Luke’s Blog

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.


Ten American Experiences: A Fourth of July Meditation

Note: Originally published on July 1st, 2017, at the now-defunct website “The American Moderate.” Reposted here, unedited and in full. For the record, my own understanding has changed somewhat since I wrote this. I will probably write a thematically and structurally similar piece, updated for changes in understanding and nuances in meaning, in due time.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, it would be fruitful to meditate on the question – what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate “America?” Is it a set of ideals and principles rooted in the Enlightenment? Is it a blood-and-soil nation on the American continent, with unique institutions and culture? Is it an idea that happens to have a nation, a nation that happens to have an idea, or something else entirely?

There are merits in both the ideological and blood-and-soil understandings of American-ness, but both could use deeper detail. One of the advantages of the blood-and-soil approach over the ideological approach is this: when viewing America as an organic historical nation-state, one can cite concrete historical experiences and their effects on the American character and personality, without needing to celebrate or condemn them. Those using the ideological approach inevitably must cast judgments on whether these experiences “measured up” to America’s “Founding ideals,” including or excluding them from the American pantheon depending on their moral value. The user of the blood-and-soil approach is bound to no such scruples, and can simply describe what America has been and is.

The experiences the blood-and-soil analyst looks at will of course be influenced by relative success- slavery and plantation culture is no longer a significant part of the American identity because it was utterly destroyed a century and a half ago, whereas industrial capitalism remains a driving force shaping the American experience. One might object that looking only at “the winners” is not a particularly objective way to view history.

True though that may be, a meditation purporting to study the essence of American character, American culture, American identity, and American-ness should be bounded by those experiences that exerted the most influence in defining those things. What follows, then, is a narrative litany of what this writer believes to have been the most influential historical experiences shaping Americanism in every epoch of our existence as a nation, from colonial days to the present.

Each historical experience is an extended historic moment- some a mere few years, others a few decades, some a century or more. They are broadly thematic, yet united around core trends and events. Each extends beyond itself to influence American political economy, social trends, popular and elite culture, geopolitics, and political institutions, in its own time and beyond. Through these experiences a nation of people, a cultural legacy, and a great institutional state have been built over the course of over four centuries. It is important to note that some of these experiences are basically incompatible with others, at first look. They are all entirely American, but none is the entirety of America. Together, in their creative tension, they contribute to the great American story and conversation, full as it is with contradictions and irregularities.

Finally, there’s the political question, so crucial in today’s age of increasing censorship and cherry-picking misinterpretation of history. Some of these experiences, for one reason or another, are distasteful to modern observers of whatever political persuasion. There are those out there who would willfully abandon their legacy, out of hopes to build “a better future.” But we cannot forget our own past- if any of these American experiences were to be lost or forgotten in the national memory, our civilization would be worse off for it. On the other hand, if we limit our historical development to these ten experiences, and fail to develop more beyond them, our civilization will fail to thrive beyond its fourth century of existence. The task of American patriots is to cultivate understanding of and reverence for our past, and with that knowledge of the qualities of our national spirit, to build a yet more glorious future.

With that, then, let’s look at these ten experiences that have defined America up to 2017.

First off, the origins. Americans came from somewhere- the first settlers were different groups of colonists from various parts of England. David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial study of American origins, Albion’s Seed, documents this brilliantly. At a foundational level, America is and always has been an Anglo nation-state with a powerful yet flexible core cultural heritage.

The English language, English traditions of common law, and the Protestant influence on American individualism, philosophy, and civic culture and community are all undeniably components of the American identity at a very basic level. The settler experience of the 17th and 18thcenturies- the development of a new world from the seeds of the old- is crucial to the American story. Even as masses of immigrants came to the country in the 19th and 20th centuries- first from Continental Europe, and eventually from Latin America, East Asia, and every other corner of the world- America has retained its distinct Englishness through its relative openness and cultural fluidity, its ability to assimilate large groups of foreigners within the space of a few generations.

We were Americans long before we fought for independence in the Revolutionary War, as the intermingling of English culture with the American wilderness made us something other than Englishmen. But we were not yet a nation.

It was the War of Independence, the American Revolution, that granted our nation its nationhood. Whereas the colonial experience had been a conservative affair of the transference of culture from one side of the Atlantic to the other, the American Revolution sparked the beginnings of American radicalism and universalism, the exuberance and triumphalism of a newly-awakened people believing they had Providence on their side. The War of 1812- the so-called “Second American Revolution-“ merely solidified this triumphalism several decades later, prompting such excesses as “the Era of Good Feelings” and the beginnings of the strategically premature Monroe Doctrine. But the image of a rugged band of volunteer citizen-soldiers fighting for an ideal universal to mankind has remained integral to the American self-image ever since.

This is not to say that the Revolution was entirely radical- as has been well-documented by Daniel Hannan in “Inventing Freedom,” it was often justified in the name of “preserving the rights of Englishmen.” Additionally, its most important legacy was not spiritual at all, but geopolitical-  the suffering of General Washington’s men in the snows of Valley Forge and their glory in the fields of Yorktown won for the American people the reins of their own destiny, and independence to take their place among the nations of the Earth.

The Revolution won but did not secure America’s liberty- that important work was done by the Framers of the Constitution, who through toil and conflict, reflection and compromise, designed the framework and foundations of a constitutional republic. The Constitution’s checks and balances and divisions of authority, the federal system of state and national sovereignty, a national government that was energetic and powerful, yet limited and constrained, and capable of addressing the great issues of the day and many days beyond, all contributed to the successful organization of the thirteen states and their western territories into a great new federal union. This federal union alone could preserve the liberty of the American people.

James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention and Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s 85 Federalist Papers capture the mechanical spirit of the constitutional epoch in American history. The subsequent crises of the Federalist Era, and the successive affirmations of Federalist solutions in the Jeffersonian Era, would test but ultimately legitimate the mechanics of the Constitutional system. America from about 1785 to the War of 1812 was in flux over its institutions; but due to the work done in that period, by the end of it, the institutional structure at its foundations would not be questioned. Other questions- on culture, on geopolitics, on sovereignty- would take the stage. But the Framers had, at the very least, created the American state and system of government, and guaranteed that the constitutional republican tradition rather than any other would be the safeguard of American liberty for generations to come.

The basically aristocratic culture of the early Republic would not outlive the Framers. For all their brilliance in designing the constitutional system, the Framers would not have the final say on the animating spirit of the growing nation- that decision would be provided by the statesmen of the antebellum, both Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. The Jacksonian Revolution of the late 1820s and 1830s would forever change the culture of American politics, decisively shifting American legitimacy from a mere faith in institutions to something looking more like a democratic “common will.” It would infuse American politics with a common man’s ethos of simplicity, tradition, people’s wisdom, and folk culture, and would turn “democracy” from the dirty word of the Federalists into the litmus test for American statesmen for generations to come.

By some measures, America was first truly “American” upon the onset of this democratic revolution. Other trends to be discussed subsequently- the spirit of capitalism, for one, and the Westward movement, for another- had also taken prominence, and America in 1835 was culturally and politically recognizable to anyone of the later 19th and 20th Centuries. Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 masterwork, Democracy in America, remains relevant to this day, testifying to the remarkable staying power of democratic culture on the American continent.

But crisis loomed ahead, as everyone from Henry Clay to Andrew Jackson seemed to understand. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in 1860, the Crisis of the Union which had been underway since at least the early 1850s took on a new force, and the Civil War- America’s Iliad- broke out and consumed the young nation. The Union cause in the Civil War was in some ways a radical affair- the erasure of Southern plantation culture, the expansion of freedom and franchise to all Americans, the coming hegemony of free-labor industrial capitalism- but in the eyes of the Republicans and the Union Army’s general staff, it was a conservative project. The preservation of the Union, and of American power over the Continent, was the crucial question.

