The Seven Attributes
The greatness of the United States has always depended on our determination to drive forward — and strive upward.
By Kevin J. Rogers
In a study released last year by the Rand Corporation, political scientist Michael J. Mazarr outlined seven key social attributes which serve as the foundations of national competitive success. While the focus of the study was on American standing on the global stage, it’s useful to think of these same seven attributes simply in terms of a healthy, functioning society. They are:
national ambition and will
unified national identity
an active state
a learning and adapting society
competitive diversity and pluralism
Whigs have much to say about each of these areas. And over time, we’ve developed many analyses, frameworks and proposals which line up with each of them, and all of them as a whole. But for now, let’s look at them — let’s call them the Seven Attributes — mostly in general terms.
National Ambition and Will
America thrives when it strives. Whether the challenge is one thrust upon us, as with the Second World War, or one we have chosen for ourselves, as in the Race to the Moon, we do best when taking on the big things. And it’s worth noting, almost all of the Space Race occurred during a time of great social upheaval; we entered World War II after living through nearly a decade of the Great Depression. We’ve done the big things during bad times.
In both cases, we started far behind our rivals before catching up and then speeding past. The urgency of the task was the spur to action, but once moving we were unstoppable. Social, political and cultural differences were forgotten, or at least sublimated, by the necessity of victory.
We find ourselves today in, or perhaps just emerging from, a period of what can fairly be called a national malaise. In our view, the best cure for what ails us is to focus the nation on a specific, urgent goal — or goals — the more challenging, the better. We believe there are two obvious ones which fit the bill: the need to deal with climate change (the solution for which can actually amount to killing two birds with one stone), and the geopolitical threat posed by a rising, and aggressive, China.
Both, we think, offer tremendous opportunities within the challenges they represent. But those opportunities can only be seized, and fully realized, through effective leadership committed to executing intelligent plans, proposals and programs. Think tanks like the Institute can help provide insight into what we should do, but concrete action depends on those to whom we grant the authority to act; wisdom and prudence require the People to choose our leaders from the best among us — and then to hold those leaders accountable.
Neither are possible without adequate civic participation, especially when it comes to voting. It is no secret turnout rates among the American voting population are abysmal by global standards. It’s a reflection of the indifference shown by far too many toward our experiment in self-governance, and is no doubt responsible, at least in large part, for what can only be called a leadership deficit. (An unwillingness of qualified individuals to run for office, for a variety of reasons, is another major issue.)
Increasing voter participation, we believe, is a key ingredient to rekindling our national will. One way to do it is to make both registering to vote and voting itself as easy as possible, within the parameters of genuine election security. We believe another is to reform the ballot through approval voting to minimize wasted vote syndrome, enhance the perceived value of the vote, maximize the opportunities for independent candidates and better gauge the true temper of the electorate for those who ultimately win.
Unified National Identity
America is, and always has been, a nation of immigrants. Everyone in the country, other than Indigenous Americans, can trace their ancestry to somewhere else. Even those whose family line goes back to the landing of the Mayflower and the Colonial Era which followed it must acknowledge their roots lie across the sea, or somewhere in the Western Hemisphere outside the borders of the United States.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a distinctive American identity; far from it. Even at the time of the War for Independence, when virtually all of the Colonists considered themselves British subjects (including many on Washington’s own staff, who would toast the King at dinner even as the Revolution raged), the people of the Colonies also thought of themselves as uniquely American. They were self-governing, despising of oppression, insistent on their rights and devoted to their communities long before the ratification of the Constitution would make them actual citizens of a new country.
Since then, the definition of Americanism has often been the subject of heated debate. In our current age, many seek to make it contingent on a particular racial, ethnic or religious background, while others disparage it as nothing more than the cultural institutionalization of our national original sin, slavery. Neither seems willing to accept the American identity for what it truly is: a dedication to shared ideals and the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, as expressed in a common language, and reinforced throughout our history by law and custom.
None of which is to dismiss our highly diverse cultural heritage, each strand of which contributes to the whole. Nor is it to assert those who come to this country unable to speak English cannot be true Americans; our fundamental principles can be conveyed in almost any language. But as Teddy Roosevelt once famously said, “In this country we have no place for hyphenated Americans.” To be one nation means to have one nationality.
For those of us born here and those of us who have emigrated from another land, our Pledge of Allegiance is the same. Each and every citizen — naturalized, native-born or aspiring — is a member of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We all share a common civic creed. And the individual commitment the Pledge expresses continues for a lifetime; we are eternally part of one People under one Constitution, loyal to just one country, even as we celebrate the heritage of others.
