All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1996

America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics

A Distinctly American View of Culture and Politics

Mr. Pavlik is associate editor of The Freeman and editor of Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn, published by FEE.

Bill Kauffman’s new book is a mix of biographical essays, historical commentary, and contemporary criticism. America First! sets out to describe a way of looking at the culture and politics of the United States that is distinctly American. In one sense, it is a history of nativist populism and isolationist sentiment. On the other hand, Kauffman mixes in to the equation a strain of aristocratic, blue-blood Americanism that makes it harder to pin his America Firsters down on class lines. When applied to contemporary politics, Kauffman lumps together Gore Vidal, Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot under one roof. And, as he explains, they “fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: the true puzzle [is] how it could ever have been otherwise.”

Kauffman’s seemingly odd union makes sense because Vidal, Brown, Buchanan, and Perot all react against the United States Empire in one way or another. Kauffman pines for an older America that minded its own business and made virtue of republicanism. As he asks in the conclusion: “do we really want to live in an America in which the flickering image of a starving Rwandan on CNN is more immediate to us than the plaintive cries of the hungry girl down the road; a world in which young Americans don blue helmets and travel halfway around the world to enforce the resolutions of the United Nations, while in small towns across America volunteer fire departments are undermanned?” He’ll have none of the globaloney that dominates the contemporary intellectual scene. He holds up American dissident voices for admiration, not because they are dissidents, but because they’re still Americans.

What emerges is a brief for Jeffersonian decentralism, strict noninterventionism in foreign squabbles, and authentic localism in politics, business, and life. He lays out his ideal through the lives of Americans who shared this vision in some way: Hamlin Garland, the midwest literary populist; Amos R. E. Pinchot, the wealthy, cantankerous left-wing populist described by historian Arthur Ekirch as “better than anyone, except perhaps A. J. Nock in our time, . . . a precursor of the libertarian movement”; literary master Edmund Wilson, who hated war and refused to pay income taxes on principle; Gerald Nye and John T. Flynn, heroes of the Old Right resistance to the Roosevelt New Deal and War Deal; Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore and nemesis of Franklin; Sinclair Lewis, literary champion of small town America; Gore Vidal, whose foreward to America First! doesn’t shrink from reminding the reader how much of our supposed “defense” budget is squandered in the service of the American Empire; “the other Arkansas Bill,” isolationist Senator William J. Fulbright; Edward Abbey, Earth First! Luddite and hill-billy particularist; and a gaggle of other notables who exemplified what it means to be an American.

The last half of the book or so is comprised of essays on rebuilding an America First movement around the republican principles championed in the first half. It brings to mind another recent book on American politics: David Frum’s Dead Right. Not because there are any meaningful parallels, but because Kauffman’s outstanding analysis will go largely unpromoted and ignored by the big journals of liberalism and conservatism, while Frum’s neo-conservative work remained the talk of the New York-Washington establishment for months. Frum vigorously promoted the global activist-beltway Right, gently chiding them for their over-reliance on big government. In contrast, he treats America Firsters and Old Right holdovers as neanderthals and mossbacks—more fit for the fever swamps than the intellectual scene. It speaks volumes about the price of dissent in America. Between the two wings of the ruling class of faux liberals and faux conservatives, “there’s not,” to quote another America Firster, “a dime’s worth of difference.”

My only complaint about the book is that it is too short. There are so many America First heroes, most of whom fell on the wrong side of history, that it is an absolute necessity to revive their memory. A secondary problem which emerges from its brevity is that the book seems to be plagued by gaps. It jumps from progressive to Old Right to anti-Cold War figures without filling in the details of their struggles. It doesn’t convey the feeling that many of these individuals represented—and still do represent—mass public sentiment, rather than cranky-but-correct views. Nevertheless, America First! is a highly relevant and readable book from start to finish. It deserves the attention I’m sure it won’t get.

  • Mr. Pavlik was director of The Freeman Op-Ed Program at The Foundation for Economic Education. He was editor of Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn, to be published by FEE next month.