrats are building collapses under its own weight. And given these same Democrats’ stranglehold over the electoral system, it’s not clear that conservatives would have a path to power even then.
FACTIONS, FACTIONS, FACTIONS
The CAGOP basically has two coalitions or factions- the Kevin Faulconer socially liberal/fiscally conservative types, and the Tim Donnelly socially conservative/fiscally conservative types. This typology is somewhat misleading- there are, after all, many different kinds of conservatism and liberalism present in different factions of the CAGOP. Rural populists like Tim Donnelly are very different from Orange County doctrinaires like Travis Allen. (Their gubernatorial campaigns of 2014 and 2018 share the same insipidity and futility.) Bay Area suburban moderates are different from SoCal mayors and councilmen.
But generally, the dividing line is between the “establishment” and the “populists.” I argued that Kevin Faulconer’s recent “New California Republicans” speech was not objectionable from a moderate Republican’s point of view; but neither was it sufficient, from a political strategist’s point of view. The state party isn’t going to grow by merely governing San Diego well and attempting to transpose that model northward- the diverse regions of California require their own methods of governance, and replacing the CAGOP’s ascendant conservative populism with a moderate conservatism would likely not do much to expand outside of the suburban/urban regions. (I do think it’s more likely to grow with some version of this, though, than with the current strategy of doubling down on conservative principles and attempting to convert working-class ethnic minority populations to the Gospel of Reagan Christ.)
The chief goal of Republican politicos and politicians in California is simple- expand the party. Reach out to new groups of voters, and meet them where they are. Craft new messages. Court new interest groups. Run suicidal statewide gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns to test that crafting and courting. Show the voters- who are by-and-large moderate- that we’re sane. Break out of the shell and build a new coalition, based not on strict interpretations of our core principles but on looser ones. Only when we have power can we implement anything like our vision.
The goal is not to govern, currently, simply because we do not have large enough majorities to govern anywhere but in the San Diego Mayor’s office and in plenty of rural counties. (Though participating in compromise governance with the Democratic Legislature can, quite possibly, enhance our party’s image as a governing party, making us more palatable at a local and possibly statewide level.)
The goal cannot even be to block all Democratic initiatives, simply because the vast majority of them will not be blocked- the Democrats control and will control both the Governor’s mansion and the State Legislature. Better to use the pittance of influence we have to alter initiatives sufficiently to protect business and ease the cost of living on workers, push towards incremental pension and education reforms, and the like. (And yes, the cap-and-trade legislation actually raised the price on workers, but there were concessions like the removal of various property fees. I don’t know the details here- the point is that Mayes was governing pragmatically.)
And most importantly, better to use the bully pulpit of elected office- as Mayor Faulconer evidently is trying to do- to promote a Californian version of Republicanism capable of providing an alternative to the Democrat’s gaia-worshipping, social justice-obsessed, free-spending, irresponsible version of liberal progressivism made applicable by their sheer dominance politically in this state. Lose seats, show petty infighting rather than principled discourse of disagreement, and what little aura we have further erodes.
I’m not saying be moderate because being moderate is intrinsically a good thing (though as a Catholic and a student of the liberal-conservative tradition of thought, I do think moderation, temperance, prudence, is a good thing for its own sake.) I am saying that the California Republican Party will not expand and gain power and find the opportunity to preserve, maintain, and advance a better future for all Californians if it continues to insist on anti-taxation, anti-regulation, and immigrant-bashing as the main manifestations of its core principles. Limited government and law and order are not (at all!) bad things intrinsically, and there are very good reasons to support their advancement. But supporting them to the point of political inflexibility and political cannibalism is not productive either.
I don’t think the Schwarzenegger-Faulconer model of business is particularly effective either, given that it hasn’t succeeded in or even advanced the goal of building new Republican coalitions in this state. But I do think it’s onto something, and stronger efforts and better thinking on the part of the Republican establishment in this state can make a real difference.
Years ago, as I was just breaking into my political-writing and policy-research career, I chanced across Dr. Adam Garfinkle’s essay series “What’s Wrong and How to Fix It,” which began with a deep institutional investigation into the roots of American political dysfunction and concluded with a series of 10 policy fixes for various issue areas in contemporary politics. The whole boatload of essays was gathered together and published in EBook form by The American Interest. This was midway through the Obama Presidency, probably sometime in 2012 or 2013; Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party were going strong, but the contemporary waves of protests and political violence had yet to begin.
Dr. Garfinkle’s short treatise served as a springboard and crystallizer of my thought, and was the main impetus for me to organize and systematize my political philosophy. Given my general agreement with large sections of the series, and my ambitions as a writer, I took it upon myself to 1) reach out to Dr. Garfinkle for mentorship, then through inviting him to speak to the Political Student Assembly at USC and eventually through an internship at TAI, and 2) to start composing a little book, a manifesto of 21st Century Whiggery that would expand on Dr. Garfinkle’s insights and adapt them to a new political party, or something.
The second project largely failed, thank God. Manifestos are among the most boring kinds of political writing, useful though they are as an intellectual exercise for any young writer. I believe I have the draft of that damn piece of work lurking in my 2013-2014 email archives, but I’m scared to look at it. Anyhow, the first project- getting access to Dr. Garfinkle- was somewhat more successful, and I’ve chatted back and forth with him over the last few years since the USC event and my internship. (I get the impression he has better things to do than talk to college students, but I’m persistent anyway, perhaps to my own detriment.) Dr. Garfinkle has even generously published some of my work over at TAI, and I’m currently working on a long-overdue project for him, to format and prepare for publication a series of EBooks archiving TAI’s 2005-2015 essays. (How soon it’ll be done, with my propensity to grab every project I can and work on them all at once, no one knows…)
I mention this to preface the following passages I share from “What’s Wrong and How to Fix It.” This series of essays had a real and profound impact on my early intellectual development, imbuing in me the sensibility of a centrist reformer and inspiring me to think systematically outside of the most popular contemporary systems of thought. Dr. Garfinkle does this very, very well, probably better than most other intelligent thinkers, and I aspire to his level of sophistication.
God knows we need someone to do it, if not me. I share the following passages- basically the opening and the closing of the policy proposals part of the series- because of their continuing relevance a few years after their original publication. They are only more important, now, though, in the aftermath of Charlottesville and so many other divisive and murderous acts of political violence- because unless we can restore a leadership class with the proper temperament to govern this country and reform its institutions, any hope of building a more united national identity and promoting the development of social capital must effectively be lost.
I’m not saying the ten solutions Dr. Garfinkle proposes are the right policy platform for victory or even reform. But the whole spirit of this book is important. Dr. Garfinkle once told me that “everyone should run for President, sometime” as an intellectual exercise in informed citizenship. I think he was promoting political independence of thought in the form of individualized policy agendas for each of the 300 million new presidential candidates. But there’s another reason one should “run for President” with no serious intent.
That reason is that such an exercise and the mock-government activities associated with it- talking to voters who’ll never vote for you, commenting on great issues of state you’ll never influence, organizing pragmatically for a putative campaign you’ll never win- can, prospectively, train one in the necessary and fine arts of democratic citizenship and decency in public discourse, pragmatically and idealistically. And those, in today’s climate, are virtues we need in more people. This is a thought-exercise, of course- don’t take it as me literally suggesting we all run for the Presidency (as certain good friends of mine might interpret it and act upon it!)
But the background still stands. If we’re going to resolve the great ongoing and worsening national crisis that threatens to descend into a national nightmare, if we’re going to learn to live with each other in this great American experiment with sufficient harmony that we can agree at least to fix and renew our institutions, we’ll need statesmen and stateswomen with good habits and benign intentions. And Dr. Garfinkle’s passages below point out one way, I think, we can begin to approach that, short of actually setting up a mock presidential campaign.
Without further ado, here’s Dr. Garfinkle-
Now that the three groups of explanation for American political dysfunction have been laid out and their mutual connections sketched (in parts one, two and three), we can begin to discuss programmatic solutions for our problems. The ten proposals below represent “torque points” in American politics—places where positive change would resonate throughout our political culture. This is the only way to proceed, for disaggregated fixes for specific problems will never get far, given the plutocratic maw into which they will surely fall.
My ten proposals do not fall neatly into any conventional ideological category. I’m neither a registered Democrat (anymore) nor a registered Republican (never have been), and I have already suggested why: I don’t want to go back to 1965 or to 1925. But let me briefly restate my antipathy to both sets of party orthodoxy in somewhat different language before getting to my ten proposals.
The Left in this country, generally speaking, tends to excoriate corporations, even to disparage the profit motive itself, and to think of government as a proper vehicle not only for battling the depredations of capitalism but also for forcing on the nation the kinds of multicultural, politically correct social biases it likes. It has inculcated within itself the old countercultural notion of consciousness-raising, in which it presumes to know more about what’s good for you than you do. It is the self-appointed Robin Hood of our political soul, though its populist pretensions are belied by its elitist ways. The Left displays a blindness to the benefits of a non-distorted market economy, and an even more grievous blindness to the limits of what government can accomplish—especially a government that tries to do more than it should in what has become a misaligned Federal system.
