How are we to make sense of flash mobbing, the London rioting, more hatred expressed for the Tea Party, more calls for ever more debt and spending, and Barack Obama's dive below 40% approval in the polls? Let me backtrack a bit.
I grew up with die-hard Roosevelt Democrats. Packers, shippers, and distributors made all the profits; farmers, we were told, did the work. Co-ops like Sun-Maid were noble; in contrast, grasping private packers paid on “consignment”: give us your produce in an oversupplied market and we will get what we can, when we can, for it. Often plums and peaches were dumped, and we paid the packing and storage fees for the privilege of losing the crop. Unfairness, not the capricious nature of market capitalism, is what we wished to hear.
In my youth, my mother helped out in the “Dollars For Democrats” campaign. I remember the 1960s’ talking points still, as she drove us through the poorer sections of the San Joaquin Valley raising money for JFK (Nixon would win the state by 36,000 votes). We had high hopes for Pat Brown and Sen. Claire Engle. Charles “Gus” Garrigus was our local assemblyman. At eight I met a young Alan Cranston at a run-down café on the old 99 Highway in Selma, a sort of awkward gangly guy still at that stage talking about hard-core, bread-and-butter populism.
After all, what was so unfair about wanting a 40-hour week, overtime pay, disability and unemployment insurance, public works and infrastructure (e.g., the California water projects, LAX, the state freeway system), fair housing, money for the new JC/CSU/UC tripartite “master plan” of higher California education? It was not uncommon in those days to see unpaved streets and a few outhouses — something I was told the distant wealthy could avoid but the state should not.
Most of my parents’ and grandparents’ friends, however, were Grange/Farm Bureau/Chamber of Commerce Republicans. I emphasize “friends” since in the early sixties, pre-Vietnam-protest age, politics still never impeded friendships. Most of my mom’s rural friends were amused rather than angered by her genuine liberalism, since it was directed at trying to improve the lot of the working poor, who were ubiquitous and often next door.
Remember, this was pre-Great Society stuff, well before globalized cheap material goods, the age of food stamps, two years of unemployment insurance, aid to dependent families, and the entire government umbilical cord. Most readers will shake their heads and now mutter: "Victor, Victor, did you not see even at seven that the obvious, the logical result of that idealized government help would be something like the annual $1.6 trillion debt and entitlement culture of the present? Did not Plato warn us that the egalitarian mandate has no logical end?"
Perhaps, but in those days it was not hard to think that the ‘”Okies” and “poor folks” and “Mexican-Americans” in the San Joaquin Valley needed some sort of foundational equality of opportunity — given the scarcity of capital and endemic prejudice. My most distinct memory of first grade was hygiene and dentistry problems: half the kids had rotten teeth and clothes that were unclean. (I remember Jimmy Hopson pulling out his front [permanent] tooth in second grade and showing it off.) Stern teachers from the southwest, with Texas and Oklahoma accents, lectured us on how to shampoo and comb our hair, change socks and underwear, brush our teeth, and use soap under our arms and on the backside of our arms. We were to “make something of ourselves” and be “presentable,” the sort of people “we ourselves would want to sit next to.” “Relief” carried the same stigma associated with “hypos” and “switchblades” or “bums” and “hobos.”
Word and Deed
I detour here, because late 1950s liberalism was in some sense conservative, given the rural poverty, the lack of high-tech appurtenances, the coming end of the U.S. postwar monopoly in manufactured goods, and the worry over "commies." Of course, JFK, like FDR, personified noblesse oblige, but mostly the heroic Democrats were guys like Truman and Humphrey. For my dad, FDR had built the B-29s, Truman stopped the North Koreans, and JFK had stood down Castro — some mythic history in that, but not much.
You might think their square-deal politics were naïve, but they were salt-of-the-earth types, whose lifestyles reflected the politics that they advocated, and whose personal tastes were simple. To the best I can recall, there was no manifest contradiction in my grandfather’s voting for JFK in 1960, and his stern warnings about “lazy” “no-goods” who came out to prune for a week, abruptly to quit when they earned enough money for “booze” and “were up to no good.” The new pocket transistor radios, he swore, only encouraged sloth and poor work habits — and he wanted no one on the farm listening to one, us included.
In those days, liberalism, if we can even call it that, was clearly an equality of opportunity idea — whatever the intrinsic contradictions of the prior New Deal that logically led to the Great Society and the other failed “societies” to come. It was still not socialism of the European type, but singularly American and predicated on a “fair shake” as the majority of its adherents’ lives were not too distant from the objects of their worry.
I’ll skip the next half-century, since the tragedy is too well known, and focus instead on the vastly different, contemporary liberal mindset. To be blunt, what strikes us about its recent and most vocal emissaries — politicians such as a Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi; or the Hollywood celebrities; or the great fortuned like a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros; or the credentialed technocrats who run the foundations and government agencies, or the high-paid media types in the NY-DC corridor — is how vast apart are the circumstances of their own lives from the objects of their concern. In addition, present-day liberalism finds its most numerous adherents among the upper-middle class suburbanites and those who work for government and enjoy de facto tenure (e.g., the public employee unions, teachers, the public professoriate, etc.).