Our New Regressivism
About fifteen years ago, many liberals began to self-identify as progressives—partly because of the implosion of the Great Society and the Reagan reaction that had tarnished the liberal brand and left it as something akin to “permissive” or “naïve,” partly because “progressive” was supposedly an ideological rather than a political identification, and had included some early twentieth-century Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.
But twenty-first century progressivism is not aimed at political reform. There is no new effort at racial unity. There is not much realization that we are in a globalized, rapidly changing, high-tech economy or that race and gender are not as they were fifty years ago. Instead, progressivism has become a reactionary return to the 1960s—or even well before. The new regressivism seeks to resurrect the machine ethos of Mayor Daley, the glory green days of the Whole Earth Catalog, the union era of George Meany, Jimmy Hoffa, and Walter Reuther, the racial polarization of the old Black Panther Party and the old Al Sharpton, and a Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, or Peter Jennings reading to us each evening three slightly different versions of the Truth.
The New Old Chicago
Barack Obama is trying to turn back the way of politics to the era of the pre-reform Chicago machine. He was the first presidential candidate to renounce campaign-financing funds since the law was enacted. He opposes any effort to clamp down on voting fraud. Even his compliant media worries that the president’s current jetting from one campaign stop to another in the key swing states is a poorly disguised way to politick on the federal government’s dime. Bundlers are, as was the ancient custom, given plum honorific posts abroad. Obama has held twice as many fundraisers as the much reviled George Bush had at a similar point in his administration. Obama supporters now target large Romney givers and post their names with negative bios on websites, as if we are back to Nixon’s enemies of the people. Websites sprout up that go after administration critics in Agnew style, but without the latter’s self-caricature. The 2008 criticism about ending the revolving door, lobbyists, and pay-for-play renting out of the Lincoln bedroom was, well…just examine the career of a Peter Orszag. An embarrassed media keeps silent about the new reactionary ethics, apparently on the premise that not to would endanger four more years of the “progressive” agenda. On matters of presidential style, we are likewise retro, as Obama sets records for playing golf, and in Marie Antoinette style the First Family bounces between Vail, Aspen, Martha’s Vineyard, Vegas, and Costa del Sol, often in separate jets, as if we, the people, receive vicarious joy from catching glimpses of the Obama versions of Camelot. We have Kennedy wannabes without their own Kennedy money.
Earth Day Forever
On matters of energy, Obama has regressed to the Earth Day mindset of the 1970s, when we were reaching “peak” oil, and untried wind and solar were soon to be the new-age remedy for soon-to-be-exhausted fossil fuels. Add up the anti-empirical quotes from Obama himself, Energy Secretary Chu, and Interior Secretary Salazar (inflate your tires, “tune up” your car, look to U.S. algae reserves, let energy prices “skyrocket,” hope gas rises to European levels, don’t open federal lands even if gas reaches $10 a gallon, etc.) and, in reactionary fashion, we are time-machined back to the campus quad of the 1970s. In this la la world of Van Jones, evil oil companies supposedly connived to stifle green energy and hook us on fossil fuels, inferior energies that have nothing to recommend them. It is as if the revolutions in horizontal drilling, fracking, and discoveries of vast new reserves never occurred, as if Exxon and Chevron dodge taxes in a manner that Google and Amazon never would, as if efficient smaller gas engines, clean gas blends, and pollution devices have not made the American car both clean-burning and economical beyond our imagination forty years ago. The Obamians, frozen in amber, really believe oil is about to run out, “tuned up” internal combustion engines powering underinflated tires pollute as they did in the 1920s, and Teapot Dome U.S. oil companies need to be “crucified”—as regional EPA director and Obama appointee Al Armendariz, in fact, boasted. So we borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize money-losing solar and wind plants, while putting federal lands rich in oil and gas off-limits to companies eager to pay royalties, hire thousands, and supply the U.S. with its own energy—and all for a regressive ideology. Few see that Solyndra really is the new Teapot Dome.
