Some readers are wondering why I am spending so much time analyzing the political problems of a former vice president. It is not out of any personal animus toward Mr. Gore. Though I’m not expecting any invitations to any of Mr. Gore’s lovely homes, the doors to the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens are always open should the ex-Veep want to drop in for a hot cup of joe.
My interest in the decay of the former vice president’s public position is partly because — like Jimmy Carter — he has had such an active post-Washington career. Not even Ronald Reagan won an Oscar, and Reagan (though he deserved it) never got a Nobel. Gore’s signature issue, the climate, is a major one, and Al Gore has been at the center of the most important movement of international civil society since the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s.
The serial rise and fall of these vacuous civil society movements and the peculiar grip they exercise over the minds of some otherwise intelligent people is an important subject: why do so many people who want to help solve global problems waste so much time and money and, sometimes, do so much harm? Is there some way to harness that energy and idealism to causes and strategies that might do more good? What does the repeated rise and fall of clueless but well educated and well placed enthusiasts teach us about the state of our civilization and the human condition? Are there ways we could nip these Malthusian panics and idealistic feeding frenzies in the bud? Is there some way we could teach future generations to be a little smarter about politics and power so that the 21st century, which is going to have plenty of serious problems, might spend less time chasing mares’ nests?
More than that, the former vice president’s troubles don’t just reflect his personal ideas and limits. Gore’s errors are exemplary: by studying where he goes wrong we can see how a substantial section of our ruling elite has lost its way. Al Gore is steeped in the Blue Social Model that I’ve been posting about; his social imagination has been so molded by modern American progressivism and the liberalism of the late 20th century that he literally cannot conceive of solutions in any terms the conventional center-left wisdom doesn’t make room for.
The trouble and even the tragedy of Al Gore is that he comes at the tail end of this tradition; he is a living example of what you get when a worldview outlives its time. He presses the old buttons and turns the old cranks, but the machine isn’t running any more. The priests dance around the altar, the priestess chews the sacred herbs, but the god no longer speaks. Like President Obama watching a universal healthcare program that he thought would secure his place in history turn into an electoral albatross and a policy meltdown, Al Gore thought that in the climate issue he had picked a winning horse. Judging from his Rolling Stone essay he has no idea why the climate movement failed, and no clue at all about how he could re-think the issue.
“Climate of Denial,” Vice President Gore’s “Rolling Stone” essay is not, I am sorry to say, very useful as a guide to resuscitating the environmental movement. It is largely reduced to the classic loser sandlot complaints: the other side didn’t play fair, they had bigger kids and the refs were biased. Al Gore seems to want the climate movement to behave like the French Bourbons: to forget nothing in the way of grievances — and to learn nothing about how to do better next time.
But if “Climate of Denial” doesn’t teach us how environmentalists can have more success, it does help us understand what’s wrong with Mr. Gore. The essay begins with one of his earliest childhood memories when young Master Gore (as southern boys from the better white families were then still addressed) was taken to a professional wrestling match at the Fork River Elementary School gym in Elmswood, Tennessee.
Al Gore as a young man (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The boy was perplexed: the wrestlers seemed to be really fighting, but the whole thing somehow seemed scripted. Worse, the referees weren’t doing their jobs. When the bad guys hit the good guys with a metal chair, the referees were somehow not paying attention, but when, as Gore puts it, “the good guy — after absorbing more abuse and unfairness than any person could tolerate — committed the slightest infraction, the referee was all over him.”
For Gore, this is an eerily accurate representation of the current state of the climate debate and indeed of our society as a whole: the bad guys (Big Oil, coal companies, Republicans) commit all kinds of lies and infractions, and the crooked referee as played by the press only has eyes for the rare and venial slips of the good guys — the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri and of course the former vice president.
It is likely that Mr. Gore has no idea just how much this passage reveals about the limits of his social vision and political understanding. For one thing, then and now Gore misses the point of professional wrestling as popular entertainment. Among other things, professional wrestling works as a kind of folk satire — and well meaning progressives and professionals like Mr. Gore are among its targets. The clownish referee represents exactly the well intentioned bumblers who seek to arbitrate and rationalize the endless competition between the good and the bad guys. It is the way much of the working class looks at ivory tower intellectuals, nanny state do-gooders and what in Mark Twain’s day people could still call “the old women of both sexes” who fussed self-importantly around like New York Times editorial writers, levying moral judgments and thinking they were accomplishing something.
In other words, the referee in a professional wrestling match strikes a chord in popular culture in part because he is a representation of the class which sets itself up in our society as the arbiter and judge: the professional elite, the expert and the chattering classes. The referee at a wrestling match is a populist portrait of the FCC, the NLRB, NPR, the New York Times editorial board and everyone else who does exactly what Al Gore would like to spend his whole life doing: judging mankind impartially and ruling them well. The referee is part of the entertainment who is funny in part because he thinks he is above the fray.
Al Gore thinks of himself as a friend of the common man and a tribune of the people against the selfish and wicked elites (the bad wrestlers hitting the poor good guys with those horrid metal chairs); he wants to be an honest and competent referee in the wrestling match, bringing decorum and order and fairness to an anarchic sport.
Al Gore is rooted in two distinct but related American traditions: genteel Southern liberalism and the Northeastern establishment. His father, Al Gore Senior, was a relatively liberal Tennessee politician who served in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. (The senior Gore also worked for oil and coal companies and farmed tobacco; the younger Gore seems to feel he has much to live down.) The elder Gore was relatively liberal on civil rights — voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but supporting the 1965 Voting Rights Act and Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew denounced him as the Tennessee representative of the New England establishment.
The reality was more complex. There is a long tradition of relatively liberal Southern gentlemen who quietly but sometimes forcefully dissented from certain aspects of the region’s racial and political legacies. Think Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird defending the illiterate, disabled Negro against the mob of white trash, or Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind. In real life, these men were often educated up North, usually at places like Princeton and Harvard and Yale, where their gentry Southern elitism was reinforced by the intellectual and socialism elitism of the Ivy League.
Ashley Wilkes, played by Leslie Howard (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)
Woodrow Wilson, the Virginia-born Princeton professor who ended up in the White House proposing global peace agreements as unrealistic as Gore’s climate treaty is the archetypal example of the blend of Southern and Northern elite WASP culture and politics. Wilson believed in democracy but not in the people; well educated, well intentioned and well behaved moral leaders needed to guide the masses lest in their ignorance and weakness they fall under the sway of unscrupulous demagogues. North and South the progressives believe that the masses need to be governed: they will drink too much without Prohibition, they will drive too much unless gasoline is heavily taxed, they will eat the wrong things, the poor weaklings, if we allow fried food in the school cafeteria.
Al Gore junior was as perfectly primed for the life of a gentry progressive as it is possible to be. The son of a senator, he was educated at St. Albans and Harvard. When, after working as a journalist investigating corruption (an honest referee in a dirty game), he learned that his father’s old House seat had become vacant, Al Gore ran and was elected. Atticus Finch, reporting for duty.
Unfortunately, Gore’s life has coincided with declining public interest in the kind of elite liberal leadership he was trained to provide. The shift of the white South away from the Democratic Party is sometimes portrayed as simple white flight from a Democratic Party that was embracing Black voters. This is a part of what happened; what also happened was that as Southern whites were gradually becoming better educated and more urban, they were no longer interested in the two types of leadership the Democrats traditionally offered: Atticus Finch and George Wallace. Neither the gentry progressive nor the race-baiting demagogue spoke to the white South very clearly anymore and the rise of the Republican Party in the South brought new kinds of discourse and new kinds of politics to a South that had less and less room for the Gores.
Beyond the South, the idea of better governance through specially trained and impartial experts has been losing favor from one end of the United States to the other. In 1911, only a handful of Americans had a college education. Southern sharecroppers and northern mill workers had little education and little leisure time for politics. Today growing numbers of Americans resent and reject the tutelage of well meaning elites — and they view with suspicion the claims of ‘experts’ to be dispassionate and disinterested custodians of the public good. They don’t see civil servants as unselfish and apolitical experts who can be trusted to regulate and rule; they see them as a lobby like any other, a special interest more interested in preserving fat pensions and easy working conditions — and at foisting their own ideological hobby horses and preferences on the public at large.
Al Gore is not wrong to see that the media is changing into something that feels more like professional wrestling than like the hallowed network news broadcast in the Cronkite era. The public at large increasingly sees journalists as entertainers rather than arbiters. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” play this for all it is worth and increasingly the myth of the objective journalist is yielding to the idea of the engaged party frankly promoting an agenda. Mr. Gore may deplore this transition and yearn for the days when a handful of senior newsmen told the country what the news really was; millions of Americans don’t want to go back. They don’t think Dan Rather can be trusted and they feel that a news show which has a clear and even entertaining bias is more interesting and perhaps even more honest than one which cloaks itself in pretentious but questionable claims to authority and objective truth.
The tradition of politics and public service that Gore knows and believes in — a powerful government run by well educated technocrats and gentlemen protecting the masses from dangers they do not understand and which they cannot overcome on their own — periodically comes under attack from Jacksonian populists.
The most common thing that people who do not like Al Gore’s politics say about him is that they find his speaking method “condescending”. He often comes across like a middle school teacher trying to make a complicated point clear to his class. He likes his students; he wishes them well — but he is the adult in the room, the honest referee at the wrestling match, and the kids need to do what they’re told.
Gore’s social ethic was not a bad one in his youth. In a region divided into a handful of relatively prosperous and well educated whites, a larger number of poor and unschooled white farmers and laborers often dependent on rich whites, and a large mass of (mostly) even poorer, more dependent and less well educated Blacks, the quasi-feudal gentry liberalism of the young Al Gore made some sense.
But the South changed and the country changed, and it doesn’t make sense any more. Al Gore’s climate strategy — to invoke the authority of Science and Experts in the service of a grand global fix that would transfer huge amounts of power from elected officials and the people at large to unelected international bureaucracies — is classic Blue thinking. These days, that kind of thinking and that kind of strategy won’t work.
Note: I have a Fourth of July article in the Wall Street Journal this holiday weekend; readers can find it here.