It Can Happen Here, Actually
If you haven’t read former TAC executive editor Robert Merry’s piece today about how America might actually elect a socialist president, please stop whatever you’re doing and take a look. You might not know that Bob was previously the editor of Congressional Quarterly, and has already forgotten more than most of us will ever know about politics. Take his piece very seriously. He writes, in part:
Axiom 4: In today’s divided America, political decision making resides on a knife’s edge of parity.
Trump won the presidency in 2016 by collecting just enough votes in just the right states to cadge an Electoral College victory. That means we’re operating these days on the margin of politics. Even quite small swings in just a few states could turn the next election against him. And Trump, with his lack of success so far in expanding his base beyond his current 39 to 43 percent approval level, doesn’t project the kind of political force that would make him a strong reelection candidate.
None of this is a prediction. A lot could happen over the next two years. But the idea that the Democrats are killing their prospects for 2020 by lurching leftward isn’t based on sound analytical thinking. The four axioms above suggest that the dynamics of American politics are more complex than that.
So it’s possible that the country could get, for the first time in its history, an experiment in socialist governance, mixed with a far-left push on high-voltage social issues such as immigration, political correctness, and racial politics. That would be a recipe for failure, leaving the country even more desperate for political leadership to restore stability.
The other day, the NYT published an interesting piece about younger Britons, and why so many of them are keen on socialism. It starts like this:
Alex McIntyre was raised on budget cuts.
The youth center where he went after school was shuttered when he was 10. When he was 11, his mother’s housing benefit was shaved away, a casualty of the Welfare Reform Act. By the time the streetlight in his cul-de-sac began blinking off at midnight a few years later, these events had knitted together into a single story, about a government policy that had defined his childhood.
“Austerity, that’s what I know, that’s my life,” said Mr. McIntyre. “I’ve never known an England that was a different way.”
Now 19 and old enough to vote, Mr. McIntyre is making up for lost time. Over the last six months, he was drawn into the center of the Momentum movement, an ideological marketplace buzzing with rebranded socialism and trade unionism. His parents may have gotten their news from The Sun and The Daily Mail, but he listens to reports on the “crisis of capitalism” from Novara Media, a left-wing independent media group. Over Christmas he started reading Marx.
Mr. McIntyre is the first in his family to attend college, part of a vast cohort of young Britons that was meant to embody upward social mobility. It is a paradox that so many in this bulge, like their counterparts in the United States, are giving up on free-market capitalism, convinced it cannot provide their families with a decent life.
The general election of 2017 exposed the starkest generation gap in the recent history of British politics. Young voters broke dramatically for the Labour Party, whose socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has promised to rebuild the welfare state and redistribute wealth. Hardened against the centrists of their parents’ generation, they have tugged the party to the left, opening up rifts that are now fracturing Labour.
Keep in mind that the UK has been a welfare state since the Second World War, far more than the US has been. Still:
Unlike previous generations, they are expected to foot the bill for an expensive education. The average graduate now owes the government more than 50,800 pounds, or $64,000, a debt to be paid back gradually upon securing a well-paid job, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The portion of Britons attending college has climbed to 49 percent, the highest level ever, but they will graduate into a historic spell of wage stagnation.
Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, recalled Margaret Thatcher’s thesis about homeownership: By allowing low-income Britons to buy the state housing they rented, she could make them into stakeholders in market capitalism, enlarging the Tory Party. With his students, realizing in their 20s that they are not likely ever to own a home, that process has been thrown into reverse.
“All the risk has been shifted onto them,” he said. “They know this is not the situation their parents and grandparents were in. You’ve got a generation since the crisis with lower mobility and lower security. It makes them less convinced that the market delivers good outcomes.”
I understand why young people like McIntyre despair of capitalism, but what I don’t understand is why they believe that socialism will solve their problems.
Wait, let me rephrase that: I can understand why people who know nothing about the history of socialism would think that socialism is an answer (socialism, as distinct from a modified form of capitalism). Where are the successful socialist economies? Do they really think Scandinavian political economy can work outside of Scandinavia, with its communalist traditions and relative homogeneity? Besides, as the democratic socialist writer Michael A. McCarthy writes in Jacobin, the social democracies of Scandinavia are a good first step on the road to socialism, but they are not the same thing as socialism.
I know, I know, these arguments can easily become overly intellectual in the face of declining economic and social mobility prospects. Does a young man like McIntyre, or his US counterpart, really care about the distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism? All he knows is that he won’t live as well as his parents, for reasons outside of his control.
As you regular readers know, for me, the more worrying aspect of the rise of socialism is the cultural egalitarianism and soft totalitarianism that is inseparable from actual, existing leftism today, whether of the social democratic or democratic socialist kind. I don’t have a book deal yet, but I’m already working on the manuscript for my next book, which will be lessons about socialism from people who lived through it in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The first two chapters after the introduction are about how and why it could happen here — and why Republicans and other defenders of capitalism had better take income inequality and lack of social mobility far more seriously than they do, if they want to avoid a socialist future.
There are right-of-center thinkers already doing this. Ross Douthat’s column today is an excellent summary of where they’re headed. It’s hard to find a part to excerpt, because it’s all such vital reading. In short, Douthat highlights new books by Tim Carney and Oren Cass, and a couple of new essays by former TAC editor Daniel McCarthy, and by Gladden Pappin. In the essays, McCarthy and Pappin argue for a kind of American Gaullism — that is, for conservatives to give up on the idea of limited government (which doesn’t work anymore, for historical and economic reasons), and instead embrace the idea that the Right should use the state for conservative ends. If you think that “conservative ends” means making America safe for big business, then you really should read McCarthy and Pappin (links are in the Douthat essay) to be disabused of that notion.
And the most subtle reader might say that they’re trying to provide the theory for a move that the Republican Party once in power tends to make anyway — both of the last two G.O.P. presidents have been, in some sense, “big government conservatives” — but so far without the strategy, seriousness and self-consciousness required to make the project a success.
I have enough of my own skepticism about the efficacy of state power to be uncertain if the project can succeed. But post-Trump conservatives are likely to be drawn to state-power conservatism not just by theoretical ambition but by a sense of political necessity.
The earlier conservative self-understanding, in which the right was defending nongovernmental institutions against the power of the state, tacitly depended on the assumption that many if not most nongovernmental institutions would be friendly to conservative values. But as civil society has decayed over recent decades, its remaining power centers have also become increasingly left-wing.
Already-liberal institutions — universities, Hollywood, the big foundations and the mass media — are now more uniformly allied with the left than even the very recent past. Corporate America happily donates to Republicans because it fears a Bernie Sanders presidency, but on cultural issues big business courts its younger customers with progressive lobbying and propaganda. In religion, Catholicism under Pope Francis aspires (scandals permitting) to ease its way leftward as well, leaving evangelical Christianity as an isolated bastion with little culture-shaping power.
Yet conservatives can still win the White House and the Congress, which means that the one power center they can hope to control is the one they are notionally organized to limit — the administrative state.
My conservatism is almost entirely cultural (religious, social). Most of my culturally conservative friends are Christians who are appalled by Trump, but who reluctantly plan to vote for him mostly because they see the judiciary as the only restraining force against militant social progressivism over the next couple of decades. In other words, the only institution capable of protecting to any degree religious and social conservatives from widely institutionalized, militant progressivism will be … federal judges.
The main focus of my forthcoming book will be on the culture of totalitarianism, defined by Augusto Del Noce as a society in which everything is politicized (which means that totalitarianism can exist within a democracy). The forces of progressive soft totalitarianism — by which I mean, generally, totalitarianism without a police state — are mounting in this culture. People living here who once lived under hard totalitarianism see the signs of it everywhere — but these signs are hidden from the rest of us, in part because we think of totalitarianism as something that requires gulags. It’s not true.
Anyway, more on that later. The point here is that Bob Merry is right: real economic suffering, plus political volatility, can lead America to vote in a socialist president. I happen to think Trump’s plan to run against the prospect of socialism makes sense, though Americans ought to understand that “socialism” today is not merely a matter of political economy, but also entails a much broader worldview that is inimical to orthodox Christianity and to tradition. That’s an argument for a later time.
What I hope, though, is that enough smart Republicans are reading Cass, Carney, McCarthy, Pappin, Carlson, and other innovative thinkers on the Right, and will get their heads in the game in time to prevent a socialist president. The tragedy looming is that Trump’s incompetence at governing will prevent a true American Gaullist from rising, except down the road, in reaction to actual far-left Democratic Party rule.