IDENTITY POLITICS *IS* POLITICS
A common complaint of conservatives- and, recently, Bernie Sanders-supporting liberals- is the notion that the cultural left in America, and the West more broadly, practices “identity politics” to the detriment of national unity and focusing on real issues. I’ve been guilty of this as well, as my American unity piece at Glimpse From the Globe a few years back reveals. Even now I am no fan of the identity politics idea, and generally agree with Jason Willick that minority-group identity politics stokes white identity politics, and with Mark Lilla that some form of cultural and socioeconomic unity program is absolutely crucial.
But my personal preferences aside, I’m also realizing something else that really should be obvious to anyone who listens to people’s “why’s.” And that is that “identity politics” is basically at the root of politics. It’s at the root of how we define ourselves, our worldviews, and our values, and thus what ends we pursue politically and socially. It’s much broader than just a question of race- religion, class, culture, ideology, profession, and so many other group identifications can have identity politics of their own as well, but race is just a powerful one in contemporary American politics for various historical reasons.
We like our communities, or at the very least affiliate with and identify with them. We construct our values based on what is handed down to us and what we experience, and how our rational minds interact with such diverse bundles of experience and evidence. Because of the multiplicity of modes of human life, humanity is diverse enough that there will always be different aspirations, values, loyalties, identities- and that’s not intrinsically a good or a bad thing. It just exists, shapes how we think about everything including politics, and like everything else human, must be taken account of when we work in politics.
This doesn’t mean that objective truth doesn’t exist, or that we are incapable of thinking for ourselves beyond our identity-politics-influenced minds, or that we can’t empathize with others with different experiences-far from it. It just depicts the usual realities we inhabit. But we should all acknowledge that the construction of identity and identity’s influence on values and ties has been, and remains, one of maybe four or five driving forces in human political life, the others including political economy, political institutions, the desire for security or power, passion and attachments, and others. 20th Century postmodern thinkers did a lot of harm, but their emphasis on social construction and psychology has been a useful addition to the field of political studies.
It’s just a basic question of anthropology and epistemology, I would guess- it is probably theoretically possible to transcend identity issues by crafting broader, more wide-encompassing identities, or maybe being a nihilist. Those who wish it away are like those who would wish politics away- they’re pissing in the wind, complaining about the human condition and human nature to no avail. Those who overemphasize identity politics, meanwhile, are like those who reduce every action to geography or economics or institutions- they’re intellectual simpletons who can follow a straight line and nothing else. (They probably have some money on the matter as well.) No, identity politics is just a normal, typical element of human political life that can be alternately harmful or hurtful. It’s not so much a question of wishing it away, but figuring out how best to contain and possibly use it. The multiracial identity politics left and the white identity politics right have made their choices. Temperamental conservatives, accepting human nature, ought to make other choices.
EMPIRES OF THE MIND IN AMERICA
So we’ve established that this psychological principle of identity construction is just kind of how human beings operate, how they provide or find meaning to themselves and their communities. It follows that there have been ebbings and flowings of these “empires of the mind” just as there have been ebbings and flowings of the empires and city-states and churches and nation-states of human beings; generally, these correspond with self-conceived factions or interest groups of all sorts, including institutions, religious groups, ethnic groups, classes, polities, and others, and there can be infinite permutations of a single individual person’s membership in multiple tiers of these “empires of the mind” at once. Complicated situation, of course, but then, humans are complicated beings.
In America, the veneer of a “national community” has always been something of a veneer; in very few cases has it gone politically deep enough to move the nation, and it has always masked far deeper contradictions and diversity. Since before the Founding, the various Anglo colonists of the Eastern Seaboard had to learn to live with each other, and over time developed institutions that could tolerate what was in effect a multicultural civilization with only the broadest unity. (John Jay was wrong, wrong, wrong when he talked about cultural unity among Americans in Federalist #2. His “one united people” professing the same language, gods, customs, and government, only did so in a very technical degree; read Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer.) Because the Articles of Confederation and eventually the Constitution were pockmarked with sufficient compromises and inconsistencies so as to secure the loyalty of Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scots-Irish, who had many different conceptions of “liberty” and “order,” the institutions of the United States became sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of political cultures underneath a broad and general Anglo, republican national culture. I am effectively arguing that, had America been only Puritan Massachusetts or only Scots-Irish Appalachia, it would have developed institutions that could not support the kind of cultural diversity that it has supported in the last two and a half centuries.
All these founding groups were Anglo. But most of America is not Anglo in 2017- something like only 10%, I believe, of Americans trace their ancestry to England. The majority of white Americans hail from elsewhere in Europe, while there are of course burgeoning minority populations descended from African slaves and Latino, Asian, and other immigrants. Nonetheless, as Fischer argues, these other groups have all generally assimilated into the original Albion’s Seed groups to one degree or another.
Generally, America has always assimilated “non-white” immigrants, and over time they- the Irish in the 19th Century, the Italians and Poles and Jews in the 20th Century, and Latinos and Asians today- have over time mixed with the native “white” American population in culture, intermarriage, and political participation to the point that, a few generations in, they’re basically considered white people. This is currently happening with East Asians, Latinos, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and other minority groups (heck look at ME- I’m half-White, half-Asian, all-American, and racially confused) and has been for decades, and will only continue moving forward.
