The special December issue of The Atlantic focuses on a single theme: “How to Stop a Civil War.” Two contributors to the issue, Harvard professor Danielle Allen and staff writer Adam Serwer, join Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg to discuss their arguments in the magazine.
Allen’s piece, “The Road From Serfdom,” asserts that unity must be made a priority again and offers prescriptive steps for how it can be achieved. In “Against Reconciliation,” Serwer argues that the nation’s pursuits of compromise have often led it to abandon its promises of freedom and equality for all its citizens—that Americans have been content to sacrifice civil rights for civil discourse.
The three sat down to discuss where they agree, where they disagree, and how optimistic they are that world’s oldest democracy can survive its bitter divisions.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.
The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?
At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.
Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.
Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.
The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.
The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.
Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”
“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”
Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.
The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.
Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”
But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the
- black culture of Compton, the
- Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
- Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
- Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
- Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
- Cuban culture of Miami and the
- “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
- conservative culture of the white small town.
But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.
Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.
To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.
Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.
ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – In a recent Project Syndicate commentary, James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin defendsModern Monetary Theory and corrects some misunderstandings about the relationships among MMT, federal deficits, and central-bank independence. But Galbraith does not explore what is perhaps the most important issue of all: the political conditions needed to implement MMT effectively.
MMT owes its newfound relevance to the fact that deflation, rather than inflation, is becoming central banks’ main concern. For a high-debt, high-deficit economy like the United States, deflation is an especially serious threat, because it delays consumption and increases debtor anxiety. Consumers forego major purchases on the assumption that future prices will be lower. Homeowners with mortgages cut back their spending when they see home prices falling and the equity in their homes declining. These cutbacks worry the Federal Reserve, because they add to deflationary pressures and could trigger deeper spending cuts, stock-market declines, and widespread deleveraging.
The Fed’s inability so far to reach its 2% target for annual inflation suggests that it lacks the means to overcome persistent disinflationary forces in the economy. These forces include increased US market concentration, which diminishes aggregate demand by weakening employee bargaining power and increasing income inequality; population aging; inadequate investment in infrastructure and climate-change abatement; and technology-driven labor displacement. Making matters worse, US political gridlock assures continued commitment to economically exhausted strategies such as tax cuts for the rich, at the expense of investment in education and other sources of long-term growth. These conditions cry out for significant changes in US government spending and tax policies.
MMT is seen as a way to accomplish the needed changes. It holds that a government can spend as much as it wants if it borrows in its own currency and its central bank can buy as much of the government’s debt as necessary – as long as doing so doesn’t generate unacceptably high inflation. Both tax-cut advocates and supporters of public investment find little not to like.
MMT has been roundly criticized by economists across the political spectrum, from Kenneth Rogoff and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard University to Paul Krugman of the City University of New York. All contend that it is a political argument masquerading as economic theory. But Galbraith and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates see MMT differently. Dalio argues that MMT is real and, more to the point, it is an inevitable policy step in historically recurring debt-cycle downturns.
In his book Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises, Dalio documents the steps that central banks have historically taken when faced with a booming economy that suddenly crumples under the weight of debt. The first step (Monetary Policy 1, or MP1) is
- to cut overnight official rates to stimulate credit and investment expansion. The second (MP2)
- is to buy government debt (quantitative easing) to support asset prices and prevent uncontrollable waves of deleveraging. If MP1 and MP2 are insufficient to halt a downturn, central banks take step three (MMT, which Dalio calls MP3) and
- proceed to finance the spending priorities that political leaders deem most essential. The priorities can range from financing major national projects to “helicopter money” transfers directly to consumers.
Achieving political agreement on what to finance and how is essential for implementing MP3 effectively. In a financial meltdown or other national emergency, political unity and prompt action are essential. Unity requires a strong consensus on what should be financed. Speed requires the existence of a trusted institution to direct the spending.
In the early 1940s, when the US entered World War II and winning the war became the government’s top priority, the Fed entered full MP3 mode. It not only set short- and long-term rates for Treasury bonds, but also bought as much government debt as necessary to finance the war effort. MP3 was possible because the war united the country politically and gave the Roosevelt administration near-authoritarian rule over the economy.
The core weakness of MP3/MMT advocacy is the absence of an explanation of how to achieve political unity on what to finance and how. This absence is inexcusable. Total US debt (as a share of GDP) is approaching levels associated with past financial meltdowns, and that doesn’t even account for the hidden debts associated with infrastructure maintenance, rising sea levels, and unfunded pensions. For the reasons Dalio lays out, a US debt crisis requiring some form of MP3 is all but inevitable.
The crucial question that any effort to achieve political unity must answer is what constitutes justifiable spending. Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, offered an answer in 1781: “A national debt,” he wrote, “if it is not excessive will be to us a national blessing.” A government’s debt is “excessive” if it cannot be repaid because its proceeds were spent in ways that did not increase national wealth enough to do so. Debt resulting from tax cuts that are spent on mega-yachts would almost certainly be excessive; debt incurred to improve educational outcomes, maintain essential infrastructure, or address climate change would probably not be. Accordingly, it will be easier to achieve political unity if MP3 proceeds are spent on priorities such as education, infrastructure, or climate.
The political test for justifying MP3-financed government spending, is clear: Will future generations judge that the borrowing was not “excessive”? Most Americans born well after WWII would say that the debt incurred to win that war was justified, as was the debt that financed the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which literally paved the way for stronger growth.
As the 1930s and 1940s show, MP3 is a natural component of government responses to major debt downturns and the political crises they trigger. We know much more about what contributes to economic growth and sustainability than we did in the first half of the twentieth century. To speed recovery from the next downturn, we need to identify now the types of spending that will contribute most to sustainable recovery and that in hindsight will be viewed as most justified by future Americans. We need also to design the institutions that will direct the spending. These are the keys to building the political unity that MMT requires. To know what to finance and how, future Americans can show us the way; we need only put ourselves in their shoes.
Here’s my succinct request to Donald Trump and all the Democrats and Republicans trying to unseat him.
The founders wanted to create a new kind of country where individuals — and individual communities — could pursue happiness as they saw fit. They didn’t achieve that instantaneously, and we still don’t have it in meaningful respects, but they set up the machinery to make it achievable. This doesn’t mean the founders were against unity in all circumstances. Their attitude could be described as in necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. In essential things unity, in non-essential things liberty, and in all things charity. In other words, they understood that unity was a powerful tool, best used sparingly and only when truly needed. Odds are good that this was — or is — the basic, unstated rule in your own family. Good parents don’t demand total unity from their children, dictating what hobbies and interests they can have. We might force our kids to finish their broccoli, but even then we don’t demand they “celebrate broccoli!” I wish my daughter shared my interest in certain things, but I have no interest in forcing her too, in part because I know that’s futile. Spouses reserve unity as an imperative for the truly important things. My wife hates my cigars and has a? fondness for “wizard shows.” But we tend to agree on the big things. That seems right to me.
What is fascinating to me is that in the centuries since the Enlightenment, unbridled unity, enforced and encouraged from above, has been the single greatest source of evil, misery, and oppression on a mass scale, and yet we still treat unity like some unalloyed good.
Just Drop It
Okay enough of all that. Let’s get to the here and now. Joe Biden promised this week that if he’s president, he will unite the country. Newsflash: He won’t. Nor will any of the other Democrats. Donald Trump won’t do it either — and certainly hasn’t so far. George W. Bush wasn’t a uniter. Barack Obama promised unity more than any politician in modern memory — how did he do?
For the reasons spelled out above, our system isn’t designed to be unified by a president — or anybody else. The Era of Good Feelings when we only had one party and a supposed sense of nationality was a hot mess. It’s kind of hilarious to hear Democrats talk endlessly about the need to return to “constitutional norms” in one moment and then talk about the need to unify the whole country towards a singular agenda in the next. Our constitutional norms enforce an adversarial system of separated powers where we hash out our disagreements and protect our interests in political combat. Democracy itself is not about agreement but disagreement. And yet Kamala Harris recently said that as president, she’d give Congress 100 days to do exactly what she wants, and if they don’t she’ll do it herself. You know why Congress might not do what she wants it to do? Because we’re not unified on the issue of guns. In a democracy, when you don’t have unity, it means you don’t get the votes you need. And when you don’t get the votes you need, you don’t get to have your way. Constitutional norms, my ass.
So here’s my explanation for why I don’t want politicians to promise national unity. First, they can’t and shouldn’t try. Tom Sowell was on the 100th episode of my podcast this week, and one of the main takeaways was that we shouldn’t talk about doing things we cannot do. Joe Biden has been on the political scene since the Pleistocene Era. What evidence is there that he has the chops to convince Republicans to stop being Republicans? When President Bernie Sanders gives the vote to rapists and terrorists still in jail, will we be edging closer to national unity? When President Warren makes good on her bribe of college kids with unpaid student loans, what makes you think this will usher in an era of comity and national purpose?
But more importantly, when you promise people something you can’t deliver you make them mad when you don’t deliver it. I’m convinced that one of the reasons the Democrats spend their time calling every inconvenient institution and voter racist is that they are embittered by Barack Obama’s spectacular failure to deliver on the promises he made and the even grander promises his biggest fans projected upon him. When you convince people they’re about to get everything they want and then you don’t follow through, two reactions are common. The first is a bitter and cynical nihilism that says nothing good can be accomplished. The second is an unconquerable conviction that evil people or forces thwarted the righteous from achieving something that was almost in their grasp. The globalists don’t want us to have nice things! The corporations keep the electric car down! The Jooooooooz bought off Congress! The Establishment pulled the plug! The Revolution was hijacked! The system was rigged! The founders were Stonecutters!