It has become a tired cliché to lament the polarization of American politics, yet after a year that witnessed a post-election assault on the US Capitol, and in which even epidemiology became a partisan issue, few would contest the truth of the lament. Still, while perhaps more polarized than ever, the poles of American politics are not quite what they once were. Everyone has their own pet theory on the precise shape of the “re-alignment” we are witnessing (usually correlated with the priorities of their funding source), but the old orthodoxies, it seems clear, are in a state of uneasy flux.
Few American political commentators can lay such convincing claim to the mantle of “prophet of re-alignment” than Michael Lind, the profoundly insightful Texan essayist who for three decades now has been deploring the laissez-faire takeover of the Republican party and the myopic identity politics of the Left. Through decades of free trade dogma, Lind was a voice crying in the wilderness on behalf of the older protectionist tradition of American conservatism, and long before talk of “industrial policy” suddenly became hip again around 2018, Lind was trumpeting the virtues of the Hamiltonian and Whig policies that turned America into the economic powerhouse of the world. And although today’s obsessive debate over “critical race theory” may sound new, Lind sounded alarms about the reverse discrimination of race-based preference policies in 1995, and the “racial mysticism” that glorified “anarchic ghetto violence” (Next American Nation, 178) such as American cities witnessed throughout the summer of 2020.
Throughout his career, Lind has presented a vision of American nationalism that avoids any of the ugly racial overtones the term often carries, and an incisive analysis of the profound class dynamics that continue to determine access to economic and political power in twenty-first century America. In the process, he has offered in advance a compelling and persuasive explanation of the Trump phenomenon as a predictable populist backlash against the “divide and conquer” politics of American elites. Lind has been unafraid to grasp the nettle of the third-rail issue of contemporary American politics — immigration — refusing to allow the debate to be drowned out by accusations of “nativism” and “xenophobia,” and calling liberal immigration policies by their proper name: the latest in a long string of highly successful wage-suppression strategies undertaken by our governing elites.
The political consensus of recent decades, Lind charges in his 2019 The New Class War, has been characterized by “a synthesis of the free market liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left” and works to weaken “both democratic nation-states and national working-class majorities” (48). Despite its dominance of the political discussion and national policy, however, this consensus scarcely represents the bulk of working-class America, which tends to favor traditional values, government entitlement programs, and limits on immigration. In other words, while for decades our two parties have increasingly conspired to champion a laissez-faire approach to morality, markets, and borders, most Americans — like most human beings throughout history — support well-regulated limits in all three realms. Lind cites one eye-opening study by his New America Foundation which revealed that 40.3% of the US electorate are “populists” supporting Social Security while opposing immigration, while only 6.2% — albeit a very wealthy and influential 6.2% — want to downsize Social Security and increase immigration (New Class War, 70-71).
In the face of such unrepresentative government, a populist uprising was almost inevitable. While sympathizing with the new populism, however, Lind is circumspect about its limitations. “Today’s populism,” he writes in The New Class War, “is a counterculture, not a counterestablishment.” As the Trump years depressingly demonstrated, “demagogues are good at channeling popular grievances and bad at redressing them. Populist movements that deride expertise and bureaucracy naturally tend to have few experts of their own to formulate policies and administer agencies. The vacuum of experienced talent is often filled by cronies or relatives of the populist demagogue” (83). In short, “populism is a symptom of a sick body politic, not a cure” (87).
The cure, Lind has argued since his clarion call in 1995, The Next American Nation, is a renewal of “liberal nationalism” and “democratic pluralism,” which can reforge the bonds of civic unity and meaningful political representation. By thus reversing the decades-long alienation of the American people from one another, he suggests, we can plausibly reverse the concomitant alienation of the American people from their government, which has left conservatives increasingly unwilling to use the levers of power to advance the public good. “The Democrats,” he shrewdly observes in the concluding chapter, “believe in the State but not the Nation, while the Republicans believe in the Nation but not the State. Neither party unites the two halves of Hamiltonian nationalism into a theory of the strong and integrated American nation-state” (342).
Lind’s project is not free from its own tensions and ambiguities, and even many who sympathize with it may wonder if the hour is not now too late for America’s political salvation. Had Lind’s proposals for a third-way politics been heeded in 1995, it is quite plausible that the baleful trends he highlights might have been arrested. But after the apocalypse of 2020, hope can feel like foolish naivete. Lind himself, however, is a hard-headed realist, and even if realism can seem delusional in a world dominated by ideologues, it is our only plausible path forward, successful or not.
As Christians interested in political justice and civic renewal, then, we have much to gain, and nothing to lose, from a deep and thoughtful engagement with Lind’s corpus. It is too vast, wide-ranging, and provocative to adequately summarize in a single article, so I will here confine myself to three key themes: Lind’s staunch rejection of every form political idealism and dogmatism, his apologia for “nationalism,” and his call for a “democratic pluralism” that can overcome or at least moderate the real class divisions in our society.
Lind’s Refreshing Realism
The first thing that strikes any reader of Lind’s work is his unabashed realism, a breath of fresh air after the hand-wringing sanctimony and ideological cant of much contemporary political writing.
First, Lind is a foreign policy realist. Lind takes for granted that for the most successful period of its history and for the foreseeable future, the world has been and will be made up of sovereign states, each of which will naturally privilege its own interests — the interests of its ruling class, if it is poorly governed, and the interests of its people, if it is well-governed. Prudence and changing circumstances may dictate a more aggressive or pacific approach to foreign policy, a greater reliance on the military or on diplomacy, and a preference for autonomy or international institutions, but any sensible foreign policy will always stand prepared to go it alone and wield a credible threat of force if the national interest demands. Moreover, if states succeed only by a willingness to guard their borders, they also tend to flourish in proportion to their ability to cultivate and protect a shared identity within those borders. Not all states are national states, but those that are have a distinct advantage, since the apparatus of government can act on behalf of what is in some measure a single corporate agency, rather than seeking to oversee “a mere citizenry, a mere collection of individuals who share nothing other than common rulers and common laws” (Next American Nation, 260). Lind’s apologia for “nationalism,” then, which we shall consider at more length below, stems from no romantic nostalgia for an imagined ideal community, much less any nativist xenophobia, but simply from a sober acknowledgment that national communities really do exist, and are the key to effective self-government.
Lind is also what we might call a “constitutional realist.” He has no time whatsoever for debates over originalism and the Founding Fathers, much as he esteems the statecraft of some among them. He takes for granted, as any good historian must, that the effective, practical constitution of any nation must and will be fitted to the people, and not the people to the constitution. In particular, since political economy will always be the dominant peacetime business of civil government, the effective constitution of a nation must and will adapt to changing economic conditions. Thus, in his 2013 Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States, Lind expounds his theory of three successive American republics: the First American Republic (c. 1787-1861), “founded on water and undermined by steam,” the Second American Republic (c. 1861-1929), which “ensured that the United States would be a continental nation-state with an industrial economy,” and the Third American Republic (c. 1929-present), built upon the New Deal and extended by the broad post-war consensus that lasted up through 1975. In each case, technological and economic developments increasingly outgrew the strained fabric of earlier understandings of law and government until the mismatch between economic and political institutions grew great enough to provoke a crisis, characterized by creative destruction and rapid transformation of political institutions. The most optimistic reading of our current convulsions, then, is that we are witnessing the long-overdue birth of the Fourth American Republic, whatever form exactly that will take.
