The Next American Nation, by Michael Lind
The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution.
by Michael Lind.
Free Press. 415 pp. $22.95.
This past winter, Michael Lind, erstwhile research assistant to William F. Buckley, Jr., quondam contributor to COMMENTARY, the Public Interest, and National Review, former executive editor of the National Interest, and now a senior editor at the New Republic, took to the pages of Dissent to justify his defection from the ranks of the “corrupt” conservative intellectuals, whom he pilloried as court theologians to a movement suffering from brain-death.
Whatever else could be said about it, Lind’s apologia pro vita sua was not a serious piece of intellectual work. It was, rather, a screed, and one whose venom seemed particularly aroused by religious conservatives and anyone who had anything good to say about them. Now, in Lind’s first full-length book, the sniper fire against his former conservative colleagues, mentors, and benefactors continues. But the tone is rather more muted, as befits a volume whose ambition is no less than to limn “the only . . . America in which you and your descendants would want to live.”
That America is, in Lind’s phrase, a “liberal-nationalist” one. At the end of his 415 pages, the nationalism is reasonably clear, the liberalism considerably less so.
The Next American Nation, which seems to be the product of voluminous reading married to a paucity of quotidian political experience, is three books rolled into one. The first consists of a self-consciously provocative recasting of American history, now read through the prism of class analysis. In this exercise, two of Lind’s methodological heroes are figures from the 1920’s, the quirky economist Thorstein Veblen and the progressivist historian Charles Beard.
Peering through their spectacles, Lind demotes Thomas Jefferson (a “proponent of pseudo-scientific racism, white supremacy, states’ rights, and anti-industrial agrarianism”), James Madison (“a relatively inconsequential figure”), and Abraham Lincoln (a “railroad lawyer” to whom we “have falsely attributed the color-blind ideal”) from the national pantheon, and replaces them with Alexander Hamilton, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass. More significantly, he undertakes to repudiate the notion that the United States is a distinctive “proposition country,” forged, formed, and sustained by a set of moral and political-philosophical convictions; in its place he offers an economistic reading of the national story in which the pursuit of the main chance is taken to be the national passion, and class conflict the key social dynamic.
Lind’s second book engages today’s debate over who and what is an American. It includes a biting critique of racial and ethnic gerrymandering, for which he would substitute a governmentally-driven effort to create a new American nationality. The latter is to be achieved by, in effect, exploiting the class conflict that already (allegedly) exists. Lind prescribes a “constant churning of the social classes, abetted by a radical (and race-neutral) restructuring of the political, economic, and educational orders”; this, we are assured, will end in the formation of the “Trans-American,” a creature fabricated by means of “universal miscegenation and upward class-leveling, race-blending, and class-blurring.”
The statism implicit in this vision is spelled out in Lind’s third book, in which he sketches the contours of the future to which we shall be led by the massive intervention of the federal government into virtually every nook and cranny of American life. In Lind’s 21st century, Washington would not only enforce a public square naked of religious values, it would actively promote a national ethic of “civil familism.” Federal power would also ensure that the benefits of technological change are spread across the population by an “unsubtle, crude, old-fashioned redistribution of wealth, through taxation and public spending.” (Lind’s fertile imagination proposes a massive program of “voucher capitalism” in which “citizens [will be] given consumption vouchers not only for basic necessities like housing and transportation but for amenities like recreation and entertainment.”) The giver of all these good gifts being the central government, Lind concedes that, in his brave new world, “the very distinction between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors might become blurred.” Indeed.
Perhaps the most obvious and glaring weakness of The Next American Nation as a piece of analysis is that it is so desperately out of touch with the country its author wants to remake. Which is to say, this book seems to have been written about a different society from the one that voted as it did last November. To tell Americans that they are undertaxed is, perhaps, a bold move; to call for a massive expansion of state power on behalf of the beleaguered middle class, at precisely the moment the middle class has turned against the nanny state with a vengeance, is beyond recklessness and off into fantasy land. Anyone who seriously believes that what is “alienating an ever-growing number of Americans from the political process” is our current patterns of campaign finance, or the fact that Kansas has as many U.S. Senators as California, has been spending too much time with the books and not enough time with the folks (or the exit polls).
