Starting in the 1930s and continuing after the war, the Democrats offered a liberal critique of, or perhaps enhancement to, the Republican vision of rugged individualism. A modern American state now had the capital and the moral ambition to smooth the rougher edges of capitalism by insisting on unemployment and disability insurance, a 40-hour week, overtime pay, and what we now associate with the social safety net. Such entitlements, along with a rapidly growing economy, redefined poverty — so much so that whereas in 1930 malnourishment was endemic among the poor, by 2000 obesity was far more injurious to the nation’s collective health.
Michelle Obama, for example, is admirably warning the nation’s underclass that Twinkies and Big Macs are far more dangerous to their well-being than undernourishment brought on by the financial inability to purchase bulk rice, beans, and cheese. Today an impoverished teen is in more danger of being robbed or shot while in line waiting to purchase a new pair of $300 signature sneakers than of being infected with hookworm through being forced to walk barefoot.
What had once been a daring liberal agenda gradually ossified into a reactionary dogma that the poor are always to be defined in relative terms to those better off, never by absolute standards of global wealth and poverty, and thus are always in need of yet more government help. The goal became collective equality rather than a safety net to mitigate the effects of misfortune, accident, and illness.
In other words, what started out as visionary in the 20 years between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s insidiously became reactionary, on the premise that always more was unquestioned. So much so that today the liberal vision — the blue-state model, the Democratic orthodoxy, whatever we wish to call it — is a rigid creed that demands ever more government spending and ever more government redistribution. It fosters an ever-growing elite technocracy that oversees the system but wins the capital and influence to be unaffected by the ramifications of its own ideology. Reactionary liberalism, as some sort of cult, assumes that its policies are exempt from audit, and that indeed to audit them casts suspicion on the motives and aims of the auditor himself.
The dogma, as embraced by Barack Obama, assumes a number of reactionary givens that cannot be questioned or, indeed, even discussed.
The role of technology, for example, is ignored, as is the entry of 1-billion-population China into the global exporting business. That appliances from air conditioners to large-screen televisions to cell phones not only have made life more enjoyable to the well-to-do, but also are accessible to hundreds of millions across the economic spectrum, is never discussed. Walmart can offer the poor a simulacrum of what Neiman Marcus offers the rich, in the sense that an $8 shirt no longer looks or wears all that differently from a $150 one.
That a person who has a fraction of the income of Mitt Romney now has water that is as hot as the rich man’s, a TV that is as large, and a cell phone that is not inferior to the zillionaire’s simply does not matter — either in terms of political rhetoric or in government poverty statistics. The Lexus is always a sign of privilege in a way the Kia is not, although a man from Mars would have trouble ascertaining which car interior should belong to the more deprived.
Nor can reactionary liberalism allow discussion of issues of human concern that had been the stuff of debate and discussion since the Greeks. Is poverty sometimes a result not just of ill health, bad luck, lack of education, generational poverty, racism, sexism, or discrimination, but also of personal choices: the decision to commit a crime, use drugs, have out-of-wedlock children, or drop out of high school?
If today an observer were to state that the number of children one chooses to have should be in part predicated on the income one reasonably expects to make (I think that is why so-called yuppies often choose to have two rather than five children), then he would be branded illiberal or worse — despite the fact that societies have accepted that premise for centuries, and the middle classes implicitly follow such common calculations. Thanks to today’s government help, the illegal immigrant from Oaxaca might eventually achieve rough parity with the American-born middle class if he were to have two children; however, with five it is impossible.