The current moment poses a range of social, political, and economic threats. As the institutions of globalism become exhausted, the time is ripe to marry immigration restriction, economic nationalism, and populism into a potent America First program.
Globalism is the ideological superstructure and linchpin of ruling class power. In practical terms, it depends upon the free movement of people, goods, and ideas. It seeks the diminution and ultimate abolition of borders and boundaries, and of national sovereignty itself.
Globalism is a vast interlocking system of technology, telecommunications, economics, culture, and politics that was constructed and imposed by a small, transnational elite. It is built on doctrines of individualism, autonomy, scientism, consumerism, and radical openness. As such, it is inherently destabilizing and revolutionary. It detaches and disembeds local economies and cultures, undermining existing customs and traditions. Free trade and open immigration are philosophical cousins of multiculturalism and gender fluidity. They are fruit of the same poisonous seed.
By its nature, globalism creates economic, border, cultural, and existential insecurities. Such a disruptive process is bound to have political consequences.
National populism, propelled and fueled by these anxieties, has arisen as a challenge to the globalist and neoliberal consensus imposed in the aftermath of the Cold War. The globalist revolution has longer roots, but its full flowering is of more recent vintage. And its failures are spectacular.
The events of the last months—the virus, the quarantine, the economic slump, and the riots—have inflamed the insecurities feeding nationalist and populist political movements. The institutions and ideology of globalism have been weakened further and their opponents emboldened. No one is turning to the World Health Organization or the United Nations for answers. The publics of Western nations have lost faith in global institutions.
Yet, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, aging and doddering ringleaders of the globalist posse, have taken to the pages of Time and The Wall Street Journal to agitate for the buttressing of the “liberal order” straining under the weight of the pandemic. “The pandemic has prompted an anachronism,” writes Kissinger, “a revival of the walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement of people.”
Contra Kissinger, walls of various kinds are the future.
Moreover, the United States is a nation, not merely a market. Before the era of globalization, “prosperity” meant that an increasing gross domestic product (GDP) was paired with advances in productivity, increases in jobs, and higher wages. That is no longer the case.
The American economy continues to generate a lot of wealth. Between 2000 and late 2016, the estimated net worth of American households and nonprofit institutions more than doubled, from $44 trillion to $90 trillion. The mean net worth of American households rose to $692,007. But that average is skewed by the nation’s super wealthy. The richest 400 U.S. citizens now have more wealth than 185 million of their fellow Americans combined. The median U.S. net worth is a mere $97,300.
Though there has been significant growth and wealth creation, structural changes have produced an economy with a much wealthier upper class, while incomes for roughly the bottom 60 percent are essentially stagnant and unchanged since the late 1960s.
Since 1973, productivity and compensation have continued to diverge dramatically. As a consequence, America has been growing apart and that disparity was in progress long before the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009.
Moreover, even economic growth has started to slow. The economy has grown much more slowly in the last two decades than in the post-WWII period. “With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 2000–2016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today,” Nicholas Eberstadt writes in his Commentary article, “Our Miserable 21st Century.”
Labor force participation rates have also been declining. Peaking in early 2000 at 67.3 percent, America’s overall work rate for Americans aged 20 and older has undergone a near-continuous decline, falling more than 5 percentage points over that time to 62.7 percent in March of this year.
These structural economic problems have been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 43 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March. Despite a better-than-expected jobs report for May, 21 million Americans remain unemployed as a result of the pandemic and subsequent state lockdowns, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 100,000 small businesses have already closed permanently and commercial bankruptcies are up 26 percent from last year. The economic damage may be long-lasting and require a broader framework to address deeper technological, cultural, and economic changes.
Other authors in this issue offer laissez-faire and Christian distributist models as potential paths forward. I, too, drank von Mises and his disciples like mother’s milk and was seduced by distributists Röpke and Belloc. Free markets are, indeed, part of the good life. Federalism, state’s rights, and decentralism were blessings of the American constitutional order. Subsidiarity is a biblical principle endorsed by Christians of all stripes.
But these are fruits produced by a healthy tree—and the American economic tree is dying, poisoned by its ruling class. Supplanting this anti-Christian, globe-trotting aristocracy is a necessary precondition to cultural renewal. A political program to accomplish that goal requires an economic program that buttresses the cultural supports and people that are the foundation of its existence. I’ll try to describe what that program looks like.
