by Victor Davis Hanson
How are we to make sense of flash mobbing, the London rioting, more hatred expressed for the Tea Party, more calls for ever more debt and spending, and Barack Obama’s dive below 40% approval in the polls? Let me backtrack a bit.
I grew up with die-hard Roosevelt Democrats. Packers, shippers, and distributors made all the profits; farmers, we were told, did the work. Co-ops like Sun-Maid were noble; in contrast, grasping private packers paid on “consignment”: give us your produce in an oversupplied market and we will get what we can, when we can, for it. Often plums and peaches were dumped, and we paid the packing and storage fees for the privilege of losing the crop. Unfairness, not the capricious nature of market capitalism, is what we wished to hear.
In my youth, my mother helped out in the “Dollars for Democrats” campaign. I remember the 1960s’ talking points still, as she drove us through the poorer sections of the San Joaquin Valley raising money for JFK (Nixon would win the state by 36,000 votes). We had high hopes for Pat Brown and Sen. Claire Engle. Charles “Gus” Garrigus was our local assemblyman. At eight I met a young Alan Cranston at a run-down café on the old 99 Highway in Selma, a sort of awkward gangly guy still at that stage talking about hard-core, bread-and-butter populism.
After all, what was so unfair about wanting a 40-hour week, overtime pay, disability and unemployment insurance, public works and infrastructure (e.g., the California water projects, LAX, the state freeway system), fair housing, money for the new JC/CSU/UC tripartite “master plan” of higher California education? It was not uncommon in those days to see unpaved streets and a few outhouses — something I was told the distant wealthy could avoid but the state should not.
Most of my parents’ and grandparents’ friends, however, were Grange/Farm Bureau/Chamber of Commerce Republicans. I emphasize “friends” since in the early sixties, pre-Vietnam-protest age, politics still never impeded friendships. Most of my mom’s rural friends were amused rather than angered by her genuine liberalism, since it was directed at trying to improve the lot of the working poor, who were ubiquitous and often next door.
Remember, this was pre-Great Society stuff, well before globalized cheap material goods, the age of food stamps, two years of unemployment insurance, aid to dependent families, and the entire government umbilical cord. Most readers will shake their heads and now mutter: “Victor, Victor, did you not see even at seven that the obvious, the logical result of that idealized government help would be something like the annual $1.6 trillion debt and entitlement culture of the present? Did not Plato warn us that the egalitarian mandate has no logical end?”
Perhaps, but in those days it was not hard to think that the ‘”Okies” and “poor folks” and “Mexican-Americans” in the San Joaquin Valley needed some sort of foundational equality of opportunity — given the scarcity of capital and endemic prejudice. My most distinct memory of first grade was hygiene and dentistry problems: half the kids had rotten teeth and clothes that were unclean. (I remember Jimmy Hopson pulling out his front [permanent] tooth in second grade and showing it off.) Stern teachers from the southwest, with Texas and Oklahoma accents, lectured us on how to shampoo and comb our hair, change socks and underwear, brush our teeth, and use soap under our arms and on the backside of our arms. We were to “make something of ourselves” and be “presentable,” the sort of people “we ourselves would want to sit next to.” “Relief” carried the same stigma associated with “hypos” and “switchblades” or “bums” and “hobos.”
Word and Deed
I detour here, because late 1950s liberalism was in some sense conservative, given the rural poverty, the lack of high-tech appurtenances, the coming end of the US postwar monopoly in manufactured goods, and the worry over “commies.” Of course, JFK, like FDR, personified noblesse oblige, but mostly the heroic Democrats were guys like Truman and Humphrey. For my dad, FDR had built the B-29s, Truman stopped the North Koreans, and JFK had stood down Castro — some mythic history in that, but not much.
You might think their square-deal politics were naïve, but they were salt-of-the-earth types, whose lifestyles reflected the politics that they advocated, and whose personal tastes were simple. To the best I can recall, there was no manifest contradiction in my grandfather’s voting for JFK in 1960, and his stern warnings about “lazy” “no-goods” who came out to prune for a week, abruptly to quit when they earned enough money for “booze” and “were up to no good.” The new pocket transistor radios, he swore, only encouraged sloth and poor work habits — and he wanted no one on the farm listening to one, us included.
In those days, liberalism, if we can even call it that, was clearly an equality of opportunity idea — whatever the intrinsic contradictions of the prior New Deal that logically led to the Great Society and the other failed “societies” to come. It was still not socialism of the European type, but singularly American and predicated on a “fair shake” as the majority of its adherents’ lives were not too distant from the objects of their worry.
I’ll skip the next half-century, since the tragedy is too well known, and focus instead on the vastly different, contemporary liberal mindset. To be blunt, what strikes us about its recent and most vocal emissaries — politicians such as a Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi; or the Hollywood celebrities; or the great fortuned like a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros; or the credentialed technocrats who run the foundations and government agencies, or the high-paid media types in the NY-DC corridor — is how vast apart are the circumstances of their own lives from the objects of their concern. In addition, present-day liberalism finds its most numerous adherents among the upper-middle class suburbanites and those who work for government and enjoy de facto tenure (e.g., the public employee unions, teachers, the public professoriate, etc.).
