From the October 1995 issue of Chronicles.
“The question is,” Humpty Dumpty tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “which is to be master—that’s all.” As overused as the quotation may be, it nevertheless communicates a perennial truth that most people forget when it comes to understanding not only the answer but also the question itself, a truth that explains much of the unpleasantness that speckles human history. In the discussion of national sovereignty, the question is in fact the only relevant question to ask at all.
Sovereignty, by definition, concerns the issue of who is to be master in a society, whether it has to do either with internal autonomy or with its external independence. The two senses of sovereignty, of course, are closely related, since an internal sovereign—king, people, parliament, the states, the federal government—cannot claim to be the final arbiter of affairs if an external force in the form of another power is able to back up its own claim to that position. Much of American history has revolved around the question of who was to be master within the union, a dispute ostensibly settled by military power in the 1860’s, and more recently, with which head of the federal master that emerged from the Civil War was to dominate the others. In the mid-20th century and since, the presidency has made a pretty strong claim to sovereignty, and the cute little sign that Harry Truman kept on his desk that read “The buck stops here” was in fact little more than a not-very-subtle pretense that the Chief Executive is really the monarch of the United States. Some, but by no means all, bucks stop at the President’s desk, and it is a claim that has not the slightest shadow of constitutional or historical validity, but it is in part because Mr. Truman really believed it and tried to act on it and in part because of the coarseness of his personality that today is celebrated as his most endearing trait, that he was perhaps about as close an imitation of Il Duce as this country has ever produced.
In the 1990’s, the question of who is to be master in the American house is reviving, with presidential candidates and governors invoking the 10th Amendment and a healthy antigovernment popular resistance bubbling merrily in the boondocks. It is probably not an accident that the resurrection of the sovereignty debate within the nation is occurring at the very same time that the question of external sovereignty is also emerging. The appearance of both issues ought to tell us that at the present time, no one can provide a clear answer. There is no clear answer simply because no one today holds enough power to sustain an answer against rivals. Power relations, both within American society and between the United States and the external forces that are causing its national sovereignty to dwindle, are in flux, and only when those relations are stabilized by the rise of a master force on whose desk the buck really does stop will there be a clear answer to the question.
Internally, the conflict over sovereignty is clearly linked to the continuing struggle for political and cultural power between Middle American populism and the incumbent elites that currently have a grip on power. The elites are deeply entrenched in and aligned with the federal leviathan and make use of it to stay in power and to define the public order to reflect their interests. Hence, the popular rebellion against the leviathan, manifested in the 10th Amendment movement, the anti-immigration movement, the tax rebellion, the resistance to the economic destruction of the middle class through free trade and economic globalization, the militia movement and Second Amendment coalition, etc., can be understood as a rebellion of the American middle class against the elites. Although the rebellion remains so far undefined and spontaneous and lacks a coherent strategy or leadership, the obvious goal emerging within it is the dismantlement of the leviathan and the restoration of state and local sovereignty, coupled with the social and cultural preeminence of Middle America as the publicly defining core of the national order. The elites, whether directly lodged in the central state or merely affiliated with and dependent on it through subsidies, tax policies, legal privileges, and ideological identification with the tendencies of the megastate, are right to perceive the rebellion as their enemy.
But the same social division between the elites and Middle America underlies the conflict over the issue of external sovereignty as well. While multinational business, the national/global security bureaucracy and its academic and thinktank allies, and transnational institutions like the IMF, the United Nations, NAFTA and GATT, etc., have developed a common interest in the erosion of sovereignty and the effective though gradual transfer of power to agencies beyond the control of the United States government or the American people, the defense of national sovereignty remains rooted in the American middle class. The conspiratorial mythology of “black helicopters” and U.N. troops occupying the country that circulates among the militias, themselves largely middle class, is direct evidence of this, though the incoherence and banality of much of the mythology suggests that those who are attracted by it possess only the most opaque comprehension of the attack on national sovereignty. Nevertheless, however dim the perception of the real threat to national identity or coherence, the very existence and widespread popularity of the mythology suggests that Middle Americans increasingly recognize that the national canopy under which they have lived and worked since the founding of the nation is beginning to vanish and that its disappearance is not merely the product of irresistible and anonymous “historical forces” but rather the result of deliberate efforts. The sinister goals that the mythology assigns to the conspiracy against sovereignty betray the profound alienation from the dominant elites that Middle Americans are beginning to feel.
The correlation of the Middle American rebellion with resistance to the contrived destruction of American nationhood should hardly be surprising. The late Christopher Lasch noted the long historical connection between nationalism and the middle class, dating from the 16th century.
