The dual failure of conservative policy and liberal politics

Politicians must ‘recognise and nurture a new sort of dialogue between two different ideologies’, author says.

Barack Obama and the American Flag
The Occupy movements are a manifestation of the public’s discontent with American social welfare [GALLO/GETTY] 

San Pedro, California – Last week I wrote about Newt Gingrich’s incredibly destructive record and mindset. But as I wrote then, “If you want to know why the American political system can’t solve even most routine problems anymore, the reasons are larger than any one person”.

They are even larger than one party or one ideology. For the me-too-but-not-so-much style of “opposition” that the Democrats have increasingly practiced over the past 30 years is as problematic in its own way as Republican conservatism has been. After all, Wall Street deregulation was a bipartisan project, even though the Democratic base was ignored in the process.

So, too, were NAFTA, the Iraq War, the no-strings TARP bailout, “No Child Left Behind”, and countless other initiatives that have chipped away at the New Deal legacy, the most successful governance system – or “political regime” – that the United States has ever known. The New Deal system took the US from the depths of the Great Depression to the pinnacle of world power while also giving birth to the largest middle class ever known in human history, and tearing down the legal barriers to full citizenship for women and minorities.

But conservatives saw this triumphant success as a nightmare that threatened the “natural order” of established privilege and power. Democratising opportunity and power, which liberals see as an unvarnished good, is deeply threatening to conservatives.

With the legalisation of mass labour unions and collective bargaining in the 1930s, the democratisation of higher education and home-ownership in the 1940s, and the elimination of second-class citizenship for women and minorities in the 1950s and 60s, the US became a much freer and equal place to live than it had ever been before. This rapid expansion of “liberty and justice for all” resonated powerfully with the promise of the US as a liberal democracy.

Yet, this same promise and its progressive unfolding deeply scared and angered conservatives – and helped drive their activism. Backed by enormous private wealth, they set about organising a multi-generational movement to overthrow what the New Deal system created from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Over the years, they have proven themselves to be highly effective at tearing things down and blowing things up. They are great at demonising individuals, institutions and even entire peoples.

But their record of building things that work and endure is a record of miserable failures. Reaganomics has given us nothing but oceans of red ink in government and 30 years of mostly stagnant wages for all but the top 1 per cent. We “won” the Cold War – which was already virtually over in 1976 – by helping to create al-Qaeda. We deregulated everything in sight, even though things kept going spectacularly wrong as a result. We put more than a million people in jail or in prison as part of the war on drugs, with nothing positive to show for it and no end in sight.

The list goes on and on.

The first point here is that conservative governance has been a spectacular failure – not just according to the criteria of liberals, but in terms of what conservatives have always claimed to care about: balancing budgets, growing the economy, keeping the US safe, reducing drug use, etc. Over and over again, conservative policies have failed.

But the second point is that these failures have neither led to their rejection and reconsideration nor to their replacement with more liberal alternatives. When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, millions of people expected that to change; it has not.

Obama has gone out of his way to accommodate conservatives, despite their utter disdain for working with him.”

Instead, Obama has gone out of his way to accommodate conservatives, despite their utter disdain for working with him. He has disappointed many in this regard, but his actions are part of a long-standing asymmetry between liberals and conservatives in the US that has allowed decades of conservative policy failures with only minimal political consequences.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a long-overdue response to both sides in this dynamic, which is why it’s no surprise (though a major disappointment) that Democratic mayors have played such a prominent role in brutally shutting down Occupations all across the US the last few months.

Mythos and Logos

Part of the reason conservative failures matter so little is surely because of conservatives themselves, particularly, the most politically active ones: They fight hard for what they believe in, and they never let facts stand in their way. They have faith in faith, and facts are merely temporary setbacks, at best.

When conservative policies fail, their first instinct is to look for policies that are even more conservative than the ones that have failed – even if those policies, too, have failed in the past.

Thus, conservatives as a whole remain largely indifferent to their own failures. The language of conservatism is a language of identity and values, not policies and facts. It is what religious historian Karen Armstrong refers to as a mythos in The Battle For God, which I talked about here back in August. 

“Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning”, Armstrong wrote. “Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair.”

When conservatives talk about “death panels” or “job creators” or a fair number of other conservative buzz-words, they are often talking in mythic terms, whether they realise it or not. This is not to say that myth plays no role in the lives of liberals, but it is much less important in their political lives. 

Liberals – particularly the most politically active ones – are politically more concerned with logos, “the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world”, as Armstrong explained. Liberals want policies that work – they are genuinely baffled (not to mention infuriated) by conservatives’ capacity to ignore evidence of success and failure.

But conservative indifference to their policy failures isn’t the only thing to blame. If conservatives are too wrapped up in their own mythos to care if their policies actually work, liberals are far too careless about their shared mythos, about what it means to be a liberal despite the fact that the US was largely founded on the ideology of political liberalism.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has been writing about this since his 1996 book, Moral Politics, trying to impress upon liberals the moral foundations and shared values that link together various liberal positions and types of foci (social justice, environmentalism, anti-authoritarianism, etc.). Although he’s gained a significant activist audience, it’s inescapable that the Democratic consultant class really doesn’t get what he’s talking about. They look at him like he’s speaking Klingon. 

When President Obama pushed for healthcare reform, he spoke wonkily about “bending the cost curve”. He rarely spoke about the moral imperative to care for one another as part of a common community, reflecting the kind of disconnect that Lakoff has been trying to overcome for almost 20 years now.

But there’s something more as well. It’s not just the moral language of liberalism that Obama and other Democrats are estranged from. They are estranged from the substance of its moral core as well. Like Clinton before him, but even more so, Obama is a neo-liberal, not a New Deal liberal, and the difference between the two is as big as the difference between night and day.

Neo-liberals don’t see this because they’re far too wrapped up in their dreams of wonky superiority and contempt for those who elect them. They pretend they are merely “adapting” to new realities that they are actually helping to create, most notably a system of competitive “free markets” that drive down most wages while selectively protecting certain assets.

Like Clinton before him, but even more so, Obama is a neo-liberal, not a New Deal liberal, and the difference between the two is as big as the difference between night and day.

To understand why this is happening, it helps to recognise a long-standing pattern in American political history. It has long been the case that during periods of one party dominance, the subdominant party adapts itself in order to compete effectively. Political historians have identified five distinct “party systems”, with divided views about a sixth. These have each lasted around 32-40 years. New party systems tend to start off with one party clearly dominant, winning what many call “realigning elections”, followed by more than a decade of one-party dominance until the other figures out how to mimic the dominant party’s appeal. 

In the 1950s, Republican president Dwight D Eisenhower exemplified how this is done. As he told his brother Edgar in a letter:

It is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it… Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labour laws and farm programmes, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.

Such was the power of the New Deal consensus at the time.

The 99 per cent haven’t changed

If one looks at mass public opinion polls, little has changed since then. Social Security remains highly popular. And while union membership is much lower today, the numbers of those who would like to be in a union remains well above 50 per cent.

Where things have changed, however, is with elite opinion. As compared to the 1950s, they have grown significantly more conservative and grown far richer with respective to their peers. They are also much more politically influential, as the role of wealthy donors in the political process has become much more significant as the power of other actors has waned.

Survey research on wealthy individuals is almost non-existent. But the results of one such survey were recently announced. It involved a random sample of 104 individuals from Chicago-area households with a median wealth of $7.5m. It found that they were much more politically active than the population as a whole, but that their political attitudes showed some significant differences. Among the findings reported in one summary were the following (emphasis in the original):

Such attitudes and their political influence help to partially explain the Grand Canyon-sized disconnect between public opinion and Washington politics. In sharp contrast to these elites, the General Social Survey reveals that even in 2010, only 3.2 per cent of the population thought we were spending “too much” on Social Security and government healthcare, while 40.9 per cent thought we were spending “too little” on both.

Another 25.4 per cent thought we were spending “too little” on at least one of them. But these broadly-held views have remarkably little political salience.

More particularly, back in April 2011, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post‘s “Plum Line” blog drew attention to what he called “the Beltway deficit feedback loop”:

For the longest time, polls indicated that the deficit ranked low on the list of voter concerns, showing public opinion to be strikingly out of sync with official Washington’s prioritising of the deficit over job creation.

But this morning brings a new poll from the Washington Post and Pew Research that finds a whopping 81 per cent now think the deficit is a major problem that should be dealt with now, rather than when the economy improves. Tellingly, that number has jumped even among Democrats.

When you have leading officials in both parties – starting with all Republicans and a handful of moderate Dems – acting as if reining in the deficit is so urgent that it requires more attention than creating jobs, people start to tell pollsters they agree. This helps create a climate in which Dems lose any incentive to make the case for more government spending to prime the recovery, which begins to vanish from the conversation.

DC politicians rarely pay attention to public opinion, except when it supports what they already want to do, or when it’s being used to attack them. But elite opinion is the sea that they swim in, and it’s bolstered by the assumption that all elites share: They know better than the rest of us do.

DC politicians rarely pay attention to public opinion, except when it supports what they already want to do, or when it’s being used to attack them.

The enormous divide in attitudes toward Social Security and health care spending helps explain why DC Democrats like President Obama keep returning to talk about “entitlement reform” and striking “grand bargains” to “get the deficit under control”, despite intense public opposition to the cuts involved.

Their sentiments may still be “liberal” in some sense, but it reflects a social environment in which very essence of its meaning has been lost. Even more broadly, the combination of elite attitudes revealed above generally fits with the neo-liberal agenda, with the additional favouring of private solutions (“charter schools, merit pay”, etc.) and general blindness to things that fail to fit into a market framework.

Neo-liberals tend to express themselves as not much different from New Deal liberals. The only differences, they say, are a greater willingness to use private means to secure public goods, and a greater concern with “spending wisely”.

Welfare state

But a broader view of history shows this neo-liberal self-description to be deeply self-deceiving. There is so much that escapes understanding that’s limited to market models.

This can be easily seen by expanding our horizons with an international framework of comparison. While the New Deal represented the apogee of liberal policy regimes in the US, it was actually very modest by international standards.

In his 1990 classic study, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Gosta Esping-Anderson identified three different organising logics which defined different trajectories for welfare state development. Others have since advanced variations and extensions, but Esping-Anderson’s framework is still quite valuable for illuminating central issues involved in industrial development over the past 150 years.

During this period, Continental Europe was dominated by the conservative welfare state, a model pioneered by Otto von Bismark in 1880s Germany, in the immediate aftermath of German unification. Its immediate purposes were two-fold: Taking away the most popular proposals of the leftist Social Democratic Party (SDP) and reshaping them for conservative ends.

These included strengthening traditional hierarchical relationships, from family structures to the entire industrial state in competition with other nations. In the Nordic countries, the socialist or social democratic welfare state reflected the original intent of the German SDP. Its central thrust was the inclusive welfare of all workers, undergirded by enhanced protections against their reduction to mere commodities in the labour market. 

The (19th Century or neo-) liberal welfare state, embodied in Britain and other English-speaking countries, such as the US, Canada and Australia, went to the other extreme, using the welfare state only to take on problems that the market seemed to have problems with, and definitely not seeing the status of workers as commodities as problematic in and of itself.

Not surprisingly, the liberal welfare states were both smaller than the others, and less successful in alleviating poverty. But even aside from that, the US was an outlier, as statistical comparisons have repeatedly revealed. Our continued lack of a universal healthcare system, 130 years after German conservatives first established one, is a striking indication of this outlier status. 

But it can also be seen, for example, in these two charts from Working Paper No 419, Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective (PDF) by Timothy Smeeding (October 2005). Another 2005 paper by Smeeding, LIS Working Paper No 426, “Government Programmes and Social Outcomes: The United States in Comparative Perspective”, contains tables comparing the US in 2000 to seven other countries in terms of poverty reduction. Although the US scores the worst overall, it does reasonably well for elders, while failing disastrously for children.

