Look, No Tocqueville

September 1, 1995 Topics: Society Tags: NeoconservatismAcademiaHeads Of State

Look, No Tocqueville

Mini Teaser: Michael Lind's first book is the "first manifesto" of a "real, not merely metaphorical revolution in politics and society" leading to a new America to be known as Trans-America.

by Author(s): Harvey C. Mansfield

Michael Lind, The Next American Nation (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

Michael Lind is not lacking in ambition. His first book is the "first manifesto" of a "real, not merely metaphorical revolution in politics and society" leading to a new America to be known as Trans-America. Lind compares his revolution to the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s and expects it will come by election. He offers his personal guarantee that it will be bloodless. His analysis makes a book that, while too long for a genuine manifesto, does suit his ambitious goal: a new understanding of the American nation supported by a new interpretation of American history.

Believing that America is a nation-state--a state arising from a nation--Lind calls himself a "liberal nationalist." As nationalist, he opposes those who define America as an idea, while also distinguishing himself as a liberal from nativists, who define America by its race or religion. Liberal nationalism in his view sees the nation as formed essentially by language and culture, even though up to now America has been held in the grip of a "white overclass" bent on racial and religious domination. But the discrepancy between what a nation has been in the past and what it can be in the future cannot be removed by politics purging the nation of its excrescences, he believes, because politics comes from within a nation and cannot impose solutions from outside.

Lind therefore deprecates politics together with ideas in the formation of the American nation. The two suffer together because ideas would become effective only through conscious, concerted, deliberate politics. Lind more than deprecates; he subjects American statesmen, all but Alexander Hamilton, to relentless denigration throughout his book, and he reduces their ideas to instruments of rule by the white overclass. Disputes over first principles, he says in regard to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, were results, not causes, in the formation of the American union. Most Americans before World War II, he continues, would have been "puzzled by the idea that the American people was created in 1776." That was when their government, not their nation, was established.

Many of these Americans, though fewer these days, would have learned by heart at least the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address, and so would not have felt the puzzlement Lind attributes to them. For Lincoln said that a new nation was brought forth in 1776, one dedicated to a proposition; the government came later after a false start. That proposition is everything and nothing to Michael Lind. It is nothing because he never discusses it and everything because he takes it for granted. He despises Jefferson, the "sainted author" of the Declaration of Independence, together with Jefferson's friend Madison, whom he calls "rich farmers." That all men are created equal, however, Lind takes for self-evident truth. He cannot understand how any decent person could believe otherwise or how, once believed, that proposition could fail to be put into immediate practice. So he does not hesitate to condemn Jefferson or bother to consider why slavery might have been a problem. He does not remark, much less counter, Jefferson's memorable discussion of slavery in Query 14 of the Notes on the State of Virginia. Lind has no sympathy for anguished candor; his way is to find some discrediting fact or opinion by which to score a point and dismiss a reputation. His wisdom on the slavery question is that of the abolitionists, but without their fears and doubts. He does not seem to have had any difficulty in thinking things through by himself, such that he would have found it useful to collect and examine diverse opinions from sources both usual and new.

Lind organizes the development of the American nation into three stages that he calls "republics," a political designation contradicting his view that culture precedes politics. The first republic is "Anglo-America;" the second is "Euro-America;" the third, "Multicultural America." Each is called by a racial name, thus contradicting his view that nation is language and culture rather than race and religion. But he meant that a nation should be culture, rather than race and religion, despite past history. Lind calls himself a nationalist while asserting that up to now the American nation has been misdirected by nativism and racism. There is, to be sure, a certain progress of democratization from Anglo to Euro to Multi, but Lind does not explain why this has come about. Tocqueville's theme, democratization in America, does not receive the treatment that it deserved and that Lind badly needs. For Lind leaves it to be inferred that all our ills come from inequality and all will be resolved through purer democracy. If this review had to be confined to one sentence, it would say that the author tried to write a book on American politics without coming to terms with Tocqueville.

Although America in Lind's analysis is getting more and more inclusive, the present stage of multiculturalism is far from satisfactory to him. Lind sharply distinguishes himself from those on the left who have forsaken color-blind liberalism. He regards multiculturalism as a corrupt compromise arranged by the white overclass to buy off the resentment of blacks with racial preferences, while simultaneously denouncing that compromise so as to appeal to the resentment of working-class whites. It's a complicated strategy, but Lind has worked it out on his own, again without having to weigh the arguments of the parties involved. So, to progress to the Fourth Republic of Trans-America, Lind proposes going back to the truly color-blind quality of the melting pot. His nationalism has no nativism; it is liberal nationalism, purged of racial and national prejudice. But where did the liberal come from if not from Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence? And is it not an idea vaguely the same as that which inspires the democratic "idea-state" that Lind scornfully rejects? "One should cherish one's nation, as one should cherish one's family, not because it is the best in the world, but because with all its flaws, it is one's own," says Lind. But the same modest recommendation could be made for one's race, or indeed for one's daily evacuations.

The notion of America as an idea-state is beautifully stated by Lind's hero Alexander Hamilton on the first page of The Federalist: The American people is 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."

