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Toward the Next Frontier: The Case for a New Liberal Nationalism

When labor and civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin put forward their ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1966, they couched their political argument in the powerful idiom of liberal nationalism. “For better or worse,” Randolph avowed in his introduction, “We are one nation and one people.” The Freedom Budget, he went on, constituted “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America” and “a call to all those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.” It was also, he added, “a plea to men of good will to give tangible substance to long-proclaimed ideals.”

To the detriment of the nation as a whole, the Democratic Party and left-wing political elites abandoned the successful and compelling idiom of liberal nationalism espoused by the likes of Randolph and Rustin, as well as by political leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Hubert H. Humphrey. Instead, party and intellec­tual elites have retreated into an ideological hall of mirrors that has left them adrift at a critical time in the nation’s his­tory. They lack the political language required to move the United States beyond the rolling crisis it finds itself in as it barrels toward the 2020 presidential election.

Indeed, given current trends, it’s very possible, if not likely, that Democrats will win the White House this November (though the picture on the Senate is less clear). If former vice president Joe Biden proves victorious, he will assume the leadership of a deeply divided nation in desperate need of renewal and reconstruction—but likely without the sense of national unity or the broad political coalition such an effort demands. Focused on the short-term demands of win­ning a presidential campaign against an unscrupulous rival candidate amid bitter national divisions, Democrats will find themselves unpre­pared for the scope and difficulty of the task that will confront them in January 2021 if they hold fast to their current course.

Right now, Democrats do not have a vision adequate to the de­mands of the present moment, much less the future. While the coronavirus crisis has laid bare the incompetence of the Trump administration and the failings of conservative ideology, it has also magnified the inadequacy of the two newly fashionable streams of progressive politics on offer in recent years: left-wing multiculturalism and democratic socialism. Neither approach can unite a strong majority of the American people together in a shared project to re­build the nation after both the Trump presidency and the coronavirus. Such a project would require a sense of common purpose driven by a politics that speaks to all Americans and embraces the best of the nation’s potential, not its rejection in favor of ideological projects that pit Americans against one another.

Return to Normalcy?

As the Democratic Party sought its way forward in the wake of the Obama presidency and Trump’s election, it found itself buffeted by two unrepresentative ideological streams over the past five years. With their active social media presence, democratic socialists and left-wing multiculturalists alike vastly exaggerated their strength and appeal among average Democratic voters. Their loud voices led a number of presidential candidates astray, leaving former vice presi­dent Biden to pick up the pieces and assemble a winning coalition.

Despite Biden’s increased efforts to portray himself as a transformative figure, his electoral appeal rests, above all, on a promised return to the relative normalcy of the Obama years. In the eyes of many, that alone would amount to a vast improvement over the current state of affairs and right the national ship after a single disastrous Trump term. But as popular as President Obama remains among Democrats and many Americans, an Obama restoration will not provide the foundation needed for the optimistic program of national reconstruction that America will so desperately need moving forward.

While nostalgia for President Obama among the Democratic rank and file may be understandable, from the vantage point of 2020 the Obama presidency appears to represent the last gasp of the market-friendly “Third Way” political program that guided Democrats since the early 1990s. That’s not to gainsay the real advances the Obama administration made when it came to national health care policy or stanching the economic bleeding that followed the 2008 financial crash. But it’s hard to say that the Obama administration’s policies were truly equal to the challenges his presidency faced. Reinstating or reinventing these policies today, under vastly more adverse circumstances, does not constitute a forward-thinking policy program, nor a governing philosophy in its own right. None of yesterday’s ideological programs will succeed—politically, practically, or philosophically.

Still, yearning for President Obama and his levelheaded leadership style may well prove an electoral boon for Democrats in 2020—espe­cially after four years of an erratic President Trump. Moreover, ap­peals to normalcy likely have as much political potency today as they did a century ago, in a presidential election that came on the heels of a world war, an influenza pandemic, and widespread postwar social unrest. Even so, Democrats should not delude themselves that the Obama administration’s policies amount to some sort of Platonic ideal to which they should strive. They must instead move beyond a political program well past its expiration date, one far too preoccupied with market incentives, tax credits, and globalization for its own sake to meet the challenges of the coming decade and beyond.

Alternatives to Obama Nostalgia

The two main ideological alternatives to Obama nostalgia—the multi­cultural Left and democratic socialism—suffer from their own unique political, policy, and philosophical shortcomings. Start with democratic socialism, a doctrine in vogue thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly successful 2016 Democratic primary challenge and the surprise primary victory of the telegenic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. In the main, democratic socialists championed two policy proposals: Medicare for All, the centerpiece of Sanders’s unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign; and the Green New Deal, the wide-ranging framework for combating climate change promoted by Ocasio-Cortez.

While democratic socialists should be commended for their ambi­tion, they have yet to make a politically compelling argument for themselves. Sanders likely owed his unexpected success in the 2016 primaries to discontent with Hillary Clinton rather than widespread popular support for democratic socialism. Likewise, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal program has seen greater success as a lightning rod for conservatives than as a practical policy proposal or political center of gravity for the Left. Medicare for All similarly lacks public sup­port, with a majority of Democrats backing a public health insurance option over a single government insurance plan. Nor did candidates supported by Sanders and democratic socialist groups have much success in the 2018 midterm elections, losing instead to mainstream center-left candidates backed by the party establishment. Combined with Sanders’s underwhelming, if briefly threatening, 2020 primary performance, it’s not an exaggeration to say that his brand of demo­cratic socialism has been a political failure in many respects.

More fundamentally, democratic socialists operate within a politi­cal tradition alien to most on the American center-left. Though Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and others have repeatedly attempted to claim the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, their political philosophy stands at odds with the tradition of liberal nationalism inaugurated by the thirty-second president. Notoriously allergic to the rigidities of ideology, Roosevelt defined himself above all as a committed liberal (“a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest—at the command—of his head”) against conservatives, reac­tionaries, and radicals alike. Where Roosevelt spoke the language of freedom and national possibility, Sanders and his cohort dwell on equality and leveling above all else. It’s no coincidence that Roosevelt’s outline of Allied aims in World War II was called the Four Freedoms. But perhaps most importantly, Roosevelt articulated a wider vision of American national life that can’t be found in the superficial us-versus-them populism offered by Sanders and many of his fellow travelers.

For its part, the multicultural Left presents a philosophically disastrous and politically ruinous alternative. Viewing the United States as irredeemably tainted by the original sins of slavery and rac­ism and seeing progress as an illusion, the multicultural Left denies the very possibility of a common ground and shared national life among citizens of differing backgrounds. Instead, it sees the United States as consumed and defined by multiple systems of identity-based oppression that must somehow be “dismantled”—though how always remains unclear beyond reading certain ideological tracts. This fatal­istic worldview and the esoteric jargon that accompanies it pervade the discourse of progressive elites, leaving them bereft of any other way to think or talk about politics and society.

It’s not hard to see the political and philosophical flaws in the worldview of the multicultural Left, though some progressive elites somehow manage to remain blind to them. For starters, the multicultural Left ignores the complexities of human life in order to divide Americans into identity categories, attribute identity-based interests to these categories, and then declare these interests to be, for all intents and purposes, incompatible. This process occurs behind a cur­tain of impenetrable academic jargon that obscures and obfuscates, laundering as progressive what would otherwise be rightly seen as reactionary notions surrounding identity. “The system,” as journalist George Packer put it, “is closed—there’s an internal logic that can be accepted or rejected but isn’t open to argument or question.”

Yet the multicultural Left somehow deludes itself into believing that it can cobble together a winning political coalition by encouraging identity-based segregation and deploying empty academic jargon. This is incorrect; strong majorities of Americans dislike political cor­rectness and oppose extravagant demands associated with the multi­cultural Left, such as reparations for the descendants of slaves, de­criminalizing the border, and defunding the police.

Even if the multicultural Left were to establish a politically viable project—and it hasn’t—it would be unwise and immoral to pursue it. Such a project would at best be a betrayal of core liberal values of individual freedom and equality in favor of the sort of ethnic, racial, and sectarian particularism that’s proven disastrous throughout his­tory. That the United States has yet to fully live up to these values is irrelevant; as economist Glenn Loury noted before Trump’s 2016 election, the objective of “racially transcendent humanism” ought to remain the “bedrock” goal of any liberal nationalism worthy of the name. To abandon this goal in the pursuit of the multicultural Left’s identity politics is to abandon the possibility of a humane and moral progressive politics altogether. The multicultural Left defines Amer­ica at its worst and aims to keep it there through its inert politics and pernicious worldview.

In short, both democratic socialism and the multicultural Left amount to political and philosophical dead ends. Democrats searching for a forward-looking approach must turn elsewhere to find a real program of national renewal and reconstruction.

For a New Liberal Nationalism

Fortunately, a political philosophy stands ready to fill this void: a new liberal nationalism that speaks to the common good at home and national interest abroad, all while reaching toward the next frontier of national possibility and human potential. This nationalism aims to put the best of America forward to ourselves and the world, giving us reason to believe in our future together. It builds on four main prin­ciples first enunciated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and car­ried forward by John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, adapts them for the present, and takes them into the future.

The first principle is freedom. For a Next Frontier nationalist, both political and economic freedoms guide the practical policy program it proposes. Political freedoms consist of the well-known and universal liberties necessary to make democracy and self-government work: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, civil rights, and voting rights. These freedoms apply not just at home, but everywhere in the world—and need defending against threats from many among the pop­ulist Right and the multicultural and socialist Left.

On economic freedom, conservatives have narrowly defined this concept as the absence of taxes and regulation, especially for wealthy individuals and powerful corporations. Next Frontier nationalists, in contrast, hearken back to FDR’s concept of economic liberty as the “opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” Accordingly, new liberal nationalists see social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare as the bulwarks of individual economic freedom. These public protections against the uncontrollable and unpredictable hazards of social and economic life enable individuals to strike out on their own and take risks that would otherwise prove untenable in the absence of such robust social insurance programs. Liberal nationalists thus view pro­grams like Social Security and Medicare not as handouts but rather as liberators that unshackle the individual initiative of American citizens from the bonds of fear and uncertainty.

This commitment to social insurance reflects the second central principle of a new liberal nationalism: peace of mind or security. These programs safeguard against the risks of social and economic life over which individual citizens have little or no control: old age, health, unemployment, and the like. Hazards like recessions, pandemics, and the inevitable challenges inherent in aging reside well outside the sphere of control for any one citizen, and therefore prove highly amenable to social insurance programs and policies universal in scope and broad-based in funding. The very phrase social insurance attests to this core purpose: it is protection the nation takes out on behalf of its citizens against the risks and perils inherent in social and economic life.

Peace of mind also entails a strong national security and foreign policy apparatus to protect Americans against the threats and chal­lenges emanating from beyond our borders. That apparatus includes a strong diplomatic corps as well as a strong military and intelligence community. Unlike many of their counterparts to the left, Next Frontier nationalists do not look for ways to cut defense spending for the sake of cutting defense spending. They view the U.S. military and intelligence community as indispensable to national security and vital foreign policy tools, complements to diplomacy but not substitutes for it. All components of U.S. foreign policy should receive the spending they require to pursue the national interest and keep the country safe.

Peace of mind and security relate directly to the third pillar of a new liberal nationalism: prosperity. Here again, Next Frontier nation­alists define prosperity in the same way as Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.” This ethos has always guided progressive nationalist economic thinking and serves as its overarching objective. A liberal nationalist policy prescription for prosperity therefore demands public investment in national infrastructure, edu­cational opportunity, scientific research and technological development, and social insurance on a massive scale in order to jump-start the engine of national prosperity.

When Next Frontier nationalists think of prosperity, they imagine wide-ranging public investments akin to the interstate highway system, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the GI Bill, and Social Security. These mid-twentieth-century public invest­ments not only made the nation more prosperous in the present, they laid the foundations of prosperity for decades to come. Indeed, their effects can still be felt even today. Next Frontier nationalists also envision an active national industrial policy that moves the heart of the America’s economy away from the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors and back to advanced manufacturing. New liberal nationalists aim to finance this ambitious economic program through a tax system that requires everyone to pay their fair share—especially the ultrarich and corporate behemoths—in pursuit of a common na­tional purpose.

Finally, Next Frontier nationalists believe that the United States should be a nation second to none. America should earn global prestige as the most technologically advanced, prosperous, and freest nation on the planet. The United States should be the nation that leads the world into the future, and does so from the front lines, not behind them.

Restoring American Prestige

America can earn international respect and prestige, and renew the underlying sources of its national power, in three main ways. First, it should possess an advanced and functional national infrastructure that can serve both as the nation’s arteries and as a showpiece for what the United States can accomplish. Second, the United States should make enormous public investments in scientific research and technological development across the board, in agencies ranging from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Cen­ters for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy. Looking overseas, the United States should field a strong military, a capable diplomatic corps, generous and effective foreign aid, and unbreakable alliances with its friends around the world. In all these endeavors, the United States should aim to be the best and most effective nation in the world.

This vision of a new liberal nationalism proudly builds on the tra­ditions of the past, as embodied in leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. But it also sees glimpses of potential in contemporary political leaders like Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg, and Sherrod Brown. Though these leaders haven’t put all the pieces of a new nationalism together in a single political package, they have each planted the seeds from which it can germinate and grow. Former president Obama, for instance, has eloquently spoken of the need for Democratic political leaders to speak to and for the nation as a whole, while Senator Brown has emphasized the dignity of work, and Mayor Buttigieg has highlighted America’s vast national potential.

As the nation recovers from the coronavirus and rebuilds after the Trump presidency, it’s time to revive this tradition and promulgate a new liberal nationalism. This approach speaks to all Americans as Americans—not as members of finely sliced and microtargeted demo­graphic categories—and engages them in an optimistic and truly in­clusive politics of national renewal and reconstruction. It provides a political vision for visionless Democrats, caught as they are between the Scylla of identity politics and the Charybdis of socialism with only the promise of a return to Obama-era normalcy to guide them.

Prospects for the New Liberal Nationalism

This kind of politics hasn’t been seen or heard in recent memory, but a new liberal nationalism is the creed and vision Democrats should embrace and run on: a nation striving to lead the world to the next frontiers of possibility and beyond.

