Luke’s Blog

LNP’s Practical Political Ideology, April 2022, revised September 2022

Note: My dear readers, this is an unhinged ramblerant pulled directly from the pages of my personal journal, posted publicly only for reference to send around to friends and colleagues. It should not be interpreted as anything other than the delusions of one man’s mind. You will note that the prose style is dense, florid, didactic, and otherwise not fit for general consumption; that is how I write to myself. Again, this is a personal memo I share only for general interest, and not an attempt at polemic or persuasion, nor a statement of policy. -LNP

My practical political ideology—that is, my regime loyalty and my understanding of the principles of that regime, and some caveats of political theory on the mechanics of that regime and of politics in general—as it exists today, might be stated as follows:

The American union, which is in some ways a creed and in some ways a confederation and in all the crucial ways a nation, and must be preserved as such, is the greatest political project in history, and it is uniquely ours.

The most essential principles of that union can be discerned in the historic continuity between the system of government codified by the U.S. Constitution and articulated in The Federalist Papers, the two-party system and practice of multifactional democracy established over time, and the systems of mass-movement representation, technical management, and countervailing power established in the economic and social practice of the New Deal Era.

This living tradition is contiguous with the entire American political tradition, for good and for ill, and its primary promise is, that it does not strive to expunge, but instead to tolerate and sometimes to integrate, those parts of the American tradition with which it is in tension. These have included top-down technocracy and plutocracy, natural-rights libertyisms of all stripes, messianic republicanisms and populisms of all stripes, and all the rest.

Anything resembling coordinative “national” life is only possible inasmuch as it pays deference to this pluralism.

Anything resembling independent “localist” life is only possible inasmuch as it pays deference to and plays ball with this pluralism, for this pluralism channels and tames the rapacities which always are out to destroy the small.

All lower institutions and components of this union are precisely as indicative and valuable as its higher components and institutions, and the nobility of democracy lies in access to these by Americans of any background, and the mutual respect between those leading any of these institutions for each other and for each other’s wards, high or low, local or national, prominent or obscure.

The sophisticated and essentially non-rational and unprincipled, even unsolvable, matrix of national life over time and across space, is a glorious thing worth preserving and defending for its own sake; whatever unalloyed virtues or principles or ideals it might appear to manifest, are not themselves conditions of the union’s worth.

The essence of freedom in union, to the degree it is an independent virtue, is primarily in non-destruction; the value of things not having to make sense, of not having to be fit into higher ordering principles for the sake of some vision of higher good. The tradition of compromising, collaborating, temporary-consensus-building union as American political practice, is far more amenable to the preservation of this freedom of every component part to be itself, than any first-principles-based ideology of order or justice or natural right imaginable. The maintenance of social and institutional pluralism naturally maintains the lived basis of this freedom in American life.

There is no intrinsic “virtue” that presupposes legitimacy, dignity, and sovereignty, to be found anywhere, among any class of people, in any institution, or in any set of ideas, save in the union itself. All people, institutions, and ideas in the union are fallible, corruptible, dignifiable, and prospective, capable in equal measure of nobility and barbarity, decadence and grandeur. They possess civic virtue by no natural right, but only inasmuch as they practice virtues and habits of utility to the union and thus of magnanimity to their fellow inhabitants thereof. It need not be said, that civic virtue is not the only goodness.

Those who would be leaders in the union, in the republic, and in the nation, must practice these true virtues for their own sake; and if they practice the falser virtues, they must be encouraged or compelled to pay outward obeisance to the grander virtues. American political culture can only be healthy and vigorous if such virtues are recalled, cultivated, lauded, practiced, and practiced at great cost, among those who command and staff American institutions.

Such a practice of virtue in culture is best ensured by, first, a countervailing power in social balance, political balance, and economic balance generally prevailing upon American life and threatening the haughty, and second, by the aforementioned virtuous leadership working to maintain it, whether for self-interest or out of self-restraint.

The conditions of the 21st Century conspire such that greatness in American leadership now would seem to be attainable, not merely in elected office and leadership in American legislative and executive office, but in appointive office and nongovernmental leadership across civil society associations, and including in the discourse-shaping institutions of public life. The ancient role of the counselor, the minister, the lieutenant to the great, has a long pedigree in the American political tradition, and one with a perpetually uncertain place in American democratic constitutionalism, to be reimagined and reforged in every age. Under current circumstances, the opportunities would appear to be ripe for new endeavors on this open stage, with Hamilton, Hay, Pinchot, Hopkins, and Moynihan as a few potential models for consideration.

All those aspiring thisaways will in time discern that there is no essential unity of the virtues, and that a series of dialectics between incompatible and equally binding things—thought vs. action, principle vs. pragmatism, honesty vs. responsibility, private conscience vs. public duty, etc.—chain down all who would serve, think, act, or otherwise engage. The standard American penchant towards “practical idealism,” that messianic hustling which is the normal sidestepping attempt at escape from dichotomies, is as false a hope as any. Political character, like political order and like all things human, is not fundamentally resolvable, and all attempts to finally resolve it, rather than pay deference to its stubborn unsolvability, shall result in sputtering catastrophe. The true glories of political character are to be found in the temporal, limited, and creative ways individuals in multitudes of circumstances address these dialectics, respecting the competing moral claims of different standards of virtue and succumbing to the totalism of none. It encourages a tragic outlook, at best.

Civic virtue on the part of choice spirits and dedicated aristocrats of the soul, cannot be counted upon or expected to exist at any given moment. It can be expected to rise anywhere, from anyone of any background; but it should not be relied upon to preserve the integrity and operation of American government. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. They will not usually be there either. The union must be able to preserve itself in their absence; government must remain vigorous and intrepid for the public good, in their absence. The problem cannot be solved; and no one should expect it can be. We must make do as best we can, and American special providence will do what it shall.

The surest preserve of civic and social virtue, however, in accordance with the best and most ennobling American traditions across time, can be found and encouraged through social practices of vigor, strenuosity, and multitalented preparedness among all willing Americans of any background. Preparedness, for any old thing; Resilience, in the face of all disasters social, natural, political, and otherwise; general familiarity with historical and natural heritage dispersed among the citizenry, in ways that cannot be quite reduced to “education” alone, and institutionalized practices of commemoration whereby the torch of stewardship might be maintained; and a social norm of volunteer leadership in egalitarian local and national organizations, the famed “art of association” applied especially to causes of action, and not only causes of discourse. These are good things in themselves, under any political circumstances and in any regime. They are not in themselves qualifiers for leadership in the present circumstances. But they are a surer reserve of the sorts of grit and virtue our political institutions require, than those institutions are themselves. Anyone pining for their return must walk the walk.

The modes and orders which at any time might solidify and be crafted and tended by great lawgivers to bring order to the storm and speak the whirlwinds into stillness, will inevitably wither in time, either as geniuses pass the stage and cease management of their creations, or far more often, as the dykes and levees of one age are rendered moot by new technological and economic revolutions, new social  and cultural great awakenings, new party systems and constellations of government, new geographies and geopoliticses of order. The rush of modernity and the whiplash of stagnation, and the natural seeds of war and greed and lust etc. sown thickly in the human breast, render this perpetual; and the constitution, party system, and order of countervailing power, provide a stunningly timeless framework for preserving the union amid the unceasing storms.

The union thus always has its place among the nations of the earth, neither separate from them nor lord over them; and the tasks of statecraft in the homeland, and statecraft upon the world stage, are far more like than might commonly be understood, in specific notions of forbearance and prudence.

They who ascertain any of this, who would be patriots for the union across the decades and orders, must resign themselves to their own obscurity, for their fellow Americans will rarely understand these principles of American government, far less the older principles of free government itself. The patriot must be prepared never to be understood nor appreciated nor thanked, but must strive on to serve anyway, in all capacities amenable to his or her talents and attainable by his or her labors. They are an American, and must not lord themselves over their fellow Americans, for it would be wrong, and their fellow citizens would not take it anyway. But they must cherish their times in the wildernesses of society and soul, to see the things Americans forget, to better serve when they walk amongst them. Whatever greater political and social and moral goals they fight and live and die for, they must do it for the glory of the ages, not of their own age, and live for their countrymen and country, and not their own power or esteem or fame. The balance is subtle; but at the end of the day, while they might talk with the ancients and a few modern greats, they must always answer to God, and worse, themselves.

A Theory of Public Opinion and Public Discourse

Note: My dear readers, this is an unhinged ramblerant pulled directly from the pages of my personal journal, posted publicly only for reference to send around to friends and colleagues. It should not be interpreted as anything other than the delusions of one man’s mind. You will note that the prose style is dense, florid, didactic, and otherwise not fit for general consumption; that is how I write to myself. Again, this is a personal memo I share only for general interest, and not an attempt at polemic or persuasion, nor a statement of policy. -LNP

Part of the task of political leadership in media democracy—not just government, but also press, parties, education, civil society, major industries, science, religion, and everything that can possibly have public valence, and that can possibly be polarized—is not only to advise and advocate and formulate and administer policy and action, nor simply to balance interests and factions (those being classic tasks of government in general and representative government in particular) but also, per Publius’s dictum, to maintain and manage public opinion, specifically, to channel the passions of public opinion properly, in accordance with the most prudent maintenance of the political hearth.

As they manage and channel opinion they must not indulge any set of opinion too much, for when a set of opinion is too far indulged, it grows bloated and decadent and tyrannical, a lazy knee-jerk consensus whose insipidity is matched by the poshness of those who cultivate it, and the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of which grow ever clearer and more juxtaposed to the realities of the world the longer and more desperately it is clung to by those who have forgotten how to think.

On the other side, those who manage and channel opinion must not suppress any set of opinion too much, for when a set of opinion is too far suppressed, it grows unhinged and resentful and revolting, all the more compelling for its forbidden allure, and all the more deranged for its lack of responsibility and sanity, thus more dangerous and otherwise more pathetic, and always a distortion of truth and utility, not their encapsulation as its adherents will often believe.

Indulged and suppressed opinions might animate the same bodies of opinion at the same times; public opinion is never unified, but always as fractious and divers’ as the body politick in general no matter what; and so this ought not be seen as a spectrum which opinion might be thought to inhabit, but qualities which ebb and flow constantly throughout the same opinions, and all opinions, in the public discourse.

They who manage the public discourse—and this applies to everyone, for every institution and faction, and in a degree every individual, is a component actor in the public discourse—must play the part of channeling these passions productively, neither indulging favored ones nor suppressing opposing ones, but channeling the expressions of all, in relation to each other, toward a well-mannered hearth of a public discourse where all parts have their place and acknowledge it, and each other. This is not “free speech” although free speech is a general characteristic of this done competently. It is neither an assault on human freedom, so much as it is an accurate assumption, that human freedom takes place in the context of systems of power—we live in a society—requiring some general prudential ordering habits such that freedom might not destroy itself. Pessimistic about plebiscites, optimistic about representation.

And of course, the deepest problem remains that most who pretend to be impartial or responsible arbiters of public discourse, tend to simply indulge some opinions and suppress others, and so many different institutions and factions do this in so many contrary and contradictory ways, that the feared [and in my personal opinion, simplistic and misinterpreted] “post-Babel” world is in fact magnified by our broader discursive sphere, and the decadents and the unhingeds bemoan the end of the republic as they indulge their own fantasies and are suppressed by the acolytes of other fantasies. A little bit of internal self-regulation would fix this among every institution, but most are insufficiently sentient unto themselves to realize it.

So the management of public opinion’s passions—mark, we already do it, we just do it so pathetically badly—is not just an intellectual role, but is as much a political role. It requires personable leadership and all qualities of empathy, charisma, rhetoric, etc., for in some sense the leader in this sphere shouts and harangues their own crowd, calming its flames and redirecting its shouts; and, it requires stately and strategic qualities of grand vision, genius for assessing the parts of the whole, general sense of ends and means, aims and principles, the swathe of history. Beyond these it demands intellectual depth, honesty, and insight, and most of all it requires a sense of measure, an ability and a willingness to see beyond one’s institution’s and audience’s nose, and to speak as frankly as might be done, on the realities of things. Even while such roles are not always political or governmental, they are always public, and so the social ministers of the public discourse are a diverse and crucial lot, who do not even know their task. But it is a task that, if done better, would deeply leaven our society, politics, and whole practice of public life.

This sort of leadership is in some ways open only to the elect few, but in more ways is truly open to all, a requirement of the aristocratic best of citizenship in a democracy. All who would be leaders ought cultivate it. They must assume objectivity and rationality are not independently possible, that subjective feeling and interest and passion cloud and guide all thought, no matter how clear; that public opinion is based not on fact nor on reason, but upon feeling and interest and passion etc., and thus must be “reasoned” with on its own terms, not on others’ terms; that it will not and cannot change, but with deep respect for it and its hearthy sources; that working through and with this reality, vigorous and fair and charitable and spirited places of public discourse, of all dispensations and for all communities and by all interested parties, ought be maintained by strictly applied practice and ruthlessly enforced habit; that dignity, of dissent and of consent alike, and all the rest, is the most important thing to protect in these spaces; that this opinion being the essential basis of all politics, all government, and all sovereign legitimacy, it is the duty of they who would manage it, to hold themselves to the highest standards aforementioned, and beyond; and that this does matter, for here is one of those otherworldly trysts where the purest habits of personal intellectual life and social discourse, and the highest standards of public discourse and common life, despite all their other contradictions, just happen to intersect, and kiss. Here is where honest men and women in public life may perhaps prove themselves; there are vanishing few spots with such prospect.

So for both preservation of one’s own personal virtue and protection of the public good, ye mighty, ponder well the habits and convictions of a decent public discourse.

Debate as Sacred Ritual of American Life

LNP’s Address to the National History Academy’s high school summer honors program, July 6th 2022

(Fourth of July Oration) (Not as good as Frederick Douglass’s) (Dedicated to someone who makes me debate with myself)

I have often heard said, that America is an idea; a set of pristine principles, an aspirational truth, a great becoming as-yet-unrealized. I have often heard said, that America is a place, a great nation with a great heritage, a lived experience in historical time. There are good and wise men and women, left and right, young and old, who have argued for either of these conceptions—America is a nation, America is an idea—and have brought forth great arguments for either.

My own prejudiced opinion is that America is a nation that believes itself to be an idea, and that from that reality sprouts forth all the messiness and beauty, all the rancor and grandeur, all the banal simplicity and hypocritical vice and redemptive glory that has characterized American life in every decade and will mark American life for every decade yet to come. There never was a golden age and there never will be one; we’ve always been like this and always will be. That’s not to say that things don’t change, or that history’s just one darn thing after another. But it is to say, that if you want to understand America, and that impossible-to-define concept everyone has an opinion about, American identity, you have to look to the past, and be prepared to see the past in the present, the present in the past, and everything in between.

So, “a nation that believes itself to be an idea.” How does that even emerge? What does that mean for us nowadays—should we dislike ourselves, or dislike people who don’t dislike themselves? Should we blindly celebrate ourselves, and be blind to those who decline to celebrate? Don’t we need a consensus, a coherent set of general propositions or abstract truths or civic touchstones that everyone can agree are good and worth venerating, and when we’ve found such a consensus, is it not our right to insist that everyone, every American if they really are an American, agree to that consensus as an absolute minimum and an absolute baseline for participation in the American family and our glorious national community?

I, for my own part, don’t think so. We clearly do not have that now, and have not had that sort of consensus for most of living memory. We didn’t even have any deep consensus in the shocked weeks after airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, or in the shocked weeks after COVID-19 case counts climbed and governments around the United States commenced lockdowns as the most prominent pandemic of our times spread all over this broad land in March 2020. And the more we look at any of the supposed “eras of good feelings” or “holidays from history” commonly remembered for their supposed unity, the more the true divisions and suppressions and dissensions and decadences of those times remind us, if we care to listen, that our divides today are really nothing new.

Somehow, America has gotten by; somehow, every great achievement and notable event in American history, has happened not by some collaborative emergence of consensus, where everyone got their input and agreed with the final product, and then pushed forward pragmatically in unison to make things happen. No, those great events and achievements have taken place amid, and thanks to, pitched and screeching battles, cast against apocalyptic times, the leaders and citizens of every moment imagining, sometimes rightly, that the very soul of democracy—the very fate of the republic—the very dream of the nation—hung always in the balance, their personal acts and convictions having a real meaning for history, their duty as citizens and as leaders and as activists and as prophets compelling them always to fight with fury for the things they believed in most.

That is, America has always been something of a process; a strange and nonsensical system whose parts, believing and practicing as they did incompatible things, have duked it out against each other in every moment in the past. Sometimes, some of those parts have come a little closer to long-term victory than others; more often they’ve settled into some more-or-less workable compromise with the other parts, and that has begun in time to look more like a consensus than it ever actually was. And in due time these compromises break down; they cease being useful to resolve the problems they once resolved, or new problems arise which prior generations simply cannot wrap their minds around. And when the façade of order and unity finally becomes too contradictory and dysfunctional to maintain, and comes collapsing down, then all that is solid melts into thin air, and the destructive and creative whirlwinds of American politics and society are let loose, and sometimes great geniuses and oftener great movements wring new light from the storm. They speak new orders into existence; by the sweat of their brows and the witness of their hearts they renew America in the times America seems lost, gone, forsaken.

You could even think of America as something of an ongoing great debate—a great debate that is not between any specific contrasting principles, nor between any specific lived realities, but is something bigger; a great debate that is always ongoing—that never ends, in which there can be no final victories, and no final defeats, where every generation renews the old flames—a never-ending great debate whose participants are every single American, every single one of the American people, whether they’re recognized as such or not, whether they know they’re debating or not, whatever the issues and the factions and the sects and the parties and the divisions of the time might be. In this debate, one’s life is an argument, one’s actions are a comprehensive speech, one’s arguments and speeches are little reminders that America—a people in motion, an unfolding revolution, a grand conversation—is always a thing in process. We have inherited things, ideas and experiences, and they have made us what we are, and we see them all around us. But we also are always building something new, pushing the project ever further into the future, practicing in our actions those great political arts which every generation of Americans has learned in its own way.

Some have written this into our political theory. When James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, they looked at this dynamic. When Alexis de Tocqueville described the America he saw, he used this dynamic. When John Dewey tried to establish a new system of education for democracy, he looked at this dynamic, and all sober American political theorists and political historians—whatever their convictions and prejudices—have had to grapple with the fact, that the American system of politics is constantly integrating from the bottom up, building new coalitions from disparate blocks, establishing rules and orders and systems which assume and aspire to fairness and impartiality across the pluralist hearth. It is, after all, our national motto—E Pluribus, Unum—From Many, One. Every American political and social institution worth its salt—from Congress and the legislatures and the federal government in general, to the political parties, to the great civil society institutions and voluntary associations and religious movements that enrich our common life, to fan clubs and advocacies to local communities, to the university itself—operates, in some way or another, in deference to this logic, and when these institutions fail to so operate, they deservedly lose trust among large sections of the public.

So America is in a real sense a debate; every American institution is premised on debate; debate is in a deep and public sense, what we do. More than even voting, it defines the American political experience. It has been our national experience in every major conflict, crisis, division, consensus, and opportunity in our history. And it doesn’t just happen at the highest levels, at grand ethereal heights of power abstract to everyday people. It happens at every level of society, including our own, and we all participate in it in some sense—whether by engagement, understanding, anger, or avoidance, is our own choice—every day and on every issue and across our lives. Sometimes we do it badly, sometimes we do it well. But we do it, and so do all our fellow Americans, just as we always have.

And so debate in itself is something of a sacred ritual for Americans—an expression of the very best qualities of our national soul, our mutual fellowship and our habits of persuasion and our standing for things higher than ourselves in the public eye, by which we create even higher things in cooperation and competition with our fellow-citizens; a glorious moment and process where the life of American principle and nationhood and soul, intersects with the day-to-day life of every American, no matter where they’re from; where every American is given the chance to be an equal participant, with every other American, on the field of public discourse.

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men [and women] are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” That was Alexander Hamilton, as the American people in 1788 set out on their great debate on whether there would be a Constitution; on whether there would be a union. When we think of debates in American history, we often think back to those heady days—the Constitutional Convention and its Ratification aftermath—which, it is true, brought forth some of the best argument and oratory and theory and organizing in our history. But when we consign the greatness of debate to that hazy heroic past, a past plastered in paint in our National Archives and our lazy memory, we forget that the power of those men, is our birthright as Americans. Every generation since, every cause since, every movement since—including the generations and causes and movements that ended slavery and saved the union, that reformed and modernized our country as we entered the modern age, that fought the fascists and communists and laid the foundations of world leadership, that brought equality before the law into a deeper lived reality than Americans had ever known—every generation and cause and movement since, has had and has used that same power of debate and deliberation, that ability to organize a free democratic society for higher ends and purposes, for the purposes of their own day. Some had to spend much sweat and sometimes blood for their causes. But their power and habit and process to debate was integral to their ability to organize politically, and every party convention, legislative session, national conference, town meeting, fan club bylines-drafting session, and national student history honors program has in some real sense beat with the living spirits of 1787 and 1788 up to this present moment. They had that power, and you have that power too.

So I exhort you all, to undertake your citizenship in this strange and contradictory and innocent and hypocritical and infuriating and ennobling and wonderful and terrible and glorious American experience of ours, with an eye to the past and an eye to the future, and two hands gesticulating wildly in the grand debates you’ll win and lose, in this great never-ending debate that is the United States of America. You are at the tail end of a great tradition, pushing it forward into an uncertain future. Act worthy of your heritage; act worthy of posterity; act worthy of yourselves. The great debate will never be resolved, and will never stop, and so long as it goes on America will live; and none of us can ever really escape it. So let us go forth and debate, with the enthusiasm, the charity, the humility, and the magnanimity which, at the end of the day, are the prerequisite foundations of true eloquence.

Dispatch from 14,000 Feet

[Braver Angels Member Newsletter, Aug. 15th 2021; Read for KTAH Jan. 13th, 2022]

A few weeks ago I was climbing mountains out west. My Braver Angels Debates colleague Clif Swiggett had invited me to climb Tahoma—Mount Rainier—with his sons and their friends, and so I tagged along, following the benevolence, grit, and expertise of these far more experienced mountaineers up one of the most beautiful and prominent mountains in the United States of America.

My trail reading that trek, which I finished while strapping on crampons for our glacier ascent under the glowing northwest summer moon, included German sociologist Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” a hundred-year-old lecture that hasn’t aged a day. 

Included in its closing lines is an admonition that those with a calling for public life “must arm themselves with that staunchness of heart that refuses to be daunted by the collapse of all their hopes. And, if they’re serious about the business, be “certain that [their] spirit will not be broken if the world… proves too stupid or base to accept what [they wish] to offer it.”

I took this punk-rock-ish advice– to love life, to be undaunted by failure, and to do work for work’s sake– up Tahoma with me. On we crawled through the darkness on ice and the thinning air, up those majestic crags and across the jagged frost-fields and wobbling scree, the lights of Seattle glowing on our right and the full moon beaming from our left, as we traversed steadily up the strange vertical world that greets those who climb great heights. We reached Columbia Crest around 5:30 a.m., as sunlight returned to illuminate the world.

We were greeted not by the narrow, windswept, sawtooth-pointed promontory one is conditioned to expect atop a great western mountain, but by a vast flat volcanic summit whose chief view was itself. There was no single peak. There was nowhere—amid the multiple high points nestled around the top—to spin around and behold a panoramic view of Puget Sound and the Cascades. The very size and prominence of Tahoma that draws so many thousands up its slopes—“Why are you climbing it?” “Because it’s there!”—make the view from the top far less grand than what I’d imagined it might be.

On the slushy slog down in the morning’s melting snow, as we belayed across widening crevasses, it occurred to me that Weber might be analogically helpful here. 

Bluntly, Tahoma has a disappointing summit, the most disappointing of any I’ve ever climbed, especially when compared with the thrill of the ascent. Sometimes (and I’m very guilty of this) we inhabitants of the modern world go to the mountains looking for something and expect we’ll be hit with profound insight or meaning or whatever at the top. 

And so the dry reality that outdoor insight doesn’t just happen by some primal magic logic of nature can be disillusioning. All the more so, when a mountain you’ve longed to conquer for the better part of your adult life turns out to have been better as a journey than as a destination—when at its peak, you don’t even know what you came to find.

That’s not just life or just mountaineering. That dry disappointment in victory, says Weber, is politics as well. It is all of public life, including the public life of those of us who, in good faith, strive day by day to elevate the public discourse and demonstrate for our fellow Americans a better way to live in our democratic republic, to find new heights in our common life.

It’s not just that you’ll face defeat every once in a while. It’s that victory itself is never total; achievement is never final; progress is never complete, and simply cannot be, for all human things come to an end. The only true victory is to be, by your own conduct, a beacon of honest hope in a torn gray world, come whatever may, in victory or defeat.

Those with a vocation for politics, as Weber might have it, or a passion to change the world or serve our country, as we might have it, must always be prepared to know that they may lose, and fight on anyway. Holding oneself responsibly—as a steward of virtues our fellow Americans sometimes forget, but of which they must always be reminded—demands nothing less. And in the uphill fight of spirit we’re all pushing forward as Braver Angels, that fidelity is everything.

I’m back east now, back to work. See you on an America’s Public Forum or Debate soon. And may the ascents and summits of your life reveal their meanings to you in time.

— Luke Nathan Phillips, Braver Angels Publius Fellow for Public Discourse

The Killer Apes of Mount Rainier

Author’s Note: A version of this piece first appeared at The American Conservative on August 28th, 2020.

In Review: “Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre,” by Max Brooks, 2020

By Luke Nathan Phillips

It is only human to be scared of the dark, although that doesn’t stop some of us from occasionally finding ourselves wandering alone around the woods without a light, on a moonless night, for no particular reason. The world changes in these sojourns. Your night-vision perks up, only a little, but discernibly. Your hearing does as well, and you realize just how loud nighttime nature is. You’re more sensitive to the texture of the ground beneath you, to smells you hadn’t noticed before; shadows seem to twist and turn as though alive, and if your mind’s overworking itself, you might feel you’re being watched. These kinds of nights, I repeat to myself that there’s nothing else out there following me, even as I quicken my pace until I’m back in the safety of a well-lit spot. Just in case, of course.

One of the mind’s-eye darkness-monsters I’ve feared since my youth as a Boy Scout in the Pacific Northwest has been, predictably, the sasquatch. The primal fear that some damn dirty ape might be stalking me amid the firs and hemlocks was never particularly well-defined, though, beyond the vague, hairy, hulking figure of cartoon lore. What, exactly, was I afraid a sasquatch would do to me, if I ran into one?

It is to this serial nocturnal wanderer’s great anxiety, then, that the inimitable Max Brooks has given us a vivid, visceral depiction of what a sasquatch might do to you. He vividly and realistically depicts his characters’ split-second reactions when, wandering around in the dark woods of the high Cascades, they see things in the night, but can’t be sure of what they saw, or that they saw it. It’s a feeling we nighttime wanderers have all had, and Brooks captures it eerily. That realism pays dividends; it makes easier the suspension of disbelief required for reading a ‘Bigfoot-Destroys-Town’ story, in this case a story that is not just believable or entertaining, but even morally compelling.

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre is, more or less, what its name suggests. It’s a docufiction, found-footage-style account. Brooks informs us that he was tipped off by the brother of the missing Kate Holland to her last testament—a diary she’d kept when she moved to the tiny, idyllic, ecotopian town of Greenloop (population: 11) on the eastern slopes of Mount Rainier. Shocked by the journal’s contents, Brooks interviewed Kate’s brother, as well as the park ranger who led the first search-and-rescue team into the ashen ruins of Greenloop, where her team had discovered 18-inch humanoid footprints, torched homes, shallow graves, and the said diary. Brooks presents the journal chronologically, appending its entries with snippets of the interview transcripts and, interestingly enough, maxims on war from literary history and haunting quips on ape behavior from famous primatologists like Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall. For good measure, other old bits of sasquatch lore—especially the ‘goblin-beast of Idaho’ story recounted by Theodore Roosevelt in The Wilderness Hunter, and the Ape Canyon legend—make their appearances as well.

All these references are arrayed to present a modestly believable theory of the origins of the sasquatch, as a primate.[i] The real-life giant ancient ape of the Asian mountains, Gigantopithecus blacki, is cast as having been an upright walker, not unlike the smaller hominids with which it shared the earth. Those hominids, first Homo erectus and then us, Homo sapiens, evolved alongside Gigantopithecus throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. When glaciation exposed the Bering Land Bridge tens of thousands of years ago, modern humans crossed from Asia into North America, and so did the apparently-not-yet-extinct Gigantopithecus—the sasquatches. As Kate’s brother muses, “what if… they weren’t just co-migrating along with us? What if they were hunting us? …What if we were stalking the caribou while they were stalking us?”

