Friday, June 24, 2011

The Status Anxiety of Liberal Elites

Remember when 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? Michael Barone (subscription required) is just the latest right-of-center pundit to notice how fondly liberals suddenly remember the 1950s.  In case you haven't noticed, they're now being remembered as the "golden years“ when "[i]ncome distribution was significantly more egalitarian than it is today” and liberalism was a vibrantly democratic movement because “Americans had far more confidence in big government” than they do today. Barone brings this all up to remind us that, like all nostalgia, liberal nostalgia is the product of selective memory.

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. . . .

"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.)
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. 

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.

18 comments:

Mike K said...

The Nixon coup is an excellent example of the selective memory of liberals. We now know that it was a coup, conducted by FBI #2 man Mark Felt. Why ? He was taking revenge on Nixon for appointing an outsider (and honorable man) as Director. Woodward and Bernstein were young crime reporters handed this task by Felt who kept himself anonymous with the cooperation of the Washington Post, a Nixon enemy.

Tim said...

Not to mention that Nixon had an election stolen from him by corrupt Democrats in 1960. I needn't worry though, nobody mentions it.

Anonymous said...

Well the fact that they can still trick Republicans into calling them 'liberals', when in fact they are rigid, illogical, and intolerant, shows that they are still smarter than Republicans.

If you call them 'liberals' you are letting them win.

Anonymous said...

No wonder a combative liberal intellectual like Krugman

He is neither liberal nor intellectual.

He just a hard-left nebbish, who is not all that smart.

Yet, they get you to call them 'liberals', so they always win.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Sowell mentioned this during Bill Buckley's going away party. The brilliancy of Buckley was creating a movement in an environment where Liberalism was alpha and omega.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

If you reread Hofstader's "Paranoid Style" now, you find it describes the left better than the right. (Not that it's either-or, then or now.)

pumping-irony said...

The "liberalism" of todays pseudo-intellectuals like Krugman is no longer liberal as much as a crypto-totalitarian fascism using the former movement's rhetoric. As Sowell brilliantly put it a number of years ago, "If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago and a racist today."

TigerHawk said...

I think the status anxiety is more "elite" than it is "liberal." It is just that so many of the Ivy League "elite" (and I am Princeton '83, fwiw) are politically liberal, at least on social issues, that "liberal" and "elite are confounded. In the 1950s, most admissions to top schools were not determined by merit as we understand it today. If you went to a top prep school, you could get in to Princeton or Yale or, at least, Cornell or Penn. Literally forty percent the graduating class of the Lawrenceville School, for instance, would end up at Princeton, with many of the rest elsewhere in the Ivy League. True, Lawrenceville provided an outstanding education, but to get in at all you needed to be male and to know what a top prep school was (which most people did not) and with a few exceptions you were white, Gentile, and affluent. In other words, admission to the Ivy League elite was largely an accident of birth. That further meant that one's children were assured their own place, too.

Of course, that all started to change in the sixties and by the late seventies admission to the top schools was intensely competitive. The advantages of birth declined tremendously in a very short period of time. That meant that one's children had to earn their way all over again. Status was and is no longer durable, so there is vastly more status anxiety than there was forty or fifty years ago. That surely translates in to a broader sense of "paradise lost among the "elites", liberal or otherwise, than even in the political and policy realms. Krugman, who is Jewish and probably had to earn his own way in the modern sense, nevertheless taps very much in to that persistent anxiety.

Anonymous said...

Past the zenith? With Wall Street and the Beltway over-stocked with doyen from elite colleges. I don't think so.

The numbers of over-credentialed nincompoops grows ever larger even as the counter-results of their efforts destroy global capital markets, venerable public and private institutions and all three branches of our government.

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that status ain't what it used to be, but the ideas that have replaced what criteria determine who goes to Princeton currently aren't particularly impressive either (I think it's called the meritocracy, which you'll note is a much more ideal, less practical, because people form old boy, nepotistic networks no matter what they believe or claim to believe).

I think Krugman really has gotten to the point where he wants to plug in an equation (and economics isn't a science) and put it into the equation cube, magically transforming America into the safe, broad streets of his youth, where every comrade had a bike and loving parents according to his needs, and his father's dreams of equality and social justice were like stars glinting in the evening sky.

Of course, he may simply be wrong, but that won't stop him or other true believers.

*There is a particular irony in being told by white, young gentile sorts how much they favor diversity (a few of the actual true believers) until something importance, like opportunity gets taken away from them...but isn't that where many of the aminstreamed Leftist ideals actually lead?

To less opportunity in many cases?

Cue a generation of young Republicans, anti-boomer, anti-excess folks if we're lucky.

Willie said...

Krugman is an idiot. Replogle rules!!

Jonathan Rubinstein said...

The Harvard trope was famously voiced at a meeting of the Harvard faculty in possibly 1954 when it was said in frustration by J.K. Galbraith, who married great wealth, that he would prefer to be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston telephone directory than his colleagues. Who would not? Look what the combination of their greed and Federal excess has done to education in America. As Lenin famously and accurately said, "the fist stinks from the head", and in America, Harvard is the head.

Anonymous said...

Was Krugman really talking about the 1950s? Vietnam? Nixon and henchmen? Medicare?

He has a worse knowledge of history than I thought.

David

Thor's Dad said...

Are you sure they're not also longing for those 90% (1950s - 1960s) and then 70% (1960s - 1980s)top tax rates?

Anonymous said...

In today's Democrat party, Henry Wallace would be called a blue dog

M. Simon said...

I went to a famous Midwestern Methodist School started by a fellow who had something to do with oil. The entering class in '62 was 50% Jewish. But the school always had a snobbish attitude about their quality. Degrees were actually earned at the school. And they prided themselves on it.

M. Simon said...

Upon further checking the school was in part founded by Baptists. The Methodists were about 10 or 15 miles north.

Anonymous said...

Boil it down: the progressives have been running (ruining) things for over a hundred years.