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.

Then there's constant distrust of anyone to the right of progressivism -- and not just Republicans and conservatives. As we noted yesterday, Obama-loving Democrats in early 2008 absolutely demonized Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Bill Clinton, and other Democratic stalwarts, who happened to be perceived as being marginally to the right of Obama. (And note again how quickly Bill and Hillary were welcomed back by the left once Obama achieved victory. It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business.) When Bill Ayers = regular guy down the street and Rev. Wright's speeches are considered a "home run" by CNN, but you view the actual regular guy down the street who goes to a Tea Party tax protest one Sunday rather than watch the Cowboys-Eagles game on TV as being akin to a terrorist or "the enemy," it might be time to check your assumptions about the world.

There's also the systemic mindset of ban everything. During the latter years of the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century, New Deal-era Progressives believed in consumer goods as a symbol of America's manufacturing strength, and between private industry and government, built the railroads and highways to distribute them, and the electrical infrastructure to power them.

These days? "The American people are spoiled," so "we're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good." Ronald Reagan liked to quip, "government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it." Within a couple of decades of Reagan departing as governor of California, Sacramento decided it would as likely ban something as tax and regulate it.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that progressivism is a surprisingly old, and increasingly frayed philosophy, as the reality and technology of the present day continues to move away from its century-old roots. One of the writers on Saturday Night Live was once quoted as saying, you can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde. As I've asked before, are we witnessing the old guard's dotage? If so, chances are, its twilight years will likely be many. What will it morph into next?

In the short term, things will likely remain ugly.  Even if Republicans take the House this year, and the Senate this year or in 2012, Barack Obama won't morph into Bill Clinton. Unlike Clinton, who turned on a dime from jamming socialized medicine down voters' throats, and attempting to ban guns in 1993 to '94 to uttering "the era of big government is over" just a few years later, when the the GOP controlled both houses of Congress, Charles Krauthammer writes that if President Obama wins a second term, it'll likely be a glutinous orgy of taxing, spending, and regulating:

Act One is over. The stimulus, Obamacare, and financial reform have exhausted his first-term mandate. It will bear no more heavy lifting. And the Democrats will pay the price for ideological overreaching by losing one or both houses, whether de facto or de jure. The rest of the first term will be spent consolidating these gains (writing the regulations, for example) and preparing for Act Two.

The next burst of ideological energy — massive regulation of the energy economy, federalizing higher education, and “comprehensive” immigration reform (i.e., amnesty) — will require a second mandate, meaning reelection in 2012.

That’s why there’s so much tension between Obama and the congressional Democrats. For Obama, 2010 matters little. If the Democrats lose control of one or both houses, Obama will likely have an easier time in 2012, just as Bill Clinton used Newt Gingrich and the Republicans as his foil for his 1996 reelection campaign.

Obama is down, but it’s very early in the play. Like Reagan, he came here to do things. And he’s done much in his first 500 days. What he has left to do, he knows, must await his next 500 days — those that come after reelection.

So 2012 is the real prize. Obama sees far, farther than even his own partisans. Republicans underestimate him at their peril.

Of course, that assumes the administration will stay relentlessly focused going forward, and also be able to bully a Congress that, it seems quite safe to say, will be more to the right of its current iteration. As Moe Lane writes, "Tell me again of this administration’s awesome message discipline."

But communication breakdowns aside, the Ancien Régime isn't going out without a fight -- if the appearance of temporary good fortune arrives in November, Tea Partiers better not get complacent in the coming years.

Update (7/18/10): Bill Quick quotes from Jonah's essay and writes "Good hunch," adding that what we're witnessing "is the leading edge of a transformation more far reaching than the discovery of the usefulness of fire, or the transition into agriculture, or the advent of industrialization:"

Whether you call it the Singularity, or the technological revolution, or simply magic, the fact is that we are in a virtuous spiral upwards as regards to what we know, what we can learn, and what we can do.

The Progressive ideology much of the western world has labored under for a century or so is a product of the industrial revolution. It will die and be replaced by something else as the technological revolution sweeps all before it. Political wonks live in the sort of bubble where they give primacy to politics over everything else, little understanding that politics grow from more basic factors, and those factors are currently being rearranged, rebuilt, newly created or destroyed by forces far more powerful than politics or ideology. Even the oldest ideology of all - religion - sways and teeters in the face of the oncoming storms.

The old Soviet Union - brittle and fragile - fell to that rising wave first. Our politics, in fact, the permanency of politics in general, will succumb soon. Your time frame of ten years, by the way, is just about right. By then it should be perfectly clear that The Old Ways so beloved of the standard-issue conservative dogma have been irretrievably shattered.

What’s coming? I’m not sure. I have some notions, and I’ll expand on them one of these days, but Jonah, you do have this one insight correct: Something is happening here, and almost nobody knows what it is, do they, Mr. Jones?

Certainly not the Ancien Regime; Glenn Reynolds links to blogger C.J. Burch, who spots this similarity between today and a century ago:

“In the days before World War I all of the Princes of Europe, all its nobles, all its educated and cultural elites saw a storm on the horizon. A storm that could lay all they had built low. Yet not one of them, not one, could muster the strength or the courage to do anything other than what they had always done before and what had brought them all to the brink of disaster.”

If that's an apt comparison, let's hope the societal transformations to come are on the whole much more benign than those that followed World War I.