Early on, in a representative sample of the book’s sometimes maniacally black humor, a despondent and depressed Kate partakes in a welcome-to-your-new-home meditation session with one of the town’s founders. The rich, beautiful, tanned, British-accented, well-connected former model Yvette Durant, is a credentialed ‘psychosomatic illness therapist’ who daily streams virtual ‘integrative health yoga’ sessions to her fans around the world from their secluded, idyllic alpine paradise. After some breathing exercises and new-age gobbledygook, Yvette prods Kate into imagining rushing into the loving arms of ‘Oma,’ the ‘guardian of the wilderness.’ “Feel her energy, her protection. Feel her soft, warm arms around you. Her sweet, cleansing breath surround you.” Kate, entranced, asks if Oma is the same as Bigfoot or Sasquatch; Yvette explains that Eurocentric white men perverted the mythic gentle forest spirit into a hideous monster, “like everything else our society has done to what came before it.” In due time, Yvette does feel those soft warm arms and sweet cleansing breath, while Kate barely escapes them.

The symbolism here—an upper-middle class enclave whose residents seek to live in harmony with nature, suddenly exposed to the pitilessness and fury of the nature which they’d come hoping to live harmoniously with—is rich and delicious. Greenloop has, indeed, forgotten the gods of the copybook headings, and those old gods, soon enough, make themselves known.

Mount Rainier erupts, and as the lava flows slide to Puget Sound they kill thousands of Washingtonians. Thousands more are stranded in communities in the Cascade foothills. Refugees flee to Vancouver or Portland when they can; the majority, trapped in the Seattle megalopolis, soon devolves to food rioting and urban guerilla warfare while the U.S. military and local emergency services are mustered to render aid. Here, Brooks’s wargaming most closely resembles that of his earlier bestseller, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, in examining the social and political effects of unforeseen disasters. But this is all background noise, which Kate and the other residents of Greenloop listen to on the radio whenever they can catch a signal. The lava slides mercifully avoided Greenloop, but have blocked off all its access roads by which the townspeople might escape. And with Washington State and America itself in chaos, there’s no real hope that overworked rescue workers will notice a tiny, isolated, eccentric town deep in the mountains anytime soon. The denizens of Greenloop are low on food, unarmed, unprepared, and on their own.

That’s when Kate starts seeing things. Strange, rancid smells in the woods while she’s gathering berries, and the feeling that she’s being watched. A boulder down the road, as she paces along alone in the dark, seems to move. Strange howls in the night, unlike any she’s heard before. The shattered carcass of a mountain lion, surrounded by footprints. Nobody believes her but her long-suffering husband, Dan, and the sage-like artist Mostar, until the whole troop of sasquatches (yes, Brooks insists on using the technical term for a group of apes) investigates the town at night, the dumbfounded residents watching from indoors. Even then, some of the townsfolk—a retired professor, some vegan advocates, Yvette and her suave husband—convince themselves that the apes might be harmless, even friendly. “I seem to recall that most hominids are herbivorous in nature,” assures the professor. Then the first barrage of rocks comes, and Greenloop’s fate is sealed.

In a nutshell, the journal tells the story of a series of devolutions. First is the devolution of the natural order, as the volcano-displaced sasquatches return as apex predator and hunt the humans who’d technologically marginalized them for millennia. Then there’s the devolution of decadent, advanced civilization to chaos and barbarism—Greenloop is a high-tech, environmentally-conscious, socially cosmopolitan community of the sort you’d imagine Davos and TedX types to hawk as humanity’s inexorable future. It lies in smoking ruin at the end, its inhabitants devoured by primeval monsters, its pretenses burnt on altars of meat and stone.

Then there’s the devolution of human nature amid the breakdown of moral and temporal order; Greenloop’s posh, high-status funder-founders, the Durants, devolve into mindless, drug-addled wraiths as they lose control of the crisis and faith in themselves, and then are gruesomely consumed. Kate and the other suburban middle-class failures devolve, too; they lose their romantic illusions, learn to fight and kill the beasts, and tap into the primal, amoral side of the human spirit reducible neither to selfish genes nor to social constructs. Both transformations are devolutions, with different moral weights. The Cassandra-like foresight and eventual sacrifice of Mostar, who is heavily implied to be a Bosnian war refugee, and the hardiness and eventual survival of Palomino, who is heavily implied to be a refugee Rohingya child (Kate compares her eyes to Sharbat Gula’s,) cast further aspersions at modern elite western decadence. Those who carry tragedy within themselves are more fit to stave off tragedies than those who’ve never suffered.

The gratuitous blood and gore certainly helps drive the point home. Heads are pulled off, bones are smashed to bits, uneaten body parts are hurled at shocked survivors. Sasquatches crush human skulls with the balls of their humanoid feet, and rip out townspeople’s guts in carnivorous orgies. Nothing chimpanzees don’t do to smaller monkeys in real life, of course. The townspeople, meanwhile, bash out some of the sasquatches’ brains, and urinate on others’ corpses in front of their enraged fellow apes.

The line between man-vs.-beast and man-vs.-man is muddied and obscured, very effectively. The reason Mostar’s background as a survivor of ethnic warfare helps her and the town here, of course, is that the troop of sasquatches is an organized foe, capable of planning and executing strategies to achieve its hungry aims—and from rock bombardments to keeping human captives alive as rescue-bait, they do just that, to deadly effect. But the sheer savagery of the warfare—annihilationist rather than attritional, each faction seeing the other as either an existential threat, or an inferior and tasty dinner, to be destroyed entirely—brings it back to the world of the food chain and the natural order’s cruelty.

Survival, rage, hatred, revenge, things we like to think of as irrational, illiberal, and outdated in our cozy modern world, rule this fight. In plowing through the last few (admittedly overdone) chapters of climactic battles between wild man and wild ape, it grows less clear whether you’re reading about a hunt by one species of another, or a battle between vengeful equals. They’re not so distinct, at root. A quick reflection on wartime news from the disordered corners of the earth suggests that this is quite relevant to us today, even amid rival clans of homo sapiens alone. A quick reflection on the long Paleolithic history of human warfare, and its historical aftermath in the last 10,000 years, suggests that that is exactly the point Brooks wants to drive home.

This is not just an action thriller or a survival narrative or a psychological horror story. Beyond those, it is a sly reminder to we moderns of what, in the end, human beings are, whether we like to admit it or not. It serves Brooks’s general purpose—recall, he’s a fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center—in using speculative fiction for wargaming, and the education of strategists. The central concern of Devolution, indeed, is devolution—what human beings can become when order breaks down and violence breaks out. After all, the majority of wars in the last several decades, as well as many recent bouts of civil unrest and political turmoil, have been more about the breakdown of internal order than the relations of states and empires. The reader of Devolution is prodded into some uncomfortable questions. If I were thrown into that maelstrom, with sasquatches or with sapiens, could I survive? Could I really be civilized on the other side of that? Beneath all our order and civilization, are we really so unlike the killer apes?

 And Brooks concludes the story with some interesting speculations on that. Kate Holland, it seems, survived the last recorded onslaught of the sasquatches, along with Palomino. Brooks and Kate’s brother speculate on their eventual fate, as their bodies were not found in Greenloop’s ruins. Did the sasquatch troop’s survivors regroup and strike again, carrying off and feasting upon the last two humans? Did Kate and Palomino strike off to make their way back to civilization on foot, only to freeze in the mountain snows? Did they, perhaps, make it all the way back to some refugee camp, and simply have not been identified yet?

Or did Kate’s devolution go further? “What if those poor dumb brutes flicked a switch in Kate that’s waiting in all our DNA?” What if Kate and Palomino, emboldened and awakened by some new primal fury, went out to hunt down the rest of the sasquatch troop, now that they knew how to kill them? What if “by some miracle they kept stalking those things, killing them one by one?” Primeval sasquatch genocide is a laughable thought on the face of it, of course, but knowing what we do about human nature, is it so hard to imagine?

The essential questions Brooks raises in Devolution are not far off from the questions analyzed by philosophers of human nature. Brooks’s quiet conclusions seem, on the surface, amenable to the evolutionary psychologists over at the Intellectual Dark Web, and in some ways they are (though for my money, Steven Pinker’s and Jonathan Haidt’s whiggish historical sunniness and faith in bounded rationality miss the deeper, tragic lessons Brooks conveys.) Devolution may appeal as well, for obvious reasons, to the atavistic and carnivorous likes of Jordan Peterson and Bronze Age Pervert, though Brooks’s choice of a female protagonist serves to confound those who’d impute reactionary ideas into his story. The majority of pantheistic environmentalists, of course, might broadly concede Brooks’s naturalistic pessimism, while rejecting its deeper metaphysical conclusions; one can imagine strained, hucksterish reviews analogizing the sasquatch attack to climate change or coronavirus.

But recall again Brooks’s job: he’s a military analyst, a fellow at various strategic think tanks. He tries to help American military planners think more clearly and creatively about the human terrain underlying political and military reality, to avoid the ideological straitjacketing and techno-determinism that have hamstrung our military planners in decades past. If sasquatch-attack survival-horror-thriller is not the most predictable way to teach that, it is certainly a creative and compelling way to do so. Devolution is not ultimately about how to best fight wars or defeat counterinsurgencies or promote peace. It’s instead a haunting reminder of what human beings are, in all our complexity and contradiction, and are capable of reverting to, lest we delude ourselves otherwise.

So be careful next time you’re hiking near Mount Rainier, or doing anything else in human society. There’s killer apes out there.

[i] Brooks goes so far as to invent a fictional textbook field-guide, Steve Morgan’s The Sasquatch Companion, and cites it liberally as a source.

Parallel Lives of Nelson Rockefeller and Jon Huntsman, Jr.


Note: I wrote this piece a few years back and published it at the now-defunct The American Moderate website. Given that Governor Huntsman is, as of August 2019, planning to retire from the Russian Ambassadorship and presumably will reenter national domestic political advocacy, if not domestic politics in Utah itself, I figure it is useful to have it re-published here on my blog. -LNP

Word on the street in Utah has it that the Beehive State’s favorite living son, former Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., will undergo his confirmation hearing for the Russian Ambassadorship very soon, possibly arriving in Moscow as early as mid-September. When he gets there, Huntsman will be adding another distinguished post to his long and ongoing career in public service in the national spotlight, which has included the Governorship of Utah, service to four Presidents (Trump will be the fifth,) and his own 2012 run for the Presidency. Many are wishing the best for the Ambassador, and at age the ripe young age of 57, it can be reasonably assumed that he has ambitions for further influence in public life. But in the opinion of this author, Huntsman should take heed of the life of another long-term, bipartisan, moderate Republican public servant from the 20th century, to minimize his mistakes and maximize his usefulness and influence- Governor of New York, subcabinet secretary, and Vice-President Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller.

Nelson Rockefeller is typically remembered as a failed presidential candidate and a lingering holdout of a lost liberal Republicanism, but his long career in public service should overshadow his otherwise eccentric flights of wannabe presidential fancy. A scion of the great wealth of the Rockefeller clan, a notable philanthropist, and a modestly successful businessman in the oil industry, Rockefeller entered public service in 1940 and went on to serve four Presidents in cabinet or commission roles, including being Dwight Eisenhower’s Under-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and as Gerald Ford’s Vice-President. He served as Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and ran for the Presidency three times, losing the GOP nomination to the more pragmatic Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968 and to the heavily conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was the major voice for moderation in Republican politics throughout the “thirty years’ war” for the soul of the GOP between conservative and moderate Republicans that ran from 1950 and 1980. His failure to forestall the transformation of the GOP into a uniformly conservative party was one of the pivotal political events of the late 20th century.

Ambassador Huntsman should look to Vice-President Rockefeller’s legacy, not least to see where “Rocky” failed at his great quests, and achieved lesser stature and influence than he otherwise might have. Huntsman has taken on himself some of those same quests, and if he is to succeed at them in the interests of the country, he must not make the same mistakes Rockefeller did.

To begin, Huntsman and Rockefeller both came from great wealth. Huntsman’s father, Jon M. Huntsman Sr., is a billionaire and the founder of Huntsman Corp., a titan in the chemicals manufacturing industry, and of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. Indeed, Jon Huntsman Jr. has based much of his political career and influence in Utah state politics off of the wealth of his father, and his father’s net worth is probably one of the main factors explaining why Huntsman Jr. can speak the language of Republican moderation without having to please more socially conservative, fiscally dogmatic GOP donors. Additionally, Huntsman counts among his ancestors two major figures in the history of the church of the Latter-Day Saints.

Nelson Rockefeller’s family origins were even more opulent and influential- his tremendously wealthy father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was himself the son of the legendary figure John D. Rockefeller Sr., who defined both the Horatio Alger mythos of the late 19th Century and the contours of the American oil industry in the early 20th Century. Rockefeller’s mother, meanwhile, was daughter of the powerful progressive-era Republican Senator Nelson Aldrich, one of the “Big Four” Republican Senators and a major sponsor of the efforts to create the Federal Reserve. Rockefeller’s privileged youth was one of the main reasons he was able to sustain the political career he did, as well.

The young Jon Huntsman was perhaps more eccentric than the young Nelson Rockefeller- Huntsman evidently dropped out of high school to play keyboard in a rock band called “Wizard”- but both received Ivy League educations (Huntsman at UPenn, Rockefeller at Dartmouth) and rubbed elbows with national political elites while traveling frequently, thanks to their privileged parents. And for various reasons, both seem to have developed temperaments inclined towards bipartisan public service and pragmatic problem-solving by an early age, in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. One can speculate on the old WASP-y cult of public service that animated the “Eastern Establishment” Rockefeller was raised in, and the Mormon Church’s communalistic ethos and Huntsman’s own formative experiences in the Boy Scouts of America. Regardless, compare Rockefeller’s quip in an interview concerning why he accepted Gerald Ford’s offer of the Vice-Presidency, with Huntsman’s rebuke of Mitt Romney in a 2012 GOP presidential debate-

“I felt there was a duty incumbent on every American who could do anything that could contribute to a restoration of confidence in the democratic process and in the integrity of government…” –Nelson Rockefeller

“I was criticized for putting my country first… [Romney] criticized me for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy… I will always put my country first…” –Jon Huntsman

Meanwhile, Robert Connery and Gerald Benjamin’s analysis of Rockefeller’s political style as Governor of New York could be copied verbatim to describe Huntsman’s style as Governor of Utah:

Rockefeller was not committed to any ideology. Rather, he considered himself a pragmatic problem solver, much more interested in defining problems and finding solutions around which he could unite support sufficient to secure their enactment in legislation than in following a strictly conservative or liberal course. Rockefeller’s programs did not consistently follow either a liberal or conservative ideology.” –from Rockefeller of New York: Executive Power in the State House.

 Of course, it could be argued that most any politician outside of the Ted Cruz/Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican Party or the Bernie Sanders/George McGovern wing of the Democratic Party would claim similar mantles of policy pragmatism and public service. But Nelson Rockefeller uniquely lived up to those mantles, as has Jon Huntsman, as I hope is made clear through the following summations of their lives.

Rockefeller first entered national public service in his early 30s, appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. He had previously worked in New York county government and had carried on his business career with various petroleum companies. Throughout the Second World War, Rockefeller worked on U.S. diplomatic and public diplomacy efforts in Latin America, and was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs in 1944. (President Harry Truman would fire him from this role, and later appoint him to work on his international development efforts in 1950.)

After a brief hiatus from public service, Rockefeller was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to be Under-Secretary of the newly-formed Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, before transferring back to foreign policy when he was appointed as Eisenhower’s Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs. Around this time, Rockefeller met Henry Kissinger, and the two would be close partners until Rockefeller’s death in 1979.

In 1958, Rockefeller was elected Governor of New York, an office he would hold until 1973 and a bully pulpit from which he would launch multiple campaigns for the Presidency and advocate for “Rockefeller Republicanism” against the growing insurgency of conservatives led by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Rockefeller proved himself to be a pragmatic activist in state domestic policy, equaling the contemporary Governors of California Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan in both Brown’s infrastructure and education spending and in Reagan’s emphasis on law-and-order politics and police expansion. His state agenda looked something like a combination of Lyndon Johnson’s investment programs and Richard Nixon’s governance reform efforts.

Over the course of his governorship, Rockefeller ran for President three times. Each time he would strive to influence the direction of the Republican Party, to keep it on the liberal/progressive/moderate track and off of the conservative track Barry Goldwater represented. In 1960 he signed the Treaty of Fifth Avenue with GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon, aimed at improving the GOP’s civil rights stances. Rockefeller’s speech at the 1964 Republican Convention encouraged Republicans to repudiate extreme conservatives, even as Goldwater announced that extremism “in defense of liberty” was “no vice.” After losing the nomination again to Nixon in 1968, Rockefeller worked to influence Nixon’s domestic agenda towards something more like his own agenda in New York.

Rockefeller worked informally in the Nixon Administration as well, serving on study commissions of Latin America and domestic water quality. After Nixon’s resignation, Rockefeller became chairman of the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, which was a bipartisan group aimed at studying and promoting new national initiatives in domestic and foreign policy. President Gerald Ford appointed Rockefeller to be his Vice-President, and Rockefeller served in that role through the end of Ford’s term, despite being widely-regarded as a relatively unimportant and uninfluential Vice-President. His career in public life ended, more or less, with his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. Rockefeller died in 1979.

In many ways, Jon Huntsman’s career in politics, government, and public life has generally followed similar contours to Nelson Rockefeller’s, and Huntsman has even pursued similar goals and aims in a dramatically different political environment, both in the Republican Party and in the nation as a whole. Huntsman entered public life early on as well, serving in Rockefeller’s great rival Ronald Reagan’s White House as a staff assistant. He entered national public service at a similarly young age to Rockefeller, becoming at age 32 the youngest United States Ambassador in over one hundred years (representing President George H.W. Bush’s Administration in Singapore.) After a hiatus from public life after the Bush Sr. administration, Huntsman was appointed by President George W. Bush to be Deputy United States Trade Representative.

After serving in the Bush Administration, Huntsman ran for Governor of Utah and won, assuming the office in 2004. As Governor, he pushed for a variety of liberal and conservative reforms, on taxation, environmental regulation, immigration reform, and abortion regulations, “sin taxes,” and LGBT issues. The Huffington Post has described Governor Huntsman, in his tenure in the Governorship, as “a conservative technocrat-optimist with moderate positions,” while Politico calls him “moderate by temperament, conservative by ideology, and pragmatist by approach.” He definitely is a child of the Reagan Revolution, having grown to political maturity (with fellow John Weaver clients John McCain and John Kasich) working in the post-Rockefeller era in Republican politics. But he is far less dogmatic on any set of conservative issues than most other Republican elected officials have been, contributing, very likely, to his successes and 80+% approval rating as Governor.

Barack Obama tapped Huntsman to be his Ambassador to China after his election as President of the United States, a post Huntsman accepted and entered in 2009. Huntsman returned from China in 2011 to run for President against his former boss, and it’s been widely rumored that the Obama campaign team regarded the Huntsman candidacy as more serious than any of the other 2012 GOP presidential contenders. Huntsman came nowhere near the nomination, of course, but his star in the national spotlight rose through his brief campaign, and he cashed in on that capital to become chairman of the foreign affairs think-tank The Atlantic Council in 2014, and Co-Chairman of the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels in 2012. He has since been tapped to be President Trump’s Ambassador to Russia.

Through his presidential campaign and through No Labels, Huntsman has consistently called for political reform efforts and for the moderation of the Republican Party’s policy stances and political strategies. Though Huntsman heads no “Huntsman Republican” faction other than his loyal fan-base, he generally has been one of the main voices speaking out for Republican moderation and reform efforts, while being willing and eager to show off working with politicians from both sides of the aisle (for example, there aren’t many contemporary public servants who’d be willing to work for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.) And as some have speculated, Ambassador Huntsman may well make a fine candidate for Secretary of State in due time, even as he has not denied prospects for a U.S. Senate run in Utah in 2018 or beyond. He may have a further future in public life, and that would be a very good thing- Huntsman is one of the last popular public servants in contemporary American politics to genuinely exhibit the old “country-first” mentality of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush, along with so many other post-Cold War Cabinet Secretaries and Congressional leaders. Perhaps he can succeed where Nelson Rockefeller failed.

