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.
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.