Here is American exceptionalism in the sense of a people having an exceptional opportunity to establish the feasibility of an idea not peculiar to them. The opportunity consists of circumstances favorable to the idea, perhaps including the racial composition of Americans. Lind misrepresents the position that America is defined by an idea when he supposes it to mean that the idea is totally abstracted from material conditions. No: as Aristotle said, the form is in the matter it defines.

Thus, it is a perfectly reasonable, indeed necessary, question to ponder, as the Founders did, whether a certain people is suited for the establishment of a universal truth. A universal truth is not necessarily universally applicable, or indeed applicable at all; one must make an experiment to see whether men can in fact live in equality. It is not racism or nativism for thoughtful Americans to consider whether a certain racial "stock" is better suited for a people living in freedom and equality. Precisely because it is true that every people will have its own nation or culture one must look to see which is more receptive to the idea. The idea that all men are created equal is universal, but every application of it will be particular. The application will be more or less successful, as, for example, in America compared to Liberia, and certainly it will be distinctive. Equality in America will be American equality.

Of course, many or most of those who speak of racial differences are prejudiced; but their prejudice only makes sober consideration more necessary. It is incumbent on Lind to show that the liberalism he believes to have developed in company with nativism is truly separable from it. He simply asserts that the ethics of religion does not require religion. As he leaves it, the recognition of nation on which he so prides himself does not at all accept the American nation as it has been according to his own account. Surely nationalism, if it means anything, means embracing national prejudice as opposed to universal truth. So the question arises: Which prejudices will liberal nationalism nourish, which will it tolerate, and which will it oppose? A nation, as opposed to a universal idea, simply cannot be free of all prejudice.

Perhaps we get the answers in the last chapter, entitled "The National Story." Instead of a national idea, America has a postmodern story with museums featuring murals imagined by Lind to illustrate his jaundiced view of each of the three racial republics he has conceived for us. Not incidentally, the museums that are supposed to be purely cultural are in fact purely political. In Lind's own Trans-American pantheon Jefferson ("a Southern reactionary"), Madison ("a relatively inconsequential figure"), and Lincoln (a great man but "symbol of the white common man") are replaced by Hamilton and Frederick Douglass, despite Hamilton's status as a Founding Father and without mention of Douglass' praise of the Constitution as color-blind and his denunciation of the Dred Scott decision (contrary to Lind) as brazenly unconstitutional. In the story of his groundless America, Lind tries to make us see what it would look like without the "absurd overemphasis on the eighteenth-century Founding Fathers in conventional American discourse." Our history gets in the way of his story. His nationalism is for a nation made by himself that he is pleased to call "liberal."

Lind develops a class analysis of American politics in the course of his critique of multicultural America, the third republic said to be dominated by a white overclass. This "small group," with its dependents, amounts to about a fifth of the American population, constituting a national oligarchy. Apparently these people--snug in their outsized oligarchy of fifty million--do not accept Lind's dictum that culture is more important than politics because they spend their lives in dominating others rather than visiting museums or singing folk songs. And it is their removal from power through a politics of egalitarianism that will make possible Lind's next nation.

Will there be an overclass in Trans-America? The non-Marxist theorists to whom Lind reassuringly refers--Aristotle, Montesquieu, the authors of The Federalist, and the Progressives--did not suppose that class interest and class conflict could ever be abolished, but the implication of an egalitarian politics is that they can be. Lind does not say which inequalities he regards as permanent or just. On the one hand he claims to be a genuine populist because he wants to abolish the influence of the rich in campaigns, introduce proportional representation in elections, and make the Senate proportional to population. These democratizing measures, he assures us, will "conserve the essence of our constitutional system"--a system not so bad after all! On the other hand is the Big Government required for enforcing anti-discrimination statutes and for "unsubtle, crude, old-fashioned redistribution of wealth"? Will this not give opportunity to an oligarchy of bureaucrats just as conservatives now say? And will not the government handouts he proposes (to be called "consumption vouchers") corrupt the morals and independence of the people he wants to elevate into equality? In a book that touches many things the most glaring omission is any discussion of virtue or character. Yet the American nation would seem to be the American national character.

Lind also wants to mount a "war on oligarchy" attacking our "caste-like educational system," especially the preferences given to alumni children in college admissions. This practice he greatly exaggerates, for the supposedly caste-like educational system has been carrying on the war he wants since World War II, and with considerable success. And besides, is not the selection of alumni children a preference for "one's own" of the kind he likes when it is called nationalism? Novel ideas such as these will bring America closer to the "goal of a meritocratic social order" that will nurture a "new nationalist counter-elite." The new counter-elite could not possibly be or become an oligarchy because it will be allied with the four-fifths of Americans presently excluded from influence. How ingenious!

On reflection, Michael Lind is lacking in ambition to write a book carefully and well. He is funny if you like sarcasm. His many diverse conceits and formulations are certainly clever, but just as certainly they remind one of the difference between cleverness and intelligence. He is given to exaggeration. He unguardedly left a gauge of his inaccuracy when he said that "David Hume...wrote his own Tory history of England to refute Macaulay's Whig history." His work is characterized throughout by want of study and reflection, and so his ambition to reform America--which is more noble that he allows to appear--comes across as levity and pretentiousness. It is a pity because his wit is formidable and his contempt for orthodoxy is admirable. His best friend would advise him to wait many years before publishing another book, years of preparation that would also serve as penance for this effort. Why do I think this advice would go unheeded?

Essay Types: Book Review