The Right these days, generally speaking, tends to excoriate government, to dismiss the idea of an inclusive and fairly governed national community, and to blame those who are genuinely poor for their own poverty. Much of the Right, having regrettably abandoned its own Burkean heritage, sees through a crude Social Darwinist prism that acknowledges only individual judgment, ignoring the social context in which that judgment is seated.1 It is blind to plutocratic corruption and doesn’t see, either, the widening cultural gap between an isolated elite and those Americans who are falling out of an often recently won and still fragile middle-class status.2 It is particularly blind to the fact that a distorted market system dominated by large corporate oligarchies that deploy increasingly sophisticated advertising methodologies can be responsible for undermining both social trust and the founding virtues.3
Again, there’s no reason to choose between the problems caused by the public sector (a sclerotic, dysfunctional and wildly expensive government) and the problems caused by the private sector (a predatory corporate leadership class, and especially an increasingly powerful parasitic financial elite, that has become an extractive rather than a productive asset for the nation as a whole). Both problems exist, and both are getting worse.
Moreover, these problems are not really separate; they feed one another. Private sector abuses feed the appetite for government protection, but government is too dysfunctional to provide that protection; instead its efforts tend to harm small businesses that lack the arsenals of specialist lawyers and accountants that huge businesses use to evade government attempts to hem them in. You get a hint of this by looking at what the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have had in common, which is a fair bit more than either group likes to admit.
We need an active and bold Federal government for several key but discrete purposes beyond national security; but we can well do without the nanny-state soft despotism it otherwise drapes over our society. If we need a model, a hero from our past who epitomizes this combination, we have at least three to choose from: Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt—Federalist, Whig and Republican….
I emphasize a single principle, one that my TAI colleagues imply. This principle, I think, is central to the renewal of American government and American democracy: Government can and must act to increase American social capital or, as some call it, social trust. Existing Federal programs should be judged on the extent to which they at least do not destroy extant social capital residing in organic communal processes at local and state levels. They must, in other words, respect the principle of subsidiarity. New programs should be judged on their potential for enlarging social capital, of which we are in sore need as we face the relentlessly individuating influence of a range of new technologies. Unless we harness those technologies in the service of worthy social goals, they will likely tear us asunder, making us easy prey for both rent-seeking parasites at home and, in due course, possibly even ambitious adversaries abroad…
Some of my ten ideas are compatible with a “small is beautiful” or “government is the problem” ideological perspective. I affirm subsidiarity and the return of appropriate government authority from the Federal to state and local levels. But other of my ideas demand that government, including the Federal government, do more, not less. This may seem contradictory to small or rigid minds, but it isn’t contradictory at all to the sort of liberal, now evidently all but obsolete, who thinks that government’s role is to insure a level playing field and maximum feasible democratic participation where it matters most to citizens in their communities.
I am not for government “getting out of the way”, as libertarians would have it, but I am also not for government “getting in the way”, as when government doesn’t level the playing field but occupies, dominates and smothers it with social engineering schemes that never work as intended. The original 19th century liberalism tilted to the former impulse, postwar American liberalism toward the latter. I prefer the more balanced kind in between the extremes, the kind championed by the first Roosevelt. It is the balanced liberalism whose progressive goals need to be approached carefully, that is, with a conservative temperament: the “pave the way” approach, let’s call it. We tried the “get out the way” approach and it did not suffice; we tried the “get in the way” approach but now that tack is or ought to be exhausted. Goldilocks to the rescue: The “pave the way” approach is just right. We already have a model that works; it just needs to be retooled for the 21st century…
The larger point is that we will never be able to right our damaged political economy and our country with it unless we fix our political institutional frameworks, and we will never, ever be able to do that unless we confront and defeat the plutocratic menace that is stalking our country from, as Damon Runyon once put it an admittedly different context, dimple to duodenum.
That, above all, is what we need to fix. We’ve done it before and, while past achievement is no guarantee of future success, we can do it again. We have to try. To give in to despair is deadly. I, for one, am not yet ready to stick a fork into the American project.
Over at the recently-retired The Hamiltonian Republican blog, there’s been a lively debate over the nature of Hamiltonianism and what it means, how it is manifested, in 21st Century America. Those of us who still consider ourselves Hamiltonian Republicans will likely be continuing our debates and discussions on this subject over at the forthcoming The Millennial Republican blog. But for the sake of my own personal understanding of the subject, I’ll organize my thoughts here at ABiasedPerspective, and use the conclusions of this piece as a reference point in future articles.
So- what is a Hamiltonian Republican? In my view, there are three ways to define this tradition- and it is a tradition rather than an ideology or even a movement. The ways to define this tradition, though, should necessarily emphasize thinkers and statesmen, figures and movements, rather than principles, policy stances, or objectives. The principles, policy stances, and objectives should flow from an understanding of the thinkers and statesmen in the tradition- the other way ‘round would be reinterpreting the figures in the tradition, wrongly, as having held certain principles, policy stances, and objectives which they perhaps did not hold in reality.
The useful thing about defining Hamiltonianism and Hamiltonian Republicanism in a traditional, covenantal sense rather than in an ideological sense is that one thereby removes the temptation to construct an all-encompassing ideology or program that would necessarily grow rigid and unstable with time. By instead basing the system on a study of the lives, legacies, characters, intellects, and habits of mind of great individual thinkers and the movements they led, one can necessarily be more pragmatic and flexible in interpreting their ideas and applying them to the present day. One has the added benefit of having a wide panoply of historical figures to consult, as Machiavelli did, on issues and objectives that they, in a way, pursued in their own times.
Now, to some degree, any modern Hamiltonianism will be both an ideology and a reflection of personal prejudices and biases, and I am under no illusions that I am somehow the steward and gatekeeper of a lost mode of thought accessible only to myself. However, by emphasizing the traditional element of Hamiltonianism, I hope to be as true to the great men of old as possible, and honor their legacies by carrying them forth into the present age and our future glory.
THE THREE TRADITIONS OF HAMILTONIANISM
Back to the three ways to define the tradition.
THE APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION OF HAMILTONIANISM
First, there is what I call the “Apostolic Succession.” This is the most fruitful way because it is the only way encompassing the entirety of American history. It follows those political thinkers across American history who, generally speaking, supported an activist federal government, national consolidation under the Union, and a strong, industrially-based economy. Michael Lind details this tradition, which I adapt from him, in his great book “Hamilton’s Republic.”
There were pre-revolutionary colonial antecedents to the Hamiltonian tradition, but I don’t know enough about them to argue for them here. The American Revolution itself had its share of radicals and pragmatists, but I think it’s fair to say that John Adams and George Washington, perhaps Ben Franklin as well, and other statesmen and generals of that conflict represented the budding hope of a united national project in the postwar period. Upon the close of that conflict in 1783, and the failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, a new breed of Constitutionalist-Nationalists arose in support of the new Constitution of 1787. These, of course, included Alexander Hamilton himself, who would go on to loom large on the national scene for the next decade or so. The Federalist Era- the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, and the “prime ministership” of Alexander Hamilton- was a crucial era in which the Hamiltonian ethos of economic nationalism, unionism, federal activism, and foreign policy restraint was formed, in opposition to the Jeffersonian and Madisonian ethos of localism and idealism.
But Jefferson and Madison, upon assuming the Presidency successively, each became far more Hamiltonian in practice than they would’ve liked to admit. The left wing of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, led by young upstarts like Henry Clay, would eventually grow into the National Republican and Whig parties, which throughout the Antebellum would carry forth the Hamiltonian Federalist programs of national consolidation, economic activism, and foreign policy restraint in a more democratic guise.
I must confess that I am in many ways a stranger to the America between the presidency of Andrew Jackson and that of Abraham Lincoln, and then again a stranger to the America between the death of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and yet again a stranger to the America between the stroke of Woodrow Wilson and the ascendancy of Franklin Roosevelt. I have much study to do to correct my ignorance of large swathes of national history. That said, I will trace Hamiltonianism through these strange lands of time so far as is possible.
The Whigs, after the decline of the National Republicans, carried forth the Hamiltonian vision. Moreover, as the secession crisis beckoned, they fought to make compromises in the interests of the preservation of the union. After their implosion and the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, the Whigs’ ideas were carried forth in the Republican Party of John C. Fremont and Abraham Lincoln- and Abraham Lincoln, of course, would smash the pseudo-Jeffersonian slave lords in the crisis of the Civil War.
The Civil War in many ways allowed for the institutionalization of Hamiltonian ideas and principles into the American experiment. America would thenceforth be a united industrial union, characterized by a government willing to use its power. For most of the post-Civil War era, it was relatively laissez-faire on this regard, but with industrial conditions worsening by the turn of the century, ascendant President Theodore Roosevelt would spend the better part of a decade and a half reorienting American government and politics towards the activism that would characterize the later 20th Century.
