Monday, September 27, 2010

Liberal Nostalgia

I was taking another look at Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (“CoL”) over the weekend because it’s the most prominent example of a new genre of political commentary that I call “liberal nostalgia.” Not so long ago, any self-respecting liberal thought the 1950s was an era of blatant social injustice, mind-numbing conformity, obsessive anti-communism, systemic racism, sexism and harrowing sexual repression. Now Krugman is only the most prominent liberal intellectual waxing nostalgic over those bygone days. Here are his words (with my emphasis):
“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.)
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.

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.


Scrooge McDuck said...

You're getting at something interesting here, but I'm not sure I entirely agree. I was born four years after Krugman, and for people of my age, the 50s was universally remembered as a time of stifling social conformity, and stained by the McCarthy episode, and the shameful inaction of the political center to shut it down.

I read somewhere--perhaps it was George Lakoff--that the hallmark of a conservative is a golden past that must be recaptured, while for liberals it's a golden future that must be achieved. And in a certain sense, today's liberals are conservative, while today's conservatives are radical.

I understand--and, to a degree sympathize--with Krugman's nostalgia, but it is ill informed (If he was born in 1953, he was seven when the decade ended. I'm sure he was a smart kid, but I'd still wait a few more years before I listened to his cultural critiques. There were a number of dynamics of the fifties that served to constrain the consensus:

1. The massive debt overhang from WWII make the high maximum tax rates (relative to today) inevitable and patriotic.

2. The Cold War bound the right through center-left in a strategy of containment.

3. The presence of communist/socialist governments around the world, along with a still-substantial genuine American left provided an ideological space for "liberals" within the mainstream. (I define liberals at those that accept the essential infrastructure of a market-oriented republic, but that nonetheless propose reformist policies to mitigate the crueler and less-rational outcomes provided by a pure marketplace).

4. Helping to cement the sense of essential consensus was the fact that the first nominal Republican after the New Deal was really pretty non-ideological, and forthrightly accepted the underlying premises of the New Deal. (Imagine if Taft had become president in 1952, instead!)

5. Finally, I believe that the experience of World War II was a radically egalitarian experience for most Americans. For those that served, they were thrown together with other men from all parts of the country, and all economic and cultural backgrounds. And the government was forthright in a way that is hard to relate to now (watch some of the era's war propaganda, or instructional films about contraception and you'll understand what I mean). On the home front, the shared sacrifices involved in rationing and war production leveled social differences here, as well.


Scrooge McDuck said...

[continued] -- Sorry, I get long-winded sometimes.

Anyway, starting with the civil rights movement, and continuing through the 70s, the left turned its attention mostly towards social change: civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, more rigorous separation of church and state, and the like.

Personally, I consider all of the above changes to be positive moral evolution. But what they all have in common is that they are alienating to the socially settled. Blacks can be empowered only by disempowering whites. All of the social projects of the 60s and 70s served to change the culture in ways that left traditionalists feeling rather bruised and abused.

At the same time, liberals pretty much lost interest in the economic progress of the working class, which had been the essential glue of the New Deal coalition. From the perspective of the poor and middle-class white, liberals had were no longer their economic friend, and were certainly their social enemy.

If you look at Republican ads, and Tea Party events, they are full of the iconography of the 50s: largely white, suburban, largely traditional, mostly older, and suspicious of any kind of cultural critique that threatens to upend their world (e.g. global warming, foreign aid, income redistribution).

I just discovered this blog a couple months ago, but I have found it fundamental to an unexpected evolution of my understanding of the current political scene. You have some interesting and nuanced views on many things that I had previously considered "settled." So for that I thank you.

I am not quite a liberal, but I find almost everything the conservative movement would like to do with the country to be alarming. And I am alienated by the rampant dishonesty in the discourse that comes from the right.

Nevertheless, I have begun to see, that the right is constantly making the case for its preferences, even if many of its arguments are specious and entirely rhetorical. They never cease trying to persuade. In contrast, liberals simply seem to assume that all right-thinking individuals agree with them on all matters of substance; so much of its polemical discourse consists of righteous contempt and condescension towards the wrong thinkers. That's not quite so persuasive.