There’s a very, very dark side to this assimilation, depending on how you look at it. And that is: there’s a general assumption inherent to assimilation that non-white immigrants are assimilating into something. And that something is purportedly the real America. And that something, the real America, is white, Anglo, Protestant, middle-class, suburban, consumerist, etc. The real American culture, this narrative might seem to imply, would not be “republican idealism” but rather some iteration of White Anglo-Protestantism. To some, this is just a fact of life; to others this is evidence of white supremacy, the fact that WASPs have so dominated American culture in the past as to imprint their own image onto it, and reprint it in their own image.
I understand that point and probably agree technically, but I’m inclined to see WASP Americanism as just another fact of life. (I have not much to gain from that because I am mixed, non-Anglo, and Catholic.) WASP culture- not necessarily being white, Anglo, or Protestant, but generally subscribing to the outlines of WASP culture to include the English language, the English interpretation of the rule of law, Protestant ideas about religious liberty and teleology, and Scottish/English rationalism- certainly, certainly, certainly provides the baseline of what it means to be an American. Is that white supremacy? Again, I can understand the arguments of those who define this as structural racism, but for better or for worse it is the way it is, and it seems petty to complain about it while there are other justice issues that are, like, relevant.
THE END OF IDENTITY POLITICS, OR ITS IMPENDING TRANSFORMATION?
Now, for all intents and purposes, “identity politics” as we understand it now- in the sense of the distinctiveness and power of particular formerly disenfranchised minority groups, from the 1960s onwards, including both immigrants from all over the world, and African-Americans- will quite possibly be weakened by the mid-21st Century, given current demographic trends. Various analysts of immigration and policy, including John Judis and others, have said that Asians, Latinos, and other immigrants now intermarry with Whites at such a degree that their children start identifying as “white” by the third or fourth generation, or at least “white with some heritage.” This same thing happened with the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans, and other formerly-apparently non-white immigrants. Over time, the communities blend together, while retaining some lesser distinctiveness. This doesn’t mean Asians and Latinos will disappear into the white populace by any means- it simply means that they will be integrated, at cultural, political, and social levels, enough that La Raza-style advocacy just won’t tug as many hearts as it once did. (That would also mean that more people look like me, and I sincerely apologize for the poor aesthetics of that…)
This suggests that by the 2040s or 2050s, America will only be “majority-minority” in the sense that many of its white-identifying people will be partly descended from Latinos and Asians, being mixed-race offspring. The effect of this could be something like the gradual decline of Irish-Catholic political machines in the cities after the JFK Presidency- the Irish, becoming gradually “whiter,” were no longer as distinct, activated, and potent a political force as they had been in the days of their separation. They still loved their St. Patrick’s Day, but at a political and social level they gradually were becoming just any other Americans who happened to have Irish backgrounds. It takes time, but this is part of the beauty of the American experiment. This doesn’t mean identity politics will stop in entirety- it just means it’ll lose some of the force it has nowadays.
It is a very different case with African-Americans, at least in the sense that “identity politics” will for the foreseeable future be much more relevant to that community. First there’s the ethnic mixing thing- whereas other minority groups, upon intermarrying with white people, tend to identify as “white,” the offspring of black and white parents tend to identify as “black” more often. I don’t have any idea why that is, though I would suspect one reason might be that black-white children “look black” in ways that white-Asian or white-Latino children “look white” in general.
But there’s a far more important and far darker reason for African-Americans’ ongoing identity politics situation, and that is sociological and historical- African-Americans are not like other minority groups, who generally came to these shores as immigrants or imported labor. African-Americans were brought here as slaves before the founding of the country. In a sense, they have more of a claim to being “the real Americans” than any other ethnic minority, because they’re the only ones who’ve been a major demographic and cultural- though not political- force since the colonial era. And they’ve been distinct from WASP culture that whole time as well, somewhat intermingling with it and of course adopting the political and social traditions and attitudes, but yet retaining a cultural distinctiveness.
Unfortunately, they’ve always participated from the bottom of society, forced there by the realities of institutionalized white supremacy. For the greater part of American history, African-Americans have been at the bottom of formal or informal racial caste systems. Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and their lingering effects and prejudices have set back that community for centuries, struggling to attain full representation in justice, economics, politics, culture, etc. with the rest of white-or-assimilated America, for reasons entirely out of their control. The fact of formal, then informal, then lingering discrimination against blacks in this country is the social fact that must be the backdrop of any discussion of policies affecting African-Americans as a community.
It’s actually remarkable that throughout this experience and its aftereffects, African-Americans have held the outsized cultural influence they have held over the rest of the country, starting at least as early as the 1920s. That’s a story for someone more culturally informed than me, like my good friend John Wood. But it’s fascinating and testifies to the reality and success of individualism in America, at least, despite the lingering inequality between communities.
Anyhow, those two factors- the fact that African-Americans don’t assimilate into the white population nearly as quickly as other minority groups, and their unique circumstances of discrimination mean that, in all likelihood, the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation will be with us Americans as a whole until the American project has been extinguished from the Earth. The “original sin” of slavery really lives up to its name, because there is no true redemption from it available to the country by its own force of will. So America does and always will have a unique relationship with the African-American community, and will in all likelihood forever have to wrestle with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the like. That shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but it should always give us pause.
The above notes have argued that identity politics, so construed, is an unescapable facet of the human condition, and in America has always been with us, and will never leave us. This is not an apologia for the notion, nor a concession to the skilled practitioners of identity politics on the political left or the political right. Rather, I hope to illustrate the human terrain we will be working with as we strive for political reconciliations and unity in the future; if you don’t understand that terrain and how it views itself, you probably won’t get anywhere with it.