After Roosevelt and the Progressive Republicans gave way to Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Democrats- semi-Hamiltonian progressives who used Hamiltonian means in the First World War- there was something of a lull in the tradition throughout the 1920s. But the election of Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, to the presidency, and his embarking on a vast program of economic development in industry and welfare, effectively caused the Hamiltonian tradition to jump parties. Throughout the New Deal and the Second World War, Hamiltonianism applied to midcentury conditions totally transformed the union and the American way of life. By war’s end, Republicans in their party’s centrist wing would adapt some of the principles of the New Deal Democrats, creating a new “Vital Center” in American politics.
The Vital Center of the Republican Party, in turn, would birth the great “Modern Republican” statesmen, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and to some degree, George H.W. Bush, the last of the GI Generation statesmen. The post-New Deal Democrats, meanwhile, would carry on the left wing of Hamiltonianism through the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. And the last generation of Hamiltonians- the first generation of Neoconservatives, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others- would ultimately rise to serve the Modern Republicans in the interests of reforming the reforms of the post-New Deal Democrats.
Between the elections of 1964 and 1972, lunatic social liberalism or reaction and various forms of fiscal conservatism overtook the main factions of either party, and by my measure, the end of the Gerald Ford Presidency in 1976 represented the last gasp of this age-old temperament as a dominating institutional force. There have been Hamiltonian statesmen since 1976, mostly in the foreign policy community, but overall their influence has waned and they have all but disappeared as the institutional forces in American politics they once were.
So there’s the Apostolic Succession of Hamiltonianism, replete with thinkers and statesmen and movements to commune with for insights on today’s problems. There are two other ways.
THE MIDCENTURY SYNTHESIS OF HAMILTONIANISM
Second is the Midcentury Synthesis- an observation and investigation, and ultimate dialectic fusion, of the thinking of four main groups of thinkers: the New Conservatives, the Old Neoconservatives, the Modern Republicans, and miscellaneous conservatively-tempered thinkers. A sophisticated study of the thoughts of these four groups sheds light on the issues of today, as the issues they studied are only a half-century removed from our own problems, sometimes less.
The New Conservatives were a group of poets and historians in the 1950s who opposed Bill Buckley’s Fusionist conservatism. They included such thinkers as Robert Nisbet, the poet Peter Viereck, and the historian-cum-political scientist Clinton Rossiter (all of whose available works are fascinating, erudite, and insightful.) Their primary contribution was the promotion of a Burkean “conservative liberalism” in an age of utopian liberalism and conservative-libertarian “Jacobinism.” Their temperament ought to inform Hamiltonians today.
The Old Neoconservatives can inform the policy side of things, particularly on domestic policy. Their left wing, encompassing such diverse and eclectic thinkers as Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and James Q. Wilson, generally brought a conservative Burkean temperament alongside a liberal Rooseveltian activism. Like Benjamin Disraeli, they were “Tory Men with Whig Measures.” Their work on welfare and regulatory-bureaucratic reform, on political economy, and on most issues of government provides an excellent model by which to promote social solidarity while making the administrative state more effective and efficient. (It is important to distinguish the Old Neoconservatives from the New Neoconservatives.)
Then there are the Modern Republicans- Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and to some degree George H.W. Bush, as well as midcentury figures like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton. They can offer guidance on the style of politics Hamiltonians would pursue- one of collaboration yet firm standing against extremes on either side, and an insistence on perpetual reform of established institutions. They can also offer much on the foreign policy front, as Ike, Nixon, and Bush are classically regarded as some of the most successful foreign policy statesmen in American history.
Finally, there’s a smattering of eclectic thinkers on various subjects, scattered across party lines and affiliated with various groups. The main ones I think of are Henry Kissinger, with his tragic view of history and realistic strategic temperament; James Burnham, whose neo-Marxist class analysis is second to none; Samuel P. Huntington, whose institutional analyses factoring in culture, history, and other elements surpass the thought of many other 20th Century political scientists; and Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian of Christian Realism and true moderation.
The synthesis of the thought and legacy of the New Conservatives, the Old Neoconservatives, the Modern Republicans, and these various other thinkers is the second tradition by which one can define contemporary Hamiltonianism and Hamiltonian Republicanism.
CONTEMPORARY SEMI-HAMILTONIAN THINKERS
Finally, there is the third way- the prospect of using contemporary thinkers and writers on politics who think along similar lines. In my view, the two great Hamiltonians today are Michael Lind- father of the modern use of the term itself- and Ross Douthat, the young New York Times columnist. A second tier might include the foreign affairs realist Robert D. Kaplan, the Reformicon or semi-Reformicon columnists Reihan Salam, Sam Tanenhaus, and David Frum, and the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice. These figures each, in their own way, apply certain methods of Hamiltonian thought to contemporary problems and debates. I might also add that the new journal American Affairs very brilliantly attempts to cover similar culturally conservative/economically nationalist ground, and Reformicons and the journal The American Interest sometimes cover it as well.
The main trick is to find those nationalists with a conservative temperament on cultural issues and a liberal temperament on fiscal and government issues. This itself encompasses a wide variety of thinkers, as any tradition must- but it is narrow enough to be distinguishable from either the Democratic or Republican establishments, and certainly from the left and right extremes.
It is also very distinguishable from Buckleyism or Fusionism, the standard consensus of conservatism these days, in that it is fiscally liberal and socially conservative in ways that National Review-style conservatism simply is not. I wrote the other day that aspiring Hamiltonian thinkers must hold their noses and work for the various fusionist factions- libertarians, neoconservatives- if they are to gain any kind of influence over the party, but it yet remains critical to understand the differences between the two movements, one decadent and the other nascent.
Anyhow, this is my interpretation of what Hamiltonianism means in the 21st Century. This is my view of what a new center-right movement ought to look like, and what a responsible Republican Party should promote. I’m not looking to build a new ideological coalition, propaganda machine, or mass movement so much as I am hoping that new generations of center-right elites- politicians, operators, intellectuals, funders, etc.- begin to look at things in ways more amenable to the Hamiltonian way.
The Alexander Hamilton Society, while perhaps not being explicitly Hamiltonian the way I’ve articulated here, nonetheless is doing something good in encouraging young center-right leaders to take on the label “Hamiltonian.” That may well be a start, but we need to go further. American Affairs can help, too, on that front.
This piece has explored the traditional, intellectual, and historical backgrounds to Hamiltonianism. It has explicitly avoided policy proposals and commentary on current issues, though I’ll probably turn to writing more of that in due time at The Millennial Republican. What it means to be a Hamiltonian Republican in the U.S. Department of State, or in the U.S. Congress, or in the California State Legislature, might be entirely different things, or similar things. I need to do some serious thought on application- Michael Lind and Ross Douthat will likely be my primary guides on that front.
So we’ll see. This should be interesting intellectual exploration, moving forward.
NOTE: This is not intended to be a polemical or even an analytic essay. It is rather a series of observations, realizations, and arguments about the current state of American political society, including attacks on those who think wrongly and attacks on myself for previously thinking wrongly. It is organized in the dying format of “Notes,” and intended to serve as a reference point for the author and for anyone curious.
I realize my takes on these contentious subjects will offend many, and am prepared to accept the consequences.
REALIZATIONS ON WHITE SUPREMACY
I make this admission publicly to acknowledge a certain species of my intellectual failures over the last several years, and partly to begin to reorient my thinking moving forward.
So: I was wrong about white supremacists. For a while, I had held to the notion that what remained of KKK-style groups and resurgent Neo-Nazis in America was confined to the fringes of public life. Sure, they have a vigorous online presence, and sure, candidate and then President Trump dogwhistled them into relevance again over the course of the last election. But they didn’t, in my view, warrant any kind of sustained attention, simply because they were a small group not capable of mobilizing towards anything significant. And the key thing I thought was that white supremacists did not influence the Republican Party to any significant degree.
And now an innocent woman is dead in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my young, not-fully-white sister is about to start going to college. Those two facts, when I realized them, made me start thinking on white supremacy again.
So back to my former assumptions. I was wrong on most of those counts, not because I was fed wrong data, but because I didn’t want to acknowledge the trends or connect the dots that should’ve been obvious that whole time. Commentators in the center with more liberal views than me, notably my contact Chris Ladd over at Political Orphans, have been warning for years about the resurgence of active white supremacy, with ample data to prove it. I only now realize they were right about the extent of the racial prejudice- not just resentment, but active prejudice and at times identitarianism- within an electorally significant portion of the GOP, and which percolates up into its lower layers and even all the way up to the very top.
So, the concessions (or, rather, the realizations, because I’m not conceding them: I’m realizing them.)
-Neo-Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists are not confined to the margins of public life, though they have (rightly) been shut out of the mainstream of public discourse. The reason they seem, to a standard member of the establishment like myself, to be a marginal group, is because they don’t have columnists at National Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post, or any reasonably mainstream publications. They’re confined to Breitbart and further right, further out; they don’t even speak openly on Fox News (though Fox News, like President Trump, dogwhistles to them all the time.)
-While a plurality or even a majority of Trump voters might well have been, like many members of my family, merely disgruntled conservative loyalists who liked Trump’s straight-talkin’ forwardness, or like the 2016 election trope of the culturally conservative white working-class voter who was tired of liberal elitism in social issues and neoliberal economic policy that destroyed high-wage jobs, the fact of the matter is that a large number of Trump’s voters- some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, it should be added- were and are active white supremacists pining for an older, whiter American bereft of its growing minority groups (of which I am partly a member.) In Trump they saw, rightly or not, the prospect of a return to that America through, realistic or not, deportation and immigration restriction, the repeal of racial preference and affirmative action policies, stricter crime policies, and a general denouncement of multiculturalism.
-These white supremacists are both formally and informally organized. The question of whether Voter ID laws in the Deep South are propelled partly or largely by racial animus among white voters is no longer a question for me. The question of whether the Right’s response to police shootings of young black men and crimes committed by illegal immigrants is motivated by similar racial animus is no longer a question, either. And it’s no question which party these people vote for. Nor is it a question of whether any of them are in local office, state legislative office, Congress, party positions, and other politically significant roles across American society, in every state. Of course they’re there, and that means there is indeed an element in the Republican Party that happens to be racially resentful, racially prejudiced, and racially identitarian.
-The violence we saw in Charlottesville, as many have opined, is not likely to be the last white supremacist violence we see this year or this epoch. My former boss, Adam Garfinkle, was perhaps overly pessimistic in his initial reaction comparing the America of 2017 to Weimar Germany’s lethal streetfighting and organized political violence by nonstate actors. But he was overall correct in noting the normalization of political violence- a trend he’s been writing eloquently about for some time- not only on the fringes of contemporary America, but even in the rhetoric of those in high office and high cultural positions.
Any Republican official or conservative commentator who does not realize the above four things, and factor them into their future statements and analyses of the national situation, is not necessarily complicit in the white supremacy in their own party, as many activists on the left would bellow they are. But any Republican official or conservative commentator who does not realize those above four things, is keeping their head in the sand like an ostrich, and willfully deluding themselves as to the nature of contemporary American life. If Julius Krein- founder of the American Affairs journal and one of President Trump’s most ardent, eloquent, and sophisticated intellectual apologists- could grasp the meaning of Charlottesville and change direction publicly, in the pages of the New York Times, then any center-right figure- save, perhaps, those responsible officials in the Trump Administration who are keeping the ship of state afloat, and would risk not only their jobs but their country’s safety if they spoke out against their boss- should be able to do the same. I’m beginning to think it’s a moral responsibility, at this point, if American conservatism is going to have a future.
Anyhow, moving forward, I’ll be keeping this in mind, especially when I write about nationalism, conservatism, traditionalism, colorblind racial policies and attitudes, and American heritage issues. I have my own opinions on each of these things, some of which I’ll elaborate further down the road; but it will always weigh on me, moving forward, to know that opinions and positions I’ve arrived at with no racial prejudice or resentment in my heart or mind, and that many of my fellow Americans have arrived at in a similarly racially benign way, are nonetheless shared by thousands or millions of Americans who are motivated by racial prejudice, the dark specter of white supremacy, and the evil violence that cannot fail to accompany those.
I could, I suppose, forsake my convictions out of disgust. But I think it’s more productive to simply be aware that unpalatable people share my views, and make sure I don’t inadvertently help them accomplish dark and sinister ends by pushing for my preferred policies and reforms. It’s a thin tightrope to walk, I’m sure- but in an age of resurgent white supremacy, it is the road anybody on the center-right must uncomfortably walk.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE BROADER STATE OF AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE
The responses to the Charlottesville murder and riots were generally intelligent, especially on the reformist center-right. Ross Douthat examined our nation’s domestic divisions, which cleave across multiple spheres of identity, and concluded that we’ll likely experience more low-level violence before anything significant happens. (He also noted that, for now, the violence of the late 1960s dwarfs anything in the mid-2010s.) My former colleague Jason Willick, who has been commenting very intelligently on liberal excess and conservative reaction for years now, penned a memorable passage worth quoting at length, on the slow decline of American mores on violence over the last few years:
“Yes, the 1990s saw race riots in Los Angeles and the bombing of Oklahoma City, but those took place against the backdrop of a competent government and a strong political consensus. Yes, there were the September 11 attacks, but those at least temporarily brought the country closer together.
We’ve had polarization and culture wars before. This is different. This feels different. Stretching back at least to Dylann Roof’s mass murder of black congregationalists in 2015, the country has been getting pushed closer and closer to the edge. The summer of 2016 saw the assassination of five police officers in Dallas by a black activist. Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate flirted with political violence over and over again. And since his election, the temperature has only been escalating. A Montana congressional candidate physically attacked a reporter. There have been campus riots against right-wing speakers, and clashes between Leftists and neo-Nazis on the streets of Sacramento and elsewhere. It was less than two months ago that an anti-Trump activist opened fire on a group of Republican Congressmen playing baseball in Alexandria.
The events in Charlottesville—in which a neo-Nazi ran down anti-racist protesters after a white supremacist march, killing at least one person and injuring many more—were distinctively hideous. The anti-civilizational fascists of the alt-right, no longer confined to marginal online forums, were out in force in a storied American town, maiming people on the streets. The President whom they openly admire (former Klansman David Duke praised him in an interview at the march) deliberately equivocated when given the opportunity to condemn them. Maybe he was egging them on, or maybe he is simply so narcissistic that he cannot distance himself from anyone who has offered loyalty. It doesn’t matter. Neo-Nazi blogs delighted at the President’s non-response. Fascists are emboldened. More on the far-Left will become convinced that racism cannot be fought adequately within the political system.”
But the events in Charlottesville weren’t the fault of many sides, as President Trump argued at the outset of the event. Again, Julius Krein, in his 180-degree rejection of President Trump, very correctly noted that “if Mr. Trump had been speaking about the overall political climate, he might have been right to say that ‘many sides’ are responsible for exacerbating social tensions. Yet during the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, only one side- a deranged white nationalist- was responsible for killing anyone. To equivocate about this fact is the height of irresponsibility.”
I fear we’re getting into a social blame game on the issue of domestic mass violence not dissimilar to the blame game we’re in on the issue of jihadi vs. white supremacist terrorism. (For those who don’t know, it’s the tendency, whenever there’s a mass shooting, for conservatives and liberals alike to hold their breath and commentary until the identity of the shooter is revealed. And when it is a white supremacist, as in the Dylan Roof attack in Charleston, the liberals bemoan the prevalence of white supremacist terrorism in America, while conservatives talk about the need for better mental health services. Meanwhile when it is a radical Islamist, as in the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the conservatives highlight the growing threat to the homeland of radical Islamism, while liberals argue that better gun control is the only solution. It’s really quite pathetic, and I’m getting to the point that whenever a mass shooting happens, I wonder who will score the points and make themselves look like jerks more.)
Anyhow, back to the social blame game- it should go as unspoken that when white supremacists rally, the conservative press tends to downplay its coverage of the instigators and their vile cause, while highlighting and vilifying the various breeds of counter-protestor- some of whom are indeed vile, like the Antifa types and other neo-Marxist revolutionary leftists. This is sheer apologism and it is absolutely wrong. Whereas, when anyone on the left rallies, but particularly when it’s over a racial issue, the liberal media will highlight only the peaceful nature of the main groups of protestors, while absolutely ignoring the very real riots and other violence being perpetrated by other members of the same protest. The Ferguson and Baltimore protests a few years back had their share of rioting, and it was absolute irresponsibility on the part of the liberal press to ignore or, worse, justify the wanton destruction of property and desecration of civic order.
But it’s not just a question of racial identity politics, white and otherwise, contributing to a decline in civic order (and before I’m accused of equivocating, let me say it- I am equivocating left and right, because as I will attempt to demonstrate below, the radical left in this country is every bit as guilty of ripping up the social fabric as the radical right, even though the radical left doesn’t happen to have blood on its hands from this last weekend.) It’s not just identity politics on their own- there are broader trends at play in American society in the hot, violent summer of 2017, and they need to be observed.
So: my former supervisor Damir Marusic wrote about this over at The American Interest better than most others have, so I’ll reference his piece here. Marusic absolutely shredded the contemporary diversity narrative and the ascent of postmodernism in political thinking, arguing that they’re incompatible with liberal democracy in any form. The emphasis on group identity over individual citizenship, the universal narrative of oppressor vs. oppressed in everything from political institutions to economic outcomes to “gender constructs” and everything between and beyond, so familiar to any skeptical attendee of any (post)modern university, the implication of perpetual struggle and perpetual revolution on the part of the “oppressed-“ this would seem to be a domain of the left and only of the left. But Marusic argues that this emphasis on particularistic identity, oppressed-ness by the powers that be, and the emphasis on struggle and overthrow equally characterizes the “alt-right” movement, alongside the radical racial separatist movements and gender movements on the left demanding so much recognition and booty from the common weal. It’s like Willick said so many months ago, (or rather, doesn’t appear to have said, but has certainly implied time and time again-) identity politics on the left breeds identity politics on the right. Identity politics among minorities breeds identity politics among the majority.
Identity politics, white or otherwise, spur more identity politics. Radical, revolutionary violence spurs more radical revolutionary violence. It’s a vicious cycle- and the center-right ignores it on the right at its own peril. The center-left ignores it on the left at its own peril, as well.
