Making the political economy and political spectrum of the 1950s into a benchmark of national decline and diminishing intellectual sobriety is shrewd polemics. For one thing, after the triangulations of the Clinton years and the capitulations of a minority Democratic congressional caucus between 1994 and 2006, it reconnected modern liberalism to the still inspiring egalitarianism of the New Deal and the Fair Deal. For another, it turns the tables on a generation of conservatives by making them, and not liberals who long to import social democratic innovations from the continent, sound vaguely unpatriotic. This liberal narrative fingers "movement conservatives" as the real radicals, eager to break the solemn promises the nation made to middle class Americans after World War II.“I was born in 1953. Like the rest of my generation, I took the America I grew up in for granted—in fact, like many in my generation, I railed against the very real injustice of our society, marched against the bombing of Cambodia, went door to door for liberal political candidates. It’s only in retrospect that the political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional episode in our nation’s history. . . .
"The equability of our economy was matched by a moderation in our politics. For most but not all of my youth there was broad consensus between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy and many aspects of domestic policy. Republicans were no longer trying to undo the achievements of the New Deal; quite a few even supported Medicare. And bipartisanship really meant something. Despite turmoil over Vietnam and race relations, despite the sinister machinations of Nixon and his henchmen, the American political process was for the most part governed by a bipartisan coalition of men who agreed on fundamental values.” (CoL at 3-4.)
But that doesn’t make liberal nostalgia any less strange. Could any level-headed liberal really prefer the political economy of the 1950s and early 60s to our own? If the social distribution of benefits and burdens in the 1950s was so great, why did liberals need to wage the War on Poverty in the sixties? If 1950s politics was so democratic why did the Warren Court have to reconfigure federal, state and local political systems through its apportionment decisions and why did liberals need to spearhead the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act?
Krugman’s nostalgia for the 1950s deprives the signal achievements of 1960s liberalism of much of their significance. Why do liberals, of all people, long for an era when, even though there was more relative equality than there is today, Americans near the bottom of the economic period were demonstrably worse off, in absolute terms, than their counterparts are today? If you ask me, that’s an odd way to uphold the interests of disadvantaged people.
The answer, I suspect, has a less to do with the realization of substantive liberal values than with the social status of liberal ideologues. The consensus Krugman recalls so fondly wasn’t the result of evenhanded give and take between liberals and conservatives, but of an ideological rout which enabled liberals to colonize the vital center of the political spectrum by driving Robert Taft Republicans and Henry Wallace Democrats to the fringes of American politics. The “fundamental values” that mainstream Democrats and Republicans shared in the fifties were predominately mainstream liberal values. No wonder a combative liberal intellectual like Krugman thinks of the fifties and early sixties as a “paradise lost.” That’s the last time his belief in his comrades’ intellectual and moral superiority over rank-and-file conservatives was acknowledged even by conservative elites.
How times have changed. It was an artful provocation for William F. Buckley to say over forty years ago that (I’m paraphrasing) that he’d rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the phone book than the Harvard faculty. Now it’s a tired platitude. I’ll grant that liberal pundits are probably on to something when they suggest that a lot of grass roots conservatism is animated by the status anxiety of people who fear that newer waves of immigrants and upwardly mobile minorities are displacing them culturally and economically. But no one ever talks about the status anxiety of liberal intellectuals.