Scions of great wealth and great legend, influential and popular Republican Governors of politically important states, bipartisan public servants in American foreign policy, philanthropic civic leaders when out of government, successful businessmen, leaders in moderate Republican politics- Jon Huntsman and Nelson Rockefeller may well have been cut from the same cloth, born in different times to different realities. And they certainly pursued, at the very least, three of the same goals- the adaptation of U.S. foreign policy to a different and dangerous world, the energetic reform of government in their own states, and the preservation of the moderate/liberal/reformist idea in conservative-dominated Republican politics. They also walked the same path of the bipartisan public servant in the foreign policy and domestic policy spheres, and the path of the civic philanthropist dedicated to pushing for pragmatic policy even while out of office.

No one can know if Huntsman aspires to be a future Senator, Secretary of State, Vice-President, or even President of the United States. But if he does continue his public service, even if he doesn’t climb to higher public office, there are probably a few lessons he can learn from the failure of Rockefeller to fully institutionalize moderate Republicanism, and thereby live beyond his own death the way Barry Goldwater’s conservatism lives on today. Richard Norton Smith’s biography of Rockefeller, On His Own Terms, and Geoffrey Kabaservice’s magisterial history of the moderate Republicans, Rule and Ruin, both can provide greater detail on the arguments here.

First off, don’t anger the conservatives. This actually doesn’t seem to be hard for Huntsman, given that he’s worked in the Reagan and W. Bush administrations and has a propensity to work with everyone. Although he made what was probably a calculated provocation in a 2012 debate, suggesting that conservatives were anti-science on climate change, in the time since then he has been very open to playing in the sandbox with the other kids. His measured words in a 2015 interview with The American Interest magazine evoked sympathy with Trump voters and conservative activists, rather than condemning them as the cause of the party’s problems as others have. Nelson Rockefeller, meanwhile, encouraged his followers to “repudiate” the ascendant conservatives in the Republican Party, and probably justifiably earned the unending ire of those conservatives.

One of the reasons Nelson Rockefeller never really was able to secure the Presidency was because, as Nixon figured out, you can’t win without the conservatives. In a way, Rockefeller committed the cardinal sin Trump is committing as his presidency draws on- not reaching out beyond one’s own base. It is ironic that someone as ideologically uncommitted and flexible as Rockefeller was not flexible enough to bite the bullet and appeal to conservatives. As suggested earlier, Huntsman is probably more amenable to this strategy; but we have yet to see what role he will play in the coming years, and how that role will be shaped by his explicitly non-conservative recent activism.

Second off, don’t waste your time, and other people’s money, on unwinnable campaigns- focus instead on building political infrastructure. Rockefeller never was a real possibility for the presidency in the 1960s due to the ascendancy of the conservatives, and his great wealth and political influence would very likely have been better spent on cultivating a coherent movement on the center-right to oppose the conservative movement’s organizations. Young Americans for Freedom, National Review, and eventually the Heritage Foundation would come to dominate the GOP’s intellectual discourse by the 1980s, against no significant competition from the center outside the legislatively-focused Wednesday and Tuesday Groups.

There were some attempts to establish moderate infrastructure- Geoffrey Kabaservice and Nicol C. Rae have extensively documented the early history of the Ripon Society and its journal, the Ripon Forum. (This author dutifully copied the Ripon Society’s eloquent manifesto, “A Call to Excellence in Leadership,” onto his blog for public distribution and consumption.)  But the Ripon Society, while receiving some support from a few politicians and intellectuals, never came close to receiving anywhere near the support of the conservatives’ infrastructure. Had Governor Rockefeller set up “The Rockefeller Institute for Policy Reform” or something along those lines to counter Heritage, National Review, and YAF, his influence through institutionalized moderate Republican intellectual discourse may well have lived on long past his death in 1979.

Governor Huntsman seems to have done some of this, namely through his chairmanship of No Labels and The Atlantic Council. But The Atlantic Council is a nonpartisan think-tank (in fact as well as on paper) and No Labels, save some blog posts on fiscal policy and a very brief essay by Bill Galston and Bill Kristol on moderate philosophy, has not produced anything like an agenda for moderate reform. It is bipartisan and transpartisan rather than moderate Republican, as well.

Huntsman, with his father’s chemical manufacturing wealth and his dense network of supporters, could quite possibly dedicate some portion of his influence to setting up “The Huntsman Center for Policy Reform” or something along those lines, dedicated to building up a new cadre of Republican policy thinkers and political operatives supporting a moderate, center-right, applicable governing agenda. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Tuesday Group leader Congressman Charlie Dent would probably appreciate that. And Huntsman easily has the clout to make such a think-tank respectable, especially were such diverse figures as the Reformicons, the new “Localists,” and the “softer gentler Trumpism” types at American Affairs brought onboard. And this reformist-moderate group of Republicans could mount a real challenge to the now-decadent conservative establishment wing, and the increasingly undirected populist conservative wing, of the GOP. Nelson Rockefeller failed at this- Jon Huntsman might succeed, if he tried.

There are probably other lessons to be taken from the life of Nelson Rockefeller- for example, don’t get into sex scandals, and do take as many opportunities from as many Presidents as possible, two lessons Huntsman seems to have internalized. But these two- working well alongside your opponents, and working on building long-term party infrastructure- are two that Rockefeller failed at, which Huntsman should double down on if he wants to maximize his future influence in American public life.

And who knows? Jon Huntsman will likely never be President, but he could well be, as Barry Goldwater was and Nelson Rockefeller wasn’t, more influential in the long run than many who did attain the Presidency.

Notes on Feminism and Manliness

Two events that happened within a week of each other earlier this year- the Gillette commercial on toxic masculinity, and the annual Women’s March in Washington D.C.- highlight an interesting and in some ways pressing cultural divide. Anecdotally, it would appear that one of the foundational dividing lines these days between American conservatives and American liberals, temperamentally and culturally speaking, would be how likely an individual is to endorse the word ‘feminism’ without caveats, and how likely an individual is to endorse the word ‘manliness’ without caveats. Let me explain.

I don’t consider myself a feminist. I don’t read feminist opinion sources, I don’t gravitate towards feminists in comedy, and I always manage to take my female feminist friends off guard when I concede to them that I am not a feminist. I’ve been wrestling with why I don’t so identify for years, even if it would be a comparatively low-cost and socially beneficial thing for me if I just told everyone I was a feminist. Nonetheless, for various philosophical and cultural reasons, it just feels like it would be a dishonest thing for me to say.

The aforementioned female feminist friends usually respond at first with some version of a popular quote- ‘A feminist is someone who believes in the social, economic, political, and moral equality of the sexes,’- and then proceed to ask me why I don’t believe that men and women are equal in one or more of these domains. It suddenly becomes incumbent on me to explain why I’m so slow or so reactionary as to not see what is so obvious to them.

When the Gillette advertisement on toxic masculinity came out, followed up by a predictable pouring-out of outrage from the darker corners of the men’s-right’s-movement internet, the outpouring of outraged response from the feminist left to that masculinist outrage was predictable- “You guys are the snowflakes!” “We just want men to be decent and you think that’s bad!” “You guys are showing the true colors of toxic masculinity!” And inevitably, the sides get polarized in ways not particularly helpful either to bringing clarity to the argument, or convincing anyone who is already convinced about their own views. There is no sunlight; there can be no wisdom.

In the spirit of depolarization, and to facilitate the clarifying of real differences, perhaps a parallel to the feminist quote—but about the self-conception of manliness—would be helpful:

Manliness is the belief that it is men’s duty to keep themselves physically, mentally, and morally excellent, in the interest of being of service to people and institutions around them.”

If I were to use this in argument, responses would immediately pour in from my feminist friends- “That’s not what masculinity looks like to us!” “Women are capable of doing this stuff, too!” “There are other parts of masculinity with which, even if I did concede your points were true, I wouldn’t want to be associated!

All of these are valid and piercing arguments. They are all true. Masculinity and manliness, as displayed in current cultural tropes and as displayed by many men these days who talk about manliness, does look suspiciously about getting fit and getting laid, or simply complaining about feminism. Physical, mental, and moral excellence, and service to communities greater than oneself, are certainly things that women can exemplify as well as men can. And there are, in fact, other parts of the tradition of masculinity that are, indeed, reactionary, misogynistic, conducive to rapists and murderers and other obscene characters, or otherwise rude and not worth looking at- things that should and do drive good people away.

I happen to sympathize with all three of these critiques, for what it’s worth. Feminists are entirely justified to have their doubts about how men view masculinity, especially if men use a definition tailored to sound inspiring, leaving out the darker stuff.

I would say the same, however, about the definition of ‘feminism’ used so frequently to corner people who don’t identify as feminists.

After all, to many men and to many non-feminist women, ‘feminism’ often looks like mere man-hating, and the privileging of the opinions of educated women over the opinions of less-educated men and women. Many non-feminist men and women will of course say “I can believe in the equality of the sexes- men and women as moral equals, men and women as citizens with equal rights, men and women having the same economic opportunities and protections, men and women being able to compete together for the same social positions- without calling myself a feminist!”

These non-feminists will argue that for however good the bulk of feminist ideas might be, there are enough feminist ideas that are abhorrent to them- terms like de-gendering and other academic quibbles of postmodernist feminist thinkers, the deconstruction of traditional religion and traditional ethics in the name of feminist thought, the overemphasis of sex and sexuality and under-emphasis of duties and character that seems so endemic to modern feminism- that it is simply not worthwhile associate with the broader feminist movement, because of some of its dirtier connotations.

