Walter Russell Mead describes the democrat elite’s vision of the future: a massive system of redistributionism devoted to trickling down condescending alms to a nation of losers from a tiny meritocratic New Class elite which rules over all.
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.
Walter Russell Mead imagines the Declaration of Independence as revised by today’s American community of fashion.
The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen Post-Colonial, Multi-Racial Societes of North America
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to strengthen the political bands which have connected them with the Global Community, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the cooperative and deferential station which a careful review of the relevant peer reviewed literature suggests is most appropriate for long term win-win outcomes, a decent and rigorously equal respect to the opinions of woman- and man- and transkind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the ever deeper union.
We hold these views to be consistent with the evolving cultural consensus, that all humans are equally obliged to the performance of certain Duties, that among these are the Participation in the Struggle against Racism, Economic Injustice, Genetically Modified Organisms, Homophobia, Nationalism and the Excessive Emission of Carbon Dioxide and Other Greenhouse Gasses. That to secure the performance of these Duties, Governments are instituted among humans, deriving their just powers from the considered Opinions of the Educated Classes.
John Gast, American Progress (and other titles), 1872, most frequently seen in chromolithograph form inside cigar boxes.
Walter Russell Mead starts a new insightful essay which argues that the Progressive, Blue State-politics ideas revolving around suburbia, a manufacturing economy, a constantly-expanding regulatory regime and welfare state pertain to rapidly vanishing world, destined to follow the Indians and the buffalo, and the family farm and homestead into America’s past.
The frustration and bitterness that fills American politics these days reflects the failure of our current social, political and economic institutions and practices to deliver the results that Americans want and expect. It’s comparable to the frustration and fear that swept through the country in the late 19th and early 20th century as the first American dream – that every family could prosper on its own farm – gradually died….
Our political battles today reflect the same kinds of frustrations we saw in the old populist era. Many cannot fathom another and “higher” form of the American Dream beyond the old crabgrass utopia. They want to turn back the clock and restore the old system because they don’t know of anything else that will work. ...
It is, of course, a very similar situation today. The forces ripping up our old social model are too powerful to beat. That is not because the rich bankers or global multinationals are engaged in a conscious conspiracy of rip-offs and oppression (though, frankly speaking, big business does sometimes engage in exactly that). It is because the forces ripping up the social model are deeply implanted in the nature of the economic system — and that system is a reflection of the propensities in human nature which we cannot and perhaps should not overcome.
There is another important similarity, one often overlooked in the pessimism, anger and anxiety provoked by the inexorable decline of the “blue social model” that shaped America in the 20th century — just as it was overlooked 100 years ago.
Walter Russell Mead mixes his Animal kingdom metaphors, but nonetheless delivers another important essay, arguing (from a position sympathetic to Progressivism) that the Progressive political movement has passed through a natural life cycle into the final stage in which it has become sclerotic and destructive.
..Fannie Mae represents a special problem for the Democratic Party and Democratic ideas. It is not just a vitally important institution led by prominent Democratic figures and part of a broader Democratic patronage network; Fannie Mae is one of the original New Deal institutions and the vision it was intended to serve stands at the heart of the concerns of the Democratic Party of the 20th century.
The fall of Fannie Mae is bigger than just another politicos run wild scandal. It stands as one of several signs that our current way of life is reaching its limits and that big changes are on the horizon. The Fanniegate debacle tells us that the progressive ideal is in the process of jumping the shark.
Jumping the shark, as many readers know, is an expression from the wonderful world of TV. When the original premise of a show has gone stale, producers try to recapture audience interest by putting familiar characters in outlandish settings where strange things happen to them — notoriously, when Fonzie literally jumped over a shark as Happy Days moved into its sunset years. When something jumps the shark, the death spiral has become irretrievable; the show has nowhere to go but down.
The progressive ideal of the last 100 years is reaching that point. In its day the progressive ideal was a revolutionary and even a noble one. A bureaucratic and professional elite would mediate social conflict between rich and poor, improving the lives of the poor while engineering the best possible administrative solutions to pressing social problems. Keynesian macroeconomic management would ensure lasting prosperity; progressive taxation would spread the benefits of prosperity as widely as possible. Levels of education would rise as more and more Americans spent more and more years in school.
Progressivism held out the hope that capitalism, democracy and history itself could all be tamed by competent professional management. Victorian capitalism had been brutal, disruptive, competitive. Society became more unequal even as living standards gradually rose. Democracy was irresistible, but the masses were uneducated. The modern progressive era was born at times of great violence and upheaval. World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War Two, the invention of nuclear weapons and the start of the Cold War: it was against this background that progressives sought to turn modern life into something safe and tame.
I cannot blame four generations of progressive intellectuals for trying to make life a little less brutal and unpredictable, nor should we overlook the successes they had. Nevertheless, the Fonz has left the building; the progressive paradigm today can no longer serve as the basis for sound national policy. ...
The problem today is that we are looking not just at one or two government programs that have succumbed to elephantiasis or turned into sharks; the progressive complex of social and economic policy as a whole has reached this point. Today many of our New Deal and Great Society programs are either elephants or sharks. They either lead us to misallocate scarce resources in ineffective ways or they threaten us with ruin by becoming politically untouchable budget busters.
Progressivism itself, and not simply the individual government programs it spawns, is moving through the same cycle of life. The most urgent social problems that progressivism set out to solve have been dealt with. Child labor and lynch mobs are no longer common in the United States. The greatest natural and scenic treasures of the country are protected by the National Park system. Food is much less dangerous, buildings are better built, cars are safer, the air and water is in better shape and the charismatic megafauna (big interesting animals) have been saved from extinction. Many more people have much more access to education today than was true 100 years ago; ditto for lifesaving medical treatment.
The progressive vision morphed from Great White Hope and Great White Father into Great White Elephant over the years. Early progressives picked the low-hanging fruit; they addressed the most important problems that were most susceptible to progressive interventions. Increasingly they are left with more expensive, less effective approaches to big problems (like Obamacare) or the agenda moves from issues of great moral and political significance like equal rights for African-Americans to less consequential issues like wider social acceptance of the transgendered. To raise the percentage of young Americans attending college from 2 percent to 20 percent is a significant achievement; to extend it from 40 percent to 60 percent will likely cost much more and accomplish much less in terms of raising social productivity.
We now see the progressive agenda dealing with issues like high speed rail, where the gains are so small and the rationale are so weak from the beginning that the program is a white elephant before it is fully set up.
The fierce commitment of progressive lobbies today to dysfunctional institutions and programs has brought matters to a crisis stage; the progressive legacy is morphing from white elephant to shark. Fierce attacks on anyone seeking to reform dysfunctional institutions combine with unreasoning devotion to unsustainable entitlements. “Progressives” today are too often grimly determined to achieve two incompatible ends: an indefinite expansion of entitlements and benefits on the one hand — and the preservation and even the extension of inefficient organizations and methods on the other.