Finally, Lind is an economic realist — a refreshing change after the Right’s decades of captivity to an increasingly disconnected free-market dogmatism that ignored both history and the current lived experience of the American people. For Lind, the question is simple, even if the answers are necessarily complex: “Ultimately American economic policy must meet a single test: Does it, in the long run, tend to raise or depress the incomes of most Americans? A policy that tends to impoverish ordinary Americans is a failure, no matter what its alleged benefits are for U.S. corporations or for humanity as a whole” (Hamilton’s Republic, 324). And over the long run, the evidence seems clear: America has prospered when government policy took an active role in encouraging that prosperity. Land of Promise in particular is something of an apologia for the much-maligned political economy of “mercantilism,” though perhaps it is better called “developmentalism” — the self-conscious economic theory and policy that has underpinned the meteoric rise of East Asian economies in the past few decades, and that informed the rapid development of Germany and America in the later 19th century and the Britain in the later 18th. One of the greatest theorists and practitioners of this now-widespread economic school was America’s own Alexander Hamilton, whose 1793 Report on Manufactures remains an enduring classic of the tradition. Developmentalism recognizes the need for active investment in and early protection of new technologies and infant industries, arguing that a laissez-faire approach to trade and industry will tend to entrench existing national economic specializations. As Lind acidly remarks in his 2003 What Lincoln Believed, “If Americans had paid attention to Adam Smith, the United States never would have become the world’s greatest industrial economy, because it never would have become an industrial economy at all” (76); it would have remained a resource colony for Great Britain. Moreover, Lind blithely defies a longstanding American prejudice against bigness and consolidation, arguing that economies of scale in many advanced industries render our romantic Wendell Berry ideal of the small producer increasingly obsolete. Of course, big industry requires a powerful national government to keep it in check, and Americans have long cherished the myth that our virtuous citizenry and exceptional ideals can enable us to prosper with a minimalist state. This fond hope Lind considers as delusional as its corollary that long dominated American foreign policy: that America could remain rich, powerful, and free with a small navy and an even smaller army.
Indeed, perhaps no nation on earth has been so prone to flights of romantic and self-congratulatory idealism as America, whose immense geographical advantages have often deceived us into thinking that we can prosper effortlessly. Lind identifies this romanticism with the Jeffersonian tradition in American politics, with its ideal of a nation of small, independent yeoman-farmers and artisans, free trade, a tiny military, and an almost invisible state. In the introduction to Land of Promise, he drily remarks
“In a spirit of philosophical bipartisanship, it would be pleasant to conclude that each of these traditions of political economy [Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian] has made its own valuable contribution to the success of the American economy and that the vector created by these opposing forces has been more beneficial than the complete victory of either would have been. But that would not be true. What is good about the American economy is largely the result of the Hamiltonian developmental tradition, and what is bad about it is largely the result of the Jeffersonian producerist school” (15).
Although it has been frequently maligned as an elitist prop of big business, Lind persuasively argues that the Hamiltonian tradition is in fact the true standard-bearer of American greatness:
“Like Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians are liberal, constitutional republicans, but Hamiltonians have believed from the beginning that both individual liberty and constitutional government are easier to secure in a strong nation-state with a stable government and a diversified economy than in a weak, decentralized, economically backward confederacy which, pursuing utopian schemes in foreign policy and domestic governance, would inevitably be dominated, in fact, by parochial politicians and foreign powers” (Next American Nation, 374).
Pithily summing up the difference between the two traditions in Hamilton’s Republic, Lind observes, “the disagreement between the two great American traditions can be summed up thus: Hamiltonians are more afraid of the world than of their own government, while Jeffersonians are more afraid of their own government than of the world” (129).
Still, Lind recognizes that the Jeffersonian ethos has penetrated deeply into the self-understanding of the American nation and saturates our political rhetoric, and observes that ever since FDR, shrewd statesmen have cloaked largely Hamiltonian policies in the largely Jeffersonian language of freedom and self-determination. Not since Theodore Roosevelt has the Hamiltonian tradition been openly avowed by leading American politicians, although perhaps that is at last due to change — albeit thanks more to Lin-Manuel Miranda than to Michael Lind.
Defining Liberal Nationalism
As a hard-headed realist, Lind has little patience with the increasingly unreal conceptions of the American nation that have dominated our politics since the 1960s. A nation, Lind argues, “is a concrete historical community, defined primarily by a common language, common folkways, and a common vernacular culture” (Next American Nation, 5). As such, it serves as the foundation for strong and stable political units, states that can lay convincing claim to sustaining and protecting a way of life that makes liberty meaningful, and in which a people can experience self-government through representative institutions even on a very large scale.
