Two Incommensurable Americas

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream
by Tyler Cowen
St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 256 pages, $44.99

Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats
by Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins
Oxford University Press, 2016, 416 pages, $33.95

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism
by Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 2016, 272 pages, $35.99

The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism
by Henry Olsen
HarperCollins, 2017, 368 pages, $49.99

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
by Ben Sasse
St Martin’s Press, 2017, 320 pages, $55.99

White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America
by Joan C. Williams
Harvard Business Review, 2017, 192 pages, $34.99


split US flagAmerica is an exception among countries. It is a philosophical republic and a creedal nation. As Margaret Thatcher put it, while Europe was born from history, America was born out of ideas.[1] At its very core was the idea of limited government. That precept persisted almost universally until 1932. It did so through war and peace, prosperity and recession. It applied across all political parties and geographical regions. Then a breach occurred. A new politics emerged. It did not replace the Founders’ philosophical politics of principle. But it began to compete seriously with it.

This new politics was the politics of group identity. It started with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era Democratic Party coalition of industrial workers, farmers, southern whites, northern immigrants and Catholics. Roosevelt’s forging of interest-group politics did not occur readily or easily. Historically some of the greatest supporters of limited government in America had been Democrats. They ranged from the remarkable Grover Cleveland to FDR’s nemesis Al Smith.

Roosevelt’s coalition lasted till the 1960s. Then it began to shrink as American manufacturing started to automate. Post-industrialism grew as classic industrialism declined. Public spending ballooned. New public-sector interest groups emerged. From the late 1960s onwards, the Democrats created a coalition of public-sector unions, government employees, African-Americans, the urban poor, liberal intellectuals, unmarried women and Hispanic immigrants. As this occurred, the Republican Party evolved as a philosophical party built on the abstract values of small government and cultural traditionalism.

The result today is that there are two Americas. One is committed to philosophical principle; the other to big-spending government programs. At a national level the two are pretty much evenly balanced. At the state level the differences are starker. In some parts of America, notably the Western Mountain states and Great Plains states, philosophical principle still rules.[2] Elsewhere government spending rules. The difference is not neatly defined by the difference between red states and blue states, or between coastal America and fly-over country. Philosophical America leans heavily Republican. But not all Republican-leaning states are low-tax, low-spending, limited governments. Some, though, are and in interesting ways.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Matt Grossman and David Hopkins observe that Democrats draw their strongest electoral backing from “discrete social groups who perceive themselves and their fellow group members as benefiting from specific government policies”. This is group coalition politics. It pitches government programs for retirees and college students alongside working-class, low-income and female voters. Where the Democratic Party is a coalition of social groups with program-focused identity-based interests, the core Republican electorate is very different. It is made up of voters who defend individual liberty and traditional morality.

In other words, the parties are not mirror images of each other. Hence Grossman and Hopkins’s term “asymmetrical politics”. This could also be dubbed incommensurable politics. In any event, Republicans and Democrats are different kinds of parties. The American National Election Studies (ANES) survey has data illustrating this going back fifty years. Republican voters see themselves much more in terms of ideas than do Democrats. In 2012, 74 per cent of Republican voters identified as conservative; 47 per cent of Democrats identified as liberals. Republican voters view politics as a contest of principles. Democrats see it as a competition between social groups. One worldview is conceptual; the other emphasises group benefits. The difference between group-interest and abstract-value politics is vast. There is no nice amiable mid-point between the two.

The Republican voters’ view of Democrats is that they “want government to run everything and they think government can fix everything”. They “promote big government, collectivism, secularism, and elitism”.[3] The Republicans’ view of themselves is that they “want people to be personally responsible for their own lives” and they wish to “cut the size of the federal government”. This remains true even when social scientists control for age, income, education and other sociological factors. In contrast Democrat voters talk in terms of supporting “the poor and the middle class” or the “working class”. To them politics is a matter of groups and benefits, not principles and traditions. Republicans, they think, “look out for the rich”. The discourses of Democrat and Republican voters are strikingly different. The former use class labels; the latter philosophical labels. The philosophical labels reach back to the seventeenth century, to the age of John Locke. The group labels are twentieth-century inventions. They start to be used as American pressure group politics (“pluralism”) takes off in the 1930s.

As a whole American voters tend to be more left-wing about specific issues and more right-wing about matters of principle. That’s echoed not only in the Democrat–Republican party asymmetry but also within the Republican Party. It tends to be symbolically conservative yet operationally liberal.[4] What its legislators do and what its voters think are not neatly aligned. That explains a phenomenon like the Tea Party, the limited-government activists upset by the Republican Party’s reluctance in power to implement its own philosophy. Democrats think in terms of subsidies for farmers, workplace regulation for labour unions and housing projects for the inner cities. Their coalition has no common philosophical basis so it is very fragmented. The result, Grossman and Hopkins observe, is that periodically bits of the party are poached by Republicans. The Nixon Democrats and the Reagan Democrats are good examples. Defection is the greatest risk the Democratic Party faces. The major Republican risk is summed up by the old question: How much should the party accommodate the New Deal? In other words to what extent is it a party of principles or programs?

Over time the rate of defection of Democrats has declined. Since the 1960s the electorate has increasingly polarised between two Americas, one philosophical, the other programmatic. Fewer and fewer philosophical voters have remained in the Democratic Party. Americans have got better at sorting themselves into the party of principles and the party of programs. Observers often see this in terms of an increase in political partisanship and shrillness. Writers, as opposed to voters, wring their hands about this polarisation. What this misses is the genuine deep metaphysical difference that now exists between the parties. The sentimental view—which wonders aloud why partisans can’t be nicer to each other, why don’t they listen to each other or “reach across the aisle” and “compromise”—misunderstands the degree to which they inhabit incommensurable mental universes. There is simply no happy medium between big government and limited government. Or between traditional and romantic morality.

Grossman and Hopkins demonstrate empirically just how incomparable the parties are. They are chalk and cheese. Republican voters are much less likely than Democrats to relate to specific issues or see themselves as part of an interest group. They are much less interested in specific government benefits or legislation targeted at particular social problems. Their worldview is much more abstract. Grossman and Hopkins’s survey data, which underscores this, goes back to 1964. In the same year James Burnham’s remarkable Suicide of the West was published.[5]In that book Burnham goes through the worldviews of the two Americas in stark compelling detail. Burnham was prescient, because two decades before he had predicted the rise to power of the managerial class.[6] This class emerged to run a variety of legally-mandated, tax-funded or rent-seeking programs across both public and private sectors. It adopted a worldview to match, a curious mix of moralising and program-devising. The managerial class shed the philosophical and symbolic abstractions of classic liberalism and traditionalism. It adopted in their place a group-benefit and class mentality that was flavoured with romantic pieties. Classic liberalism in its turn was adopted and transformed by American conservatives into a competing worldview. Fifty years on from Burnham’s immaculate dissection of American ideology, it is remarkable how little has changed.

Already in 1964, the year of Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential bid, the two Americas had crystallised. Across the subsequent half-century, the conflict between the two worldviews has been impossible to resolve. Among political activists, this deadlock generates heated trolling, endless complaint, vitriol, hysteria and outrage. In spite of that though, Americans on the whole are a polite people. They may shout a bit but they are not going to go to war over their political differences. So they simply move location. They go upstate, downstate, or interstate to find a congenial neighbourhood where people think much the same. They do this because, as they get older, they tire of having conversations that end fruitlessly and that have a strained, sometimes nasty, undertow. One can joke about things, be ironic, smile in the face of incomprehension or avoid political chat altogether. But the sum total of that is a kind of weariness. People get exhausted by incommensurability.

The two Americas have their own media. They watch different television programs, read different newspapers, and come to different conclusions not least because they start with different premises. Each cohort has an armoury of lawyers, lobbyists and consultants arguing their case in Washington. Universities long ago opted to go down the “race, class and gender” path. Centre-Right think-tanks retained a philosophical base. But like Republican legislators in Congress, they awkwardly juggle philosophical principles with the advocacy of public policy programs. This awkwardness is shared by both parties. For example in their heart-of-hearts Democrats would like a single-payer system for America’s small non-employer health insurance sector. Instead under Obamacare they had to settle for applying central-plan-style price controls and subsidies to the philosophical marketplace. The effect of this was to create a dysfunctional pseudo-market. The dysfunction was not surprising, as price controls limit supply while subsidies drive up costs. Third-party payers, government and insurers alike take away the power of prudent first-party payers to drive down costs and prices. The result was a mess. But it is not as though Republicans have been able to do much better.

At the national level each of the major parties internalises the same two incompatible worldviews. The result is confusion, muddle and disarray. In mid-2017, having assumed control of Congress, Republican law-makers repeated their support for the philosophical marketplace. They signalled the end of Obamacare regulations that had forced at least 15 million Americans to buy insurance they didn’t want. Yet in other respects the proposed Republican alternatives to Obamacare looked a lot like Obamacare—or at least the near-term operational parts of the GOP’s House and Senate draft healthcare bills did. They retained price controls, subsidies and the commanding role of third-party payers.

They also kept in place the Obama-era regulatory provision that “children” as old as twenty-six could be covered by their parents’ health insurance plan. Republican law-makers explained that this measure was popular with voters.[7] Ronald Reagan once remarked that humanity looked to America to “uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and, above all, responsible liberty for every individual”. It is an irony then that Reagan’s party of self-reliance found itself unwittingly incentivising the multiplication of American adult-children, the “Life of Julia”-style Peter Pans who perpetually put off adult responsibilities. Ben Sasse observes that today a quarter of Americans between twenty-five and twenty-nine years old now live with their parents compared to 18 per cent a decade ago.[8] As early as the 700s the Anglo-Saxons encouraged children to leave home early and forge a self-reliant life by working and setting up businesses. Republican law-makers now find reason to underwrite ageing adult-children living at home. This revalorises the old Continental stem-family where a child perpetually lives in the parental home. It is a recipe for lethargic economic and social behaviour.[9] A tradition of leaving home, coupling and founding new households is vital to an energetic society.

This is what the American “middle” now looks like. It is filled with graceless, cumbersome, knotty and embarrassing jerry-built pieces of legislation that claim to bridge what is in fact an unbridgeable chasm. The truth is that the two truths of American life cannot be reconciled. There is no meaningful in-between. There is no fuzzy logic that can square program spending and deficit reduction, balanced budgets and massive expenditure on infrastructure. Americans can see this. Tired of the political charade, they have been quietly separating themselves along geographical lines. In the last twenty-five years the number living in red and blue “electoral landslide” counties has risen from 40 to 60 per cent of the voting population.[10] In step, the American political middle has shrunk. In 1994 49 per cent of American voters held “mixed” ideological views. In 2014 it was 39 per cent.[11]

After the 1930s an unfathomable tear emerged in the American political psyche between limited government philosophy and big government programs. After the 1960s a parallel split occurred, this time between traditional and romantic morality. Both developed as political antinomies. Both presented mutually incompatible standpoints. Consequently persuasion and argument on both sides have proved largely useless. How do you persuade individuals against views that they regard in a deep way as true, valid and authoritative? You cannot. So each side gets very frustrated by the other side.

