Since I teach a seminar on “New Conceptions of American National Identity” here at Yale, where George W. Bush, John Kerry and I overlapped as undergraduates in the late 1960s, I couldn’t avoid showing my students last week how Bush is reviving an old conception of our national identity. That conception depends on assumptions about free markets and spiritual salvation that are necessary, indeed, but nowhere near sufficient — and often even counterproductive — to sustaining republican freedom.
Bush backers think they’ve met the republican test set by Alexander Hamilton, who wrote that history had destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” After all, “swift-boat” creepy crawlies and gay-marriage bans aside, the Bush campaign was relatively free of the malevolence that drove the Whitewater hearings, the Clinton impeachment gambit and the untrustworthy 2000 election. This year’s election seemed “clean” because the force and fraud had come earlier and were already coursing through the republic’s bloodstream more powerfully than at any time since the early Cold War.
What’s happening was anticipated in “Death of a Yale Man,” Malcolm Ross’ long-forgotten memoir of his early post-college struggle to organize poor miners and farmers in Kentucky in the 1930s in order to help them govern themselves through reflection and choice. He watched them swept up instead in the raptures of tent revivals led by itinerant preachers such as Billy Sunday. They backed “monkey trials” like the Scopes case against teaching evolution in Tennessee. Driven, sometimes subtly, by force and fraud, they followed demagogues to mystical certitudes or to war and voted for politicians who stimulated their fears, not their hopes.
Hamilton’s republican standard relies on expectations of civic-truth-telling and trust that are compelling enough to sideline such escapism and to deepen trust itself. But trust has declined lately in favor of more and more litigation, gladiatorial entertainment, enemy hating and, failing all that, the diffuse rage you see on roadways and in body language in public places. No wonder so many cling to a commander in chief and answer the call to a huge, new national tent revival. They crave something more reassuring than the myopic, multiculturalist relativism of George McGovern; the overconfident Great Society “social engineering” of Lyndon Johnson and even the “highly rationalistic” Social Security liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Dewey and John Maynard Keynes. We are going all the way back to Bush strategist Karl Rove’s favorite president, William McKinley, champion of robber barons and the Spanish-American War but also, in Bush’s view, of economic dynamism and Christian passion.
The vision was explained soon after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election by James Lucier, an assistant to conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. The liberal “leadership groups that run the country — not just the media but also the politicians, corporate executives … have been trained in an intellectual tradition that is … highly rationalistic,” Lucier told journalist Elizabeth Drew in The New Yorker. That training — the liberal education that Bush, Kerry and I encountered at Yale — “excludes most of the things that are important to the people who are selling cars and digging ditches,” Lucier explained. “The principles that we’re espousing, have been around for thousands of years: The family …, faith that … there is a higher meaning than materialism. Property as a fundamental human right … and that a government should not be based on deficit financing and economic redistribution …. It’s not the ‘new right’ — people are groping for a new term. It’s pre-political.”
The contradictions here don’t matter to conservatives whose deficit spending is a tactic to incapacitate and end Social Security as we know it — part of a strategy of dissimulation and indirection described well by Yale professor Jacob Hacker. To them, Social Security is a “highly rationalistic” affront to the eternal truths of “property as a fundamental human right.” But such a “pre-political” politics subverts self-governance that is classically liberal and that, in a republic, reinforces a logic of mutual trust, not dog-eat-dog competition relieved only by salvific or decadent escapes. Aristotle was right to call humans the noblest of animals under law and the most depraved when they abandon politics.
Lucier’s candid antipathy to such politics recalls much in William F. Buckley Jr.’s “God and Man at Yale,” which indicted both liberal education and liberal demands for the just disposition of property and opportunity — the very liberalism Malcolm Ross worried over in “Death of a Yale Man.” Bush & Co. are poised to extinguish it now in the whirlwind of self-reinforcing fears and private escapes that rabid free-marketeers have sown against a fading liberal-republican logic of public trust.
The only silver lining in the thunderclouds gathering above their big revival tent is that your race and religious denomination matter less now than in the past to conservatives’ absorptive version of 1890s capitalism. If you’re willing to displace the frustrations of having to work harder for lower wages and of living with an alienating, frightening consumerism and to worry instead about “guns, gays and God” — the war on terrorism, the Defense of Marriage Act and the replacement of government bureaucracies by ecclesiastical ones — there’s a seat for you at the front of the bus, no matter your color. God can even hear the prayer of a neoconservative Jew.
To some extent, American liberals asked for this. A “rights”-obsessed liberalism that respects even anti-social, anti-republican selfishness as “difference” and suspends moral judgments still depends for its own survival on virtues and beliefs, which liberalism alone cannot nourish, much less defend: Rumpus may pose as liberating, but subtly it alienates people from one another and themselves enough to make them more pliable to Authority. Combine that deceiving relativism with liberalism’s equally misguided respect for the supposed free-speech “rights” of the corporate marketers who are ever-more swaggering and intimately intrusive in our lives, but whose only “political” speech is dedicated to increasing profit and market share at any social cost, and you have millions leading lives of quiet desperation and degradation, looking for a Billy Sunday or a commander in chief.
Liberals’ challenge isn’t to mock those around us who are being drawn, like magnet filings, into this darkening, doomed crusade, but to acknowledge American liberalism’s own estrangement from a national character that is often — heaven help us — a balancing act as weird as that of a Jack Nicholson movie character, tottering along on a tightrope between rampant materialism and faith.
Yale has been a crucible where future leaders learned to keep that balance constructively enough — in themselves and in practicing the arts and graces of sustaining public trust — to nourish a real republican politics. We saw that — I think — in Kerry’s unforgettable concession speech, and I try to explain how it worked more fully in the forthcoming issue of The Politic. But those crucibles are being drained here now, or heated into cauldrons of ambition masked by rhetoric about saving “freedom” from its enemies. As the veteran conservative diplomats Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke put it in their new book, “America Alone,” the American people have become like “a frog placed in a bowl of cool water as it is slowly heated over a fire. At the point the frog realizes the danger it is in, it is already too weakened to get out. It is boiled alive. Americans today find themselves in water with the temperature rising. To date the political discourse, impregnated as it is with neoconservative formulations, has led them to acquiesce in the demands of those who are stoking the fire. “
Bush once said that he “didn’t learn a damned thing at Yale.” He certainly didn’t learn to walk the tightrope of a liberal education any better than Dick Cheney, who dropped out of here. Both immediately displayed their contempt for the republic by becoming draft dodgers, as defined by every conservative at the time. But they took up the old, “Billy Sunday” balance that juggles God and war. Last week, millions who are drawn to that balance came out in droves, blaming social decay on big-government liberals, not on the casino-corporate economy that inundates us with violence and sexual degradation (and with the guns and Bibles to “protect” ourselves from it).
Let’s hope that liberal republicanism can recover its own balance. Doing so will involve reopening questions about corporate capitalism that the left mishandled. It will mean ending our own dodging of these hard, basic problems of capitalism and republicanism by escaping into the dubious racialist and sexual “liberations” that have driven the unready into Bush’s arms. But it will also mean challenging our own would-be grand strategists here, those who train some of us to role-play warlike pseudo-solutions to the nagging problems of internal decadence to which American corporate capitalism is joined at the hip. A Yale education should equip you to reopen foundational questions about how to nourish republican self-governance that ennobles us through reflection and choice, not though accident, force, fraud and fear.
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in the Political Science and Ethics, Politics and Economics departments.