In probably the most provocative part of his piece, Marusic says that a President Hillary Clinton would’ve been, if perhaps not as bad as President Trump on the identity issue, still pretty darn bad. That’s because, as the ostrich-ized mainstream left has yet to admit to itself, the modern Democratic Party is organized much more explicitly along identity-politics lines than the Republican Party is. (The GOP just dogwhistles for racist white voters- the national Democratic Party website’s “People” section literally lists all the different ethnic groups the Democrats have special advocacy for. That’s the cut-and-dry definition of identity politics, folks, and it’s fully institutionalized on the cultural left.) So a second President Clinton, whatever her other virtues would have been (and relative centrism and temperance compared to Trump certainly would’ve been some of them) would’ve continued to slide along the current diversity narrative without offering up any meaningful narrative of national unity. And what we desperately, desperately need these days is a narrative of inclusive national unity- something the exclusivist right rejects, and the multicultural left cannot fathom.
But Marusic, who writes for a functionally center-right magazine, is not at all the only one making this point. The now-notorious Mark Lilla, a colorblind liberal if there ever was one and a Democrat seeking the best for the future of his party, was recently interviewed by Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative on his latest book, The Once and Future Liberal, and given that identity is a central focus of that book, Charlottesville of course came up.
The interview is worth reading in full, if for no other reason than that Lilla throws plenty of barbs in both directions and is more eloquent than I can ever be in describing the ills that face identitarian America. The basic point, though, is this- pre-Reaganite America emphasized communalism and solidarity, and great things were accomplished in the age between the Roosevelts and Gerald Ford, due largely to the emphasis on commonality, community, and mass democracy.
ON NATIONAL UNITY- ITS PROSPECTS AND ITS PROBLEMS
There are problems with the national unity narrative, of course. One of them is the fact that, as my old professor Ted McAllister says, “America is a conversation- not a creed.” That is, the definition of America is nebulous and diverse enough to inspire multiple, equally-valid ideas about it, and the same is true about American national identity. Anyone who’s read David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial work Albion’s Seed knows that Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Scots-Irish, and all their descendants, have equal justifiable claims on the appellation “the real Americans.” It is rather the interactions of these groups and more, especially including the innumerable immigrant groups whose journeys Michael Barone chronicles in Shaping Our Nation, that has formed the tumultuous and inspiring “conversation” that is America and Americanism. Anyone who has studied American history must, necessarily, concede that there is no unified American identity, never has been, and never will be. Apologies, Theodore Roosevelt.
That being said, the fact that we can’t put it into a neatly categorizable box doesn’t mean American identity doesn’t exist- simply that American identity is different from, say, the Chinese or German conceptions of national identity, and not only in the fact that Americanism includes a politically-ideological component about principles and truths. There are certain things that are American and certain things that are clearly not- certain tendencies, certain beliefs, certain lifestyles, certain habits of the heart and mind.
The problem with contemporary liberal culture, outside of thinkers like Lilla, is that it emphasizes the importance of cultural differences- the diversity or multiculturalism narrative- to the point that, as many liberals will say, “our diversity is our strength. Our diversity is what is American about America.” No it’s not- not by a longshot, on either count. Our diversity is a strength when we can find the common threads of unity beneath it, not when we push apart the components based on differences and intergroup competition. And though diversity- as mentioned, throughout our entire history, not just throughout our immigrants’ history- is indeed a component of Americanism, it is nowhere near the entirety of what is American about America.
The problem with contemporary conservative culture is that it defines American identity primarily in economic and ideological terms without looking to the cultural side of things; and when it does look to the cultural side of things, it is primarily in a majoritarian apple-pie sort of sense that is as banal as it is uncreative. One might say that the mainstream right sees pre-1960s America, plus Ronald Reagan, as American identity, while the mainstream left sees post-1960s America, plus perhaps the abolitionists and the progressives, as American identity. Both views leave out too much America, as Ross Douthat implied a while back.
The problem with contemporary alt-right culture- and there are too many to count- is that it relies on too exclusivistic a definition of American identity, and one that, in a wholly un-American twist, puts that identity in the blood and not in the heart and hands. I need not elaborate further on this. Meanwhile, the problem with contemporary revolutionary leftist culture- and there are still too many to count- is that it views Americanism as the source of most of the world’s ills, and wishes to deconstruct and destroy it entirely out of some form of warped universal justice.
Pick your poison, but I’m not satisfied with the arguments of the mainstream left or the decadent right, and no reasonable person and certainly no American patriot would accept or even consider the arguments of the alt-right or the revolutionary left.
No, I think one of the main causes of our social dysfunction today is precisely the fact that for the last half-century or so, the cultivation of standard melting-pot American pride has been driven from most of the public square and confined to the military and intelligence communities and certain civic groups like the American Legion, the Boy Scouts, and others. (Fareed Zakaria wrote today that the immediate condemnation by the five armed services chiefs of the Charlottesville riot and murder and the white supremacy it represents was indicative of the notions of honor and old-fashioned values held by the military community, alongside that community’s famed history of successfully integrating America’s diverse population into a powerful unified fighting force.)
As I’ll probably write in a piece eventually- there never has been, is not, and never will be a Rooseveltian unified American identity, a 100% Americanism fully colorblind and cultureblind in all ways. And there shouldn’t be- one of the great things about the American social fabric is the ability for so many different groups to live together in relative harmony, while the members of each hold complicated multiple identities revolving around the core identity as of American citizenship.
But to get to a healthy version of this mosaic-like pluralism revolving around shared heritage, you can’t just tell people to be proud of their ethnic and religious heritage and whatever else, and not tell them that they’re Americans as well (or, more accurately, you shouldn’t tell them that their American-ness is different from that of their fellow citizens of different races, which I believe is closer to what the contemporary diversity narrative does.) If you’re going to keep a nation as diverse intellectually, ethnically, and culturally as the United States of America together, you absolutely must have some kind of movement towards a common unity, even if you’ll never fully get there. You must have some shared notion among at least the elites who run the country and staff its major institutions, that they’re part of an American national project- membership in an international cosmopolitan project or a subnational ethnic project might be a part of that, but the primary orientation of the elite absolutely must be towards an American national project. And the population must see that the elite is working for the country first and foremost, and not for any of its particular groups or for any outside institutions, if the people are going to seriously trust that their leaders and their elites are looking out for them.
This movement towards unity, this emphasis on common citizenship even in its diverse manifestations, this cultivation of a common culture even if you’ll never fully get there, this general expectation of national loyalty despite divergent interpretations of what that nationhood means- this is Americanism, and it is neither fascist nor authoritarian. It is what the vast majority of successful American presidents have practiced, and what even the unsuccessful ones have attempted– George W. Bush, for example, did it very well in the aftermath of 9/11, if not so much over the duration of the Iraq War, and Barack Obama did it very well during his 2008 presidential campaign, though all traces of it were lost by his 2012 campaign.
And I should say again: the Pre-Trump GOP never figured out how to do this for a diverse, multiethnic nation. The Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton never bothered to figure out how to do it, figuring that diversity was its own reward. The Republican Party of Donald Trump has abandoned the project entirely and catered to white supremacists. None of this is healthy.
But we need it. If we’re going to keep this national bad dream from becoming a national nightmare, and if we fail and need to escape a yet-unrealized national nightmare, we need to find some kind of consensus on what the hell all 320 millions of us are doing together in this damn American project. I fear, with many others who also try to look beyond the nose of our particular partisan prejudices and towards the future state of the country a few years’ hence, that it might already be too late. But I’m not willing to stick a fork in just yet.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS AND TROUBLING QUESTIONS
I’ve discussed a lot in these notes, covering too much ground for a coherent essay (hence why I’m not publishing it as a polemical or analytic argument.) There’s a few miscellaneous things I need to cover, that will take us back to the beginning of these notes.
I have a question I ask my politically-oriented friends hyperbolically, when they say they are true centrists, true moderates, true wonks, or something of that nature. I ask them, “if you were forced to pick a side to be in coalition with- not join them, but vote alongside them- would you rather have it said that you had Klansmen in your coalition, or Communists in your coalition?”
Now, this is a somewhat unfair question given its hyperbolic nature. It’s also an unfair question given history- after all, President Franklin D. Roosevelt somehow managed to stuff BOTH Klansman Southern Democrats AND Communist Northern Progressive Democrats into THE SAME New Deal coalition (and he was neither!) But it is, I think, a revealing thing. Some people- mostly on the right- would rather be with racists than with totalitarians. Many others- most socially liberal, antiracist Millennials- would rather side with totalitarians than racists (though I don’t think many are familiar with the very real evils of applied Communism, simply because it never made its way to American shores.) In any case, it’s very often an easy answer for the people I ask- they’ll say Communists right off the bat. Communists might have killed a lot of people, but hey- they didn’t target them for their race, did they?
