Gerald Ford will always be president.” Those cynical words were spoken to me by a longtime Washingtonian, who has seen presidents come and go–and has noticed that their impact seems to be mostly the same. The government gets bigger, but not better, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether policy has truly moved left, or right. It was Bill Clinton, after all, who balanced the budget. It was George W. Bush who vastly expanded Medicare. So at minimum, it does seem that the political equivalent of regression to the mean takes place in Washington, D.C. As the essays in Democracy’s recent symposium [“What Happened?,” Spring 2010] tell us, a progressive president is now regressing. That might well be the path to re-election–it was for Clinton and Bush 43–but some loyalist hearts will be broken along the way.
Moreover, I might add, if these essays are a fair sampling of elite progressive thinking, the overall message is unmistakable: Progressives these days don’t seem to have much confidence in the popular appeal of their beliefs. Despite wars and scandals, the McCain-Palin ticket was ahead in the polls prior to the economic meltdown, so Democrats have good reason to be reticent. If it takes the biggest economic plunge since 1929 to get the Republicans out of the White House, and if the Republicans can come roaring back, politically, just two years after Barack Obama won the White House, then it really is a center-right country. As Michael Walzer puts it, as electoral and ideological pendulums go, 2008 was “a very weak swing.”
Indeed, the common thread running through all of the essays is the sober realization that happy days are not here again. It could be that the Bismarckian-Rooseveltian welfare state is an artifact of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workable for nations that had relatively small, relatively homogeneous populations. It’s easy to have social solidarity, most of the time, in countries with a common language or culture. But such solidarity seems to erode in the face of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In addition, technology has changed the power relationship between governments and their people. If anyone can communicate instantly with almost anyone else–or if they can Google the answer–then the faith that government experts know what’s best for them wilts away. Indeed, the idea of expertise harbored in Washington has gone the way of an off-the-record conversation in the Twitter Era; everyone’s a critic now, and everyone wants to second-guess Obama, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Timothy Geithner. Governments can and must take action, but the Obama Administration now finds that it must operate on the basis of majoritarian force–as the opposition Tweets its case to a public that is both anti-redistributionist and actively online.
From these essays, we can now tease out three different possible futures for the welfare state in the 21st century:
First, the welfare state could reflect left-libertarian values. That is, it could provide help for people in a non-judgmental way–except when it subsidizes lifestyle choices that many welfare-state advocates sympathize with, including abortion, sex-change operations and medical marijuana.
Second, the welfare state could reflect moderate-conservative values. That was the approach of Bill Clinton after 1994. Clinton was no conservative, but he signed both welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Not coincidentally, in that same year, he was re-elected in a landslide. And yet every Democratic presidential nominee since Clinton has chosen to run to Clinton’s left; triangulatory Clintonism, popular as it might be with the country as a whole, does not sit well with the Democratic base.
Third, the welfare state could evolve in some new direction. To cite just one possibility, one of these days, Washington, D.C. might realize that Silicon Valley has figured out new ways to process large amounts of information about 307 million Americans, as well as billions more around the world, and these politicos will import that realization back to the East Coast–and thereby truly reinvent government.
The last possibility is the most intriguing. Americans mostly thrill to the latest news from Apple, or Google. So we might pause over the different skill-sets of techsters, on the one coast, and politicians, on the other, and ask: What can one teach the other? How can we create the Apple equivalent of the welfare state? If we have an iPhone and an iPad, why can’t we have an iWelfare State? What does Steve Jobs know about quality, user-friendliness, and, yes, cool, that politicians do not know? Obama was the cool and sleek high-tech candidate in 2008; what happened to him once he entered the White House?
Political partisans have never much cared for technical solutions to policy problems. One reason is their basic cluelessness about technology, which brings fear, then disdain, toward variables that politicos can’t understand and therefore can’t control.
Moreover, partisans simply want the fight. The politicos, brought up in the zero-sum environment of electoral winning and losing, tend not to be interested in win-win solutions. Oftentimes, they want their side funded, and the other side de-funded. And so the problem-solving ethos of Silicon Valley offers little appeal to political practitioners.
Yet ordinary Americans simply want their government, and their country, to work better. For them, Silicon Valley offers, yes, hope and change. Hope for an easier and cooler consumer experience today, hope for a more productive and prosperous life tomorrow.
But if those are possible future scenarios for the welfare state, it remains true that other big issues must be resolved, including foreign policy and the overall management of the economy. And for those not-small concerns, and how to address them–to say nothing of how to solve them–I was struck by Walzer’s observation that, starting in the 1960s, left constituencies were split between “liberal, secular, well-educated cosmopolitans” on one side and “religious, socially conservative, working-class patriots” on the other. Decades later, we might observe, if the divide remains this wide, then the goal of re-creating a broad-based progressive coalition is indeed far away. Walzer’s fellow essayist Michael Sandel is also correct in pointing out the long tradition of economic populism in national politics–and in noting that Barack Obama is not a part of that tradition. The President, Sandel writes, “appointed economic advisors whose views had more in common with Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers, than with Brandeis, Wilson, and FDR.” And so it’s little surprise that Obama has not vocalized populist anger against Wall Street and Wall Street bailouts. As a result, we might now say that Obama “owns” both the economy and the bailouts, even those bailouts that were enacted by his predecessor. This double-ownership could be problematic for the incumbent.
et the news is not all bad for progressives. Accentuating the positive, Katha Pollitt makes a useful distinction between two strains of progressive thought: “Like liberalism, feminism has (at least) two aspects: an individualistic and libertarian side, and a social-welfare, ‘big government’ side. The individualistic side of feminism (and liberalism) has been one of our history’s great success stories.”