Consider the following Pew Research Center survey data. Seventeen per cent of Democrat voters in 1994 viewed Republicans “very unfavourably”. The figure in 2014 had risen 38 per cent.[12] Democrats widely think of Republicans as close-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent. The feelings are reciprocated. Republican attitudes are almost a mirror image of Democrat views. In other words two very large groups of Americans loathe each other. The loathing grows each year. This is not just the Republican Trump voter or the Democratic Bernie Sanders voter. Almost all Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Approval of presidents of all parties has steadily declined since the 1950s. An ever-decreasing number of Americans are happy with national politics. This is because each of the two Americas is constantly checkmated.

The American writer David French suggests that Americans are heading for a divorce.[13] He is right. Actually Americans are already separating. They are doing this by sorting themselves into low-tax, limited-government states and high-tax big-government states. Voting with your feet makes a big difference in America. You can live in Idaho where per capita health spending is $5600 and life expectancy is 79.5 years, or in Maryland where health costs are $7492 per capita and life expectancy is 78.8 years.[14] Likewise with education. Massachusetts ranks number one in eighth-grade maths performance. It spends $14,000 per capita on public education. Montana ranks number three in the country, and spends $10,000 per capita. Massachusetts levies $5377 per head in state and local taxes, Montana $3158.[15] Even the use of pharmaceuticals varies by state. Americans can choose to live in North Dakota or Texas where the non-medical use of painkillers is low, or in Oregon and Indiana where it is high.

Like a lot of commentators, Tyler Cowen dislikes social sorting. He thinks it is an effect of complacency. Americans, he argues, increasingly cluster in social silos because they like to be challenged less and less. This is true to the extent that Americans are tired of incommensurability. But it doesn’t mean they are hiding from change. Cowen argues that Americans have lost their appetite for change and with it the kind of organisational and technological innovation that drives economic growth and social prosperity. Arguably though, a more prosaic fact explains declining innovation and growth. In 1961 11 per cent of Americans worked in health, education and government; in 2009 30 per cent did. By allocating so much capital to these sectors, the long-term effect has been to reduce national productivity and investment in new, more productive industries. The productivity of health, education and government is chronically low. Americans spend on schools three times in real terms what they did in 1970. In spite of the massive additional expenditure, student test scores today are identical with those in 1970.

Change or the lack of it is not a towering issue for Americans. In his 1943 book The Machiavellians James Burnham pointed to something much more significant. In an extended analysis of Vilfredo Pareto’s sociology, he observed that societies endlessly change and endlessly rationalise that change. Yet what results from this is typically meagre and ephemeral. In society as in politics there is a lot of heat and dust that generates little substance. What matters, Burnham argued, is not what’s variable but what’s constant. The great social constants are innovation and persistence. Innovation is not change. Rather it is creative combination, the ability to put together things that normally exist apart. Persistence is the idea that some part of human existence is permanent. As Edmund Burke described it, it is what unites the living, the dead and the not-yet-living. It is bound up with images of solidity and faithfulness. It evokes durable realities and lasting principles with lucid abstractions.

In short America at its best rests on a fusion of invention and continuity. America’s elites, when they function well, are capable of creative combination and stoic persistence. Other paradoxical pairs exist in parallel with this: limited government and traditional morality; self-organising systems (such as markets and industries) and prudential ethics. Contemporary Americans are not complacent. Rather they are bifurcated. Half of them want expensive, dysfunctional, wasteful, inefficient taxpayer-funded and third-party-payer social programs. The other half want to be self-reliant, pay out of their own pocket, save, spend prudently and make their own decisions. It is rational for the self-reliant to flock with like-minded voters in lower-tax states and for the others to congregate in higher-tax states. As for innovation, nothing fuels it like consumer sovereignty.

The Democratic model prefers public and private third-party payers. These are Burnham’s managerial oligarchs. American government runs the single-payer payroll-funded pension-age system of Social Security and Medicare along with Medicaid for low-income beneficiaries. Private insurers dominate the tax-exempt payroll-financed group health insurance system. In each case, decisions are made by a small number of managers. In contrast, innovation flourishes in dispersed large-scale markets where millions of consumers make the decisions. It only requires a small percentage of these consumers to be adventurous for real innovation to occur. American hospitals demonstrate what happens when this is absent. They have a high standard of clinical treatment yet they are afflicted by chronic organisational waste and dysfunction.[16] The managerial class, it turns out, is not very good at managing, but it excels at moral preening and lobbying government for resources and law changes.

No one likes America’s polarising stalemate. Yet everyone contributes to it. So what can be done to overcome it? Yuval Levin recommends refocusing political energies away from the federal to the state level and returning program responsibilities back to state governments. There is much to be said for this, in part because it reflects the Great American Sort that has already happened. Yet this solution also has its limits. Not everyone can vote with their feet and choose their state. What then happens if you are a Republican stuck in California? Moreover, even if American national politics was to shrink, it would not disappear. So what can be done in addition?

