Their social imagination had hit a wall.In The New Criterion, James Piereson looks to the past history of values regimes failing, and notes that the existing values regime remains intact, although there is no longer a Consensus Position.
The same thing is happening today: The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.
This evolution has now produced a volatile and potentially destabilizing alignment between the two major parties, with one rooted in the public sector and the other in the private sector, and with each communicating mainly with its own supporters. In the past, political parties were coalitions of private interests seeking influence over government in order to facilitate their growth within the private economy. This was true of early party conflicts that pitted commerce against agriculture or the later splits between slavery and free labor or business against organized labor. The regional and sectional conflicts of the past were also of this character. This was in keeping with the small government bias of the Constitution in which the government itself was never supposed to emerge as a political interest in its own right.At the time, that looked like standard Fourth Turning stuff, but the 2016 presidential campaign did play out along the lines envisioned in the second and third paragraphs. But the essay still reads conventionally: we have rent-seekers attempting to live at the expense of others, whether net rent-seekers or simply peasants who must shut up and pay their taxes.
The conflict today between Democrats and Republicans increasingly pits public sector unions, government employees and contractors, and beneficiaries of government programs against middle-class taxpayers and business interests large and small. In states where public spending is high and public sector unions are strong, as in New York, California, Illinois, and Connecticut, Democrats have gained control; where public sector interests are weak or poorly organized, as in most of the states across the south and southwest, Republicans have the edge. This configuration, when added up across the nation, has produced a series of electoral stand-offs in recent decades between the red and blue states that have been decided by a handful of swing states moving in one direction or the other.
This impasse between the two parties signals the end game for the system of politics that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. As the “regime party,” the Democrats are in the more vulnerable position because they have built their coalition around public spending, public debt, and publicly guaranteed credit, all sources of funds that appear to be reaching their limits. The end game for the New Deal system, and for the Democrats as our “regime party,” will arrive when those limits are reached or passed.
This point will arrive fairly soon for the following reasons: (1) unsustainable debt; (2) public promises that cannot be fulfilled; (3) stagnation and slow growth; and (4) political paralysis. The last point is important because it means that the parties will fail to agree on any preemptive solutions to the above problems until they reach a point of crisis.
The regime of public spending has at last drawn so many groups into the public arena in search of public dollars that it has paralyzed the political process and driven governments to the edge of bankruptcy. These groups are widely varied: trade associations, educational lobbies, public employee unions, government contractors, ideological and advocacy organizations, health-care providers, hospital associations that earn revenues from Medicare and Medicaid programs, and the like. These are what economists call rent-seeking groups because they are concerned with the distribution of resources rather than with the creation of wealth. They consume rather than create wealth. These groups are highly influential in the political process because they are willing to invest large sums in lobbying and election campaigns in order to protect their sources of income. While rent-seeking groups can be found in both political parties, the largest and most influential of them (at least on the spending side) have congregated within the Democratic Party. To expand on what was said earlier, one might describe the Democratic Party as a coalition of rent-seekers.But when the rent-seekers run out of other people's money, the put-upon suckers might not shut up and pay their taxes any more.
Rent-seeking coalitions have little interest in moderating their demands in the interests of the broader economy because, as their leaders reason, the economy will be little affected by the small share of it to which they are laying claim. In addition, they calculate that if they do not take the money, then someone else will—and so they are not inclined to be “fools” for the public interest. But since the leaders of all rent-seeking groups think this way, the interest group system as a whole operates with little concern for the requirements of economic growth and wealth generation. This is one reason why, in times of crisis, rent-seeking coalitions demand tax increases to pay for their programs instead of recommending policies to accelerate growth.
Americans may then witness the kinds of events not seen in this country since the 1930s or, even, the 1850s and 1860s: protesters invading the U.S. Capitol, politicians refusing to leave office after they have lost elections, defiance of the Supreme Court, the emergence of new leaders, and, possibly, the formation of new political parties. All of this can be expected from a process in which an entrenched system of politics withers and dies and a new one is gradually organized to take its place.Some of these things had already played out in Wisconsin. But Deep Thinkers were not yet anticipating anything more general at work, that despite Mr Piereson's concluding comments.
Does the “fourth revolution” imply the “end of America,” as some have suggested? Not necessarily, though one must acknowledge the possibility that this upheaval might end badly, perhaps in an extended period of political conflict and paralysis that yields no constructive outcome. Yet, based on the evidence of the three previous revolutions, American voters are unlikely to support for very long any party that fails to enhance their standard of living or the nation’s position in the world.