Beginning in the 1980s, conservative intellectual Sam Francis used this journal, Chronicles, to sketch out a populist strategy to create class consciousness among middle-income voters. He wanted to wake up those who see themselves as dispossessed and exploited—the losers in the process of economic globalization, political centralization, and cultural managerialism. In the March 1996 issue of Chronicles, Francis wrote:
[T]he fundamental polarity in American politics and culture today is between a deracinated and self-serving Ruling Class centered on but not confined to the central state, on the one hand, and Middle American groups, on the other, with the latter constituting both the economic core of the nation through their labor and productive skills as well as the culturally defining core that sustains the identity of the nation itself. The economic interests as well as the cultural habits and ideologies of the Ruling Class drive it toward globalization—the managed destruction of the nation, its sovereignty, its culture, and its people—while those of Middle Americans drive them toward support for and reenforcement of the nation and its organic way of life.
The divide described by Francis in 1996 is still the primary pivot of American politics. An ongoing class war is directed at what Francis called Middle Americans by an overclass elite and their underclass clients, under the guise of neoliberalism and consensus politics. Middle America has watched communities depopulate and die as factories have disappeared to Asia. They have seen their towns transformed by immigration, which undermines their standing.
Economic nationalism is the formula that expresses the material interests and cultural values of Middle America and it can play a part (but only a part) in creating solidarity among otherwise disparate groups that have been systematically stripped of other identities.
In terms of tactical necessity, economic nationalism matches the moment in ways the other systems do not. The immediate goal is to coalesce the remnants of the historic American nation into a coherent social and political force, directing its wrath at the entrenched elite and displacing it from power. Different systems of political economy produce different wealth and power dynamics and shape family life and civic institutions. Economic theories such as distributism that are reflexively leery of large institutions and collective action are unable to organize on a large scale.
Economic nationalism is not an economic model or theory but a collection of practices, a body of knowledge evolving over time through trial and error. It is flexible and can utilize a range of tools. It can be libertarian in some contexts and more regulatory in others. It may employ free trade or protectionism, subsidies or free markets. The approach seeks to benefit the nation and sustain the culture and people that define it. It takes account of different regions seeking to balance the needs of rural and urban, capital and labor, farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses.
That being said, there are some specific policies a typical economic nationalist program would contain.
First, with unemployment approaching Depression-era levels, it is time to get serious about immigration control. In March, a Harvard-Harris poll found that 83 percent of respondents wanted to halt immigration from Mexico due to the threat from the COVID-19 virus. When even a pandering member of Conservative Inc. like Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA can advocate suspending employment visas, the time is ripe for an immigration freeze.
Second, with the Fed out of bullets, it’s time to consider a significant infrastructure spending program. President Donald Trump has proposed trillion dollar infrastructure programs. Infrastructure investments have a multiplier effect, enhancing accessibility, facilitating commerce, and boosting overall economic productivity. Another benefit is putting long-suffering working-class males back to work.
Third, a thoroughgoing effort to restore American manufacturing must be undertaken through a reinvigorated industrial policy. Tariffs and subsidies designed to re-shore key industries should be pursued immediately.
The rise of China as an economic and national security threat should precipitate a debate about the desirability and efficacy of industrial policy—not as a curb on private enterprise, but to spur it in directions vital to national interests, which markets alone may not be able to achieve. A 2018 White House report documented more than 280 major supply chain vulnerabilities and a frightening dependence on foreign nations, especially China.
To be sure, we should have a clear understanding of the pitfalls and dangers of industrial policy, including regulatory capture and de facto corporate welfare. But these problems exist already and are less a product of government intervention than a failure to produce a strategy that embraces economic and security realities.
At the very least, a restructuring of the tax code is in order. American jobs have disappeared to China not because they have been “stolen” but because corporations have off-shored manufacturing in pursuit of higher profits. Taxing corporations based on the geographic location where the value was added may restore domestic production.
Fourth, it may be prudent to consider more radical options in pursuit of traditional ends. For example, if the elimination of welfare is a practical impossibility, universal basic income (UBI) or wage subsidies should be considered. Charles Murray, among others, has argued that a properly implemented UBI could advance many worthy goals such as incentivizing women to leave the workforce, increasing fertility rates, and strengthening civic institutions.
The costs of globalism in financial and human terms are impossible to deny. It is time to build an economy designed to support families and the nation while securing a future for us and our posterity.