by Victor Davis Hanson
America’s Extreme Make-over
These are exciting though scary revolutionary times, akin to the constant acrimony in the fourth-century BC polis, mid-nineteenth century revolutionary Europe, or — perhaps in a geriatric replay — the 1960s. This is an era when the fundamental assumptions of the individual and the state are now being redefined, albeit in a weird, high-tech, globalized landscape.
Radical But Well Off
A word of caution: we are not talking about hoi polloi versus hoi oligoi, or the commune on the barricades fighting the estate owners. No, not this time around.
Instead, the present attempt to remake America is the effort of the liberal well-to-do — highly educated at mostly private universities, nursed on three decades of postmodern education, either with inherited wealth or earning top salaries, lifestyles of privilege indistinguishable from those they decry as selfish, and immune from the dictates they impose on others.
Such are basically the profiles of the Obama cabinet and sub-cabinet, the pillars of liberalism in the Congress and state legislatures, the public intellectuals in the universities and foundations, the arts crowd, and the Hollywood elite. Let us be clear about that.
The Distant Poor
They are all battling on behalf of “them,” the poorer half of America, currently in need of some sort of housing, education, food, or legal subsidy, whom the above mentioned elite, in the way they live, send their children to school, socialize, and vacation so studiously avoid. (The New York Times owners are likely to follow the cut-throat business practices of Wall Street, live in the most refined areas of New York, and assume privileges indistinguishable from other CEOs; the difference is that they so visibly care about those they never see or seek out).
Note well the term “poor.” These are not Dickensian or Joads poor, but largely Americans who by the standards of the 1940s would be considered lucky. Partly because of globalized Chinese consumer goods, and partly redistributive practices of a half-century, our current “underclass” has access to clothes, electronics, entertainment, apartments, cell phones, transportation, etc., undreamed of by the middle class of the recent past. I live in one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest counties in a bankrupt state; and those I see poor are not like those I saw 40 years ago in the same locale.
No, the revolution is not one of the abject poor and starving storming the Bastille, but of the angry and self-righteous well-off — angry as hell that the less well-off are living lives quite differently from the very well-off. (A trodden down poor person today flies standby from San Francisco to LAX; a very rich person gets into his $50 million Gulfstream — but note modernism’s paradox: the poor person’s United Airlines pilots are as good, he gets there as safely and in some comfort, and not much later as well.)
Some of the revolutionaries are guided by genuine noblesse oblige. Others act out of guilt and can justify their own consumption if they “care” for a distant poorer other. Still more explain their own privilege through using government to redistribute income. A few are driven by genuine hatred — stemming from the fact that the highly educated academic or artist makes far less than the doctor, lawyer, CEO, or — heaven forbid — tire store owner, family orthodontist, or owner of a half dozen Little Caesar pizza franchises.
How can that be that the PhD who reads Old English, or the painter who emulates Pollock, or the writer who is the next Fitzgerald, or the AP teacher is given so much less by society than the crass, smug captain of industry, who reads less, has no real taste, and hardly understands his own existential dilemma? Should not salary and capital be predicated on good intentions, high education, rhetoric and argumentation, and a bit of necessary sarcasm?
Liberal Endangered Species
Over the last fifty years it was received wisdom that a liberal Democrat could not be entrusted to run the U.S. LBJ’s Great Society had largely failed. Its legacy were debts, high taxes, bloated bureaucracies, the destruction of the inner-city family, and welfare dependency.
Jimmy Carter’s administration was forever known for 1979, the annus terribilisin which all of his prior sanctimonious preaching came home to roost in one year — the Chinese invaded Vietnam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Iranians invaded our embassy in Teheran, the communist government in exile invaded Nicaragua, along with the rise of radical Islam, the abdication of the shah, and so on. I’ll pass on his simultaneous rising unemployment, rising interest, and rising inflation.
Bill Clinton, who never received 50% of the vote, wisely after 1994 governed from the left/center. In both the trivial (school uniforms, grandstanding about some subsidies for more policemen, etc.) and the profound (welfare reform, balanced budgets), he finally rejected Carterism — albeit with the same symbolic leftist appointments.
That Perfect Storm, Again
But, as we have discussed, with the advent of Barack Obama, the liberal clouds lined up in perfect storm fashion as never before: a) Obama waged a brilliant stealth campaign, as the Senate’s most partisan member. The Rev. Wright devotee, Wall Street favorite, and rejecter of public campaign financing somehow ran as centrist, purple state anti-Wall Street populist; b) ennui after 8 years of Republicans helped; c) so did the good will about the landmark candidacy of our first serious black presidential candidate; d) the September 2008 meltdown destroyed McCain’s 2-4% lead for good (even though Wall Street had given far more to Obama, and its bad actors were empowered by the Freddie/Fannie mess); e) the McCain campaign at times seemed to want to lose nobly than to win in a Chicago barroom fight.