Nationalism can come in thicker or thinner forms, illiberal and liberal variants. Although frequently associated in contemporary parlance with authoritarian, jingoistic regimes, it has just as often taken democratic and pacific forms, and Lind would argue in 1995 at least, was still the dominant conception of American identity among ordinary Americans. Lind identifies four potential components of a national identity: language, culture, religion, and race (to these, he might well have added “laws;” Lind rightly wishes to distinguish “nation” and “government,” but the customary laws of a people are a key constituent of its culture). While what Lind calls “nativism” tends to focus heavily on either religion or race, Lind’s own “liberal nationalism” confines itself to a shared language and culture (with “language” encompassing idioms, accents, and allusions, not merely a common vocabulary and grammar).
In this broad sense, Lind considers it indisputable that even today, we can speak of a common American nation, albeit with plenty of regional and ethnic variations. To be sure, its base has immensely broadened since its early days of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. “Anglo-America” gave way by 1860 to “Euro-America,” and finally in the 1960s to a fully multi-racial America in which the contributions of African-Americans to the distinctive American national culture were finally given their due — or would have been, in his view, if multiculturalism had not wrecked the project of integration. With each fresh infusion of immigrants, the fabric of the American nation has been forced to stretch a bit wider. This has been, to be sure, a messy process, but through it, new threads have gradually been woven into an existing garment; America has never simply changed out her clothes wholesale. The old biblicist English Protestantism of the colonial era, Lind argues, continues to pervade the American psyche, even if new elements have concealed or transformed it. “Liberal nationalism,” Lind writes, “might be most simply defined as yesterday’s ‘melting-pot’ nationalism updated to favor the cultural fusion and genetic amalgamation not just of white immigrant groups but of Americans of all races” (Next American Nation, 9).
Many on the Right, eager to continue waving the banner of American exceptionalism long after the decay of the theological assumptions that once undergirded it, have sought to define American identity in creedal terms, by our commitment to liberty and democracy. On this view, which Lind calls “democratic universalism,” “the United States…is not a nation-state at all, but an idea-state, a nationless state based on the philosophy of liberal democracy in the abstract. There is no American people, merely an American Idea” (Next American Nation, 3). This perspective, which has thankfully lost ground since its 1990s heyday, is absurd, on Lind’s view. If America is defined simply by its ideals, then “if those ideals were abandoned or substantially modified ‘America’ would cease to exist, even if the same population, with the same language, customs, and social institutions continued to inhabit the same territory” (Next American Nation, 223). But functioning nations are defined by loyalties to people and place, not simply to ideas. Moreover, most of the claims made for the supposed exceptionalism of American ideals and institutions are, in Lind’s view, grossly exaggerated and increasingly untenable.
For many on the Left, on the other hand, the sheer diversity of the American people renders any talk of nationalism retrograde and potentially oppressive, certain to privilege some identities over others. In its place, they have for decades promoted “multiculturalism,” according to which America should see itself as a federation of incommensurable tribes, each with its own culture, history, and interests. In theory, these distinct cultures are meant to live together harmoniously, celebrating their diversity, but such harmony is constantly undermined by the Left’s insistence on ferreting out ongoing inequities and structures of oppression, or seeking to blow the embers of old injustices back into flame. Lind is not in the least interested in minimizing the history of white supremacy in America; on the contrary, he spotlights it throughout his works, even going out of his way in What Lincoln Believed to stress Lincoln’s own less-than-sterling record on race. But, as a historical realist, Lind is also well aware that oppression and discrimination among different ethnic and racial groups is simply what humans do, and the only reliable way to overcome it is through relativizing and in time erasing the boundary-lines — above all, through intermarriage.
This being the case, Lind cannot conceal his indignation over the multiculturalism of the post-60s Left, which has only intensified since. This stance, far from fighting to relativize remaining racial boundaries, works overtime to accentuate them, by “celebrating” rival identities, except, of course, for the majority identity of the American people. Of course, in the real world, people are the bearers of multiple overlapping identities, and sometimes must accept the relativization of one in order to enjoy the benefits of another. But the multiculturalist
“ideal of authenticity seeks to eliminate such conflicts, by positing the identity of your true self and your official subculture. To find yourself, you need only find your ghetto, and adopt its politics, its style of dress, and its approved beliefs about the world and humanity. Having done so, you can then demand that society at large recognize your individuality—that is to say, your abject conformity…. Identity politics is meekest conformity, masquerading as anarchic rebellion. It is subculture collectivism, rather than society-wide collectivism, but just as anti-individualist. Far from being radically postmodern, identity politics is reminiscent of premodern feudal orders of status” (Next American Nation, 123).