Let Them Eat Steak
Insulation is the common theme here. To the degree that one’s job insulates one from the vagaries of the marketplace — not just the danger of losing a job, but often the petty humiliation so often integral in making a scarce buck, by selling, peddling, hawking, or working for a business — one is now more likely to support the redistributive state and all its satellite philosophies. And to the degree that one has a good salary and capital, and can buy such insulation — where one lives, where one sends one’s children to school, where one vacations — one is most likely to advocate a sort of politics that will not affect directly oneself. The key then is to insulate oneself from the worry over losing a job and livelihood, either by guaranteed employment or ample wealth. (When the London riots started to hit the “better” sections, then suddenly the police appeared in real numbers and the unapologetic public anger increased.)
In other words, if one opposes charters and vouchers, supports teachers’ unions, praises the present-day public schools, and champions the therapeutic curriculum, one is still hardly likely to put one’s child in the L.A. or Fresno school system. If one is a strong advocate for more state subsidies and redistributive policies, one will not live in an East Palo Alto, an Orange Cove, or the wrong side of St. Louis or Baltimore where the money is aimed. Liberalism is, like all politics, self-interested, embraced by those who receive transfer payments and those in charge of administering the redistributive state. But it also provides psychic exemption to a new upper class and asks little concrete in return — no tutoring of the illegal alien, no side-by-side residency in the Section 8 apartment to help create “community,” no hiring in the progressive law firm of a ghetto intern in lieu of the Yale undergraduate. It is the worst sort of petty hypocrisy: an exemption for the guilty soul through support of the redistributive state aimed at the noble but unapproachable poor —and through a clear disdain for the crass and aspiring middle class, which lacks the taste of the elite and the supposedly tragic nobility of the impoverished and victimized.
The Apotheosis of Barack Obama
Some are surprised that Barack Obama — the community organizer, the hard-core leftist, the pal of Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright (compare the homes of each), the totem of the left — would buy a mansion and worry about the price of arugula. Or that when president, he would play golf more in three years than the aristocratic Bush did in eight. Or that in recessionary times, when iconic presidential sacrifice is critical, the First Family would favor Martha’s Vineyard, Vail, and Costa del Sol over the White House grounds or Camp David.
But this disconnect again is logical not aberrant. It is precisely because Obama rails about “fat cats,” “corporate jet owners,” “millionaires and billionaires,” and pontificates about “redistributive change,” “enough money,” “spread the wealth,” and “unneeded income” that he feels spiritually cleansed and so can satisfy his natural appetites for the rarified good life. On Monday swear that corporate jets blew up the budget, on Tuesday feel free to host corporate jet fly-in donors who pay $50,000 to hear you rail about the pernicious culture of corporate jets. Mutatis mutandis, so too an Al Gore or John Kerry.
Human nature argues that contemporary liberalism does not work; but if one is not proximate to human nature in the raw, then one can find psychological penance in promoting something that will never come back to haunt you. Let a flash mob hit Park Avenue or have a group from East Palo Alto swarm the quad at Stanford, or have a Malibu star’s kid shoved about in a downtown Los Angeles school, or an open borders idealist live in an apartment in Calwa, and then one sees firsthand the real-time dividends of a distant elite channeling state money to the less fortunate.
The Wages of Hypocrisy
Barack Obama has hit 39% approval in the Gallup poll. Pundits point to the debt, to the mixed-up foreign policy, to ObamaCare, to his grating sermons on civility, to his blame-Bush fixations, to the serial banality of his inauthentic cadences and his canned Nixonian “make no mistake about it” and “let me be perfectly clear” emphases. All that is true.
But much of our public weariness stems from his loud liberal hypocrisy. Our president lectures about a certain sort of school he never has sent his child to. He talks about “folks” with whom he has never wished to vacation. Unlike a Truman or Humphrey, he sought office not to help those clingers with whom he might have wished to associate, but to feel good about wanting to help from a safe distance from those with whom he most certainly did not wish to mingle.
Golfing or walking the Martha’s Vineyard beach, in the fashion of Kerry’s 7th estate getaway or million-dollar yacht, makes one fret over “why lucky me?” — and requires an antidote of one or two spread-the-wealth sermons a week.
The weird sudden appearance of smarmy, young urban and highly-educated leftist bloggers, with little experience in the physical world or with manual labor, is likewise logical given that most do not raise families in the barrio or shop in the ghetto, or teach school on the wrong side of town or try to buy a house and support three kids on $70,000, or even hit the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Only such abstract liberal advocacy can square the circle of self-absorbed concerned metrosexuality.
As we saw last week in Britain and in some American cities, liberal redistributionism makes far worse the innate problems it was hailed to solve. But it remains a powerful narcotic to an aberrant elite, one that feels guilty over its apartheid circumstances and is desperately seeking spiritual redemption on the cheap.
Barack Obama was contemporary America’s clearest example of just such an iconic liberalism — both as a purveyor and a recipient. Just as voting for Obama gave a pass to so many, so too for Barack Obama his own rhetoric and advocacy provide a pass for his own preferences. Liberalism has gone from a first-hand concern for equality of opportunity to a psychological condition of very blessed, but equally unhappy, people.
This summer’s hike to Twin Lakes went well (4 hours compared to 7 in 2010); we had 27 join us and a cold drink afterwards. I enjoy reading the high-quality readers’ responses, both those pro and con; they remind me of those who joined the hike the last two years, confident but humble, highly accomplished but not arrogant, well-spoken but moderate in bearing — reasons to be confident about the future of the country.
Our suites are mostly sold out, but there are still the regular cabins that I always stay in and find more than comfortable. By week’s end we should be over 50 or 55.This year we increased the lectures from eight to eleven, about seven devoted to military history of Western Europe and the other four to contemporary strains in the EU and Atlantic alliance, mounting debt, and historical parallels to the present crisis of confidence in the West.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson