3 Flags – Jasper Johns (1958)

Our current debate is focused around inequality, moneyed interests, health care, the power of corporations, debt, education, foreign policy, immigration and the cost of living. However, I argue that these address relatively straightforward problems and that be solved numerous ways. The real fight is for America’s soul; defining what exactly America is and what we should be fighting for.

  • Are we a giant multicultural melting pot where everyone is sensitive to each other’s viewpoints and way of life?
  • A land where businesses flourish and with hard work and a bit of cleverness you can become rich?
  • A place where you can enjoy various goods and services and socialize with your community with your vast disposable income?
  • A land that provides a pathway for the poor to become middle class?
  • A global force for good that stops atrocities and spreads democracy, or simply a nation who seeks to keep its power and all the advantages that come with that?
  • All these things? Some of them? None?

Answering these questions and dealing with their complicated connections and coalitions that they imply is the primary challenge of 2020. We are at a crossroads where we must decide what America will be before we can enact policies that will help us get there.

Furthermore, once we decide what America should give to us the people, we have to decide what we the people will give to America in return.

 “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

President Kennedy

Once we decide what America is to be the policies should be easy to enact. However, getting people to buy into this new America and to not only greedily receive the benefits, but to also contribute to her collective prosperity is essential.

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America … There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America”

President Obama

The nationalist movements throughout the world, are fighting to save or define their nation’s identity, but how will they interact with the world. No longer is a nation alone.

“Through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood, and now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

This seems like a time of new herculean problems and bold new ideas, but really isn’t much different than earlier political eras. In fact, historians have categorized political eras in American history by identifying six different political party systems and they have all dealt with similar and in some cases identical problems. It is an important time for America, this is the start of a new political epoch, possibly the beginning of the seventh party system. However, the biggest problems are not policy but rather how we as Americans will define our purpose and shape what is the new American Dream both domestically and internationally.

What are America’s goals? Who they should benefit? How should her citizens help? These questions have been asked since the Articles of Confederation. Throughout America’s history there have typically been two competing views of what America should be and they all branch off the original visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

These visions formed the first party system and they are still influential today. Are we an industrial nation whose main objective is to build our economic and industrial might as Hamilton believed? Or are we a democratic nation who believes small businesses are the main drivers of innovation and American ideals, as Jefferson believed? In each political era these questions arose and understanding the flaws and successes of previous eras can help us guide our own views and allow us to shape a purpose for which to strive.

Quick History of American and the Political Party System

Each party system had two dominant parties each of which had a leader who personified the party’s philosophy and approach to the nation’s problems. The Venn diagrams below illustrate this. For a more detailed look into my formulation of ideas follow this link to my American History post.

Political Parties before 1900
Political Parties after 1900

Jefferson believed that the common man was the purest ideal of Republicanism and supported policies that supported him. In his day that meant low tariffs for cheap goods and cheap public land for housing and farming. Later proponents of the common man supported an expanded but non-speculative currency that decreased in value lowering debt liabilities over time (i.e. the Populist’s free silver) , low interest loans, unions, a standard workweek, an income tax, trust busting, and a safety net.

Hamilton believed the United States was to be an economic powerhouse and supported policies that expanded commerce and industry. In his day that was a central bank, a stable currency that increased in value, high tariffs to protect industry, and expensive public land to support infrastructure improvements. Later pro-business proponents supported paper money, the gold standard, strike breaking, deregulation, and Laissez-Faire economics.

These ideas have coalesced as the extremes of one had to be counterbalanced with the ideas of the other side. Nonetheless, after the Great Depression there was general consensus that the government had a responsibility to ensure the health of the nation’s economy and the welfare of its citizens and after World War II, a duty to contain authoritarianism, specifically communism. These new values led to the creation of Social Security, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, the Truman doctrine, and increasing taxes to pay for it all. The only real difference between the parties during this time was how heavy a hand the government was to have on pushing these values.

Next, neoliberalism, which believes that growth is the path to prosperity, emerged as a reaction to the contracting economy after the post-war boom. Neoliberals believed tariffs, business regulation, high taxes, and excessive welfare spending were harming the economy; by enacting free trade policies, deregulating businesses, allowing economic efficiency, and embracing globalization everyone would be better off. Neoliberalism has the convenient property in that it is both pro-business and pro-common man simultaneously; thus, it was quickly taken up by both parties. On the foreign policy front it aimed to create free trade deals around the world, export democracy, and defend American interests.

Nonetheless, while globalization, automation, deregulation, lower taxes, and a shrinking safety net did expand the economy, they also exploded the national debt and income inequality, allowed for the creation of powerful monopolies and oligopolies, gutted middle class wages, and increased the risk of a large recession. Thus, people were understandably upset.

Shifting Away from Neoliberalism and Indentured Employment

President Trump is a polarizing figure, but his portrayal as a return to the normal order of things isn’t that far off. He wants to bring back American industry and protect it from foreign corporations, and he has done this with tariffs and subsidies (i.e. the tax cuts) which is straight from the Hamiltonian playbook. Furthermore, Trump has tried to get us out of expensive wars, to stop propping up old Cold War alliances, and to address the China problem which is reminiscent of pre-World War II American foreign policy that sought to minimize foreign engagements except when they directly threaten American interests. Even his stated support of an infrastructure project and cheaper medical insurance hearken to the New Deal and the Great Society respectively. It should be noted that President Obama also had similar foreign policy objectives and worked to expand medical coverage, showing that the neoliberal rebuke didn’t start with Trump, but the backlash to neoliberalism is much more visible now.

