24 April, 2021

The Problem of the New Right

In the world of conservative thought, the intellectual energy lies with the New Right. 

The New Right can be found in the society of Washington wonks, Silicon Valley dissidents, New York writers, and all manner of GOP politicos.[1] Many served in the Trump administration at one level or another; all are interested in taking the popular energies unleashed by Trump and forming them into a coherent Trumpism. In public their voices are most likely to be heard in publications like the Claremont institute's American Mind and the Claremont Review of Books, though you will also find them writing in First Things, The American Conservative, and more niche publications. At their most intellectual you find them penning long policy reviews for American Affairs or seeking work at the American Compass; at the lowest intellectual tier you have figures like Tucker Carlson, who has learned to translate the New Right’s most interesting ideas into Fox-worthy bombast. 

There is no New Right catechism. Each man of the New Right has his unique obsessions. Yet there is a broad set of shared attitudes and policy prescriptions that draw New Righters in. The New Right likes to think of itself as a band of class warriors. Of tariffs and industrial policy, they are unequivocally in favor. Government economic intervention is to be lauded, if such intervention revitalizes the heartland and secures the dignity of the working-class man. Both tech companies and high finance are viewed with suspicion. New Right figures are the conservatives most likely to be calling for Section 230 reform and least likely to care about corporate tax rates. The New Right distrusts capital. 

This is partly because capital has become woke, but there are deeper concerns: the New Right is a response to the loss of a way of life (or an imagined way of life, for the New Right’s younger legions have never experienced personally what they yearn for), and when they survey the causes of heartland malaise (the horrors of the opioid crisis, the despondency of the deindustrialized boomtown, and so forth) everywhere they find the wicked hand of avarice. They believe that America’s corporate class has subverted American culture and betrayed the American people. The problem with financiers, they say, is that they have no roots. The financier is a flighty being who cares for nothing but lucre. He will follow the gold-laced trail wherever on the globe it might take him.

 “Globalist” is the favorite epithet for the New Right’s enemies. They hate meritocratic climbers whose motives and mores mirror those of urban professionals in London or Singapore, not those of “normal” Americans in Chattanooga or Cleveland. The fantastic rise of Chinese power is the most dramatic proof of the greed, hubris, and disloyalty of this globalized class. If the New Right type is hawkish at all, it will be hawkish on China (though for many their hawkishness has less to do with animus towards Chinese communism than in their hope that that economic and technological competition with Beijing will force Washington into the sort of reforms they seek). Otherwise, the New Right is against foreign adventuring. They admit the last thirty years of geopoliticking were a disaster; they want no more wars in the Middle East. They see those wars as an outgrowth of liberal internationalism, itself a bloody bastard-child of the dominant liberal ideology at home. This ideology is just as dangerous to the American people as America’s traitorous elites. The New Right’s first war is against ideas. 

To understand the philosophical enmities that unite the New Right, one must understand the historical narrative New Right thinkers have built their movement on. Their story goes something like this: modern American conservatism is a product of three separate intellectual strains that came together in the early post war world. Communism forced together the champions of the American social order (the social conservatives), critics of statist power (libertarians and free market ideologues), and geopolitical realists (neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks) into one common enterprise. The defeat of communism was the child of their union. But the union has lasted too long. The neoconservatives burdened the conservative political movement (to say nothing of the American people) with the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan. So disastrous were these wars that this faction has lost all credibility with the right, and many of its leaders now march with the left. 

The free-market fundamentalists are a different matter. They are still given purchase in the conservative movement, though the New Righters wish this were not so. According to these voices, libertarians and their enablers have had just as destructive an influence on American life as the neoconservatives: not only have their favored policies hollowed out the middle class and created Chinese superpower, but their allergy to state power prevents social conservatives from using the state for their own ends. 

This is the true cause of New Right consternation: the conservatives lost the culture war, and this loss, they maintain, was their own side’s fault. The left never shies away from using government to make the world woke, but we have never been allowed to reply in kind. The libertarian dogmas of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek have handicapped conservativism. Libertarian ideals—which champion the sovereign individual unfettered by community, tradition, or obligation—are sugar coated poison pills. They promise to beat back a grasping federal government, but attempt to achieve this aim by sacralizing the same fatal lie that makes progressivism possible in the first place. There is no notion of common good, goes the lie, that can ever justify violating your right to individual self-realization. 

Some on the New Right will trace this lie further back in time. I am reminded of a conversation I had with the editor of a New Right publication. He expressed regret over the role that the American Revolution plays in American political theology, a “ghost” he wished Americans could “exorcise.” As long as we associate revolution with foundation, he told me, it is difficult to have any kind of “pro-society worldview.” When I asked which founding mythology he would rather Americans celebrate, he pointed to the Puritan colonization. This particular New Righter is not religious, but you can understand the appeal the Mayflower Compact has for his type: unlike the American Revolution, a paroxysm of death devoted to tearing down an unjust hierarchy, the Puritan colonization was a self-conscious attempt to found an integrated communal order. Theirs was a spiritual project, a community united towards one teleological end—and it is in just such a sublime gathering the young New Righter wishes his own life could be sublimated into. 

 Perhaps the most ballyhooed version of this critique comes in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen is a political theorist. He beholds America's ills through the lens of his profession. He discovers the origin of all that ails us in the thought of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Francis Bacon, early modern philosophers who reimagined liberty as lack of external restraint and recast humanity as a collection of autonomous and rational self-maximisers. Nowhere have these ideas had more power than in America, whose government “was instituted among men” to secure the “pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for its individual citizens. In Deneen’s mind this is America’s original sin. Though America’s founding fathers could not have imagined Drag Queen Story Hour, by endorsing the liberal political project and the theories of selfish individualism this project was built on, they guaranteed that, sooner or later, something like Drag Queen Story Hour would occur. 

This then is the spectrum of thought seen on the New Right. At its least radical end we have figures like Oren Cass, who would accept something like the Reagan coalition with industrial policy thrown in; at the other end we have folks like Gladden Pappin, eager to mainstream Catholic integralism. Everyone on this spectrum rejects the fusionist platform of yore. Some would accept conservative liberalism, if only the libertarians can be kicked to the curb; others reject liberalism outright, and look forward to a post-liberal future. All wage a bitter war against errant philosophy. 

The enemies are well defined: Hayek and Friedman, Locke and Jefferson. The New Right is ever ready to debate first principles and first philosophers. This should not surprise: where leftists eagerly describe their coalition in terms of demographics and voting blocs, conservatives, even at the grassroot level, understand their movement to be a coalition of ideas.[2] But there is something self-defeating in the New Right’s fight against the philosophers. It puts too much faith in ideas as such. The real forces of history lie elsewhere. 

Which brings me to the work of historian David Hackett Fischer. 

Fischer’s most important work is Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. The themes introduced in Albion’s Seed are further explored in his later books Bound Away and Liberty and Freedom, and are the implicit subtext of his award-winning narratives Washington’s Crossing and Paul Revere’s Ride. The thread that connects all of these works is a careful attention to the folkways of the American people. Fischer defines these folkways as the “values, customs, and meanings” that exist beneath high politics and intellectual life, yet carve the channels through which both must flow.[3] Folk traditions are less articulate than the philosophical texts that Deneen and his sort like to argue over. They can be seen in clothing, housing, farming, sports, religious ritual, social hierarchies, sexual practices, and favored images, symbols, or metaphors. These things are inexact. They offer none of the intellectual rigor of a Hobbes or a Hayek. But they embody the beliefs and assumptions a people have about the way their world works, and the way they dream it could work. The meaning of words like justice, order, and freedom are determined at this level of society.

 Fischer makes this point with the story of Levi Preston, a minuteman who fought in the Battle of Concord. In Paul Revere’s Ride Fischer quotes an 1848 interview of the ailing veteran:

"Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord Fight [on 19 April 1775]?"
"What did I go for?"
"Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?"
"I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were ever sold."
"Well, what about the tea tax?"
"Tea tax, I never drank a drop of the stuff, the boys threw it all overboard."
"But I suppose you have been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?"
"I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts' psalms and hymns and the almanacs."
"Well, then, what was the matter?"
"Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."[4]
Fischer discusses this scene in three of his books. Fischer’s discussion in Liberty and Freedom reads as if it were written in direct rebuke of Deneen:
Here is the central problem in American history, as liberty and freedom are essential values in American culture. Scholars have attempted to study it in many ways. 
The leading approach might be called the text-and-context method. It begins with American texts on liberty and freedom and fits them into an explanatory context that is larger than America itself. Historians have discovered many different contexts by this method. They variously told us that the meaning of American liberty and freedom is to be found in the context of Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, natural rights in the middle ages, the civic humanism of the Renaissance, the theology of the Reformation, English Commonwealth tradition in the 17th century, British opposition ideology in the 18th century, the treatises of John Locke, the writings of Scottish moral philosophers, the values of the Enlightenment, and the axioms of classical liberalism. 
All these approaches have added to our knowledge of liberty and freedom but none of them comes to terms with captain Preston. As he reminded us, the text-and- context method refers to books he never read, people he never knew, places he never visited, and periods that were far from his own time. [5]

The New Right critique of the American tradition assumes that liberalism and libertarianism are rationalist abstractions foisted by ideologues onto an unsuspecting people. Fischer, with his eye towards Captain Preston, would argue the counter case: America’s libertarian tracts were foisted on no one. Rather, they are simply an attempt to articulate in the language of philosophy the common-sense attitudes and practices long embedded in the customs of the people themselves. 

An easy example—which Fischer does not focus on—is the Anglo-American understanding of marriage. A legal regime that allows children to freely choose their own marriage partners has been a far more efficient engine of atomization than all the Enlightenment theorists put together. Such a legal regime—and the nuclear family system it supports—predate Locke by centuries. [6] So it is with all the bugbears of the New Right. The detachment of the suburban home, the egoism of individualist striving, over-rationalist notions of social contract, the ceaseless whirring of the capitalist machine—all have clear antecedents in English society, many reaching back to the 1200s.[7] In America these antique individualist folkways met the realities of frontier living. No other explanation for the American people’s libertarian impulses are needed. 

This is the first problem with the New Right’s proposed post-liberal turn. They might, with Deneen, attack liberalism for “liberating all from the constraint of custom.[8] In Hungary, Poland, or some other country where liberalism is a foreign import, that charge has merit. But in America? In the United States liberalism is the constraining custom. The folkways that comprise America’s liberal regime are centuries older than America’s liberal constitution. It is not clear to me that commercialism, individualism, and so forth can be excised from the American mind. Short of a massive social engineering project, by what means could this be accomplished?

 The usual response of the New Right to this line of thought is to argue that it distorts history. Liberty-as-autonomy was not the “liberty” of founding era. Deneen claims that liberty-as-autonomy was in fact present in the founding era, but only so he can the extend the New Right's general argument to an earlier point in time. For him, the enlightenment is the watershed of Western thought. On the far side of that divide, liberty was

believed to be the condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government. [9]

It is in the face of arguments like these that the second theme in David Hackett Fischer's work must be considered. Fischer does not study the folkway of the American people but the folkways of the American peoples. His central thesis is that America is, and always has been, a pastiche of nations. Four very separate cultures, with distinct and separate folkways, settled in America. To this day, Fischer maintains, these folkways (though somewhat changed by time and circumstance) shape American politics and society. 

One of these four founding cultures were the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. As my editor friend intuited, the "politics of the common good" that the New Right strives for aligns warmly with the Puritan’s communitarian conceptions of ordered liberty. I will return to these Puritan ideas in a moment, but to understand the challenge that faces the New Right we need to turn to one of America’s other founding nations.

 The “backcountry” of the British colonies were settled by Scots-Irish immigrants from the borderlands of England and Scotland. The men and women who survived these war-torn marches did so through cultivating a reputation for savagery. The backcountryman put clan over community. Not for him was the New England township or the small groups of farmsteads that dotted the Delaware River Valley. Instead, backcountrymen spread their farms across the mountainsides, careful to build their cabins miles apart from those closest to them. The backcountryman honored strength and charisma, but had no respect for rank or hierarchy. Authority was weak in his world, and that is how he liked it. He rejected outsiders. He rejected the learning of the university men.[10] The backcounty wrapped its patriotism in the imagery of rattlesnakes, hornet nests, and alligators; they did not invent the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” but nowhere was it more popular than among America’s Scots-Irish migrants.[11] 

Patrick Henry was an early backcountry leader. Fischer’s reflections on Henry and his people’s view of liberty are worth excerpting at length:

The traveler Johan Schoepf was much interested in ideas of law and everybody which he found in the back country. “They shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint. Altogether natural freedom is what pleases them.” 
…[When] Patrick Henry was a member of the first Continental Congress, he startled that body by arguing that as a result of the passage of Parliament's Intolerable Acts, “government is dissolved.” Henry insisted that “we are in a state of nature, Sir!” Congressmen from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts were as shocked is Virginia Burgesses had been [when they encountered Henry a decade earlier]. One described Patrick Henry as “in religious matters a saint; But the very devil in politics.” 
...Patrick Henry's ideas of natural Liberty were not learned from treaties of political theory. His idea of a “state of nature” was not the philosophical abstractions that it had been for Locke. Thomas Jefferson said of Patrick Henry with only some exaggeration that he “read nothing, and had no books.” Henry's lawyer-biographer William Wert wrote, “of the science of law he knew almost nothing, of the practical law he was wholly ignorant. He was not only unable to draw declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or a simple business of his profession, even the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court.” Patrick Henry's principles of natural Liberty were drawn from the political folkways of the border culture in which he grew up…. 
The libertarian phrases and thoughts which echoed so strongly in the back country had earlier been heard in the borders of North Britain. When the back country people celebrated the supremacy of private interests they used the same thoughts and words as William Cotesworth, an English borderer who in 1717 declared “you know how natural it is to pursue private interests even against the darling principle of a more general good.”[12]

 See these backcountrymen articulate the same liberal platitudes that the New Right detests! At one point in Liberty and Freedom Fischer even describes their conception of freedom with the words “liberty as individual autonomy.”[13] This conception of freedom was developed without any knowledge of Enlightenment texts. Most of these 18th century pleasure-maximizing, autonomy-seeking egoists could not read. [14]

 This culture and its ideals did not disappear with the American Revolution. It probably reached maximum political influence in the antebellum era, when the backcountrymen first secured one of their own as president. This was also the age of the backcountry’s maximum cultural influence: in the Jacksonian era, the libertarian and egalitarian impulses of the backcountry became the ethos of almost every white man in the country. Holdouts against these folkways persisted only in the exhausted tidewater aristocracies of South Carolina and the Chesapeake, and in the federalist strongholds of New England (European travelers regularly described Boston and environs as the only place in America where the lower orders seemed to understand their place).[15] Over the following centuries the cultural descendants of the backcountrymen—be they called “butternuts,” “hillbillies,” or something else—would occasionally rear up to make their mark on American politics once more. Their support made the careers of several famous American statesmen. Here are a few you may have heard of: Stephen Douglas, William Jennings Bryan, and Donald Trump.

That last name on that list leads us to the fundamental dilemma of the New Right. It was the literal descendants of the “butternut” settlers who delivered Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa to Trump; their cultural descendants helped tip Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan into Trump’s hands. Trump strongholds in contested states like Maine, Arizona, Texas are found in the places Scots-Irish settled; hillbilly country is the reddest place in the nation. The cultural descendants of the backcountymen are the base of the Trump coalition. The New Right faces a fundamental mismatch of means and ends: they hope to build a post-libertarian national order on the backs of the most naturally libertarian demographic in the country!

 The tensions of this position are sometimes apparent in the New Right’s writings. Consider Gladden Pappin’s essay “From Conservatism to Post-Liberalism: The Right After 2020.” At its base, this long essay is an attempt to make Catholic integralism, or something like unto it, palatable for America’s non-Catholic conservatives. To do this Pappin must discredit the various conservative strands not on board with his project.

 Allow me to quote at length:

Finally, many “standard” conservative activists have rebranded as being “pro-Trump.” The largest activist conferences, leaders, and media figures—like the Conservative Political Action Conference, Turning Point USA (and its leader Charlie Kirk), media figures like Ben Shapiro and countless others—have all rebranded as “MAGA” conservatives. For the most part, however, these movements have not substantially updated their policy stances since before Trump. The conservative activists in this vein generally have no intellectual background or interest in policy, but are rather media figures seeking to monetize the political moment. 
Many of them operating today grew out of the Tea Party phenomenon, which formed at the beginning of the Obama administration to protest the government’s bailout of banks during the subprime mortgage crisis, and to protest the fiscal stimulus bills President Obama used to fight the consequent recession. The Tea Party tapped into a strongly anti-government view that had become associated with conservatism through the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. 
Many of the student and young adult conservative activist groups like Young Americans for Freedom (founded in 1960) date from that generation and have the same laissez-faire ideology today. Thus most of the conservative activists wearing MAGA hats at Trump rallies or conservative political conventions are simply anti-immigration libertarians. Talk to them about the need for the state to support domestic manufacturing, or the need to boost family formation through a Hungarian-style benefit program, and they will probably call you a socialist. In general, aside from opposition to immigration and support for the American military, they have no vision of how the government is to be used at all. In different circumstances, they would revert to an anti-government stance along with opposition to increases in federal spending.

