The New Reactionaries
The causes of poverty, the effects of liberal policies — such things are undiscussable.


Victor Davis Hanson

In our therapeutic culture, one must not dare suggest either that someone on government assistance cannot otherwise support his numerous children, or that multiple children might explain reduced familial circumstances. We have all but censored age-old practical matters of wealth and poverty in our daily political debates — even as they govern our own private lives. “Don’t have children out of wedlock” or “Don’t have children you cannot support” are not so much statements that are regarded as callous, but rather statements that are no longer even made in discussions of poverty.

Demography is another issue that is taboo in reactionary liberalism. If an aging, larger, and more affluent populace is on the receiving end of an expanding Social Security safety net, supported by a youthful, shrinking, and less affluent cohort, it matters little: The system simply must find new sources of revenue, never readjustments in how entitlements are allocated, or at what age retirement begins. Just as we are not allowed to talk about the radical role of technology in ameliorating hardship, and just as we dare not mention that at least some elements of poverty result from individual choices, so too we cannot accept that the redistributive model no longer works with reduced 21st-century Western birth rates and greater longevity. The lessons of blue states like Illinois and California and nations like Greece and Italy do not so much warn us that fiscal insolvency is on the horizon, as remind us that insolvency usually provides the only chance of curbing unsustainable entitlements.

Finally, a contemporary liberal reactionary talks as if he were a coal miner or auto worker of the 1940s, whose political activism reflected his own material circumstances. Today how a person lives — how much money he makes, where his children are schooled, the sort of neighborhood he lives in — has nothing to do with his ideology. One could follow Chris Matthews around during the day and not distinguish his lifestyle from that of Sean Hannity. Elizabeth Warren’s 1040 will no doubt prove that she is far more the 1 percenter than is Marco Rubio. Nancy Pelosi or Dianne Feinstein probably is worth far more than is Michele Bachmann. We assume that Senator Obama’s Chicago mansion is more expansive than is the home of Representative Allen West. When Chris Rock or Spike Lee rants on about some supposed illiberal conservative, he usually does so from a position of far greater privilege and wealth.

Most of the architects of contemporary liberalism who berate the “You didn’t build that” capitalists, or the 1 percenters, or “angry old white men,” themselves live as 1 percenters, on the fruits of capitalism, and are mostly white. Take a John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, or Harry Reid, or an Andrea Mitchell, Katie Couric, or George Clooney: Their own habits are indistinguishable from those of the people they castigate. The implicit defense of their hypocrisies is that they are principled traitors to their class. But the actual landscape of their reactionary liberalism is that they simply are so privileged that they will never be subject to the baleful ramifications of their ideology — whether it is more burdensome regulations on the break-even family farm, a higher tax bracket that turns a contractor’s marginal profit into a loss and prevents him from hiring the unemployed, or a neighborhood high school where crime, therapy, and unions ensure that no one will get into Stanford.

Apparently, to the well-off, reactionary liberalism ensures social acceptance and advantage among the technocratic administrative classes. It also often serves psychologically as a means to alleviate guilt over one’s privilege on the cheap, in a world where you can be for open borders without having to live and work in an Orosi. You can champion the Delta smelt and cut off water to irrigated farmland — without either losing your job or worrying about thousands who will in Mendota.

For the new reactionaries, the challenge is no longer proving that unionized teachers improve public education. Few any more argue that the unionized employee provides a better service at a more economical cost to the taxpayer than does his non-unionized counterpart. We simply do not discuss whether existing welfare programs result in more humane and vibrant inner cities. Who cares whether appurtenances that were once the domain of the wealthy are now easily accessible to the underclass? Instead, all that matters is how to ensure that the reactionary system continues, for the benefit of those who administer it, those who receive from it, and those who feel good about it.

Listening to a liberal reactionary sermonize about the big-government blue model invokes a wigged nobleman of the Ancien Régime dismissing French reformists, or a reactionary Greek socialist defending the bankrupt European welfare state. They no longer believe that their creed works or can work, only that somehow it must remain in control — or else.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.