Whigs are devoted capitalists. We believe in free enterprise, the profit motive, well-functioning markets and our natural right to the pursuit of happiness. But we also understand capitalism can have many variations, and no single iteration may be the correct one in all respects for all places at all times.
In our view, a good starting point in developing sensible economic theory is ordoliberalism, which holds the primary goal of government policy should be the creation of the general conditions necessary for broad-based prosperity: a healthy and consistent legal environment supporting fair competition, sound fiscal and monetary policy to keep the currency stable and inflation low, and an adequate social safety net to promote small business and entrepreneurship. What government should not do is guarantee outcomes.
A good analogy (if somewhat over-simplified here) is the National Football League. Each of the teams is privately owned. The league sets the dimensions of the field of play and the rules of the game, enforces the rules directly through the referees in the games themselves to ensure fairness, and handles larger issues at the league office. Individual players, who are represented by a union, are guaranteed health care if they get hurt and a pension after they retire. But the league doesn’t determine which teams will win or lose; that question is settled in open competition.
Where we depart somewhat from this thinking is in our firm embrace of the public/private partnership. Despite the fact such entities — which we refer to as P3s — have often been misused, poorly designed or inadequately supervised, we think that only means their full potential as a vehicle of shared opportunity has been unrealized. And when it comes to massive projects like our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we believe P3s may be the only way to achieve our society-wide goals. (We’ll address this issue in more detail elsewhere).
In any event, it is our firm view no economic system is as dynamic or as likely to produce prosperity for all as capitalism, properly organized. No other system honors our right to property so completely. And no brand of capitalism is more likely to produce widely shared opportunity than one which ensures fair competition and encourages the individual citizen to take their shot.
An Active State
Before the seemingly endless Culture War came to dominate our public discourse, political debate mostly focused on the legitimate differences between the Left and the Right on the proper size of government. “Big government” liberals would square off against “small government” conservatives, the Right accusing the Left of wanting government to do almost everything (which, for some on the Left, was undoubtedly true), and the Left accusing the Right of wanting the government to do almost nothing (to which many on the Right would gladly and enthusiastically agree).
Whigs reject this paradigm. For one thing, there’s no tried-and-true way of measuring the size of government. For example, in terms of the number of people working for the federal government, the level has remained fairly constant: in 1982 there were roughly 2.89 million civilian federal employees; in 2021 there were about 2.85 million. Since 1962 the same measure as a percentage of the population has actually dropped by more than half, from just under 3 percent to about 1. 4 percent today (the drop actually exceeds the increase in population). And despite spikes here and there, the story basically stays the same when we look at the total workforce, including contractors.
In terms of taxes and spending, the numbers also have remained fairly constant. In 1982, federal tax revenue amounted to about 18.475 percent of GDP; in 2021 it was 17.599 percent; in 1962 it was 16.505 percent. And it’s a similar story for federal spending: in 1982, federal budget outlays were about 22.3 percent of GDP; in 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and sent the number through the roof, they were 20.8 percent. In 1962, the number was just under 17.7 percent.
Of course, these data are only part of the story, and even small swings in federal finances involve very large numbers in real dollar terms, with a potentially large effect. The point is, we’re not really talking about the size of government as opposed to its proper role and scope. And in that regard, Whigs have some very firm ideas indeed.
We start, as always, with the Constitution. Through it, the People consent to give their government specific grants of authority beyond which their government cannot go. The full measure of those grants is too long to fully address here, as is the flexibility the Framers, through the wisdom of compromise, built into their blueprint for the Republic. Suffice to say government is limited in its power, not its size; the breadth of our liberty does not depend on head counts or ledgers.
But where the People have authorized their government to act, it must act, and vigorously. Our liberty does depend on a healthy, active government capable of protecting and nurturing it. To quote Edmund Burke — the Modern Whig line begins with him — “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” Where government is too weak to ensure good public order, the bonds of everyday civic life must loosen, making the resort to force ever more likely. Only a descent into chaos can result.
Moreover, the first responsibility of our national government is to defend the Constitution and the Republic from all enemies, foreign and domestic — and not just militarily. Threats can take many forms, and never more than today, given the realities of digital life and the interconnected world. Erosion can be as dangerous as invasion. Without the will, authority and determination to address modern dangers with alacrity, our government may prove to be inadequate, leaving our way of life in peril.
There is much more to our civic life than just government, of course. Civil society fills many of the gaps we have chosen to leave in governmental authority in order to better promote and preserve our liberty. Non-governmental organizations, civic associations, churches, unions, PTAs and the rest enhance our lives by performing many necessary functions we have decided government should not have. They serve as the mortar between the bricks of our society.
First among them, in the Whig view, is the press. So important is it to us, one star on our Whig Owl actually represents the Fourth Estate, the traditional name for the press, while the others represent the three branches of government — legislative, executive and judiciary. And clearly the Framers agreed; they included freedom of the press in the First Amendment, alongside the other First Freedoms they found so fundamental.
We find the press so important because we believe, as did our Founders, an ill-informed public cannot govern itself. What’s more, a government able to operate without the scrutiny of a free press is also operating without the oversight of the population at large. Nothing lends itself to tyranny so much as a government which can expand its power unseen, or put the sources of information under its thumb to deceive those subject to its authority.
Of course, we live in an era when the press, along with almost all of our other institutions, is suffering from a marked decline in public confidence. Recent polls suggest some of the numbers have reached an all-time low. Whether the data indicate a true crisis of confidence may be a matter of debate, especially since we are exiting an extraordinarily challenging time and facing a highly unusual set of economic, social and political circumstances. But there can be no doubt the mortar, at least in the minds of many, and at least for now, is weakening.
There is no easy and immediate fix. Most of the declines we are seeing now started decades ago. In the case of the press, they began with the early advent of cable news and accelerated with the rise of the internet — especially social media — and the gradual decline of local newspapers. In the case of other institutions, like organized religion, much bigger societal factors may be at work. We did not come to this pass suddenly.
We must, however, be careful not to view all issues exclusively in national terms, or through the broad strands of our society as a whole. While the trends in national polls are undeniable, it seems rare for pollsters to ask, in the same polls, whether people are satisfied with life in their local communities. The very institutions which appear to be losing their effectiveness on a national basis may be quite robust closer to home. And that might be the place to start the project of repairing and rejuvenating them.
A Learning and Adapting Society
The story of the human race, from the beginning, has been one of learning and adaptation. Our very survival as a species has been dependent on our ability to grow, to find and develop new skills and resources and adjust to the changing circumstances around us. That’s just as true for the political and social structures we depend on to govern and regulate our lives; no doubt the Ancients would marvel at how sophisticated we’ve become.
At the same time, they’d find many things to be quite familiar, once they got over their astonishment at our technology. Human nature doesn’t change very much. And since the world is us writ large, and includes all our faults as well as our virtues, the great thinkers of the past would no doubt quickly come to understand our lives, even as they were mystified by our lifestyles.
In any event, one thing we should always keep in mind: there is an ebb and flow to history, a cyclical pattern of advance and retreat, advance and retreat, time and time again, just as in the life of the individual. But over time each advance has taken us a little higher, while each retreat has never gone all the way back to what came before. The sum total of human endeavor has resulted in a more civilized, peaceful, healthy and prosperous world overall.
A big driver of that historical global progress has been the United States. Our success can be attributed to many causes (far too many to list here) but underlying it all is of our constitutional system and the openness of our society. The free flow of information has allowed us to learn from each other, from other countries, from the great minds of the past and from those who seemingly could peer into the future. The rule of law has given us the confidence to act.
Meanwhile, our absorption of immigrants from around the world has created not only an astounding level of cultural variety, but what can only be thought of as a global reservoir of knowledge and expertise. One can only marvel at how much of the world’s best talent has come to our shores, by choice.
None of which is to say things are perfect now, ever were, or ever could be. Were that the case, learning and adaptation would be unnecessary. The need to change and grow comes from our inherent flaws, the built-in foibles of the individual and society, which will always be with us.
But if nothing else, Whigs are eternal can-do American optimists. We believe there is almost always a way to make things better, including creating a more just and equitable society, and we can almost always find it. Not all of the tasks can fall to government, nor should they; sometimes the only solution for a better world is for people to be better in it. In other times, and with some issues, things have to be left alone to work themselves out.
When we look at our history, we can find one glaring exception which proves the rule. It took a long, brutal and costly Civil War to settle the question of slavery — as we have called it elsewhere, our original sin — once and for all; ultimately only a resort to arms could break the fundamental impasse of our Founding. And the lingering stain of that sin still haunts us today, even as it slowly, ever so slowly, and gradually fades. It will likely never disappear.
Yet even as we carry the burden of that stain, we have learned and adapted enough to stay pointed in the right general direction, and not just in matters of race. However halting our steps forward may have been, they’ve been taken, often with much strife, but never again to such extremes. When a fashionable cynicism seems ready to take hold, we should keep that in mind.
Competitive Diversity and Pluralism
America has traditionally been referred to as the Melting Pot, and for good reason: there is probably no place on Earth where so many different ethnicities, religious faiths and languages can be found than the United States today. The very term cultural pluralism was coined to refer to our country, where there is a unique American identity built not only on the established political values of our Founding, but on the cultural heritages of our highly diverse, global population as well. Indeed, our pluralism was arguably enshrined in the very first of the freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights, when Congress (the lawmaking branch) was forbidden from establishing a state religion.
That is not to say all our subcultures have always managed to get along, or our history of immigration has been a linear one. Diversity can often mean conflict. And there has always been an element of our society which seeks to establish one particular racial and religious background as the dominant one, rather than embracing the belief true Americanism is the patriotic acceptance of an idea and a set of ideals. Pluralism, for them, is a weakness.
But they are wrong. One only need look at a list of our greatest scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, academics, entrepreneurs and business leaders, from the beginning until now, to see how much our diversity has contributed to our success. Our position as the Land of Opportunity has been secured by our tolerance.
For us to continue on our well-trodden path to prosperity, we’ll need to reinforce that tolerance and defend it against the malign forces which would undo it. And have no doubt: those who would have a dominant race or religion at all mean to have it be their own. They have no interest in leaving well enough alone and living side by side, peaceably, with those who differ, and the ultimate result of their project can only be a society stultified and stagnant — far from the dynamic America we all love.
Those who go to the other extreme pose a different set of risks. They believe to be tolerant means to tolerate everything, without reference to moral standard, and to go beyond turning a blind eye to insist on acceptance, or adherence, or even glorification. Their supposed tolerance is really intolerance, demanding everyone around them think as they do; to live and let live is not enough. Their road leads to labeled rights, with each of us in our own category, some favored, some not, by those who would hold themselves up as the judges.
Our society cannot work under either regime. What’s more, mutual respect is not so complicated. For most, life seems to work well enough when they mind their own business, mind their community’s business, mind their country’s business and pay no mind to each other’s business when it affects none of the above.
Despite the length of this post, we’ve barely scratched the surface. But it was not our purpose here to comprehensively cover all these issues. Rather, we simply wanted to introduce the framework of the Seven Attributes as a useful tool for analyzing issues going forward, and to provide just a glimpse of Whig thought regarding each of them. Even there, you can expect robust debate even among Whigs themselves on many of the points made in this piece, especially on the details. Which is a good thing, in our view; it’s all part of the Great American Conversation.
We would be remiss, however, if we did not state clearly what we see as the purpose of that conversation. It’s not merely to kick ideas around, discuss thoughts and theories, shoot the breeze. All of those things are fine, of course, and all have their time and place. But what we mean by the Great American Conversation is more purposeful than the name may imply. It’s more a process than anything else, a way of defining who we are as a nation while refining what we have for a country.
In normal parlance we use those words, nation and country, interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same thing, and it’s more than a distinction without a difference. Our country, the United States of America, was created on paper by the people it would govern; it’s the “united” part of the United States, as embodied in our federal government. Our nation includes the country, plus much, much more; it’s the sum total of our People, all our history and our promise and our prospects, everything we are or have been or ever could be, on paper or not.
Neither was intended by the Founders to be finished business right at the beginning, or ever, and they intended us to keep working at it. They expected us to take what they had bequeathed us and build what we needed as we went along, just as they had. They hoped we would constantly renew ourselves, election after election, while staying faithful to the foundations they had put beneath us.
We undoubtedly find ourselves now at a time when our fortunes have been, at least for some, flagging. The need for a national renewal certainly feels acute. Undoubtedly, we are currently experiencing a period of substantial political, social and economic stress. But we should remember it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, such time, and as with other times we’re sure we’ll get through it one way or the other, eventually.
How difficult the journey becomes is up to us.
Kevin J. Rogers is the executive director of the Modern Whig Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Modern Whig Institute is a 501(c)(3) civic research and education foundation dedicated to promoting the fundamental American principles of representative government, ordered liberty, capitalism, due process and the rule of law.
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