Ironically, then, many “MAGA” conservative activists do not reflect the constituencies that propelled Trump to victory in 2016. Their visibility on the president’s behalf will merely harm his reelection campaign. While the world of conservative political activism may seem impressive, since the 1970s and 1980s it has become heavily laden down by financial motivations and salesmanship. Going forward, more lean and nimble organizations, particularly of a “post-liberal” variety, will be needed to enable political actors on the right to formulate what to do next.[16]

  After castigating Turning Point USA for not “reflecting the constituencies that propelled Trump to victory,” Pappin argues that the first thing the New Right must do to “reflect” these constituencies is—dear reader, I do not jest—“decency laws that could restrict the distribution of pornography.[17]

 Now look folks: I am strongly in favor of anti-porn legislation. I argued for it in past columns and am happy to argue for it again. But I also have no illusions about how little most Americans—including most Americans who voted for Trump—care about this. (Or, for that matter, the second item on Pappin’s list, “directing American investment toward strategic sectors”). Pappin’s despised “anti-immigration libertarians” who supports a “strong military” but otherwise have “no vision for how the government is to be used at all” are not aberrations; their philosophy is not some sort of snake oil being sold to unsuspecting voters. The “salesmanship” of these activists succeeds only because of existing demand for their wares. Who is Pappin's monster, this “anti-immigrant, pro-military libertarian with no vision for how the government is to be used at all?" 

That, my friends, is a perfect portrait of the average Trump voter.

 The libertarian streak of the median Trump voter is not refined or well-reasoned. It is more a product of instinct than intellect. It is the impulse that caused backcountrymen to cry for “elbow room” two centuries ago, causes modern Trumpists to yell “get off of my lawn!” today, and led both groups to embrace the slogan “don’t tread on me” when they felt like their way of life was under siege. Andrew Jackson became president because he honored white working men yelling for elbow room, promising to use his power to fight haughty East coast elites that seemed too eager to dictate to the backcountrymen how they ought to live.[19] Donald Trump was voted into office by the cultural descendants of these people, and for all the same reasons. Trump’s decision to hang a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office was a tacit acknowledgement of this reality.

 In contrast, the New Right adorns their movement with the words of Jackson’s bitter enemies. There is something of a pattern here. The kinship between the New Right's communal project and the Puritan settlement has already been noted. But they are not the only figures in the New Right hall of exemplary Americans. Alexander Hamilton is the New Right’s favorite founding father; the Whiggish “American System” is their most cited policy precedent. Theodore Roosevelt is the hero of every second young man on the New Right; the habits, education, and worldview of the pre-Boomer WASP elite is one of their constant obsessions.

Do you see the common thing that strings these all together? When I read New Right writings and meet with New Righters in person I cannot help but notice how Northeastern their vision of politics is. They do not like to admit this, but it is true. They are the spiritual heirs of the New England Whigs; when they find anything sympathetic at all in the American tradition, it is in the Boston Brahmins' lost aristocracy.

In sociological terms, I suppose the best way to understand the New Right is as Puritan heretics. The Puritans were the most communitarian of Fischer’s four founding nations; their cultural descendants (found in places like Boston and Portland) are the Americans most willing to live for the Holy Cause today. Like the New Right, the left's modern-day Puritans also lionize the Federalists and Whigs.[19] It makes sense, in a way. Most of the New Right’s leaders either come from or immersed themselves in Puritan milieus. The number of Ivy League degrees claimed by New Right thinkers is one proof of this. That Claremont is based in California—instead of, say, Texas—is another example of the phenomena. Yankee thinking seeps into the thought of those who long swim through it.

 About a year ago I met with a young post-liberal who expressed a passionate loathing of everything American. American culture was not home to her. And how could it be? New England born, Ivy-educated, committed to the politics of the “common good” — here was a spiritual descendant of the Puritans if there ever was one. But of course all the other Puritans, whose religion now runs woke, would not have her. She has no place at their table. This outcast was instead forced into the other coalition, the coalition led by the raucous individualists of the backcountry tradition. Enemies of one’s enemies are friends they say, but tactical allies make poor bosom-mates. My post-liberal friend has no choice but to work for the living antitheses of her deepest convictions.

That is the problem of the New Right. I doubt most New Righters feel quite so alienated from the Trumpfolk they lead, but her problem is theirs. Pity the Whig who wishes to lead the Jackson masses! Spare a prayer for the post-liberal politico who must herd the backcountry crowd. The pillars of the New Right's rising moral order are the most licentious and rebellious people in the nation. This is an unstable foundation for a post-liberal body politic if there ever was one.

If this post on the history and American conservatism has caught your interest, consider reading my earlier posts "Conservatism's Generational Civil War," "A Parable Concerning Tolerance," "We Were Builders Once, and Strong," "Porn Restrictions for Realists," and "Living in the Shadow of the Boomers," To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] If you are completely unfamiliar with the term or the movement, Park MacDougald's "The New American Millennial Right," Tablet (24 February 2020) is as good an introduction as any; to get a sense for their priorities, I suggest poking around the American Moment's website

[2] Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins, “Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats: The Asymmetry of American Party Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 13, no. 1 (March 2015): 119–39.

[3] David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 7.

[4] David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). 163, 397.

[5] David Hacket Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2.

[6]  This point was first made to me in Michael Lotus and James Bennett, America 3.0 (New York: Encounter Books, 2013), 54. I expand on it in "Against Patrick Deneen (II)," Scholar's Stage (3 June 2018).

[7] On individualism and family patterns, see Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); on the antecedents to suburb life, Michael Lotus and James Bennett, America 3.0 (New York: Encounter Books, 2013); on commercialism and the antecedents of commercial law, Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: The Family Property and Social Transition (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1989); on notions of social contract, M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (Washington DC: Regenery, 1994), pp. 167-185.

[8] Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 148.

[9] ibid., 23.

[10] Fischer, Albion's Seed, 754-777.

[11] Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 75-84

[12] Fischer, Albion's Seed, 777-782.

[13] Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 75.

[14] Fischer, Albion's Seed, 715-720.

[15] On Boston, see Robert Wiebe, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 57; on the tidewater aristocracies, William Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 162-197; 213229.

[16] Gladden Pappin, “From Conservatism to Postliberalism: The Right after 2020,” American Affairs Journal 4, no. 3 (Summer 2020).

[17] ibid.

[18] This is of course a simplification. If a New Right thinker were to take this seriously, however, and ponder over how to direct the Jacksonian impulse their their own project, the book I recommend starting with is Lawrence Kohl's The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[19] There is an entire essay to be written on this topic. It would include, among other things, the Democrat's decision to drop all Jackson-Jefferson dinners, Ron Chernow's Hamilton, Washington, and Grant biographies, the musical Hamilton, the HBO special John Adams, and serious works of historiographical import like Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought and Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.


12 April, 2021

For God and Progress: Notes On Training the Medical Mind

William Osler, teaching at the bedside.

Understanding changing perceptions of “great works”— what books are included in a canon at a given moment in history, why certain works make the cut while others fall to the wayside, and tracking down the individuals responsible for these decisions—is a hobby of mine. I have written about it many times on the Scholar's Stage. This week I came across an interesting example of cannon formation in action. William Osler was one of the founding physicians of John Hopkins Medicine, creator of the hospital residency system, inventor of much of the hands-on medical pedagogy still used in medical schools today, and one of the most famous doctors of his day. On the final page of Aequanimitas, a collection of Osler’s lectures and orations published in 1904, is a list of books that Osler believes should be on every medical student’s bookshelf. He suggests that while in medical school young doctors-to-be should spend the last 30 minutes of their night reading from this chosen library. 

 This is the list: 

  1. The Old and New Testaments 
  2. Shakespeare 
  3. Montaigne 
  4. Plutarch’s Lives 
  5. Marcus Aurelius 
  6. Epictetus 
  7. Religio Medici 
  8. Don Quixote 
  9. Emerson 
  10. Oliver Wendell Holmes—Breakfast Table series. [1] 

 It is difficult to imagine such a list pushed on medical students by any dean today! I fear starting with Osler’s bedside library might give you the wrong impression of Osler’s priorities; this is, after all, taken from the last page of Osler’s book. Osler was practical minded: he had these words stenciled in in every one of his medical textbooks at John Hopkins:

The knowledge which a man can use is the only real knowledge, the only knowledge which has life and growth in it and converts itself into practical power. The rest hangs like dust about the brain or dries like rain drops off the stones.[2]
To find this “real knowledge” Osler instructed students to “Divide your attentions equally between books and men."[3]To study the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea,” Osler argued, but “to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all.”[4] Thus Osler’s pioneering pedagogy, which brought medical students into hospitals as they learned. But Osler’s injunction to study men went beyond medical patients:
The strength of a student of men is to travel—to study men, their habits, character, mode of life, their behavior under varied conditions, their vices, virtues, and peculiarities. Begin with a careful observation of your fellow students and of your teachers; then, every patient you see is a lesson in much more than the malady from which he suffers. Mix as much as you possibly can with the outside world, and learn its ways. Cultivated systematically, the student societies, the students’ union, the gymnasium, and the outside social circle will enable you to conquer the diffidence so apt to go with bookishness and which may prove a very serious drawback in after-life. I cannot too strongly impress upon the earnest and attentive men among you the necessity of overcoming this unfortunate failing in your student days.[5]
The “books” Osler urged his students to study were not limited to his bedside library. He gave long lectures on the urgency of keeping up with advances in science and medicine that would occur during a doctor’s life.[6] Of these sciences, Osler believed biology the most critical:
Biology touches the problems of life at every point, and may claim, as no other science, completeness of view and a comprehensiveness which pertains to it alone. To all whose daily work lies in her manifestations the value of a deep insight into her relations cannot be overestimated. The study of biology trains the mind in accurate methods of observation and correct methods of reasoning, and gives to a man clearer points of view, and an attitude of mind more serviceable in the working-day-world than that given by other sciences, or even by the humanities. Year by year it is to be hoped that young men will obtain in this Institute a fundamental knowledge of the laws of life.
To the physician particularly a scientific discipline is an incalculable gift, which leavens his whole life, giving exact-ness to habits of thought and tempering the mind with that judicious faculty of distrust which can alone, amid the uncertainties of practice, make him wise unto salvation. For perdition inevitably awaits the mind of the practitioner who has never had the full inoculation with the leaven, who has never grasped clearly the relations of science to his art, and who knows nothing, and perhaps cares less, for the limitations of either.[7]

I excerpt Osler at such length only to show that he was not some fancy fart bitter over the low number of STEM students enrolling in his seminar on the poetics of gender in 1970s Chicano literature. This was a man who valued practical knowledge above all, a man who was enamored with science and its possibilities—and a man who wanted all of his medical students to read Shakespeare and Emerson. 


Here is the passage where Osler introduces the necessity of liberal learning:

The medical man, perhaps more than any other man, needs that higher education of which Plato speaks,—" that education in virtue from youth upwards, which enables a man eagerly to pursue the ideal perfection." It is not for all, nor can all attain to it, but there is comfort and help in the pursuit, even though the end is never reached.
…Like a good many other things, it comes in a better and more enduring form if not too consciously sought. The all-important thing is to get a relish for the good company of the race in a daily intercourse with some of the great minds of all ages. Now, in the spring-time of life, pick your intimates among them, and begin a systematic cultivation of their works. Many of you will need a strong leaven to raise you above the dough in which it will be your lot to labour. Uncongenial surroundings, an ever-present dissonance between the aspirations within and the actualities without, the oppressive discords of human society, the bitter tragedies of life, besides the bidden springs of which we sit in sad despair—all these tend to foster in some natures a cynicism quite foreign to our vocation, and to which this inner education offers the best antidote. Personal contact with men of high purpose and character will help a man to make a start—to have the desire, at least, but in its fulness this culture—for that word best expresses it—has to be wrought out by each lesson that you will enjoy.
The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head. Often the best part of your work will have nothing to do with potions and powders, but with the exercise of an influence of the strong upon the weak, of the righteous upon the wicked, of the wise upon the foolish.
To you, as the trusted family counsellor, the father will come with his anxieties, the mother with her hidden grief, the daughter with her trials, and the son with his follies. Fully one-third of the work you do will be entered in other books than yours. Courage and cheerfulness will not only carry you over the rough places of life, but will enable you to bring comfort and help to the weak-hearted and will console you in the sad hours when, like Uncle Toby, you have " to whistle that you may not weep." [8]
Osler’s sentimentality is offered without apology. Words like his sound saccharine to the cynics of our century, but they were par for course at the turn of the last. No decade of American history was as effusively earnest as the 1890s; it was a time where men thought in moralisms and even vain intellectuals chased after homely, middle-class ideals. Like Osler, its leading figures were fervent devotees of both God and Progress. Osler saw his profession as the embodiment of both of these absolutes. No irony, no self-deprecation, no titters and tutters about doctors and their follies are to be heard from him! Hear him discourse to the nurses of the nation on the rightness of their chosen career:
Practically there should be for each of you a busy, useful, and happy life; more you cannot expect; a greater blessing the world cannot bestow. Busy you will certainly be, as the demand is great, both in private and public, for women with your training. Useful your lives must be, as you will care for those who cannot care for themselves, and who need about them, in the day of tribulation, gentle hands and tender hearts. And happy lives shall be yours, because busy and useful; having been initiated into the great secret—that happiness lies in the absorption in some vocation which satisfies the soul; that we have here to add what we can to, not to get what we can from, life.[9]
Imagine this sort of declaration coming from the lips of a professor of medicine today:How strange it would sound! In our day, those who quest for transcendence do not go to med-school (much less nursing). For the American millennial, med-school is instead a portal to bourgeois respectability (and personal misery). But Osler is all in on transcendence. He unironically describes the path of medicine as the path of Christ. Nurses and doctors have consecrated themselves as hands of the Lord and heralds of the future. Theirs is to comfort the afflicted, succor the needy, and heal the sick. Osler put the matter bluntly in an address to medical students in Minneapolis:
My message is chiefly to you, Students of Medicine, since with the ideals entertained now your future is indissolubly bound. The choice lies open, the paths are plain before you. Always seek your own interests, make of a high and sacred calling a sordid business, regard your fellow creatures as so many tools of trade, and, if your heart's desire is for riches, they may be yours; but you will have bartered away the birthright of a noble heritage, traduced the physician's well-deserved title of the Friend of Man, and falsified the best traditions of an ancient and honourable Guild.[10]

 Osler was no patsy. That he felt this admonition necessary is evidence of an acute awareness that not all doctors were as committed to the life of righteousness as he. This returns us the full circle, back to Osler’s bedside library. 

He saw in these books a tool to instill within his students both the character traits and guiding ideals needed for a life in medicine. These traits include the “cheerfulness and courage” endorsed in the passage above, but also equanimity (for moments of pressure and crisis), wisdom (for the grieving patient), optimism (in the face of death and dying), and charity (an absolutely necessary trait, Osler argues, for peace of mind in a profession afflicted with large egos and petty jealousies). He also writes that

Nothing will sustain you more potently than the power to recognize in your humdrum routine, as perhaps it may be thought, the true poetry of life—the poetry of the commonplace, of the ordinary man, of the plain, toilworn woman, with their loves and their joys, their sorrows and their griefs. The comedy, too, of life will be spread before you, and nobody laughs more often than the doctor at the pranks Puck plays upon the Titanias and the Bottoms among his patients.[11]

Behind Osler’s broad conception of a doctor’s role was an equally broad conception of the education a doctor needed to perform it. The metaphor Osler favored is the leaven in the bread-dough. He believed that studying great works of literature and philosophy will lead inborn virtues to bloom large and quick—or at least, larger and quicker than they otherwise would if left unleavened. A doctor who has internalized these works was not guaranteed to live a better life, but on balance such a doctor was more likely to choose right when the “best traditions of an ancient and honorable guild” were arrayed against the allures of lucre, envy, and prestige.

