The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Brooks watch

October 11, 2005

Here’s a friendly hint to David Brooks: it probably isn’t such a good idea to write “I believe in the lost tradition of American politics, the tradition of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and the Bull Moose” if most of the policies you’re about to advocate are exactly the opposite of their “lost” traditions.

Otherwise, people might think you’re chronically disingenuous.

Or historically ignorant.

Or an idiot.

After a while, you get sick of the DeLays of the right and the Deans of the left. After a while, you tire of the current Republicans, who lack a coherent governing philosophy, and the current Democrats, who are completely bereft of ideas. After a while you begin to wonder: Did I really get engaged in politics so I could spend months arguing about the confirmation of Harriet Miers, the John Major of American jurisprudence?

And when you begin thinking this way, you find yourself emotionally disengaging from the exhausted clans that dominate the present. You find yourself going back to basics and considering the fundamental questions: What visions originally excited me about politics and government? If it were completely up to me, where would I plant my flag?

Here’s where I would plant mine.

I believe in the lost tradition of American politics, the tradition of Hamilton, Lincoln and the Bull Moose. In other words, I believe that social mobility is the core of the American experience. I believe that society should be structured so that as many boys and girls as possible can work, and rise the way young Hamilton and Lincoln did.

If something is going to make American society more fluid and dynamic, then I am for that thing. That’s why I love globalization, even while I am aware of its costs. I love the fact that American businesses are going be improved via competition with Chinese and Indian rivals. I love the fact that to compete we are going to have to reform our lobbyist-written tax code into something flatter and fairer. I love the fact we’ll have to make health insurance competitive and portable, so workers can move and companies can thrive.

I can’t believe people want to shield America behind the walls of ”fair trade agreements.” I can’t believe some people think we’re going to be overrun by those hustling Asians. Americans are the hardest-working people on earth and the most mobile. American manufacturing output is twice China’s and it’s growing at 4 percent a year.

China isn’t going to bury us. It’s going to make us better and richer; it’s going to open more opportunities than it closes.

Like Alexander Hamilton, I love the dynamism of capitalism. And like Alexander Hamilton, that doesn’t mean I hate government. I love government when it lifts people up to compete. I hate government only when it stifles competition and coddles. I hated the old welfare system, which pushed its victims away from work. I love welfare reform, which encourages work. I hate government that directs ever more money to the affluent elderly, but I would love a government that gave poor children savings accounts at birth, which would encourage them to think about the future and understand that their destiny is in their own hands.

I hate the forces of the education establishment, which protects its system even though after years and billions spent, African-American students still graduate from high schools at academic levels four years behind their white peers. But I love the charter schools and the forces of reform.

I can’t believe that over the past 10 years our leaders have done nothing to reduce the growing costs of entitlements. Our preparations for Katrina look like models of efficiency compared to our preparations for the hurricane of debt that is ineluctably gathering force in front of us. I can’t believe we haven’t learned from Western Europe’s plight, as it slowly stagnates under the weight of its own welfare costs.

I know, as Theodore Roosevelt observed, that every new social arrangement creates its own sin and stratifications. I know that as the information age matures we are dividing between the educated class and noneducated class, between families at the top of the cultural capital scale, which tend to be intact, and families at the bottom, which are more likely to be broken.

I know, having learned it from Lincoln and Roosevelt, that individual initiative should always be tied to national union. I know we need a national service program to bind our segmented youth through citizenship. I know we need to protect the natural
heritage that defines us. I know America has to persevere in its exceptional mission to promote freedom, and the effort to promote democracy in the Arab world is one of the most difficult and noble endeavors any great power has undertaken.

When I cut myself loose from the push and shove of today’s weary political titans, and go back to basics,I find myself strangely invigorated.

It’s time for an insurrection.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.