Americans like to think we are pragmatic, results oriented people, but many of our political disagreements are argued in terms of abstract theory. In particular, Americans like to argue about the proper role of the state: how big should it be and how its responsibilities should be divided between state, local and federal levels. Often, these disagreements reflect cultural differences that can be traced back to colonial times; David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is a good guide to the traditions that still today inform the way Americans think about what government is and what it should do.
The New England tradition, rooted in Puritan experience and theology, wants a strong state run by the great and the good to serve as the moral agent of the conscience of the community. It is the duty of the state to make the people better, and without a strong and moral state to guide development and regulate behavior, the rich will become greedy and the poor will get lazy and fat.
There’s a New York tradition, rooted in the middle colonies, that looks to the state primarily to promote the development of the economy. Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was a powerful instrument of state power, but it was not an engine of moral reformation and guidance. Indeed, the commercialism of Hamiltonian policy often offends the moral sensibilities of the New Englanders who worry that if financiers and industrialists become too powerful, they can pervert the state into the service of Mammon. The New York tradition is also outward looking; it wants a strong national government to protect the rights and advance the interests of American economic and security interests around the world.
There’s a Virginia tradition that worries about the centralism that both the New England and Hamiltonian traditions support. Jeffersonians speak for small business rather than big business, and for parts of the country that are far from the centers of financial and cultural power. In this view, an overweening government is a danger worse that (almost) any problem it tries to solve. The Virginia tradition looks to limit the power of government as far as possible and keep that power as close to the local level. It prefers state power to federal power and thinks the New England model is a “nanny state” approach, while the New York model quickly turns into crony capitalism in which large and well-connected business interests and plutocrats use the power of the state to advance their private objectives. The Virginia tradition shares the New England suspicion of wealth and its dangerous influence on politics; it looks to the classic texts of civic republican literature that identify the rise of wealthy oligarchies with the decline of liberty and republican institutions in ancient Rome and on down to modern times.
Then there’s what might be called the West Virginia tradition which is suspicious of both the Hamiltonian and New England visions of the state, but which wants more from the state than the Virginia tidewater is willing to provide. In Special Providence I called this tradition Jacksonians when it came to foreign policy; Jacksonians share Jeffersonian suspicions about government, but they want the government to advance the economic and social interests of what today we call the American middle class: the broad mass of the people. They don’t like government debt, but they do like government benefits. In the 19th century they wanted the government to give out free farmland even though sales of public land were one of the best revenue sources both federal and state governments had. The Homestead Act, making land literally free for the taking, was passed during the Civil War at a time when the national debt was soaring to unprecedented levels and budget hawks were wringing their hands at the horrendous debts the war would impart on the country. Jacksonians simply did not care; they supported the war and the Homestead Act — and groused about the debt. Jacksonians believe, like New Englanders, that the state should promote moral values, but there are deep theological and cultural differences between the values that New Englanders and West Virginians think should be promoted.
Generally speaking, American political arguments about the role of the state often reflect these various traditions in a knee-jerk way; people come to these arguments steeped in a particular view of the proper role of the state and more or less passively apply these inherited views to the situation at hand. While intellectually speaking this makes for a lot of vapid speech-making and tedious punditry, looking over the sweep of American history it would be hard to say that this pattern has been bad for the country. The different traditions speak for different truths and each tradition not only brings something useful to the table, the competition among them helps keep the country on an even keel.
Today, as the country grapples with the consequences of the decline of the blue social model, these traditions about the role of the state and its relationship to society provide the conceptual tools that many Americans use to think about what the fall of blue means and what we should do about it. That’s to be expected, but to some extent it has turned the question of the transformation out of industrial Fordism into a question of political philosophy in the United States. In one particular case, the deep opposition of the New England school to the decline of the blue social model has helped polarize the broader debate and, I think, promoted some misconceptions about what the transition to liberalism 5.0 is all about.
If any further evidence is needed that the Blue Social Model is utterly incapable of dealing with 21st Century America, check this story out: