The Long View: The Next American Nation

As described, Michael Lind's book seems a little crazy, but it might just be crazy like a fox. As sober historiography, there is little to recommend the conceit that there have been three American Republics, in the French style, much less that the descriptions provided really described the periods all that well. For example, the idea that the animating feature of the Second Republic was the pan-white melting pot would probably have come as a surprise to the Know-Nothings and the Irish and Italian and German Catholics they detested.

Nonetheless, I think I can see what Lind is getting at. Eventually, something like the idea of generic white Americans did take hold, but it was a hotly contested idea for a long time. It probably only really won about the time that Lind set the transition to the next Republic, about the time that statistical ideas about race and ethnicity were enshrined in law by the Office of Management and Budget's Statistical Directive No. 15. This directive has seen subsequent modification, but in outline it is with us still.

Lind's description of the Overclass overlaps considerably with the Deep State, the sober, responsible people who make the trains run on time no matter who might get elected:

This group, which makes up perhaps a fifth of the population, is spread throughout the country in the better suburbs. They are the country's higher managers, academics, professionals and media people. They normally have expensive degrees which they may spend the first thirty years of their lives acquiring. These degrees have been made qualifications for their lucrative jobs and therefore serve to minimize competition.. The Overclass is not simply the rich; they certainly are not the idle rich. The owner of a successful business may make far more money than his lawyer, but the lawyer, particularly if he is a member of one of the big law firms, is much more likely to belong to the Overclass. The Overclass is overwhelmingly white and mainstream Protestant, with the addition of some suitably reformed Jews. Catholics and Evangelicals are rare among them. They are both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They make the campaign donations on which politicians depend. They watch the news on Public Television. They do not smoke. They drink wine rather than beer. They co-habit early and marry late. They have maids. They jog.

I cannot cast too many stones, because this is very much my class, except that I am too religious and intentionally avoided graduate school and I have too many children. Yet, for all that, this is still my class. Most of my closest friends fit this description well. Our class is still very much in charge, and everything that you see here follows from that.

Nearly twenty years later, this essay/book review strikes me as a pretty good primer on American politics. The current presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can been seen as the electoral contest between the Overclass, which overwhelmingly supports Clinton, and the people who got pushed aside by the decisions of the Overclass, represented by Trump.

John Reilly's enumeration of the cultural insistences that define American culture as such are a useful companion to Lind's class analysis. Our tendency to be Biblicist, anti-hierarchical, and nice goes across the class distinction Lind makes. Also the way in which America is a perennially millennial society, full of spiritual foment and messianic zeal. Americans who hate each other with a fiery passion usually share these things in common.

If you want to understand who we are, and get beyond the question of whether your side in this internecine contest is winning, you could do worse than to read this.

The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Republic
by Michael Lind
The Free Press, 1995
$25.00, 436 pp.
ISBN: 0-02-919103-3


America after the United States


"Multicultural America is a repellant and failed regime, from the point of view of members of the wage-earning American majority. That should not be surprising, because it was not designed with their interests in mind."

So says Michael Lind, once a senior editor at the magazine "The New Republic" and formerly of "Harpers" and "The National Interest." (His current activities defy enumeration.) Doubtless he is right, as he is also right about extending the blame beyond the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. (Mr. Lind is perhaps best known for his expose' in the "The New York Review of Books" of the Reverend Pat Robertson's universal conspiracy theory.) Certainly many Americans who think that the Republicans' "Contract with America" is a pollster's flim-flam also share the conservatives' suspicion that the major institutions of the United States have been taken over by malign extraterrestrials during the past thirty years. Similarly, people of many different persuasions believe that the political and cultural order that grew up after the 1960s will not last much longer. The differences of opinion arise about what kind of America should follow the one we have.

In this book, we get a theory of American history, a class analysis of the current state of American society, and an outline of what the "next America" should be like. All of these are wrong, though they all include arguments and observations that are well worth reading. The class analysis is the best thing of its kind to come along since "The Yuppie Handbook," and Lind's discussion of American patriotism is important. The problem is that his "next America" would be just as alien to its citizens as the regime we have now.

Mr. Lind obviously admires modern French history, with its colorful sequence of Empires, Directorates, numbered Republics and the occasional failed Commune. He therefore spruces up the drab constitutional continuity of American history with a First, Second and Third Republic, each inaugurated by the stress of war and each of them with its own political mythology. (Part of the idea seems to be that a "catastrophic" and discontinuous national history is more in keeping with recently fashionable ideas in paleontology; asteroids killing the dinosaurs and all that.) The First Republic was "Anglo-America," peopled largely by "No Popery" Protestants of British origin who pursued their Manifest Destiny to conquer the continent. It lasted from the Revolution until the Civil War, when it was succeeded by the Second Republic, Euro-America, the great age of heavy immigration and the ideal of the pan-white melting pot. Under the stress of the Cold War in general and Vietnam in particular, the Third Republic arose. Though initially not much different in ethnic composition from its predecessor, it was governed from the start by the ideology of multiculturalism, which held the United States is not a single nation, but a confederation of five permanently diverse nations. These were defined in 1977 by the Office of Management and Budget's Statistical Directive No. 15 (a document to which the author assigns quasi-constitutional status) as "black, white, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Native American." The Third Republic is essentially a scam in which the real rulers of the United States, the white Overclass, are able to avoid paying for needed reforms by playing off these artificial divisions against each other.

If you must construct a model of American history, I suppose you can't go far wrong by running the first dispensation from the Revolution to the Civil War, but little of the rest of this structure is very helpful. As Lind notes himself, the melting-pot ideal can be found even in Revolutionary times (Pennsylvania, after all, was even then heavily German, and New York was a former Dutch colony), while theories of Anglo-Saxon-Protestant supremacy are really creatures of the late nineteenth century, along with the rest of Darwinian racism. Multicult itself was prefigured in the "cultural pluralism" that was devised by socialists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and carried to the United States in the early twentieth century. The reason why historians have tended to treat American history as a continuous whole is that American history is really pretty continuous. One may be forgiven for suspecting that Mr. Lind finds a discontinuous account of American history congenial because he himself is seeking to encourage a whopping discontinuity in the near future. But of that more later.

The Third Republic, we are told, is the dispensation of the Overclass. This group, which makes up perhaps a fifth of the population, is spread throughout the country in the better suburbs. They are the country's higher managers, academics, professionals and media people. They normally have expensive degrees which they may spend the first thirty years of their lives acquiring. These degrees have been made qualifications for their lucrative jobs and therefore serve to minimize competition.. The Overclass is not simply the rich; they certainly are not the idle rich. The owner of a successful business may make far more money than his lawyer, but the lawyer, particularly if he is a member of one of the big law firms, is much more likely to belong to the Overclass. The Overclass is overwhelmingly white and mainstream Protestant, with the addition of some suitably reformed Jews. Catholics and Evangelicals are rare among them. They are both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They make the campaign donations on which politicians depend. They watch the news on Public Television. They do not smoke. They drink wine rather than beer. They co-habit early and marry late. They have maids. They jog.

More to the point, they also have peculiar economic interests, which they pursue to the detriment of the rest of the nation. They have little interest in paying taxes for the sort of elaborate social welfare structures taken for granted in Europe, so they console the more obstreperous groups among the lower classes by providing them racial preferences for places in prestigious educational institutions and in certain jobs. (Feminism, of course, lets them take much of this back on the sly, since Overclass women then get a big chunk of the preferences through gender quotas.) The preferences work mostly to the detriment of white salaried workers and their families. They also have the advantage of creating minority "Overclasses." These black and Hispanic Overclasses have little basis in the real economy. They depend on government employment and contract set-asides to maintain their status, and they transform what might become system-threatening discontent in their own racial castes into the quest for more preferences. Meanwhile, the Overclass more and more dispenses with public services for itself. They send their kids to private schools. They send important documents by private express services rather than through the mail. In the extreme case, they live in "gated communities" where they pay for their own police protection.