The New America?
The result is that we are witnessing a quiet but insidious revolution. At home, if successful, the state and its vast array of newly hired employees, will administer our healthcare system, as well as education loans (and that will need a sort of new agency like the Postal Service or DMV). We now take for granted takeovers of much of the automobile industry and financial organizations. Should cap and trade pass, the administration would be dictating energy use. If you add it up — going to the doctor, driving a car, stopping by an ATM, flipping on the lights, taking out a student loan — you could run bump into a lot of new federal bureaucrats. And that’s the point, isn’t it after all?
I doubt anyone in the administration believes that these new public sectors of the economy will be better run. (After all, the Obamas themselves did not wish to live in a city-run housing tract, or send their children to an inner-city public school: wishing to be paid by the government is rather different than relying on the government).
So What’s the Plan?
So the point instead is I think fourfold:
a) those who profit from running these new agencies will be our new anointed class, at the top, Ivy-League technocrats, and lower down among the ranks, the politically deserving: power and patronage; b) the resultant cost increases will require more taxes on those whose ill-gotten gains should be properly redistributed to the commune; gorge the beast; c) in political terms, a constituency that either administers or receives federal largess (think of an ACORN/SEIU hybrid) will prove a predictably loyal base in future elections: dependent future voters; d) federal and state wages and pensions will remind us all during tough times that government “service” is the only steady, reliable, and fair employer: we will all end up the same.
Some readers point out — “But wait, this is insane: they will kill the golden goose. What fuels redistributive government are taxes from the creation of private wealth that demands open markets, incentives for profit, reasonable taxes to allow enjoyment of profits, principled exploitation of natural resources, and government enhancement rather than restriction of business.”
Why Do They Do it?
But I think the Obamians either have not read history and so do not appreciate how statism/socialism/communism have impoverished all that they have touched, or they assume capitalism solely is run by nice-guy billionaires like Buffet, Gates, and Soros who apparently clapped their hands, made a few billion, and then are happy to live on a billion or two and give the rest away to progressive causes.
There is no appreciation that scrappy, often grubby Americans this minute are scrambling on their computer terminals, on their forklifts, in their commuting cars to run a business, provide a service, or move up the employment ladder in hopes of improving their lot and leaving behind something for their kids. They are the engines of capitalism and they don’t often go to Yale, or Rev. Wright’s church, or work at Human Resources Department. And when they all do, we will be in sorry shape.
Abroad, the world is confused. They want to, and still do, mouth the old stale anti-American envy. But even our critics sense that America is morphing into something more like, well, themselves. (When Obamians brag that the world is beginning to like us, they sort of have a point: the world’s communitarians (the majority on this planet) do like us becoming like them.)
There is a lot of irony here to be sure. Europe played good cop to our bad and posed as the soft-power utopian, while assuming American military power was always there to support Western interests. Not now. We are gravitating to the left of Europe on issues in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Our Latin American policies seem closest to Brazil’s. In the Middle East we see eye to eye with Jordan. Whatever Britain seems to do, we either ignore it, take it for granted, or vote present on it. Israel is a neutral now, not an ally; bowing to the Saudi autocrat is not “insulting,” an announcement that Jerusalem might build some apartments apparently is.
We laugh at the lunatic appointments like a Van Jones or Anita Dunn, or some of the lawyers at Justice who seemed so worried about the plight of terrorists at Guantanamo. But they were logical appointments, not aberrations, and are matched by hundreds of the more anonymous now working in government. We shall meet new names and new faces when a comprehensive immigration bill comes up (= blanket amnesty), and cap and trade is reintroduced.
The Mind of the Revolutionary
Where do these ideologies derive? Again, I wish I could say that they are grassroots driven, by the muscular classes who are victimized by business and, in their cry-from-the-heart protests, demand a fairer cutting of the pie. But so often the utopianism is from above, and predicated on abstract education, relative affluence, and little exposure to business or indeed much beyond the metrosexual world in general.
So fascinating these modern revolutionaries. A Buffet does not choose to pay the high income tax rate on his earnings, though he surely could in lieu of lecturing how taxes are too low. A Gates Sr. does not plan for his offspring to pay into the strapped treasury needed inheritance taxes, though he remonstrates that they must be raised on everyone else. A Geithner does not comply with the tax code, though he assumes it should be raised on others. A Gore lectures on honesty and truth and science on his way to a $100 million con that turns him from an affluent ex-politician into a global grandee.
I’m sorry — I don’t take seriously much of anything from this wannabe revolutionary bunch.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson