And The Elite Shall Inherit The Earth


The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution

By Michael Lind

Free Press 436pp $23

Since the time of its first settlers, there has been a widespread faith that the future belongs to America. "We shall be as a city upon a hill," said John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, in 1630. To German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, America was "the land of the future....It is a land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical lumber room of Europe." Despite brutal racism, political fractures, and intractable poverty, this vision of America flourished as a result of the country's economic abundance, social mobility, and vital democracy.

Until recently: Ours has become an age of diminished expectations after years of economic rivalry with Europe and Japan, the rise of competitors in the developing world, and the advent of information technologies. No matter what, traditional middle and working classes in the U.S. seem to lose.

This impasse has prompted the rise of a cottage industry of books calling for action to save ordinary Americans. Now, Michael Lind, a 33-year-old wunderkind and senior editor at The New Republic, joins the pack with The Next American Nation. A sweeping, sprawling book, it hits on almost every hot-button issue of the day, from affirmative action to income inequality. Like many books in this genre, such as Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, it blames America's problems on the elite--what Lind calls the white overclass. And like other authors, Lind warns of a potential "Brazilianization of America," in which the white overclass prospers while everyone else sinks to Third World levels of deprivation.

Indeed, Lind concludes that "renewing the American nation-state will require a real, not merely metaphorical, revolution in politics and society, a revolution as sweeping--though, we may hope, not as violent--as the Civil Rights Revolution." The Next American Nation offers a compendium of thought-provoking ideas. Unfortunately, Lind's sketched-out solutions, such as economic protectionism, would make everyone worse off.

At first, Lind's volume is refreshing in that it takes issue with contemporary liberal and conservative orthodoxies. For example, out of a past rife with class and racial struggles there has emerged a third U.S. republic in which multiculturalism is the dominant ideology, as Lind sees it. Does this mean that the political left, which champions the view of America as a federation of cultures and races, has triumphed? On the contrary: It's another victory for the white overclass, which favors a system of racial preferences and spoils. "The constitution of 19th century Russia, it was said, was autocracy tempered by assassination," Lind writes. "The constitution of the Third American Republic is plutocracy tempered by tokenism."

For Lind, multiculturalism--which facilitates rule by the overclass by keeping the majority divided--is deeply wrong. In its place, the author calls for restoring the color-blind ideals of the melting pot. That's just one of Lind's proposals to renew America, though. Among other policies favored by the white overclass, he says, are free trade and unfettered immigration, both of which keep wages of ordinary Americans down. Lind wants to cut back drastically on immigration. He would also limit investments by American industry in low-wage regions of the world by levying a "social tariff" in the amount of the difference between U.S. and foreign wage rates. There's more: Lind would enact economic, political, and educational changes, all with the goal of weakening class barriers and increasing mobility between classes.

How good a case does Lind make? He's on solid ground describing a common American culture, and he clearly has thought hard about affirmative action. Still, he founders badly in making the case for another "revolution."

Take his notion of the white overclass, which he describes as an "extraordinarily homogeneous, powerful, and well-organized group" able "to pursue their own narrow economic agenda at the expense of most other Americans." Yes, American society has always been divided by power, money, and class. And yes, Lind makes some telling points about how America's elite is groomed at top-ranked universities and perpetuates itself through intermarriage. Yet Lind's white overclass often bears a resemblance to the apocryphal Generation-Xers who exist only in the minds of advertising executives. For example: "The overclass eats pte and imported cheeses; the middle class eats peanut butter and Velveeta." Such cultural descriptions of the elite would seem to apply to great numbers of people whose activities hardly represent a conspiracy against the masses.

More disturbing, Lind's blueprint for narrowing income inequality would backfire. In Latin America and elsewhere, protectionism often served to shield oligarchies, while bringing on economic stagnation for everyone else. Free trade puts pressure on wages. But freer trade also invigorates growth by providing entrepreneurs bigger markets. It fosters a world open to new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of organizing life.

There are a lot of disturbing trends in the U.S. today. But Lind's revolution would do little to restore the shining city on a hill--rather, it would bring on a new set of difficulties.