Luke’s Blog

Some Questions for Studying American National Identity

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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

WHAT DOES “HAMILTONIAN” MEAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

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.

HOW HAMILTONIAN WAS WILLIAM MCKINLEY?

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.

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*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.