As for Lind’s fondness for class analysis, no doubt the dynamics of class do illuminate certain aspects of contemporary American public life (as, for example, the gap in world view between country-club Republicans and religiously-motivated social conservatives). But class analysis has always been an especially crude brush for painting a portrait of the American people. Writing in the New Republic the very week Michael Lind’s name first appeared on that magazine’s masthead, James Q. Wilson noted that “even the most liberal Americans are tolerant of income differences that would appall a conservative Swede.” And both history and present-day survey research consistently indicate that Americans have never been enamored of massive schemes of income redistribution.
Here, Lind’s war against the notion of America as a “proposition country” drives him into an analytic cul-de-sac. Americans are different, and not least in their attitude toward economic egalitarianism, which is why the essentially European cancer of socialism has never really metastasized here. Yet if, like Lind, you are hellbent on arguing that the American experience of nationality has not given rise to a distinctive set of political values, then you are inevitably going to miss a great many things about the United States and its singular form of the democratic experiment.
One of those things concerns the place of religion in American life. Here, Lind’s aversion to the politically-engaged religious conservatives leads to both empirical misunderstanding and a false set of options for the future.
On the empirical side, Lind thinks he sees an accelerating pattern of religious indifferentism in this country; Americans, he argues, have adopted the henotheism of “one God and many equally true religions.” But the phenomenon Lind is trying to describe could much more accurately be thought of as a flourishing of religious tolerance—and one, moreover, that is morally grounded in religious convictions. Tens of millions of Americans believe that they are religiously obligated to engage their theological differences through the arts of persuasion, rather than through coercion.
Blind to this historic accomplishment of American culture, Lind sees but two options before us: an establishment of secularism on the one hand, a religious civil war on the other. It is to avoid these extremes that he champions the naked public square.
But as 50 years of Supreme Court jurisprudence ought to have made plain, the judicial and bureaucratic enforcement of the naked public square has already resulted in the de-facto establishment of a secularist, indeed an anti-theist, public creed—itself a far more powerful engine of the American people’s alienation from government than campaign-finance laws. Committed as he is to government rather than to civil society as the engine of American reform, Lind misses the real alternative to war by other means: namely, the development of a genuine pluralism in which differences are neither ignored nor demeaned but engaged, civilly, by men and women of faith and toleration.
There are many causal factors that help explain the current moribund state of American liberalism. Despite everything else that is wrong with his book, Michael Lind is surely right in arguing that the liberal abandonment of the principle of color-blind equality, and liberalism’s embrace of the sundry idiocies of multiculturalism, are among them. He may also be right—I happen to think he is—in his intuition that the American people are in a genuinely revolutionary mood. But—to repeat—the object of their animus is the same central government whose powers he would vastly expand.
There is something else going on here, though, besides the fact that Michael Lind and others of his newfound friends on the Left are rather dramatically out of touch with contemporary American society. For the hard truth of the matter is that these critics do not quite trust that society, or the people who compose it, to do the right thing. One of the most powerful political ideas at work in the United States today is the rediscovery of civil society as the foundation of a stable democracy—the recovery of Tocqueville’s insight that American freedom is secured by a moral culture formed and sustained by voluntary communities of common memory and mutual aid (in Mary Ann Glen-don’s phrase). Like other forms of Left-leaning political thought, Lind’s “liberal nationalism” not only seems to have missed this welcome development entirely; it is in thrall to manipulative and statist impulses of a much darker and less savory sort.
What Lind calls “the fourth American revolution” is really the blueprint for a Second American Reconstruction. Like those who managed the post-Civil War Reconstruction of the South, he evinces little confidence in the arts of persuasion, and much faith in the obtuseness, greed, and orneriness of those to be reconstructed. And while Michael Lind never quite comes clean about it, the path to his “Trans-America” necessarily involves legal and political coercion on a scale that would have brought a blush to the cheek of many another avatar of 20th-century corporatism.