One answer is to resolve America’s great political antinomies by creating dual pathways: one for the philosophical voter and one for the program-benefit voter. For example give citizens, at both state and federal level, a choice between market-based savings and program-driven taxation. For those who prefer to save, do what Singapore does. Halve the rate of personal tax and put that money into mandated savings accounts for health (and education). Likewise redirect the payroll taxes that fund retirement-age Social Security into individual saving accounts. Do the same for the tax-exempt payroll component that finances America’s group health insurance. For citizens who prefer tax-based benefit programs, keep those as they are. Persons who choose the savings path can reinvest their funds in prudent stocks and bonds, and enjoy the miracle of compound interest, rather than have their money idle as it is moved in and out of the government’s pool of general revenue. For those who choose the program path, they can relax knowing that government is providing group benefits for class needs and it is doing so by their preferred means of plans, allocations and taxation.

To date the best that the two Americas have managed is to put each side of their perplexing national antinomy into separate mental boxes. One side goes into a box labelled “symbols”, the other into a box labelled “operations”. As time goes by, this national shell-game becomes more and more implausible. Operational liberalism increases in popularity during symbolically conservative administrations (Reagan, Bush) while conservative symbolism becomes more popular during operationally liberal administrations (Carter, Clinton, Obama). Yet the divide between the two remains, sometimes in hilarious ways. Republicans often will attempt to square the circle by voting for small government while asking law-makers to expand their favourite programs. Yes, they insist, we think government is bloated but we love Social Security.

There is a tendency to want to rationalise such contradictory behaviour. One way is to argue for a class-based group-identity kind of Republicanism. After the 2012 loss by Mitt Romney, republican political strategists, notable among them Reince Priebus, argued that the future of the party lay with Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American voters.[17] Others, like Henry Olsen, talked about the “working class Republican”.[18] Olsen’s argument, expanded in a svelte book of the same title, suggests that, as in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, Republicans could improve their electoral fortunes by appealing to the American blue-collar white working class. Closely tied to this is the notion that Reagan was a New Deal Republican whose political origins lay in the Democratic Party and who wanted to preserve and extend New Deal programs like Social Security.

The presidential election of 2016 looked like a confirmation of this. To his credit, Olsen came close to predicting the election outcome when most observers did not. The successful candidacy of Donald Trump outwardly seemed to confirm the idea that the future of the Republican Party pivoted on the blue-collar vote. Trump narrowly won the 2016 election because 80,000 medium-to-low-income, mainly working-class, former Obama voters in three states at the last minute opted for a populist Republican. That successful vote-poaching echoed the fabled Reagan Democrats as well as the less often remembered Nixon Democrats. But it also disguised something that arguably was more important in 2016.

Trump did achieve victory in mid-western states by offering the class voter economic protectionism and promising to make no reforms to Social Security. What is less remarked on is the rest of the campaign where Trump ridiculed other class voters: women, Hispanics, minorities. At the time I thought such mockery precluded Trump’s victory. In hindsight it probably underwrote it. Candidate Trump’s garrulous anti-PC shtick resonated with philosophical Republicans. This was not because Donald Trump is a philosophical Republican (far from it) but because he ridiculed the politics of group identity. He did so while making a pitch to the disappearing American industrial blue-collar class. He managed to be both a class Republican and an anti-class Republican.[19] This was a typical, though hardly sustainable, populist zigzag. It was electorally effective. But was it good politics? It left open the question: Where now for philosophical Republicans? Yuval Levin’s cogent, illuminating book The Fractured Republic tackles this question head-on. Levin is a fluent, subtle Burkean conservative. The thinker he most resembles is Robert Nisbet. Levin looks at what has happened to America since the New Deal. Its politics has been centralised and nationalised. Centralisation has multiplied managerialism, bureaucracy, waste and rent-seeking inefficiency. At the same time the nationalisation of politics has papered over the divide between the two Americas. The increasing national focus of politics tacitly favours big-government programs. The New Deal and Great Society tsunamis are long gone, but the annual incremental increase in federal spending per capita is remorseless. These increases are fiscally unsustainable. The programs they pay for deliver poor value to their nominal beneficiaries. And yet they roll on regardless.

Levin’s answer to centralisation is intermediate institutions. The alternative to nationalisation is the American states. The second, I think, works. The first doesn’t. Just as the post-New Deal era saw the development of government bureaucracies, the post-1970s Great Society era saw the ballooning of non-government bureaucracies. The sainted intermediate institutions were colonised by managers and administrators who turned them into lobbies that co-operated with government to increase regulation and public spending. In other words, Robert Nisbet’s artful conservative ideal was comprehensively steamrolled by the managerial oligarchies that James Burnham predicted in the 1940s.[20]

Nisbet wrote many beautiful books. They are gorgeous to read. With great eloquence he defended community against society, the sacred against the profane, authority against power, and class against status-seeking. Some of this resonates in the contemporary American experience. The obsessive status-seeking that takes place in organisations is a case in point.[21] So is the number of unattached individuals. Today 28 per cent of Americans live by themselves, twice the rate of 1960. In San Francisco’s urban core, the figure is 40 per cent.[22] However, Nisbet’s writings primarily addressed the tragedies of European history, and the twentieth-century American challenge was not home-grown absolutism or totalitarianism. It was Left-liberalism and progressivism. Nisbet sought an answer for the lonely crowd in the early industrial solidities of class and the hospitable embrace of middling institutions like guilds and churches. We see a version of this repeated in the work of Olsen and Levin. Olsen resurrects the promise of class, Levin the warm harbour of civic groups, labour unions, schools, churches and charitable groups. Both are mirages.