In one of the most bitingly insightful passages of The Next American Nation, Lind prophesies that even evangelical Christians, while ostensibly the loudest critics of multiculturalism, will soon mimic its rhetorical and political strategy. Evangelicals, he notes, “do not aspire to take over the federal government, but rather to weaken its authority in order to carve out enclave communities in which they can approach their own communal ideals. It is not difficult to imagine such subcultural separatism being justified in the language, derived ultimately from the black power movement, of group rights and group victimization” (251-52). The result is the degeneration of politics into a war of all against all.
“What blacks were in the sixties, we are today, claim the born agains and the environmentalists and the handicapped, the feminists and the members of the men’s movement. Behold us set upon by dogs; pity us, pass laws on our behalf…. Everyone wants to be the protest marchers, but someone has to play the role of the police with the dogs. One American’s Martin Luther King is another’s Bull Connor. The evangelicals claim they are being persecuted by the powerful secular humanists; no, no, reply the secular humanists, see how powerful the fundamentalists are, they are Bull Connor, we are King!” (350-51)
Reviving Democratic Pluralism
So, what is Lind’s solution to this breakdown of the American identity? It is, as one might expect from what we have seen thus far, impossible to characterize simply as “liberal” or “conservative.” While loudly standing up for concerns today voiced only (if at all) by conservatives, Lind argues that in many ways the problem with modern progressivism is that it is not nearly radical enough. His objection to multiculturalism is not its obsessive drive for racial justice, but rather that it has become a cop-out strategy for disguising and ignoring the real structural injustices of American society. Affirmative action, he charges, is mere “tokenism,” a way of pacifying downtrodden minorities without effecting real change, with the added benefit of insulting and degrading the white working class that liberal elites so despise. “By means of college-to-Congress racial preference policies, the white overclass, over the past thirty years, has attempted to create and maintain small, artificial black and Hispanic overclasses. It has done so, not out of charity, but in order to co-opt the potential leaders of black and Hispanic dissent” (Next American Nation, 101).
The real division in American society, Lind charges, is not between races, but between classes, something that both the myth of American exceptionalism and the race filters of multiculturalism both serve to obscure. Indeed, by focusing on race, our elites do not merely distract from class inequities, but help to strengthen them by dividing the working class against itself. “Far from being revolutionary,” he observes in The Next American Nation, “identity politics is merely America’s version of the oldest oligarchic trick in the book: divide and rule” (141); “racial divisions ensure that the lower-half Americans waste their energies in zero-sum struggles between races” (255). Meanwhile, elites on the right, argues Lind, pursue the same end by different means: by championing absolute free trade, they force American workers into an unwinnable competition against sweatshop laborers abroad, shattering worker bargaining power, depressing wages, and depriving the working class of meaningful political influence. Both parties, meanwhile, for two decades united around loose immigration policies that eviscerated the American middle class, chiding all dissent as xenophobic, economically illiterate, or both. Meanwhile, snobbish elites poured contempt on the religious and moral values of working class America. No wonder it responded by inflicting Trump on its tormentors.
But neither Trump nor any other major political leader has yet offered a plausible solution to this new class war. Most reformist proposals to date Lind dismisses, borrowing a term from Daniel McCarthy, as “palliative liberalism.” Progressives are liable to accept the status quo of power imbalance and simply call for more distribution from the winners to the losers, rather than rewriting the rules of the rigged game. Populists on the Right are most likely to revive the old Jeffersonian anti-monopolism, and argue that if we can only break up big business and defang cronyism, the renewed economy of small producers will generate prosperity for all. Lind’s Hamiltonianism makes him skeptical; small businesses, he notes, are much more likely to pay minimum wage than large ones.