I’m worried that, due to some convergences in my overall political philosophy and temperament with some of the background worldviews of the “Alt Right” movement in the West, I might be more similar in thinking to the Alt Right than is appropriate to be, than I would hope to be. I hope that I am wrong, and that I am indeed just a culturally conservative American realist-nationalist like, say, Teddy Roosevelt. But I feel I must at least be honest in this inquiry, provided here in the dying format of “Notes.”
“YOU HAVE MORE IN COMMON WITH THE ALT-RIGHT THAN WITH THE LIBERTARIANS”
For a few weeks, a friend and colleague-in-thought has been metaphorically whispering in my ear- “you have more in common with the alt-right than you do with libertarians.” That statement has made me pause, first in denial, then in confusion, then in realization, and finally in terror, whenever it comes to mind. Am I Alt-Right? Do I just claim to be a political realist and cultural traditionalist and American nationalist, and really share nothing in common with these neo-Nazi thugs and losers? Am I part of the problem? Is all this really something I’m a part of?
I’m taken by the thought and horrified by the implications. But in time I convince myself otherwise- I’m nowhere near these people, hold nothing like their racist resentments or their bones-deep prejudices, I avoid their publications like the plague. I happen to be on the same side and wavelength as they are on certain issues, not out of sympathy for their causes, but out of agreement with others like Robert Kaplan, Michael Lind, and Ross Douthat, who are not particularly sympathetic to Alt-Right ideas but happen to align with them nonetheless out of a broader realist/conservative/nationalist context that was once more prevalent than it is now. (I’d argue, actually, that the current association of things like nationalism and “Western heritage” with kooks like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mencius Moldbug, American Renaissance Magazine, and friends, is more due to the center/center-left’s abdication of those things in favor of more cosmopolitan ideals; the Alt Righters took advantage of the vacuum and monopolized the terms.)
Anyway, I read Joseph Bernstein’s exquisitely well-researched Buzzfeed News essay “Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate,” and found it interesting. A couple of quick observations: first, it’s absolutely clear that Bannon, Milo, Marlow, Bokhari, Yarvin, Saucier, and all of them are living in a self-righteous bubble, unquestioning of any of their assumptions, fighting a fight they believe passionately to be right. It’s equally clear that, far from being blinded into delusion and folly, they remain clear-eyed and entrepreneurial enough to rationally and strategically exploit the online media climate in ways few other political operative/activist networks have been able to do. Finally, there are real divisions in the Alt-Right- it would seem that the Bannon/Milo/Bokhari spokesmen and figureheads, like Trump, are primarily driven by cultural resentments against the left, and a Nixonian willingness to act on them unmoored from any moral constraints to exploit real divisions; whereas the actual white supremacist/identitarian bloggers and editors don’t seem to command anywhere near so large an audience, but are a driving force and faction in the broader Alt-Right, existing in sufficient numbers to provide Milo’s foot-soldier following.
But that last factor- the blurry line and tacit alliance between those who may well be without a racist bone in their bodies, but who harbor deep cultural resentments towards the modern left; with those actual “deplorables” who are beyond resentful and actively identitarian, desirous of a white ethnostate and actively racist against nonwhites- that is a factor that cannot be ignored.
At a personal level, I think I’ve skimmed over it too long, not realizing its full implications. A Republican Party and American center/center-right/right that operationally now includes Alt-Right operatives as planners and voices at the table, rather than just that crazy uncle in the attic/coalition who you don’t kick out but you don’t pay attention to either, is a Republican Party even more morally compromised than it’s been in the decades of the Southern Strategy and the Religious Right and talk radio and xenophobia. This is a party that, as Chris Ladd might say, is in thrall to powerful factions that no longer bother to decry racism anymore.
(For the record, I don’t think this represents anywhere near the majority of the still-Reaganite/Gingrichite/Bushite/Romneyite GOP operative network; but that conservative GOP must now deal with this anti-establishment swell in ways I’m not sure it is capable of at the moment.)
Anyway, people like me- cultural conservatives, political realists, American nationalists- who are opposed to the excesses of modern American liberalism, its countercultural idealism, its historical amnesia, its epistemological hubris- people like me who nonetheless value the open and pluralistic society America has always sheltered, must tread carefully forward, lest we walk alongside these racist kooks on the Alt Right. Because my friend was right- we do look more like them than is comfortable to admit. And that’s something I’ll be thinking on and struggling with a lot moving forward.
So onto a look at the belief network I hold strongly in my worldview where convergence with Alt Right thought worries me most: the anthropological-political understanding of the communal/divided origins of human society.
DIVIDED COMMUNALISM, THE STATE OF NATURE
Ramon Lopez published an excellent piece in this fall’s issue of National Affairs, “Answering the Alt Right,” which is useful for understanding the nature of the problem, but in my view less useful in answering and resolving it. Here’s the passage where Ramon, paraphrasing Milo Yiannapoulos and Allum Bokhari’s manifesto “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right,” describes how the Alt Right’s factions generally view themselves:
“[Richard] Spencer, however, claims that the alt-right has nothing to do with neo-Nazis or white supremacy. He prefers to refer to it as “identitarianist,” which he describes as the belief that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life. The alt-right claims to defend white or European identity, not to oppress those with other backgrounds but in order to maintain and care for their own.
Bokhari and Yiannopoulos echo this view in their article: “[J]ust as [the alt-right] are inclined to prioritise [sic] the interests of their tribe, they recognize that other groups — Mexicans, African-Americans or Muslims — are likely to do the same.” The alt-right draws upon social psychology that highlights our tribal nature: We are all members of certain social groups, which fundamentally define who we are and incline us to support that group’s interest over the broader public good. Doing so is not simply natural but right — we are who we are, and are primordially bound to defend that state of being. Politics in a multicultural society is therefore a zero-sum contest among fundamentally competing identity groups.
This view leads the alt-right to call for firm divisions between identity groups within society.”
Except for those last three points- that there is no way out of personal identity, that identity politics need be zero-sum, and that there ought to be “firm divisions between identity groups within society” (read: legal segregation)- it would seem to me that most of the other points Spencer, Bokhari, and Yiannopoulos are suggested to have made, would be accepted by most political psychologists and, in fact, by other “identity politics” advocates on the left. Jason Willick over at The American Interest has written a few times something along the lines of “stirring identity politics among non-white people inspires a reaction of identity politics among white people,” and I would only amend this to say that it seems there is something of an identity politics simply endemic to the human condition among all people and groups.
The claims- that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life, that people are inclined to support their own tribes, that social psychology influences all this heavily- all seem to be more or less accurate to me. If a “state of nature” exists, it’s not a “war of all against all” at the beginning of time that can be transcended by a social contract of reciprocal obligations- no, the “state of nature” would seem to be the enduringly violent, communal, vindictive, collective nature of man, expressed under whatever institutional condition, whereby we work in groups with those we affiliate with against those we don’t affiliate with. Identity is inseparable from affiliation (though it is also multiple and complex.) Faction, empirically observed as a principle and a reality across the spectrum of the human experience, is salted by the passions of love and hate that come with the territory of our natural connections to the ethereal group.
These Alt Right theorists oversimplify on the basis of race, of course- race/ethnicity/physiology is only one of many, many identity poles around which factions can coalesce, though it is probably one of the more powerful ones. More importantly, though, race is a fluid concept (and I don’t mean that in the way lefty constructivists talk about it as “something that doesn’t exist.”) Race is fluid in the fact that it just mixes, usually seamlessly and beautifully, and new genetic combinations in individuals and populations are cropping up all the time- just kind of the beauty of being physical beings as well as spiritual beings who can appreciate biology aesthetically, I suppose. Some people just don’t fit in any of these groups. I’m an example of racial mixing given my mixed Asian-European blood (did I ever say I’m a big fan of interracial marriage?) and that should throw wrenches into both the “race-isn’t-real” and the “race-is-everything” camps. (No equivalency morally, by the way- the race-is-everything Alt Right people are far worse than the left on this issue.) For a great illustration of how that dynamic plays out in ethnic trends in America, just read essays or books by Michael Lind on identity. The American “new man” concept is just fascinating, and far more fascinating than anything Richard Spencer cooks up while praying to the skull of Hitler or whatever.
But despite the wrongness of the Alt Right’s manipulations of the principle of group affiliation, I cannot deny that the principle itself is 1) apparently empirically sound and 2) rejected by most traditional American political theory, which tends to be less empiricist or anthropological, and more liberal-individualist-republican or class-based. And it is a principle that is generally either explicitly rejected or generally not considered by our somewhat more individualist and ideological cultural commentators and ruling elites. It seems to me that in the second half of the 20th Century, as Mark Lilla argued in his recent book, what had been developing in terms of notions of “national community” was discarded by American elite political operators in favor of various breeds of liberal-principled individualism. As Robert Putnam, Yuval Levin, and Charles Murray have all implicitly and perhaps unknowingly argued, the resultant social atomization and cultural decay has fueled new fervors towards otherwise unthinkable constructions of identity, etc., and the force of the Alt Right- while it clearly has its roots in the unholy marriage of the segregationist Southern right and imported European conceptions of ethno-nationalism, probably both activated after the Second World War and during the early Civil Rights Era- has been greatly amplified because of the dramatic social upheaval over the last several decades.
So I suppose what I’m trying, failingly, to say is that the Alt Right, for all their sins and evils and overemphasizations and overgeneralizations, is at the very least premised on a basic principle that many Americans understand but few put into institutional practice- that identity does indeed matter and conflict between identity groups is a normal consequence of identity’s mattering. And when you are blind to reality, reality will beat you every time. The Alt Right is un-American and racist for celebrating white identity politics and fighting to disenfranchise or delegitimize other groups, but it has its finger on the pulse of a basic unspoken reality that most small-“l” American liberals don’t admit much- that tribe matters and tribalism is a consequence of tribe. Only when you admit that 1) people have a legitimate and natural stake in their own group identity, and 2) the multiplicity of identities can create conflicts, then rather than throwing up one’s hands and wishing everyone were a 100% American or an End-of-History cosmopolitan, can you get down to the absolutely crucial work of containing the effects of passionate faction and working towards higher syntheses of identity, two of the great ongoing achievements of American small-“l” liberals in their soberer, more realistic iterations in centuries past.
I had planned a longer piece, but have probably already gotten myself into enough trouble with this one alone. Some other themes I’m thinking on below, though-
-Is America a nation with an idea, or an idea with a nation? If it is indeed a nation with an idea rather than a set of abstract principles, as I have taken many pains to argue, then what is the dividing line between us traditionalists and the Alt-Righters who completely reject any founding principles? Can such a line be drawn rationally, or must we always be vigilant? (I sense the latter.)
-Does the superficial convergence between my views with some of those of the Alt Right’s imply any guilt in me for happening to be in coalition with them? (This is a species of political question I am still trying to figure out, and it has a leftists/liberals counterpart as well.) Moreover, does the general viewpoint of so many pre-Cold War American statesmen- philosophically as temperamentally conservative as I, just as nationalist, just as realist, and just as cognizant of the enduring nature of group identification and group conflict- implicate, say, Alexander Hamilton as a proto-Alt Righter? (Hamilton, after all, was the arch-aristocratic conservative of his day, and famously wrote “the seeds of war are sewn thickly in the human breast.”) Or, as I hope, is the superficial convergence of viewpoints purely superficial?
In any case, conservatives of all stripes- save maybe doctrinaire neoconservatives and libertarians- do in fact have to wrestle with these notions and figure out what their relationship is to the Alt Right. (I suspect many honest philosophical conservatives will find more similarity than is comfortable- that ought to be worked around.) If we don’t actively explore the question, we’ll deserve any comparisons to the Alt Right left-leaners make of us upon hearing superficial similarities.
And those of us young conservatives beginning to fall under the Alt Right’s trance- just bear in mind what you’re doing. I’ll leave it at that.
So this whole NFL national anthem protest stuff. There’s been a lot of misuse of the word “patriotism” on the left recently, as well as on the right. I disagree with both usages, but the left’s irks me more, and in any case I think the right has a better intuitive grasp of its actual meaning (even if it applies it in the most distorted ways possible and is far more hypocritical about it than the left.) Regardless, I’ll be a curmudgeon against my friends on the left- it’s time for a rectification of terms.
So first off, let’s look at Webster:
Love for or devotion to one’s country.
That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? And at a very basic level, the division is this: the right in this country idolizes and idealizes “America” to a ludicrous degree, and wraps itself in the flag whenever it has the chance to, resulting in a childish parody of “devotion to one’s country” that often leaves out significant portions of one’s countrymen. That’s not devotion to country- that’s devotion to what one thinks one’s country is, and there’s a huge difference.
Meanwhile, the left in this country is incredibly ambivalent about “America,” associating it, as they do, with racism, colonialism, genocide, inequality, imperialism, and all sorts of other unsavory things. The left will typically say “America is good because we can become something better” or “America is the ideals of freedom and equality.” Conveniently, this leaves out having to have any devotion or loyalty to actual human beings and actual human institutions, which by the nature of reality are and must be morally imperfect. Loving abstractions like justice and equality is the easiest and most banal thing for anyone to do. It’s different from loving a country, or a person, with all the moral complexity and compromise that involves.
Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself. What follows is a systematic, point-by-point takedown of what I consider to be inaccurate, if widely-and-honestly-held, views on the left about patriotism. I’ll start off with how I define patriotism.
Patriotism: Love and Devotion for the Patria
I wrote a piece a while back, lambasting President Trump for being an idiot and turning patriotism into a high school fight song, and contrasting that to what CIA’s Directorate of Operations cultivates in its operators:
“I’ve always thought there were no greater lovers of country- quiet patriots, invisible servants- than the men and women of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations/National Clandestine Service. To give your life to your country so fully as to surrender your judgment to a code of pure and silent duty to a cause greater than self, to live no other life- is a high order not all of us are worthy of bearing, or called to take.
Patriotism isn’t flags and eagles. It’s a way of life, replete with a demand for virtues we moderns are uncomfortable with thinking about in this age of rights and feelings- honor, duty, sacrifice, service, and yes, love- a love that transcends self-interest and conscience, what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” We’ll never hear about the silent heroes of the CIA- they’ll never be grand marshals of parades, they’ll never stand before adoring crowds and wear gold medallions around their necks. They don’t do their work for glory- they do it out of love. They are superior, but they’d never say it, or, frankly, think it.
They are patriots. They are our best, and their patriotism ought to sober us into emulation.”
So that’s the gold standard I’m talking about. That’s the definition of patriotism for me, to the degree that it can be written down. Not mindless flag-worship, not kowtows to the Lincoln Memorial, not rah-rah-rah-and-hot-dogs-too, none of that- but patriotism. A way of life, a dedication of one’s whole self to a cause higher than self, the cause of country. There are many ways to live this, of course, and CIA/DO is only the purest of them. You can do this as a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine; you can do this as a civic leader in the Rotary Clubs or the Lions Clubs; you can do this as a businessman or businesswoman; you can do it as an activist for social justice or political causes; you can do it as a politician or political hack, heck you could probably even do it as a poor, unassuming policy researcher and political journalist (and I hope to do so!) You can do it while pushing for a diverse array of causes and while holding a diverse array of philosophies. You don’t need to be a George Marshall or a Dwight Eisenhower- many types of people can be patriots.
You just have to, like, be a patriot. And when you are actively not being a patriot- when you are actively opposed to the basic tenets of American patriotism, and your conscience tells you that you don’t really love your country the way so many of these other people do- then you shouldn’t bother calling yourself a patriot.
That’s fine- not everyone is called to be a patriot. Some are called to be humanitarians, others are called to be great purveyors of human justice, other desire to be cosmopolitans. That’s fine as well. I’ve had priests who were uncomfortable calling themselves American patriots for that reason, and I don’t disrespect them for it. They have a different walk of life, a different set of duties.
But for the love of god, if being considered a patriot and sacrificing for your country isn’t a big deal for you, don’t go insult those to whom it matters most and call yourself patriotic. Have the least amount of respect for terms and traditions and go follow the path you want to follow, but don’t insult those who follow a path you consider inferior to yours.
As for me, I’m a patriot because I honestly do love my country. I love the United States of America- the nation-state, its heritage and history, its people, its culture, its future- in all its messiness and all its moral taint. I’m under no illusions about some superiority on the part of Americans, I’m not an American Exceptionalist. I just love it because it’s good, and it’s mine. Henry Clay was said to love his country partly because it was his country, but mostly because it was a free country; I suppose it’s the opposite for me, regardless of how much I love Henry Clay- I love America partly because it’s a free country, but mostly because it’s my country.
The very real accomplishments of the United States of America are too numerous to account for and comprehend. That we might have preserved some semblance of order over the entirety of a continent, and been subjected to only one foreign invasion, and only one internal revolution, and we overcame them both; that with our resources, ingenuity, and spirit, we overcame four great Eurasian totalitarian attempts to destroy the freedom of the international order; and moreover, that though we once were a racial caste system, we now have become a nation of all the nations but a nation still, where people of all backgrounds can live and flourish and participate as unquestioned and unquestionable Americans- we are, as a country and as a heritage, both great and good. There are contradictions in our character that have led us to do great things, and we will only do greater things in the future, til we perish from the Earth. You bet I’m goddamn proud to be an American, and I intend to spend my career studying it, writing about it, and serving it. I hope I can be considered, in the eyes of those who matter, a patriot as well.
And it’s an insult when people who are disgusted by most of that legacy have the gall to call themselves patriots to my face, by the logic that they somehow “are living American ideals” better than such a brainwashed dolt as me.
Well, here’s how I’d respond to the arguments that they’ve been making, that the NFL players who knelt during the National Anthem and refused to salute the flag are the real patriots:
8 Arguments and 8 Responses
Argument 1: “The NFL players are just Trying to Highlight Injustice Against the Black Community!”
Response: Yes, I agree, I’m aware, and I sympathize, and I want action on that issue too. It’s an important thing to bring attention to, and the fact that entire communities of Americans feel disenfranchised from the national community means we are doing something terribly wrong at a societal level to address their problems.
Ross Douthat wrote the other day that the current status of the American culture wars- basically a bloodbath of purely-identitarian issues rather than legitimate policy debates with actual room for compromise and progress- is dividing America without having any upsides at all. I think that’s right- I think if we were actually talking about the issues these athletes are purporting to call attention to, there might indeed be room for progress.
Alas, Colin Kaepernick picked his target of protest very strategically, and turned what could’ve been something resembling a debate between law-and-order activists and BlackLivesMatter activists into a polarized question of identity- do you support the American flag religion, or do you support these black athlete-activists?- that of course was always going to spark huge divides simply due to the depth of feelings about identity, both ways, on that issue. Douthat notes that Trump poured gasoline on the fire to his own benefit, but the left refuses to admit that Kaepernick was the one who brought the flag into it, and the NFL is following him.
The NFL, by following Kaepernick and kneeling, protesting the National Anthem, continues to discredit their cause in the eyes of millions of people who might otherwise possibly be open to compromise. But no one will compromise on the root of their identity. “Some men just like to watch the world burn.”
Argument 2: “The NFL players are just using their right of freedom of speech. Using your constitutional rights is patriotic! You don’t want to SILENCE THEM do you???”
Response: That last part is the classic “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” gotcha sort of question, so it’s worth ignoring. But, if it must be answered- I think I speak for a lot of people in saying, yes of course- the NFL athletes have the right to protest, it’s been enshrined in juridical precedent many times. The question is are they right to protest, which is not a question of law or silencing at all. It’s a question of whether or not they should be lauded for doing what they do.
But let’s look at the more interesting part- “using your constitutional rights is patriotic.” This is a favorite argument on the left to suggest that protest is actually an act of love of country, a setup in which standpatter dinosaurs like me are actually like the British Tories in 1773 who opposed the Patriot Colonists’ protests that led to the birth of America. (For the record, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were both vigorously opposed to acts like the Boston Tea Party and other colonist riots, because they loved order as much as they loved freedom. I would’ve opposed the Boston Tea Party, too, had I been alive back then.)
I won’t go so far as to suggest that using the constitutional rights of speech, assembly, petition, etc. are unpatriotic– I think it’s certainly possible for there to be instances where protests are done, truly, out of love of country and a feeling that there is no other recourse. But the act of protest itself does not seem to me to be a particularly patriotic thing- in fact I’ll neutralize the point, and say that the exercise of constitutional rights seems to me to be neither patriotic nor unpatriotic- it’s just allowed. Is voting patriotic? Is bearing arms patriotic? Is not having to quarter soldiers patriotic? I really don’t think so in any case, so the whole “protesting is patriotism” argument never strikes me as very convincing.
Going off of my earlier definition of patriotism-as-sacrifice, it would seem to me that giving up your constitutional rights to free expression is in fact what real, practicing patriots do out of a sense of duty. For that’s the thing- rights are inherently self-centered and expressive, but duties are inherently cause-centered and sacrificial.
As articulated further above, spies are the greatest American patriots. And why? Is it not because they dedicate their entire lives and all their liberties, including of speech and conscience, to make sure that patria lives?
Perhaps there are many ways to display patriotism. I’d agree with that (not least because I’m unqualified for intelligence service and still want to be a patriot!) But I’d say there’s a real qualitative, and probably quantitative, difference between using your right of protest to call attention to the point that the patria is unjust, and sacrificing time, freedom, and limb to preserve that unjust patria.
Argument 3: “The NFL players are trying to make America better because they love their country and just want progress and solidarity. That’s patriotic!”
Response: If it really were that simple, I’d be more open to believing this argument. There are good reasons to believe, I think, that this is honestly the way most of the NFL players are thinking and choosing- Ross Douthat noted in his aforementioned column that there are many legitimate reasons for players to take a knee, now- opposition to Trump, solidarity with their teammates, legitimate concern for the problems facing the black community, etc. I don’t doubt their sincerity.