Lind is particularly exercised about the Overclass's nearly unanimous support of free trade. He notes that family income has been stagnant at best for the last twenty years, and that wages per worker have actually declined. Part of this he blames on the decline of unionization among the workforce, which he attributes almost entirely to government hostility. The rest he blames on foreign competition. The Overclass, in Lind's view, has deliberately and successfully driven down the wages of the average American since the late 1970s. This was achieved not only by permitting the import of foreign goods, but by actually importing foreign workers. The author spends a great deal of space trying to show that America historically has experienced heavy immigration only in spurts, all of which produced bad feeling, and which hindered the process of assimilating people already here. Multicultural America is gradually being transformed into a province of the Third World. The Overclass itself, however, dreams of becoming a post-American global elite.

Reading Lind's account, I could not help but reflect how petty the sins of the upper classes have become over time. If you were a patrician in the late Roman Republic, for instance, you could feed your slaves to your pet lampreys without so much as a by-your-leave to OSHA. In the Middle Ages, nobles had the right of the first night with peasant brides (droit de seigneur was not actually a recognized feudal prerogative, but the perhaps the nobility did not always correct the serfs on the matter). In contrast, all the Overclass rulers of the Third American Republic get for their many malefactions is cheap Salvadoran nannies. For this, they have to drive to work through urban war zones and be hated by all the other white people. You wonder why they would bother.

Lind rejoices in the fact that, with Marxism gone, it now okay again to do class analyses, a type of social commentary which long antedates Marx anyway. And in fact, there is nothing wrong with a class analysis, provided you recognize that a class is part of the landscape of history, it is never one of the protagonists. Lind does make the Overclass a protagonist, and a wily one at that. The author insists that he is not constructing a new conspiracy theory, so we must not imagine that there are secret meetings of the Overclass in which they plot to frustrate democracy and stifle prosperity. (At any rate, Lind never gets invited to these meetings.) Individual members of the Overclass are just well-meaning white people who own recreational vehicles and dogs named "Brandy."

If this is the case, then "the Overclass" is an entity so disarticulate as to be without explanatory power. The fallacy is the same as that which attended those "Children Against Nuclear Weapons" marches that the old pro-Soviet Left used to organize in the 1980s. If you talked to the children themselves, I suspect, you would have found that they actually did not have any opinions about megaton throw-weight or strategic targeting. If you tried to explain these things to them, they would probably have shown a reprehensible lack of interest. The children were not marching because they themselves were for or against anything. They were props for the march organizers, who had something they were trying to sell. In rather the same way, the author has created a defenseless, paper-mache' monster which he calls "the Overclass," and he uses it as a prop to help him sell a proposal to create a new political regime in America. Though he says so only in hints and winks, he seems to be contemplating nothing less than ending the United States and replacing it with a new constitutional structure.

By far the most valuable sections in the book are those dealing with American patriotism (which he prefers to call "nationalism," a term that many people prefer to restrict to ideologies of national supremacy). He emphasizes the difference between "the nation" and the political regime. The French, with their parade of constitutions over the past two centuries plus, and the Poles who had no state of their own from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, illustrate the fact that a nation continues exist no matter the form under which it is governed. Nations change over time too, of course, but they exhibit certain continuities at every period of their histories. Thus, for instance, Japanese fighter plane design in the Second World War still incorporated the ancient martial bushido principle of all offense, no defense. Russian atheists embalmed Lenin and placed him in a shrine as if he were an incorrupt Orthodox saint. France, it seems, will always be run by Louis XIV's bureaucrats, no matter what titles their political superiors hold. Lind finds similar authenticating signs of the American nation from colonial times to the present.

The nation is not characterized exclusively by ethnicity, which actually changes over time in more countries than you might think. (Remember the old saying, "A Prussian is a Pole who forgot where his grandfather was born"?) The vital elements of nationalism are language and culture. The latter includes folkways, religion, historical memory, political reflexes. For instance, though there is great deal of variety about everything in the United States, still most Americans celebrate a German Christmas with a fir tree. Native-born Americans who try to identify with some "mother country" of their ancestors usually discover when they visit there that the mother country is inhabited by heathen foreigners.

