How Not to Fix America
Analyzing the gamut of America’s problems and proposing solutions for them would be a daunting assignment for any author, particularly in a span of fewer than 300 pages. But in Rebound, longtime Heritage Foundation scholar Kim R. Holmes gives it a try.
In his introduction, Holmes apologizes “ahead of time to those who would have liked more scholarly language and documentation. Alas, that is not the book I set out to write. This is popular history and sociology and hopefully it will be judged by that standard.”
The problem is that popular history and sociology are incapable of doing the hard work Holmes has set for himself. To pin down the sources of America’s problems, to say nothing of describing how to fix them, requires the social science Holmes neglects.
This book’s thesis appears to be that “America’s success as a nation depended on its civic and social culture mixing with the political traditions of liberty.” In Holmes’s view, America is in decline because of the “subtle diminishment of expectations over time to where what was once abnormal is normal, and what was unacceptable is now tolerable.” This thesis is notable by its absence from large chunks of Rebound, which at times reads more like a manifesto.
Holmes does not hold back in his condemnations of modern America. The upper classes are insulated in a culture that is “not attractive or healthy” and “reeks of division, elitism, and a lack of seriousness.” It’s even worse among hoi polloi since “the absorption of countercultural values by the lower-income classes has caused an epidemic of social dysfunction in poor neighborhoods.” The country “no longer has a constitutionally limited government” and “not only are Americans’ historic freedoms at risk; so, too, is their democratic republican form of government.” The nation, writes Holmes, is worse off than it was in 1956.
Each chapter here begins with a figure Holmes either celebrates or decries. The introduction celebrates “James,” a fictitious 1956 man who exemplifies Holmes’s vision of a good American. Harlow Curtice, the president of GM in the 1950s; Walt Rostow; Steve Jobs; and Noam Chomsky all make appearances, but perhaps the most illuminating vignette consists of two middle-aged women living on a barrier island who represent Holmes’s view of good and bad Americans.
“Jennifer” is—no kidding—a divorced liberal tree-hugger who works to protect endangered sea turtles, while “Mary” is a God-fearing entrepreneur who owns hair salons. Where Jennifer deploys the government to back her turtle-protection efforts, Mary deploys civil society to address the epidemic of uncollected dog droppings on the island.
In the course of Mary’s community organizing, however, she and Jennifer have it out: “Being an environmental expert Jennifer insisted that [dog waste] was good for the sand dunes. It gave them structure, she said. ‘Besides, dog s—t is natural.’ Mary disagreed, saying how it smelled bad and attracted flies.”
What on Earth is this passage doing in a book about “getting America back to great”? Holmes places it atop a chapter discussing the death of the American dream, a dream that Mary embodies and Jennifer threatens. The chapter flashes through topics ranging from the decay of religion and civil society to economic stagnation and overregulation to constitutional depredations. What’s telling here is that Holmes views his culture-war fable as an appropriate hook for discussing all of these matters and their role in the death of the American dream.
This failure to connect dots is what makes the book itself a failure. While Holmes makes clear throughout the book what he likes and dislikes, he does not explain why the cultural and political forces he likes keep losing. The book offers neither a thorough explanation of America’s problems nor a plausible path to solving them.
For example, Holmes discusses the enormous national debt and annual budget deficits and advocates cutting spending to deal with them. He also suggests that “every serious economist knows” that remedying U.S. fiscal imbalances is “the first step in restoring the economy.” Except this isn’t what every serious economist knows. Plenty of serious economists think otherwise, unless one redefines “serious economist” to mean “economist who agrees with me.” As for the politics of cutting spending, Holmes recommends “admitting that the government must have a dramatically reduced role in solving our problems,” but he offers no advice on how to make this admonition politically relevant, despite the considerable challenges facing it.
The U.S. government doles out roughly $1 trillion per year in tax expenditures, subsidizing various endeavors like owning homes, buying health care, and saving for retirement. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler has pointed out, these subsidies create a “submerged state” in which the recipients of government benefits do not recognize that they have benefited from the government. These programs, combined with Social Security and Medicare, constitute well over half of federal expenditures. They also all benefit middle-aged and elderly whites, the most important constituency of the very Republican Party alleged by some to be the best hope for cutting government spending. One would hope that a book pressing for the sorts of reforms that Holmes advocates would grapple with these realities, but Rebound does not.
