Progressive nostalgia shovels against the tide of global chaos
posted at 1:11 pm on October 1, 2011 by Karl
Michael Kazin is both a professor of history at Georgetown and a co-editor of Dissent; in asking “Whatever Happened to the American Left?”, he lets the second get in the way of the first:
After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith. In 1939, John L. Lewis, the pugnacious labor leader, declared, “The millions of organized workers banded together in the C.I.O. are the main driving force of the progressive movement of workers, farmers, professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community.” With such forces on his side, the politically adept F.D.R. became a great president.
But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of middle-class whites.
Kazin’s argument has at least two major flaws. First, being a committed leftist, Kazin mentions that these movements were “backed up by powerful social forces” only in passing, although those forces are as important, if not moreso, than the activists on each side. Second, while writing “the left should stop mourning its recent past,” being a committed leftist himself, Kazin could not bring himself to look too closely at the era he thinks should inspire today’s left.
Kazin’s piece belongs to an ever-growing genre of progressive punditry that Brink Lindsey would call “Nolstagianomics.” The NYT’s regular columnists, including Paul Krungman and Frank Rich, beat Kazin to it. Lindsey’s analysis even predates the Walter Russell Mead diagnosis of the death of “the blue model”:
The blue model rested on the post-Second World War industrial and economic system. The ‘commanding heights’ of American business were controlled by a small number of monopolistic and oligopolistic firms. AT&T, for example, was the only serious telephone company in the whole country, and both the services it offered and the prices it could charge were tightly regulated by the government. The Big Three car-makers had a lock on the car market; in the halcyon days of the blue model there was no foreign competition. A handful of airlines divided up the routes and the market; airlines could not compete by offering lower prices or by opening new routes without special government permission. Banks, utilities, insurance companies, trucking companies had their rates and, essentially, their profit levels set by federal regulators.
The stable economic structure allowed a stable division of the pie. Workers (much more heavily unionized then than now) got steady raises and stable jobs. The government got a stable flow of tax revenues. Shareholders got reasonably steady dividends.
There were a lot of problems with the old system. For one thing, it rested in large part on systematic discrimination against women and minorities. For another, consumers had very little leverage. If you didn’t like the way the phone company treated you, you were perfectly free to do without phone service. If you didn’t like badly made Detroit gas guzzlers that fell apart in a few years, you could get a horse.
The old system slowed innovation; AT&T had no interest in making huge investments in new and untested telecommunications technologies. Rival companies and upstart firms were kept out of the controlled markets by explicit laws and regulations intended to stabilize the position of the leading companies in the system.
In short, although Kazin paints welfare state liberalism as opposed to monopoly and “big money,” the reality was often quite different, to the detriment of minorities, women and consumers. However, as the world moved into the 1970s, firms in Europe and Japan had fully rebuilt their ability to compete. Meanwhile, America continued to dismantle the cartels and the de jure racial and sexual discrimination that helped prop them up, typically on a bipartisan basis. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supported by a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress; Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy helped deregulate the transportation sector and the natural gas markets.
Ironically, one of the left’s favorite tropes is that the right wants to “turn back the clock,” when the death of the blue model in the face of economic and social liberalization increasingly causes progressives to pine for the “good old days.” Unfortunately, their state of denial is an anchor that impedes America from moving forward in the 21st century. The denialism rampant among the governing and chattering classes remains at a significantly critical mass that the American electorate will largely continue to avoid acknowledging the depths of our structural problems.
At this juncture of my first draft, I was tempted to lapse back into my usual harangue about entitlement spending and our ticking debt bomb. It would have been easy to do that, within a context of evaluating the relative merits of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, perhaps with Rep. Paul Ryan as a contrast. However, in this election cycle, economic growth and unemployment are likely to remain the top issues, so I again turn to Walter Russell Mead:
Since World War Two, we have lived in a bubble. Governments were always available to backstop the economy. In a way that was never true before 1945 and may never be true again, governments were the sovereign lords of the economy. States were big enough, their taxing power was high enough, and national economies were closed enough that in the last analysis governments could be the lenders of last resort and could draw a line under financial panic.
No more. Financial markets have become so large and so volatile, and the global economy (especially though not only) at the level of finance has become so integrated, that not even continental powers like the US and the EU can control or even guarantee them anymore.
Although Mead saw this as a long-term problem, the current turmoil in the Eurozone suggests the issue may arrive on our doorstep sooner, rather than later. And yet the global shift out of the post-WWII economic environment remains as neglected in our current politics as our entitlement and debt problems (despite some fairly obvious linkage). Pundits and commenters had plenty of criticism for Rick Perry’s performance at the most recent GOP debate, but very little criticism for those in the media who could not be bothered to ask about how those who want to be the next president think about the prospect of global economic chaos. Indeed, there is very little criticism of an establishment media that does not focus on the issue or much question the Obama administration about it, either.