Thomas Jefferson, the patron saint of our rural, independent vision of ourselves is buried on his scenic plantation in Virginia. His grave is also about half a mile, as the vulture flies, from Interstate 64 on the fringe of beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia. Hamilton had the last laugh. Jefferson’s house is in the suburbs.
So if the ideals of Jefferson – a strictly limited government fostering a rural society in which individual property rights are supreme – are what resonate with most Americans, why is Hamilton so important? Because Hamilton’s vision of America’s economic and social future has become our reality. In the 21st century, a very small number of people live on a family farm or in any sort of a rural area.
This is not because Americans love cities. We generally don’t. But it is nearly impossible to participate in the overwhelming prosperity generated by a post-modern lifestyle while living a hundred miles from the nearest airport. We love our freedom, but money is a powerful magnet. So while we dream of open fields, the cities swell and the countryside shrivels. Jefferson rests uneasy beside the humming Interstate.
Want proof that we prefer Jefferson’s vision, but crave Hamilton’s prosperity? Consider the suburb. Rural life has so far receded from the non-vacation portion of our world that it hardly lingers as a cultural force. The social divide in our time is not between the country mouse and the city mouse. It is between the ‘urb and the ‘burb.
The very existence of suburbs owes to our lingering nostalgia for Jefferson’s lost America. Here, within striking distance of Hamilton’s distasteful, urban melting pots, Americans who yearn for open space and quiet can still have a half-acre taste of Jefferson’s dream. The houses are far enough apart to feel independent of one another. Such government as exists there is focused on providing schools and parks, the minimum elements of public capital needed to best provide for child-rearing. For these communities are almost exclusively chosen by adults in their middle, child-rearing years – those productive years that draw us into Hamilton’s orbit. When the children are safely raised and enough money is accumulated, we will usually move on – often away from the city altogether – perhaps to a faux-farm in the country or a vacation home.
Suburban living is the way that America retains its Jeffersonian soul while benefiting from the Hamiltonian wealth machine. The ‘burbs are great. I live in one. But the culture and politics of the ‘burbs are deeply contradictory. They are based on a dream of rural self-sufficiency; a grudging, and steadily eroding resistance to the magnetic economic force of the ‘urbs. As a consequence, the politics that rises from them often has the shrill desperation of a last stand. It is here, in the nether land between our rural memory and our urban reality that the Republican Party is working out its future.
It is in John McCain’s version of a Republican future that we perhaps come closest yet to a workable compromise between Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s vision. In McCain’s politics, many of Jefferson’s core ideals of honor, civic virtue, representative democracy, and personal liberty find a bridge into a Hamiltonian world of the reasonably regulated urban marketplace. But then there is Palin on our other shoulder, screaming that we should ignore the lying ‘Washington insiders;’ that we can still have the dream. The voice insists that we can, and morally should, all shoot bears and guzzle crude. We can have the city-driven prosperity we crave without surrendering a single writ of our individual will. By God, I will teach my kids to shoot in the back yard, yet. Bless you Sarah!
And we can, of course, have the kind of poorly regulated urban existence that the Palin-types would give us. It’s not hard to create and you can get it by making no choices or plans at all. If you don’t believe me, do some research on Cairo or Kinshasa or San Salvador (or Houston?). No rules, no problem.
What isn’t available, at least not in a practical sense, is Jefferson’s pure, pre-capitalist vision in our modern Hamiltonian world. Reality is a bitch and Jefferson sleeps in the suburbs.
Our best future lies not in the wholesale rejection of one mode of politics or the other. Our best outcome would rise from finding common ground. There are ways that we can live with effective regulation and free enterprise. It can be done. But, how?