In other words, left-libertarianism has been successful over the past four decades. Abortion is legal and seems likely to stay that way, at least for as long as Republicans are unable to appoint federal judges. Gay marriage, too, marches forward–not so much at the ballot box, although it marches forward nonetheless. Indeed, more than a few progressives and more than a few libertarians see eye-to-eye on personal-freedom issues, concerning sex and drugs–and maybe even rock ‘n’ roll.
In 2006, the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey published an essay in The New Republic introducing the word “liberaltarian” to the political discourse. And while Lindsey’s coinage might not have created an outright fusion between the libertarian left and the libertarian right, he helped both sides to see that they do, in fact, have much in common. We will witness a test of this alliance in November, when Californians go to the polls to vote on a referendum “regulating”–read: legalizing–marijuana. It’s not possible to predict the fate of this referendum, but it is possible to predict that Noam Chomsky-reading San Franciscans will find themselves on the same side as Ayn Rand-reading San Franciscans.
Brad Carson is the only one of these nine thinkers actually to have braved the voters in a federal election–in Oklahoma, no less–and as such, he has a different opinion: The type of social liberation that Pollitt extolls has had the effect of Republicanizing much of the New Deal coalition. And yet, Carson continues, Southern white Protestants and Northern white Catholics, blasted as they are by the gale of Schumpeterian creative destruction, are much in need of a new kind of solidarity. “Liberalism,” Carson writes, “aspires to emancipate the individual from the tyranny of unjustified hierarchy, but it confronts a country demanding not more liberation from tradition but a progressive reinvention of community.” In other words, while coastalites liberate themselves from the state power that once crimped their lifestyle, Heartlanders need help from government to preserve their economic well-being–which is to say, the well-being of their communities. Yet whether the winds are blowing from the Dust Bowl or from globalization, Oklahomans and others have demonstrated that they aren’t going to abandon their folkways. Okies from Muskogee will never embrace liberation liberalism.
o return to the triple fork in the road. Do progressives push ahead with a left-liberal version of the welfare state that pleases the coasts and the inner cities, but displeases most folks in the middle? Down that road is one-termism–the fate of President Jimmy Carter, or New York City Mayor David Dinkins, or Dennis Kucinich, the “boy wonder” mayor of Cleveland who was pushed out after a single term in 1979. An upcoming test will be the fate of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, another African American with an academic mien and David Axelrod as his top political guru. Or, as a possibility, do progressives try to woo back their share of Brad Carsonite voters, building up a “one nation” liberalism? As noted, that’s a proven formula, even if most progressives dislike it. And finally, there’s the Silicon Valley “upgrade” for the welfare state; the infusion of new technology and new knowhow–a “brains trust,” as FDR called it, for the twenty-first century. Alluring though it may be, that seems to be the most remote prospect of the three: Three months after the iPad debuted, nobody in D.C. seems to have thought to invite Jobs to Washington. For Washingtonians, the latest and coolest geekery might be fun around the house, but it’s “disruptive technology” for government. And government, often stubbornly slow-moving, is nothing if not resistant to disruption.
Ah, progressives might say, “Don’t forget the healthcare bill.” Won’t Obamacare be an opportunity to vindicate the Schlesingerian vision of affirmative government? Here William Galston pours some cold water: “Unlike the liberals of FDR’s time, or LBJ’s, today’s liberals must consciously act to rebuild public confidence in government, and they must monitor it as carefully as they do the monthly unemployment statistics.” OK, that’s a fair warning, but then he adds this kicker: “It’s too late to use confidence-building measures in health care.” Indeed, a USA Today/Gallup poll taken in late March, after the bill passed, found that 65 percent of Americans believe that the new bill will expand the government’s role in healthcare too much, and 64 percent think that it costs too much. Such poll numbers are not the final word on the bill, to be sure, but they suggest that healthcare reformers still have a major challenge in front of them.
As of now, it seems certain that within the 2,800 pages of legislatese in the healthcare bill, for example–not to mention 15,000 or so pages of regulation, currently being drafted–there will be plenty of news-nuggets for Michelle Malkin to feast on. Maybe no death panels, but plenty of social-engineering provisions, from “diversity” to rationing, are waiting to be found in the text, like so many Easter eggs–or IEDs. Such avant-garde liberalism was a loser in the Walter Cronkite 60s; it will surely be a loser in the new-media-rich teens.
Galston does suggest a number of non-healthcare ideas that could stir the hearts of centrists, the business community, and even a few neo-Hamiltonian Republicans. A National Infrastructure Bank, for example, is straight out of the DeWitt Clinton Erie Canal-building playbook. Galston further advocates “FDA reform to improve drug monitoring and accelerate the approval process,” as well as increased use of “sunset provisions to help weed out obsolete programs throughout the federal government.” If Obama had proposed that sort of agenda, Democrats might have had their healthcare bill and as well as both Senate seats from Massachusetts.
But for now, as Joe Klein observes, the Obamans must prove that they can run programs effectively. “Good governance is the predicate for everything else,” he writes. Noting that memories of George W. Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina are fading, Klein adds, “Democrats not only have to run FEMA far better than Republicans did, but they have to invent new user-friendly ways for citizens to access the government across the board—especially those who have lost their jobs or their health care.” Exactly. When will all the benefits of e-commerce come to e-government?
E-government. Such a vision might not be progressive, but it also might not be conservative. It is, however, distinctly American: as old as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, as new as an iPad.