My fellow Americans, the State of Denial is strong.
Although Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address and the GOP response both avoided the issue of entitlement reform, that denial is just the tip of the iceberg. Those evasions were no more than symbolic of the political establishment’s denial of our seemingly inevitable debt crisis. Yet the denial of the coming debt crisis is itself merely a symptom of a larger denial. I alluded to this larger denial when writing about Big Media’s ostrich-like approach to the debt, and the lack of forethought about the way the debt crisis may shape political realignment in America for decades. But I never hit the nail on the head as squarely as Walter Russell Mead has been doing in an ongoing series of pieces, including “The Crisis of the American Intellectual“:
[W]hen I look at the problems we face, I worry. It’s not just that some of our cultural strengths are eroding as both the financial and intellectual elites rush to shed many of the values that made the country great. And it’s not the deficit: we can and will deal with that if we get our policies and politics right. And it’s certainly not the international competition: our geopolitical advantages remain overwhelming and China, India and the EU all face challenges even more daunting than ours and they lack our long tradition of successful, radical but peaceful reform and renewal.
But the biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level. Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.
Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.
Of course, most of the people fighting the future believe they are winning the future. Mead explains the primary problem of ideology:
Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.
Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism. The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.
This doesn’t mean that government becomes insignificant. The state will survive and as social life becomes more complex it will inevitably acquire new responsibilities – but it will look and act less like the administrative, bureaucratic entity of the past. The professional, life-tenured civil service bureaucrat will have a smaller role; more work will be contracted out; much more aggressive efforts will be made to harness the power of information technology to transfer decision making power from the federal to the state and local level. All this change runs so deeply against the grain for many American intellectuals that they have a hard time seeing it whole, much less helping make the reforms and adjustments these changes demand.
This larger denial is the central dynamic of America’s political cuture today. Our supposed elites — when not insisting the Constitution is infinitely elastic — cling to nineteenth century modes of thought a decade into the twenty-first. In his series on this topic, Mead adopts a non-confrontational tone (note that he expressly names progressivism only once in the two quotes above), perhaps in hopes convincing lefties that they can maintain at least some of their core values while discarding old methods. Although it would be terrific if Mead could lead progressives out of their denial, there are reasons to believe it unlikely to happen.
First, it is entirely possible that psychologically, as the unsustainability of the progressive model becomes more and more apparent, progressive partisans will become even more strident. Second, the system which produces our supposed elites is itself unreformed. America’s nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities recruit heavily from progressive demographics, with policies that discriminate against and discourage those who, for example, excelled in ROTC, the 4-H club or a co-op work program. Those admitted are by no means challenged by American academia, which is overwhelmingly supportive of the progressive status quo and likely more in thrall to groupthink and self-selection than their students. Every summer sees another batch of Model T thinkers off to Wall Street, the Beltway and the media, all having learned the life lesson that this is how one succeeds, all having their identity and self-esteem intertwined with credentials issued by these retrograde institutions. Thus, it is not surprising that these ostensibly highly educated people will misinterpret critiques of that system as attacks on intellect.
The State of Denial is strong — and not good for our country. However, understanding that denial is useful in understanding much of what the establishment does and says in the current political environment. It is also important to understand that denial means that the job of preparing for post-debt crisis America will fall to the right. Conservatives and libertarians are going to have to raise their intellectual and political game, rather than sink to the level of their competition.