Thusfar I have emphasized the contrast between Osler’s view of the medical man and the narrower confines of the modern medical school. But his vision of a liberal education also stands in contrast to the manner in which most great works are approached by specialists in literature, poetry, rhetoric, and history today. Few professors would turn to Plutarch or Cervantes for “courage and cheerfulness.” Among the tempted few, fewer still are those who would proclaim their inspiration loudly. The modern academic mode is analytic and detached. What they teach is doomed to “hang like dust about the brain or dry like rain drops off the stones.

 But it may be misleading to contrast Osler only with the present day. The truth is that his attitude towards the great works was itself a rather new development in anglophone thought. Let us contrast Osler’s recommended reading with a list composed by a different doctor some fifty years earlier. John Brown, once the most eminent doctor of Edinburgh, gives this advice on the training of young doctors-to-be:

But it may be asked, how are the brains to be strengthened, the sense quickened, the genius awakened, the affections raised — the whole man turned to the best account for the cure of his fellow-men? How are you, when physics and physiology are increasing so marvellously, and when the burden of knowledge, the quantity of transferable information, of registered facts, of current names—and such names!—is so infinite: how are you to enable a student to take all in, bear up under all, and use it as not abusing it, or being abused by it?
You must invigorate the containing and sustaining mind, you must strengthen him from within, as well as fill him from without; you must discipline, nourish, edify, relieve, and refresh his entire nature; and how? We have no time to go at large into this, but we will indicate what we mean: encourage languages, especially French and German, at the early part of their studies; encourage not merely the book knowledge, but the personal pursuit of natural history, of field botany, of geology, of zoology; give the young, fresh, unforgetting eye, exercise and free scope upon the infinite diversity and combination of natural colours, forms, substances, surfaces, weights, and sizes—everything, in a word, that will educate their eye or ear, their touch, taste, and smell, their sense of muscular resistance; encourage them by prizes, to make skeletons, preparations, and collections of any natural objects; and, above all, try and get hold of their affections, and make them put their hearts into their work.
Let there be no excess in the number of classes and frequency of lectures. Let them be drilled in composition; by this we mean the writing and spelling of correct plain English (a matter not of every-day occurrence, and not on the increase)—let them be directed to the best books of the old masters in medicine, and examined in them,—let them be encouraged in the use of a wholesome and manly literature. We do not mean popular or even modern literature—such as Emerson, Bulwer, or Alison, or the trash of inferior periodicals or novels—fashion, vanity, and the spirit of the age, will attract them readily enough to all these; we refer to the treasures of our elder and better authors. If our young medical student would take our advice, and for an hour or two twice a week take up a volume of Shakspere, Cervantes, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Cowper, Montaigne, Addison, Defoe, Goldsmith, Fielding, Scott, Charles Lamb, Macaulay, Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, Helps, Thackeray, etc., not to mention authors on deeper and more sacred subjects — they would have happier and healthier minds, and make none the worse doctors. 
If they, by good fortune—for the tide has set in strong against the lifer humaniores—have come off with some Greek or Latin, we would supplicate for an ode of Horace, a couple of pages of Cicero or of Pliny once a month, and a page of Xenophon. French and German should be mastered either before or during the first years of study. They will never afterwards be acquired so easily or so thoroughly, and the want of them may be bitterly felt when too late.[12]

There are several points of interest here. Notice first that with the exception of Cervantes and Montaigne, the writers were all British. They are poets, essayists, and novelists all, artists of the English language. Not included are philosophers or political theorists who wrote in English (like John Locke or Thomas Hobbes). Ancient authors are included almost as a philological exercise; they are to be read in their original tongue, and only a few pages a day. While these readings are described as “wholesome and manly” the main reason given for studying them is not to leaven moral virtues (like Osler’s “courage and cheerfulness”) but to produce “happier and healthier minds.” Brown’s educational program is not designed to shape the soul so much as it is “strengthen the brain” and “quicken the sense”—the nineteenth century gloss for what we today might call “critical thinking.” 

Brown’s conception was closer to the nineteenth century norm. In England and America both, an education is “great books” meant reading through the greatest poets and prose-writers of the English language. If a book like Dante’s Inferno, a staple of 20th century great books collections, was taught in university, it was to students of Italian. Thus even in 1907 Arnold Bennett would write up a list of two hundred great works without including a single work in translation.[13] The study of these writers were often justified in fairly utilitarian terms: Thomas Jefferson advised his nephew to read “Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope's and Swift's works” not for their insight but “in order to form your style in your own language.”[14] This is why Brown connects his list of wholesome, manly writers to “the writing and spelling of correct plain English”—one read the great poets, novelists, and essayists of the past to become a better wordsmith.

Running parallel to the study of English language was an education in classics, meaning literature of Greece and Rome. But here too, study was more philological than philosophical. The crowning jewels of the nineteenth century education were Horace and Cicero.[15] Neither makes Osler’s list, and neither is given much space in the twentieth century great works curricula. I do not read Latin, but my secondhand understanding is that as stylists Horace and Cicero tower over their fellow Romans. Both served as the inspiration for some of the greatest poems and orations of the English language. However, (from firsthand experience this time) neither author’s wordplay translates especially well into English; I have not yet found a translation of Horace or Cicero that I would describe as beautiful. I suspect that those who cannot read Latin will never enjoy these two writers the way the great minds of the nineteenth century did. 

At the dawn of the twentieth century these two distinct educational traditions—the “masters” of the English language and the “classics” of Greece and Rome begin to merge. Osler’s reading list is a data point in this transition, but also an example of why this transition occurred. Osler was a pioneer of the new university system. These were universities as we know them today: houses of learning divvied up into distinct (and multiplying!) academic apartments staffed by professors who are expected to engage in research as a professional pursuit. Skill in ancient Greek was of little use to students in these departments, and the mandatory study of Greek and Latin was slowly eliminated from admissions tests.[16]

Yet the growing specialization of academic fields was not without its problems.[17] Many worried that learning would grow too fractured, intellectual life too fragmented. Others feared that an education system that simply churned out technicians would endanger democracy and the liberty. One solution to these problems was that endorsed by Osler: the close reading of a new canon of “classic” texts.

 I sometimes think of this as the transition from Horace to Homer. Homer was read avidly over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it is difficult to find him in any of the educational lists or syllabi written over these centuries. Homer’s Greek was archaic even in classical times, and his length did not make him an ideal vessel for language study. But when the study of the classics transitioned to the study of classics in translation, this was no longer a barrier. In this new environment, a gripping narrative work like The Iliad had an advantage over Horace’s lyrics. Homer became a staple of the new syllabi, and Horace was reduced down to an optional afterthought.[18] 

This transition to reading classics in translation also opened the door to writers like Dante, Molière, and Tolstoy, who did not fit any of the traditional language based categories. The canon soon grew beyond Great Britain and the ancient world. Famous British prose writers—like Addison, Lamb, and Johnson—were squeezed out of the curriculum to make room for these new additions. Further pressure on the masters of English prose came when philosophy and theology were folded into this new conception of the canon. As the new canon was defined by intellectual and moral categories instead of philological ones, the inclusion of philosophy made sense. The main cost was a severe reduction in the English poetry and prose students were expected to be familiar with. This is still true today: Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, and Kant are not exactly household names, but our intellectuals are expected to have a vague idea of what they wrote, even if they have not read their works themselves. No such expectations exist for Edmund Spencer, Henry Fielding, or Thomas de Quincy. 

Osler’s bedside library arrives at the beginning of the Horace-to-Homer transition. He does not include Homer or any long work of political philosophy in his list. Works like that do not meet the goals he has set out for the bedside library. His reading list is carefully tailored. it is meant for men who will embark on a career in medicine, not politics. They must be books that can be read thirty minutes at a time before bed. As he recommends this list to all his students, they must also be easy for philosophical or historical novices to pick up. His list largely follows these requirements. 

Two of Osler’s chosen authors were themselves doctors. None offer extended narratives or complex, belabored arguments (Don Quixote comes closest here, but even it is divided up into a dozen smaller narratives, not unlike a television serial). One of Osler’s students could pick up a meditation of Emerson’s one day, a life of Plutarch the next, then an essay of Montaigne’s the day following, and not suffer from confusion. These are works whose subdivisions can be read straight through or as standalone pieces. They are all very much concerned with practical ethics and practical spirituality. Most could be defined as character studies or wisdom literature; all were well known for their aphoristic acumen. 

 In addition to the Bible, Osler’s list of authors includes two Stoics, one other Roman, three Renaissance men, and two American transcendentalists. Another way to look at that: in Osler’s library we see the foundational ethics of Rome and Jerusalem, the Renaissance attempt to synthesize these pagan and Christian values into one organic whole, and the American update on this synthesis for the democratic age. The enlightenment and the middle ages are not represented, subsumed instead under the eras that follow them. 

There is a certain optimism in this progression. The Roman voices come from the empire at its height, not the Republic in decline; the Renaissance thinkers wrestle over and glory in the expanding frontiers of their age; the Americans speak for a nation brimming with energy and self-confidence. Foundations are followed by synthesis, a synthesis soon brightened and democratized. There are no voices here from human civilization's descents into darkness. Osler’s library is the story of mankind climbing towards the light. 

Osler lived just before the lights went out. From this side of that black chasm, the defining egoist of Osler’s century was not Emerson but Nietzsche. To our ears, the voices of the transcendentalists are crowded out by the prophecies of Marx, the warnings of Dostoevsky, and the murky imaginaries of Melville and Conrad. Twentieth century compilers of great works would turn to these dark visionaries to make sense of their lived reality. They would champion the shattered order of Thucydides and the nightmarish disasters of the Greek tragedians over the sober reflections of Plutarch and the Stoics; they pulled Augustine and Dante out of the dark ages and set them as the equal of any artist of the Renaissance. Their canon was larger Osler’s bed-side library, but also grimmer. They lived with less confidence in God and Progress. 

 As to what ten books the doctors of today should read to complete their learning, I cannot say. I am no doctor. But I cannot help but think Osler is right: the physician is called to “exercise an influence of the strong upon the weak, of the righteous upon the wicked, and the wise upon the foolish,” and must prepare his or her soul to do so. Perhaps that requires a canon tinged darker than Osler’s little library. But perhaps not. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. Maybe what the doctors and nurses of our day need most is the brazen idealism of Osler himself. If so, Osler’s Aequanimitas would be a worthy first entry in the bedside library of our own doctors-to-be. 


To read more of my notes on the history of great works and their canons, see: "A Few More Notes on the Dearth of Great Works," "Do the Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?" "Longfellow and the Decline of American Poetry," "A Non-Western Canon: What Would a List of Humanity's Hundred Greatest Thinkers Look Like?,"  "On Adding Phrase to the Language." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.



 [1] William Osler, Aequanimitas, With Other Address to Medical Students, Nurses, and Practitioners of Medicine (Philadelphia: P. Blakiston's Son & Company, 1904), 389.

[2] ibid., 215.

[3] ibid., 220.

[4] William Osler, "The Student Life," or. pub. 1921. Available at Quotidiana, Edited by Patrick Madden, 19 January 2007.

[5] ibid.

[6] cf. Osler, Aequanimitas, 278-280,

[7] ibid., 97.

[8] ibid., 383.

[9] ibid., 19.

[10] ibid., 42.

[11] ibid.

[12] John Brown, Horae Subsecivae, 7th ed. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1871 [or. ed 1858]), 400.

[13] Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste, How to Form It: With Detailed Instructions For
 Collecting A Complete Library Of English Literature
(Hodder: 1909), reprint edition, available at DJ McAdam's personal website.

[14] Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris, 19 August, 1785. Available at the Avalon project.

 [15] Mary Rosner, Cicero in Nineteenth-Century England and America,"  Rhetorica 4, no. 2 (1986) 153–82; Lyon Rathbun, “The Ciceronian Rhetoric of John Quincy Adams,” Rhetorica 18, no. 2 (2000): 175–215; . "English Literature and the Latin Classics: Review of Horace and the Chief Poets of the Nineteenth Century," Classical Weekly, vol 12, no 23 (21 April 1921); Stephan Harrison, "The Reception of Horace in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," The Cambridge Companion to Horace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 334-347.

[16] For late 19th century changes in university curricula, see Christopher Stay, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); John Thelin, A History of American Higher Education, 3rd ed (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2019).

[17] Osler himself laments this in a passage that sounds eerily similar to today's complaints:

The extraordinary development of modern science may be her undoing. Specialism, now a necessity, has fragmented the specialities themselves in a way that makes the outlook hazardous. The workers lose all sense of proportion in a maze of minutiae. Everywhere men are in small coteries intensely absorbed in subjects of deep interest, but of very limited scope. Chemistry, a century ago an appanage of the Chair of Medicine or even of Divinity, has now a dozen departments, each with its laboratory and literature, sometimes its own society. Applying themselves early to research, young men get into backwaters far from the main stream. They quickly lose the sense of proportion, become hypercritical, and the smaller the field, the greater the tendency to megalocephaly. The study for fourteen years of the variations in the colour scheme of the thirteen hundred species of tiger-beetles scattered over the earth may sterilize a man into a sticker of pins and a paster of labels; on the other hand, he may be a modern biologist whose interest is in the experimental modification of types, and in the mysterious insulation of hereditary characters from the environment.
Osler, Aequanimitas, 50. 

[18] Another factor which accounts for this change, which I do not have time to go into at length here, is the slow decline of oratory as a spring of glory and a source of entertainment, and the correspondingly small amount of attention educators gave to rhetoric and wordplay as time went on.

01 April, 2021

Welcome to the Decade of Concern

We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.

— Brian McKeon, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy [2016
The most dangerous concern is [the use] of military force against Taiwan... My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.
—John Aquillo, Admiral, Indo-Pacific Command  [2021]

The 2020s do not look good.

This weekend I read two large reports that look at the present and future of the U.S. military’s force structure. Together they present a disturbing picture of the decade to come. Both of these reports are squarely focused on the United States military and a constellation of problems it will soon face. Neither is written by an expert in Asian military affairs; both write with shared assumptions about the nature of “great power competition” with China, but neither report is about China. Neither attempts to contrast their predictions for the United States with likely developments across the Pacific. But it is precisely those developments that make the trends traced in Mark Cancian's U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021: The Last Year of Growth? and Mackenzie Eaglen and Hallie Coyne’s The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch so alarming. In particular, the trends described in these reports should have alarm bells going off in Taipei. Taiwan—and any country that might be called on to defend it—is entering a dangerous decade.

Defense planning talk can lead eyes to glaze over. Little surprise! Debates over this topic quickly get bogged down with acronyms, accounting terms, and references to opaque production and planning cycles. One helpful way for ordinary citizens get a handle on these issues—at least, for ordinary citizens of my generation—is to think of defense planning as bit similar to a real time strategy (RTS) computer game, like Warcraft or Age of Empires. Games of that sort force the player to decide how they will spend constrained resources. Do you spend your gold or vesper gas (or whatever else it is the game uses in lieu of money) on the production of new fighting units, the development of new technologies that will improve your kingdom, or on increasing the scale of resource extraction? That is the usual tradeoff present in most RTS games, though some games will add in additional wrinkles. Gamers know that the right balance between these three is key: if they choose poorly at the beginning of a gaming session, they will be dealing with the consequences of their bad investment for the rest of their game.

Though far larger in scale, the senior officers and civilian leaders in charge of the Pentagon’s purse strings are not that different from Starcraft e-sports stars. Like the RTS gamer, these leaders must plan over time in a world of constrained resources. Tradeoffs are inevitable.

Defense planners find themselves trying to balance three competing priorities. The first of these is the development of new technologies and fighting platforms. To fight with the technology of the future, one must pay for its development now. In defense planning lingo, this is usually called “modernization.” You might think of this as the ‘research tree’ found in most RTS games.

The next category is the procurement of new platforms that have already been developed. Sometimes these purchases mean an absolute increase in the number of platforms fielded; other times it simply means buying new vehicles or ships to replace those that are retiring from service. This is spending on “force structure” — the idea is that your military force is properly structured to accomplish the strategic goals laid out for it. Again, there is an easy analogue here with the RTS gamer, who must carefully choose which units will be the most valuable additions to their army based off of the type of enemy they are fighting.

The next item does not have such an easy analogue in most RTS games (though you do see a similar mechanism featured in many turn-based strategy games). This category includes the costs of maintenance, training, and operations. Maintenance includes regular repairs needed to fix the wear-and-tear of normal use, but also technological upgrades—say, installing a new weapons system or radar array on an aircraft that has been in service for many years. It also includes the cost of training exercises and other measures (such as fueling, inspections, deployment, etc.) that keep these platforms and the military units they are attached to “ready” to join the fight. Thus in peacetime this category is often described with the word “readiness.” However, combat operations are also usually included as part of this category when budgets are being drawn up. Depending on the tempo and intensity of the war in question, combat operations might swallow up this entire section of the budget (and much more besides). Defense planning documents often call this the “operations and maintenance” section of the budget.

There are other factors that might determine how money is spent— for example, the desire to have a resilient industrial base or please a Senator—but the vast majority of spending decisions are an attempt to try and balance out the competing demands of modernization, force structure, and readiness. A military branch that spends all of its money on modernization will have superior technology in the long term but nothing to fight with in the here-and-now. A military optimized for force structure, on the other hand, risks mortgaging the long term away for the sake of near-term gains. But even those near-term gains might not be near enough: because new platforms are expensive and slow to construct, a military too focused on optimizing force structure might find itself blindsided and unprepared if it has not spent an equal amount of money on maintaining readiness and upgrading old legacy platforms while new ones are being built. Finally, a force that spends all of its money on the maintenance and operations of the minute will be ready for a fight today, but will struggle to compete with advancing adversaries in the future, and may be overwhelmed by the rising costs of operations as technology and platforms begin to age.

I apologize to experienced nat-sec hands for this introductory, simplified overview, but this issue is important—important enough that Americans outside the defense industry need to understand it. That small backgrounder should be enough context for these two reports to make sense.

Mark Cancian’s report is the more sober of the two; he does not argue a case so much as identify current trends and explain the sort of tradeoffs facing each of the U.S. military’s main branches. Eaglan's report is just as well sourced as Cancian’s, but more argumentative. She and her research assistant believe a crisis is around the corner. They want you to believe it too. Eaglen is also more willing to endorse specific solutions to the crises she sees. However, the two reports’ findings are complementary and I will quote liberally from both of them below.

Let us start with Eaglen. She describes the basic problem quite dramatically:
Fleets of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and other equipment are reaching the end of their service lives, hitting the edge of their upgrade limits, and losing combat relevance. As great-power competition accelerates, the United States is offering a free and open window of opportunity and advantage to its adversaries. Unless policymakers take concrete steps now, defense leaders will continue America’s sleepwalk into strategic insolvency and its consequences. The aptly named “Terrible 20s” have arrived. The intention of this report is not to propose ideal or preferred defense investments. Rather, it aims to deliver an unvarnished overview of the existing modernization bill before the Pentagon today, forcing an overdue confrontation with reality…. In 2016, popular military blogger and Navy Cmdr. CDR Salamander (ret.) coined the phrase “Terrible 20s” to describe the modernization challenges before the US military this coming decade. He offered an ominous overview of the next 10 years as “that horrible mix of debt bombs, recapitalizing our SSBN [ballistic missile submarines] fleet, and the need to replace and modernize legacy aircraft, ships, and the concepts that designed them.” It is a bracing and accurate summary of the following analysis.[1]

She also includes a fun graphic to illustrate the problem: 

Figure 2,  The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch (2021)

 How did this happen? It started with a Clinton era decision to focus on upgrading legacy platforms instead of developing or purchasing new ones:
By the end of the Bill Clinton administration, the Pentagon had laid out a strategy to update and replace the Reagan-era fleets. This plan hinged on justifying end strength reductions across the services with the increases in combat power delivered by new and improved military technologies.
When explaining this reasoning for the American Enterprise Institute in 2007, Robert Work used the example of advancements made to the shipboard vertical launch systems (VLS) In 1989, 108 large surface combatants carried 1,525 VLS cells, with an aggregate magazine capacity of 7,133 battle-force missiles. By 2004, the Large Surface Combatant (LSC) fleet shrunk to 71, but it carried 6,923 VLS, with a fleet magazine capacity of 7,539 battle-force missiles. More revolutions in satellite-guided weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, missile defense systems, and improved targeting and radar technology are also cited as demonstrable examples of key new battlefield technologies from the Clinton years, even as modernization spending on procurement and R&D plummeted from its peak in FY85 to a new low a decade later. [2]

During the Bush years, force structure was focused on winning the war at hand, and modernization was once again put off:
In the 2000s, Pentagon leaders focused understandably on the wars but did so while planning too optimistically in realizing ambitious technology transformations that would take decades to materialize. As a result, not enough investment was made in the conventional platforms required to maintain a ready force and strong conventional deterrent through the 2020s. In fact, rosy assumptions about revolutions in military affairs and the promises of technology solutions tomorrow became a justification to drastically slash those same aging fleets and inventories of ships, aircraft, and vehicles the troops use every day to sail, fly, and drive to accomplish their missions. Now the military is facing a decade of staggering modernization cost.[3]

Then came Robert Gates’ fight against “Next War-itis” and the sequester years:
Politically vulnerable because of outside pressures, new programs stood no chance and were killed en masse by the new administration. President Obama felt liberal pressure to curtail the military-industrial complex and defense spending, while Gates took personal offense at a military bureaucracy still focused on preparing for conventional conflict instead of pouring its full energy into the ongoing counterinsurgencies and counterterror operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bureaucracy scaled down its plans below its own requirements and sought to shield programs from permanent death by keeping their pilot flames lit. These choices created a second round of cancellations near the turn of the decade that dwarfed the Rumsfeld cluster….

In 2011, following the hollow buildup of the 2000s, Congress and the president’s failure to agree on entitlement and other reforms resulted in the BCA. Two years later, the BCA led to the sequestration of 2013, which swung a budgetary axe mostly on discretionary funding, half of which sustains the US military. The Pentagon responded largely by canceling dozens of pro-grams permanently and delaying almost everything else except for present-day needs. Leaders calculated they could accept risk in the mid to long term, as long as large swaths of troops were still engaged in ongoing conflicts and another large part stood ready to fight on a moment’s notice.[4]

Thus for three decades America traded out modernization and longer-term force structure procurement for the sake of maintaining readiness and battlefield operations. The long wars forced some of this trade off on the services (cue Eaglen: “Today, the US military is in the middle of a future that was mortgaged to pay for the wars of yesterday”), but political foolishness played just as large a part.[5] The thing to emphasize here are the long term consequences of poor decision making by national elites. As procurement and development programs run so long, mistakes made in 2003 or 2013 reverberate decades later. Today we the enter the 2020s with a military built during the 1980s.

But as Cancian makes clear, the temptation to further defer force structure procurement and modernization lingers with us:
From the service perspective, the key tension for force structure will be between the desire to cut size to invest in modernization and the need to maintain day-to-day deployments for crisis response, ongoing operations, and allied and partner engagement. If the forces get too small, then the operational tempo required to maintain these deployments will stress personnel. This would hurt sustainability of the all-volunteer force, particularly if the economy recovers and recruiting and retention get more challenging as a result of competition for labor. The Biden administration, like every administration before it, will pledge to support service members, so it will need to heed complaints about stress…. 
The Biden administration will be particularly conflicted here because of its often-stated desire to reassert U.S. global leadership. The United States cannot be a global leader if it pulls its forces back from global deployments. Some strategists have argued that a “virtual” or intermittent presence from the United States can substitute for forward stationing or continuous rotations. However, critics point out that virtual presence is actual absence. Knowing that a carrier is in Norfolk does not have the same impact as seeing 90,000 tons sail into one’s harbor.[6]

Deferring modernization and procurement like this carries a financial cost. Eaglen explains why:
As a result of failing to undertake necessary modernization, the military instead pays for aging platforms to stay in the force. In fact, the problem mirrors our broader national challenge with net interest. Just as a quarter or more of debt growth over the next decade will be net interest on the debt itself, the military has begun to pay more to keep old equipment running, which makes it increasingly difficult to invest in new platforms. It’s a vicious cycle, often called an “acquisition death spiral. [7]

The fiscal consequences of this can be seen in the percentage of current expenditures that go towards maintenance and upgrades of legacy systems: 


Why these costs are so severe makes more sense when you see just how old many of our principle military platforms really are. For one example, here is Cancian’s tally of the Air Force fleets:
Some fleets are in relatively good shape: the transport fleet (21 years, on average) because of acquiring C-17s and C-130s, the special operations fleet (12 years) because of its high priority, and the UAVs/RPVs (6 years) because of large wartime purchases. Other fleets are old: fighter/attack (29 years old), bomber (42 years), tanker (49 years), helicopter (32 years), and trainers (32 years). All the older fleets (except for some specialty aircraft) have programs in place for modernization, but the programs have been delayed, are expensive, and may take years to implement fully. [8]

But now this system of pushing platforms just one more decade past their due date has reached its limits. Many of the old legacy systems simply cannot be rolled through one more decade of use. Even if they could, the money spent on drawing out the life of a legacy system would be better spent on modernization and force structure changes. This is the logic behind the US Marine Corps’ decision to get rid of their tank battalions, for example. Theirs is a purposeful attempt to shed platforms that the service does not think will be useful in a conflict with China. But other draw-downs are simply the product of poor planning.

Consider the Navy's hopes to drastically increase the number of nuclear attack submarines they can put to water: 


Cancian explains what you see:
Attack submarines (SSNs) receive strong support from strategists because their firepower and covertness are useful in great power conflicts. Thus, they are likely to receive strong support in the next administration, whether that is a Trump or Biden administration. However, submarines are expensive (about $3.3 billion each in the current version), so increasing production is difficult…

Numbers dip in the late-2020s and early-2030s, bottoming at 42 boats as Los Angeles-class boats built during the 1980s retire. Secretary Esper said that the new plan intends to extend the service life of additional older submarines, but the Navy tends to retire old ships early in order to buy new ships…
The obvious solution is to build more submarines, but having two submarine construction programs operating simultaneously puts pressure on both the shipbuilding account and the submarine industrial base. The FY 2020 Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan showed a capacity for three total submarines per year, attack (SSN) or ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines, although the Navy did not always fund to the total capacity. Esper called for building three Virginia-class submarines per year in addition to SSBNs as soon as possible, but the industrial base will need a lot of funding and lead time to get to that level of production….The Navy cannot build enough new submarines quickly enough to significantly mitigate the trough. What it can do is accelerate the rate at which it gets to its target level. [9]

 If you are familiar with the war games and simulations American military officers run to game out Taiwan contingencies, Cancian’s info-graphic should disturb you. Attack submarines are widely viewed as a crucial component of the American conventional deterrent in any potential cross-straits dust up. Stealthy and submersible, nuclear submarines are one of the few platforms we expect to reliably pierce the A2/AD death zone that will project out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese coast. Yet their numbers are set to fall through most of the 2020s. Worst of all, there is very little we can do about it. The time to have averted this crisis was back in 2015.

Another set of platforms American strategists anticipate U.S. forces will rely on to pierce the A2/AD bubble are our stealth bomber fleets. Here is what Cancian has to say about that:
Since no new aircraft are being produced, the bomber force continues to age (currently 43 years on average), though various upgrade programs keep the aircraft flying and operationally relevant, for example, new engines for the B-52s and a new defensive system for the B-2s. The Air Force would like to divest some of the B-1s early but has run into congressional opposition. The B-21 Raider program continues in development, with budget demands seeming to stabilize: $2.9 billion in FY 2020 and $2.8 billion in FY 2021 and remaining at that level through FY 2025. Because the B-21 has a mid-2020s fielding date (“Initial Operating Capability”), the legacy B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s will comprise the bomber force for many years to come. Details are uncertain, however, because the B-21 remains a classified program. [10]

Here the pattern repeats. Eventually the B-21 will go online and be purchased in large numbers. But purchases in small numbers will not happen until the mid-2020s at earliest, and the fleet will, as with the submarines, require time to slowly grow in size. Until then we can only expect the stealth bomber fleet to degrade as the the existing systems age and the Air Force tries to remove the oldest platforms to save on cost.

 All of this is assumes that the money can be found for the post-2030 expansion of the bomber and submarine fleets. Yet part of the reason we got into this mess in the first place is because we spent the last decade pitching plans like these, which project growth in force structure—but only in the far away future. Representative Mike Gallagher rightly complained about this sort of thing back in 2019:

Yet, the Navy’s FY20 shipbuilding budget represents an overall decrease of1.5 percent from the previous year. While the Navy submitted a 30-Year Ship-building Plan along with its budget that reached 355 ships for the first time in more than two decades, much of this growth happens in the outyears—the Pentagon’s version of “the check is in the mail.” Despite reaching 355 ships roughly 20 years faster than the FY19 shipbuilding plan, the new document only adds one additional ship over its first five years compared to last year’s plan. [11]

But even if the money can be found the problem I am highlighting here will not go away. Consider the US Marine Corp’s transformation from a “tip of the spear” ready-force able to deploy anywhere in the world to a long-range artillery force to be stationed on the islands of the West Pacific. This transformation does not require any extra money from Congress. What it does require is time. The USMC have called their plan “Force Design 2030.” Perhaps their force design really is the perfect ticket for deterring the PLAN—but if so, it will not be complete for another decade.

Similar things could be said about the US Army's attempt to obtain more long range munitions, the Navy’s plans to remake the surface fleet as a more distributed force centered on lighter tonnage ships, or the surplus of unmanned submersibles and aircraft that are supposed to sustain the Navy and Air Force’s lethal edge through mid-century. In each case, the modernization of the future force is gained by slimming down the current one. This is necessary, but it comes with a catch: that future force doesn't fully arrive until the 2030s.

Can we wait that long? I am not sure we can. When Captain James Fanell (ret.), intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy, labeled the 2020s as the “Decade of Concern” based on his projections of the PLA Navy's growing capabilities, he was treated as something of a pariah.[12] But now that Admiral Philip Davidson, INDOPACOM’s outgoing commander, just declared that he believes the PLA will be capable of assaulting Taiwan within six years, Fannell’s judgment seems prescient.[13] The 2020s will see both the growth of Chinese military power to new heights and a temporary nadir in American capacity to intervene in any conflict in China’s near abroad.

The “temporary” part of that equation is important. Historians of the First World War and the Pacific War trace the origins of those conflicts to pessimistic assessments of the changing balance of power.[14] The belligerency of imperial Japan and Wilhelmine Germany rested on a belief that their position vis a vis their enemies could only decline with time. Any statesman who believes that a temporary military advantage over an enemy will soon erode will have a strong incentive to fight it out before erosion has begun.

And that is the problem. Commander Salamander’s “Terrible ‘20s” and Captain Fanell’s “Decade of Concern” are the same decade. In the mid 2020s the United States will be struggling to pay the Pentagon’s “modernization crunch.” The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force will be midway through a transition to a new, counter-China force structure. The number of attack submarines and stealth bombers that the United States can put in the field will be at an absolute low. 

It is at this moment we project the PLA will be capable of executing a cross straits invasion.

This does not make conflict inevitable. But if the Chinese have concluded that military means are the only way to bring about Taiwan’s integration into the People’s Republic of China,  Beijing's leaders will soon face powerful pressure to escalate towards war. Waiting until the 2030s or 2040s to sabre rattle is to wait for the U.S. military’s counter-China modernization and procurement programs to run their course. There will be a terrific temptation to "resolve" the problem before these programs have been implemented.

If you are Taiwanese the implications of all of this should be obvious. The clock is ticking. The terrible ‘20s have begun. 


For more of my writing on U.S. force structure and strategy, see my posts "Questions on the Future of the U.S. Marine Corps" and "Against the Kennan Sweepstakes." If on the other hand it is Taiwanese military affairs that has caught your interest, consider reading "All Measures Short of a Cross Straight Invasion,"Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power,"  and "Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1]  Mackenzie Eaglen and Hallie Coyn, The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2021), 1, 3.

[2] ibid., 7.

[3] ibid., 5

[4] ibid., 18, 22.

[5] ibid., 22.

[6] Mark Cancian, U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021: The Last Year of Growth?, CSIS Defense Outlook (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021), xi

[7] Eaglen and Coyn, Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, 15.

[8] Cancian, U.S. Military Forces, 80.

[9] ibid., 53-54.

[10] ibid., 85

[11] Mike Gallagher, “State of (Deterrence by) Denial,” Washington Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Summer 2019), 35.

[12] The most mature statement of this position is found in James Fanell, “Now Hear This—The Clock Is Ticking in China: The Decade of Concern Has Begun,” Proceedings, October 2017; for Fannell's most recent assessment of the PLA Navy's growth and development, see James Fanell, “China’s Global Navy—Today’s Challenge for the United States and the U.S. Navy,Naval War College Review 73, no. 4 (2020): article 4.

[13] Malory Shelbourne, “Davidson: China Could Try to Take Control of Taiwan In ‘Next Six Years,’” USNI, March 9, 202.

[14]  See David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2005), ch. 1; David Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991).