Aside from being a great military epic Americans could be proud of, the Civil War had many other effects on American culture and identity. For one thing, the moral cause of liberty and equality would forever be enshrined in the American civic ethos at the level of practical democracy, rather than staying ensconced in public discourse and philosophy. But more importantly, the Civil War’s conclusion ensured that the Union, which by now stretched across the American continent from sea to shining sea, would be preserved in whole and not in parts. It would remain the great power it was, positioned towards even higher greatness in the decades and centuries to come.

Long before Fort Sumter, though, the American people were being shaped by an extension of the early settler experience- the Conquest of the West and the expansion across the American continent. Americans pushed further and further West, in great numbers starting in the 1830s, and would continue to do so until they’d populated the entirety of American territory between the Mississippi and the Pacific in the late 19thcentury. As Frederick Jackson Turner argued in The Significance of the Frontier in American History, the land and its conditions left its mark on the culture and society of those who crossed it and settled it. The poet Sam Walter Foss, speaking as the American continent, asked for “Men to Match My Mountains,” and the American people obliged.

Generation after generation of frontiersmen, pioneers, Indian fighters, surveyors, engineers, and more pushed West, bringing the mantle of American civilization with them and transforming American civilization in the process. Soon, the rugged individualist ethos of the cowboy was more than mere myth- it was reality for an American people accustomed to self-reliance, simplicity, and honor. And there was a solid geopolitical prize that came along with this cultural one- dominion over the majority of the American continent, with access to both of the world’s greatest oceans and innumerable stocks of every sort of natural resource. This bounty would soon give birth to another facet of the American character.

Matching the individualist ethos cultivated by the experience of the Westward movement was an entrepreneurial ethos- a great knack for management and organization and innovation, a brilliance and genius rooted in benevolent acquisitiveness, all of which inspired and drove American inventors, investors, and captains of industry.

Over the course of several great industrial revolutions, starting in the early 1800s and still ongoing, Americans built titanic industries, infrastructure, and cities, harnessed the power of every natural resource conceivable, and invented contraptions and machines that sent men to the moon and split the atom. Fueled by ample investment and natural resources and a healthy business climate, the American Dream was made possible not only for the corporate titans but for the small businessmen as well. This great industrial capitalist might nurtured a spirit of problem-solving and enterprise that Americans are now famous for around the world. And in this sense, the business of America has always been business.

The excesses and social dislocations of industrial capitalism precipitated a great social crisis, and by the turn of the 20th century, Americans clamored for major reforms in their governing institutions. Some of these efforts were quite radical- the great labor strikes, populist politicians, and socialist movements of the early 20th century have gone down into legend, and few remember today that between the 1880s and 1910s, a few presidents of the United States were shot by anarchist terrorists. Conservative statesmen and radical reformers joined hands in compromise to reform institutions to quell the social crisis.

The early progressives – particularly during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson- pioneered progressive social legislation, and their intellectual descendants continued that work over several decades, in the forms of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Americans built up a federally-sponsored safety net and welfare state, a system of collaborative enterprise and regulation, and a government promising a better quality of life for all citizens. These institutions represent a preservation and extension of the American Dream, or the Promise of American Life, for the citizens of the United States. They topped off the modernization of the United States. And nowadays, the notion that the government ought to serve its people in all ways possible, and marshal resources for national ends, is integral to American political culture.

These modernizing reforms bound the American people together at home just in time for the great Eurasian crises of 1914-1991. The crisis of imperialism in the First World War, and the rise of fascism and communism in the 1930s, and our subsequent involvement in the Second World War and competition with the Soviets in the Cold War, stretched our resources and our need to defend the homeland to degrees never before known. The Mahan-Root-Roosevelt school of American internationalism, mixed with the liberalism of the Wilsonians, provided a template for postwar American internationalists to update the inherited British world order, and turn it into something new.

The prospect of a peaceful world order, governed by just relations between liberal states and open societies, was a dream the architects of post-1945 American foreign policy sought to preserve and expand. It involved the stewardship of international institutions, the maintenance of a navy that could command the seas and keep open the sea lanes of trade, and the preservation of a peaceful balance of power between the most powerful nations on the planet. The consummation of America’s role as a “city upon a hill” and a “light unto the nations” took its fullest form when America assumed the mantle of world leadership – and this has been integral to its self-image ever since.

Amidst the American experiences with welfare-state modernization and liberal internationalism, an older tradition – the neo-Puritan reform tradition of Civil Rights- came into its own and expanded the dreams of liberty and equality for all Americans. All the way back to at least the 1830s, the United States had seen utopian reform movements rise up periodically, especially around the “Great Reawakening” religious revivals. Such sentiments had fueled everything from women’s suffrage to abolition to progressive social reforms in the early 20th Century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement- building off of these earlier antecedents- successfully enshrined equality before the law, for people of all races and origins, into the American national identity. It paved the way for a fuller integration of people from around the world into the American experience. Its legacy is still felt acutely today, when questions on immigration, civil rights, and American identity frequently bubble up to the foreground of public discourse. More than any of the other American experiences listed here, this one is still ongoing.

We can imagine future “American experiences” that may one hundred years from now prove to be just as vital to the American identity as these ten listed have been. Perhaps the reform of the New Deal state towards a more localized, sustainable, and fundamentally workable system – something like the stymied “New Federalism” of the Nixon Administration, updated by the power of the Information Revolution – could transform American governance in the 21st century to the same degree that the Progressive and New Deal reforms did for the 20th century. Another great quest with historic antecedents is the conquest of the Solar System – the rejuvenation of the American space program and the exploration and colonization of other worlds beyond the moon. Another great period of exploration can bring out the greatest facets of the existing American character and transform them into something new.

One begins to notice a pattern, looking across American history – each of these experiences was in some ways conservative and in other ways radical, but distinctively one more than the other. The conservative transference of Anglo culture from the British Isles to the American continent; the radical universalism of the American Revolution; the conservative caution of the framing of the Constitution; the radical experiments with Jacksonian democracy; the conservative preservation of the Union in the Civil War; the radical egalitarianism and democracy of the Westward conquest; the conservatism of culture and class wrought by the Industrial Revolution; the radicalism of the Industrial Age’s excesses, tempered into reforms in the Progressive Era and New Deal movements; the conservatism that went into building the Liberal International Order after the ravages of two world wars; and the fundamental radicalism and reformism of the Civil Rights Movement and its antecedents. Will all this be followed by a conservative reformation of American governance down to the localities? Will that be followed by the radical disruptive technological advancement of space colonization?

A primarily radical historical experience was followed by a primarily conservative one, and so on and so forth. This should surprise no one, for America has always been a remarkably extreme nation with no less remarkable staying power. American schizophrenia has been a quality of our national existence for our entire existence as a people, and will surely remain with us until we’ve been extinguished from the Earth.

But until then, for now, the chroniclers and storytellers and salesmen of the American legacy have a twofold task.

First, to serve as bards to the public, singing the glory of the past and reminding Americans who they are.

Second, to serve as prophets of the future, sketching the glorious shape of things to come and heralding the future greatness of the American nation.

With luck, someone will soon turn to this great task- the composition of a great cultural, political, and intellectual history of the American experiment, in such a way as to remind Americans what they have been, what they are, and what they will be. These divided times require nothing less.



Ramblings on Michael Lind’s Interpretation of Robert Merry’s Interpretation of William McKinley


Michael Lind is among the greatest American historians alive and writing today, combining illustrative historical imagination with sophisticated categorization and systemization into some of the most readable syntheses in print. In terms of reading pleasure, he’s the only broad, whole-of-American-history interpreter (with the notable exception Walter McDougall) whose prose approaches the quality of that of pure biographers like Ron Chernow and Jon Meacham. I personally think a lot of this comes from a sort of historical romanticism of Lind’s, whereby he identifies with his characters even as he tries disinterestedly to understand them; some of his favorites, like George Washington, Henry Clay, and Lyndon Johnson, were “Southern Hamiltonians” like himself. (And to think that on top of his history-writing he makes time for highly technical, but equally brilliant, treatises on everything from political theory to economic modernization, and poetry besides…)

Anyhow, enough mush. One of my ongoing questions about Lind (whom I know and occasionally correspond with) is where his historical-political loyalty lies. It may be that it shifts with the tides of contemporary political history- note that in a few years he’s gone from being a columnist at Salon and a fellow at New America to an occasional contributor to National Review and an editorial board member of American Affairs. (As he suggests in Up From Conservatism, though, that’s not so much his wobbling as it is the tides of American politics ebbing and flowing around him, he being the old vital centrist/first-generation neoconservative/New Dealer/etc. he is.)

A cursory reading of his Hamilton’s Republic suggests that the “choice of ancestors” is somewhat Manichaean- you’re either Hamiltonian, or you’re not, and there’s no tradeoff between being a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, an Alexander Hamilton Federalist, a Henry Clay Whig, or a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat. But reading some of his other works, the nuance starts to seep in; after all, despite the shared “nationalism” between the Roosevelts, there’s a reason one led the Party of Lincoln, and the other the Party of Jackson, right?

Lind explores this very openly in What Lincoln Believed. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

Lincoln’s America took shape between 1860 and 1877, and was replaced by a different America between 1932 and 1965… The Third Republic of the United States, in the mature form it assumed between the 1960s and the end of the twentieth century, was the opposite in many ways of the Second Republic. The North dominated the Second Republic, the South and the Sun Belt the Third. Midwestern states like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio provided most of the presidents of the Second Republic; Southern and Western states like Texas, California, Georgia, and Arkansas sent their citizens to the White House in the Third Republic. In the Second Republic, agrarian interests were sacrificed to those of manufacturing; in the Third, agribusiness in the South and West had more clout in Washington than the declining manufacturing industries of the “rust belt.”” …

…“The Second Republic of the United States founded by Lincoln and his allies during the Civil War and Reconstruction reached its maturity in the 1920s… Between the Great Depression and the end of the Civil Rights revolution in the 1960s, the America of Lincoln crumbled and was replaced by the America of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal and its aftershocks… and the civil rights revolution were part of a Third American Revolution that transformed the United States as much as the Civil War and Reconstruction had done. In many ways the Third Republic of the United States was based on the repudiation of the ideas and policies of the Second….” Etc., etc., etc.

In a nutshell, Lind and many of his followers, myself included, call both Lincoln and FDR “Hamiltonian.” But Lincoln and FDR pursued and advanced at times contradictory policy legacies, perhaps with some similar aims, but generally with different worldviews, coalitions, and policies.

One begins to realize, upon reflection, that “Hamiltonian” is in some ways as relative and relational as it is concrete and principled; Hamiltonian nationalist policies in one age, that is, may not necessarily be Hamiltonian nationalist policies in the next. And in a fluid institutional and party system like that of the post-Civil War United States, this constant redefinition is both unavoidable and necessary. (By the way, given that we appear to be going through both the Fourth Revolution and the Seventh Realignment, it’s more important now than ever before in our lifetimes that diehard Hamiltonians figure out what “Hamiltonianism” means in 2018 and onward, lest the “neoliberal globalists” and “white nationalists” and progressive neosocialists and libertarian fundamentalists, among other anti-Hamiltonian foes, steal the political and policy momentum and worse, cloak it in the mantle of Hamilton for themselves.)

The time to think anew as our times are anew is now; timeless principles and visions can help, but some kind of concrete application is necessary if the term is to mean anything.


Anyhow, this has been an excessively long prolegomenon to a shorter reflection- on the legacy of President William McKinley. Robert W. Merry, editor over at The American Conservative and former editor of The National Interest, just published what looks like an interesting biography of the twenty-fifth President of the United States, a biography which Lind reviewed in last month’s issue of TNI. I’d recommend anyone reading this post to read Lind’s take, if for no other reason than to read its quite compelling brief history of the continuity of continentalist grand strategy in American foreign policy.

I’ll just share the most important and memorable part of the review- the introduction of McKinley’s presidency Lind opens with- 

“OF ALL American presidents, William McKinley suffers the most from the gap between his historical significance and his public reputation. The twenty-fifth president of the United States, he was elected in 1896 and assassinated by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901, six months into his second term in office. Few presidencies have been as consequential. 

 In domestic politics, his election in 1896 and reelection in 1900 marked the decisive defeat of the Jeffersonian agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan in favor of the Hamiltonian vision of an urban-industrial society organized on the basis of corporate capitalism. He inaugurated four decades of Republican domination of the federal government, a political realignment on the scale of those that followed the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He led the United States in the Spanish-American War, gaining Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines as American protectorates; obtained the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory (which became a state in 1959); and laid the groundwork for the construction of the Panama Canal. The “Open Door” policy of his administration was followed in time by America’s commitment to defending China’s territorial integrity against Japan in World War II. A former arch-protectionist, as president he began the pivot away from infant-industry import substitution toward a strategy of reciprocal trade liberalization that was more appropriate for the United States, which had become the leading industrial economy in the world. McKinley, in short, presided over the transition from Lincoln’s America to the America of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.” 

That last line, in a nutshell, is in my view why McKinley’s legacy should be interesting to Hamiltonians nowadays. The America of Barack Obama ended on November 9th, 2016, and the chaos of the current Trump Administration would seem to be creating a new set of problems for the next Presidents and Congresses to deal with.

Against the backdrop of those crises and problems, which are forming now, future Hamiltonians will construct their own early-to-mid-21st Century identity. Now’s not the best time to start thinking about that- we’re a few years too late- but might as well get on with it. And the McKinley Presidency can be one place to look for insight and inspiration.

Hamilton in the Heartland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Welcome to My New Blog

Hello friends!

After retiring ABiasedPerspective a few days ago, I’m shifting my blogging operations here, to my eponymous site. The posts here will be different than those at ABP; just as ornate and flowery, just as deeply analytical, and in all likelihood just as personal; but much shorter, and much more tailored to following the news cycle. Here at LNP, I am trying, to some degree, to set up something of a more professional blog, while with the remainder of my personal writing strategy I am trying to become something of a more professional writer. This, of course, requires more cultivation and discipline than an old college blog can provide. As I transition from helpless-college-student reality to helpless-young-adult reality, this transition to a new publishing project can help me feign, perhaps, a higher level of professional and intellectual maturity than I’ve actually attained.

So we’ll see what happens! I am probably going to eschew personal and creative posts (though the occasional satire, poem, or meditation might still find its way onboard when I’m feeling mushy!) in the interests of providing commentary, analysis, and opinion- advocacy and criticism- based on my ongoing personal experiences and developing perspectives. Expect several types of content- brief takes on major and less-than-major news stories, historical reflections, travelogues, comments on excerpted passages from my favorite commentators, promo posts featuring my own publications, and maybe more. In general, I’ll try and keep it below 1,200 words, and preferably far less than that. Exceptional circumstances may require or invite longer reflections, but as I intend to publish between once and four times a week, it would probably help to be concise. I might use more of my own photos than in previous projects. I won’t feature guest posts, but I’ll happily share writings from other blogs. And this is the first time I’ve attempted a personal professional blog, so I’m new to this- we’ll see where it goes!

We shape our writings, but at the same time, our writings shape us. My intention with the new LNP site is to interact with the world, professionally and personally, in a way that is insightful, useful, purpose-driven, circumspective, and most importantly of all, intellectually honest and true to my conscience. And as I write, I hope I’ll become a better writer, a better thinker, a better man. I have no idea how long this project will last, but until it does, this ethos will guide it.

So let’s get to it! Thanks for reading my work- I look forward to sharing the journey.