July 16, 1995
Once in a great while a reviewer cannot avoid sounding a little like a publicist. This is one of those occasions. The Next American Nation is bold, sweeping, ambitious, and original: a book that may-- at any rate, deserves to-- have a large effect on contemporary political thought and practice. It is also the climax of a personal drama: Michael Lind’s well-publicized conversion from a promising young neoconservative (at 30, executive editor of The National Interest to (at 33) one of the leading voices of American liberalism. For the last six months, a flurry of articles by and about Lind in Harper’s, The New York Review, The New Republic, Dissent, The New Yorker and elsewhere have sounded a kind of fanfare. With this book, the royal procession (so to speak) has arrived.
Lind argues for a new public philosophy, “liberal nationalism.” It is a synthesis of traditional American materials: Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a strong, active central government, overriding selfish and short-sighted local obstructionism; the Populist condemnation of luxury, greed, and gross inequality; the progressives’ recognition of chronic corporate malfeasance, with the resulting need for an experienced and conscientious civil service; the New Deal’s assertion of democratic sovereignty over the national economy; and the early Civil Rights Movement’s ideal of a color-blind society. Liberal nationalism “unites the ideal of the transracial melting pot with the tradition of social-democratic egalitarianism.”
America’s national identity, in Lind’s account, has evolved through three stages, each with a distinctive conception of the national community, a common ethic, and a political creed. The first American republic, which Lind calls “Anglo-America,” lasted from the l780s, when the Constitution took effect, until the Civil War and was Anglo-Saxon in race, Protestant in religion, and republican in political principles. The second, or “Euro resulted from the large-scale immigration of the 19th and early 20th centuries; it was a pan-European, pan-Christian federal democracy. The third, “Multicultural America,” dates from the 1960s and features five officially-recognized races: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian; a secular ethic of “authenticity”; and as its political creed, “multicultural democracy, a new sort of federalism in which race rights take the place of states’ rights.”
Lind is scathing about Multicultural America. The present system of government-mandated racial preferences is not, he argues, a well-intentioned mistake; it is a fraud. Multiculturalism not only obscures the essential unity of our “common, inherited national culture,” which Lind describes at length and persuasively. Worse, it distracts attention from the class divisions in American society, a far graver and more intractable problem for most of us-- including most blacks and women-- than racial or sexual discrimination. “Behind all the boosterish talk about the wonders of the new American rainbow,” he writes, “is the reality of enduring racial division by class, something that multicultural education initiatives and racial preference policies do not begin to address.”
The book’s two central chapters, “The White Overclass and the Racial Spoils System” and “The Revolution of the Rich,” shrewdly and forcefully analyze the American class structure. The “overclass” is a largely white managerial and professional elite whose power is based less on capital than on credentials. This sounds thoroughly meritocratic, but it is not. Access to credentials is sharply restricted by the expense of a first-rate education. Moreover, “legacy preference”-- reserving places for unqualified children of affluent alumni-- is far more widespread at leading universities than even the most aggressive affirmative action programs. Arbitrary and restrictive licensing requirements and permissive corporate governance laws keep the salaries of American professionals and executives artificially high. Political campaigns are financed disproportionately by the overclass, who therefore enjoy vastly disproportionate influence among politicians. Regressive tax policies and increased reliance on public borrowing have redistributed wealth upward in the last two decades, far outstripping any previous transfer in American history. Over the same period, mass immigration, the dismantling and relocation of American manufacturing, and the Republican-sanctioned assault on labor unions have produced the only long—term decline in real wages in the industrial world. And the movement toward the privatization of public services-- through educational vouchers, “gated” communities, private security forces, tax revolts, and so on-- augurs a new feudalism. We have heard most of this before, it is true. But it still needs to be said, apparently. And Lind says it all extremely well.
Among Lind’s proposals some are, again, familiar: the abolition of racial preference policies; a ban on paid political advertising, with mandatory provision of free media time to candidates. But some are comparatively novel: proportional representation; a reapportioned Senate; reform of professional licensing practices; a universal, single-payer system for higher education. The core of his program is a “social market contract.” Wages would be raised by a combination of immigration restrictions and tariffs roughly equal to the difference between American and foreign wage rates. And retirement and health-care benefits would be financed not by regressive payroll taxes, as they are now, but by progressive income and consumption taxes.
The book is not without flaws. Its final section, an evocation of the fourth or “Trans—American” republic, aims at lyricism and falls short. More seriously, the “social tariff”-- the key to blocking the depredations of multinational corporations-- depends on cooperation among a majority of developed countries. This is a large question mark. And even assuming a consensus of governments, political control of the global economy may no longer be possible. Lind notices this problem, but far too briefly. Likewise, he fails to counter as strongly as he might the objection (already being raised by some reviewers) that tariffs and immigration restrictions would hurt developing countries. Finally, he does not so much as mention military spending, a colossal waste of resources and surely a major factor in the deterioration of the American economy over the last several decades.
Still, these are quibbles when set against Lind’s achievements. Rich in historical detail, political insight, and moral imagination, The Next American Nation joins a handful of other superb books-- Mickey Kaus’s The End of Equality, Jim Sleeper’s The Closest of Strangers, Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, Russell Jacoby’s Dogmatic Wisdom, and Michael Waizer’s Spheres of Justice-- in providing the public philosophy late 20th-century America requires.