Ian Welsh has yet another interesting bit up over at his site, on the death/failure of the liberal class and the rise of the right:
But why did the liberal state fail? Why did this come about? Let’s highlight three reasons: the rise of the disconnected technocrat, the failure to handle the oil crisis, and the aging of the liberal generations. …
The rise of the disconnected technocrat has been discussed often, generally with respect to the Vietnam war. The “best and the brightest” had all the numbers, managed the war, and lost it. They did so because they mistook the numbers for reality, and lost control. The numbers they had were managed up, by the people on the ground. They were fake. The kill counts coming out of Vietnam were completely fake and inflated, for example. Having never worked on the ground, having not “worked their way up from the mail room”, having not served in the military themselves, disconnected technocrats didn’t realize how badly they were being played. They could not call bullsh*t. This is a version of the same problem with saw the Soviet Politburo lose control over the production in the USSR.
The second, specific failure, was the inability to manage the oil shocks and the rise of OPEC. As a child in the 70s I saw the price of chocolate bars go from .25c to a dollar in a few years. The same thing happened to comic books. The same thing happened to everything. The postwar liberal state was built on cheap oil, and the loss of it cascaded through the economy. … Attention was on an essentially meaningless war in SE Asia while the important events were occurring in the Middle East. The cost, the financial cost of the war, should have been spent instead on transitioning the economy to a more efficient one, to a “super-analog” world. All the techs were not in place, but enough were there, that with temporizing and research, starting in the late 60s, the transition could have been made.
Instead the attempt was left too late, till the liberal state had lost most of its legitimacy. Carter tried, but was a bad politician, and not trusted sufficiently. Nor did he truly believe in, or understand liberalism, which is why Kennedy ran against him in 1980.
But Kennedy didn’t win, and neither did Carter, and Reagan did. And what Reagan bet was that new oil resources would come on-line soon enough to bail him out. He was right, they did, and the moment faded. …
The third reason for the failure of liberalism was the aging of the liberal generation. Last year I read Chief Justice Robert Jackson’s brief biography of FDR (which you should read). At the end of the book are brief biographies main New Deal figures other than Roosevelt. Reading them, I was struck by how many were dying in the 70s. The great lions who created modern liberalism, who created the New Deal, who understood the moving parts were dead or old. They had not created successors who understood their system, who understood how the economy and the politics of the economy worked, or even who understood how to do rationing properly during a changeover to the new economy.
The hard-core of the liberal coalition, the people who were adults in the Great Depression, who felt in their bones that you had to be fair to the poor, because without the grace of God there go you, were old and dying. The suburban part of the GI Generation was willing to betray liberalism to keep suburbia, which was their version of the good life, for which everything else must be sacrificed. And sacrificed it was, and has been, because suburbia, as it is currently constituted, cannot survive high oil prices without draining the rest of society dry.
Reagan offered a way out, a way that didn’t involve obvious sacrifice. He attacked a liberal establishment which had not handled high oil prices, which had lost the Vietnam war and which had alienated its core southern supporters by giving Blacks rights.
And he delivered, after a fashion. The economy did improve, and many people did well, and inflation was brought under control (granted, it would have been if Carter had his second term, but people don’t think like that.) The people who already had good jobs were generally ok, especially if they were older. If you were in your 40s or 50s when Reagan took charge in 1980, it was a good bet that you’d be dead before the bill really came due. You would win the death bet.
Liberalism failed because it couldn’t handle the war and crisis of the late 60s and 70s. The people who could have, were dead or too old, they had not properly trained successors, those successors were paying attention to the wrong problem and had become disconnected from reality on the ground. And the New Deal coalition was fracturing, more interested in hating blacks or keeping the “good” suburban lifestyle than in making sure that a rising tide lifted all boats
Good read, go check the whole thing.
I would argue with him that conservatism isn’t ascendant – and in fact, I’ll argue that in the print edition this weekend; that it is old and decayed and dying, stuck in the moment (that moment being SCANDAL SCANDAL SCANDAL) while the progressive coalition that got Obama elected, but which is really about more than Obama, continue to churn forward. (See here, for example).
But Welsh isn’t talking about cultural conservatism, nor the Republican Party as we think of it. He’s talking about economic conservatism, as practiced, even, by “liberals”:
None of this means that modern conservatism (which is far different from the conservatism of my childhood) is a success if one cares about mass well-being. It isn’t. But it is a success in the sense that it has done what its lords and masters wanted—it has transferred wealth, income and power to them. It is self-sustaining, in the sense that it transfers power to those who want it to continue. It builds and strengthens its own coalition.
Well, that’s certainly true, and brings up a point I have very little space to get into in the print edition (darn these old-fashioned newspapers and their space limitations!):
We’ve talked a lot about how the younger, more diverse crowd that elected and re-elected Obama is the wave of the future. I wholly believe it is.
But ultimately – what does this crowd want?
Do they want, say, social or economic justice? Some surely do, see Occupy Wall Street. But others seem content, and I’d argue have been blinded by, cultural successes – and by that, I mean gay marriage, the push for marijuana legalization, the rise of “tolerance” as the new American moral norm, etc.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these things are important to some degree, all of them mean a lot to the emerging progressive base. If you’re the family of immigrants, obviously the push for immigration reform is going to be of tremendous importance. If you’re part of the LGBT community, obviously you’re going to see the rise of gay marriage as one of the most important events in your lifetime.
But my fear is and has always been that this new progressive majority will let these cultural triumphs obscure the other failures of their “progressive” politicians. In other words – whatever cultural achievements may mark the Obama presidency, if Wall Street hasn’t been brought to heel, if the middle class continues to stagnate and disappear, if the wealth of this nation keeps getting funneled to the top – those cultural victories may be Pyrrhic. If this new progressive majority is so enthused about these cultural victories that it’s willing to ease up on the economic fronts, cut the banksters some breaks, and permit the trends of the past 30 years to continue – well, we’re all worse off. Regardless of how “tolerant” society may become.