National Velcro

The Next American Nation, by Michael Lind, New York: The Free Press, 415 pages, $22.95

Michael Lind is a young man full of learning, information, humor--and himself. Formerly an editor at the neoconservative National Interest, later with Harper's and The New Republic, he attracted attention earlier this year for articles in the New York Review of Books attacking Pat Robertson. Now he comes forward with The Next American Nation, very much a young man's book, full of brilliant analysis and surprisingly effective bombast--and, alas, some crackpot solutions. I think Lind is on the right track in searching for a usable, tolerant American nationalism that can help knit together our Tocquevillian post-Cold War America. But his solutions leave me with the feeling that the search must go on.

One problem has its roots in Lind's periodization. Like political scientist Stephen Skowronek in The Politics Presidents Make and constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman in We the People, Lind divides American history into periods. Like them, he locates one break at the Civil War and Reconstruction; unlike them, he locates the next not at the New Deal but in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. This is essential to his characterization of America's three "Republics": The first was Anglo-American and Protestant, the second was Euro-American (i.e. with lots of immigrants) and Judeo-Christian, and the third is Multicultural. He is appropriately scornful of the affirmative action thinking which depicts America as a nation of five separate races ("Asian and Pacific Islander" is one) and notes that the Third Republic is "associated with declining living standards, polarized politics, and foreign policy failures."

That's more than a little overwrought: It's not as clear as Lind thinks that living standards are declining; party politics are always to some extent polarized; and amid foreign policy failures we did manage to win the Cold War.

My greater problem with Lind's formulation, however, is that he makes multiculturalism too central to American life. Affirmative action bureaucrats may classify by race, college and corporation bureaucrats may classify by race, and college and corporate vice presidents may join affirmative action bureaucrats in congratulating themselves on achieving the right numbers--Lind admirably describes these scams.

But do most Americans really swallow the multicultural line? We do live in a segmented society, but in segments largely determined by personal choice, maintained by voluntary action, and penetrable by just about anyone who wants in. (Lind has made his living in neoconservative, leftish, and neoliberal segments already.) Lind argues sensibly that affirmative action should mostly be junked; ingeniously, he suggests the Census Bureau should stop counting by race. But my impression is that the whole rotten structure of racial quotas is going to tumble down rapidly, given the speed with which the California Civil Rights Initiative has injected the issue into the political process. Affirmative action will die because it never had a strong place in Americans' hearts.

If Lind is an acute analyst of affirmative action, I am afraid he has got it all wrong when he denounces the Third Republic's "overclass." His idea is that in this period of American history all power has gone uniquely to the top 20 percent of Americans: professionals and managers who manipulate the economy and both political parties to monopolize the benefits of economic growth for themselves. But there has always been a top 20 percent in American history. And the overclass today as before has proven exceedingly permeable.

Lind cheap shots the argument by noting that George Bush was chauffeured to kindergarten in a limousine. But Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Ross Perot, and Colin Powell surely weren't--and the list goes on and on. Sure, a lot of people on the Forbes 400 inherited much of their wealth. But a lot of others on the list started off with nothing. Sometimes clever young men who break into the overclass feel guilty and therefore impelled to argue that no one deserves to be there.

Lind's preoccupation with the overclass leads to the biggest defect of The Next American Nation--its prescription of big government programs as the cure for the ills that ail us. To provide high-wage jobs for low-skill American workers, he wants zero net immigration and a "social tariff" penalizing companies that invest abroad; to teach people skills, he wants "single-payer education" from kindergarten to college; he wants tariff walls and national health insurance.

This is classic European welfare state circa 1960, complete with protectionism, and it has obvious problems, as a glance at Europe today suggests. It doesn't create many jobs (and even without immigration, America has a growing population and needs new jobs) and it doesn't generate much technological innovation (which America's Third Republic has done admirably). It is not suited to America's folkways--which Lind describes admirably, even eloquently.

Like Bill Clinton, Michael Lind imagines that most Americans are seething with anger and envy over the fact that some Americans are getting rich. He supposes therefore that the majority is ready to support a politician who promises to take money away from the rich and give it to everyone else. Lind advocates "unsubtle, crude, old-fashioned redistribution of wealth, through taxation and public spending."

But over the past 20 years, as the income distribution has become less egalitarian, the politics of economic redistribution has become perceptibly weaker. And that's not because the overclass has prevented such a politics from emerging: Politicians from Dick Gephardt to Jesse Jackson to John Connally have preached redistribution and protectionism and haven't gotten very many votes. The American people don't want the medicine Lind is prescribing, because they don't think they have the disease he diagnoses.

Near the end of his book, Lind quotes Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life, the book which, as Lamar Alexander recently pointed out, provides the basic argument for a centralized bureaucratic government to solve common problems and redress economic inequality. But Croly was 1909 and this is now. Lind should read Alexander or Jim Pinkerton, who argues persuasively that public opinion is moving to dismantle the centralized bureaucracies of Croly's Progressive era and to replace them with market mechanisms and forms of choice. The centralized stuff, of which Lind wants more, just doesn't work very well anymore.

But nationalism does, or can. Lind takes the risk of sounding foolish in describing lyrically his vision of American nationalism, and I think he carries it off very well. If we are in a segmented society, we still need something to hold us together as a nation, and Lind has done as good a job as anyone lately in describing what it is: partly a heritage of laws and political institutions, certain habits of liberty, particular folkways and styles of behavior.

There is much in common here with the nationalism of Newt Gingrich, but unfortunately Lind seems determined to damn the Republican right and all its works. The result is a set of nationalist policies unlikely to be embraced by the American people and likely to diminish the nation, economically and otherwise, if they are.

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