Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Walter Russell Mead on The Progressive Crisis

On August 2nd, W.R. Mead posted on essay on the “Progressive Crisis” after reading a column by Democratic party pollster Stanley Greenberg.  The essay can be found here (including a link to Greenberg’s column) and is worth reading in full:

Mead reads Greenberg as trying to come up with an answer for “the mysterious inability of Democrats to turn widespread public support on individual issues into a stable governing majority.”  Beyond what is articulated in the essays is that an issue level view of politics is deficient as it abstracts political questions out of any coherent whole.  As anyone who has worked with budgets before—and it’s telling that this progressive administration hasn’t produced one—there are many things which you can be for but they come tied to the question of what are you willing to give up.  And it is I think at this fundamental level where Liberal-Progressivism goes wrong with its astonishing ability to view political problems in isolation as if responding to a problem will leave everything else untouched.

In looking at Democratic ideas and policy proposals Greenberg finds that “the rhetoric inspires; the reality disappoints” and the perception is that “government grows remote and unresponsive.”  This is hardly surprising, except to a progressive.  As Ken Minogue observes in The Servile Mind  our rulers now manage so much of our lives they cannot but do it badly.”

Later Mead lays out the progressive vision:we would have government by philosopher kings, or at least by incorruptible credentialed bureaucrats.  Alabaster towers of objectivity such as the FCC, the FDA, the EPA, the FEC and so many more would take politics out of government and replace it with disinterested administration.  Honest professionals would administer fair laws without fear or favor, putting the general interest first, and keeping the special interests at arm’s length.  The government would serve the middle class, and the middle class would thrive.”

The first thing one notes about this is the notion you can somehow take politics out of government, which brings to mind Obama’s irritating tendency to describe real issues as false choices.  In short we have here, the belief in politics as science, that it can be made to mirror the objectivity of the natural sciences.

But I think what is equally important is that this politics would serve the middle class.  Now the middle class is the middle, and in a normal distribution it is the predominant group.  One has to wonder how government can serve the majority in any real sense other than by administering neutral laws that leave the middle class to make their own way.  Indeed one can see in this idea Buckley’s description of political activity leading to “skies black with crisscrossing dollars.” Serving the middle in a progressive state means that I pay for your kids education and you pay for mine, without stopping to ask why we simply can’t pay for our own kids education.  Moreover by obfuscating the true costs and benefits of programs you have just the recipe for our mystery, popularity for individual policies without overall satisfaction.  And you have the recipe for our current predicament, where the cost of those popular proposals can be put off as debt until it reaches a level that no longer can be ignored.

Of course this isn’t Greenberg’s explanation for this supposed conundrum his anwer is that the electoral process isn’t working and we need campaign finance reform.  Snore. 

After knocking this down, Mead goes on to explain another, deeper cause:

It is not that evil plutocrats control innocent bureaucrats; many voters believe that the progressive administrative class is a social order that has its own special interests…. The professionals and administrators who make up the progressive state are seen as a hostile power with an agenda of their own that they seek to impose on the nation… The progressive state has never seen its job as simply to check the excesses of the rich.  It has also sought to correct the vices of the poor and to uplift the masses.  From the Prohibition and eugenics movements of the early twentieth century to various improvement and uplift projects in our own day, well educated people have seen it as their simple duty to use the powers of government to make the people do what is right: to express the correct racial ideas, to eschew bad child rearing technique like corporal punishment, to eat nutritionally appropriate foods, to quit smoking, to use the right light bulbs and so on and so on.
Progressives want and need to believe that the voters are tuning them out because they aren’t progressive enough.  But it’s impossible to grasp the crisis of the progressive enterprise unless one grasps the degree to which voters resent the condescension and arrogance of know-it-all progressive intellectuals and administrators.  They don’t just distrust and fear the bureaucratic state because of its failure to live up to progressive ideals (thanks to the power of corporate special interests); they fear and resent upper middle class ideology.  Progressives scare off many voters most precisely when they are least restrained by special interests.”  

Mead goes on to note that theprogressive ideal of administrative cadres leading the masses toward the light has its roots in a time when many Americans had an eighth grade education or less.”  One I think could extend this by saying that the progressive ideal is intent on keeping the masses at an eight grade level, i.e. as adolescents not adults.  To my mind this is what conservatives should harp on, not just that the liberal-progressive state doesn’t work (see Hayek, Friedman, Sowell) but that it is undesirable on its own terms.  That the promise of conservatism, properly understood, is to allow you to live an adult life (Oakeshott).  In Finding Nemo there’s this exchange between the father Marlin about his son Nemo and Dory:

[Marlin]   I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
[Dory]  Hmm.  That’s a funny thing to promise.
[Marlin]  What?
[Dory]  Well you can’t never let anything happen to him.  Then nothing would ever    happen to him.  Not much fun for little Harpo.

The progressive state promises that nothing will happen to you, that Lord Beveridge’s ideal of cradle to the grave security will be realized.  Dory’s is the conservative response.

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