Hamilton in the Heartland

About seven or eight months ago, Joel Kotkin and Michael Lind came out with an excellent short report on economic trends in the “New American Heartland-“ the Gulf Coast, Midwest, and Great Plains, or perhaps if you’d rather be cynical, the broad swathe of red-and-purple states eschewing the sorts of blue governance Lind and Kotkin contend against. The report argued that the mixed economic models these states and the cities within them pursue are more conducive to opportunity and stability than the opposing strategies adopted in blue states like California, Massachusetts, and New York.

The whole report’s worth reading, as is Aaron Renn’s recent piece in City Journal citing the report and condensing its conclusions into essay form. Renn and Kotkin have been arguing for some time that American “flyover country” is actually far more burgeoning and successful than it’s normally given credit for, and that the very real social and economic flourishing of Indianapolis and Houston and Oklahoma City is overlooked by a coastal New York Times-reading American upper class with markedly different values from those of the interior’s cities.

The values are so divergent as to precipitate a kind of political warfare, often expressed through regional differences on cultural issues-immigration, criminal justice, etc.- but increasingly through hostile attitudes on economic systems as well. Renn writes that “the coasts are hostile to old-economy businesses. Coastal-based activists want to end industrial agriculture and stop energy development.” Hostility probably goes both ways, sure- witness the Trump tax plan’s soaking of blue cities and municipalities, and the general lukewarmness of the cultural right to climate concerns- but in terms of sector-destroying campaigns, it is really only the powers-that-be on the political left that seek, in the 21st Century, to erase entire economic sectors and the ways of life associated with them from the map.

It’s ironic, I think, that in the wake of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 musical Hamilton, quite a few of our friends on the left casually identify themselves with Alexander Hamilton as often as they do. I’m thinking of writing some history and polemic against this tendency* but for now, suffice it to say that these friends on the left- if they, like Hillary Clinton, support an end to coal mining or oil development, or like Bernie Sanders, despise corporate bigness and especially that of the energy, agricultural, and military-industrial sectors- don’t begin to understand what Hamilton’s economic vision entailed. In an excessively brief nutshell, Hamilton wanted a strong, mixed, national economy, in partnership with a strong federal government, that could a) provide the nation with the military-industrial resources it need to compete economically and diplomatically with Old World powers, and b) open up opportunities for social advancement through hard work to Americans across the states and the social system.**

Now, everyone’s thoughts are complex and historically contingent, so I won’t attempt to categorize every political tendency and worldview. But I would venture to say, that while blue states like New York and California, with their managerial tendencies and propensities for massive public investments, are probably more amenable to using Hamiltonian means in economics, they are far less likely than red states and purple states to pursue Hamiltonian ends like sectoral economic diversity- wind power and oil drilling, auto manufacturing and data consulting- and true economic mobility. Renn’s assessments of how some small Heartland cities combine the “old” and “new” economies, combined with Kotkin’s meticulous research on homeownership, business ownership, and other marks of economic mobility, would seem to prove without a doubt that the mixed opportunity economy Alexander Hamilton dreamed of is more alive in the Heartland than in Hamilton’s own dear New York.

This is not a ringing endorsement of Heartland politics, by the way. The increasingly unstable and swaggering President Donald Trump’s popularity in the Heartland continues to dismay me, and although I probably have a lot in common with Heartland moderate Democrats, I continue to find it hard to sympathize with members of my own Republican Party in these regions, where they are more dominant and thus freer to be eccentrically radical. Just because they’re doing economics somewhat right doesn’t mean they’re governing well.

But, in the end, I would say the oligarchic bastions of coastal California and the Acela Corridor could learn a lot from the economics and social structures of “flyover country,” even if that only means becoming a bit more humble and people-focused. And as someone’s told me of California many times- a broken system can only keep going until it stops. Reformers ought to have something else ready when that happens.


*For the record, it seems to me that the musical would’ve been better titled “Obama” in pure political terms. Indeed, Jeremy McCarter’s Buzzfeed essay Why Hamilton Matters all but concedes something to that effect. (Don’t get me wrong- at an artistic level, I remain a huge fan of Miranda’s masterpiece. I just think the politics of it are inane.)

**Forrest McDonald’s Alexander Hamilton: A Biography has very interesting discussions of the Hamiltonian-economics-as-social-mobility concept.

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