The UAW and the Big Three—Forever
And the economy? We know statism, whether the Soviet and Chinese brand or the softer European socialist sort, did not work. And as the rest of the world flees from state-controlled and command economies, we in America look back fondly toward them, as if the U.S could be run perpetually in peacetime as it was for four years during World War II or that we could have an endless 100 Days of the first three months of FDR. We can make the unionized Postal Service work (as if there is no FedEx, email, or text messaging) like GM or, better yet, turn a doctor’s visit into a brush with the TSA. When the president scoffs at capitalism with “we’ve tried that,” one wonders whether he means “yes, we did and that’s why the U.S. per capita income and per capita GDP are among the highest in the world, and the poor have appurtenances, housing, and ‘stuff’ unmatched by the middle classes in most countries abroad.” In reactionary fashion, we measure poverty only in terms of relative worth, never by an absolute standard, as if Americans do not have access to televisions, hot water, appliances, and cell phones and do not suffer more from obesity than malnutrition. Our new regressive template for the economy dates from about 1950, when our grandfathers in the AFL-CIO and UAW worked in big unionized factories to supply a war-torn world with almost everything, at a time when China, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia had been flattened and Taiwan and South Korea did not exist as manufacturers. Solyndra and the Volt are to be like Ford circa 1946: assembly lines buzzing with endless solar panels and cars, built by 100-new-rules-a-day unions, without much competition, and products all backordered by a war-wearied and materially deprived world.
Freedom Riding Forever
On matters racial, we are endlessly back in the 1960s with more Bull Connors and Lester Maddoxes, with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson fighting them on Freedom Marches, not a half-century distant from the “I have a dream speech,” in a troubled era where over 90% of African-Americans who die violently at the hands of another are not lynched, but shot by other African-Americans, and where blacks are 30-40 times more likely to commit some sort of violent crime against whites than vice versa. Without more of the Great Society, there is always said to be the threat of another “resurrection” like Watts, not periodic flash mobbing to rip off iPhones and iPads. In the world of Eric Holder, affirmative action is yesterday, today, and tomorrow, as if we are Old Confederates who measure non-white lineage by a 1/16 drop standard, as if blond Elizabeth Warren, candidate for senator in Massachusetts and one-percenter Harvard professor, really is a “native-American” as she and Harvard claimed for purposes of minority status. In the real world, the problem is not the absence of civil rights, but an absence of courage to discuss the causes of racial disparities in categories beyond income, from rates of illegitimacy to crime. For the new regressives, someone like John Foster Dulles, the old white guy, is still secretary of state, rather than the truth that a white male has not held the office in over fifteen years. We live in a suspended animation world of To Kill a Mockingbird where the Duke Lacrosse players are still guilty by the fact of their association with a black stripper, Trayvon Martin is a martyred hero (and even if a court proves it is not so, he still will be), and the members of the Black Caucus are given exemptions to utter racist and inflammatory rhetoric, given the burdens they shoulder of a segregated society peopled by George Wallaces and Strom Thurmonds everywhere.
Ivy League on Viagra
For the new regressives, universities are still hallowed centers of liberal instruction. There is no interest why professors have the reputation of used car dealers (with apologies to used car dealers), tuition soars faster than inflation, for-profit vocational schools siphon off students, and student loans mimic the 2008 housing bubble. In the regressive world, Barack Obama knows something about political science and the law, because Columbia and Harvard certified that he does. Indeed, we are all supposed to believe our children are educated because they have a BA certificate and took a cutting-edge Chicano Studies or Film Studies course at institutions who jack up prices faster than the rate of inflation and are subsidized by big government loans—and to question any of that earns the charge of being “anti-intellectual” or denying the children the right “to be all they can be.” We are supposed to make-believe that the overpriced campus of rock-climbing walls and “the poetics of low-riding” is every bit as rigorous as the 1950s Great Books courses at Chicago.
All the President’s Men—Again and Again
The new media is the most regressive of all. It too is back to the days of the early 1960s when it did not report the antics of the Kennedys in worry about endangering the New Frontier. At least the old reactionary press hid government lapses as well as liberal ones—but not the new regressives: for the L.A. Times, releasing photos of American soldiers with gruesome trophies in Afghanistan is necessary candor of the My Lai sort; yet suppressing Obama’s comments at a banquet for Rashid Khalidi is proper censorship for the cause, as if someone saw Jack Kennedy nude swimming in the White House pool with a co-ed and had to shut up about it. Apparently whether Obama was to be elected was for the media a matter of national security, but not so whether the war in Afghanistan was threatened. For the regressive journalist, Guantanamo and renditions were to be everyday news until January 20, 2009.
What is scary for the new regressive is present-day and future America. It is changing by the hour and making obsolete all the old big government, big union, big race, big university, and big media liberal assumptions of the past. And as the world leaves behind the progressive and as he turns regressive and bitter, give him some credit: he does not go down without the old fight against Rockefellers everywhere, Shell, the Alabama racists who insist on IDs to vote, union-busting scabs, tabloid journalists who threaten Cronkite-like Truth, and all the other old enemies of the people.