Walter Russell Mead on the economic challenges to our political system

Walter Russell Mead’s latest post on the future of liberalism looks at why the Democratic blue model doesn’t work in American politics anymore, and for good measure he also discusses the reasons that the Republican model won’t work either.  Mead uses the term “liberalism” broadly to refer to the Anglo-American political tradition that began with resistance to absolutism (see my summary here), so by his definition most Americans would be either 3.0 liberals (who emphasize economic freedom and individualism) or 4.0 liberals (who advocate a more powerful state to manage the economic and social challenges of the industrial age).

To set up his point, he lays out five things that Americans want from their candidates:

  • “physical safety for themselves, their loved ones and their property” from foreign enemies and domestic criminals
  • improvement in standard of living: “Most of American history has worked out this way; on average, each successive generation has lived about twice as well as its parents.  This is what Americans think ‘normal’ is; this is what they think the United States should be doing.  If our living standards aren’t perceptibly rising, somebody is messing up.”
  • “honor”: “they want to feel free, equal and in charge of their own lives.  They don’t like plutocrats, snooty social hierarchies, privileged hereditary ruling elites, or intellectual and moral elites telling them how to live.”
  • “Americans want to feel that the United States of America is on track to fulfill its global mission,” the content of which is greatly contested.
  • “Finally, Americans want to believe that all four of their goals work together: that defending their security, promoting their prosperity, preserving their freedom and equality and fulfilling their world mission are all part of an integrated package and world view — and that the commonsense reasoning of the average American can understand the way the pieces fit together.”

For much of the 20th century, Mead writes, the “blue model” of Liberalism 4.0 delivered this for the electorate, as illustrated by the fact that Eisenhower, the only Republican elected between 1932 and 1968, governed in this same framework.

I wrote in my last post that we probably can’t go back to the postwar period of American economic dominance.  Mead believes that in this period of changing economic times we can’t go back to the past circumstances in which Republican 3.0 liberalism or Democratic 4.0 liberalism worked.  Late 19th-century laissez-faire was based on an agricultural economy, high tariffs, and wide-open immigration.  More pointedly, I think, the postwar period that was the golden age for modern Democrats is not easily recoverable:

But if 3.0 fundamentalism can’t bring back the agrarian utopia or the industrial conditions of the 19th century, blue fundamentalism won’t help us either.  There is no going back to 1962.  The Blue Social Model of 20th century,  the great achievement of 4.0 liberalism, was  rooted in conditions that we cannot replicate today.  Between World War One and the 1970s – the years in which 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 the two world wars and the Great Depression.  And the United States was so far ahead of the rest of the world in manufacturing (especially after almost European and Japanese factories were destroyed in World War Two) that few American companies (or workers) had anything to fear from foreign competition.  Capital was much 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 twentieth century were more willing to engage in group politics than many of us are today.  Industrial workers fought to build unions — and generally voted the way their leaders advised them.  Ethnic groups stuck together and voted as blocs more than most of them do now.  4.0 politics generally involved negotiated agreements among party bosses and other leaders who commanded loyal followings; not many politicians today can count on this kind of unquestioning support and party structures and patronage networks are both weaker and less reliable than they used to be.

Instead, Mead believes, both 3.0 and 4.0 liberalism actually made themselves irrelevant:

The successes of 3.0 led to its decline: rising agricultural productivity ultimately drove millions of farmers off the land; the high tariffs helped attract tens of millions of immigrants; ideas and institutions developed in a homogeneous, egalitarian and predominantly agricultural country no longer worked very well in an industrial, urban country threatened by class conflict.

The same thing happened to 4.0.  Our successful manufacturing economy led us to push for free trade; that stimulated other countries to export to US markets and generated the kind of financial flows that undermined the nation-based Keynesian economic models of the 4.0 econ wizards.  The rising affluence of Americans facilitated their mass migration into the suburbs where the old party organizations and ethnic and tribal loyalties broke down.  More affluent and better educated voters were more individualistic and saw the system of party bosses as an obstacle to democracy rather than as a way of making it work.

Neither 3.0 nor 4.0 was stabbed in the back; they both died of success.  Each version created a social system and an economy so dynamic and so inventive that ultimately the country outgrew them.  Our success changed the world – and that meant we had to reinvent ourselves to prosper in the world we ourselves had done so much to make.  We cannot turn back the clock – nor should we try.  America’s job in the world is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past.

I’m not sure about that last flourish (time will tell, and God may have far different plans), but I think that Mead has the best grasp of anyone that I have read on the economic side of our national challenges.  His weakness is probably that he minimizes the culture war dynamics that affect our politics.  There’s a brief part at the end of the post that suggests that the “progressive” cultural changes will be permanent, but I think that the culture war colors the economic debate in ways that I haven’t seen him explore.


One comment

  1. Mead wrote: “In a big-picture, broad-brush way, the American people by and large have a Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and we want our political leaders to meet them all.

    That seems to be the essential problem with liberalism v4.0 — the use of the government to meet all of our needs. Indeed, I suspect Mead will lead us down the path of compromising at least some of the “Maslovian” needs he selected because that attitude is infeasible.

    It also seems like a strawman to say that v3.0s (reps) or v4.0s (dems) want to bring back a past time as it was. In my experience, nostalgic desire is almost always intended to reassert a former aspect, emphasis, or principled prioritization in a modern context, not the totality of the past.

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