I do doubt their judgment and prudence.
So this: if a morality of intentions were all you needed to have to be a good person who should be lauded, the world would be easy and there would be no moral dilemmas. But as any student or practitioner of actual politics knows, there must be some morality of results as well- do a good thing for a good reason and get a bad result, and regardless of how clean your conscience is, you just screwed something up. Do a bad thing for a good reason and get a good result, and no matter how tarnished your conscience now is, you at least accomplished a real goal as well (perhaps the election of an important person, or the preclusion of what might have been a catastrophic war.)
The NFL players, if I’m being charitable, might be accused of having done a good thing for a good reason, but they got a bad result (and they goddamn should’ve known they were gonna get a bad result. You don’t get to metaphorically piss on the flag and not pay for it in the eyes of the American public.) Their consciences might be clean, which is all well and good; but they also brought down a furious and useless culture war identity battle upon themselves and all Americans, aided by Trump. The continued destruction and tearing-apart of the national consensus on what is acceptable is at least partly their fault, and by pursuing the pure version of what their conscience told them, untempered by prudence about “what will the results of this righteous action be?” they contributed to the problem. (Not saying I’m not contributing to that problem, by the way.)
Oh, and solidarity? Complaining about the lack of national unity? Don’t disrespect the last remaining symbol of national unity, and make it a legitimate target for partisan political protest, and say it’s solely the other side’s fault that we don’t have national unity.
Argument 4: “What’s so disrespectful about not standing for the flag? They’re not burning it or taking it down or anything!”
Response: Don’t play innocent with me- we all know exactly what’s so disrespectful about not standing for the flag. We’ve heard this story before, for decades, as activists of all colors and protestors for all kinds of causes have alternately burned, ripped, refused to salute, or jeered the American flag, for some reason that vaguely follows the trope- “I don’t owe this country a goddamn thing. It’s guilty of racism, it’s guilty of warmongering, it’s guilty of putting down labor strikes and peaceful protests with the violence of the state. It’s an evil institution and it’s disgusting that anyone would love it. It’s Orwellian that it would have a “Pledge of Allegiance.” You can have your flag, but I won’t have any part of it.” Regardless of what the means or end of protest, the logic has remained the same- the flag represents the country and the country is bad. Don’t respect the flag, do it either through active disrespect or omission of expected respect, because the country it represents is bad.
But don’t take my word for it- ask Colin Kaepernick, the ringleader of the current iteration of the “don’t-respect-the-flag-because-it’s-racist” movement:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…”
Not really self-consciously patriotic, huh?
Now, I’m open to the notion that some of the players, even many of the players on the field doing this stuff, aren’t thinking this way- I would hope that the NFL, some of America’s finest people, are not so ensconced in deconstructionist social justice warriorism that they would entirely agree with the logic of Kaepernick. I’m not mad at the NFL, for the most part- just disappointed.
But even if a majority of these players don’t hate their country the way Kaepernick is disgusted with his, the fact that they’re following Kaepernick down that road and taking the same actions implicates them in ways they might not fully understand- for there is a deep symbolism in the act of refusing to salute the American flag, and it is inextricably linked to that leftist disdain of America that has so far characterized the act of refusing to salute the American flag. Let me explain with a metaphor on the other side of the aisle.
Suppose a white guy in Northern Virginia, where I’m from, were to do something equally controversial and equally laden with political-cultural statements- suppose he were to burn a cross in public. Suppose he were then interviewed and said “I’m just using my free speech! And this has nothing to do with racism- I swear I’m not racist, I have black friends too! I just… I’m concerned about how things are going for the white community, drugs and free trade and all, and aside from that, well, I’m really proud to be white!”
Now assume you took him at his word (which is hard enough to do, but just assume he’s one of these stupid Millennial dudebros who’s innocently read alt-right materials and hasn’t realized their implications yet.)
There would still be a massive public outcry, even if psychologists determined that he was as non-racist as anybody and he really did enjoy his black friends’ company- and there would be that massive public outcry because he was committing symbolic acts that were inseparable from a particular political-cultural statement. He might not be racist, but he’s doing things that 1) enflame racism and 2) are inseparably linked to racism. NFL players might not be anti-American, but by taking a knee they are doing things that 1) encourage anti-Americanism and 2) are inseparably linked to anti-Americanism. People who fly the Confederate flag might not think much of slavery and secession, but they’re doing things that 1) remind everyone of slavery and secession and 2) are inseparably linked to slavery and secession.
(This is not to compare the NFL players’ beliefs to white supremacist racism by any means- it is simply to illustrate the inseparable connection of certain acts to certain causes, regardless of what the committer of those acts might think of those causes.)
Argument 5: “Well, it’s only “disrespecting the flag” when white people take it as “disrespecting the flag!” If you interpret it right, it’s really just about protesting injustice against the black community!”
Response: That’s nice. It sure would be nice if people only interpreted you as you meant for them to interpret you.
But alas, human beings are human beings and they’ll do what they do and will react as they’ll react. And, as mentioned before, the NFL players really are holding out a “touch this and you’re racist!” trap for everyone, and know exactly who they’ll piss off and get to call racist. Kaepernick certainly did, and in the year since his protest, everyone has had the opportunity to observe what the reaction will be if they follow suit: the praise of coastal educated liberal America, and the spurn of interior uneducated conservative America.
So don’t say “they’re just not interpreting the protest right.” The people protesting have so many other ways they can bring attention to the issue. Making it a de facto question of “support the flag, or support social justice” and then saying you’re not doing that, is divisive and disingenuous.
