America and the Art of the Possible, and philanthropy

Jan 19, 2023

Part of post-frontier America’s failed “managerial elite.”

“[O]ur ability to accomplish great things as a nation has waned in recent decades,” laments Christopher Buskirk in his new America and the Art of the Possible: Restoring National Vitality in an Age of Decay from Encounter Books. “One reason is a fading sense of national identity and purpose.”

Buskirk is publisher and editor of American Greatness. With American Greatness and along with two previous books—2018’s Trump vs. the Leviathan and, with Seth Leibsohn, 2017’s American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election & What the Establishment Needs to Learn—Buskirk has become a leading thinker, explainer, and defender of a more aggressively anti-establishment conservatism in the country. He’s shown an enthusiastic willingness to critique what some might consider the conservative establishment, too

In America and the Art of the Possible, he broadly sketches how American elites have prospered while the middle class has stagnated during the past half century—calling into serious question what at least had once been the accepted, basic, underlying premise that a meritocratic elite should be credited with, and respected for, creating a “rising tide to lift all boats.” This privileged elite has failed to uphold that premise—along the way, and increasingly along it, seriously straining the country’s common identity and purpose.

Buskirk informatively contemplates the differing natures of elites throughout history. While the book is not about philanthropy, however, the American elite he’s criticizing certainly includes the country’s overwhelmingly progressive, establishment philanthropies.

Identity, centrality, oligarchy

“America’s national identity was shaped in large part by the frontier and the long push westward across a continent,” as he describes it. “When the frontier closed, that aspect of the American character was set, and the nation’s restless energy then went out into a global project—which has now largely run its course.

According to Buskirk, “The twentieth century brought a rapid centralization of power, starting in the Progressive Era, accelerating with the New Deal, and never stopping until it reached the logical limit of what was possible with the technology and resources at the federal government’s disposal.”

The supposedly meritocratic elite at the centralized helm of the country’s post-frontier, post-Progressive Era, and post-New Deal project was marked by managerialism, among other things. “That centralization created a new social class that is functionally an oligarchy,” as he tells it, citing James Burnham as characterizing

part of it as the professional managerial class or ‘managerial elite.’ Those are the people of the modern oligarchy. Its central institutions are universities and the media. They are the status-granting, sensemaking institutions that set the goals and define the boundaries of acceptable thought and action. The adjacent institutions with political and economic power are primarily instrumental, implementing the agenda and enforcing the values defined by universities and media. Those institutions include the permanent bureaucracy, the judiciary, NGOs, and large corporations, which increasingly are controlled not by their founders, CEOs, or operating executives, but by Human Resources, Legal, and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) departments. Most ambitious people aspire to membership in these institutions.

(Parentheses in original.)

The NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, to which Buskirk refers are funded by big philanthropy. He quotes Michael Lind accurately noting the managerial elite’s presence at the top of the private, public, and nonprofit sectors all, with oft-exercised “lateral mobility” between them—producing a cross-sectoral “common mentality, tending toward Orwellian groupthink.”

This protective mentality, while collectively well-credentialed and definitely deft with data, cannot be and has not been innovative in the way Americans used to be—when, in contrast, “vertical mobility” could and did mark such innovation.

Recapturing, rebuilding, and revitalizing; re-examining, reconsidering, and maybe relinquishing?

Buskirk calls at the end of America and the Art of the Possible for the nation to once again do great things—big projects for a big country, the one that once conquered the frontier. He admirably presents a positive, optimistic, forward-looking agenda.

It includes rebuilding America’s energy infrastructure; a comprehensive national project to achieve an expectation that the average American will live to 100 years old; various measures to promote better family formation; improving education in several ways; blockchain-based decentralization of finance, media and the internet; building new cities with wide latitude for innovation; and a large, long-term commitment to restoring America’s agricultural lands.

In Buskirk’s big-projects’ framing language, one might sense some inclinations of the old “National Greatness Conservatism”—which, depending on how conservative populism ends up redefining or refining conservatism more largely, may or may not actually be consonant with it. But, he writes, we can achieve big goals like these through decentralization and smaller institutions—along with strong families, religion, innovation in governance, and “room for visionaries to experiment.”

“We need to recapture the frontier mindset that pulled us forward as a nation for much of our history,” Buskirk concludingly and inspiringly argues in the book. “A frontier is a challenging place full of unknown risks, a place where ingenuity and cooperation are necessary for survival.

“When the American frontier closed, we became more risk-averse,” he goes on, “as well as more fractious and self-interested. We can get our vitality back by opening new frontiers, if only metaphorical ones.”

Buskirk doesn’t call for it, at least not explicitly, but wouldn’t revitalizing a frontier mentality realistically mean that some of the contemporary, laterally mobile, managerial elites’ privileges that are promoted and protected in public policy should be re-examined, reconsidered, and maybe relinquished? If so, perhaps those privileges of establishment philanthropy that are promoted and protected in policy shouldn’t be anymore, either.