It is just this reality of a widespread and inviting common America culture that multicult denies. This is perhaps nowhere better shown than in the refusal by progressive people to use the word "America" to refer to the United States. "North America" and "North American" are the preferred usages. If they had their way, their country, as distinguished from their government, would have no name. This kind of thinking has alienated most of the American people because its effects are surrealistic. Thanks to Statistical Directive 15, unoffending English-speaking children with Spanish surnames find themselves imprisoned in inferior bilingual education tracks from which escape is almost impossible. Mayors issue proclamations in honor of "Kwanzaa," a 100% synthetic end-of-the-year pseudo-African holiday devised by an American. Hasidic Jews find that their tightly-knit communities merit no special consideration in electoral redistricting, since such people are of Eastern European extraction and thus generically white.

The last example is particularly illuminating, because it illustrates the fact that multicult serves to paper over actual cultural differences. For instance, perhaps no publicly supported entity has as rigorous a race-and-gender personnel selection system as National Public Radio. However, when a Congressman was so rude as to ask, among other things, how many of their reporters were Evangelical Christians, they indignantly refused to provide an answer. In this they were probably right; employers should not keep track of such things. Still, any regular listener can tell you that the mix of opinions to be found among the reporters and editors of this notoriously liberal network is about as "diverse" as unsalted oatmeal. Cold oatmeal at that.

Lind is particularly anxious to explode the notion that American nationalism (or patriotism) is coincident with "Democratic Universalism." In every age, there have been enthusiasts for America (many of them foreigners) who have extoled the proposition that the United States is an "idea country." Its essence, they say, lies in its common political creed of democracy and liberty. Everything else about it, the land, the language, the ethnic makeup of the people, is secondary. (The extreme expression of this school of thought may have been a piece in the British magazine, The Economist, which asserted that America would be essentially the same country even if it came to be inhabited mostly by nationalized Martians.) This idea is particularly comforting to people who think that the United States should have unrestricted immigration. Lind, rightly, will have none of it.

America has a "deep grammar" in its culture which makes it what it is. (These basic assumptions are sometimes called "cultural insistences.") America would cease to exist if its population did not share this grammar, even if the constitutional framework of the United States persisted. America, for instance, is a "Biblicist" country. American reformers and revolutionaries of all descriptions always seek to restore the "pure, original text" of the Constitution, or the Bible, or the Common Law, which has been obscured by corrupt interpretation. It is anti-hierarchical, so that even respected people in places of legitimate authority have to claim to be simply expressing popular opinion. (No person can really have legitimate authority; only the original text can.) Thanks to the Quakers, America is "nice." Only a minority of Americans have ever "thee" and "thou"-ed each other after the fashion of the Society of Friends, but the people who did have influenced American manners enough to make them masterpieces of studied informality. Even executioners in America say "Have a nice day" to the condemned as they pull the blindfold down over the eyes. Well, almost.

These are all good and valid points that Lind makes. However, his analysis is flawed by his absolute refusal to acknowledge some features of the essential America that he does not like, largely because the government of the "next America" would have to incorporate them to achieve popular legitimacy. For instance, American is a millennialist society which thinks that it has special role to play in history. Americans think of themselves as both the "City on a Hill," an example to mankind, and as the Seventh Cavalry coming to the rescue. Lind tries to show that this sort of chauvinism is not peculiarly American. He cites writers of other countries who claimed at various times that their homelands were "redeemer nations." However, the fact is that the only real analogue to American national messianism in the present world is that of Russia. Lind may not like this aspect of America, but it's there, and it is one of the things that keep America together.

