Writing about the onset of the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that the end had come but was not yet in sight. The past was crumbling under their feet, but people could not imagine how the future would play out. Their social imagination had hit a wall.
The same thing is happening today: The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.
Above is the start of a thought-provoking article, The Once and Future Liberalism, by Walter Russell Mead. It is long, but well worth the time to read. The meat of Mead's argument is that both Progressives/Liberals and Conservatives are arguing the wrong thing, with each group harkening back to a different model of small 'L' liberalism from a bygone era.
Mead asserts that Anglo-Saxon liberalism has gone through four distinct models. The first was the limited Constitutional Monarchy formed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain. Eventually it broke down as King George III reasserted authority over Parliament and this lead to the American Revolution and its transition from Constitutional Monarchy to a Republic led by the landed gentry. This was followed by what Mead calls Manchester liberalism with the expansion towards universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the loosening of markets.
With the onset of the industrial revolution yet another change occurred, this version of liberalism using government as a counter balance to the unaccountable "Robber Baron" style monopolies. What evolved was the "Iron Triangle" model, where stability and a degree of freedom was preserved by "strong unions in stable, government-brokered arrangements with large corporations." Evemyually this was extended by FDR and the later Great Society.
Mead argues that as government power increased, by the 1970s we had entered the current Blue State model which is coming apart at the seems because it can no longer provide the security, economic dynamism and most important of all, the personal freedom in a stable society we expect.
An end of an era is upon us, but Mead argues that the both the Left and the Right are spinning their wheels harkening back to older models of liberalism. He makes that case in the excerpt below, but you really should read the entirety of Mead's The Once and Future Liberalism. My brief synopsis of the article does not begin to do it justice.
What does this argument look like when translated into historical terms? Many believe that the real ideological contest in America today is between “red” liberalism 3.0 (the more individualistic, laissez-faire, often evangelical kind of liberalism of the 19th century) and the more state-oriented, collectively minded post-World War II 4.1 blue liberalism. Red liberals denounce blue liberals as betrayers of the liberal legacy, as ideology thieves who have taken a philosophy grounded in individual freedom and limited government and turned it into a charter for “big” government. Blue liberals respond that red liberals don’t understand how the complexities of modern life make the outmoded pieties of liberalism 3.0 inadequate to today’s problems. But common to both these positions is the belief that the American debate today is between two versions of the past: the (presumed) free market utopia of the 19th century versus the (presumed) social utopia of the New Deal/Great Society of more recent times. If that were true, this would be a nation of conservatives fighting reactionaries—the status quo of 1970 fighting the status quo of 1880.
But it’s not true. Neither aged version of liberalism can adequately address what Americans most want. In particular, neither can provide a new era of rising mass prosperity for the overwhelming majority of the American people. Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation and outsourcing. As long as we are stuck with the current structures, nobody can provide the growing levels of medical and educational services we want without bankrupting the country. Neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” can end the generation-long stagnation in the wage level of ordinary American families. Neither can stop the accelerating erosion of the fiscal strength of our governments at all levels without disastrous reductions in the benefits and services on which many Americans depend.
We cannot realistically solve our problems by trying to return to the 3.0 liberalism of the 19th century because the American economy of that era depended on conditions we cannot reproduce today. Though some may think it desirable, we cannot return to a largely agrarian economy. Nor can we replicate the industrial system of the 19th century, with its extremely high tariffs against foreign goods and a completely laissez-faire national attitude toward immigration. Trying to recreate the American economy of a century ago would lead to massive dislocations, depressions and quite likely wars around the world, not to mention thoroughly wrecking the American economy and bankrupting many of our banks and biggest corporations.
But if red liberal fundamentalism can’t work, blue fundamentalism can’t help us either. There’s no going back even half a century ago, because the great achievements of blue liberalism were also rooted in conditions we cannot replicate today. Between 1914 and the 1970s, when the blue social model took shape and rose to power and success, the world economy was in an unusual state. International financial and trade flows were much lower than before 1914 and after 1970, due to the disruptions of two world wars and the Great Depression. And the United States was so far ahead of the rest of the world in manufacturing that few American companies (or workers) had anything to fear from foreign competition. Capital was dramatically less mobile; it was much easier to tax high earners without driving savings and investment out of the country.
At the same time, Americans in the first two thirds of the last century were more willing to engage in group politics than is the case today. Industrial workers fought to build unions and generally voted the way their leaders advised them. Ethnic groups stuck together and voted as blocs. Twentieth-century liberal politics generally involved negotiated agreements among party bosses and other leaders who commanded loyal followings. Few politicians today can count on this kind of unquestioning support in an era when party structures and patronage networks are both weaker and less reliable than they used to be. Now, instead of party structures funding candidates, candidates are expected to fund party structures.
We must come to terms with the fact that the debate we have been having over these issues for past several decades has been unproductive. We’re not in a “tastes great” versus “less filling” situation; we need an entirely new brew. But this is nothing to mourn, because both liberalism 3.0 and 4.0 died of success, just as versions 1.0 and 2.0 did before them.