This book, while well written and balanced, was originally published in 2004 and clearly missed some pieces of the puzzle.
2009-2017 has been the Obama era. Democrat, afro-american. The next President will most likely be H. Clinton, Democrat, woman, wife of a Dem ex-President.
It’s clear that Dems now represent the mainstream and dominant US culture.
But are Dems “the Left”? Not by any European standard, as the authors demonstrate.
On the topic of the Right tradition in America and its progressive radicalism, Rick Perlstein and Richard Hofstadter works go a little bit more in depth.
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus chronicles the birth of a “new” type of modern conservatism, a reaction to the 1960s Democratic cultural revolution, and a resurgence of the populist, paranoid tradition well described in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. And The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan chronicles in detail how that tradition was absorbed by the Republicans to create a new, successful, dominant paradigm (Reaganism).
But there’s something missing. If the book’s thesis can sound convincing coming from the Bush era, where Dem politicians were anonymous, now the situation has reversed: Dems dominate the political discourse, and traditional conservatives have become anonymous. We’ve now seen the Goldwater tradition transitioning from the political underground to the mainstream, with the Tea Party and Trump, and virtually all the 2015 GOP candidates having more radical views than anyone in the recent past. On the other hand, a slow but steady Dem resurgence was happening during the Bush years, culminating with Obama taking office.
Bill Clinton and his “third way” position were able to reconcile the 60s Dem ideas with the new Reagan paradigm. It was a big win, a perfect representation of the seemingly global conclusive triumph of the American model after USSR’s collapse (The End of History). So much that, shortly after him, in the UK Blair made a traditionally “Left” party acquire a more Right identity, with the masses rewarding the decision. Since then, the contemporary professional and affluent elites have been gradually shifting to publicly support the Dem narrative, abandoning the traditional Right. And this is a change with gargantuan implications.
If one looks close enough, the Dem culture doesn’t really represent the lower classes, but the affluent metropolitan professionals (the world’s WEIRDest demographic), plus what they see as “the minorities”, determined in an arbitrary way through a process of “market segmentation”, where the excluded segments are instead seen with contempt (which in turn pushes those guys to embrace the populist, paranoid style).
The values of New York (finance) and California (tech and entertainment), the two main driving hubs in the innovation economy, in a situation where most of the country’s real incomes have been stagnating for decades, have easily become the model to emulate for the rest of the affluents.
It’s a very particular situation, where some of the most radical post-modern ideas have managed to become dominant, constantly discussed and repeated in the mainstream (way more than in Europe), but nothing in the pro-corporations, pro-competition, pro-careerism paradigm has softened, going back to resemble the Reagan years now more than ever instead. A strange marriage between the two has occurred (I guess Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, even if written from a marxist perspective, had a great point), and what’s happening outside of this formula is incomprehensible by the ones inside of it – all that stuff is just “on the wrong side of history“.
If this keeps on being the mainstream paradigm, the next logical step could be solving the tension between larger-State supporters and business elites with a decline towards crony capitalism, against which we’ve already been warned by Rajan & Zingales.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge gave an important warning too, on p. 387:
But in general the federal government should err on the side of caution on issues where reasonable people can disagree […] It should recognize that different communities have different views on both politics and morals […] And it should try, as far as possible, to allow those communities to make decisions for themselves, rather than forcing them to bow to Washington. Agreeing to disagree offers the country the best chance of avoiding an endless culture war in which each side uses the federal government to force its views on the other.
This opinion reflects a correct understanding of the American political tradition and The Federalist Papers – one could say it’s a traditionally conservative opinion.
But, starting with the Bush years, we’ve seen the opposite happening. That traditional, decentralized, agreeing to disagree way of thinking isn’t that popular anymore, and opinions have started to radicalize.
A piece of the puzzle is, in my opinion, that the world normally represented by the traditional, non-paranoid, non-money obsessed old Right values (religion, community, nuclear families, defense, etc.) gave a sense of belonging and social cohesiveness to the non-metropolitans (something Dems and metropolitans are quick to dismiss or ignore), but has gradually disappeared (see Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community). And the ironic thing is that the most likely ones to live by those values now, no matter what they publicly say, are exactly the affluents: they’re the ones having stable marriages, benefiting from a cohesive and rich social network, sharing their days with similar people only, and living in a safe environment that isolates them from crime – a point also observed by Charles Murray in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.
With no belief in the alternatives (the Dem narrative or the metropolitan/big business style), a lack of a socially enriching sense of community, globalization and the 2008 crisis, stagnation and rising inequality (thus lack of faith in the system), life can easily lose meaning for the non-metropolitan non-affluent ones, a situation asking for trouble (decadence and fertility decline in the best case scenario; radical ideologies, extremism and violence in the worst).
It’s difficult to imagine the US easily fixing an apparently inevitable growing ideological divide, where both sides see each other with increasing hostility – and this in turn will make effective reforms impossible.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge did a good job explaining why we can’t label the Dem position as “the Left” (that’s why I use the word Dem instead of Left), since the US political spectrum has always been narrow – and they correctly identify religion, capitalism and geography as the three main reasons preventing mainstream expansions to both the “real” Left and the far Right.
But they tried to make too much of a “linear” argument for a more complex situation, and didn’t predict the incoming historical shift that changed the equilibrium. So this is still a very informative book, but there are too many new variables that make it outdated now:
1) the Right Nation is inherently right-wing but isn’t that cohesive anymore – there’s an increasing ideological divide, 2) even in the US, some of the traditional right-wing (social, much more than economic) values are in crisis, 3) the mainstream culture has become Dem-dominated, with Dem’s value proposition massively betting on “the minorities” and winning battle after battle, 4) the elites, increasingly disconnected from the masses, supported the turn, which included dismissing many old values as wrecks of the past (but keeping on living their private lives largely following or benefiting from them instead), 5) the big absent in the US spectrum has historically always been a “real” Left, but the other big absent in recent times has started to be the traditional, non-crazy Right. While the only big winners have been the WEIRDs.