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The Nostalgic (Reactionary) Left?

Yuval Levin, the most astute and imaginative of the Republican public intellectuals, has noticed that Democrats have stopped being progressive.  That means, from one view, they no longer believe that History (with a capital H) is on their side.  It also means, of course, they’re starting to figure out that the height of the welfare state is behind us.  Here’s a taste:

 In our time, nostalgia is the reigning sentiment of the left in America, and the project of the left is fundamentally reactionary. They’re clinging mightily to the remnants of the old and bankrupt social-democratic dream, and they constantly appeal to a vision of a (mostly imaginary) ideal past. This is very powerfully evident in President Obama’s rhetoric. Here’s a characteristic passage from this year’s State of the Union address

“Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown.  You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors.  If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion.  Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company.” 

Even in those exceptional three decades after the Second World War, things weren’t really anything like this. But for people who were children during that time, it might be possible to imagine it as having been this way. And for people who believe in the power of social-democratic government activism it may even be possible to imagine that it was achieved by such activism. The self understanding (and immense self regard) of many baby boomers is steeped in that idea, and some in the generations that have followed them have bought into it too. 

At first glance, it might seem odd to find the left so nostalgic. We tend to expect conservatives to be the backward looking bunch. But it isn’t all that peculiar, really. The modern left began as a project to recapture a lost innocence corrupted by greed and power. That’s how Rousseau understood the human story. It’s how the French revolutionaries understood what they were doing. And many subsequent projects of the radical left (from Maoist agrarianism to the anti-globalization riots of the 1990s) have been fundamentally anti-progressive, and so have been in some tension with both the more nihilistic elements and the more technocratic elements of the left. (The right, of course, has its own share of similar tensions, especially between libertarians and traditionalists.) The American left, like every other movement in American politics, has always been less radical than its foreign counterparts, so its nostalgic streaks have been less nuts, but they have been no less prominent—from Jefferson’s agrarianism right through contemporary environmentalism, with its naïve yearning for a simpler time. 

This helps to explain the left’s attitude toward the increasingly obvious fiscal implosion of the welfare state. Liberals have so far responded almost exclusively with reactionary denial and with a doubling down on the very ways of thinking that created the problem. They yearn for the glorious energy of the Great Society era, unwilling to see that its consequences are the very source of our troubles. They really seem to believe that leaving Medicare just as we have it is essential to guarding the American dream. And to oppose conservative attempts at reforms of various programs, they appeal to an almost blind fear of change, and to the segments of our population most inclined to such fear—ignoring the plain fact that the status quo is unsustainable and the question is only what kind of change will come. 

The nostalgia Yuval describes, as he says, is pretty selective and otherwise excessive.  Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for the “family wage” (enough income for the breadwinner to allow his wife to devote her life to being a mother) that was the goal widely pursued in the Fifties, the security and even dignity often achieved by unionization, defined benefit pensions, employer and employee loyalty, and all that. But a true leftist (a genuine Marxist) would have to admit that it was inevitable that they all be swept away by “capitalism” or the global competitive marketplace. And a more ironic Marxist would have something to say about the “progress” that made women “wage slaves” just like men.

 But it turns out, of course, that the Marxist understanding of the key weakness of modern societies was mistaken.  Nobody much predicted that the various safety nets of our relatively minimalist welfare state would become demographically unsustainable.  Democrats in America aren’t yet about facing up to the “issue” that the ratio between young and productive Americans and old and unproductive ones is changing in a seemingly irreversible way against productivity. 

I disagree with those libertarians who say that welfare-state dependency is the main cause of welfare-state unsustainability.  The cause, in fact, is the individualism that became increasingly characteristic of our free and prosperous society.  Individuals took it upon themselves to work harder to stay around as long as possible, to live healthier and so longer lives.  And they thought of themselves more as individuals–as ends in themselves–and less as beings to be replaced (by their chidlren).  They came to think of themselves, someone might say, in a less and less Darwinian way–or in a more and more “autonomous” way. 

 It turns out that “the road to serfdom” will never reach serfdom.  I admit that too many conservatives are too ready to applaud the implosion of the welfare state as unambiguously progress.  But Yuval is right that a true conservative would view it as a problem to be faced up to and managed.  There are both good and bad things about this “crisis of our time” (every time has its crises), but bigger government can’t save us now.


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