In the meantime, American politics feels stuck.
—Walter Russell Mead, “America after the Midterms: Blue Twilight, Red Dawn?” November 8, 2014
The Recovering Bureaucrat has long noted the enduring stability of America’s current 50-50 split, more or less a product of the end of the Cold War and the acceleration of the Information Age.
On this Mead notes, “We try the right for a while, and turn to the left in disgust—until the left fails as well and we turn wearily back toward the right.” Why, it’s almost as if America has entered a great Schizophrenic Era! To explain this, many in the MSM commentariat have now latched on to the (to them) comforting notion of “two electorates”: one presidential and liberal, the other midterm and conservative. Certainly it’s a historic fact that more of us vote in presidential elections than in any other. But history also refutes the nice “liberal/conservative” rotation theory.
What if the tidal forces of history—what Mead calls "one of the most disruptive changes the human race has ever known"—are simply too emergent and chaotic to yield a comforting and observable pattern? The history of both the cosmos and humanity is non-linear; what’s happened in the past is not a reliable predictor of what’s to come. But human consciousness has not yet evolved to include the capacity to grok non-linear dynamics and their external manifestations; in the Advanced Sector we are still bound by a Newtonian belief in mechanical regularity as the fundamental metric of reality. The profound and disturbing implications of quantum physics remain a mystery for almost all of us.
Indeed, we may also be able to recite the formula represented in Einstein’s famous equation E = mc², but few of us have any idea of how its insights impact daily life.
In the meantime enormous and powerful historical tides are pulling us all this way and that. Humanity had already been struggling for several centuries now just to absorb the ramifications of the rise of the modern era, and now the intrusion of postmodernism has made the attempt even more complicated.
Consider: in the two hundred years since Waterloo, marking the end of the first period of modern revolution (1775-1815), world population has swollen from 1 to 7 billion. (China and India have grown from 585,000 to 2.6 billion in the same period.)
At the same time, annual world GDP per capita has grown from $667 to roughly $10,500, and life expectancy has doubled from 35 to 71 years.
These numbers do not begin to convey the changes in the political economy and the social and cultural configuration of our global population. Neither do they illuminate the radical nature of the transformation.
In 1815, the vast majority of humans lived in empires, monarchies, or autocracies of various sorts. Daily life did not change much during the average person’s short life span. Relatively few people traveled more than several miles from their homes. Consciousness was still pre-literate, tribal, and mythic. While what we now know as science had its roots in pre-Socratic times, most people had no notion of the scientific method or of what its discoveries had to offer. What inner life we had was dominated by the church, mosque, temple, or shaman’s tent.
It was a world, as Thomas Hobbes suggested in The Leviathan, where
there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."For those reading these words, the world he describes is a fictional world like Hogwarts or the Galactic Empire of Hari Seldon’s Foundation. It has no touchstone in our own lives because human consciousness is still embedded in our own direct and (in modern cultures) self-conceptualized experience.
Further, after the dust cleared from the Napoleonic experience at the Congress of Vienna, it became clear to the European leadership that the world was not going to be restored to control by the ancien régime—as much as Metternich and the Bourbons might have wished it. The momentum of the evolving modern world was too compelling to those caught up in its exciting possibilities to be thwarted.
America was both the practical and spiritual leader of this historical movement. Its founding on a set of principles rather than on ethnic or tribal loyalties signaled the new emerging political possibilities. From the moment the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 recognizing American independence from Great Britain, the modern revolution against the premodern world was in full motion. World history since that moment has been a reaction to this event, pro and con.
Seen from the long span of organized human history—say from the end of the last Great Ice Age and the invention of agriculture—the last two hundred years have been a chaotic whirlwind of momentous and hugely disruptive transformation.
What is the impact of this accelerated, burgeoning, explosive growth on the human psyche? How much of what we are experiencing and the outcomes we are producing are the result of how we as humanity are coping with and responding to this compressed period of unprecedented global disruption?
Analyzing the Global Stretto
The Recovering Bureaucrat is susceptible to periods of brooding contemplation of The Big Picture in part because it’s so difficult to explain and analyze the disarray of our global political economy and our little American part in it. And although history teaches us that there are numerous periods where many people thought the world was going to hell in a bucket (think Jeremiah in the seventh century BC), it didn’t mean that they weren’t sometimes right.
A musician might understand how we are all in the middle of a stretto, where all the themes are present but how they will work themselves out into an entire fugal symphony remains hidden.
The turbulence that the world is currently undergoing can be traced to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism. The end of the postwar bipolar world coinciding with the explosion of the Information Age. The “dot com bubble,” born only six years after Boris Yeltsin outlawed the Communist Party of Russia, coincided with the bipartisan decision in the US to essentially repeal the Glass-Steagall Act’s separation of commercial and investment banking. America and Europe spent that decade blithely spending the “peace dividend” under the completely understandable and totally irresponsible assumption that a supposed Pax Americana—emblemized by the international coalition George H. W. Bush assembled to boot Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait—was settling in for a long Augustan reprise.
We don’t need a postmodern Gibbon to document the forces driving the decline and fall of that fantasy. It is no coincidence that the current American political stand-off began in earnest with the election of Bill Clinton. In the 22 years since that event, the same party has occupied both the White House and Congress exactly eight years. The highest percentage that the winning candidate for the presidency has achieved has been just under 53%, with the average being a shade over 49%.
In other words, our divided nation has, on average, voted against the victor of the presidential race since 1992. While the RB has certainly had his observations about how these dynamics have played themselves out in our domestic politics, it is indeed sobering to meditate on this fact. Pundits, as we have seen, who other than Mead and Michael Barone rarely offer any sophisticated understanding of our history, unfailingly latch onto inconsequential data and minor events from which to draw their latest conclusions. The readers of the RB, however, are more interested in the long-term currents of our history, for only in these can we discern data to inform our policy decisions for both the near- and long-term future.
Finding That Forest among All Those Trees
Far too many of us waste our time wringing our hands about such ephemera as voter turn-out, “gridlock” in Washington, money in politics, the intractable curse of racism, and other similar features of today’s political economy. These are all symptoms, not causes. While understandable, it seems to occur to few that nothing useful comes out of this rhetorical weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Again, Jeremiah is a useful reminder of what is truly worthy of lamentation.) But this, the RB believes, is just another feature of our current historical period, whose primary challenge is a broad assessment that more or less coheres with what is actually going on.
Walter Russell Mead began back in 2013 offering a broad strategic look at the currents of contemporary history in his series on Liberalism 5.0 and the challenge of what he has identified as the “blue model” of American governance.
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.These core institutions were a product of what he called “Liberalism 4.0,” the result of the Progressives’ suspicion of Big Business and its impact on individual liberty. The horrendous impact of the World War I and the subsequent global depression shook many people’s faith in the capacity of market-based political economies to deliver the goods for citizens of industrial economies. The siren songs of socialism and fascism (different versions of the same faith in the State to solve all problems) led to the development of social safety nets of varying completeness in the Advanced Sector.
These safety net programs were tied to the big institutions of the American industrial age, hegemonic roughly from the end of World War I until the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. The political economic foundation of these major social institutions started to go wobbly with the introduction of the Information Age symbolized by the Apollo XI mission to the Moon, but it was widespread use of the Internet with its decentralizing and universalizing global connectivity that exposed the incompatibility of the blue model with the emerging world.
The administration of Bill Clinton was the first to experience the centrifugal forces of these two eras battering American culture and political economy. He and Vice President Al Gore saw themselves as leaders of this leading edge of the new economy, and set out to “reinvent government” so it could effectively accommodate this emerging new order. Alas, in neither of his elections did Clinton secure a majority of the popular vote, and his party lost control of the both houses of Congress in his first midterm election. In a nod to the declining power of blue model institutions, Clinton cut a deal with congressional Republicans to significantly reform federal welfare rules. He also signed, as we have seen, evisceration of the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act, along with the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada.
When Al Gore sought to succeed Clinton in 2000, his failure to secure a victory in his home state of Tennessee led to the victory of Texas Governor George W. Bush, the third minority popular vote winner in a row. Bush’s platform was, like that of all Republican leaders since, lacking in a clearly defined vision for navigating the nation through the increasingly violent historical shifts. The successful terrorist attacks of 2001 concentrated his attention on identifying and countering the threat these signified.
Here, too, America found itself unhappily divided, unable to articulate a consensus view about the causes and nature of the Islamist attack. The bipartisan foreign policy consensus which had held for the three generations since Pearl Harbor came swiftly and decisively unraveled. This played a large role in the Democratic takeover of Congress in the midterm elections of 2006 and set the stage for Barack Obama’s election to the presidency two years later.
The Republican’s leadership fecklessness permitted Bush to champion blue model programs, under the guise of so-called “compassionate conservatism,” such as the Medicare prescription entitlement. The traditional loyalty congressional Republicans offer to presidents of their own party suppressed much opposition to Bush’s various “compassionate” legislative proposals.
The Intraparty Civil Wars
Not so with the passage of the bipartisan “No Child Left Behind” bill in 2001. This legislation ignited a full-scaled war over the nature, financing, and management of government education, splitting the traditional left/right polarity. The fundamental issue, how to educate children for the emerging political economy, is usually disguised by more tactical battles, and rages on unabated to this moment. The failure of public schools serving poor and minority populations, for instance, inspired many local Democrats to champion charter schools, a position violently opposed by teachers’ unions. Mead has observed that this issue has led to a full scale blue model civil war, emblemized by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ongoing efforts to tame the Chicago Teachers Union and public sector pension costs.
The issue is exacerbated by the relative success of public schools in “red” states. Mead cites a 2011 survey published in Newsweek that “the very best public high schools in the country are heavily concentrated in red states.”
Three of the nation’s ten best public high schools are in Texas — the no-income tax, right-to-work state that blue model defenders like to characterize as America at its worst. Florida, another no-income tax, right-to-work state long misgoverned by the evil and rapacious Bush dynasty, has two of the top ten schools.The RB is not, much as he would like to, so much taking sides in this debate as he is pointing out the ongoing evidence of the schizophrenia of our current politics. After all, the Right has its own civil war raging, ignited by the spontaneous emergence of the Tea Party movement in the summer of 2010. This largely (still) grassroots phenomenon reflects anger with “establishment” Republicans for being, as Newt Gingrich said of Bob Dole in 1984, “the tax collector for the welfare state.” Even with their insight about how far the nation has drifted from its Constitutional mandate of a federal government limited to specifically enumerated powers, Tea Party officeholders like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz have so far failed to translate that insight into a positive call for action. As King Leonidas realized at Thermopylae, playing defense against overwhelming forces is not the best option.
These two intraparty civil wars, underscored by the steady increase in voters calling themselves independent of either party, is evidence of our national inability to come to grips with the hand that the changing world is dealing us. The recent elections, while they greatly expanded GOP political power at both the state and federal levels, did not change the dynamic. Nonetheless, the GOP has been given the basis for a major shift, if it is prepared to offer visionary leadership.
But nothing is guaranteed. We have two choices. We either reimagine for the new world our founding principles of free markets, individual liberty, and the rule of law through limited but effective government, or we finally reject these for a compelling American version of European social democracy. Sooner or later one or the other of these visions will find its voice and begin to move large blocs of voters.
The recent dust-up in Congress over the long-negotiated “bipartisan” budget bill simply reifies the on-going battle. The adulation by the MSM of Rand Paul on the Right and Elizabeth Warren on the Left hints—finally!—at fundamental currents. On the other hand, neither of these leaders has fully and persuasively articulated a new vision for America.
Addressing the Fundamentals
Mead concludes his article of the recent elections optimistically:
Over time, we are going to make our way through this. American society’s supreme competitive edge is its ability to innovate and adjust. We figured out the industrial revolution and we will get the information revolution right as well. The “new model” when it comes won’t be blue–but it won’t be totally red either. Many of the values that blue model partisans are trying to defend, including the economic dignity and well being of those at the low end of the labor market, will ultimately be better secured in the new model than they are now. That is what progress is all about; as society reaches higher levels of economic and social development, we are able to do more for the needy at a diminishing burden to the rest of the country. When health care is both better and cheaper than it is today, providing some form of universal health care will be cheaper, easier and less bureaucratic than taking on such a task is today.The RB is a tad less optimistic; the forces buffeting America are also buffeting all of humanity. Our ability to “innovate and adjust” is cosseted by how the rest of the world—and most crucially India and China—choose to respond to the same currents of history. Further, we are disadvantaged by the dismal failure of our political leadership to “innovate and adjust,” although perhaps the results from November 4th just might well have shifted the balance just enough to encourage the emergence of powerful new ideas and leadership. The re-election of Republican governors in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas, along with Bruce Rauner’s victory in Illinois, and the expansion of Republican majorities in the legislatures of most Midwestern states could liberate even more conservative innovation in this crucial part of the country.
Still, it is useful to contemplate the deeper currents at play here. The RB began this essay by pointing out that modernity has been a shock to the structures, both interior and exterior, that humanity had developed in the millennia since the end of the last great Ice Age. Our deepest psychological makeup may not change as quickly as our political economy has. Thus resistance to the emergence of the independent, autonomous individual—the single innovation that led to the unleashing of widespread material wealth—may be hard-wired.
Thus the complaints of the jihadis and the socialists cohere: both denounce the innovations of modernity as attacks on communal well-being. The jihadis would destroy modern society to force a return to tribal security governed by mythic gods, while the socialists would create global security by turning the whole world into a tribe whose chiefs and shamans would be enlightened despots experts. The American experiment in self-government, based explicitly on the Founders’ insight that it must be accompanied by ever more solid development of the civic virtue of its sovereign citizens, remains a fragile achievement. “Progressive” policies have, whether by design or not, enervated cultural support for individuation, pushing toward incremental nanny state removal of individual decision making along with the infantilizing victimhood ideology.
But conservatives have been largely unwilling to grasp the nettle to force the issue. Recently, however, governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan have played some hardball politics against blue model policies and presumptions, and voters have rewarded them with reelection and expanded legislative majorities. Whether these aggressive moves signal a turning point remains to be seen.
At some point, Mead is correct in noting, the impasse has to be broken. The forces that will make this happen are already in motion. Time will tell the direction that the breaking of the impasse will take. The RB hopes and prays it will be a reimagining of the great American Narrative of Individual Liberty, updated for the postmodern, Information Age world. But let nobody be under any illusions. The struggle for the modern innovation of the free individual voluntarily banding together with other free individuals to create limited government whose aims are to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity will continue for centuries to come. Until the psychological dynamics of individual autonomy firmly transcend those of tribal security, the work will continue.
None of this can be accomplished by government. This is a task only civil society can pull off.