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.
Still, something has changed, and the authors’ narrative didn’t see it coming.
At the same time, one can find other works that avoid forcing such a linear, homogeneous interpretation over American political tradition, and, investigating more defined and narrow aspects of it, help us to understand the current situation better. Two authors above all, Rick Perlstein and Richard Hofstadter.
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus chronicles the birth 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 build a new, successful, dominant paradigm (Reaganism).
Other invaluable insights can be found in Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Social Darwinism in American Thought, and The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It.
Unlike those works, The Right Nation‘s thesis, instead, sounded convincing during the Bush era, when it was published and when Dem politicians were anonymous, while now the situation has reversed: Dems dominate the political discourse, and traditional conservatives have become anonymous. We’ve now seen the Goldwater style both radicalizing and transitioning from the political underground to the mainstream, with the Tea Party and Trump, and virtually all 2015 GOP candidates having more radical views and a much more unsophisticated way of talking 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 (redemptive constitutionalism, Liberalism as reframed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others) 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‘s thesis). 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 professionals and affluents (let’s say the top 20%, down to upper middle class) have been gradually shifting to publicly support the Dem narrative, abandoning the Right side (both the affluent and the college-educated vote were traditionally mostly Republican). 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 metropolitan professionals (the world’s WEIRDest demographic), plus what they see as “the minorities”, which is little more than a process of market segmentation (the excluded segments are ignored or seen with contempt).
The values of New York and California, the two main driving hubs in the innovation economy (finance, tech and entertainment), 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 metropolitans.
It’s a very particular situation, where some clearly post-modern ideas have managed to become dominant, constantly discussed and repeated in the mainstream (way more than in Europe), as a sort of surrogate for a real social-democratic debate, but nothing in the pro-corporations, pro-big business, 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“.
So we’re seeing Dems dominating the debate on social policies and everyone talking about “the great stagnation”, but nobody seriously talking about monopolies, big lobbies and re-thinking big business. If the argument keeps on being untouched, the next logical step could be 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 perfectly aligns with the philosophy we can find in The Federalist Papers – one could say it’s a traditionally ‘conservative’ (in the American sense) opinion.
But, starting with the Bush years, we’ve seen the opposite happening. That traditional, decentralized, agreeing to disagree way of thinking isn’t 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-status 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 not being promiscuous, 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.
Because of the cognitive elite taking their side, Dems are also increasingly monopolizing “expertise”, and thus rational solutions, while, also thanks to the massively influential online disinformation polluting everything in this social networking era, lots of others are increasingly rejecting it, falling into the spiral of populism and paranoia.
So the ideological radicalization is symptomatic of a larger and larger class divide, which doesn’t follow the line of the Dems’ demographic segmentations, but is across-the-board instead (here you can watch Murray and Putnam debating the topic and agreeing on this point).
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 shift that changed the equilibrium. So this is still a very informative book, but there are too many ignored or “fixed” (retrospective coherence for argument’s sake) inconsistencies, and new factors 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, 4) the top 20%, 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, so more distinctions are necessary when talking about both.