LP #23: America’s Cathedrals
Author: Gary Winslett
In the last essay, I alluded to the politics of vibes. This essay makes a full turn to that. It is relatively easy to rattle off a list of policy areas where libertarians and progressives hold similar or at least compatible ideas (and many of them have been addressed or will be addressed in this series), but then that creates something of a puzzle. If they so frequently agree on policy, why do they so rarely identify with each other? I’d argue that one of the biggest reasons is that they have very different politics when it comes to vibes.
That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case though and the National Parks are an example of a political space where not just the policy prescriptions but the vibes that progressives and libertarians are each into can work in harmony.
What I Mean By ‘The Politics of Vibes’
Marc Lynch has written about America’s Duke problem. His argument, drawing on the 2010 NCAA men’s national title basketball game, is that on the global stage America sees itself as Butler, a plucky underdog, but in reality is actually Duke, the team that wins a lot and that has all the best resources and a perceived sense of entitlement. Anyone who follows college basketball and U.S. foreign policy will immediately understand these references and probably be persuaded by this analogy. But why? Why is this argument so evocative?
It is because Lynch is not getting at values, not really. He is getting at vibes. Anyone who knows NCAA men’s basketball knows the vibes Duke basketball has around it and understands the ideational baggage that comes with that. The vibes around Duke basketball are, in important respects, what define Duke basketball. They are why people watch and why people care. Without the vibes, they’re just another team with blue jerseys playing an elaborate game with a bouncy orange ball. The vibes of Buffalo as a city and the Buffalo Bills as a team were why it was so painful to watch them lose a heart-breaker to the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL playoffs last weekend. Vibes matters and they are at least as important in politics as they are in sports.
It may seem that I am making fun when I say this, but I promise I’m not; when progressives talk about their values and conservatives talk about their first principles, what they are often talking about might be more accurately thought of instead as vibes. By vibes, I mean the way a society or a place in society feels along with what that says about that place’s highest priorities and most foundational ideas. There is signaling going on in vibes but it is not an empty signaling. It is an earnest, sincere signaling about how we think we ought to live together, about what we owe each other, and about what rights we have as individuals. Different political persuasions like different vibes because they have different answers to those questions. Social conservatives like the vibes of a married couple- the man a worker and the woman a homemaker- with multiple children and all of them praying at the dinner table. Economic leftists like the vibes of labor unions and solidarity strikes, of everyone looking out for everyone else, of the feeling that no one will be left behind, and of ‘fighting the power.’ These desired vibes are not values in and of themselves but they are the embodiment of certain values, the living, breathing, in-full-color aesthetic manifestation of those first principles.
Even though they are almost never explicitly acknowledged, vibes are super important to people. There is a reason that advertisements for Ford F-150s and Subaru Outbacks look the way they do. Ford and Subaru are selling vibes. A huge proportion of the purchases people make is about vibes, and so too is a huge proportion of their politics. None of this is to say that progressives or conservatives don’t have values. They surely do, but those values are not dry, decontextualized, purely philosophical things. Rather, those values are encased and encoded in how people want the places in society they inhabit to look and to feel, in what those people want those places to praise and to admonish.
Libertarians’ and Progressives’ Sometimes Dueling Vibes
DEI initiatives get mocked for their excesses sometimes but those three initials (diversity, equality, and inclusion) do get at some of the vibes that progressives most strongly like. Progressives think diversity is exciting and fun and that valuing diversity creates openness, not just a cold tolerance but a welcoming-ness towards different kinds of people. Progressives like me like egalitarian vibes over a sense of hierarchy. The rub for libertarians is that creating those vibes often does create the need for some kind of authority that will marginalize opponents of diversity and that will act to create equality where there is a perceived lack of it. In case you haven’t noticed, libertarians don’t love authority vibes or the sense that the government is being too activist.
Some libertarians prize a Gadsden Flag vibe that strikes progressives as misanthropic. Even the ones like me who don’t go that far do like a certain go-it-alone individualism. We like a vibe of ‘I get to do what I want and you get to do what you want’ over a sense of ‘we’re all a team here.’ The rub for progressives is that this kind of individualism does inevitably leave some people behind. In case you haven’t noticed, progressive outright reject Ayn Randian individualism and tend to view even milder forms of individualism as dressed-up selfishness.
It’s this distaste for each other’s preferred vibes that, I think, is the most substantial impediment to progressives and libertarians working together. But what if there is another way to think about it? What if each group’s preferred vibes can work together? What if progressives’ commitment to equality and to everyone being welcome could mesh with the wide-open horizons and love of freedom that libertarians cherish?
The National Parks as Cathedrals to Libertarian-Progressive Vibes
The National Parks “are a treasure house of nature’s superlatives. 84 million acres of the most stunning landscapes anyone has ever seen……But they are more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature. They embody something less tangible yet equally enduring, an idea born in the United States nearly a century after its creation, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical. What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, the most magnificent places, the palaces, the parks, are owned by the aristocrats, by monarchs, by the wealthy. In America, magnificence is a common treasure.”
That reads to me like that meshing of libertarian and progressive vibes. The freest, most majestic, most soul-expanding spaces in the United States are open to everyone equally. Europe has its cathedrals. America has its National Parks. It is difficult not to wax lyrical about them: the inviting ruggedness of Acadia, Yosemite’s grandiosity, the thrill of the Narrows and Angel’s Landing in Zion, the delightful strangeness of Mammoth Cave, the Petrified Forest’s reach back into unfathomable time, Hawaii Volcanoes’ mesmerizing re-enactment of primordial creation, the ease with which one can disappear in Canyonlands, the Everglade’s understated wildness. All 63, even the less widely known ones like Isle Royale and Dry Tortugas, are sublime. Every one of them is open to all, every one of them provides near-limitless freedom and they, like America itself, are hyper-diverse.
The National Parks are outdoorsy, wholesome, timeless, environmentalist, and free. They are fun and welcoming and vast. The government did not create them, but the government does have some role in managing them. This sort of understanding of the National Parks, as an embodiment of the best that is in our politics and the best that is in our country, also holds out hope for attracting a certain kind of conservative to the libertarian-progressive cause. For a while, there was a thing called ‘Creation Care’ which was, essentially, Christian environmentalism. The Bible says that people are stewards of God’s creation, that we have a responsibility to not unnecessarily despoil nature and to preserve its awesomeness for our children and our children’s children. That’s not only a true argument and an argument for goodness, it is quite possibly the best way to sell action aimed at halting climate change to Evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Though there may continue to be a raging culture war on other fronts, it may be the case that more emphasis on preserving the National Parks could get religiously-oriented conservatives to see that protecting the environment is in fact a deeply conservative thing to do. There are groups like the American Conservation Council (ACC), which is a small-c conservative movement of young people who do care about the environment (instead of performatively rolling coal). Groups like the ACC ought to be reached out to. They are good people. They deserve support, recognition, and respect.
The National Parks also speaks to a certain kind of ambition, a determination to explore, to see, and to do. If you go to these places you will see things that are impossibly grand in their beauty and it will stretch your understanding of what is and is not possible. If you go to these places, you will begin to understand how wide and wild and wonderful this country and this planet are. If you go to these places, you will think about both the preciousness of your own independence and the responsibilities that your connections to others imply.
No places on Earth more perfectly capture the wholesome ambition embodied in the word ‘freedom.’ They allow each of us as equal individuals not just to be equal but to do what we like and to be who we are. I can take this trail and you can take that one. I can hike the mountain. You can watch the buffalo. I can picnic at Rainier. You can snorkel at Biscayne.
No places in America are more resolutely egalitarian. Wandering among the hoodoos at Bryce, we can all get a little turned around. Beneath the night-sky heavens at Arches, we are all just children of God. And what’s more, those places are open to everyone. They are our commonly held magnificence. If you want to understand the policy prescriptions promoted by a libertarian-progressive synthesis, read the other essays in this series, but if you want to understand the vibes of a libertarian-progressive synthesis, head to a National Park.
 Ken Burns. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Minutes 9 and 10 of Episode 1.