In my last post I argued that Blue State Liberalism, the form of liberalism that dominated most of the twentieth century in American life, doesn’t work anymore as a political philosophy. That argument gets some powerful support from the latest Gallup polls: only 21% of Americans consider themselves liberals; 40% of Americans consider themselves ‘conservative’, and 35% call themselves ‘moderate’. Another Gallup poll reports that 49% of Americans say that the Democrats are “too liberal”; 38% think they are just right; only 10% think Democrats aren’t liberal enough. After two years in which Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, using their majorities to pass the most sweeping health and financial legislation in seventy years, only 17% of respondents said they are happy with the way the country is going.
Whether we are analyzing why blue liberalism doesn’t work anymore or trying to think about what kind of political synthesis could replace it, we should do something obvious and ask ourselves what it is that Americans want. We are not thinking through a political program to recommend to one of Plato’s philosopher-kings; we are asking what kind of program and what kind of results could attract the enduring support of the American voters who, in our system, have the last word on how the system is run. After all, American politics is in some ways very simple: give the people what they want and they will elect you again and again. Fail to do the job and they will look for somebody else.
It isn’t even that hard to figure out what the people want; Americans may be conflicted, but we are not particularly complicated. In a big-picture, broad-brush way, the American people by and large have a Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and we want our political leaders to meet them all.
By and large American voters want five things. First, above and before all else, they want physical safety for themselves, their loved ones and their property. We don’t want foreign people trying to invade or kill and ruin us; we don’t want criminals running wild in American streets. We want an army, a navy, an air force, a coast guard and a missile shield. We want the borders guarded and the streets patrolled. Much of the time this concern fades into the background, but when it comes to the fore, as in World War Two, the Cold War, the crime wave of the 1970s and now the CFKATGWOT (the presently anonymous Conflict Formerly Known as the Global War on Terror), Americans generally expect American politicians to pass a credibility test on this issue first of all.
The second must-have item on the American national shopping list? Americans want their standards of living to rise so that decade by decade there is a perceptible improvement and each generation is better off than its predecessor. Most of American history has worked out this way; on average, each successive generation has lived about twice as well as its parents. This is what Americans think ‘normal’ is; this is what they think the United States should be doing. If our living standards aren’t perceptibly rising, somebody is messing up.
Rising standards of living can be measured in many ways; you don’t need more money if your money or even your credit can buy more. Telephones and televisions are much better and more fun than they used to be; doctors can cure more diseases; dentists do better work with less pain. Rising house prices (and easy access to home equity credit lines) dulled the pain of slow wage growth for many Americans until the real estate crash. More than a decade of healthy, pensioned retirement for most American workers is a substantial benefit that can help offset frustration about wage growth. But whether measured in money or stuff, Americans want more – and they get restless when they aren’t getting it. Times when the economy fails to deliver the growth Americans want tend to be politically tough: like the depressed years of the 1880s and early 1890s and of course the Great Depression.
There’s another fundamental thing most Americans want: in Special Providence I called it honor. Americans don’t want to be dissed; they want to feel free, equal and in charge of their own lives. They don’t like plutocrats, snooty social hierarchies, privileged hereditary ruling elites, or intellectual and moral elites telling them how to live. They don’t like being at the mercy of large, unfeeling corporations; they don’t like having their privacy violated by public or private snoops; they don’t like standing at the DMV line like humble peasants as officious bureaucrats abuse their authority; they don’t like being talked down to and they don’t like condescension. They believe, deeply and viscerally, that the commonsense reasoning of the average person is enough to resolve political and moral questions and they don’t like it when experts try to impose counter-intuitive policy ideas (that deficits are good for you, for example).
Fourth, Americans want to feel that the United States of America is on track to fulfill its global mission. As a people our thinking about this mission tends toward the fuzzy side; are we spreading democracy, Christianity, feminism, libertarianism, capitalism or what? Should we lead by example or by bombing the bad guys into submission? Should we aim toward a rule-based international system based on legal norms and stable institutions? Or should we lead by leading, acting unilaterally if necessary to build a better world? Our answers to these questions vary, often depending on circumstance and recent history, but Americans generally feel that this unique country has some kind of unique world role and they want their political leaders to keep the country on the right course.
Finally, Americans want to believe that all four of their goals work together: that defending their security, promoting their prosperity, preserving their freedom and equality and fulfilling their world mission are all part of an integrated package and world view — and that the commonsense reasoning of the average American can understand the way the pieces fit together. They are, in other words, looking for more than a set of unrelated policies that accomplish their goals: they want those policies to proceed from some kind of integrated and accessible world view that meshes with their understanding of traditional American values and concerns. They want an ideology that links the policies of the present day to the national story and the national civic religion.
If you, Mr. or Ms. Aspiring Candidate, can deliver a policy package that most Americans think fulfills these five criteria, you will do more than win most of the elections most of the time. You will build the kind of loyalty and commitment that leads voters to forgive your occasional failures and faults and you will shift the whole political system in your direction, forcing even your opponents to work within your framework.