Like Levin, Ronald Reagan wanted to reduce government to set loose “the energy and the ingenuity of the American people” in order to reinvigorate the “social and economic institutions which serve as a buffer and a bridge between the individual and the state”. Levin’s hope is for an America where there are more “middling relationships”. But that possibility is gone. Most of the buffers now function as de facto extensions of government. However, what remains is Reagan’s profounder promise. This is the vision of an “orderly compassionate pluralistic society—an archipelago of prospering communities and divergent institutions—a place where free and energetic people can work out their own destiny under God”.[23]

Levin’s account of the last half-century is deeply considered. It begins with the mid-century post-New Deal grey-flannel-suit managerial society that was heavily regulated, with economic power concentrated in large corporations. He then argues that, following the 1960s, there was a long wave of individualism that left America torn between the lone individual and the big organisation. Tyler Cowen also argues that big companies rather than small start-ups today still dominate the American economy. That’s true, although in the last two decades the number of non-company business partnerships and sole proprietorships in America has boomed. That suggests that something more than complacent bigness is at work in American society.[24] At the same time sole-headed households have multiplied since 1960. I am not sure though that Anglo-American individualism explains the latter. More important is the long-term effect of 1960s cultural romanticism with its Continental European roots. Though the two may seem to be odd bedfellows, managerialism has developed a close relationship in America with romanticism. They are the twin pillars of contemporary liberal America in the same way that limited government and cultural traditionalism are the principal pillars of conservative America.

Managerialism gathered pace from the 1920s. As organisations spread nationally, enabled by the telephone, the federal government followed suit. It nationalised issues and then set about regulating them, eventually on a mountainous scale. Levin’s view is that Republicans should de-nationalise politics, and return power and resources to the states. Let some states be program-focused and others be philosophically driven. There are echoes of this in proposed Congressional Republican healthcare legislation. The medium-term plan is to fund Medicaid by block grants to states and to expand the number of Obamacare regulation waivers that states can apply for. The point is to let contrarian state models expand. Whether this will ever happen is questionable. But the symbolism is significant.

Part of the attraction of Levin’s go-your-own-way federalism is that it builds on what already exists. There are lower-taxing, smaller-government, good-value, high-outcome American states. This is particularly true of the Western Mountain and Great Plains states. At the other end of the spectrum are the big-government, high-taxing, bad-value, poor-outcome states like Illinois and Michigan. In essence Levin’s view is to decentralise the federal government, return power and income to the states, and let voters at the state level decide. The natural corollary of this is to say to voters: you choose where you live. If you like program-driven government then live in that kind of state. If you want the opposite, go elsewhere. This allows for the explicit concurrency of blue and red state models.

Go-your-own-way federalism is one plausible approach that class-blind Republicans can adopt. But it is not the only one. Consider how key Reagan policies of the 1980s might be updated for the 2010s. Reagan reduced sky-high marginal rates of tax. Today there is a considerable scope to replace taxes with mandated individual savings accounts. Reagan argued for limited government. To a notable extent the growth of classic departmental government has been constrained since the 1980s. What has multiplied instead has been the broader public sector (education and health principally) along with private-sector third-party payers. Through regulation and financing, government has extended its power over these non-government actors. This has been mediated across sectors by a common managerial class. This class mixes bureaucratic procedural rationalism with sanctimonious moral romanticism. Radically shrinking the managerial class on all fronts is desirable. Finally, there is Social Security. Henry Olsen is right. Reagan did support the New Deal model of retirement income. Utilising that model, the US federal government collects payroll taxes and currently pays out a modest average retirement income of $16,000 a year. That same money, put into a prudent superannuation-style saving account scheme over a lifetime of work, would yield twice the retirement income.

Olsen points to Reagan in 1964 declaring, in his convention speech supporting Goldwater’s presidential bid, that “no one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds”. Olsen suggests that this statement and others like it echo Franklin Roosevelt. But the medical revolution that created modern healthcare had barely started in the 1930s. Measured in constant 2015 dollars Americans in 1930 spent $356 per capita on health, in 1960 $918 and in 2015 $9451. Compare the United States today with an even richer country, Singapore. The latter spends $4264 per capita on health care, less than half of what America spends.[25] American life expectancy is 78.8 years; Singapore’s is 82.6 years.[26] When Americans struggle to afford health care it is not because of a “lack of funds” but because of high costs. Singapore controls its costs because it halved personal taxation and shifted the locus of healthcare payment from the government taxation system to mandated personal savings accounts. Even the lowest-income Singaporeans who get government health subsidies have savings accounts and co-pay for their health services.

Such good-value limited government sounds like a version of classical liberalism, yet in the American context it is a species of conservative politics. As Grossman and Hopkins’s ANES data shows, the Republican Party is built on the conjoint values of small government and cultural traditionalism. One complements the other. Limited government means rejecting oligarchic managerialism and bureaucratised programs. But that presupposes a certain kind of moral character. To thrive and grow, markets and industries (along with vibrant cities and publics) need individuals who are hard-working, thrifty, self-organising and capable of self-education. These are the traditional moral values on which America was founded. Elements of Calvinism, Augustinianism and Stoicism are prominent.