Unfortunately, the foreign policy sections of the book are even less persuasive. Holmes, who has worked on U.S. foreign policy for decades, misses basic facts while skewing his interpretations in ways that benefit Republicans and lampoon Democrats.
Sometimes, however, his efforts to make the left look ugly compared to the right lead him seriously astray. For instance, Noam Chomsky is rhetorically burned in effigy, but the work Holmes uses to indict him features Chomsky attacking the Lyndon Johnson administration’s policy in Vietnam for being rooted in “a will to power… not so much cloaked in idealism as it is drowned in fatuity.” Is there a historical judgment of Chomsky’s that stands up better?
For his part, Holmes cannot see that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution did not rely on “supposed trickery” but rather on actual trickery. Similarly, it isn’t clear why he refers to Robert McNamara as having been “reeducated and forced to confess his sins” rather than changing his mind about the Vietnam War.
The nationalistic view of American history presented in the book is a romantic rhapsody, despite the obligatory “to be sure” clauses covering slavery, the abandonment of Saigon, and other U.S. shortcomings. Liberals are castigated for believing that “America has sinned,” but is this such a great offense—or even in dispute? Was the slaughter of innocent civilians in Southeast Asia something other than a sin? What of our subjugation of the Philippines during our early dalliance with empire, when 200,000 Filipinos died under U.S. occupation? Has the American state not sinned regularly and grievously?
In his discussion of the foreign-policy debates on the left during the middle of the 20th century, Holmes sides with Truman (over Korea) and Johnson (over Vietnam) against their opponents, mostly on the grounds that the antiwar side was antiwar. Holmes’s liberal heroes are “Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy,” and his villains are Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Obama, in particular, is at heart a Chomskyite, but one who is “aggressively going after terrorists” by running a drone war that is “arguably more bloody minded than Bush’s war on terrorism.” Holmes squares this Chomsky-as-Cheney caricature of Obama by referring to his “complex” motivations, the most important of which, we learn, is “a desire to avoid getting bogged down in foreign commitments.”
Holmes is at pains to point out that he does not endorse “policing the world” or “launching military interventions willy-nilly”—it’s just that there are no actual U.S. wars he opposes, and the “guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy” should be that “America stands for liberty for all.” He seems to hope that the reader will not recognize the echo of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address in that phrasing.
Holmes has gone through several ideological incarnations in his career, coauthoring an insightful critique of Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol’s 1996 Foreign Affairs essay “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” that denounced it as a “strategy of slaying the world’s monsters,” unconservative, and “pure escapism.” Holmes then worked for the George W. Bush administration in its first term. He returned to Heritage in 2005 and muzzled analyst John Hulsman, who had quarreled with neoconservative Michael Ledeen on Iran policy, eventually purging Hulsman from Heritage altogether. In 2007, Holmes praised Bush for making the view that “America should actively support the spread of freedom and democracy around the world” a central component of the war on terror. He has opposed the Obama administration’s foreign policy root and branch, from the war in Libya and the proposed war in Syria to trimming the defense budget.
Holmes endorses the “apology tour” narrative beloved by the talk-radio set, asserts that the Benghazi attack makes clear that “the threat of terrorism is getting worse, not better,” and claims that an Iranian nuclear weapon would “effectively [make] Iran the dominant power” in the Middle East. None of these claims pass basic scrutiny. As TAC’s Daniel Larison has made clear, there was no apology tour. Every recent survey of the terrorist threat shows that it is lower than it has ever been. Even a nuclear Iran would still possess a very weak military, and nuclear weapons are not useful for compellence, making it very difficult for those weapons to enable Iranian regional supremacy.
That a senior scholar at one of Washington’s most prestigious think tanks throws out these assertions without any supporting evidence speaks volumes about the evolution of the think tank. Think tanks used to fancy themselves “universities without students,” but the sort of fanciful story that Kim Holmes offers in Rebound could not pass muster at America’s worst university, and the reason would have nothing to do with liberal bias.
It is easy for those of us trading in ideas to oversell their role in political outcomes, but over a long enough time, bad ideas do bring bad consequences to the political actors who hold them. That time may have come for movement conservatism in the United States.
Justin Logan is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.