It’s a harder question for me. I do, actually, think that there’s something like a moral equivalency between left-totalitarianism and right-reactionary race supremacy. That’s not just because I’m more aware of Stalinist and Maoist excesses than my lefty friends; that’s out of an analysis of the social evils of both movements, and the intellectual and cultural currents that led both to commit the deeds they did.
I don’t know if I’d rather be lumped with Communists or Klansmen in coalition. For many, that makes me morally bankrupt already- it is so clear to them that racism is the greatest evil, or that totalitarianism is the greatest evil, that any other choice is tantamount to either tacit endorsement or moral cowardice. I’m just not so sure.
But how about another question- suppose everything were to go as badly as it could go over the next decade, and we in America were to find ourselves involved in a domestic conflict a little bit worse than low-scale civil war- that is, mass violence in the streets, legitimate political factions backing that violence, and a threat to the institutions and integrity of the state by one of those groups. Suppose, too, as seems likely, that the factions were roughly the alt-right on one side, and the alt-left on the other- Klansmen and Neo-Nazis versus revolutionary Marxists and Antifa black-masks. Suppose there were centrist, pro-compromise moderates like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, perhaps this time Jon Huntsman and Joe Lieberman, like there were the last time this happened- but that they’re again taking different sides and affiliating themselves reluctantly with different radicalisms. Which side would you fight for?
This question is less difficult for me. I would side, of course, with whichever side was for the preservation of the Union, the Anti-Secessionists. I would fight my hardest to keep the Union whole and not in parts, and I would reluctantly side with whatever one-time allies were also fighting for that goal, be they interested in destroying capitalist civilization or be they interested in subjugating people of other races. It goes unspoken that this would taint my conscience and implicate me in great evils by association, be they totalitarian evils or racist evils. (A statesman must love his country more than his own soul– and the preservation of a unified American nation-state is a cause I would fight and die for.)
This is because, as I have argued before, the existence of a unified and centrally-governed American nation-state in the middle third of North America is a great moral cause in itself- for that political order, and the stability and prosperity made possible by it, protect the American people from international wars against each other, from foreign domination by outside powers, and from tyranny by petty local oligarchs and usurpers. (Just read Alexander Hamilton’s first few Federalist Papers to see why that abolitionist was willing to form a union together with slave lords- it’s a lesser-evil kind of thing.) Furthermore, the existence of American power or superpower in North America, on the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, opens up the opportunity that American sea power can check Eurasian land power and preclude the domination of much of the world by a perhaps less-benign sovereign in Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, or elsewhere. There are significant implications for world order that a post-superpower American Civil War would open up.
And again- of course it would be a great moral evil to side with totalitarians, and of course it would be a great moral evil to side with racists. But given the hyperbolic nature of the thought experiment, there’s no way out of this question that doesn’t end in a “gotcha” soundbite.
I hope the stakes of this moment in summer 2017 are clear, then. I don’t want to have to make the choice to side with racists against totalitarians or with totalitarians against racists. I have dedicated my life and career to becoming as much of an Alexander Hamilton or a Henry Clay as possible, a public servant working to preserve our union and make it great, and I will fight and write to keep us from getting further towards the point of dissension and dissolution. But god forbid, should we ever come to that point, I know where I’ll stand.
This leads to a final question worth pondering. I noted earlier that some believe racism to be the worst of evils, and the thing that must be fought at all costs, the demon against which no sacrifice is too great. There certainly is great reasoning for this; racism dehumanizes people for the meagerist of reasons, and when it is institutionalized it is near impossible to correct the myriad injustices flowing from it. Of all the great social and political evils, racism certainly ranks near the worst.
But is it the worst? Is racism the greatest evil, the one great demon against which no sacrifice is too great? Is nothing worse than racism?
I think it’s clear that most on America’s left would argue that it is, indeed. They would point to any number of incidents and trends, they would cite Jefferson or Rawls or Ta-Nehisi Coates, they would passionately argue that the social tyranny of “free” people oppressing those of different races, the reality of half of America before Lincoln freed the slaves, was the darkest time in the history of the world, not least because of the hypocrisy it represented in our identity as a people.
They have a powerful argument, one I would not attempt to alter or defeat, and one which must be present in every American conscience- especially after Charlottesville- because it highlights the great sin of American identity, the racism inherent in our founding and expansion.
Yet, it still seems somewhat shortsighted to me. It only covers the American experience; it does not cover the whole of the human experience which must be examined, as well.
I can think of two other evils that, in my book, are greater than racism. The first is totalitarianism, not only that of the Communists and Fascists and old Monarchists and Theocrats, but that of any regime that seeks total control over the lives of its people in all aspects- thus the republicanism of the Jacobins fits this category, and the slave lords of the American South were certainly totalitarian in their power over their slaves. The labor movement, too, can credibly say that the great industrial capitalists of the last two centuries were totalitarians of a sort, though this is a far-extended argument that I don’t believe holds up to philosophical and empirical scrutiny.
Totalitarianism removes human freedom in entirety, and even if it is purported to advance a particular social ideal, it is entirely bankrupt as a political system or as the result of any ideological mode of thinking. And its close relationship to utopianism- a fallacy, one might say a heresy, which free-thinking people under free constitutions embrace far more often than is comfortable- means that totalitarianism is always a little bit closer to the human condition and thus to earthly realization than anyone would like to admit.
But there is another, greater evil, an evil worse even than the imposition of totalitarian tyranny. Hobbes thought that that evil was death; but as Clinton Rossiter argued, Alexander Hamilton thought that that evil was anarchy- the Hydra anarchy, for freedom is equally expunged in the war of all against all, and the natural, necessary remedy to anarchy is typically a temporary tyranny that is always in danger of falling into despotic totalitarianism. Moreover, anarchy is far closer to realization at any given time than totalitarianism, given the fragile nature of order and stability in human affairs. And finally, if we are to accept with Thomas Aquinas that there is a natural order to things, then political anarchy is a crime against the way things are supposed to be, even if anarchy does characterize whatever “state of nature” exists. It simply is the worst state human beings can exist in, and thus Hamilton and I seek flexible order wherever, whenever, and by whatever means possible, as did Aeneas.
I’m not sure all on the modern American left would agree that totalitarianism and anarchy are worse evils than institutional racism. I’m certainly sure the modern right would agree that totalitarianism is a greater evil, but it’d quibble over the definition of anarchy and whether anarchy is worse than totalitarianism.
In any case, the question of racism as the greatest evil is still one I must ponder- after all, my own existence as a half-white half-Asian child would have been outlawed in some places a century ago, and the descriptive effective of racism are far more visible in America today than either totalitarianism or anarchy.
But there are no easy answers. That’s why we must ponder. I just need to come to conclusions soon enough- the pace of events nationwide and worldwide is quickening, and people who will make a difference need at least a basic idea of what they think.
As anyone who knows me or follows this blog can attest, I am an idiosyncratic thinker (like my great influences Michael Lind and Ross Douthat, among others.) I remain a Republican because I know to forfeit that title is to forfeit any influence over any political debates, because for better or for worse, no one really listens to Independents or Third Partiers.
However, despite that once-begrudging decision of practicality, I’ve hitherto made a point of loudly protesting it and bemoaning my circumstances routinely. I’ve made a showy spectacle out of my multiple failed attempts to cobble together a “new movement,” none of which ever went past the blogging stage. I’ve written piece after piece after piece decrying the stagnation of the Republican Party and conservative movement’s intellectual apparatus, and have always remained on the sidelines of any real influence over anything.
I don’t reject any of the views and perspectives that have led me to make these decisions, but I’ve recently realized something important that will probably shape a lot of my decisions moving forward. And that is this: the game of politics exists, and has its own rules about playing. We can stand on the sidelines and stay pure, or we can get in to play and de-purify our thoughts, but we can’t change the rules of that game (no matter how much revolutionaries in every age want to.) At a certain point, in politics, one must work with people and organizations one disagrees with on fundamental issues, in order to accomplish what might be practical (and, it must be noted, in line with one’s original principles.)
I certainly haven’t been a paragon of prudence in this regard, having made various decisions in recent years that go against this ethos. (I stand by those decisions, but acknowledge my hypocrisy, which is the proper way to deal with what hypocrisy can’t be avoided or corrected.) But I’m slowly realizing that such a strategy is the right strategy for any trite “practical idealist” who wants to get into public life and make real change. I need only look at two people I look up to, both policy thinkers with significant influence on the center-right.
TWO INFLUENTIAL INTELLECTUALS
First off, Joel Kotkin, my employer and one of my early intellectual and professional influences. A respected and, in some quarters, despised scholar and journalist of urban planning and demographics, Kotkin writes frequent reports and weekly or biweekly columns on various issues from a center-right perspective, with a strong emphasis on class struggles and issues. He’s developed a lot of interesting ideas on urbanity and suburbanism, the status of families in late modernity, and contemporary manifestations of the class struggle. A former Democrat, he’s often found in conservative and libertarian institutions and footnotes. Libertarians in particular love his emphasis on decentralization and the quantitative skills he brings to classic libertarian arguments.
But Joel Kotkin is not a libertarian.