The mix of limited-government libertarianism and moral traditionalism—in short “conservatarianism”—often strikes outside observers as an odd combination.[27] Yet it was this uncanny fusion of small-government principles and moral tradition that defined the highly creative mid-twentieth-century Bill Buckley National Review school of American conservatism.[28] Ronald Reagan personified its ambidexterity. Rather than a class Republican he was a philosophical Republican. He pointedly avoided class rhetoric in his speeches. He spoke in terms of “all Americans”. He idealised hard work rather than blue-collar work. He was widely read in the philosophy of limited government (Bastiat, Hazlitt, Friedman, von Mises, Hayek), a habit he acquired while working for General Electric in the 1950s. He was the most philosophically well-read president since Jefferson and Madison. Reagan’s vision of philosophical liberty, though, was offset with a palpable demotic sense of transcendental destiny. He was not just a philosophical Republican but also a soteriological one. His was a lucid vision in which free will co-operated with the quiet providential workings of necessity. This was the antithesis of New Deal thinking and American Left-liberalism generally.

Traditional morality has a deep affinity with modern economies and societies. The latter are profoundly cyclical. It is notable how much they replicate antiquity’s old eternal return of bad and good, suffering and release, in the form of recession and growth. It is striking that Tyler Cowen concludes his rumination on contemporary America with the judgment that cycles of all kinds—technological, consumer and so on—are a simple fact of modern life and that our existence, far from being progressive, looks like a pendulum that swings back and forth. Hard times arrive periodically, as they did in the 1930s, 1970s and 2010s. Interventionists promise salvation. Yet government programs do little to reverse the self-organised recurring hidden-hand workings of markets and industries. Reagan understood this. The religion of his mature years, Presbyterianism, had its roots in Calvinism, itself the product of a deeper, longer history of Augustinianism and Stoicism. Modern freedom works where it is intertwined, often paradoxically, with necessity. It may be ironic but a sense of religious strength or philosophical endurance—in short, traditional morality—is the most useful thing we have to adapt quickly and effectively to modern life’s inescapable ups and downs.

It is notable that fusionism’s first presidential campaign champion, Barry Goldwater, came from a western state (Arizona) rather than from the old archetypal Republican heartland of the industrial Mid-West that crossed from the Illinois of Abraham Lincoln to the Ohio of Robert Taft. Republican presidential politics in 2016 slipped back into the classic national-industrial Mid-Western legacy mode. Its successful presidential candidate, Donald Trump, won on the basis of narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. His vice-president, Mike Pence, was governor of Indiana. The current speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, represents a Wisconsin congressional district. Yet the future of America—defined by its best-performing states—lies in the West, not the Mid-West, which is caught in a long-term pattern of incremental decline.

It is no surprise then that Ben Sasse, who has written the most important American conservative book in two decades, is a senator from the Great Plains state of Nebraska. Sasse’s book is in turns lively and serious, probing and astute, cheerful and full of good advice. Unusually for a senator it is not a political book or a campaign book. Rather it looks at raising children in America today. The underlying problem it addresses is the increasing propensity of American families to produce hapless child-adults, individuals who never really grow up. To avoid this outcome, and all that comes with it, including depression, passivity and the inability to adapt to the normal challenges of life, Sasse offers a compelling model. Children need to learn to work, read, travel and mix with a broad range of people. The only thing Sasse misses is the need for children to learn to save.

Sasse’s volume is relentlessly good-humoured in the great Ben Franklin tradition of wit and wisdom. But its underlying roots are in Calvinism. It repeats in upbeat contemporary terms what the Calvinists long ago worked out. If you want a successful life then work hard and learn to read big books for yourself. If you are stuck in a permanently declining economy, then move. The nuclear family is the key to easy mobility and fluent adaptability. It is a form of mutual aid that is not fixed to one place. Compare that with Joan Williams’s White Working Class. Williams’s short articulate volume eulogises America’s relentlessly declining industrial blue-collar class. Yet no matter how prettily she paints the picture, what she unintentionally depicts is a self-defeating culture, one that relies for mutual aid not on spouses but on kin. The geographically-fixed kin-anchored model is more Continental European than Anglo-American. The result of it is that people get trapped in declining towns and cities, reluctant to move away from kin networks. In Democrat-dominated blue states this is compounded by in-state programs that encourage people to receive benefits rather than move to better places.

No amount of words can alter this. You cannot argue people out of the blue model. Some individuals are program voters. Others are philosophical voters. Some will move interstate for a better life. Others will stay stranded in opioid hell. This reflects the two Americas. Political arguments do not work across the great divide. You cannot reason with a class voter and say “your life would be much better if you moved from Detroit to Houston”. What this means is that reason has its limits. You can successfully reason with others only by appealing to what they hold to be true. Americans today hold two very different things to be true. Consequently, they cannot meaningfully reason with each about the things that matter most. So they fulminate and bang the table—or else vote with their feet. America was once the philosophical republic. It was born of ideas. Now it is split cavernously between principles and programs.

A short-term fillip comes from blocking the opposition party but at the cost of long-term despondency. So in the end grumpy Republican voters gripe at George W. Bush and join the Tea Party, only for the Tea Party to burn itself out, only then for committed voters to look to a nominal Republican populist promising to punish the bad insiders who failed to do the almost-impossible and break the national checkmate. Can populism do better? No. Its rhetoric promises big government and small government; class politics and anti-class politics; traditional and desultory morals, all in one breath. It will eventually fade as it has thrived, in a long fit of erratic and chaotic swinging back and forth between the deeply-sunk poles of American politics.

The national checkmate is not unbreakable. Nonetheless it is very difficult to break. America does not just have two political parties. It has two worldviews. Neither is reducible to the other. The two are incommensurable. The politics of group-identity and the philosophy of the Founders are like oil and water. That then only leaves an “exit and entry” model of politics. This already is happening beneath the surface of American society. Americans in large numbers have already voted with their feet. They have sorted themselves into distinct geographical allotments. The next logical step in this long slow act of divorce is for legislatures to devise competing social systems that reflect the deep, abiding and unbridgeable gulf between the politics of ideas and the politics of identity. If they don’t do this then frustration, anger and hot air will continue to grow on both sides of the political divide.