The overall level of poverty reduction, 28.3 per cent, is less than half of the average (61.8 per cent) and even less than half the next-lowest country, the Netherlands, which reduced poverty by 58.8 per cent. For elders living alone, we were still the worst, but the 57.7 per cent reduction rate was 85 per cent of the next-lowest rate, 68 per cent in Britain. This is much better than less than 50 per cent.

But of course, it means that we do far worse with reducing poverty for others – particularly families with children. For single-parent families, our poverty-reduction rate of 14.8 per cent is roughly 1/4 of the average at 52.6 per cent, and just over half the rate of the next-worse country, Canada, at 27 per cent. For two-parent families, our rate is 5.8 per cent, 1/8 of the average, 47.8 per cent and just over 1/4 the next-lowest country, the Netherlands at 20.2 per cent.

In short, so far as children are concerned, the US barely has a welfare state at all. Yet, conservatives rail about it as an alien, tyrannical bloodsucker, while neo-liberals only want to “trim” it, further privatise it, and make it “more efficient”.

But making it more effective? Sorry, that’s not on the table.

New ideological dyad?

As these comparisons show, it would be highly misleading to identify New Deal liberalism with social democracy. We have barely seen the shadow of social democracy in the US.

And yet, that is the dream that most inspires people in what the New Deal stood for: the ideal of a society that treats people like human beings, not commodities. This is the full meaning of what social democracy is all about. Yet, it requires enormous state effort, which Americans have very little faith in.

It is those who are best organised who will prevail even if street action leads to major political change.”

Robert Cruickshank, historian and policy analyst

This is a fundamental conflict at the heart of the Occupy movement. On the one hand, they are as sceptical of government as anyone else in the US. They see it as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street and the 1 per cent. 

And much of what I’ve written above completely supports them in this view. Their treatment by local Democratic mayors and other local officials only further discourages them from seeing conventional politics as a credible way forward. And yet, the side of the US they appeal to and want to see restored – the US as a land of freedom and opportunity for all – is precisely that which the New Deal best captured. Without government – no, without big government, that ideal has never even come close to being realised.

The way around this conflict is two-fold, I would argue. The first is, potentially at least, internal to the Occupy movement. It is to recognise and nurture a new sort of dialogue between two different ideologies, much more fruitful than the one that has dominated the US for the past 30 years.

This is a dialogue between social democracy and anarchism, the do-it-yourself, bottom-up, non-hierarchical philosophy of participatory democracy that has been put into daily practice in the hundreds of Occupy camps all across the US. The form that this dialogue might take is impossible to foresee. One can only say that both represent intelligent, if largely submerged traditions that deeply challenge the ideological dyad that has ill-served the US for so long.

The second way around this conflict is probably best envisioned as external to the Occupy movement, although it is closely connected to it. In a recent blog post, Occupy the Progressive Movement, historian and policy analyst Robert Cruickshank wrote:

Occupy alone won’t produce the changes we need in this country… The public wants action on inequality and wants to go after the 1 per cent. Progressives should walk through the door that Occupy opened – and they should be willing to work with anyone, Occupiers or not, who are interested in providing the leadership that is needed to make lasting change happen.

Cruickshank went on to remind us that “it is those who are best organised who will prevail even if street action leads to major political change”.

This often plays out as the hijacking of broad-based idealist movements by more cynical and established operators – the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Islamists in the Iranian revolution of 1979, and – at least it seems for now, also in the Egyptian Revolution begun in Tahrir Square. But it doesn’t always have to be this way – particularly if those drawn into the struggle are more genuinely aligned with those who sparked it.

This is where the second way around Occupy’s conflicted view of government connects with the first. If activists of all stripes can resist the tendency to grab onto one vision, one ideology, one pathway to truth, and instead cultivate an appreciation of ideological dialogue, then we may really be onto something.

We do not all have to take the same path to be on the same journey together. And if this doesn’t always seem to make sense strategically, as a matter of logos, it surely appeals to our common longings. We must weave together a many-sided mythos with room enough within it to be a home to all of us, not just in the US, but around the ever-shrinking globe we all share.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.