A generation ago, blue liberalism was pretty good at giving most of the people what they wanted, and between 1932 and 1968 blue liberals dominated American politics. From FDR to JFK (and LBJ until the Vietnam War went wrong and inflation got out of hand), liberal Democrats impressed most Americans with their ability to manage national security, build prosperity, honor the dignity of the common man and lead the world on the basis of a reasonably consistent and coherent world view. The one Republican who managed to get elected president during the only period of stable Democratic power since the Civil War was Dwight Eisenhower — a Republican who could have won the Democratic nomination in 1952 if he had wanted it, and who accepted the basic New Deal policies of the Roosevelt years and the national security policy of the Truman era.
Since that time, the terrain has shifted. From 1968 through 2010 we seem to have been in another era — one in which blue liberal candidates lost more elections than they won and the most successful Democratic president (President Clinton) was famous for embracing a key conservative talking point when he proclaimed that “The era of big government is over.” Many blue liberals hoped that President Obama’s election in 2008 meant that the tide had turned back; that hope looks less likely in late 2010.
When I say that blue liberalism can’t do the job anymore, I mean that policies based in the liberalism of the 20th century don’t seem to be able to deliver the goods. The blue social model of rising living standards based on stable manufacturing jobs for blue collar workers doesn’t work anymore. Automation and outsourcing mean that manufacturing sheds jobs in good times and bad; rapid technological change and tough international competition force companies to innovate aggressively — and stay lean.
At the same time, the appearance of intellectual elitism widely attributed to blue liberalism also offends peoples’ sense of dignity and honor. Many people seem to feel that there are too many well credentialed blue liberals telling Americans things they don’t want to hear and don’t believe — and offering solutions (like much higher energy taxes to solve global warming) that appear to take the interests and concerns of average people lightly. Blue liberals often argue that the real enemies of the average Americans aren’t the bureaucrats and the Harvard technocrats; they are the financial wizards, evil corporations and plutocratic tycoons. Maybe so — but at this point the argument doesn’t seem to be convincing many people.
The ideologies I wrote about in my last post were efforts to develop governing philosophies that in changing circumstances could meet the needs and satisfy the aspirations of the American people. Liberalism 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 — and the many minor upgrades and adjustments in between — all aimed at securing the support of the political nation (propertied white males in earlier centuries, voters today) for a mix of economic, social and international policies. Each of these ideological packages fit society reasonably well at one time but as times changed the political vision no longer seemed to fit as comfortably; America has a way of outgrowing its clothes.
In my last post I asked whether it’s time for another upgrade for liberal thought. Glancing quickly back at the last 300 years of the Anglo-American liberal tradition I argued that the meaning of liberalism has gone through at least four major shifts during that period of time. Each version of liberalism comes in as a new and forward looking vision of how to make individuals more free while still providing the stability and order we all need. Each triumphant liberal vision over time becomes stale and backward looking, to be challenged in turn by new visions and new ideas.
That I think is where we are today. Twentieth century liberalism started with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; FDR rejiggered it somewhat for the New Deal. In the 1960s and beyond liberalism continued to build on the basic concept that a powerful federal government was the friend rather than the enemy of individual liberty, and that the truly liberal thing to do was to help that government grow and take on more missions. While I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, it does seem to me that this road has reached the point of diminishing returns.
On both the left and the right today there are many people who believe that the real ideological contest in America today is between liberalism 3.0 (the more individualistic, laissez-faire kind of liberalism that dominated 19th century thought) and the more state-oriented, collectively minded liberalism 4.0 of the 20th century. 3.0 liberals denounce 4.0 liberals as betrayers of the liberal legacy who’ve taken a philosophy grounded in individual freedom and limited government and turned it into a charter for Big Government. 4.0 liberals respond that 3.0 liberals are simple reactionaries who don’t understand how the complexities of modern life make the outmoded, simplistic pieties of liberalism 3.0 wholly inadequate to the problems we face today.
Common to both these positions is the belief that the American debate today is between two versions of the past: the (presumed) free market utopia of the 19th century versus the (presumed) social utopia of the New Deal/Great Society of more recent times. If that were true, this would be a nation of conservatives fighting reactionaries; the status quo of 1970 fighting the status quo of 1880.
I think that’s wrong. The main reason is that neither 3.0 nor 4.0 can adequately address the five big things Americans want. In particular, neither 3.o nor 4.o can provide a new era of rising mass prosperity for the overwhelming majority of the American people. Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation as well as outsourcing. Neither 3.0 nor 4.0 liberals can provide the growing levels of medical and educational services we increasingly need without bankrupting the country. It seems increasingly clear beyond this that 4.0 liberalism can no longer provide a political and social system that Americans like – that satisfies the demand of Americans to be in charge of their own lives and to have no masters above them in church or state.
There are insights that 3.0 and 4.0 bring to the table that can help, but neither system can end the generation long stagnation in the wage level of ordinary American families or stop the accelerating erosion of the fiscal strength of our governments at all levels – without disastrous reductions in benefits and services on which many Americans depend.
A fundamentalist return to the 3.0 liberalism of the 19th century won’t work; here I agree with the 4.0 liberals. The American economy of the 19th century depended on conditions that we can’t reproduce today. For one thing, the economy was largely agrarian; most Americans earned their livings on family farms. In its prime the family farm provided Americans with high living standards compared to the rest of the world and gave independent farmers a sense of dignity, independence and worth. This system began to fall apart as technological progress made big farms with expensive equipment more productive than small ones; rising agricultural production here and around the world led to a long term decline in farm incomes and drove millions of Americans into the cities. The family farm no longer provided a good living — and the humiliating loss of the homestead and the migration to the city threatened to rob Americans of their dignity as well.
The industrial system of the 19th century is also not replicable today. On the one hand we had extremely high tariffs against foreign goods; on the other the national attitude toward immigration was completely laissez-faire. Through most of the nineteenth century if you got here you could stay here.
Trying to rebuild those trade walls today would lead to massive dislocations, depressions and quite likely wars around the world – not to mention wrecking the American economy and bankrupting many of both our banks and our biggest corporations. Recreating 19th century immigration policy would bring tens of millions of immigrants to our shores each year – something that few Americans are willing to contemplate.
But if 3.0 fundamentalism can’t bring back the agrarian utopia or the industrial conditions of the 19th century, blue fundamentalism won’t help us either. There is no going back to 1962. The Blue Social Model of 20th century, the great achievement of 4.0 liberalism, was rooted in conditions that we cannot replicate today. Between World War One and the 1970s – the years in which the Blue Social Model took shape and rose to power and success – the world economy was in an unusual state. International financial and trade flows were much lower than before 1914 and after 1970 due to the disruptions of the two world wars and the Great Depression. And the United States was so far ahead of the rest of the world in manufacturing (especially after almost European and Japanese factories were destroyed in World War Two) that few American companies (or workers) had anything to fear from foreign competition. Capital was much less mobile; it was much easier to tax high earners without driving savings and investment out of the country.
At the same time, Americans in the first two thirds of the twentieth century were more willing to engage in group politics than many of us are today. Industrial workers fought to build unions — and generally voted the way their leaders advised them. Ethnic groups stuck together and voted as blocs more than most of them do now. 4.0 politics generally involved negotiated agreements among party bosses and other leaders who commanded loyal followings; not many politicians today can count on this kind of unquestioning support and party structures and patronage networks are both weaker and less reliable than they used to be.
The successes of 3.0 led to its decline: rising agricultural productivity ultimately drove millions of farmers off the land; the high tariffs helped attract tens of millions of immigrants; ideas and institutions developed in a homogeneous, egalitarian and predominantly agricultural country no longer worked very well in an industrial, urban country threatened by class conflict.
The same thing happened to 4.0. Our successful manufacturing economy led us to push for free trade; that stimulated other countries to export to US markets and generated the kind of financial flows that undermined the nation-based Keynesian economic models of the 4.0 econ wizards. The rising affluence of Americans facilitated their mass migration into the suburbs where the old party organizations and ethnic and tribal loyalties broke down. More affluent and better educated voters were more individualistic and saw the system of party bosses as an obstacle to democracy rather than as a way of making it work.
Neither 3.0 nor 4.0 was stabbed in the back; they both died of success. Each version created a social system and an economy so dynamic and so inventive that ultimately the country outgrew them. Our success changed the world – and that meant we had to reinvent ourselves to prosper in the world we ourselves had done so much to make. We cannot turn back the clock – nor should we try. America’s job in the world is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past.
Americans today need to do for our times and in our circumstances what other Americans have done before us. We need to figure out how to recast classic Anglo-American liberal thought (still the cultural and moral foundation of American life and the source of the commonsense reasoning that guides most Americans as they evaluate policy ideas and party programs) in ways that address the challenges around us.
That elements of the previous versions of liberal thought will be present in any new synthesis is obvious; the apple doesn’t fall so very far from the tree. In some ways, any new synthesis will be look reasonably benign to 4.0 devotees. American public opinion, for example, continues to move toward acceptance or at least toleration of homosexuality; the same Gallup pollsters who found so many conservatives and so few liberals also found that two thirds of those polled favored the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Race is clearly less and less important to each passing generation; the passionate commitment to racial equality that was one of the greatest ideals of 4.0 liberalism will continue to transform our country, I am happy to say. Although laws on abortion may change, much of the feminist legacy will also endure. The legitimate role of government in regulating certain types of business activity is not going away, nor is the idea that government should help ensure that young people have educational opportunities and that old age should not be a time of penury and distress. Dim and hazy though my crystal ball sometimes gets, I cannot see any signs that the national parks will be sold to private enterprise — though I have my doubts about the Post Office.
In my next 5.0 post I’ll have a few thoughts about the evolution of the relationship of government and freedom in our new century.