It works politically. Polling conducted last year for the Center for American Progress shows virtually unanimous support across parti­san and generational lines for a program of strong national investment at home and international cooperation to meet threats and challenges abroad. Rallying all Americans in a broad coalition to pursue a common national project of renewal and reconstruction—not divid­ing them along the lines prescribed by either Donald Trump or multiculturalists and democratic socialists on the left—would likely prove a winner at the ballot box. Equally important, it would provide a broad-based and enduring political coalition to enact and sustain a new nationalist program for years and decades to come.

We can see the outlines of this coalition already in the coalition of voters that brought the Democrats their 2018 victories and that is currently backing Joe Biden. In 2018, moderate Democratic candidates who eschewed both democratic socialism and the multicultural Left cleaned up: according to the data analytics firm Catalist, 90 per­cent of the Democrats’ winning margin in 2018 was attributable to voters who switched from backing Trump in 2016 to backing Democrats in 2018. In 2020, Biden’s strong lead over Trump nationally and in key states is attributable to outperforming Clinton not among young and nonwhite voters but instead among white noncollege, suburban white college, and senior voters.

Reflecting these trends, we are witnessing the emergence of the Trump-Biden voter—those who voted for Trump in 2016 and are now backing Biden. These voters’ views may be summarized as pro­gressive on economics and moderate to conservative on social issues. In the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey (six thousand cases a week), for instance, seven in ten Trump-Biden voters support increasing taxes on those earning over $600,000 per year, expansive steps to combat global warming through new clean energy investments, paid family leave, and a public health insurance option. Two-thirds support a $15 per hour minimum wage and nearly six in ten support steps to ensure students can graduate from college debt-free, along with a jobs guarantee—but less than half support a Medicare-for-All proposal.

On social issues, Trump-Biden voters hold moderate to conserva­tive positions. A plurality of Trump-Biden voters oppose Trump’s border wall, for instance, while three-quarters back a path to citizen­ship for immigrants who arrived as children without documents. At the same time, however, nearly half of these voters support moving from a family-based immigration system to one based on merit.

Likewise, fully 78 percent of Trump-Biden voters believe that government should promote traditional family values in society and nearly half support allowing vouchers for private or religious schools. By wide margins, these voters also oppose reparations for slavery and believe that there are only two genders, male and female. On guns, they express moderate views: 62 percent oppose banning all guns, while 85 percent support background checks for all gun purchases.

The emerging Democratic coalition is clearly not one that can be sustained on the thin gruel provided by the multicultural Left or democratic socialists. It’s a coalition that benefits from demographic change but not one produced or sustained by demographic change alone. As the 2016 election suggested, and detailed research by the bipartisan States of Change project confirmed, a demographics-based coalition remains hugely vulnerable to a right-wing populist mobilization of declining demographic categories like white noncollege voters, who will still make up 42 percent of the vote in 2020. States of Change simulations show that increased mobilization of this constituency could generate Republican electoral victories throughout the 2020s despite the pro-Democratic effects of raw demographic change. Democrats and progressives who believe otherwise are chas­ing a chimera. Any stable and successful governing coalition must sink roots in all parts of the population. The Next Frontier of liberal nationalism would nourish those roots, allowing them to grow and prosper.

It works practically. Widespread prosperity and social progress coincided with the massive public investments in national infrastructure, research and development, and social insurance that occurred from the 1930s to the 1970s. These investments continue to resonate today, demonstrating the potential for prosperity and pro­gress inherent in a new era of public investment. Since the 1970s, however, the neoliberal agenda of tax cuts and deregulation has held sway and prevented the United States and American citizens from reaching their full national and individual potentials. History tells a simple tale: when Americans invest in themselves, they raise their own standard of living and lead humanity to new heights in the process.

It works morally. In Western philosophical and religious traditions, the idea of working for the common good goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Today, the very notion of a common good or sense of national purpose receives opposition from both the socialist and multiculturalist Lefts. But without the idea of the common good or a sense of national purpose, it’s impossible for any center-left political and policy program to gain traction with a majority of the American public, who are proud of their country and revere the ideal of equal opportunity for all. Cynicism about these ideas feeds frag­mentation and prevents individual citizens from recognizing they share common interests with one another. In other words, new na­tion­alists see all Americans as bound up in a common enterprise and sharing a common fate as a singular political and social community.

President John F. Kennedy gets the last word on the essential task facing the next frontier for American democracy: “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.”

It’s well past time for liberals, progressives, centrists, and all those concerned about the fate of our nation and its democratic way of life to light the candle of a new nationalism and guide America out of the darkness and surmount the enormous problems that disease, depression, and Donald Trump will leave in their wake for any program of national renewal and reconstruction.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 3 (Fall 2020): 163–73.

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