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Utopia, Vision, and Narrative: Is there a real Philip Dru out there?
If you don’t like White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and the effect he’s having on American politics, take heart: his polar opposite is out there somewhere. A century ago a real man who in his day was every bit as powerful as Bannon is now, left a fictional blueprint of how progressives can reconquer the political space they’ve lost with the election of President Donald Trump. The name of this “anti-Bannon” is Colonel Edward M. House (pictured right with hat), and he has a story for our times.
How do utopian literary fantasies help to shape the future, as the world’s political pendulum swings between left and right?
Such fantasies are the source material, or founding myth, upon which many political leaders base the narratives they use to persuade and inspire. Without utopias, there can be no vision to communicate.
Utopian writing of a libertarian stamp has certainly provided the main intellectual underpinning and gloss of respectability for established right-wing doctrines, as evidenced by Ayn Rand’s 1957 fiction “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s apocalyptic 1944 economic treatise “The Road to Serfdom.”
Without these publications, the Reagan-Thatcher years would have been quite different. And neither, perhaps, would Donald Trump – with his simple utopian promise to “Make America Great Again” – today be President of the United States.
So, who are the intellectual godfathers on the left of the political aisle, to be pressed into service at this time when liberal forms of social democracy everywhere are in full retreat before this populist, nationalist tide?
Search me. There’s simply no vision out there. The red utopia is a dead utopia.
And it turns out there’s almost no visionary writing about a compelling future might look like. Everything I read is a tired rehash of the same-old 1970s era social democratic vision, that is today losing elections everywhere. There is no “Alt-Progressive” thought leadership.
In today’s world want and fear has replaced generosity. So neither communitarianism nor sustainability nor global commons nor triple bottom line can hope to make a truly persuasive case against the objectivism of the intellectual heirs of Rand, Hayek and Milton Friedman – let alone today’s populist heckling for looser gun control and banking laws, tighter immigration restrictions, or the undisciplined baying for economic protectionism.
So, for an age when the right has visibly triumphed by demonstrating that playing by the old rules of politeness and decorum is for wimps, the time has come for a far more muscular response from the left. In a world beset by ethical (or unethical) egoism and individual anarchism, the ideals driving social democracy need to man up or fail.
Step forward Philip Dru, a forgotten American hero from a century ago. He embodies much of the American progressive/liberal mindset. And he fights back.
Philip Dru: Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow, 1920-1935 is a utopian novel published anonymously in 1912. The book might de dismissed as a primitive ancestor of Primary Colors, the 2006 novel by Joe Klein. Or it may just be seen as a blueprint for muscular resistance to the new populist orthodoxy at a time when dissenting voices are crushed.
Philip Dru, for all its literary shortcomings (it was panned by New York Times reviewer Walter Lipmann and passed into publishing oblivion), is a counter-Trump story for the Trump era. It’s about how to fix a breakdown in democracy, not by patient political process – but through resistance and armed struggle.
With his “lust for action and battle,” this “lithe young Kentuckian” who is the youngest of seven sons, is a bit like an early Marvel comic superhero. Philip Dru has “remarkable insight into character,” and is a flawless leader, totally dedicated to the welfare of the nation.
It was written by Edward Mandell House, a Democratic political fixer who was chief adviser to President Woodrow Wilson during his 1913-1921 administrations. In fact House played a near-identical role today filled by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in the Trump administration. But unlike Bannon, House was almost invisible despite the president calling him “my alter ego.”
A more predictable token of this remarkable career was the four-volume Intimate Papers of Colonel House, which my father gave me years ago, telling me I too was distantly related to this Texas politician whose ancestors hailed from Somerset, England.
So there I was reading Charles E Neu’s 2015 biography (as much for the vanity of the name check as anything else) when I stumbled on the story of Philip Dru, written against the backdrop of William Howard Taft’s failing, dispute-ridden Republican presidency.
Its plot describes a fictional future in the United States around 1920, when democracy has broken down due to plutocracy and corruption in the eastern states, bringing about a second civil war. The eponymous hero, an idealistic young army officer representing the western states, assembles a large military force to march on Washington, seizes power and appoints himself “Administrator of the Republic.”
As a benign dictator dedicated to restoring justice, peace and civic efficiency, Dru successfully institutes a new Anglo-Saxon world order. Then after seven years he simply vanishes from the scene, as the nation is healed and democracy restored.
Philip Dru is set in a moment when fictional bad guy Senator Selwyn’s corrupt political machine – serving plutocracy and foreign interests – has subverted American democracy. So entrenched are the ills that the only way out is war and dictatorship. If you like, it’s the use of American Constitution’s Second Amendment by the Left, not the Right.
Naïve political whimsy perhaps. Yet the story has extraordinary resonance in our own era of polarisation and bitter division between the exultant new “haves” of political and economic nationalism, and the “have-nots” of the now-displaced liberal, globalizing elite.
The book’s opening paragraph (set at a West Point graduation in 1920) presents a picture of American society that resembles the late Obama years: “Wealth had grown so strong, that the few were able to strangle the many, and among the great masses of the people, there was sullen and rebellious discontent.”
House – an old-style southern Democrat who pushed Wilson’s own progressive political agenda and who as an amateur diplomat attempted both to avert World War I and to prevent the future seeds of World War II being sown inside the Treaty of Versailles – would have been appalled by today’s politics. And he knew how to turn his own wishes into facts.
If charisma is the art of influencing other people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done, then House – despite his near-invisible public profile – had it in spades. The proof is that many of the political achievements ascribed to Philip Dru in the fiction (such as forming the Federal Reserve, tariff reduction and the Great Freedoms) were later carried out in fact, during the Wilson years.
Were he alive today House, as a progressive visionary, would have wanted to do something about a system that may now be too degraded to fix without a rupture of the kind he indicates in his own utopian fantasy.
Those who despair that the democratic process in the US has been subverted by Kremlin interests, and by specialists exploiting the power of Big Data to change electoral outcomes, might imagine uncanny parallels between the fictional 105-year old narrative and today’s reality.
Certainly, the role reportedly played by UK company Cambridge Analytica in turning the US election for President Trump, and the close ties between this shadowy data company and key financial backers including billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, now installed in the White House, give grave cause for concern.
Should any future conflict come and a civil war erupts, the battle will this time be fought with megabits, not bullets. Facebook profiling and massive search algorithms powering Cambridge Analytica’s Groundgame app will be used on the doorstep to determine which army voters will march in — new Confederate or new Unionist. Perhaps a new “anti-Groundgame” app is being developed in a programmer’s bedroom.
In a nutshell, Donald Trump became President of the United States in large part by exploiting a populist narrative. The “Make America Great Again” narrative was, in turn, based on rightist utopian fantasies published 70 years ago. These fantasies were in themselves responses to the fear of Communism and the Soviet Union.
The Democrats, by contrast, made use of no such organising utopian fantasy upon which to build a future narrative. So the vision they presented failed to attract enough voters and they lost. Without its own compelling utopian fantasy, social democracy will never claw back power.
As one House to another, I can say: “Interesting book; but can the real Philip Dru now please step forward.” Idealism is not enough; he will need to be a fighter too.
Meek-spirited liberals still cling to the belief that the now-entrenched populists will some day contemplate a return to alternation of power, despite controlling the White House; both houses of Congress; (soon) the Supreme Court, and (thanks to Cambridge Analytica) the electoral process too. Populism is digging in for the long haul.
So at a recent CPAC meeting, Bannon issued a warning his doppelgänger Philip Dru would certainly have understood: “If you think they are going to give you your country back without a fight you are sadly mistaken, every day it is going to be a fight.”