23.6.16

THERE ARE NO COACH SEATS ON THE ACELA EXPRESS.

That might symbolize the disconnect between the gentry liberals and the disaffected people they claim to be "fighting" for.  Perhaps that's not the smoothest way to introduce Book Review No. 16, which is Steve Fraser's The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America.  Well, that sounds like a lot of gentry special pleading, and to an extent that's what Mr Fraser offers.  And yet, after you work through the manifestations of Failed Governance by Wise Experts, for which there's plenty of evidence long before New York populist Mario Procaccino hung the tag on John Lindsay in the 1960s, and that evidence has only accumulated into the era of Hope and Change, there might be recognition that in the push-back against the gentry liberals there's more than enough evidence that good intentions neither imply nor are implied by good policy results.  As such, despite the provocative and polemical title, the book might reward careful study, particularly by people who might be less than impressed by conservative or libertarian arguments, or who might go so far as to hear dog whistles and all the "phobias" that the Anointed call out rather than deal with substance.

On one hand, Mr Fraser might be attempting too much, in attempting to find a common thread in the skepticisms of Huey Long or Father Coughlin or Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and the Contract With America and the Tea Party.  The common thread might be Governance by Wise Experts Doesn't Work Well, but that's only part of, and sometimes a small part of, the skepticisms.  The book predates the Trumpening, although Mr Trump is part of the rogues gallery of illiberal plutocrats including the Koch brothers (which refers to the two who don't sail), the Walton family, the Bradley brothers, and a few of the other usual suspects.

On the other hand, he doesn't dismiss, out of hand, the arguments that the limousine liberals seem to keep winning elections despite not doing so well by the disaffected people they claim to be "fighting" for.   A sample, at pages 188-189, seems to propose an hypothesis.
Even as limousine liberals preached the gospel of social engineering, they seemed to behave like spoiled narcissists.  They appeared preoccupied with style, self-promotion, and in their own way just as obsessed with piling up material stuff as the working class Visigoths they looked down on for doing just that.  Yet at the same time, their opponents pointed out, they rationalized the family dysfunction and criminal proclivities of the "underclass."  Why wouldn't they, since these high-living liberals celebrated sensual release and had no more use for the moral supervision that had once placed constraints on excess than did their clients and political allies in the urban barrios of America.
Rationalized by elegant logic-chopping.  And yet, there's the Acela Express, where the cheapest seat is business class, and the high-living liberals send their spawn to the Ivies, not Massachusetts-Lowell or City University.

Thus comes a challenge to the gentry, from the left. Jake Johnson calls out the technocrats for missing what's going wrong.
The [Democrat] party apparatus has been resilient, however, and elite liberals have fervently resisted the suggestion that the Sanders agenda could be influential in shaping the party's platform in any meaningful way.

But as [Matt] Taibbi writes, "This inability to grasp that the problem is bigger than Bernie Sanders is a huge red flag."

Progressives are, in many ways, winning the war of ideas. Democrats have closed their eyes to this reality, seemingly content to believe that neoliberalism, with a view adjustments, is adequate to address the problems we face. It's not.

As Lily Geismer has written, "A party without a working-class core can’t be expected to improve the prospects of the working class."
There are limits to how much dysfunction you can enable on other people's money, but I digress.

The deeper problem is that the interests of the limousine liberal are not the same as the interests of what the Common Dreams essay calls the working class, and what might better be described as the Democrat constituency not yet socialized into the ways of the middle class. Here's W. R. Mead, who I'll quote at length, on the tension between the interests of the gentry and the interests of the "base."
If we are serious about raising wages at the low end of the job market—and that is a critical task—another approach is needed: Encouraging job creation in this sector. People who find ways for low-skilled workers to make a modest income while adding some value to society are public benefactors, not public enemies. If we stopped illegal immigration, moved to a points system for legal immigration, encouraged the development of industries and companies that hired low-skilled workers, wages for those workers would go up in line with the laws of supply and demand.

Of course, they won’t go up forever; ultimately, productivity matters and employers won’t pay workers more than the value that the workers can add. But unless we miraculously transform every person in America a super-competent symbolic analyst able to excel in the global marketplace, we are going to have tens of millions of Americans whose skill-level limit the kinds of work they can do. Is it really liberal and progressive to develop a set of policies that systematically sideline and warehouse whole classes of people, depriving them of dignity and respect?
No.

And in reading Limousine Liberal, something else occurred to me.  Mr Fraser is skeptical of the populist reactions to the failed technocracy being able to accomplish anything positive, and he characterizes "right-wing populism" (page 240) as "restorationist, not revolutionary," opening "no new roads into the future," and "profoundly nostalgic."

Here, though, is an opportunity for people to rebut the usual technocratic tropes about "arc of history" or "turning back the clock" or all the other ways the gentry would have us believe that opposing their plans is futile or foolish or dangerous.

Put simply: restoration is not a dirty word.  When your immune system fights off a new cold virus, that's restoring a state of good health.  The act of keeping a railroad in a state of good repair is restorative.

Thinking more deeply: some of those roads into the future might lead into swamps.  Now we're into the evolution of complex adaptive systems.  Consider this, dear reader.  Some mutations confer evolutionary advantage.  Some are cancer.  Too often, unbridled technocracy has been more like cancer.

(Cross-posted to Fifty Book Challenge.)

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