Thursday, December 15, 2016

What Happened to the Democratic Elite

A recent commentary noted that a spate of books written by blue-state journalists and academics about red state folks had recently appeared, but added that there were unfortunately no complementary books by red staters about blue staters.  What follows is my own very blue-stater attempt to sketch out what has happened on my side of the social and political fence in the past half century.  Both sides, in my opinion bear a lot of responsibility for the political collapse that has led to the election of Donald Trump.  Like my fellow historians Luigi Albertini, Fritz Fischer, and Thucydides, I have always been the kind of patriot who believes in being hardest on his own country--and the kind of partisan who believes in being harder on his own side.  Our crisis demands no less.

Fifty  years ago my generation's revolt against our parents was slowly moving into high gear.  It had begun two years earlier at the University of California at Berkeley.  In a famous speech in the fall of 1964, Mario Savio, a student leader and veteran of the Mississippi Summer Project, had addressed his fellow students, who were enjoying an almost free education--and a much better one than they would find there today--in the midst of one of the most attractive climates and surroundings on earth.  He specifically compared the plight of Berkeley undergraduates to that of segregated, terrorized Mississippi black citizens--and he was applauded for doing so.  I have wondered for many  years how he could possibly have elicited that reaction, and I can only conclude now that it was a natural, if unfortunate, reaction to being given so much by our parents' generation.  Those students' parents had provided them with a secure environment (if an emotionally sterile one), good schools, and now, a great, nearly free university.  But what is given can be taken away, and the recipient thus easily comes to resent those who have given too much.  So it was then.

Meanwhile, my parents' generation was about to make the tragic mistake that escalated our rebellion by at least two orders of magnitude: the beginning, in the first half of 1965, of the Vietnam War.  I wrote at length about how that mistake came about in American Tragedy [see link at right], and I have often written that it gave my own generation license to disregard not only what our parents told us about the necessity of that war, but just about everything else they said, too.  Meanwhile, larger historical forces, I know believe, were at work.  Western civilization in the 1960s had reached a peak, in many ways, thanks to generations of self-discipline and self-restraint, which had allowed most people to accept their roles in their families and society.  Such self-restraint had become, it seems, literally iinhuman, and my generation renounced it.  That opened up many opportunities for women and gays (legal opportunities for black citizens had already been opened up by 1975), which was necessary and could have strengthened our society.  But we were not content to extend those opportunities within the context of society as it then existed. Instead, the previous lack of those opportunities became the pretext for a broader rejection of western civilization.  This began in my own profession of academia, and college professors have now spread new ideas through two whole new generations.

The emphasis on the need to redress grievances against minorities, women and gays has led to a general indictment of white males, both in history and in society today.  They are no longer celebrated for having done the most to create a civilization based upon reason and equality, and having written a Constitution that spoke the language of equal rights even to those who did not yet enjoy them.  Instead, we have gone so far that a recent book on the American Revolution by the historian Alan Taylor refuses to regard the revolution as a step forward because it maintained slavery in the South and did not help Indian tribes.  The intellectual elite now takes it for granted--almost without realizing it--that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the most significant feature of our society and institutions, and presumes that anything that helps those groups--from a cabinet appointment to an Oscar nomination to a presidential candidacy--must be a good thing.  They see our society as a zero-sum game, whose only real problem is that straight white males have too much and everyone else has too little.

Although neither one of the last two Democratic Presidents was born into the economic and intellectual elite, they both moved smoothly into it thanks to their considerable abilities and our educational system.  Both of them also had personal characteristics that gave them a leg up at the ballot box: Bill Clinton's southern roots, which twice allowed him to carry a number of southern states, and Barack Obama's race and personal appeal, which led to an unprecedented turnout of younger and minority voters.  Meanwhile, Democratic strategists talked gleefully about the gradual eclipse of the white male portion of the electorate, counting on women and minorities to elect one Democrat after another.  Much (though hardly all) of the Democratic party was so captivated by the idea of the first female President succeeding the first black one that they could not even stop to ask whether the country was ready for a woman in general, or from a very controversial former first lady in particular.  But they had lost sight of something bigger in the meantime.

Hillary Clinton, like most Democrats, presented herself as the champion of "working families."  She retained a remarkable hold on the allegiance of black voters--although we may eventually find that a failure of younger black voters to turn out, and the failure of Hispanics to support her to the extent she expected, cost her the election.  But neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama had been able to halt, much less reverse, the decline of the white and black working class in this country.  Given the nature of our economy and the changes that it has been going through, it is impossible to help the nonwhite working class without helping the white working class as well.  That in turn can only happen through major changes in our economic structure and our tax code--the kind of changes that Bernie Sanders (sincerely) and Donald Trump (insincerely and inconsistently) have proposed.  Very few people believed that Hillary Clinton would ever undertake such changes, and I don't either.

Almost two centuries ago Tocqueville noted that the United States had a small intellectual elite, but that it wisely kept mostly to itself and had a very liimited role in politics.  The Progressive Era and the New Deal, and Presidents like the two Roosevelts, Wilson, Hoover, and Kennedy changed that picture a good deal--but the politicians of that era understood that intellectuals were only one constituency and that they had to respect the values of the heartland.  Today's Democrats do not understand that, and their supporters in academia understand it even less.  And that, I am convinced, as a very big reason why Donald Trump will take office on January 20.

In the recent seminar of campaign managers from both sides at Harvard's Institute of Politics, one of the Clinton campaign managers said she would rather have lost the election than have made the kinds of appeals the Trump camp made.  I do not think that Clinton should have taken any of Trump's provisions, but I do think Democratic politicians have to realize that there is nothing noble or beneficial about losing on behalf of intellectual elite values that too many voters in swing states do not share. We remain a democracy that includes people of very different types and very different beliefs and the task of political leadership is to bring enough of them together on the same side to make government function effectively.   This both parties have failed to do.  That is the challenge we now face, and both sides will have to change to meet it.

5 comments:

Bruce Wilder said...

The last election cycle occurred against the background of the end of a long policy cycle that began with the advent of Reagan -- and in a longer view -- with the re-ordering of international politics and economics that took place in the background of the Second World War. The enormous national effort required by mobilization had profound social and cultural effects in the U.S., as did the decision after the war to maintain an enormous military establishment. Mario Savio, like many firebrands and idealists of the 1960s and since -- including significantly Bernie Sanders -- was a war baby, not a baby boomer. The fierce idealism of the war effort and its propaganda was imbibed as mother's milk, but the contrast with the moral psychology of the baby boomers proper, born in and after ~1946 could scarcely be more intense.

The generations that lived as adolescents or adults thru the Great Depression were aware of a politics that put class division center stage. When Democratic politicians like Truman or LBJ or Wright Patman presented themselves as champions ready to fight for the working and middle classes or small business, both the politicians and their audience understood "fight" as a genuinely antagonistic struggle against the rich and big business. The regulation of banking and business, the championing of union rights was strongly antagonistic. When John Kenneth Galbraith tried to give the New Deal a theoretical gloss, he came up with the concept of democratic governance as a source of countervailing power.

The baby boomers lived in the world created by successful fights to secure labor rights, public utility regulation, to repress financial frauds and they came to adulthood at a time of peak egalitarianism. The shredding of the authoritarian conformity gripping the culture -- a legacy of the conformity engendered by the war effort -- was largely the work of Pied Pipers among war babies, not the baby boomers themselves. The theory of political economy the boomers accepted was a variation on the Chicago School libertarian economics of Milton Friedman, which re-interpreted the carefully structured and managed economy of the New Deal as a natural phenomenon and an outcome of an emergent equilibrium in which the palsied hand of government rarely showed itself except as the cause of dysfunction.

Bruce Wilder said...

The fight went out of the Democrats in the early 1980s as they accommodated themselves to Reagan and the age of greed as good. Deregulation and trade liberalization undermined the labor unions and destroyed the savings and loans even as it delivered cheap gas and the recycling of petrodollars in place of energy independence. Clinton's game and Obama's was to deliver the policies wanted by the emerging plutocracy without re-kindling the class antagonisms of yore.

The political solidarity required to motivate voter support became an increasingly serious problem for both Parties, as social affiliation declined and the economic policy agenda shifted away from delivering anything of tangible benefit to anyone but maybe 10%. The Republicans turned toward culturally alienated religious fundamentalists as church-going declined among the mainline Protestant churches which were once the backbone of the Republican Party and to corrupt oil and financial interests as the Republican base among main street business shrank and corporate conglomerates dominated the business landscape.

The Democrats followed the Republicans into purely symbolic politics turning the civil rights struggle, which had previously sought a rainbow coalition to fight for economic progress after the legal and institutional victories of the 1960s, into a matter of personal identity, linguistic etiquette and virtue signalling. But, on matters of economic substance, Democrats were just as willing to take the money while making the fight a made-for-tv-and-the-internet narrative of the war on women and such.

Hillary Clinton and her supporters did not try very hard to hide her hypocrisy, let alone her contempt for the deplorables. The rank corruption of the Clinton Foundation was normalized. The Clinton Campaign did not even pretend to want to elect a Democratic Senate, and instead circumvented the campaign finance laws to raise money from wealthy donors while denying the State parties a share of the funds nominally donated to them.

And, now we watch as Clinton's campaign, fully supported by the New York Times, blames racism and "the Russians hacked my email" as an excuse. Not the soaring premiums on Obamacare exchanges or fantastic pharma prices that Obama did nothing to constrain. Not falling life expectancy from failing economics.

The open class antagonisms and hostility revealed in the political struggles of the early 20th century, which reached a crescendo in the Great Depression, which many rightly blamed partly on the greed and corrupt selfishness of at least some of the rich, were moderated significantly by the solidarity of common efforts in the Second World War and the great compression of incomes and wealth created in the effort to pay for that common effort. We have not had an occasion for the kind of political solidarity the War engendered, nor a common effort coordinated by deliberate planning and authority aimed at public purposes.

Bozon said...


"The emphasis on the need to redress grievances against minorities, women and gays has led to a general indictment of white males, both in history and in society today. They are no longer celebrated for having done the most to create a civilization based upon reason and equality, and having written a Constitution that spoke the language of equal rights even to those who did not yet enjoy them. Instead, we have gone so far that a recent book on the American Revolution by the historian Alan Taylor refuses to regard the revolution as a step forward because it maintained slavery in the South and did not help Indian tribes. The intellectual elite now takes it for granted--almost without realizing it--that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the most significant feature of our society and institutions, and presumes that anything that helps those groups--from a cabinet appointment to an Oscar nomination to a presidential candidacy--must be a good thing. They see our society as a zero-sum game, whose only real problem is that straight white males have too much and everyone else has too little." DK, excerpt

Professor

Thanks for this post. Quite a statement.

This is now a sort of an endgame of the liberal democratic revolution in the West, starting in about 1760, with our War of Independence as its first example, which Palmer described so well and so thoroughly.

In my judgment, that revolution hardly ended in 1815, but rather morphed into general revolutionary instability in the West, even though often on a low, so called peace time, boil, into the period of high imperialism,;and then gradually morphed down further, then, into what can now after 1919, and then 1945, only be called a world clash of civilizations, where the dominance of the West and its white male elites, aristocrats and monarchs, and not only the imperialism and colonialism of the West, but also its republicanism and early democratism is trashed as vehemently in The West and in our boomer generation as it has been in the former colonies which were only allowed to emerge because of it.

Thus, unfortunately, the boomers are hardly the first group (I won't say generation, since I do not see it really as mainly generational) to have called into question Western hegemony.

Our founders were the first to successfully do that. They were not only white males, but had one foot in the ancien regime out of which the colonies had emerged.

There were also many, among the old elites of Europe, who even in the 18th Century, shared the ideal of a world civilization of liberty equality and fraternity for all humans, regardless of race creed or color, and more lately of gender and sexual orientation, under one centralized peaceful world government.

The situation from which the colonies half emerged, one of old class distinctions, including servitude and slavery, (but actually having no noblemen, or aristocrats, really), explains in part why later generations now see even the founders, who were really morally and civilizationally transitional figures, rather than simply ancien regime lower gentry at the best but not really, many of whom then unapologetically owned slaves, just as they probably still had white indentured servants, as dishonest defenders and upholders of a defunct old aristocratic order against which they nevertheless hypocritically rebelled.

All the best


ed boyle said...

Best comment I ever read here. Shows how political development from last social justice struggle after late 19th century era became misused to recreate the exact same poverty now which existed then. Only instead of this era's injustice being a result of post civil war industrialization which was reduced in the course of the social justice movement of that era(like our 60s) combined worker with some women's rights, we land at peak of poverty and injustice in the exact crisis point of historical cycle, being the main issue of he crisis, not slavery, foreign war against japanese, nazis or independence fight against british. So a revolution against autocratic plutocracy (disguised as a two party democracy) started like the arab spring through information freedoms of internet to uncover corruption of industrialists and state elements who hijacked USA as war/business machine to create greater markets or control or if not then destabilize enemies/friends abroad and internal population(divide and conquer abroad using ethnic conflicts,, social differences used internally to separate working poor from each other on ethnic , religious, cultural grounds). We must break the back of the monster, like ancien regime which has a totalitarian, 1984 style control over the world. Globalism is an ideology born of conflict. Although seemingly idealistic originally, was misused as propaganda tool(never again global conflict caused by economic conflict) to justify permanent war and expansion of trade.

The real paradigm is late 19th century industrialist induced poverty and not the 1860s or 1960s social justice fight. The attempt to paint sanders' and trumps' every effort as evil and to nominate only select yes men of either party failed on republican side at least. There were just two many holes in argument, wikileaks, ex reagan govt. ministers ( david stockman, paul craig roberts) and hundreds of other competent economic and political experts and alternative systems(europe, canada)which showed that America was poorer due to corruption(medical system as pure profit center, lack of infrastructure investment, tax evasion, industrial profit/jobs shift abroad, military as dead end investment sink).

Samantha Mueller said...

Thanks to the Professor and Bruce Wilder for a thorough and thoughtful post / comment.
To add to your point about the Republican Party as the revolutionary one this 4th Turning look at North Carolina: they radically strip the Democrat governor-elect of powers. They are willing to bully their agenda through just like FDR did with his New Deal in the face of Supreme Court resistance and otherwise. Expect outrage and nothing substantial from the Democrats.
Also another interesting development is Team Trump's proposal for an import tax on finished products (as I understand it). They seem to get serious about a much more nationalistic economic policy which would also support their working-class voter base.