The Corner

RE: Communion with Paul Krugman

Jim, I was struck by just the same passage in that profile of Krugman. I didn’t identify with it quite as much as you (I’m younger than you, and you’re younger than Krugman) but I thought it humanized Krugman in just the way you suggest. I think it also sheds light on something very important about the American left today.


In our time, nostalgia is the reigning sentiment of the left in America, and the project of the left is fundamentally reactionary. They’re clinging mightily to the remnants of the old and bankrupt social-democratic dream, and they constantly appeal to a vision of a (mostly imaginary) ideal past. This is very powerfully evident in President Obama’s rhetoric. Here’s a characteristic passage from this year’s State of the Union address:


Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown.  You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors.  If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion.  Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company.


Even in those exceptional three decades after the Second World War, things weren’t really anything like this. But for people who were children during that time, it might be possible to imagine it as having been this way. And for people who believe in the power of social-democratic government activism it may even be possible to imagine that it was achieved by such activism. The self understanding (and immense self regard) of many baby boomers is steeped in that idea, and some in the generations that have followed them have bought into it too.


At first glance, it might seem odd to find the left so nostalgic. We tend to expect conservatives to be the backward looking bunch. But it isn’t all that peculiar, really. The modern left began as a project to recapture a lost innocence corrupted by greed and power. That’s how Rousseau understood the human story. It’s how the French revolutionaries understood what they were doing. And many subsequent projects of the radical left (from Maoist agrarianism to the anti-globalization riots of the 1990s) have been fundamentally anti-progressive, and so have been in some tension with both the more nihilistic elements and the more technocratic elements of the left. (The right, of course, has its own share of similar tensions, especially between libertarians and traditionalists.) The American left, like every other movement in American politics, has always been less radical than its foreign counterparts, so its nostalgic streaks have been less nuts, but they have been no less prominent—from Jefferson’s agrarianism right through contemporary environmentalism, with its naïve yearning for a simpler time.


This helps to explain the left’s attitude toward the increasingly obvious fiscal implosion of the welfare state. Liberals have so far responded almost exclusively with reactionary denial and with a doubling down on the very ways of thinking that created the problem. They yearn for the glorious energy of the Great Society era, unwilling to see that its consequences are the very source of our troubles. They really seem to believe that leaving Medicare just as we have it is essential to guarding the American dream. And to oppose conservative attempts at reforms of various programs, they appeal to an almost blind fear of change, and to the segments of our population most inclined to such fear—ignoring the plain fact that the status quo is unsustainable and the question is only what kind of change will come.


Of course, a defensive and wistful left is better than an assertive revolutionary left, out to dismantle the family, the market, and the other instruments of bourgeois oppression. Things could be worse, and they have been. But our choice can’t be between revolution and reactionism. What we need is conservatism—an attitude that, as Edmund Burke said of his ideal statesman, combines “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve” and is therefore inclined to respond to the changing world by reinforcing what is most essential and so making possible constructive change. Such an attitude is fundamentally future-oriented, not backward-looking. But it understands that the future will be built of the same raw materials as the past—of people packed with all the same burdens and blessings of human nature as ever, trying to get by, to find love, to raise children, to be highly regarded, to make a difference—and so will require no less than ever the social institutions, cultural foundations, and moral boundaries that have always best enabled people to do these things. We will only make progress if we never lose our connection to these, but we will only sustain that connection if we understand that the purpose of doing so is to make progress—moral, material, and cultural.


Anyway, stray Friday thoughts inspired by Paul Krugman’s rather sad nostalgia.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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