If anything, he understates how selective. 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? 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 pyramid were demonstrably worse off, in absolute terms, than their counterparts are today? 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? And why, for that matter, did we need the civil rights, feminist and gay liberation movements? How strange that liberal nostalgia should deprive the signal achievements of 60s and 70s liberalism of their significance.
Permit me a little armchair social psychology. You’ll notice that the testimonials to political economy of the 1950s aren’t coming from rank-and-file Democrats, most of whom probably can’t imagine living without their air-conditioners, micro-computers, ATM cards and cell phones. They’re coming from liberal intellectuals, like Paul Krugman, whose 2007 book Conscience of a Liberal (“CoL”) is arguably the locus classicus of highbrow liberal nostalgia. Consider his introductory words (my emphasis):
“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. . . .Notice that Krugman’s burnished memories have as much to do with the social status of liberal ideologues as with the realization of substantive liberal values. 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 mainstream liberal values.
"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.)
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 (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, usually recited to remind liberal elites of their diminished intellectual and moral authority.
When the Tea Partiers revolted against the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress in summer of 2009 liberals dusted-off that old chestnut of 1960s liberal social commentary, the “paranoid style of American politics." The general idea was that right-wing extremism is a regrettable byproduct of social progress, animated by the status anxiety of people in a mass society coming to grips with their economic and cultural displacement. Funny, no one ever talks about the status anxiety of beleaguered liberal intellectuals.