Intelligent Populism vs. Mindless Progressivism
New Deal Liberals Transform into the Faux Populist Radical Left
With elections looming in 2014, it is about time for Barack Obama to gear up another progressive “war” against the rich, the limb loppers, the fat cats, the tonsil pullers, the “enemies” of Latinos, the jet junketers, the women haters, and those who knew neither when to stop profiting nor how the government had really built their businesses. We shall shortly witness some of the wealthiest and most privileged of capitalist America decrying inequality and unfairness from the 18th hole in Hawaii, the Malibu gated estate, and the Beacon Hill mansion. And the faux populism will probably work, at least if 2008 and 2012 are any indications.
It is easy to chart the evolution of the wealthy progressive elite from the occasional limousine liberal of the 1950s and 1960s to the now dominant hierarchy of the Democratic Party.
The traditional Democratic boilerplate that I grew up with (as much as a ten year old can notice much of anything in 1963) -- minimum wage, 40-hour work week, overtime pay, disability insurance, fair housing, civil rights, assistance for the needy -- was mostly achieved by 1970. Equality of opportunity, however, did not translate into equality of result -- given differences and imperfections in human nature.
Six instead of two children, three packs of cigarettes a day, four beers after work, two DUIs, a messy divorce, a freak accident on the job -- the possibilities of either unsustainable responsibility or mishap are endless -- can send one from middle class into poverty, well beyond the powers of the most enlightened government to prevent it. What is the liberal to do in those cases to ensure that we end up the same?
Moreover by 1995, the huge expansion of the U.S. economy, globalization, and sweeping breakthroughs in technology radically transformed the prior idea of “poverty,” as I had remembered it in 1960 (we of the rural middle class a half-century ago all used the privy farm toilet when outdoors around the house, and shared a party phone line with eight other families). Today’s poor struggle with drugs, crime, shattered families, and malaise, but not outdoor privies, the lack of air conditioning and heating, dusty dirt roads, or a denial of access to a phone or TV. Deprivation now is almost defined as the absence of a free electronic tablet at school.
Urban riots do not break out over bread, but more likely about the nth model of Air Jordan sneakers. When I go to a local Quest lab for a blood draw, the waiting room is full of poor who suffer terribly from diabetes and kidney failure brought about by carbohydrate- and sugar-driven obesity, not malnourishment. Too many calories are the scourge of America. There are no stormings of the local Wal-Mart to spread beans and rice around; occasional flash mobbing of electronics stores nationwide is prompted by desire for smart phones and pads.
I have seen holiday shoppers in my environs shout and push over big-screen TV holiday sales, not rant over who gets the last ham hock at the meat counter. The knockout game is not driven by poverty, but by boredom, a poverty of the mind, and the assumption that there will be little government downside (e.g., getting caught, convicted and sentenced to a long prison terms won’t necessary happen) or private consequences (i.e. the frail-looking metrosexual target might well pull out a .45 semi-automatic).
Once the liberal vision of legal equality of opportunity was mostly achieved, the melodrama of ensuring an equality of result entailed. Wealthy liberals, however, were not quite up to their own rhetoric, in the sense of living the life of egalitarianism, diversity, and conspicuously reduced consumption. I don’t remember any Silicon Valley grandees offering space for a few non-running Winnebagos to be parked out behind their six-car garages. (I can offer blueprints of how it is done by sending a few pictures from six or seven of my neighbors.) There are few Kias on Malibu streets. Or less dramatically, Google execs do not put their kids in Redwood City elementary schools to learn of hard-knocks from the Other. Kanye West’s house has unused room for lots of homeless people. MSNBC radicals do not take the subway home to inner Harlem. Tenured Stanford faculty do not live in East Palo Alto.