A Hamilton Agenda for the California GOP?

Luke Phillips
Research Associate for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and Senior Correspondent at Glimpse From the Globe

With the California Republican Party as stuck as it’s ever been, it might be time for Golden State GOP politicos to recalibrate the party’s stances and messaging. And that doesn’t just mean cosmetic re-evaluations of social issues. Sure, it’s great that measures were passed at the last two statewide conventions extending olive branches to the Latino and LGBT communities, but an inclusive social strategy will be doomed to irrelevance if it isn’t matched with policy dynamism.

Unfortunately, on the policy side, the California GOP is dominated by acolytes of the state party’s most hallowed son, Ronald Reagan. Or rather, its policy agenda and ideological stances are more or less determined by a libertarian policy elite that takes too literally Reagan’s ill-advised quote, “Government IS the problem!”

There’s a lot of justification for Republicans’ anti-government worldview- public-sector unions strangle the state budget, ill-conceived regulations and an overcomplicated tax system strangle small businesses, and all the excesses of 1960s-era big government afflict the Golden State more acutely than they do most other states in the country. But “No!” is not a policy agenda, and if California Republicans want to offer voters a real alternative to green-and-blue gentry liberalism, they need to come up with an economic agenda that isn’t simply “spend less and let the market fix things!”

There are, fortunately, a few (California-based, even!) voices Golden State Republicans could mine for new policy ideas. I published a piece here last week profiling the work of Oakland’s Breakthrough Institute and Orange County’s Joel Kotkin. Breakthrough and Kotkin have very different policy focuses, but they share two important traits in common. They are roughly centrists on the contemporary ideological spectrum, and they advocate different aspects of a fundamentally pro-growth, market-based, government-activist economic program.

And as luck might have it, the founding father of that economic ideology currently has a hip-hop musical on Broadway dedicated to him. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has brought America’s forgotten Founding Father back to the 21st Century limelight. Unfortunately, the show is not as good an introduction to Alexander Hamilton’s political thought as it is to his life. But there are others who have been working to make Hamiltonian economic thinking relevant for 21st Century problems.

Some of them have been putting out work in an outlet even more surprising than Broadway- Breitbart, the far-right conservative news site. It’s not exactly a hotbed of centrist Republican ideals. But two Breitbart articles in the last year and a half have explicitly endorsed Hamiltonian policies and applied them, through historical counterfactual, to early 21st Century California.

The first, by an author under the unassuming pseudonym “Hamilton,” is narrated from the vantage point of Hamilton’s ghost itself. Hamilton sneers at the folly and incompetence of contemporary lefty elites, but then turns his pen on modern Republicans for failing to live up to their Lincolnian heritage. A perfect opportunity, he argues, has been squandered in the California drought:

“California needs a big, ambitious water program, be it from the mountains or from the oceans. And once upon a time, the Party of Lincoln–which is to say, the Hamiltonian-influenced Party of Lincoln–was all in favor of these sorts of industry-building and infrastructure-building efforts, from the Erie Canal to the Transcontinental Railroad to the Interstate Highways. The great nation we built is the testament to that vision of build, baby, build.  

Yet curiously, the Republican Party these days seems little interested in any sort of activist on-the-ground solutions. It’s almost as if there’s a tacit alliance between the greens on the left and the libertarians on the right: They both agree, for different reasons, to do nothing. And that’s why the drought in California is having such a calamitous effect, because there’s no national plan to provide more water.”

The second, by the natural contrarian operative Jim Pinkerton, is told from the point of view of a mid-21st Century politico looking back on the sources of “the Republican victory in California’s 2018 gubernatorial election.” Pinkerton has a certain talent for writing historical retroview articles for futures that haven’t happened yet, and they’re instructive every time, in their own way.

The essay is basically a series of Hamiltonian policies updated for 21st Century California’s problems, juxtaposed against Governor Jerry Brown’s “Carterism” of economic restraint and environmental deference. Against Brown’s water-rationing schemes, Pinkerton endorses the state-funded construction of coastal desalination plants. Against the green dream of ever-denser settlement, Pinkerton suggests a “New Homestead Act.” Against budget-busting investments in boondoggles like Hi-Speed Rail, Pinkerton offers up “limited debt-finance” plans for hi-tech projects from desalination to carbon sequestration to space travel.

Pinkerton views this as being nothing particularly new for either the Golden State or the Republican Party- in fact, in another era, California was literally built by a Republican Party committed to Hamiltonian economic ideas:

“In 1850, the new state of California had a population of a mere 90,000…  By 1900, the population of the Golden State had grown to almost 1.5 million, and the growing pains were real; transportation bottlenecks threatened further growth. It was time for a rational plan for infrastructure. We might note that, in those days, California was solidly Republican; voters understood that just as Hamiltonian-Lincolnian infrastructure had brought them prosperity in the 19th century, so only Hamiltonian-Lincolnian infrastructure would carry them to their full potential in the 20th century.

In a 1910 referendum, the state’s voters approved an $18 million bond issue–an enormous sum in those days–for over 3,000 miles of roads, including such key stretches as a highway to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego.    And at the same time, California boldly expanded its water-utility system: giant projects such as Hetch Hetchyand Owens River fostered the growth of Northern and Southern California.”  

Pinkerton just hopes to update the tradition for today.

So what would this “Hamilton Agenda” look like for California of 2015? What positions and mindsets could the state’s Republican Party adopt to offer the voters something truly more visionary and possible than the utopian dreams the ruling class of green-and-blue Democrats peddles?

Pinkerton’s and “Hamilton’s” proposed suggestions are a good place to start. Massive state investments and public-private partnerships for new water infrastructure, including storage systems, canals, and desalination plants, could provide a lasting supply of water at cheaper prices for consumers. Reforming the energy grid and constructing a fleet of nuclear plants could do the same for energy-and cheap, abundant energy and water are crucial for lowering the cost of living and boosting social mobility for the working and middle classes in the Golden State. Some 21st-Century version of Lincoln’s Homestead Act, offering resources essential for crafting a middle-class lifestyle, would work wonders for mobility and broad-based growth. It would probably have to feature some reform of land and housing regulations. And limited debt-finance- a policy that goes back to Hamilton’s career itself- is an ideal method for funding the technology-based infrastructure projects that forward-looking California never falls short in cooking up.

But Republicans need not abandon their current policy platform to become Hamiltonians. Indeed, on many issues relating to fiscal sanity and a better business climate- from pension and budget reform to tax, regulatory, and legal reform- Republicans are already towing the Hamiltonian line. A free and competitive market makes up one-half of the Hamiltonian equation, and it is already very much within the California GOP’s platform. Now if only the public investment half could join it there.

At crucial points in its history- most famously, the 1910s, the 1940s, and the 1960s- California has been ruled by governments not afraid to unleash the creative power of the human mind onto a fertile physical and human landscape. In so doing, the Golden State has shaped the American Dream and the American idea itself. The ideas that animated those leaders are still with us, and still relevant today- and the party that updates them for the 21st Century and puts them into practice will do great things. May the California GOP remember its state’s heritage, and its own.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.