I happen sympathize with these three lines of critique.

So what to do with all this?

It seems, generally, that the beliefs and ideas and experiences leading someone to their proud acknowledgment of believing in feminism or believing in manliness are deep and profound. But moreover, the opinions constructed on top of these beliefs might not always be so divergent in all cases as we think. So there is both a foundation of real difference, and a lived experience of potential common ground.

I mentioned that the definition of feminism that feminists use seems intentionally broad and vague so as to expand the tent and make it seem almost sinful to disagree; I intentionally crafted the definition of manliness above in the same way. To some degree, perhaps this is indicative of communications strategizing and hardball politics; in other ways, perhaps it suggests that there is a real convergence, in modern life, of a desire for better ways of living by wildly different groups, even if the foundational ideas about truth differ.

People want a world of equality, and also a world of excellence; gender is real, and for all the good things its existence gives us, it also makes for enough inequalities that we need to manage them; polarizing over these ideas makes some sense and is understandable, but it doesn’t fundamentally resolve either the philosophical or the practical issues at the base of the divide.

I have a few possible ideas on how these kinds of questions can be better resolved, at least at the level of smaller groups and personal conversations.

First off, it seems it would be helpful to add historical context. ‘Feminism’ and ‘Manliness’ obviously are words and ideas with histories and historical contexts; considering yourself a first-wave feminist, a second-wave feminist, and a third-wave feminist are very different things even if they are related, as is considering the role of feminism in a secularizing society like the 20th Century United States versus in a deeply traditional society like Saudi Arabia. Considering yourself a believer in manliness has different contexts in the late 19th Century, after the Industrial Revolutions but before the horrors of the world wars, versus in the late 20th and early 21st Century, when mechanization and automation and the Information Age make for more freedom and accessibility of information but less true struggles in the older sense. Being able to compare the ideas of different thinkers on these things, and different exemplary characters, necessarily complicates what otherwise would seem to be a black-and-white dichotomy.

Second off, accept that you are what you are– a believer in manliness who is not a feminist, in my case, or a feminist who does not believe in manliness in my friends’ cases- and accept that those you discuss this with are what they are, and that neither you nor they can or should change your foundational ideas and identities in the short term, or even ever. You aren’t talking to convert each other—only to understand each other. At the same time, be open to believing that there are areas where you do not disagree with your opponents, and perhaps can learn from them in ways that make your own argument better.

Third, probably important for all this- acknowledge the banality of unthinking partisanship. It may be one thing to explain why the most radical people who happen to be on your side think the way they do; it is another matter entirely to justify them. Sometimes it may even be beneficial to start out conversations suggesting that you agree, with your opponents, of the very real viciousness of certain people on your side of the aisle. (I always find it helpful to say I don’t sympathize with the Incel and MGTOW narratives even if I intuitively understand the process that led them there, and that the chest-thumping sex-obsessed culture of college fraternities disgusts me; I would be very reassured if more feminist friends of mine expressed both understanding and dismay at the kinds of tactics college campus feminists engage in, or offered that they don’t like the current iterations of postmodernist feminist academic studies.)

The problem with the Gillette ad is not so much what it did say, as what it didn’t say, but did imply, which reduced the cores of masculinity to a moralizing caricature of boys behaving badly. It seemed to be a blatant pandering to people who value feminism without even offering an olive branch to people who value manliness; it turned into a great hammer on the part of the feminists to beat on men who disagreed. I don’t think that is a good-faith way to go about talking about issues this foundational to human beings.

At the bottom level of things, it seems that as things stand right now, gender matters- sex matters- men and masculinity matter, and women and feminism matter. They’re not going away, nor will they be resolved anytime soon. So we’d better learn to live with them and with each other, and so far as is possible harness them towards higher ends.

There are oodles of different areas for greater cooperation and greater clarity in understanding and argument on these fronts, even competition and debate. But the state of public debate on manliness and feminism today, with both general sides arguing against each other’s worst and assuming the worst of each other’s intentions, isn’t helping public discussion, much less gender relations. The kind of fifth-columnist agitation exemplified in Heather Mac Donald as a right-wing feminist dissing feminists, or Reza Aslan as a woke man dissing people who believe in manliness, doesn’t count for much either. Those examples merely solidify existing opinions and work to diminish either side through identitarian means.

There is a way to do this right, without coming to agreement on most things, but neither letting conversations spiral out of control. That is the basis for stronger understanding of the role the experience of manhood and womanhood in modern circumstances. I invite everyone to talk about it, and listen to each other.

A Poem: “Machiavelli and Pangur-Ban”

Machiavelli and Pangur-Ban

By Luke Phillips


Jingle-Cat and I sit fast,

Through the hours, first to last,

Practicing our chosen trades

For which we were aptly made.


At my desk, stacked high with books;

In her cozy, comfy nooks;

I investigate the world;

Jingles dozes, roundly-curled.


My mind swarms with songs of men,

Living hist’ry o’er again;

Her mind darts to squirrels and birds,

Whose shrill voices once she heard.


Intrigues draw my face-lines tight—

Human nature lacks respite;

Jingles leaps from slumb’ring pose,

Begs my gaze with nuzzling nose.


“Meow,” says she, requesting treats,

I dispense them; these she eats

And disrupts my sullen mood;

As she’s found hers, I’ve found my food,


For which I have lived my life—

To know the Ways of Man- Love, Strife,

But Jingles knows our ways as well—

To get fed, just meow like hell!


I survey the art of pow’r;

Jingles wields it hour-by-hour,

Dominating whole my will,

Halts my labor, eats her fill.


How it’s fitting, every night,

As I ponder Mankind’s plight,

In this quiet habitat,

I’m ruled by Jingles, Best of Cats.

Rambling Notes on the Character of Trump-Era Immigration Debates

Author’s Note: I don’t have enough time to write good, polished pieces these days, but sometimes when I sit down I just need to get some thoughts out and distribute them among friends via this blog before other affairs eat up my time. Hopefully in due time this habit will crystallize and I’ll be writing a daily note on something or other. In any case, the pieces I publish in the ‘notes’ format are never formal polemics by any means- just loosely organized or entirely unorganized ramblings with insights I judge to be quaintly important enough to be saved digitally and accessible to the community with whom I discourse frequently. Please do not take them to be anything more than that. -LNP



The fascinating thing about the immigration debates in the Trump Era is that they are no longer just about numbers/quotas/target dates; it’s no longer solely or even primarily a question of “how many people from Y country with X skills will we admit in Z decade,” or even “how do we preclude illegal immigrants from crossing the border in a humane but effective fashion” the way U.S. immigration policy has been discussed for decades, at least since the immigration laws of 1965 and 1986 were passed.

Nowadays, the immigration debates are inextricably tied up with questions of national identity, citizenship, and what it means to be an American, what America is or isn’t. Republicans these days can’t just say ‘I support LEGAL immigration and oppose ILLEGAL immigration’ because that’s not the point; Democrats can’t just point to jobs numbers and income growth to justify current policy because again, that’s not the point. These are technocratic and policy-based distinctions, whereas a true political question- the nature of the community for which immigration policy is a tool- is at stake, and under intense disagreement.

While law (and enforcement or non-enforcement of law,) economics (and the relative utilitarian merits of increasing or decreasing low-skilled, mid-skilled, high-skilled immigrant pools etc.) are still there and still important, it seems to me that the reason why immigration inflames debate in the particular way it does these days, and circles around questions like whether to ask about citizenship on the Census or what to do about our old custom of birthright citizenship, is because the current debates focus around American identity and citizenship in ways that have been less central in the past few decades.
It seems to me that the general opinion on the left is that the right wants a closed system, and even a racist system, of immigration policy based on ‘preserving’ a ‘white’ America, or something along those lines. It seems to me that the general opinion on the right is that the left wants an open system, and even a post-national ‘globalist’ system, of immigration policy based on internationalist ideas and superseding any commitment to national loyalty.

Both of these views certainly have their proponents- in the white supremacist corners of the right, and in the radical intellectual-activist corners of the left. Neither view is anything like a majority opinion on either side, I think (note the recent study by More In Common on American voter types) and although the vast majority of moderate pro-immigration types and moderate immigration-restriction types probably have more in common with each other than with either extreme, they each nonetheless are diverse enough coalitions with strong enough cultural signal-points that they’d resentfully rather be associated with the radicals in their own corners than with the radicals in the opposite corner. This, in turn, turns off the majority who’d otherwise have common ground with them, and so on. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find majorities on either side who, in their hearts of hearts, thought America ought to be a white state, or thought America ought to be entirely cosmopolitan (but in the heat of politics there are many reasons why they might appear to gravitate towards one side, and why their opponents might willfully and inaccurately cast them in with that side.)

I reiterate- at a practical policy level, it’s probably very possible to come up with compromises that would satisfy 70-80% of American interest groups and cultural predilections. It is far less possible to come up with a philosophical and ideological justification for such a compromise package. And the things that people are disagreeing on, so vehemently and vociferously, are the philosophical and ideological justifications, rather than the practical policy goals. (Practical policy is of course ever-intertwined with this.) The philosophical and ideological justifications- like so many material and institutional and personal conflicts in America that can otherwise be managed efficaciously- are spiraling out of control, and inflaming our situation to a darker place.



At a very, very basic and oversimplified level, the ideological divide is exactly what it seems to be, a more complex and human version of what the globalist/racialist hawks on either side portray their opponents to be. As Wilfred McClay has documented well, there really are good reasons to focus on the ‘lived experience’ definition of Americanism, or contrarily on the ‘ideas in motion’ definition of Americanism. Without jettisoning the foundationally radical history of American identity, the cultural right focuses on America as a place in time. Without jettisoning the experiential results and lived experiences inherent in American identity, the cultural left focuses on America as an unfolding set of ideals and experiments and principles. These are clearly not contradictory- it seems to me that David Brooks is fundamentally rooted in the ideas-progress school of American identity but pays much due deference to the place-time school; Ross Douthat and Michael Lind, on the other hand, are very much rooted in the place-time school, but pay much deference and acknowledgement to the ideas-progress school. Like most things about America, it doesn’t make rational sense, but it works when you do it right and don’t insist on understanding and articulating everything about it.

