Consistency is the …

by on December 12, 2017 in Politics

Well, at least I am being consistent. Whether that’s being a good thing or not I will leave to you to figure out.

David Brooks set me off on a rant a few days ago, and he’s doing it again. I have to stop reading his columns. Last time it was about the rotting Republican Party: Brooks is one of those people who realized way too late that the GOP of yore disappeared long ago and has been replaced by a mash-up of far right cause driven groups smeared together with a good dose of corporatism. A good example being Trump who managed to win the last election by appealing to enough disgruntled and disaffected voters with exhilarating visions of smashing up the ossified Washington consensus and replacing it with something more responsive to everyday voter needs. Except, as we now know, Trump is every inch a corporatist and has absolutely no intention of following through on his promises. I must admit I admire the loyalty of his supporters who have yet to realize the extent of his betrayal of their support. It must be that they mistake the cloud of dust raise by his myopic corporate driven incompetence for the tearing down of what was there before. Even the giveaway of the tax plan hasn’t shaken made the message sink in: Trump is out for himself, not them.

In any case, back to Brooks.

He typifies the disorder of the old fashioned centrists. He longs for a past where polite conservatives and equally polite liberals could discuss issues calmly over a good glass of wine in some DC bar or restaurant and then pass what they saw as bi-partisan legislation with an air of intellectual gravitas suited to their Ivy League backgrounds. In his column today he berates the contemporary left for being radical and dangerously destructive in the same way as his reviled Trumpian nemesis is. He equates left and right radicalism: in his view they both miss the point. What is needed, he argues, is not the destruction of our modern institutions, but their repair.

That’s all well and good. I agree.

But, and this is where Brooks and his ilk get me started, he completely slides by the one-sided nature of the origins of today’s radicalism. He even hints at it in his column. He says with some surprise that today’s leftish radicals are not exactly Marxist, and that they don’t reject things like meritocracy in the way that their 1930s or 1960s forbears would have done.

The clues to the blindspot in his thinking is found in the following paragraphs:

“Technological innovation has created wonders but displaced millions of workers. The meritocracy has unleashed talent but widened inequality. Immigration has made America more dynamic but weakened national cohesion. Globalization has lifted billions out of poverty but pummeled the working classes in advanced nations.

What’s needed is reform of our core institutions to address the bad byproducts, not fundamental dismantling.

That sort of renewal means doing the opposite of everything the left/right radicals do. It means believing that life can be more like a conversation than a war if you open by starting a conversation. It means collectively focusing on problems and not divisively destroying people. It means believing that love is a genuine force in human affairs and that you can be effective by appealing to the better angels of human nature.”

I have highlighted the giveaway.

What all centrists working in the post-Reagan era cannot understand is that the consequence of their centrism, well-intentioned though it might have been, is today’s social division. People’s lives were destroyed, and the centrists hid from the fact until too late. There is a straight line between the centrist surrender to neoliberal policies and today’s massive and rising inequality and insecurity. The consistent and insistent pro-corporate legislative agenda of the last few decades and the incessant shift to the right implied in that consistency have produced a society at odds with itself, and an economy incapable of delivering the kind of opportunity and mobility so lauded in the post-war American myth. The startling rise in the share of income going to a few; the dominance of profit over wages; and the steady meltdown of the ability of aspiration to be met by reality all tell the same tale. The high ground in America was surrendered to corporate capitalism and the centrists allowed our institutions, especially democratic responsiveness to the majority, to weaken into ineffectiveness.

As this slide was allowed to accelerate through the entire post-Reagan era the centrists unknowingly started to meld into the corporatist class themselves. They benefited from the pace of innovation, from immigration, and from the concentration of wealth so they became blind to the social disintegration unfolding before them. Instead of adapting to the new circumstances they dug deeper into their defenses. They criticized the majority for being unskilled, uncivilized, unworldly, and anti-globalist. And by so doing they fostered the very radicalism Brooks so dislikes.

Most Americans are not opposed to innovation, immigration, or social change. They are adaptable. They understand the benefits of all those things. But when the pace of change overwhelms the protection of the institutions they rely on to preserve their way of life, and when the remedy offered by the centrists is not to revitalize those institutions but to disregard their ineffectiveness and even to dismantle them, then a radical reaction is a natural consequence.

Centrists, by their very nature, are hardly the people to lead renovation or renewal. They are too committed to the status quo ante. Nor do they surrender their hold over the institutions they helped construct that easily. And when they become complicit in a long term project like Reagansim, as the Clinton wing of the Democrats and the Blairite wing of the Labour Party did in the 1990s, they fail to defend the center and are swept along in a tide they cannot stop. Instead of standing firm in defense of centrist principles, as Brooks imagines they do, they become flotsam on a tide drifting at its behest. No longer in control centrists become the puppets of the project they unleashed. In our case that project was based on the radical and illusory antisocial vision of libertarians like Hayek and Friedman. And since it was inherently antisocial it is no surprise that it has wrought great social damage.

Little wonder, too, that the reaction offends centrists like Brooks. Since he has failed consistently to diagnose the problem ailing America, he is reduced to repetitious lament and a false nostalgia for a bygone era that centrists like himself are to blame for banishing into history.

Yes, we need to restore our institutions to full health. No, our current crop of centrists are not the people to do that. Not, at least, until they embrace the role they played in creating the mess we are in.

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