A large part of the appeal of nationalism [to the middle class] lay in the state’s ability to establish a common market within its boundaries, to enforce a uniform system of justice, and to extend citizenship both to petty proprietors and to rich merchants, alike excluded from power under the old regime. The middle class understandably became the most patriotic, not to say jingoistic and militaristic, element in society. . . . Whatever its faults, middle-class nationalism provided a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference without which society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions, as the Founding Fathers of America understood so well—a war of all against all.
Though Lasch was writing of a middle class that is now fairK remote in history, the same fundamental interests explain the persisting attachment of Middle America to nationality. It is only through the protective shield that the institutions of nationhood and national sovereignty provide that men and women of the middle rank of human society can expect to receive any protection at all. Lacking the wealth, power, educational skills, and social connections to protect themselves against dominant internal elites or aggressive foreign enemies, the middle class must depend on nationhood and its affiliated institutions—constitutionalism, the political institutions of republican government that allow for the representation of middle-class interests, the legally enforceable defense of private property, the national defense of both the territory and the economic interests of the nation (which are identified with the interests of the middle class itself)—for its very existence. Any dilution of the national identity, any fracturing of the shield of sovereignty or of nationhood, then, will always be perceived, and correctly so, as a threat to the middle class, in ways that neither aristocrats nor bureaucrats, neither proletarians nor praetorians, will comprehend. Aristocracies can expect to get along even if the nation vanishes completely, and for an underclass, life will remain much the same regardless of where the buck stops.
Moreover, in the 1990’s, as Lasch also noted, the decline of the nation-state is closely connected to the decline of the middle class. Free trade and economic globalization are in part intended to flatten middle-class incomes and reduce middle-class bargaining power with businesses that can produce their goods in Mexico and Thailand. The importation of an immigrant proletariat with no historical or emotional bonds to the nation helps drive the multiculturalist and anti-white assault on middle-class institutions and cultural hegemony, and immigration is itself, as Peter Brimelow notes in his recent book on the subject, part of the “war against the nation-state.” The construction of transnational authorities in the United Nations, NATO, NAFTA, GATT, and their sisters contributes to the political subordination of the middle class to goals and policies favored by the elites that manage and benefit from the new structures.
The struggle over sovereignty, then, is not merely a verbal and academic battle over an abstraction of political theory but rather over who and what will run the country and even whether the country will continue to exist. Partisans of globalism, on both the left and the pseudo-right, may sneer at those who see threats to sovereignty in every U.N.-authorized military mission abroad and every transnational convention to manage the global environment, protect global women and children from their husbands and parents, and put global criminals on trial in global courtrooms. But the truth is that all of these and many other efforts concocted by the globalist elites in this and other countries are concerted attacks on national sovereignty, the nation-state, and the social groups that rely on sovereignty as a framework for their own existence and identity. Having disengaged, materially and psychically, from the underlying body of their national societies, these elites no longer perceive a need for nations to satisfy their economic, political, or cultural purposes. Their needs, in the form of the command of the populations, natural resources, and territories of nations, can now best be met through extranational modes of organization, and indeed, the continued existence of sovereign nations, populated by particular peoples with particular cultures, acts as a brake on and an obstacle to the satisfaction of the needs of the elites.
That, at least, is how the elites and their partisans sec it. The truth may be somewhat different, as suggested by the outcome of most international gatherings that are supposed to “manage” and “reconstruct” the global economy. Such gatherings rarely produce any results that are not dictated by the perceived national economic interests of their participants, and for all the rosy rhetoric about “one world,” a “borderless economy,” and a “New World Order,” the persistent truth is that nations continue to exist. They continue to exist simply because the people inside them live and work together in ways that are different from the ways other peoples in other nations live and work, and their political leaders, democratic or not, understand this and reflect it in what they demand for themselves and their peoples at the fancy conclaves where they are supposed to be transcending petty interests and thinking about the welfare of all mankind.
But “mankind,” as Spengler said, is a zoological expression. It has no meaning apart from its specific cultural and political incarnations, and within those incarnations there must be a controlling power somewhere, and that power is sovereignty, the place where the buck really does stop. In the epoch in which Americans now live, there is no such place for the simple reason that no social force, neither the Middle Americans who seek to decentralize power and preserve the sovereignty of the nation, nor the incumbent elites who want to keep power in the megastate and fuse it with institutions outside and beyond national control, is able to mobilize sufficient power to institutionalize its vision of what the nation should be and how it should be governed.
This is not really a bad situation, because it suggests that the power of the elites has slipped a bit while that of the Middle American resistance has prospered, at least to the point that it can sometimes restrain its adversaries. But it is not a situation that can or will last. Sooner or later, one force or another will gather sufficient power to answer the question of who is to be master, and if the nation and its defining social core are going to survive. Middle Americans need to make sure the buck stops with them.