Donald Trump is leading in the Republican polls, and Bernie Sanders is running a far more popular campaign than Hillary Clinton. A few years ago, even during the height of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street epoch, such an outpouring of populism would have been unthinkable. The Right’s nativist, quasi-libertarian vision, well supported among middle-American “Jacksonians”—to invoke Walter Russell Mead’s terminology—and the Left’s multiculturalist, quasi-socialist brand, selling briskly among urban coastal dwellers, are both alive and doing well. But they will fade, and not only because they will be outspent and out-consulted by orders of magnitude. They will fade because all they really represent is widespread popular dissatisfaction with the entrenched establishment politicians of the two major parties, rather than true, pragmatic alternative governing philosophies. Enough voters will figure this out in due course to quash their chances.
This dissatisfaction is well justified. The Republican and Democratic parties are simultaneously more ideologically polarized yet more wedded to plutocratic interests than they have been since the days of the railroad and oil barons. Those plutocratic interests appeal to different strains of American culture through a network of media, think-tanks, and other institutions, and manage to secure broad popular support for ideologies that legitimize fundamentally rent-seeking behaviors. Sure, both parties have internal divisions, but those are of scale rather than substance.
The new politics is populist in its talk, but still elitist in its walk. This doesn’t make for either good public discourse or good public policy—just perpetual rentier stagnation and worsening hyper-partisanship. A parasitic elite clings to power while the shifting masses divide against each other. A lot of Americans sense this, and they don’t like it.
At times like these we would do well to remember that our presidential democracy, though naturally tending toward a two-party arrangement (since that’s the only way to win an Electoral College majority), does not in fact condemn us to forever choose between the plutocratic demagogues of Right and Left. Reformist movements have periodically risen and transformed politics, and a few of them have been far saner than the vapid ideologies currently in fashion. The most influential of these was the Whig tradition. That tradition currently lies dormant, but in the contemporary elitist, ideological political climate, we could really use a resurgence of the Whigs for two main reasons.
First, only a new movement with a reformist engine can unsettle and hopefully upset the plutocratic corruption and bureaucratic stagnation that plagues us. But second and even more importantly: Whigs are, by nature of their core beliefs, “centrists” on the American political spectrum when it comes to the most important question of the day: What should the role of government, especially the Federal government, be in American life?
The deep-blue Democrats think that government can provide the solution to every problem, while the raging red Republicans think government is the problem. The big-versus-small government argument returns every once in a while, and always remains irrelevant, because the size of government is not and never has been the real issue. What matters is not government size but government quality and purpose—what roles should government take on, and how should it carry them out?
Whigs have understood all this, and more, throughout the history of the Republic. They have been biased toward a government that was both energetic and limited, directed toward growth and unity, and they have historically done very well in crafting and manning that sort of system.
The American Whig tradition started with President Washington and his brilliant young assistant, Alexander Hamilton. It found explicit expression in the lives of Whig Party members Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and existed as well in the National Republican Party under John Quincy Adams. It then morphed into the new Republican Party under the guiding hand of Abraham Lincoln, the intellectual descendent of J.Q. Adams and Daniel Webster and a self-identified “old-line Henry Clay Whig.” The tradition decayed in the first Gilded Age, but found new life under Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century.
But after TR, the Whig tradition fell to intense internal divisions. Half of the strong-government types among the Republicans began to subscribe to the new pseudo-scientific progressivism and followed Franklin Roosevelt into the Democratic Party; a smaller group gradually subscribed to unchecked capitalism and a laissez-faire attitude, giving rise to the meager Republican presidencies of the 1920s. A few Republicans maintained the tradition largely as it had been, including Arthur Vandenberg, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey. But by and large, in the mid-20th century, it was progressive New Deal Democrats who implemented “Hamiltonian” policies, checkered with progressive excess and, in time, costly and painful experiments in social engineering.
The 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower put the Whigs back in power briefly, but the Ike presidency did little to institutionalize this breed of Republicanism the way the Lincoln presidency did. As a result, starting in the 1960s, the last of the Whiggish Republicans—then known as the Rockefeller Republicans, and including in their number George Romney and Jacob Javits—fought a losing battle against the newly ascendant “conservative” populist wing of the Party, while conservative Democrats in the Whig tradition, like Scoop Jackson, were edged out of their own party by a succession of FDR New Deal Democrats, McGovernite liberals, and then multicultural leftists.
By the late 20th century, the old Hamilton-Clay-Lincoln-TR tradition was effectively dead in American politics, though occasional stragglers have periodically surfaced even into the 21st century. Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat, and New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican, are among the last who have served as elected officials. Both are currently running for President of the United States, but the dismal status of their campaigns shows how long the odds are for Whigs in current era of plutocratic populist politics.
Whiggery was and remains a complex tradition, no less than modern liberalism or conservatism. But like their better-known rivals, Whigs do share some core principles in common among themselves. At least three strains of thought, when combined, distinguish politicians in the Whig tradition from those in others: temperamental conservatism about human nature that informs social and cultural policy, a preference for Hamiltonian activism on economic and administrative issues, and a concern for national union on political and strategic issues. We might summarize the essence of Whig thought in a single central question: “Human nature being what it is, what objectives must the government accomplish to ensure the preservation of the American nation and the American way of life?” All other concerns are ancillary.
Temperamental Conservatism distinguishes Whig political thought from the post-Theodore Roosevelt progressives. Progressivism, broadly defined as the notion that rational ordering and utilitarian values can result in continuing human progress and greater human happiness, tends to result in utopian boondoggles that Whigs abhor. Whigs, in Burkean fashion, prefer maintaining social stability, traditional customs and institutions, and classical moral norms of duty, service, and enterprise. At the same time, Whigs believe in individual liberty, and have taken stands against truly oppressive institutions and injustices in the name of human dignity. They are far more deeply informed by moral realism than are most American thinkers, and that can be traced in their thought from their pragmatic anti-slavery stances to their post-1960s opposition to radical activist movements.
Hamiltonian Government Activism basically deals with the policies that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton supported in the name of national growth: a modern and centralized finance system; massive public investments in technology, education, and infrastructure; and Federal support for fledgling and strategic economic sectors. In this view, Federal activism is the progenitor of national economic growth, and instead of managing the economy for purposes of stability or stepping back from the economy for purposes of maximizing liberty, Hamiltonian Whigs work to drive the economy for purposes of dynamism. This tends to promote entrepreneurship and middle-class opportunity, other Hamiltonian values. Dynamism is the key word here, and it has been visible in the various “American System” economic programs built over the centuries, from that of Clay to the reformism of the Roosevelt Administration. The intense Whig focus on technological innovation, too, runs from Lincoln’s own patent (he was the only President ever to hold one) to, more recently, very Whiggish advances in defense, medical, and space technology.
National Union is, of course, a value that all sane American political movements have endorsed, but Whigs have endorsed it above all other competing concerns. This applies to domestic political structures, foreign policy and grand strategy, and questions of national identity.
So while some focused neurotically on a narrow definition of “states’ rights” since the Founding, conservative Whigs have always emphasized Federal supremacy on crucial policy issues and condemned rebellion of any sort. Whig grand strategy has emphasized preserving the American political union against both internal threats to its unity and external threats to its sovereignty; and it has often combined with asserting American political and economic interests abroad to create a shield against direct threats to the homeland. And as America has always been a diverse nation, Whigs have sought to craft an inclusive yet unitary national identity based on a fostered culture of citizenship and nationhood. Rather than going nativist and appealing to the white Scots-Irish majority, or abandoning national identity for the sake of multicultural diversity, Whigs have demanded a civic and non-racial “100 percent Americanism.” Hence Hamilton’s arguments for Federal supremacy and Lincoln’s savage war on the recalcitrant South; the crafting of international order in the postwar years; and the emphasis on immigrant assimilation and the cultivation of citizenship. Whigs view the American nation as an end in itself, and its unity, security, and internal harmony as being crucial for its survival.
