Stacy McCain on “The Obama Age: ‘That ’70s Show’

Bitter irony: Culture overwhelms politics, and politics overwhelms economics, so that ambitious young people – reacting to cultural cues that told them to oppose Republicans as “rich old white men” — end up supporting a political agenda hostile to their economic interests. It’s the mirror-reverse of the left-wing woe that Thomas Frank lamented in What’s the Matter With Kansas?

And where is our Thomas Frank capable of explaining this?

I doubt very much he’d like the comparison to Frank, but fellow NR cruiser Andrew Stuttaford writes that he’s seen that lack of cultural confidence once before — and while it’s possible to have a temporary postponement, the results are sadly inevitable:

Query:  What, really, was the meaning of the Thatcher years?  To what extent was she truly able to reverse British decline? In the end, was she able to restore a sense of national pride? If we could find a Thatcher of our own in 2016–Bobby Jindal? Marco Rubio?–what, realistically, could he hope to accomplish? Merely to retard our continuing decline?

Answer: She reversed—for a while—the idea that Britain had to accept a mediocre future at best, and she paved the way for the (uneven) economic revival that was so sadly squandered in the Blair/Brown years. What she did not understand too well, however, was the institutional structure of the nation. No student of Burke, she allowed some of the glue that held the country together to come unstuck to a dangerous degree. At the same time, she was far too complacent about the extent to which other institutions, from the bureaucracy, to the BBC, to large swaths of the education system, were either rotten or corrosive. Could the US reverse its own decline? There’s probably no country theoretically better placed to do so, but there is little evidence to suggest that the leader capable of setting that in motion has arrived on the scene.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the seventies were the nadir of the postwar era, with the simultaneous collapse of what in America we’d define as New Deal-era liberalism, and cultural cohesion in general. But “That Seventies Show” has much older roots.

As Walter Russell Mead notes in the recurring leitmotif of his blog, ever since the fall of 2008, we’ve been witnessing the slow collapse of the 20th century welfare state (see also: Greece, California, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., etc.) If you’d like to catch a glimpse of that welfare state beginning to become super-sized in England, you can watch online the latter half of “Home Front,” the segment of the remarkable World at War series from Thames Television in the early 1970s. Cue up the third clip at around the 10:00 minute mark (the starting point for the clip embedded above) for a fascinating look at how a nation could simultaneously defeat the ultimate form of nationalization and socialism — complete with an enormous welfare state, of course — even as it was implementing a version of its own. (And saying thanks to Winston Churchill for winning WWII by sacking him immediately after the war’s conclusion.) Fortunately, thanks to its benign prewar culture*, that version of Nationalized Socialism didn’t quite become the Ingsoc that George Orwell predicted in 1984.  The inevitable rot seeped into British society quite differentlyto tie this all in with the quote from Stacy McCain at the start of this post.  And it was already there in sufficient quantities amongst the nation’s leftwing elites even before the war, as Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard noted in 2005:

In 1933, the Oxford Union – a debating society and one of the strongholds of liberal elite opinion – held a debate on the resolution “this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” The resolution passed. Margot Asquith, one of England’s leading liberal lights, wrote that same year, quite sincerely: “There is only one way of preserving peace in the world, and getting rid of your enemy, and that is to come to some sort of agreement with him. . . . The greatest enemy of mankind today is hate.”

Churchill disdained the new liberalism, mocking one of his opponents as part of “that band of degenerate international intellectuals who regard the greatness of Britain and the stability and prosperity of the British Empire as a fatal obstacle. . . . ” So deep was this liberal loathing of empire that even as the first shots of World War II were being fired, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, witnessed at a theater “a group of bespectacled intellectuals” who, to his shock, “remain[ed] firmly seated while ‘God Save the King’ was played.”

These elites could see evil only at home. The French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir did not believe that Germany was a “threat to peace,” but instead worried that the “panic that the Right was spreading” would drag France, Britain, and the rest of Europe into war. Stafford Cripps, a liberal Labor member of Parliament, feared not Hitler, but Churchill. Cripps wrote that after Churchill became prime minister he would “then introduce fascist measures and there will be no more general elections.”

In an important sense, the British Empire’s strength failed because its elite liberal citizens stopped believing in it.

But in the meantime, they didn’t let the crisis of war go to waste, using it to implement a nationalized healthcare program as a spearhead to begin to fundamentally transform a nation and weaken its cultural confidence.

Good thing it can’t happen here, to coin a phrase.

* Somebody should write a book on the topic of how a pre-existing culture shapes the socialist regime a nation inevitably winds up with sooner or later…

Update: Speaking of cultural decline, “Fathers disappear from households across America.”

Murphy Brown, call your office.

(Headline via John Cleese, who seemed rather surprised when the British culture he helped destroy turned out to be superior to its successor. Unexpectedly.)

More: Monbiot and the Morlocks.