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America Needs a New Public Philosophy
Old left-right economic schisms and new cultural battles aren’t solving our problems. Liberal nationalism offers a way forward.
Americans used to fight over big government versus limited government. Now they fight over who’s a racist and who’s a fascist. This can’t go on.
We need a new public philosophy guiding our political discourse, one focused on three primary questions: “What does America need to succeed? How do we make sure all Americans participate in this project? How do we get over our divisions to make a project of national economic renewal the core focus of politics?”
The Old Feud
“Public philosophy” is a term used to describe the ideas and values that shape the decisions of the government and help justify its policies. For most of the past 50 years, the terms of this philosophical debate about government have been defined along established left-right lines: New Deal liberalism with an active state and expanding civil rights versus a mostly libertarian conservatism centered on limited government, localism, and traditional values.
The public philosophy of liberals for most of the 20th century rested on the idea that to achieve genuine equality and freedom for all Americans, the government must first provide social welfare policies and labor protections to ensure living wages and security for families while managing (if not controlling) the overall economy through its ups-and-downs. The public philosophy of conservatives countered that the overbearing hand of government stifled economic energies, taxed people too much, and created a form of dependency and family disintegration that undermined American economic and social cohesion.
Various attempts to reconcile this debate over the proper role of government within a capitalist system emerged in the 1990s with a Third Way-style public philosophy associated with Bill Clinton. This middle path public philosophy accepted markets while employing targeted governmental efforts to shield people from the bad effects of globalization through policies to bolster education, homeownership, and personal investments. The right meanwhile sought a form of compassionate conservatism associated with George W. Bush that sought to sand-off the rough edges of contemporary capitalism by stressing personal accountability and responsibility, the importance of traditional families and public safety, and community and faith-based efforts over welfare policies to help the poor.
Neither side really won these debates and American politics entered a phase of back-and-forth movement in one direction with corrections from the other. America did not become a full social democratic state, nor did it turn into a deregulated laissez-faire economy. Republicans tried to privatize major policies like Social Security and Medicare—and lost. Democrats tried to promote a more socialized form of health care and ended up with the market-government hybrid model of Obamacare.
The New Feud
In the past decade, however, U.S. politics has been taken over completely by a new public philosophical feud: cultural and identity-based politics.
As the old left-right economic debates faded out with the need for strong governmental action to deal with international terrorism, the financial crisis of 2008, and then the coronavirus pandemic, cultural fights filled the political void. Americans across the spectrum may agree with the multiple rounds of economic stimulus—including direct cash payments to people—that were required to save our economy after collapse from Covid and lockdowns. But Americans do not agree at all on other terms of public debate as the left increasingly defines its politics along identity lines focused on structural racism and oppression while the right turns to conspiracy theories and Trump’s cult of personality politics.
In recent years, these cultural divisions have become increasingly apocalyptic and sectarian: you’re either with us and all our prejudices or you’re a racist and/or a fascist traitor depending on the point of view.
These cultural feuds hardened in parallel with ideological alignment inside the two parties and wider polarization between them. Today, it’s very hard today to find liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats, and moderates in both parties are few and far between. This is clearly not sustainable if we want to build some semblance of national consensus about our future.
First, these culture war battles are irreconcilable. Either we accept people’s differences within a framework of mutual respect and rights, or we face a never-ending war for supremacy where cultural leftists and right-wing populists try to conquer each other and force submission. Second, American politics and society can’t bear the weight of irrationally escalating culture war battles over every aspect of life from our neighborhoods and schools to our workplaces and places we hang out. Third, America’s ceaseless political divisions undermine our position in the world, encourage our enemies and competitors to take us on, and weaken our ability to defend our national interests.
America has much bigger issues to deal with now, so we need a new public philosophy to match the times: liberal nationalism.
What is liberal nationalism?
The two components of this public philosophy are “liberalism”—values such as reason, tolerance, pluralism, and equal dignity and rights for all—and “nationalism”, a concern with the common good and policies that strengthen America’s position in the world through steps to build up our domestic economy and increase economic security for all our citizens.
As mentioned, three questions help guide this public philosophical perspective: “What does America need to succeed? How do we make sure all Americans participate in this project? How do we get over our divisions to make a project of national economic renewal the core focus of politics?” The primary goal of a liberal nationalist approach then is to provide ideas and values to help America become stronger at home and stronger in the world:
What we require today is a national plan of economic action built on domestic manufacturing, improved infrastructure and clean energy transformation, and community-based investments in those rural and urban areas left out of economic growth. In addition, America needs a stronger social welfare system that ensures all people have good paying jobs and adequate health care, housing, education, and retirement savings. We need to unify our domestic and foreign policies to more effectively ensure that policies on trade, immigration, defense, and public health strengthen us at home and improve our influence abroad. This will require a new framework for international cooperation that can handle transnational challenges from pandemics and global warming to terrorism and rising threats from authoritarian nations like China and Russia.
The details of this agenda will require robust analysis, debate, and trial and error from people across the partisan and ideological spectrum. And a liberal nationalist framework of “stronger at home, stronger in the world” can help to drive these efforts and is better than the alternative framework currently on offer.
Liberal nationalism is just one offer for a new public philosophy. Certain factions of the conservative nationalist movement and anti-trust populists have their own versions on offer that include worthy ideas and goals for improving America such as strengthening families, reducing economic inequality, and breaking up concentrated economic power.
In each case, the purpose of a new nationalist framework is to overcome the fruitless fights of the past to create a stronger national economy that increases the wellbeing of all people and maintains America’s position as the best country in the world.
A new public philosophy of liberal nationalism won't solve all our problems or divisions. But it could provide a more stable path for figuring out how to get along and thrive together.