You Can't Go Home Again

Michael Barone has a great piece in the Wall Street Journal on "The Surprising Roots of Liberal Nostalgia." And what makes it particularly surprising, as Barone writes, is that mid-century liberalism was destroyed by the same New Left now pining to return to the world -- or at least the governing principles -- that they smashed 45 years ago:

The liberals who long to return to the Midcentury Moment seem to forget that it was a time of enormous cultural uniformity that stigmatized being unmarried or unchurched or gay. The huge menu of lifestyle choices from which we can choose today was a very short menu with very few choices then.

It could not last. Baby-boom children, raised in prosperity, were not content with being small units in large machines. The Berkeley student activists in 1964, before the major escalations in Vietnam, held signs reading, "Do not bend, staple, fold or mutilate"—I am not just another IBM card. The military draft, which more than anything else initiated the Midcentury Moment and was supposed to apply equally to everyone, was by 1965 so riddled with exceptions and loopholes that the sons of the well-to-do were largely exempt from military service in time of war. Similarly, the tax code in the early 1960s had enough exceptions and loopholes that high tax rates on high earners were eminently avoidable.

Vietnam, urban riots, Watergate, stagflation—all undermined confidence in big government, big business and big labor, and by the late 1970s the Midcentury Moment was long gone. It has not returned and it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which it could. Big labor is no longer big, except for the public-employee unions. Big business has been subject to enormous change to the point that the Fortune 500, fairly stable during the Midcentury Moment, has seen new firms enter and old ones disappear at record rates. As for big government, its prestige has never fully recovered, leaving the military as one of our few respected institutions and the civilian government largely concerned with transferring money from current earners to the elderly at rates that are economically unsustainable but politically difficult to alter.

So the Obama Democrats, partially successful in expanding the size and scope of government, largely unsuccessful in reviving private-sector unions, are on the defensive politically. As Mr. Levison and other liberals recognize, most Americans don't accept Keynesian economics and don't favor expansion of government as they did during the Midcentury Moment. Thus the Democrats' 2012 campaign strategy seems aimed more at discrediting Republican alternatives than seeking endorsement of their own policies.

But there is a more fundamental contradiction here, for the Midcentury Moment's confidence in big institutions was inextricably connected with an acceptance of a cultural uniformity that almost all of today's liberals, and probably most non-liberals, would find unacceptable.

Presumably, the anti-gay conformity of this era makes it a world that Andrew Sullivan wouldn't wish to return to. And yet, Andrew, despite being, I believe, at least sometimes, still a self-described conservative (at least as conservative as the presidents and would-be presidents he admires), longs for those Keynesian days.