Second off, Robert D. Kaplan, great journalist and geopolitical analyst and a thinker I’ve had the honor of speaking with a few times. A respected and, in some quarters, despised strategist and international affairs analyst, Kaplan writes books every year or two melding literature, IR theory, history, and various trends in military, political, and economic analysis, with a strong emphasis on conceptual geopolitics and the tragic view of history and human affairs. He’s developed ideas on, and called attention to, practical theories of geopolitics and great-power competition, and is hard to pin down ideologically. He tends to populate hawkish center-right circles, including among thinkers associated with neoconservatism, who in turn appreciate his analysis of the enduring nature of conflict in human affairs. Neoconservatives tend to cite his arguments on the need for strength in foreign policy and the persistence of great-power rivalry.
But Robert D. Kaplan is not a neoconservative.
Kaplan is respected and influential among the neoconservatives whose views and policies he has at times written against, while Kotkin is respected and influential among the libertarians whose views and policies he has in turn written against. Why is this? Why are these thinkers whose instincts differ from those of the circles they inhabit so influential among them?
I’d have to interview either of them on this, but I suspect it’s because Kotkin and Kaplan both realize that in order to hold influence over center-right domestic or foreign policy, they need intellectual capital among the intellectual groups popular on the center-right. And they probably realize that despite their disagreements they might individually have with thinkers in those spheres, there is enough commonality that it is worth their time to cash in their chips with the dominant intellectual factions dominating Republican foreign and domestic policy.
And they maintain their intellectual individuality while working with people they disagree with, perhaps becoming even more respected because those who consult them know that they aren’t mere lock-step yes-men who will parrot neoconservative or libertarian ideological screeds when prompted.
As such, Kotkin and Kaplan are some of the most innovative thinkers on the center-right. They are in the center-right intellectual sphere, without necessarily being of it. And in the contemporary GOP apparatus- which, incidentally, looks very much like the Pre-Trump GOP apparatus- that kind of flexibility to work with those you disagree with for the sake of higher ends is important.
WHY IT MATTERS NOW FOR YOUNG CENTER-RIGHT THINKERS
Now, back when Trump won the Presidency, I published on my blog two essays I had planned to publish “when” Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. That didn’t happen, but so I argued, the analysis I had developed up until November 8th, 2016, was still valid.
Looking back, I’m not so sure. I certainly think I was right that there were and remain growing factions in the GOP willing to buck conservative orthodoxy, but I no longer am convinced that they are or ever were a major force that could be harnessed towards intellectual policy reformations.
For all intents and purposes, the American Enterprise Institute remains the primary institution of elite conservatism, and the Heritage Foundation remains the primary institution of grassroots conservative populism. When Congressional Republicans, none of whom are really “Trumpists,” want policy, they ask AEI. When the Trump Administration wants policy, it recycles Heritage’s ideas. This was more or less true before the election, and remains true now. The Reformicons over at the Conservative Reform Network are maybe a little bit more influential, and the “softer, gentler Trumpism” types over at the new journal American Affairs are a little bit more well-known; but these two sides of center-right reformation are going nowhere fast. The old guard of conservative policymaking, centered around the three stools of social conservatism, economic libertarianism, and foreign policy neoconservatism, continues to define policymaking and policy-thinking on the center-right, and hence in the Republican Party.
I did not foresee this. With so many mentors and fellow travelers of mine, I thought the 2016 election would be the tsunami sweeping the decadent shell of “Conservatism, Inc.” out to sea. But the institutional heft of AEI, the Manhattan Institute, and friends, as well as the staying habits of mind that have informed Buckleyite conservatism for generations, proved too strong for the semi-cataclysm of the Trump Presidency to break. I’m usually wrong when I make predictions, but I’d bet that the old tri-stool of conservatism remains the main force on the center-right, regardless of how effectively Julius Krein and Pappin Gladden run American Affairs.
So, there’s a couple of potential routes for young centrist Republican reformers. We could cash in our chips with the faction most amenable to our personal opinions, and fight to influence the future of, say, the Cato Institute, or the Conservative Reform Network, or American Affairs, or the American Enterprise Institute, or whichever center-right faction stimulates our personal fancies.
The main alternative is to ingratiate ourselves in the power structure of the AEI-style libertarian neoconservatives, and work to gain respectability among the people who actually hold power- as decentralist Joel Kotkin has done among libertarians, and realist Robert D. Kaplan has done among neoconservatives. This would entail working for neoconservatives and libertarians, or working for people who work for them.
Some combination of these two routes is probably best- affiliate with like-minded thinkers, to maintain fidelity to your own principles and further develop your ideas; but simultaneously be willing to work with the heretics and barbarians of other intellectual heritages and conclusions, for the sake of having your own ideas have some kind of influence over policy and perhaps shifting the debate ever so slowly to something you can find more to like in.
I think that third way is really the only way forward. In the long term, it may be that neoconservatism and libertarianism are in relative decline. But that’s the long term- in the short term (that is to say, the “policy-relevant” term,) neoconservatives and libertarians do still control the levers of power and the outlets of discourse in intellectual conservatism. The National Interest and The American Conservative might be more correct than National Review, but more people read National Review. Best not to burn bridges with those who control the debate, and instead be as the chameleon- capable of sliding between different groups, in all but of only the one you choose.
I don’t particularly like libertarians or neoconservatives, as it should be clear already. I’ve tried the whole start-a-movement, start-a-think-tank, start-a-blog thing, and as most people who’ve succeeded in founding think tanks and blogs professionally can attest to, the progress in that field is always slow and confined to particular issues rather than general worldviews. If you’re looking for a personal rather than institutionalized influence on public discourse and want more real results over a broader field of policy, I think it’s probably better to hold your nose and debate with and advise the movements that actually have influence over elected officials, donors, and bureaucrats- because competing directly with those movements over said influence is certainly only going to end in defeat.
Fortunately in my case (and I’d advise my fellow Hamiltonian Republicans to follow this same route) I already do some work for libertarians through Joel Kotkin, and have been in various gigs working for neoconservatives through The American Interest and The John Hay Initiative. It’s uncomfortable, sure- but it bears the fruit of knowing that people will actually read and think about your work. It also tempers you to political-intellectual reality, steeling you to the language of modern power-brokers so that you can learn that language and speak it to powerful people in time.
And you can always keep your own intellectual eccentricity and speak it bluntly under the proper circumstances- nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with fighting for it, either. But you need to fight for it strategically, rather than in a direct, head-on, “Stand for what you think is right and block the streets” kind of way.
I’ll give two examples. First, look at the various protest movements on the left, and how successful they are at doing anything other than calling attention to particular issues. They’re inept at anything else.
Second, look at the various “goo-goo” reformist movements- The Independent Voter Project, The Centrist Project, all the major and minor third parties, No Labels, etc.- and think about them. Just think about them.
Where are the results?
I hate to say this, because I was once involved in No Labels, and count as personal contacts several members of the Centrist Project’s board and staff. But frankly, they’re not going to get anywhere, no matter how much they advocate for reasonableness and political independence of the major factions and technocratic focus on public-interest problem-solving, because they all fundamentally break too many of the aforementioned rules of playing the political game. If you don’t pick an important side, you won’t get anywhere. (One of these days I might write a comprehensive list of the problems I find with the Centrist Project, but that is a piece for another day.)
But I was just as impotent when I was working on The Hamiltonian Republican and The New Hamiltonian and The Progressive Republican League. I’m none to throw stones.
WHAT TO DO MOVING FORWARD
In any case, I hope I’ve learned, and moving forward, though I will still prefer to work for thinkers closer to my views, and eschew working with the dogmatic purists whose views I simply cannot find any commonality with, I’ll probably make a point of being more open to working for, say, the neoconservative thinkers at the Alexander Hamilton Society, or the libertarian thinkers whose donations fund the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. They’re the team I’ve chosen; I’ll be better off working with them than not working with them, and perhaps I can influence them closer to Hamiltonian foreign policy and economics. We shall see.
But given that Joel Kotkin and Robert D. Kaplan have been my career models for quite some time, I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that they are this pragmatic and that I should emulate their pragmatism.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego
Shortly after I published my outline for a report on future Inland Empire Republican revivals, I opened up Carla Marinucci’s Politico California Playbook a few days past, and discovered that Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego has been thinking, as well, on the future of the California Republican Party. The Mayor of America’s Finest City delivered a speech on Tuesday, August 15th (full transcript here) to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco entitled “The New California Republicans.” He addressed various issues facing the state and called for a pragmatic and reformist California GOP to overcome odious national forces- he named no names- and balance the California Democrats.
After reading the transcript of the speech, I had some thoughts, which I deliver here in the dying format of “Notes.”
FACTIONS OF THE CONTEMPORARY CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN PARTY
One– the California Republican Party in the 2nd Jerry Brown Era basically has two factions. These are the “Jon Fleischmann” conservative populists, who embrace the residents of both well-to-do suburbs and rural counties and count among them both candidates for Governor of California this cycle, John Cox and Travis Allen, as well as former gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly; and the “Charles Munger Jr.” moderate conservatives, who are clustered in upper-class suburbs around the state’s metropoles, and include most of the party’s establishment and leadership, including former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, presently embattled Assembly leader Chad Mayes, and former statewide candidates like Duf Sundheim, Pete Peterson, and David Hadley (full disclosure: the author worked for Duf Sundheim’s 2016 U.S. Senate campaign and greatly respects Peterson and Hadley.)
