While many ask whether the blue social model has a future, it may be more interesting to ask what kind of future the blue social model offers. Blue opinion leaders and thinkers are serious people who run many of the leading institutions and companies in American life; they are steering these institutions in ways that fit their ideas about where the country is going and what it needs. Those ideas are pretty conventional and mainstream, but the direction toward which they point is disquieting.
When Americans peer ahead into the future, the most consequential question we ask is about jobs: in a world in which manufacturing jobs won’t support an affluent middle class and in which many professional jobs will be transformed by automation, how will most Americans make a living, and what will keep the middle class afloat?
A conventional, widely shared view informs the way that blue America looks at that future. This view holds that the death of industrial society means the death of the mass middle class. When millions of people can’t make a living “making stuff” in factories anymore, wages for the unskilled will fall. America will be increasingly polarized between a small group of high skilled creative professionals and a larger group scavenging a living by serving them: mowing their lawns, catering their parties and so on.
Those who think that the blue model needs to be preserved and extended into the future (including, I think, our current president and most of his top allies and advisors), tend to think that under those conditions we will both need and be able to afford an ever-more active redistributive state. The tycoons and the very successful minority will be so rich, thanks to their continuing gains from globalization and technological change, that they can pay progressively higher taxes to fund basic services and middle class jobs for enough of the rest of the country that something like a middle class society can be preserved. From this perspective, a government-funded health care system is more than a method of delivering health care: it is a way of providing protected, blue-model type jobs when the factories have mostly disappeared. In general, from this perspective you wouldn’t worry about the growth of public employment compared to jobs growth in the private sector; a highly productive private sector might employ fewer and fewer people to generate the wealth that would sustain the larger but much less productive public sector.
This view of the future sees a supercharged private economy pumping huge amounts into the system in a way that, unless corrected by sustained government action, polarizes incomes to an unacceptable degree. It sees a handful of very large and very successful businesses—an information-finance-entertainment complex, perhaps, including everything from movie studios to investment banks to software firms—generating vast profits. Top research scientists and a few other groups will also do well: the celebrity chefs, the famous writers and intellectuals who attract funding and publicity from the lords of the earth, and other clever, creative types. Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley will anchor the vibrant, creative side of the American economy, but the rest of the country and the very large majority of the citizenry will live much less productive lives.
The people who work in the cutting edge firms, directly or as contractors, will do extremely well and live fascinating lives. But the rest of the country will be cut off from wealth creation. For 4.0 liberals, the programmatic consequences are obvious: tax the productive private sector in order to fund a dignified life for those in education, health care and especially for the large majority of the population without the skills or the creativity that would qualify them to join the productive minority.
This vision of the future can’t be dismissed with contempt, and it would be wrong to call this socialism. It is a recognizably liberal approach to the problems of governance and distribution. It does not seek state ownership of the means of production and it does not seek to crush freedom of expression. It assumes that the private economy and the creative power of gifted individuals will remain the wellsprings of innovation and prosperity. But if this vision retains some of the essential features of the liberal outlook, it offers a darker and more elitist vision than classic American approaches have had, and it is a much more pessimistic philosophy than liberalism 4.0 was in its prime.
Anglo-American liberalism has always been an optimistic ideology. Ever since the Whig oligarchs overthrew James II at the time of the Glorious Revolution, Anglo-American liberalism has envisioned a progressive alliance between an enlightened elite and society overall. George Washington was the richest man in the American colonies, and he and his colleagues believed that their interests and their values linked them to the aspirations of ordinary Americans. The three Roosevelts (including Eleanor) and Woodrow Wilson, the great heroes of twentieth century American progressive liberalism, shared this view as well.
But their views differed in one important respect from the views of contemporary 4.0 liberals: These earlier generations believed that liberal politics would uplift the common people over time—and that the common people were on a rising historical trajectory. These earlier liberals saw the march of history as inexorably leading to greater popular power and autonomy, and believed that the only wise option for elites was to prepare the masses to exercise the power that must soon fall into their hands—whether they were ready or not.
Thanks to the enlightened leadership of gentry liberals, the common people would become better educated, more politically aware, more economically productive and more able to take their fate into their own hands. The liberal tradition is one in which elites, very much aware of their privilege and not at all inclined to throw it away, justify their privilege by linking it to a political program aimed at, in the long run, making a less privileged society. Franklin Roosevelt presided over the incorporation of Catholics and Jews into the American Establishment and limited the power of wealth even as he very much relished his own standing; McGeorge Bundy helped bring African Americans and women into the world of power where he, as a high WASP male enjoyed special privilege. The classic liberal paradigm saw this leadership not just as the right and decent path; it was the only path. To resist the decentralization of power and social leveling was hopeless; the majority was going to win in the end no matter what the elite did or thought. The only question is whether the majority would come to power angry, bitter and incompetent—like the French and Russian revolutionaries—or educated, thoughtful and humane.
We can say that this was a condescending approach, and that it confirmed as much as it limited elite privilege and power, but it is also true that for three centuries this approach did in fact result in enormous progress for the majority, great leaps in economic and technological power, and an enviable record of political stability in a fast-changing world.
The concept of an elite guiding national development for the benefit of those it governs remains operative today among blue partisans, but what’s changed is that the blue elite no longer sees a bright future for the masses. It turns out that there are two ways to think about the trajectory of liberal society. The traditional view is that over time the differences between elites and non-elites can and should shrink, and it is the proper goal of liberal policy to ensure that they do.
The other view is to believe that differences of talent and ambition ensure that the world will always be divided between a creative minority and an inert majority, and that the goal of social policy isn’t to eliminate that ineradicable difference, but to ensure that the process of recruitment into the elite is genuinely fair. Once the privileges of race, gender and fortune have been neutralized so that the elite is a purely meritocratic body, the members of the elite are obliged to concern themselves for the welfare of the majority, but there is nothing more to be done about equalizing their condition with that of the elite. Authority must rest in the hands of the qualified; those who score poorly on aptitude tests, don’t do well in classes and/or lack extraordinary beauty, artistic talent or ambition must resign themselves to taking direction from the natural aristocracy that a well ordered society has brought so smoothly to the fore.
The economic vision of the meritocrats nicely complements this view that the revolutionary and leveling phase of the liberal experiment has come to an end. An economy in which the talented minority generates wealth that, in its wisdom and compassion, it then shares with the passive majority becomes a society destined to be ruled in perpetuity by that talented minority. The titans of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood, advised by the professors of the great universities and the high civil servants, can perpetuate their social privilege and power forever as long as careers are open to talent.
From the standpoint of America’s blue meritocracy, this vision of the future is both humane and inevitable. Economic development is disempowering the many and empowering the few; and there is nothing that can be done about that. The only decent and fair thing to do is to make a trade. The few will be taxed for the sake of the many, and in return the many will accept the wise guidance of the few.
In this vision, liberalism has accomplished its historic mission by bringing a true meritocracy into our midst. No longer do accidents of race or gender block the path of the talented to the heights of power; hardwired into the social structure by the shape of the economy and legitimized by equal access, a radical inequality of power and status will indefinitely persist. Liberalism now has nothing to do with attacking or eroding the power of the liberal elite; as long as that elite carries out its duty to share with the masses and accepts that its children must in turn earn their own place in the elite rather than simply inheriting one, the elite has no further need to democratize. The long job of social evolution, the fight against entrenched power going back to Magna Carta is over. It has done its job, it has brought us into the golden age of absolute and permanent meritocracy. The best now truly rule.
And something else has also come to an end: the rise of the common people. In the industrial economy, the rising productivity of ordinary people underpinned their rising political power. Karl Marx was not the only observer who could see that a country where the majority worked in factories was a very different place from a country where the majority were peasants on farms. History demonstrated nothing if it didn’t show that peasants could be oppressed with impunity for hundreds of years. Industrial workers, though, literate, organized, and urban, were a much more formidable force.
Gentry liberals today see something different: the ‘ungifted’ majority is the object of their pity and care, rather than a force that demands their respect and even their fear. As they contemplate what post industrial society will look like, they are filled with pity for the incompetent losers, the untalented, those who will only be able to get jobs as pool boys and cocktail waitresses in the post-manufacturing world. Industrial society saw the workers as a rising irresistible force whose interests could not be ignored; post-industrial liberals seem to see the common folk as a collection of sad and weak losers whom the strong must protect.
The economy is making us more unequal, but a wise elite can mitigate the harm—if only we are willing to live under their tutelage. That is what liberalism 4.0 offers today; from an ideology of populism and reform it has mutated into a defense of the status quo.