The backlash to neoliberalism is clear and warranted, but if neoliberalism is not our fundamental philosophy than what is? The only clear philosophy currently on the table is America First which includes supporting and protecting our own industries, increasing the number of jobs for natural-born citizens by on-shoring and restricting unskilled immigration, abandoning non-beneficial alliances and wars, and reworking trade deals to our benefit.

The left half of the debate has mostly ignored globalization issues, trade deals, and foreign policy in general, but has remained supportive of immigration. Instead they have are focused on domestic economic problems emphasizing education, medical insurance, higher pay, taxes on the wealthy, expanded welfare, and an environmental works program. Their ideas feel like an extension of the Great Society, but instead of a grand effort to push us forward it reads more like prescription to cure what ails America. Although, fixes are needed, these views do not form a fundamental philosophy of what it means to be an American or even what to strive for which make them hard to rally around in isolation.

Freedom From Want – Norman Rockwell (1943)

The Progressives and later the New Dealers dealt with similar problems. In their time, they addressed the reality that most Americans worked for large employers and the problems associated with corporate power had to be addressed. Both groups, like Jefferson before them, believed that the American worker not the factory owner or banker was the key cog in the American system. However, instead of trying to divorce the typical American’s livelihood from his employer they entrenched their reliance. Employers had to pay a minimum wage, provide a better workplace environment, and pay unemployment insurance, but were also in charge of their medical insurance, paid half of their society security, and controlled their retirement savings. After World War II, the “company man” lifestyle and the explosion of the middle-class suburbs cemented the sterilization of the American dream. No longer was the American Dream about the freedom to pursuit happiness, but in a complete bastardization of Jefferson’s vision and a realization of his worst fears, the American Dream became indentured employment where American workers were now completely reliant on their aristocratic employers.

The New Social Contract

Jefferson’s vision was unattainable in his time, but it might now be possible to achieve an egalitarian republic of small producers. Globalization has lowered the costs of all goods, allowed commerce to happen anywhere, and has eroded the contract between worker and employer to the point the employer is no longer expected to support even most of the worker’s needs. This is a perfect time to support the American worker not through his employer, but directly so that he is free to pursue any means of income without having to fear impoverishment. Furthermore, by focusing on the expansion of opportunity of the common man, he will have the real choice to create for himself without becoming destitute or if he so chooses to work for someone else without sacrificing his freedoms of expression.

The policies that would make this work; a Medicare option, free college, expanding the EITC, a higher minimum wage, anti-trust suits, childcare credits, and more are already being proposed. However, there still needs to be an understanding of what the country expects out of her citizens. America’s welfare state comes under attack because people feel like the people who benefit don’t deserve it. Whereas the New Deal targeted hard working (mostly white) Americans who got a raw deal due to no fault of their own, the modern left wants to help Americans who haven’t worked in the traditional sense like students or people who are not even citizens like immigrants. New Deal programs like social security and food stamps had an implied contract, in exchange for working the government ensured you could retire and wouldn’t go hungry. What does the government directly get in return for free college or debt forgiveness?

Americans need to feel that the people who are benefiting from these policies are giving something back. The left mostly argues that things like healthcare and education are human rights that benefit the country and all her citizens in the long run, but their ideas come across as entitlement. Focusing much needed reforms around service and co-investment between citizens and their government can change the perception of these policies from entitlement to an earned benefit.

National Economic & Social Rights Initiative Logo

The GI bill coupled military service with full education benefits and there are already various public service opportunities that provide some education or student loan benefits. If these opportunities and their associated benefits were expanded they would create more jobs for young unskilled Americans, provide training opportunities for newly credentialed Americans, significantly reduce the cost burden of post-secondary education on families, and provide a direct link between a government benefit and her citizen’s responsibility for it. Creating clear links between certain programs and citizen service creates a New Social Contract that clearly outlines not only what your country can do, but what you can do for your country.

Harmonious Global Partnerships

Domestically, the New Social Contract couples service and benefits, but what about abroad what is our relationship with the rest of the world? Fortunately, (or unfortunately depending on your perspective) America has a natural rival in foreign affairs; however, unlike past rivals this is a mostly economic rival. China’s One Belt One Road policy aims to fund infrastructure projects to build economic relationships with nations around the globe without getting involved in the internal politics of its partner countries. America must provide a competing vision that expands our global trade relationships and encourages adoption of our values, but without political or military interference.

Instead of projecting a seemingly selfish America First attitude we should seek to expand our civilian and business presence in other countries to expand trade, continue protecting marine chokepoints, provide help to developing countries, and continue providing humanitarian aid. America can help countries develop the infrastructure they need to grow and become strong trade partners, but without burdening them with catastrophic debt like the Chinese. America should still patrol the sea lanes as a show of strength and to protect her interest, but regional conflicts should be avoided. And only in rare cases should it seek to check the aggression of larger powers and always economically first. Then we instead of a creating a paternalistic New World Order or even a Global Force for Good, we could create Harmonious Global Partnerships.

The New American Destiny

Forming a new social contract at home and harmonious global partnerships abroad gives Americans a clear vision of not only who we aim to be, but also how they can help. And this is the New American Destiny: a foundation of support for its citizens to pursue happiness in exchange for service to communities at home or abroad and a friendly neighbor who trades with and helps her neighbors.

American Progress – John Gast (1872)
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