Peter Murphy is the author of Universities and Innovation Economies: The Creative Wasteland of Post Industrial Society (2015) and Auto-Industrialism: DIY Capitalism and the Rise of the Auto-Industrial Society (2017).

[1]               Margaret Thatcher, Speech at Hoover Institution Lunch, March 8, 1991.

[2]               Notably among the strongly Republican-leaning states of Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, to different degrees, are the political outliers in in the Western Mountain and Plain States region. Nine of the top twenty US states with the lowest state and local taxes in the US are located in the region.

[3]               The anti-elite, anti-establishment strain in American politics goes back to the venerable American historical revolt against the English-style established church in Virginia in the eighteenth century.

[4]               The conflict between conservative principle and operational liberalism was observed as early as 1967 by the political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril.

[5]               James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Foreword by John O’Sullivan. New York: Encounter Books, 2014 [1964].

[6]               James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, New York, John Day, 1941.

[7]               Then Senator, now US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price in 2012: “There are some things that have been instituted that a lot of folks have begun to rely upon and plan—make their family plans—based upon. Twenty-six-year-olds being on their parents’ insurance is one of them.”

[8]                      In 2014, for the first time since 1880, American adults aged 18 to 34 were more likely to be living with their parents than living with a spouse or partner in their own household. Creation of new households among 18 to 34 year olds reached a peak in 1960. Richard Fry, Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends, May 24, 2016.

[9]                      Peter Murphy, “The Anglosphere’s Quiet Revolution”, Quadrant, February 2017.

[10]             David Wasserman, “Purple America Has All But Disappeared”, Five Thirty Eight, March 8, 2017.

[11]             Pew Research Center, Political Polarization in the American Public, June 12 2014.

[12]             Pew Research Center, Political Polarization in the American Public, June 12 2014.

[13]             David French, “We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting toward Divorce”, National Review Online, June 8, 2017.

[14]             2009 figures.

[15]             2009 figures.

[16]             On the vast amount of organization-generated waste in the American health system, see for example M. Smith, R. Saunders, L. Stuckhardt and J.M. McGinnis, eds, Best Care at Lower Cost: The Path to Continuously Learning Healthcare in America, Washington DC, The National Academies Press, 2013.

[17]             Republican National Committee, Growth and Opportunity Project report, 2013.

[18]             See also Rick Santorium, Blue Collar Conservatives, Washington DC, Regnery, 2014.

[19]             This is reflected in the diverse composition of the Trump voter cohort, which is made up of conservative, free-market, America First, anti-establishment and disengaged voters. Emily Ekins, The Five Types of Trump Voters, The Democracy Fund, June 2017.

[20]             Nisbet saw this coming in his book The Twilight of Authority, New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

[21]             Much of the impulse to anti-elitism is a response to status-seeking that is preoccupied with virtue-signalling and that substitutes chic moralizing for hard work.

[22]             Eric Klinenberg, “Solo nation: American consumers stay single”, Fortune, January 25, 2012.

[23]             Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference Dinner March 20, 1981”, Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989.

[24]             Peter Murphy, Auto-Industrialism: DIY Capitalism and the Rise of the Auto-Industrial Society, London, Sage, 2017.

[25]             2015 figures.

[26]             2014 figures.

[27]             On contemporary conservatarianism, see Kevin D. Williamson, The End is Near, and It’s Going To Be Awesome, New York, HarperCollins, 2013 and Charles C. W. Cooke, The Conservatarian Manifesto, New York, Random House, 2015.

[28]             This creative synthesis first emerged out of the Buckley family’s fusion of traditional Catholicism with the libertarian ideas of the remarkable Albert Jay Nock. On the period of this original meld in the 1940s, see Alvin S. Felzenberg, A Man and his Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2017, chapter 1. If there was a political precedent for this in the United States it was Democrat Al Smith’s failed presidential candidacy in 1928 and his later fierce campaigning on behalf of free markets against Roosevelt’s New Deal. As for Nock, his Theory of Education in the United States (1932) is the best book ever written on the American university. Nock foresaw very clearly the miserable intellectual and academic decline of the universities through the twentieth century.

10 thoughts on “Two Incommensurable Americas

  • whitelaughter says:

    Surely the different worldviews will show their merits or otherwise by the growth/collapse of their respective states?

    How long before OZ sees large numbers of us voting with our feet? Are the expansions of Canberra and the Gold Coast respectively a hint of things to come?

  • Jody says:

    Here’s a discussion by two INTELLECTUAL giants of North America: Camille Paglia and Prof. Jordan Peterson. They really hit the mark and no wonder they’re both so hated. God absolutely bless both of them!!!

    • Keith Kennelly says:

      Did you actually read the article Jody?

      The you tube video is two of the managerial class talking about the things that affected them and is a discussion about symptoms … only.

      It is not philosophical nor intellectual.

      The article is both.

      What really marks them as different is that one talks about what is happening in the wider community and the other what is happening in the managerial community.

      And of course the latter is where you sit.

      Read Burnham. He tells why your stance is st odds with traditional values and philosophy.

      If you consider the philosophers Barzun and Russell both held philosophy is not the preserve of the learned man but comes from the community and is based in the emotional decisions of the vast majority of individuals, you might understand why the left/right thing is no longer the great danger.