Despite all this, President Obama is unshaken in his presumption that he is a herald of a new era, a revolutionary on the models of Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR. But is it possible that he will instead turn out to be something much different, a modern day Adams, Buchanan, or Hoover—that is, the last representative of a disintegrating order? Such a denouement is not only possible but, in view of our situation, more and more likely.Perhaps nothing that portentous, and yet, the man who succeeded him in the White House made himself a national political figure by questioning Mr Obama's story. (As if anyone in 1961 would have faked a Hawaiian birth certificate for a young man named Barack Hussein Obama with the hopes of making him eligible for the presidency.)
But after the election, Forbes's Joel Kotkin warned the coalition of the ascendant not to get cocky.
Of the now triumphant urban gentry have their townhouses and high-rise lofts, but the service workers who do their dirty work have to log their way by bus or car from the vast American banlieues, either in peripheral parts of the city (think of Brooklyn’s impoverished fringes) or the poorer close-in suburbs. This progressive economy works from the well-placed academics, the trustfunders and hedge funders, but produces little opportunity for a better life for the vast majority of the middle and working class.That's where my initial draft ended the quote. What follows proves prescient.
The gentry progressives don’t see much hope for the recovery of blue collar manufacturing or construction jobs, and they are adamant in making sure that the potential gusher of energy jobs in the resurgent fossil fuel never materializes, at least in such places as New York and California. The best they can offer the [c.q.] hoi polloi is the prospect of becoming haircutters and dog walkers in cognitively favored places like Silicon Valley. Presumably, given the cost of living there, they will have to get there from the Central Valley or sleep on the streets.
Not surprisingly, this prospect is not exciting many Americans.
So instead of heading for the blue paradises, but to lower-cost, those who move now tend towards low-cost, lower-density regions like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte and Raleigh. Even while voting blue, they seem to be migrating to red places. Once there, one has to doubt whether they are simply biding their time for Oklahoma City to morph into San Francisco.There's more: and perhaps Mr Trump harvesting votes from Americans of Latino extraction despite his wall and drugs talk was an indication. But other signs were present: consider Thomas Edsall's Now What, Liberalism?
In this respect, the class issue so cleverly exploited by the President in the election could prove the potential Achilles heel of today’s gentry progressivism. The Obama-Bernanke-Geithner economy has done little to reverse the relative decline of the middle and working class, whose their share of national income have fallen to record lows. If you don’t work for venture-backed tech firms, coddled, money-for-nearly-free Wall Street or for the government, your income and standard of living has probably declined since the middle of the last decade.
If the main focus of progressives was to promote upward mobility, they would deserve their predicted political hegemony. But current day leftism is more about style, culture and green consciousness than jobs and opportunity. It’s more Vogue’s Anne Wintour than Harry Truman. Often times the gentry agenda -- for example favoring higher housing and energy prices -- directly conflicts with the interests of middle and working class families.
The progressive coalition also has little to offer to the private sector small business community, which should be producing jobs as they have in the wake of previous recessions but have failed to do so this time. A recent McKinsey study finds that small business confidence is at a 20 year low, entrepreneurial start-ups have slowed, and with it, the innovation that drives an economy from the ground up.
These economic shortcomings are unlikely to reverse themselves under the Obama progressives. An old Democrat of the Truman and Pat Brown, perhaps even Bill Clinton, genre would be pushing our natural gas revolution, a key to blue-collar rejuvenation, instead of seeking to slow it down. They would be looking to raise revenues from Wall Street plutocrats rather than raise taxes on modestly successful Main Street businesses. A HUD interested in upward mobility and families would be pressing for more detached housing and dispersal of work, not forcing the masses to live in ever smaller, cramped and expensive lodgings.
Over time, the cultural identity and lifestyle politics practiced so brilliantly by the President and his team could begin to wear thin even with their core constituencies. Hispanics, for example, have suffered grievously in the recession -- some 28% now live in poverty, the highest of any ethnic group.
It’s possible that the unnatural cohesion between gentry progressives and Latinos will tear asunder.
Obama’s victory and the growing evidence of an emerging majority Democratic coalition pose the danger that the left will take false comfort. The demographic forces currently powering the Democratic Party in no way guarantee a resilient coalition assured of a long-term competitive advantage.Not to mention, as Mr Edsall recognizes, that a coalition based on identity politics is a coalition that can fracture in an Oppression Olympics of monumental proportions. And all it took was an inexperienced politician refusing to be politically correct for normals to practice their own brand of identity politics.
In addition to the glaring class conflicts between the party’s upscale cultural liberals and the larger body of Democratic voters with pressing material needs, there are a host of potential fissures.
At the time, W. R. Mead noted, "The reality of blue model decline is so obvious that nobody can ignore it any longer."
The reckoning might have come in the form of Donald Trump. But coming a reckoning was.