By the way, I haven’t been covering Trump’s reactions and baitings and the very real racism that exists around this issue in certain quarters of the right. Those have already been covered by others extensively, and I hope I need not make clear that I despise those as well. I’m covering the left side of the equation, and the left’s role in inflaming it, because that’s something that hasn’t really been covered intelligently (and in my opinion, most of the conservative commentariat has sold out on this issue by standing with the NFL against Trump rather than with the American flag against the NFL and Trump. But maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.)
Argument 6: “The NFL players are not disrespecting veterans! They’re just standing up for what they believe in, and that’s patriotic!”
Response: I actually generally am inclined to believe the best of these players’ intentions, and I don’t think they’re trying to disrespect veterans. Some might even say “well I have some friends and teammates who are veterans, so I can’t POSSIBLY be anti-veteran or do anything that’s anti-veteran!”
But as per my response to Argument 4, above- the NFL players are, at the very least, committing an action that is directly associated to statements and attitudes that view veterans’ life work and sworn loyalty- the United States of America- as unjust, oppressive, evil, etc. It may well be that the NFL players and their liberal supporters DON’T despise veterans, and I think this is probably generally true. But to disrespect those veterans’ life work and object of loyalty while claiming to be pro-veteran seems to me to be a kind of “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of patronization. “I love our troops, I just don’t like the country they fight for!” is not something that would exactly convey admiration.
Let’s walk through this step by step.
The U.S. Armed Forces Oath of Enlistment reads as follows:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen all take their oaths of enlistment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States- and, so it is implied, the American patria. (The Constitution doesn’t exist without the flesh-and-blood nation and the institutional state, which doesn’t exist without the heritage and mythos, etc. By pledging to protect the Constitution, our defenders pledge to protect the United States of America as a whole- and this is the very United States of America Colin Kaepernick really doesn’t like.)
So when an NFL player chooses- for whatever personal reasons that may be well-founded- to kneel during the National Anthem to protest it, he is consciously or unconsciously making a statement about the United States of America. As with generations of protestors who have done similar things, the message goes out to the world, from the NFL player- “The United States of America is not worthy of my loyalty and pride.”
To the sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines, and for that matter the diplomats, bureaucrats, and politicians who swore similar oaths to protect and defend and uphold that racist, oppressive institution, the United States of America- the NFL player is not messaging “I appreciate what you do!” He is instead subconsciously telling them “I don’t have anything against you personally and I admire you, but the thing you’re dedicating your life to preserving, protecting, and advancing is a worthless shell of a racist past.” And it follows, “I don’t think your life work is particularly honorable or noble.
So again- I’m not arguing that the NFL players are anti-veteran out of any conscious choice. But by the implication of everything they’re tying themselves up with, they are subtly dissing the national public service community, even if they don’t know it or want to do it.
I clearly have opinions about whether that’s a good thing or not, but my point is not to change your opinions. My point is to get supporters of the NFL players to realize that there are implications to their support of the NFL players that go beyond their own intentions. And those implications imply that what you’re doing is not particularly supportive of the mission and life purpose of our troops. Just accept that, if you will.
Argument 7: “But what about those stupid rednecks who put the flag on bikinis and beer cans and stuff? Why aren’t you pissed off about that?”
Response: You know that’s not relevant. In a technical sense, yes, that does indeed go against the flag code and people shouldn’t do it. But, they’re not doing it out of protest against what they view is an illegitimate, unjust order. They’re doing it because they don’t know any better. Next.
Argument 8: “Fine, I’ll concede: maybe I don’t love my country as much as you say you do, but that’s because there are some things that come before country, like human rights and social justice. But I’m still a patriot, right?”
Response: It’s perfectly fine for you not to be as into this whole “America” thing as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush were. They dedicated their lives to their country. As I said earlier, patriotism isn’t for everybody- not everyone is called to be a statesman, and not everyone is called to be a patriot.
But if America isn’t your first loyalty, you shouldn’t say you’re as patriotic as someone for whom America is indeed the first loyalty. If you’re sufficiently disgusted by America that you qualify your patriotism with a bunch of caveats, just say it.
Now we do need to be constantly reforming our institutions and our society. Patriotism should never, ever, EVER become a cover to preclude important social changes, and real patriots should support important social changes out of love for their fellow citizens and the knowledge that it’s just the right damn thing to do.
Moreover, patriotism should never whitewash the bad out of history. It should never be blind to the fact that bad things happened at one’s own country’s hands. It should never be so callous as to disregard those who suffered at the country’s hands.
But at the end of the day, good patriotism incorporates social justice and historical acceptance while keeping true to itself, and becoming all the more beautiful for it. It is necessarily a morally complex endeavor and temperament to attain and to practice and to live. It should be expected and required of everyone ascending to high public office that Patriotism, so defined and so incorporated, is their first instinct and last goal. (Alas, that hasn’t been the mainstream situation in this country for a few decades- ambition and ideology have generally filled the top space in our leaders’ consciences.)
I love my country and want it to continue along, to go great places, and for it to we’ll need more young patriots to step up. But we need to know what patriotism is, and what it is not, if we are to honestly get anywhere. I fear the present discourse is orienting us away from that.
 I wish I could’ve taken this oath, by the way, so I could write with a little more legitimacy and not be a patriotic chicken-hawk. Alas, my mental illness precluded my enlistment or commissioning every time I tried to get into the Armed Forces, so I am forever consigned- or privileged!- to support the troops from the outside, as a fan who can never really know what they go through.
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.