Then, of course, there is religion. America is the most religious of developed nations. What evidence there is suggests that, on the whole, the country tends to become more religious with the passage of time. (America in the eighteenth century and for most of the nineteenth was largely "unchurched.") Lind does not like this and cites a number of statistics to show that the influence of religion, or at least of Christianity, is on the wane. This is almost certainly a misapprehension on his part. Certain segments of Lind's Overclass have indeed become thoroughly secular. They have seen to it, largely by use of the courts, that those areas of public life which they must enter have also been secularized. This is a large part of the reason the American nation as a whole finds these people so alien. A society with a "naked public square," in which religious arguments are the only sort that may not be given for public policies, simply is not America.

Having successfully deflated democratic universalism as a rhetorical flourish that should not be taken altogether seriously, Lind goes on to make the graver error of assuming that there is such a thing as generic "democracy." Lind is in favor of a number of political reforms, one of the most dangerous of which is proportional representation. This, of course, is very much what President Clinton's nominee to the Justice Department civil rights division, Lani Guinier, wanted to implement, as a means of increasing the representation of the official minorities in Congress and the state legislatures. Lind, in contrast, argues forcefully for a wholly color-blind politics and legal system. He wants proportional representation as a way to break up the two-party political system. This is a mistake. Americans look on politics as a way of deciding questions, not of multiplying shades of opinion in legislatures. If you want to talk about deep cultural grammar, then American politics is more like American football than it is like Italian soccer. If you change the voting system to produce more ambiguous results, then you are likely to also produce more ambiguous legitimacy.

The author has no firm opinions about just what will spark the "next American revolution," though he notes that previous "revolutions" of this type occurred in the aftermath of wars. He opines that it will more likely take the form of a disorderly transition, like that after the Civil War and in the 1960s, rather than a storming of Washington, D.C. Basically, he wants a government that will carry Roosevelt's New Deal to its logical conclusion. Socialism he regards as conducive tyranny; what he wants is a "social market." The system will feature progressive taxes high enough to pay for extensive social services and to discourage concentrations of hereditary wealth. Immigration would be restricted to humanitarian admissions. Global free trade would be abandoned; he would allow a progressive lowering of tariff barriers only with developed countries. Any company, American or otherwise, that wanted to sell a product in America would generally have to make it here.

At no time does he actually say that he wants to end the United States. However, he does mention repeatedly that the American nation existed before the United States and will exist after it. He strives to evade the centrality of the Constitution of 1787 in American history and culture. He sees little rationale for the states of the union. His political reforms include making the Senate a nationally elected legislature, thus reducing the influence of the underpopulated states of the West and Midwest. He would nationalize most areas of law, from real estate law to the regulation of abortion. It is hard to see, in this system of "liberal nationalism," why we would need a federal system at all. Doubtless we could divide the country into "departments," like the colorful French.

And where would the Overclass be in this millennium? If you take Lind's definition of the Overclass, they would be put to rights. Driven out of their gated communities by high taxes, they will have to send their kinds to public school. When the puppies graduate, they will have to get into prestigious universities on their own ability, rather than through preferences for the children of alumni. For that matter, they might well be drafted first into a citizen army, as happens in sensible countries. Their parents will have to pay for the public transportation they themselves will have to take to their modest jobs, which will pay less because higher degrees will no longer be required for services that any medical technician or paralegal can do. They will be unable control elections, because all election campaigns will be publicly funded. Meanwhile, everyone else will have been made richer by buying goods produced domestically by union labor rather than by exploited foreigners. Since government policies will flatten out income levels, class distinctions will be greatly diminished. There will be no more Overclass, and social mobility will be maximized.

Of course, there are ways to define the Overclass other than that used by Lind. It seems to many Americans that the Overclass consists of people who, for instance, think their countrymen are superstitious bigots. One could also say that the Overclass think all social problems are fundamentally economic. The Overclass think that income redistribution will spin straw into gold. The Overclass think they know exactly to what good purposes other people's money can be put. The Overclass think that ethics can be permanently separated from religion. The Overclass think that their country is in relative decline to the rest of the world, and are heartened by the fact. The Overclass have seen the film "Blade Runner" so many times they mistake it for prophecy. The Overclass look on the prospect of other people's immiseration as an opportunity.

How would this Overclass do in Lind's next America? I think they would do just fine.  

This article originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site