But when you don’t understand the divide, or articulate it very well, AT ALL, that’s when things get hairy. I have a hunch that the vast majority of liberals in America who support sanctuary cities and states (and tacitly oppose the efficient enforcement of federal immigration law,) who oppose the inclusion of a citizenship question on the forthcoming 2020 U.S. Census (and tacitly do not believe that formal citizenship is necessary for an individual’s representation in the U.S. Congress,) and who are now horrified at President Trump’s executive order rolling back birthright citizenship as American policy, are not doing so out of any malice or contempt for the American nation-state. I don’t think they want to flout the law, or anything along those lines.

But I do think they have a very different values constellation, and a very different understanding of what matters in America, and what America IS, and what that MEANS for any American, than what people like myself on the right think. The late Senator John McCain, in his acceptance of the Liberty Medal in 2017 a few months before his death, called America “the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with a storied past forgotten in the rush to an imagined future.” This is certainly a huge part of who we are as Americans; we do have a tendency, a rooted identity, to do all this. And along these lines has arisen the American tradition of civil disobedience to unjust laws, of social reform against the clumsy institutions of the past, of protection of the moral equality inherent in every human heart as our national duty, Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s admonitions to us across the centuries. America, Chesterton’s ‘nation with the soul of a church,’ has an irascible tendency to believe so passionately in its city-on-a-hill mission. These people don’t want to transcend America, but they do have a very specific vision about how to perpetually improve and reform it.

On the other side of the divide are the heritage-focused types, who (usually) don’t deny the reform tradition and even the radical tradition in American history and American identity, but who either seek to slow down the rush in order to preserve things the reformers might forget, or who simply appreciate the anachronistic simplicities and verities of earlier times, whose opposition to perpetual progress is a kind of tragic romanticism more than anything else. These patrician types have been alternately accused of Toryism, on the one hand, and hard-nosed cynicism on the other; but it is probably not accurate to think of them as stand-patters or reactionaries. It’s also probably not accurate to call their current generation nativists or worse.

Instead, these have often been the second generation of political consolidators after the revolutionaries- the Federalists had fought fiercely in the American Revolution for independence, and were accused of monarchism as they sought to protect that hard-won independence; Whigs like Henry Clay, accused of oligarchy and aristocracy in the 1830s and ‘40s, started off life as foot-soldiers in the Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800; the Progressive Movement, Republican and Democratic, was the elite of its time, but harkened back to Lincoln’s egalitarianism to protect it against anarchy; the Vital Center establishment of the mid-20th Century, so despised by the student activists of the time, had been the crusading New Dealers of the 1930s; it is fascinating these days to see the loudest voices for regular order and traditional democratic politics, in both parties, to be the same individuals who swept the Democratic Party after Watergate and the McGovern-Fraser reforms, and the ones who came to power with the Reagan Revolution promising to overturn the established order. As the old yarn ought to go, he who is not a revolutionary at age 20 has no passion; he who is not an establishmentarian at age 50 has no judgment.

A more accurate understanding of this ideas divide, and acknowledgment of its existence on everyone’s part, would probably be helpful for navigating it. If I can find more time to write, I will try to investigate it further here and elsewhere.

Some Questions for Studying American National Identity


After nine or ten months of not doing much of anything in the writing world, I’ve decided to hop back onto my old personal blogging track, to see where it goes, and to keep a running intellectual diary and commentary venue. Nothing formal here- just occasional semi-formalized ramblings and embryos of future essays and reviews for publication elsewhere.

A friend of mine recently asked for my advice on his undergraduate senior thesis, which he is writing on contemporary American national identity. If you’ve tracked my electron trail before, you know my older blogs are rife with self-assured pontifications on the subject. Nowadays, I’m not so sure I know much about it. I sent him a series of questions that, were I to start a project on American national identity, I would want to have a good hold on first. Edited and expanded, here they are, in no particular order:

What is “national identity” within the broader scope of “identity” questions? (As opposed to, say, “ethnic” identity, “racial” identity, “civilizational” identity, “cultural” identity, “religious” or “ideological” or “creedal” identity, “political” or “legal” identity, “class” identity,” etc. I think most would agree that nationhood or national identity does, in fact, exist as something distinct from these other groupings, with traits of all of them, but not exactly identical to any of them. Where the lines are drawn matters, and remains a matter of controversy (see Wilfred McClay’s take in a recent issue of National Affairs.)

To what degree is “American national identity,” as a concept, an idea, and a reality, primarily a political project, primarily a question of politics? That is, to what degree is “America” basically dependent on a certain conception of politics, a national identity built chiefly from political ideals, political practice, and political necessity? And if it is partly or entirely this, which political principles are its true basis? Our ideational constellation includes republicanism, liberalism, popular sovereignty, egalitarian democracy, progressivism, populism, and plenty of other internal takes on those “self-evident” truths, most of which are incompatible or contradictory. Is politics all we have? A corollary to this is, if America is a political project, then to what degree is it truly the child of Locke and Hobbes and Montesquieu and Madison, the Enlightenment in political form, the quintessential project of modernity? And to what degree is it something older, or something less grand?

If “American national identity” is, on the other hand, somewhat independent of our politics and political thinking, then what is it? Is it a pre-political cultural identity of sorts, a jumble of self-consciously held folkways whose practitioners could exist under different regimes while telling the same myths and singing the same hymns? If it is, what forces made these Americans? Was it a thing of external pressures of environment and institutions, and did Americans become Americans because of their perpetual westward conquest of more and more open space and elbow room, their free and participatory political institutions, and their lack of established churches commanding their minds? Or could it be more attributed to the ancient customs and cultural residues brought, first from England, then from Europe, and finally from every corner of the planet by settlers and slaves and immigrants across the centuries, mingling together in every generation and creating new ideas with echoes of the old?

Regardless of these, it should be asked as well- is American national identity best studied by understanding how Americans understand themselves? Or is it better to ask those immigrants, especially their English-speaking cousins, but also travelers and diplomats from the rest of the world, how outsiders perceive Americans? It’s not just to get “positive” and “negative” views, because anyone can tell you that plenty of people around the world love America, and plenty of Americans are eminently cynical about their own country. Rather, seeing the similarities and differences between different conceptions can perhaps point to phenomena that would otherwise go less noticed, and show multiple sides of Americans’ virtues and flaws.

Another thing- to what degree is American identity an intrinsic thing, or an aspirational thing? Are you born an American and raised an American, and they can take the American out of America but they can’t take the America out of the American? Are our cultural habits, internalized folkways, mental maps and other unspoken, unnoticed ways of life just so deep within us that we couldn’t get rid of them if we tried? Or, is American national identity a thing of aspiration and becoming, a kind of ever-distant city on a hill we can strive for and never fully attain, always disappointed but hopeful, and perhaps always knowing we can shake it off and choose something else if it never meets our expectations and hopes? This is- are you an American, or do you have to try to be an American?

On that note- how distinct is America, anyway? That is, are the movements and trends in America best compared to their own predecessors within the American political tradition? Or are they best compared to their contemporaries in other similarly situated countries? One could feasibly compare the Progressives of the early 1900s to the Whigs of the early 19th Century- but one could just as easily compare them to the upper-middle-class Fabian Socialists in Britain and the German positivist social scientists of their own day. The American revolutionary founders could be compared to previous generations of English political dissidents- but they might also be compared to Latin American revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar who operated much closer to their timeframes. To what degree are political and cultural movements, solutions, and identities distinctly American traditions, and to what degree are they more accurately considered American manifestations of international or even global phenomena?

And on that same note, all the aforementioned musings have worked under the implication that the American “Union” serving the sovereign “American People” was the primary unit of identity. At at least two periods of U.S. history, though, there have been other competitors for legitimacy and even sovereignty. Prior to the settlements of the end of Reconstruction in 1877- and especially in the long prelude to the Civil War- “states’ rights” was a real issue, and the questions of nullification, federal supremacy, popular sovereignty, and other essentially constitutional questions whose answers could back the Union, or back individual states, still hung in the balance. It’s harder to look at a national identity in an era when the existence of a united nation was often at issue. Meanwhile, ever since the dawn of American internationalism- especially in the last years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, but also throughout the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to different degrees, continuing up to the present day- there have been renewed questions about America’s place in the international order. One need not be a wide-eyed conspiracy theorist to understand that the formalization of international institutions, and their proliferation across many domains, has created hard questions about sovereignty and legitimacy, and with an increasingly interconnected governing class in many significant countries around the world, these questions are not easily answered. So how stable and real is the political foundation of “American national identity,” anyway?

Finally, if it is possible to be “American,” is it also possible to be “un-American” as innumerable schoolyard and Senate floor bullies have taunted their enemies across our history? Is loving America and seeking to serve it the same thing as being American? Or are those distinctive things, as well?

I don’t really have answers to anything here. I have some prejudices and some inclinations, and I think the fact that some people will question why some of these are even questions, is more revelatory of their own prejudices- and the kinds of Americans they are, incidentally- than the truth of what the whole of American national identity is. I left unspoken the question of diversity within the American identity- diversity of class, culture, ethnicity, geography, profession, of ways of being American. The different kinds of tropes within American identity would deserve another piece to themselves, but for me it’s no longer a question whether American identity is internally diverse- it assuredly is. Rather, where the borders and boundaries of that identity are along its edges, is something more worth asking. A year or so ago I examined the identity questions here, and historians like David Hackett Fischer, Wilfred McClay, Walter McDougall, Allen Guelzo, and Michael Lind have extrapolated on the internal diversity of the American experience in their own works.