These three core elements of the Whig political personality—temperamental conservatism, Hamiltonian government activism, and national union—have defined American Whigs across the centuries, whatever they formally called themselves. Yet regrettably, no major political force in late 2015, heading toward the election in 2016, displays all three of them, and most political forces these days do a terrible job of displaying any of them.
For example, the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party is “temperamentally conservative”, but its obsessive focus on sexual issues overwhelms those much more pertinent issues of social capital and national culture almost completely. All wings of the Democratic Party theoretically support “government activism”, but that activism relies more on clunky Keynesian management and bloated entitlements than on strategic investments and effective infrastructure. Most Democrats aren’t particularly friendly to business, either. And with very few exceptions, there’s no discussion of a united and inclusive national identity. The Democrats obsess over identity politics, from the excesses of the LGBT movement to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Republican rhetoric, on the other hand, tends to cater to the white Christian working class. This can be seen in ideas of Christian victimhood, anti-immigrant tirades, and a dismissal of the concerns of black America.
There’s good reason to be concerned about the future of the country, given the current trajectory. Populist extremism rages on the Left and on the Right, dysfunctional governmental institutions cast in the pre-internet world continue to decay, and a plutocratic tide swamps the democratic legitimacy of government at all levels. Our decadent ruling class is incapable of much cerebral activity, our reserves of social capital are draining away, and inequality spikes while middle-class opportunity and social mobility stagnate at historic lows. Our populace has forgotten its identity and sense of purpose. The problems are complicated and multifaceted, and never before have they permeated an America lacking a Whig political class. The crisis is real, and we have no Whigs to face it.
Fortunately, though the Whigs are long gone as a movement, their ideas have not died.1 They simply lack a political establishment to embody and implement them. A couple of well-respected and moderate thinkers have articulated the outlines of a 21st century Whiggery, carrying the torch into our own day.2 Many more thinkers and writers have subconsciously arrived at Whig ideas on specific policy areas. Meanwhile, a select few politicians do possess this temperament. And the defense industry, along with the national research labs, sustains the last significant area of Hamiltonian public-private partnership, though most of its adherents are probably unaware of their political ancestry.
So what sorts of policies would 21st century Whigs propose? How would they be different from standard party-line Republicans and Democrats? What policies would a resuscitated Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Dwight Eisenhower favor for the republic of 2016? Probably very similar policies to those they advocated in their own days—updated, of course, for the present state of affairs.
Historically, Whigs have been big spenders in those areas of the economy that drive growth, in a Schumpeterian sense: infrastructure, innovation, and education. Henry Clay’s American System featured “internal improvements” heavily, while Franklin Roosevelt’s public works projects and Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system modernized American infrastructure. Hamilton and Lincoln both sought the creation of the 18th– and 19th-century equivalents of today’s national labs, and in the mid-20th Century, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon poured money into the Space Program for the same strategic-economic reasons. Lincoln allocated public land for the land-grant colleges (the Morrill Act of 1862), and the 20th century saw massive support for public funding of education.
Twenty-first-century Whigs would stay true to that legacy. Without necessarily reducing the size of the Federal budget, Whigs would allocate a larger percentage of it—perhaps by reforming entitlement spending—to the productive investments of infrastructure, innovation, and education. R&D, in particular, has the potential to transform other policy areas as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing, energy, defense, education, and transportation. Whigs would generously fund and modernize America’s transportation, energy, and water infrastructure with the latest available technology, and craft an economy where diverse transportation options and energy sources would be cheaply available for consumer use. In a similar vein, Whigs would pump money into the U.S. public education system, but open it up to private competition and the latest technology to offer Americans a diversity of options at low prices.
The logic of public investment within the free market system has typically pushed Whigs to be very pro-business, to the point of cozying up to and protecting certain strategic industries. Hamilton advocated protections for nascent American manufacturing companies and a modern finance system that would make capital readily available to entrepreneurs. Few remember, but Lincoln ran as a railroad man, and spent the Civil War furiously working to promote railroad interests in the West. Much of Teddy Roosevelt’s legendary condemnation of “the malefactors of great wealth” was premised on opening up opportunities and niches for smaller entrepreneurs and strivers, who were otherwise crushed by the monopolistic industries of TR’s time. The deregulation of certain industries in the late 20th century, too, opened the markets for entrepreneurs and competition, just as contemporary policy reform in the wake of the Information Revolution is solidly pro-business.
Whigs today, then, would seek to promote across-the-board growth in all sectors, rather than focusing on narrow financial growth (which policies since the 1980s have privileged.) Whigs would seek a regulatory and tax environment favorable to smaller businesses and to working class and middle class Americans. Massive regulatory review and reform should be undertaken, though reasonable regulations will remain in place for environmental and consumer protection reasons. The tax code should be simplified and become more progressive, favoring working-class and middle-class Americans and small businesses. The complex web of social-engineering taxes should be eliminated. A better and fairer business climate—guarding against both monopoly-induced and government-induced stagnation—is crucial to a dynamic, opportunity-based economy.
Whiggish political leaders have tended to advocate against concentrations of power by various actors in government, including the government itself. The Constitution, designed largely by Whiggish-leaning thinkers, is the manifestation of this sentiment, premised as it is on the separation of powers. And when various sub-interests—aristocratic, plutocratic, bureaucratic—have accumulated too much power and gone unchecked, Whigs have sought reform and rebalancing of elites against elites. The Whig Party strongly opposed the Southern oligarchy that dominated American politics in the antebellum years, and Abraham Lincoln waged the bloody war that finally removed that aristocracy from its perch. The industrial plutocrats whom Lincoln had accidentally enabled to rise later found themselves opposed by the greatest reformer of American history, Theodore Roosevelt. And Dwight Eisenhower, sensing the sheer overreach of the Federal bureaucracy put in place by FDR and expanded by dint of Depression and war, worked to make the institutions of government more efficient and decentralized.
Today, we have two forces that preclude truly representative and effective governance: the Blue Model bureaucratic institutions that were designed for another era, and the ascendant financial plutocracy that dominates Washington and the statehouses. Whigs wouldn’t choose one or the other problem to fight, for they are interlinked. Twenty-first-century Whigs would fight for a thorough reform of the Federal bureaucracy’s methods and regulatory structure to make for more responsive governance. They would particularly seek to revolutionize governance the way the Information Revolution has transformed business and society. Simultaneously, Whigs would take a populist stand against the undue influence of money in politics, attacking plutocracy by calling for campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, electoral reform, redistricting reform, and media reform, to dissolve the unholy bonds between plutocrats and politicians insofar as is possible. This war on plutocracy and bureaucracy, alongside some common-sense rules that reform groups like No Labels have proposed, is integral to the transformation of American governance for the 21st century.
This sketch barely scratches the surface of Whig policy—the 21st century Whig manifesto and policy guide has yet to be written. But it gives a basic idea of which ways the Whigs, if in power, would steer the country.
Those seeking this sort of Whig revival, though, run into a wall that all American political reformers face. Third parties never do well in American politics. If the Whig tradition is to have new life, it will have to be through Whig wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Besides, it would be counterproductive if the Whigs, once in power, went about their business without consulting the other traditions of American politics. There are strengths and benefits in the other traditions, too—from localism and subsidiarity that create social capital to moral reform and progress that validates America’s identity as a “City on a Hill.” Jeffersonian romanticism is just as much a part of the American tradition as Hamiltonian nationalism, whatever its problems. It would be a real loss if any of the currents of thought in American political thought disappeared entirely; part of what makes America American is the tension and dialogue among them, and the history and heritage that they spawn.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened to the Whigs. As a political force, they have been extinct for a half-century or more, and the absence of their voice in the national conversation is acutely felt. They once brought an important perspective to the table that has gone unrepresented for too long, and we can attribute the current national crisis at least in part to the lack of classic Whig ideas in our approaches to economic growth, national identity, and social policy over the last several decades. A core political tradition that built this country and guided its greatest statesmen deserves a revival. The Whigs must rise again.
1There is even a Modern Whig Party with a national membership and a well-done website. But it’s small enough to be invisible to the mainstream press.
2These arguably include, in my estimation, David Brooks, Jim Pinkerton, Adam Garfinkle, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, and some others.