One could argue, and I do, that exposure to power and responsibility causes former Fleischmann activist types to evolve into statesmanlike Pete Wilson figures (though I hope never to see certain activists exposed to real power, for everybody’s sake!) But for better or for worse, the Fleischmanns control the dialogue and activism and the Mungers control the money and levers in the party. That results in a dangerously unstable alliance that often results in political cannibalism, as Assemblyman Mayes is experiencing at the moment. Both factions need each other, but the greatly outnumbered Munger establishment needs the Fleischmann activists less in terms of getting stuff done, and more in terms of staying in power. And to everybody’s circular, spiraling detriment, the establishment is presently unable to keep the loyalty of the activists sufficiently to expand the GOP’s power base in the state.
Which leads us to part two: Mayor Faulconer and his speech.
WHY MAYOR FAULCONER’S VISION IS INSUFFICIENT
Two– Mayor Kevin Faulconer is the epitome of the Republican establishment in California. Smart, suave, relatively bipartisan, and ostensibly a public servant rather than an ambitious climber, he could literally be Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s benign twin. And his speech- technocratic, focused on centrist principles, aspirational towards policy success rather than political victory- reflected his persona and standing immensely.
As a standard run-of-the-mill social moderate-liberal and fiscal conservative, Mayor Faulconer is the darling of California’s Republican elites, and reportedly an individual who the donor Charles Munger Jr. has repeatedly attempted to recruit into a Senatorial or Gubernatorial run. His speech, again, reflected the purported moderation, bipartisanship, and reformism the Mayor hopes to inject into California politics. His five points were a libertarian social ethos, an openness for immigrants, a conservative environmentalism, a turn away from national problems and towards Californian problems, and an emphasis on fiscal and bureaucratic reform at every level in California politics.
I don’t disagree with any of these stances in particular, and as mentioned before, I’ve associated in the past and continue to associate myself with California Republicans whose instincts incline towards these views. So in general terms, I don’t necessarily think any of these stances are bad steps. I do, however, think they are each and altogether insufficient to get us to the kinds of reform the California Republican Party desperately needs to reclaim relevance.
Yes, yes- Mayor Faulconer is the only prominent Republican in the state in the post-Schwarzenegger years. Clearly his model has succeeded, at least in a certain part of California. Any alternative model I could propose doesn’t have the backing of empirical political success, and is thus on the low ground. This all being said, I still find problems with the Munger-Faulconer approach that need to be acknowledged.
First off, we’ve seen this tried before. Faulconer’s model of social moderation/government reform/fiscal conservatism was basically the gist of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial instincts, and Governor Schwarzenegger’s post-2010 public advocacy. Perhaps the Governator was simply the wrong vehicle for these reforms, being an actor rather than a politician. But I think it goes deeper than that- the fact of the matter is, this kind of incrementalism just doesn’t seem bold enough to either sustain the passion and hearts of the millions of California voters needed to constitute a movement, or to actually push for reforms sufficient to resolve California’s pressing problems. I don’t necessarily think an “alternative vision” of the state is feasible or healthy, especially given the reactionary sorts of polity many far-right Republicans envision; but Bill Buckley’s critique of the Rockefeller Republicans, however loathe I am to admit it, still stands: me-too-ism really sucks as an opposition party’s credo.
Second off, the current model of governance for the state is going haywire, and simply trying to run our current model a little bit better is like patching holes in a boat with duct tape. The fiscal problems, which are very real, will be imposing constraints on our ability to fund basic infrastructure and basic human services in the coming years, and even if you’re not one of these fiscal conservatives who treats budget aesthetics as something like a political religion, anyone should be able to acknowledge the need for any polity to pay its debts. Then go ahead and add the standard raft of non-pension still-blue problems blue states and cities across America face- infrastructure overruns, shoddy delivery of healthcare and welfare services, education second to most and third to some, overweening regulatory costs doing terrible things to the housing market and energy supplies, misguided distractory crusades towards 100% green energy and 0% social prejudice, etc. etc. etc.- and you start to get an idea of why Los Angeles municipal voter participation is in the single digits. Perhaps I am overly dire- I do, after all, work for the noted firebrand Joel Kotkin as a research assistant, and a lot of his thought seeps into me- but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that reforms in governance beyond just charter schools and fiscal restraints are important these days.
Three, and this is probably the most “policy-relevant” critique I have- there just isn’t a constituency for Faulconer-Munger technocracy big enough to win statewide offices or legislative parity, let alone majorities. If there were, Republicans would control more than just one L.A. City Council District, and would probably have a few more big-city mayorships outside Southern California. We also probably wouldn’t have ceded the Dems a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, and we probably would’ve gotten a socially-liberal/fiscally-conservative Republican into the Top Two Primary System for the 2016 Senate race. In other words, socially liberal/fiscally conservative masses of California voters would’ve voted some of their own into office, if they really were a big enough faction to do anything of significance politically in the state. But they’re not.
CONTOURS OF SOMETHING ELSE?
Three– Sure, you might say. Throw stones all you want, but at least Faulconer’s trying. What do you have to offer, oh ye of little faith and little influence in California GOP politics?
Honestly, not much right now, I concede. Earlier today I wrote up a piece outlining a study of voting patterns in Long Beach and the Inland Empire, in hopes of a Republican revival among the apparently socially-conservative/fiscally liberal voters there. My preference for the future of the California GOP is, of course, something somewhat liberal on fiscal and government matters while being somewhat conservative on social and cultural matters, tailored for the issues and demographics of the late 2010s and early 2020s- perhaps a combination of Democratic Governor Pat Brown’s ambitious economic, infrastructure, and educational initiatives, and Republican Governor Ronald Reagan’s working-class appeal and emphasis on law-and-order politics. (Incidentally, this is the kind of program Richard Nixon likely would have pursued, had he been elected Governor over Brown in 1962.) I’ll have to go back and look at the legacies of California’s late-20th Century Republican governors Wilson and Deukmejian, and mid-20th Century Republican governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight; but for some reason I suspect that during their gubernatorial tenures they practiced something along these lines.
I wrote a report for an employer of mine which remains unpublished- I might publish an edited version sometime- arguing a different but similar tack. That is, that the contemporary California Democratic Party is premised, perhaps unconsciously, on centralization of decisionmaking in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and on an absolute hostility to the physical “build-stuff” industries of energy, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. And that therefore, the Republican Party of California ought to orient itself less on “size of government” and taxation issues, and more on a re-orientation of power from the metropolitan city centers to more local communities, including neighborhoods, small towns, and counties, while simultaneously supporting deregulation and subsidies in the interests of the industries currently being ignored or attacked by California Democrats. This kind of court-country politics is not really antithetical to the previously proposed tack of big projects and social conservatism- in fact, look at the New Deal coalition’s composition in relation to Franklin Roosevelt’s great domestic achievements. There is a shocking similarity in the roles the California Republican Party can take in “lifting up the common man” and building new greatness for California, in opposition to rather than secondhand partnership with California’s contemporary Democratic elite.
Perhaps, whatever the substantial policy agreements between Faulconer-Munger politics and “Neo-Nixon” politics are, the basic disagreement is a class representation issue- whether or not the vision of California’s elite and necessary upper class ought to be realized in California for everybody’s benefit, or whether representatives of the lower orders ought to be brought into the fray and bring alternative visions to fore. The degree to which Republicans cooperate with Democrats or build alternative visions to that of the Democrats, then, would be the litmus test of representation here.
In any case, I’d prefer a CAGOP with a third leg outside of Faulconer-Munger and Donnelly-Fleischmann- a leg socially moderately conservative and fiscally moderately liberal, capable of producing both an elite and a voter base, hopefully capable of acting independently of either other leg, and hopefully capable of being a decisive force in the future of the Republican Party of California. An outline of what such a faction would look like awaits, though I’ll probably be taking a stab at it when I turn to write that report on Inland Empire-Long Beach Republican prospects.
Again, I reiterate- I don’t necessarily oppose the substance of Faulconer’s speech. Among the proposals he outlines there are some that I agree with; among the same there are others I disagree with.
The overarching thrusts of the speech, though- that California Republicans must distinguish themselves from the national party, that they must focus explicitly on resolving California’s great issues, that they must provide a reformist alternative to California Democratic excesses- I find myself in complete agreement. The tendency of California GOP activists to be, more or less, standard run-of-the-mill national commentators and little else, renders them impotent and useless for all practical purposes. The Munger elites and Faulconer, for all their policy errors and intellectual flaws, are at least seeing the right kind of problem, and some contours of forward movement. That’s something, and perhaps in time the idea will spread.
I don’t know if Mayor Faulconer and Co. are going to set up some form of “New California Republicans” advocacy group or think tank, or not. If they do, I certainly will be working to get involved, if at all possible. It’s a cause that we need worked on and fought for soon.