by Bruce S. Thronton
The presidency of Barack Obama has established once and for all that modern liberalism is now the stupid party. Very little of liberal thought these days represents anything fresh or new, but rather comprises what Lionel Trilling once reduced conservatism to: “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Now it is liberal ideas that young in the 19th century today stumble around like zombies in the liberal mind, mindlessly repeating hoary clichés of the sort Jonah Goldberg documents in his new book.
Obama’s presidency and reelection campaign have already produced an abundance of examples. Take the looming fiscal crisis of unfunded social welfare entitlements, run-away federal spending, and accelerating debt and deficits. Even with the monitory example of a rapidly disintegrating Europe before our eyes, the Democrats still can’t do the math. The “Buffett rule” taxes on the “rich” that the president has been touting amount to the equivalent of couch-cushion change compared to our debt and unfunded liabilities. Indeed, confiscating outright all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans would barely cover one year of Obama deficits. The economic history of the past half-century backs up the math: only by reducing spending can we get our fiscal house in order, and raising taxes on the productive stifles economic growth and reduces tax revenues, thus hastening the downward spiral. The fundamental wisdom known by every village explainer — spend more than you earn and you’ll go broke, give people something for nothing and they will expect something for nothing forever, there is no free lunch, if something can’t go on forever it won’t — doesn’t seem to penetrate the minds of the self-styled “genius” party.
Yet despite this crisis, all the liberals can do is recycle old class-warfare bromides. Repeating the juvenile slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Democrats decry the “1%” and the President shrieks about the rich “paying their fair share.” The fact that among advanced economies the US already has the most progressive income taxes and the highest corporate taxes — even as nearly half of taxpayers pay nothing while an equal number receive some sort of government largesse — can’t penetrate the fog of clichés befuddling the liberal brain. No, stale Hollywood scripts about “Wall Street” pirates and evil oil corporations are recycled into government policy, and jeremiads against “greed” and “materialism” abound. The President even invokes Jesus Christ in support of his redistributionist schemes, his liberal supporters conveniently forgoing their usual hysteria about the theocratic camel’s nose poking into the political tent.
Nothing in any of this has anything to do with the reality of our economic sickness or its cures. Worse yet, we’ve heard it all before over a century ago. In the late 19th century, increasing immigration from Russia, Poland, southern Italy, and other non-Teutonic countries, along with the growing wealth, social mobility, and economic opportunity created by industrial capitalism, agitated the well-born and well-educated elites worried about racial “degeneration” and the weakening of the American order. Impressed by Karl Marx, they saw industrial capitalism and corporations, and the increasing materialism, amoral greed, civic corruption, and crass competition these fostered, as the force that would destroy the American moral order and empower the lesser breeds who thought of nothing but greed and selfish gain, no matter the future costs to society. The reformers’ answer was to turn over government rule to a “natural aristocracy” created by breeding and education, the denizens of the “best class” who could restore order to a disintegrating society and rein in the “incorporated power and greed,” as Brooks Adams put it, of “robber barons” like the Rockefellers and Morgans and the other “malefactors of great wealth” criticized by T.R. Roosevelt.
The Adams brothers embody best that snobbish disdain for the ordinary people and immigrants who were finding in an economically expanding America the freedom and opportunity denied to their ancestors. Brooks and Henry Adams were the scions of two presidents and an ambassador, members of a New England aristocracy long accustomed to taking for granted both the privileges of wealth and their own entitlement to rule. Their opposition to industrialization and materialism was in part based on class prejudice and refined taste, both of which fostered a disdain for the nouveau riche and other upstarts increasingly dominating what Mark Twain dubbed the “gilded age.” The growing power of America could not be entrusted to these degenerate ordinary citizens who wanted only to grab as much as they could. Only by having their betters take over — the technocratic elite that possessed “powerful administrative minds,” as Brooks Adams called them — could America contain the destructive excesses of such parvenus.
Running through this gloomy economic diagnosis of America’s decline was a nasty racialist snobbery. Brooks Adams fretted over the “barbarian blood” polluting the “old native American blood,” which at the time was fancifully believed to be Teutonic and Nordic. Henry too worried that “the dark races are gaining on us.” Jews in particular were linked to money-grubbing and materialism. “England is as much governed by the Jews of Berlin, Paris, and New York, as her own native growth,” Brooks Adams complained. “It is in the nature of a vast syndicate, and by control of London, they control the world.” Henry despised as well what he called “the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews.” Such anti-Semitism was part of a large anti-immigrant prejudice based on fears of what Progressive spokesman E.A. Ross called “race suicide.”
Not much has changed in the last hundred years. Of course, this liberal dynamic of resentment against the “vulgar” rich and obsession over high social status has acquired new camouflage. Decrying racial degeneration has been discredited, to be replaced with the soft racism of low expectations enshrined in affirmative action policies and politically correct patronizing of “people of color.” Anti-immigrant sentiment has been reversed, now that the liberal elites have discovered that illegal immigration in particular provides a whole new stockpile of political clients beholden to government transfers and the political party that delivers them. Class snobbery is usually hidden behind a veneer of populism, though it slips out regularly — just revisit the vicious attacks on Sarah Palin, or the President’s talk of “bitter clingers.” And anti-Semitism, though blatant at Occupy Wall Street rallies and anarchist protests against globalization, has been repackaged as “anti-Zionism,” while keeping the same fantasies of a “vast syndicate” that controls finance and the media.
Yet the essence of the liberal agenda remains the same as it was 100 years ago: Money-grubbing capitalists, the people who actually create wealth and jobs, are still being attacked for their selfish greed; snooty rich Ivy League grads still believe they should be running things, given that the oafish masses are too ignorant or befuddled by God, gays, and guns to know their own best interests; and government must be centralized and its power increased so that these enlightened elites can acquire the funds needed to redistribute the wealth and create a more just and fair social order, which turns out to be one in which they call all the shots.
In other words, a hundred years of painful experience and the failure of these notions should demonstrate their danger. That liberals continue to ignore those historical lessons and recycle those discredited ideas makes them the stupid party.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton