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Ed Driscoll

Obama And Teddy Kennedy: Mid-Century Men

September 1st, 2009 - 1:56 pm

Dubbing Ted Kennedy a “Man of the 1930s” in the American Spectator, William Tucker notes how frozen in time his political thinking truly was:

With the Last Liberal Lion now laid to rest, it is worth pausing a moment to evaluate what the career of the third-longest-sitting Senator in history (behind only Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond) was all about. Like Thurmond and Byrd, Kennedy came from a baronial state where the traditional centers of wealth and power are rarely challenged by newcomers. This kind of politics fit the New Deal perfectly. Its strongest support was in the urban centers of the East Coast and in the populist dynasties of the Old South — home of John Stennis and Earl and Huey Long. In these states the principle had long been established that “the masses” were exploited and victimized by Big Business and it was the business of politicians to intercede on their behalf or else they would be denied the basic sustenance of life.

Thus, the prevailing image of the New Deal was the Leaders and the Masses, the Shepherds and their Flocks, the People and the Politicians, united against the Malefactors of Great Wealth. Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have never entirely given up on this model. During the funeral there was endless mention of the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, the dispossessed, the excluded, the gay — any of the myriad of constituencies into which the populace can be sliced and then assigned to its Democratic shepherd. (“I doubt if even the poor spend this much time talking about the poor at their own funerals,” said one person I was watching with.) There is logic to all this. Democrats embrace ACORN and its organized voter fraud, motor-voter laws, amnesty for illegal immigrants — maybe even inviting half of Mexico into the country — because all this promises the votes to keep them in power.

Thus, for Ted Kennedy, the Reagan Revolution was simply a rebirth of the Fifth Avenue dowagers who exulted (according to Peter Arno’s cartoon in The New Yorker), “Let’s go down to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt.” He never quite matched the Medieval imagery of Mario Cuomo, who saw Reagan’s America as the land of “the lucky and the left-out, the royalty and the rabble.” His image of himself was that he was not one of the “idle rich” but actively engaged in righting wrongs and helping the downtrodden. As Evan Thomas wrote this week in Newsweek, “His own ideology seems to have been rooted in liberal guilt: since the rich have a lot (like good health care), why shouldn’t the poor? Kennedy’s gifts were more of the heart than the head.”

What Kennedy and other liberals never wanted to acknowledge, however, is that when the “active rich” reach out to help the poor, they must reach over that vast muddle-in-the-middle who are neither rich nor poor but middle class and trying to make their own way. The people who oppose New Deal politics are no longer society ladies who want to hiss Roosevelt. They are Joe the Plumber, the Babbits, the Sammy Glicks — all the “men and women on the make” (that’s Woodrow Wilson’s phrase) who never show up well in films and literature but who are the mainstay of the economy and the backbone of the nation. These are the people holding “Tea Parties” and storming Town Halls protesting Obamacare. They are not glamorous. They aren’t invited to celebrity funerals. They aren’t even mentioned at them. All they want is make their own way and be left alone by the government. They have no use for liberal politicians and therefore liberals have no use for them.

Then and now, collectively, they’re The Forgotten Man, to borrow the title of Amity Shlaes’ superb history of the 1930s.

Tucker’s thesis dovetails remarkably well with Michael Barone’s profile of the man Chris Matthews dubbed “The Last [Kennedy] Brother.” Back in March, Barone contrasted Candidate Obama’s freewheeling decentralized 21st century Internet-driven presidential campaign, with the mid-20th century statist, stasist, top-down policies he began implementing immediately once in office:

Rather than give you choices in health care, Obama wants to slam you into a national health insurance program, one that, as the intended health czar Tom Daschle explained in his book, would save money by denying care. That would take us some distance toward the British system, under which, if you want a hip replacement at age 57, well, you’re just too old. Or toward the old Soviet system, which saved money by placing its cardiac clinics in a fifth-floor walkup.

Rather than give you choices in your workplace, or allow the joint management-worker cooperative system that has enabled foreign auto companies to achieve better quality and productivity than the unionized domestic automakers, Obama wants to slam you into unions whenever organizers can muscle 50 percent of workers into signing cards and then, when employers resist union demands, let federal arbitrators set wages and working conditions that you’ll have to live under whether you like it or not.

Rather than let you accumulate money for investments or self-improvement, Obama wants to tax high earnings at higher rates, and allow you to channel less of what you have made to charities and nonprofits where you can help determine how it’s spent, and send more of it to government where centralized mandarins can use it as they want.

The Obama program would have been well suited to the mid-20th century America, where people were happy, after the success of World War II, to work as small cogs in giant organizations run by big government, big business and big labor. But it is not well suited to 21st century America, where people, especially young people, are used to making their own choices, setting up their own networks, taking their own initiatives. Republicans should stop channeling Ronald Reagan — a remote figure to the young — and start offering young Americans policies that are in line with our times.

But that would require giving individuals choices, and less power to government — both of which are messy options to an mind such as Obama’s, one that’s focused on orderly top-down control.

Speaking of the 1930s, TigerHawk notes a rather important 70th anniversary is being surprisingly ignored today.

Related: This topic is focused on The Future and It Enemies, to borrow the title of another excellent book on the intersection of freedom and top-down bureaucratic control. So it seems to dovetail remarkably well with (or at least can be shoehorned less than gracefully, especially I’ve been meaning to link to this since last week) the question that Will Wilkinson recently asked:

“Here is a good debate proposition: It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Ayn Rand than by Karl Marx.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Compare and Contrast [Jonah Goldberg]

Will Wilkinson asks a very useful question:

Here is a good debate proposition: It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Ayn Rand than by Karl Marx.

The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each. That line of attack ought to be decisive, but I’m afraid it won’t get you far with the multitude of highly-self-regarded thinkers influenced by Karl Marx. Fact is, commitment to some kind of socialism and fluency in the jargon of Marxism used to be mandatory for serious intellectuals. And there’s something glamorous in the very idea of the intellectual. Even for those of us who came of age after 1989, Marxism, like cigarettes, remains linked by association to the idea of the intellectual, and so, like cigarettes, shares in the intellectual’s glamour. I don’t know if cigarettes or Marxism have killed more people, but it’s pretty clear cigarettes are more actively stigmatized. Marxists, neo-Marxists, crypto-Marxists, post-Marxists, etc. have an enduring influence on intellectual fashion. So it is not only possible proudly to confess Marx’s influence on one’s thought, but it remains possible in some quarters to impress by doing so. It ought to be embarrassing, but it isn’t. Being a bit of a Marxist is like having a closet full of pirate blouses but never having to worry.

He then takes it in a very different (but enjoyable) direction, but I think the proposition is a great one and should be thrown up in lots of debates and discussions, particularly on college campuses. Professors will roll their eyes as will countless leading liberals (many of whom were indisputably and vastly more influenced by Marx than Rand, albeit sometimes second or third hand). It says something profound about the center of gravity in our culture that intellectuals, academics, and journalists are more inclined to think of Rand sympathizers as “extremists” or “ideologues” and Marx sympathizers (i.e. neo-Marxists, crypto-Marxists, post-Marxists, etc) as mainstream and thoughtful scholars.

All of this leaves aside that you could make the nearly same point, even more dramatically, by replacing Ayn Rand with Adam Smith or even Milton Friedman.

Update: A reader asks why I say “nearly the same point” rather than the same point. It’s a good question, I think. My short answer is that if you said Milton Friedman or Adam Smith you would capture pretty much all of the mainstream Right including the libertarians. Rand, however, is more controversial on the Right and, while I doubt many conservatives would easily admit it, it sure seems that in real life there are some conservatives more comfortable associating with some flavors of Marxist than associating with avowed Randians. There are probably some interesting cultural factors at work there, but I think it’s revealing nonetheless.

I have no desire to reopen old wounds, but one need only look at the masthead of NR when Whittaker Chambers defenestrated Rand in these pages to prove that point.

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