      The thought in the above article, while not stating that, if continued and expanded to its natural conclusion, will arrive at the position that Socialism is done and Managerialism is the grave danger. The same conclusion Burnham arrived at.

      I think the article is correct in its prediction of the emergence of two streams of states. Australia will dividie into those today two streams in the future as well. SA, Vic, Tas and NT in the programmes side and Qld NSW, WA. Into the self reliant states. Canberra will be drained and will become a rump … as it should.

      • Warty says:

        If I were to isolate two key issues discussed in the Peterson/Paglia discussion, it would be the feminisation of society and the demolition of the education system, both of these being propelled by Cultural Marxism (which is where I disagree with Paglia, who claims that there were few if any Marxist ideologues in the American universities in the early 60s). My understanding is that the infiltration began in the 1950s.
        If I were to isolate one major theme from Murphy’s article, it would be ‘strength in conservatism’, though related to this is his notion that so many of the things that bother us in contemporary society are mere froth and bubble, because things eventually return to the status quo. Perhaps someone ought to have mentioned this to the Romans.
        The way I see it, the things Peterson and Paglia were discussing are at the heart of what is deficient in Murphy’s argument. The main deficiency in the Peterson/ Paglia discussion, though, is the disingenuousness of Paglia herself, and all her inherent contradictions, not least of which is her avowed feminism (which she seems to trash in the discussion) and her open support of Saunders and dislike of Trump, which is typically establishment rubbish.

        • Jody says:

          Everything these 2 great public intellectuals are talking about are affecting and shaping Australian society. And Paglia talked about “cosmic consciousness” of the 1960s – by this I felt she meant that they were more ‘global’ in their thinking and not the parochial pygmies we have running things today. I listen to what she says and am not influenced by which party she supports in US politics. She’s brave, like Peterson, and has spent a lot of time treading on important toes. Good for her!!

      • Jody says:

        As long as you reiterate your Jack Hackett-style tic about “managerial class” to each and every discussion I won’t read what you write.

        • Keith Kennelly says:

          Managerial class was discussed by the author if the above article. That you see pagoda and Peterson as intellectuals says more about you than you realise.

          What is a public intellectual? And it’s antonym is causing me much mirth.

          You don’t have the discipline, not to read what I right.


      • whitelaughter says:

        Canberra drained by whom?

        However, the ACT could be used very effectively as a way to grant OZ new States – simply create a State from 3/4s of the territory, then modify the act to change the location of the ACT, and then add more land from the new territory to the new state. Once New England, the South Coast, and the Riverina were states, they’d probably join your self reliant states.

  • Warty says:

    Of course Peter Murphy’s article is about America, it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, but for an Australian trying to make a sense of it, there is an innate need to try and find some parallels with our own society . . . unfortunately this is not so easy, and not just because the Calvinistic, Augustinian variety of conservatism he admires has a distinctly American feel to it, it is also the history that gave rise to quite a different outlook.
    It is not that we don’t value personal endeavour, we once excelled in this area, I think it is perhaps I’m a little more pessimistic that Murphy with regards to our current trajectory, but I also disagree with one or two of his premises regarding his confidence regarding the future.
    I may have got the wrong end of the stick here, but from an Australian conservative perspective, I would most definitely argue that change (and certainly not the lack of it) most definitely is ‘a towering issue’. James Burnham may indeed be right in stating that societies ‘endlessly change’ and that there are those who ‘endlessly rationalise’ such change, but early on in the twenty first century the rate of change seems unprecedented, and it seems to be far from mere ‘heat and dust that generates little substance’.
    It seems to me conservatives have a major battle on their hands, not least because our universities, judiciary, police, schools, bureaucracies and political parties have succumbed to Gramsci’s ‘long march through the institutions’. Not least because of the feminisation of society and not least because we have lost the rights to free speech that might enable us to speak out against the forces dedicated to destroying our very culture, a culture they even deny exists. With a sleight of hand Murphy redefines ‘innovation’, the endless renewal he feels is the hidden constant that buttresses society from the forces I feel are tearing us apart. You see, the Latin root to innovation is ‘novus’ meaning new, and my beloved Chambers gives ‘change’ as one of several synonyms for ‘innovation’. Indeed they are pretty well synonymous.
    Yes, ‘innovation and persistence’ might have been able to keep us going a while longer, if only our supposedly conservative government were not keen to pass down Labor-lite budgets; or the same government were to do something to solve a self imposed energy crisis, seemingly designed to deliberately undermine our economy; or sponsor the demolition of the institution of marriage, so that it can then pave the way for a Canadian style celebration of identity politics and gender fluidity.
    All of this has crowded in on us in the last four of five years, the sheer pace of change fostering an exodus of voters from the mainstream political parties to minor parties like The Australian Conservatives and One Nation. None of this seems like a ‘lot of heat and dust’ generating ‘little substance’. Not do those organisations like AntiFa and BLM, financed by shadowy figures like George Soros, and aimed at dismantling traditional American Protestant society.
    Again, I may have misunderstood Mr Murphy, but if I haven’t then I feel his confidence is misplaced.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Innovation leads to positive change and growth. Change forced on us by experts in banking, government and education is change for the sake of change or rampant elitist idealogy and leads to waste, debt and stagnation.

    That’s a point in the article.

    Once the divide between the states becomes a reality … self interest will kick in and people will eventually chose the self reliant states and the programme states will wither.

    NZ seems to have hit on an outcome that works. I wonder why?

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