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.
The Modern Psychological Disorder of Elite Liberalism
The result of cosmic disappointment in the ability of progressive politics to correct human disparities has given birth to the modern psychological disorder of elite liberalism, which is mostly about squaring the circle of maintaining privilege while deploring inequality. Say America is unfair ten times a day, and the BMW in the garage and the new putter are no longer sins.
Barack Obama cannot finish a sentence without lamenting unfairness; but he proves to be no Jimmy Carter in scouting out the most exclusive of golf courses, and the richest of fat cats to putt with. Elizabeth Warren talks of oppressed minorities, but then invents a pseudo-Native-American identity to get a leg up on the elite competition in order to land at Harvard. The fact is that the elite who champion the poor and the poor themselves are not the players of the 1930s; the former usually make about the same amount of money and enjoy the same privileges as those they damn, while the latter have access to appurtenances and privileges denied the royalty of old.
The wealthier and more secluded an Oprah, the most desperately she searches for evidence of bias and inequality, finally reduced to the caricature of whining about racially driven poor service over a $38,000 crocodile handbag. If most in California don’t care what people do in their bedrooms, or if gays have on average higher incomes than non-gays, or if gay marriage is now de rigeur, the search for cosmic equality continues at an even brisker pace, resulting in transgendered bathrooms in the public schools (crede mihi: the ten-year-old daughters of the Yahoo elite will not encounter transgendered fifteen-year-old boys in the female Menlo School restrooms).
It is not perverse, but logical that Obamacare architects don’t want Obamacare coverage. It is understandable that Washington young-gun liberals know exactly where DuPont Circle or Georgetown gets iffy. Modern liberalism provides the necessary mental mechanisms to ensure the enjoyment of privilege. Al Gore was the classical liberal of the age, crafting an entire green empire predicated on opposing the very values that he later embraced to become, and preserve staying, very rich.
Where Does This All Lead?
I don’t know, but the Republicans have not been able to explain to the country either the illiberal nature of liberalism or its hypocrisies.
To win the presidency after eight years of liberal acculturation, the Republicans are going to have to nominate a man of the people, in the Reagan fashion of the wood-chopper who talks incessantly from first-hand knowledge about the common man.
An entire array of issues is going to have to be reformulated. Take illegal immigration. It is a gift for wealthy employers and La Raza elites, but an anathema for entry-level laborers of all races whose wages are destroyed by off-the-books illegals. Strapped taxpayers, not big business, pay for the impact on schools, infrastructure, and the legal system when eleven million cross the border illegally.
More gun control is an elite musing: it does nothing to rid us of illegal weaponry, but much to aggravate the middle-class hunter and homeowner, while exempting well-armed security of the elite class.
Zero interest rates have made banks flush with cash that they pay no interest on, while hardly reducing credit card interest rates and ensuring that play-by-the-rules middle class passbook savers lose money.
Quantitative easing and the Federal Reserve have ensured a rush to the stock market that booms while unemployment remains high. The world of Larry Summers, Jack Lew, or Peter Orszag benefits -- not the retired teacher with his life savings earning nothing. The farm bill is still a giveaway to wealthy agribusiness at a time of record farm prices, predicated on the quid-pro-quo notion that 70% of the legislation’s funds will go to food stamps. But again, why let the progressive mind feed on the carcass of the old, easily caricatured Republican wealthy?
It is past time to forge a new populist approach without the theatrics of shutting down the government or playing on the same keyboards as Pajama Boy Obamacare spivs. The liberal elite runs the culture, from universities and entertainment to government bureaucracies and the media, but it nonetheless is predicated on loudly condemning in the abstract the very creed that they embrace in the concrete.
In response, we need to expose their hypocrisies and start worrying about a shrinking middle class that has been damaged by Obama-era elites. Almost every issue from fracking, gun control, illegal immigration and quantitative easing to Obamacare and cap and trade invites a populist critique. Yet so far the Republican establishment seems uninterested in making the case that the Democratic hierarchy is of, by, and for the elite. Liberals are funded and represented by the privileged in Wall Street, universities, entertainment, the media, politics, foundations, the arts, and government, and the inherited wealthy. They all have set the agenda for the nation, called it progressive, and then sought exemption by seeking more taxpayer money for entitlements to ensure the fealty of the poor.
Liberalism is not progressivism, but instead pull-up-the-ladder-after-me regressivism -- and someone with some imagination and worldly experience needs to say that. When multimillionaire Trimalchios like Bill and Hillary Clinton, the inherited rich like John Kerry, or insider hucksters like Al Gore are called progressives, we all are in sad shape.
(Artwork created using modified Shutterstock.com images.)