The Ancien Regime Isn't Going Out Without a Fight

Jonah Goldberg asks, "When Did the Rules Change?"

When Rome was “falling,” did it feel like it? When all of the tasty, leafy fronds started vanishing, did the dinosaurs say, “So this is what extinction looks like”? When British troops signed up for a quick war in 1914, they expected to be “home by Christmas.” They certainly didn’t say “goodbye to all that” — in the words of Robert Graves — until long after they realized “all that” had in fact disappeared.

I’m beginning to wonder if the current political moment is much, much, more significant than most of us realize. The rules may have changed in ways no one would have predicted two years ago. And perhaps 10 years from now we’ll look back on this moment and it will all seem so obvious.

In 2008, American liberalism seemed poised for its comeback. The pendulum of Arthur Schlesinger’s “cycle of history” was swinging back toward a new progressive era. Obama would be the liberal Reagan.

Now that all looks preposterous. Of course, considerable blame can be laid at a White House that seems confused about how to relate to the American people when the American people don’t share the White House’s ideological agenda. Indeed, the White House seems particularly gifted at generating issues that put it crosswise with the majority of voters — from the Arizona immigration lawsuit to the cotton-mouthed explanations about whether or not it considers NASA’s primary mission to be boosting the self-esteem of Muslim youth.

But it would be foolish to over-read the importance of much of that. Politicians are sometimes dealt bad cards and play them well; sometimes they are dealt good cards and play them badly. But the basic political rules stay the same.

But what about when the rules change? For nearly a century now, the rules have said that tough economic times make big government more popular. For more than 40 years it has been a rule that environmental disasters — and scares over alleged ones — help environmentalists push tighter regulations. According to the rules, Americans never want to let go of an entitlement once they have it. According to the rules, populism is a force for getting the government to do more, not less. According to the rules, Americans don’t care about the deficit during a recession.

And yet none of these rules seem to be applying; at least not too strongly. Big government seems more unpopular today than ever. The Gulf oil spill should be a Gaia-send for environmentalists, and yet three-quarters of the American people oppose Obama’s drilling ban. Sixty percent of likely voters want their newly minted right to health care repealed. Unlike Europe, where protesters take to the streets to save their cushy perks and protect a large welfare state, the tea-party protesters have been taking to the streets to trim back government.

But even on the Continent the rules are changing. European governments have turned into deficit hawks to the point where the American president feels the need to lecture them on their stinginess.

Of course, he increasingly feels the same need here at home as our out-of-control debt is becoming a live issue, despite the fact that voters should be clamoring — according to the rules — for more taxpayer-funded jobs.

As Margaret Thatcher has been quoted as saying, "The Facts of Life are Conservative." Western civilization evolved over eons of trial and error. In contrast, the Rules of Progressivism were artificially created during a fairly small window of time in the late 19th century. While they varied to the degree that they were implemented in America, England, Germany, Italy and Russia during the first decades of the century that followed, they were of their time -- and that time was the Industrial Revolution. Machinery was Big -- from the steam locomotive to the assembly line to the hydroelectric plant to the printing press, the radio towers and the film studios. Thus they were expensive to acquire, and thus, ownership of that machinery was rare. Because it was expensive to change the assembly line, mass production replaced artisan craftsmanship. Mass industry created mass products produced for mass men who consumed mass entertainment.

For the first half of the 20th century, that model worked reasonably well in America. By the mid-1950s though, white-collar workers began to outnumber blue collar workers in the US, signaling the beginning of the end of the industrial revolution. Mass production slowly began to be replaced by more-finely tuned products. Mass entertainment followed as well. By the early to mid-1980s, there were a couple of dozen cable TV channels. Last time I checked, my DirecTV directory has literally hundreds. More importantly, there are literally millions of blogs and Websites on the Internet. Amazon makes almost every book produced in the last 100 years -- and nearly every significant piece of popular and classical music, and vast swatches of Hollywood's back catalog available. eBay takes up the rest of the slack.

But so much of the mindset of Progressivism, particularly its economics, remains trapped in the first half of the 20th century -- which creates multiple levels of cognitive dissonance. First, there's the "Cargo Cult" of the New Deal, as Jonah dubbed it in an earlier op-ed. But red tape, and the left's general "standing athwart history" mindset, morphing from "Not in My Backyard" to “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone” (AKA "BANANAS"). means that actually building New Deal-era projects such as Hoover Dam are almost impossible. (Not coincidentally, these days, environmentalists are much more interested in removing dams than building them.) Then there's the constant goal of expanding socialist "freebies" such as welfare and socialized medicine, even when wide swatches of the American public -- and increasingly Europe -- understand them to ultimately be bottomless financial sinkholes.