The real solution, which Lind calls “democratic pluralism” must involve a resurrection of countervailing power, such as Americans enjoyed in some measure in the most successful decades of the republic, the post-war period. What is needed for a renewed democratic liberalism, concludes Lind in The New Class War, are “mass-membership institutions comparable to the older grassroots parties, labor unions, and religious organizations, which can provide ordinary citizens with the collective power to check the abuses of the managerial elite” (130). Echoing the diagnosis of many shrewd political critics of recent decades, Lind recognizes the need for mediating institutions within civil society, a “tripartism” that can replace the increasingly binary relationship of individual and state. Too many of our political debates have become dominated by the false dilemma between a free-for-all of cutthroat competition, and stifling top-down government regulation. In the workplace, for instance, tripartism “rejects excessive government micromanagement of minimum wages and working conditions using one-size-fits-all rules. Some minimum standards are necessary, but many decisions should be left to collective bargaining among organized capital and organized labor, brokered by national governments” (136).
Lind’s tripartism also seeks to re-empower religious institutions for a meaningful role in American public life, rather than seeking to grind them into the dust, with the contemporary Left, or carve out for them an autonomous niche, like the contemporary Right. “For example,” writes Lind,
“legislation should require the participation of a representative range of secular and supernaturalist creedal groups in government boards and commissions that oversee media policy and education policy to ensure that the values of all major subcultures in the nation are acknowledged and given deference. Today in the US it would be unthinkable for a civil rights commission to have no African American or Latino members. It should be equally unthinkable for a commission or agency that makes rules for the media, public school curricula, or college accreditation to include no devout Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and members of other major religious or secular creeds” (New Class War, 144).
That Lind’s realism should not be confused with cynical pessimism is clear from the fact that the above words were published in 2019. Many of us are apt to respond wearily that, whatever should be unthinkable, it is in fact unthinkable that a federal commission on public education would explicitly invite the formal inclusion of evangelical Protestant representatives. And in general, the steady and not-so-slow unraveling of American public life, and of the trust in one another that is something of a prerequisite for political renewal, may lead many readers to doubt the viability of Lind’s solutions — which would indeed require a sustained and radical restructuring of the American social contract.
Still, whether renewal comes in our own lifetimes or not, Lind has, I believe, pointed the right path forward for a responsible politics of the common good: one which transcends racialism in favor of genuine civic friendship, abandons ideology for historically-informed empiricism, and rejects libertarian idolatries and re-imagines diverse yet corporate forms of life together than can both concentrate and distribute political and economic power. Nor is Lind’s vision a mere pipe dream; on the contrary, it is a one that has begun to recapture the imagination of today’s conservatives, as groups like Oren Cass’s American Compass have called for a re-empowerment of labor unions and signaled that the time has come for a post-libertarian conservatism. Protestants in particular should sit up and take notice of such developments, since by speaking of the nation-state as a “community of communities,” Lind is speaking the language of the great Protestant political theorist Johannes Althusius, whose social vision of bottom-up subsidiarity coupled with strong government remains perhaps the last, best hope for American renewal.
This, of course, raises the question of how much such renewal requires spiritual and theological renewal. Lind, for one, couldn’t care less. Although he frequently roasts the ruling elites for their scorn of middle America’s values, he himself can scarcely conceal his contempt for evangelical Protestantism and the moral culture of flyover country. On the rare occasions when he touches on such issues, he signals support for a relatively liberal sexual politics and broadening of civil rights. At the same time, however, he recognizes the need for moral renewal in a culture overly fixated on individual rights and calls in The Next American Nation for a revived “civic familism,” a “constitution of honor” that preached intergenerational obligation over mere self-fulfillment. This, he deems, could flourish as a purely secular ethic, and need not be monopolized by the Religious Right.
I am, of course, more skeptical. While history certainly affords many examples of “civic familist” ethics and stable polities flourishing in the absence of Christianity, they have almost inevitably rested on a strong public religion of some kind — and those not leavened by the Bible have tended to condone practices that would still appall even our libertine age. Moreover, there is an important difference between a non-Christian society and a post-Christian society. Strange gods may still hold the disordered passions of the demos in check, but when the old gods have fled the temple, no paean to the glories of civic friendship can fill their vast void.
Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.