Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Progressive Crisis: Why Progressives Don't Understand Why We Don't Like Them

The recent (hollow in substance but significant in symbolism) victory of conservatives in the US debt ceiling fight is causing progressives to show signs of self-doubt and lash out in irrational rage against "tea party hobbits." (Perhaps they are so illiterate that they don't know that the hobbits are the heroes of the story and that, in the end, they win!)

The liberal media has been seething over the past few days with a coordinated set of talking points emphasizing the same theme as the White House and the Democratic Party spokesmen about how the Tea Party are hostage takers and terrorists and have taken the country hostage. All that "new tone" stuff about civility that Obama mouthed back in January has been forgotten. When liberals get mad they are entitled to use violent, over-the-top rhetoric because, well, they are entitled.

All they did was call his bluff.

Over in England, Nile Gardner writes a story entitled: "Joe Biden compares the Tea Party to terrorists. Is this the most crass and nasty US presidency in decades?" (The answer is "You betcha!" or something to that effect.)

Walter Russel Mead has written a serious analysis of the current progressive crisis in which Maureen Dowd claims that Obama is turning into Carter before our very eyes and progressives just can't understand why their message isn't getting through. With their reflexive, unreflective assumption that Marxist theory is right, progressives cannot fathom why Americans would vote against their "class and economic interests." "Why would the middle class vote for the party of Big Business?," they moan. It makes no sense. But human behaviour cannot be explained successfully according to such a reductionist set of ideological principles.

Mead discusses an article by Stanley Greenberg in the New York Times on "the mysterious inability of Democrats to turn widespread public support on individual issues into a stable governing majority."

Mead offers his theory:
Meanwhile, Greenberg has not yet come to grips with the deepest and most difficult aspect of the crisis of liberal legitimacy. He roots the dangerous and corrupting special interests outside the state: with their money and their lobbying the corporations and the fat cats influence and pervert the state. But the state and its servants do not, in Greenberg’s story, constitute a special interest of their own.

This is not how voters see it. For large numbers of voters the professional classes who staff the bureaucracies, foundations and policy institutes in and around government are themselves a special interest. It is not that evil plutocrats control innocent bureaucrats; many voters believe that the progressive administrative class is a social order that has its own special interests. Bureaucrats, think these voters, are like oil companies and Enron executives: they act only to protect their turf and fatten their purses.

The problem goes even deeper than hostility toward perceived featherbedding and life tenure for government workers. The professionals and administrators who make up the progressive state are seen as a hostile power with an agenda of their own that they seek to impose on the nation.

This perception, also, is rooted in truth. The progressive state has never seen its job as simply to check the excesses of the rich. It has also sought to correct the vices of the poor and to uplift the masses. From the Prohibition and eugenics movements of the early twentieth century to various improvement and uplift projects in our own day, well educated people have seen it as their simple duty to use the powers of government to make the people do what is right: to express the correct racial ideas, to eschew bad child rearing technique like corporal punishment, to eat nutritionally appropriate foods, to quit smoking, to use the right light bulbs and so on and so on.

Progressives want and need to believe that the voters are tuning them out because they aren’t progressive enough. But it’s impossible to grasp the crisis of the progressive enterprise unless one grasps the degree to which voters resent the condescension and arrogance of know-it-all progressive intellectuals and administrators. They don’t just distrust and fear the bureaucratic state because of its failure to live up to progressive ideals (thanks to the power of corporate special interests); they fear and resent upper middle class ideology. Progressives scare off many voters most precisely when they are least restrained by special interests. Many voters feel that special interests can be a healthy restraint on the idealism and will to power of the upper middle class.

The progressive ideal of administrative cadres leading the masses toward the light has its roots in a time when many Americans had an eighth grade education or less. It always had its down side, and the arrogance and tin-eared obtuseness of self assured American liberal progressives has infuriated generations of Americans and foreigners who for one reason or another have the misfortune to fall under the power of a class still in the grip of a secularized version of the Puritan ideal. But in the conditions of late nineteenth and twentieth century America, the progressive vanguard fulfilled a vital and necessary social role.

The deep crisis of the progressive ideal today is that it is no longer clear that the American clerisy is wanted or needed in that role.

At bottom, that is what the populist revolt against establishments of all kinds is about. A growing section of the American population wants to think and act for itself, without the guidance of the graduates of ivy league colleges and blue chip graduate programs.

The fight for limited government that animates so many Americans today isn’t a reaction against the abuses and failures of government. It is a fight to break the power of a credentialed elite that believe themselves entitled by talent and hard work to a greater say in the nation’s affairs than people who scored lower on standardized tests and studied business administration in cheap colleges rather than political science in expensive ones.

The whole thing is well-worth reading.

This is a key insight that Mead offers here. Until we understand that the technocrat class of government workers who believe they have a divine right to govern because of their inherent superiority is the real target of populist anger today, we won't understand the Tea Party or American voting patterns or what is changing today. The Progressive Era, which began in the late 19th century appears to be drawing to a close in the early 21st century. Barack Obama may well be the last liberal president in the line of Woodrow Wilson, FDR and LBJ.

The Progressives have become what they started out to oppose: an oligarchic threat to freedom and democracy. They are mistrusted by the people, who in their wisdom don't trust anybody with absolute power. Progressives just can't seem to get their heads around the concept that anybody would include them in that category. After all, aren't good intentions the most important thing?

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