The Conscience of a Liberal

Despite modern liberalism’s sweeping scope, no one seems to know quite what it is. Liberalism appeared somewhere in the sixteenth century—“St. George, in the guise of Rationality,” as Kenneth Minogue puts it—to slay the dragons of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. Centuries later, liberalism slew the dragons of slavery, poverty, and later “the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence.” When an ideology is defined by fighting for causes, however, its success is followed necessarily by its own extinction. With exceedingly few dragons remaining, then, intellectual liberalism faces some level of discomfort.

In response, liberal columnist and economist Paul Krugman proposes in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal, that liberalism be defined by a commitment to preserving and extending the objectives of the New Deal. Specifically, Krugman’s liberalism is principally concerned with the task of reducing wealth inequality. Krugman, Paul (2009). The Conscience of a Liberal (p. 267). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. More important than liberalism’s ends, however, are the means Krugman proposes to achieve them. Neither society nor economics fit the bill, according to Krugman.  No choice is left, then, but to employ coercive government action: “Middle-class societies don’t emerge automatically as an economy matures, they have to be created through political action. . . . It took FDR and the New Deal to bring [a relatively equal] society into being.” Id. at 18.

However, Krugman fails to establish that the substantial federal government intervention of the New Deal and its legacy was or is necessary to bring about a healthy and diverse middle class. At most, he argues the New Deal accelerated those changes—not that they were otherwise impossible. In fact, although Krugman acknowledges that the New Deal could not have been successful without World War II, he fails to discuss whether World War II’s profound stimulative effect on the economy could not have been successful without the New Deal.

More importantly, Krugman also fails to establish that the animal he proposes to slay is even a dragon at all. Despite Krugman’s emphatic denunciation of the top one percent of this country’s earners, he offers no analysis of the increase in wealth and improvement in living standards in absolute terms for the rest of Americans. Krugman thus fails to establish that current wealth distribution is either procedurally unfair or substantively problematic.

Krugman’s narrative begins with what he refers to as the “Long Gilded Age” from the 1870s to the 1930s. Sorely missing from Krugman’s historical account, however, is a treatment of the Progressive era from the 1890s to 1920. The omission is conspicuous given the popular association between Progressivism and modern liberalism. To be fair, liberalism is more closely associated with the New Deal legacy than the Progressive legacy. The Progressives’ campaign against individual rights—advocating forced sterilization and eugenics, among other things—ultimately led even FDR to distance himself from the movement.  In its early stages, Progressivism was a reaction to the decline of Victorian values, sagging under the weight of an increasingly industrialized and fractured American society.  Campaigns to stem the uptick of divorce, prostitution, and drink resulted in our nation’s first flopped constitutional amendment.  Progressives also were content to use the power of their new labor unions to exclude blacks and immigrants from entire industries.

However, Progressivism and liberalism do share at least two important traits. First, Progressivism was, like liberalism, a moral movement that sought to engineer a more perfect community of man. The Progressive moral project, although conservative in its early years, became notorious for its secular objectives. Second and more importantly, Progressivism was not content to influence society at merely the state and local levels—it promoted its agenda on a national scale. In these two qualities, liberalism resumed the Progressive project: it advanced a secular agenda in conjunction with social science theory and experimentation, and made the national proliferation of these policies the bedrock of its platform.

In A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, Michael McGerr outlines the social, political, and economic forces giving rise to the Progressive movement.  By the late 19th century, American individualism, loosed across a vast continent connected by an unprecedented network of rail and telegraph wire, was putting unbearable strain on America’s underlying social fabric.  Divorce rates following the Civil War inclined steeply as high society became obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and self-aggrandizement.  While the Victorians had balanced individual freedom with self-control, hard work, and domesticity, the wealthy’s indulgent secular streak redefined individualism to legitimize inequality. From their perspective, their parties “helped the economy because ‘many New York shops sold out brocades and silks which had been lying in their stock-rooms for years.’”  The wealthy, however, did not seem to acknowledge the growing resentment their social inferiors felt toward them. Teddy Roosevelt tried to stave off the coming revolt, noting that social and political stability impel the wealthy to observe certain “duties toward the public.”  “Do they not realize that they are putting a very heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?”  “I wish that capitalists would see that what I am advocating is really in the interest of property, for it will save it from the danger of revolution.”

The extravagance of the upper 10 percent during the depression years of the 1890s galvanized populist resentment. Industrial work was distantly attenuated from its product, and thus the traditional agrarian work ethic, like the traditional agrarians themselves, began to wane. Victorian individualism became impossible for the lower classes as many workers could not make enough money to support themselves or their families.

Despite all this, the spirit of equality prevailed. Those workers who could afford to save declined to do so and instead indulged in the finer things just as the wealthy did. “If my lady wears a velvet gown, put together for her in an East Side sweatshop,” a reporter in New York observed in 1898, “may not the girl whose fingers fashioned it rejoice her soul by astonishing Grand Street with a copy of it next Sunday? My lady’s in velvet, and the East Side girl’s is the cheapest, but it’s the style that counts. In this land of equality, shall not one wear what the other wears?” Booker T. Washington also documented this burgeoning sense of entitlement to material wealth, irrespective of the means to acquire it. He expressed concern that humble families who shared a single fork among four people nonetheless boasted organs and sewing machines and fine clocks purchased on installments. Shopping also became a leisure activity.

This rise of hedonistic individualism hastened the decline of Victorian values as well as marriages, as spouses began judging their mates in terms of material pleasures and the happiness of the marriage. McGerr states that “The failure to meet those increased expectations was a principal reason for the increasing breakup of Victorian marriages.”

This new form of individualism came as a result of a growingly diffuse economy in which labor and consumption had become only distantly and obliquely related.  Industrial work was attenuated from its product, and thus the traditional agrarian work ethic, like the traditional agrarians themselves, began to wane.  The American laborer no longer provided his own essentials of survival, but instead deposited his effort into a vast and complex economic machine.  His yield, his “wage,” served as the only symbol of his output, a rebuttable presumption of the value of his labor.  And, as his commercial appetites continued to increase, American workers started to rebut the presumption.  The wage system was being thrown into upheaval:  if the market would not set a wage sufficient to meet the American worker’s standard of living, he would set it himself.  “It seems to me that when a man, my father, works all day long, he ought to have a beautiful home, he ought to have good food, he too ought to get a chance to appreciate beautiful music.”  Thus formed a new basis for “individual rights” in American politics.

Industrialization drew Americans out of the farms and into cities. Though farms often provided mere subsistence living, they also gave Americans pride and fulfillment.  Cities and their factories offered a markedly different experience, however, making working class Americans increasingly discontent. Individualism became a natural target.

Conservative activists took aim. Social Gospel leader Washington Gladden, for example, traced prostitution to middle- and upper-class affluence, as young men increasingly began to put off marriage “until they are able to support a wife in good style.” When people postponed marriage, Gladden argued, “one of the inevitable consequences is the increase of social immorality.” “The morality of what we call our respectable classes needs toning up all along this line.”

It is this sentiment—that “morality . . . needs toning up”—that represents the conservative contribution to Progressivism:  as new social, political, and economic forces began to disrupt cultural and moral values, many conservatives sought to push back in kind not merely to curtail those effects, but to counteract them.  Man and his moral character were no longer something to be left to the sole province of himself and his community; they must be “toned up” and remade through the law.  Under the Progressive construction of man’s moral predicament, man was no longer accountable for his own actions.  Because people were malleable and defined by their environment, criminals were not wholly to blame, since their crimes owed in part to the sins of society.  “What we have got to have,” said Gladden, “is a different kind of men and women.”

Thus, a renewed vigor for morals legislation ensued, directed at card playing, gambling, horse racing, Sabbath breaking, pornography, dance halls, contraception, and, most famously, liquor.  Liquor, more than all other vices, was seen as the root of man’s moral decline—particularly, the breakup of the family and the degradation of women.  The infamous Carry Nation excoriated the display of a nude painting in the bar of the Carey Hotel in Wichita. “Women are stripped of everything” by saloons, Nation fumed. “Her husband is torn from her, she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food and her virtue, and then they strip her clothes off and hang her up bare in these dens of robbery and murder. Well does a saloon make a woman bare of all things!”

Yet, Progressives quickly realized that prohibition of vices was not enough:  remaking man could not be achieved by negation alone—it would require an affirmative component.  Progressives thus found “substitutes for the saloon,” such as alcohol free clubs and dance halls, libraries and gymnasiums. In short, as McGerr puts it, “the transformation of individuals required a more sweeping transformation of their environment.” Progressives began to remake rather than merely preserve society.  Law was no longer just an anchor; it was also a sail. This lesson would later be carried over into modern liberalism.

This aspect of the Progressive agenda was clear by the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, who stated:  “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life. . . . Our problem is to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”  Progressivism had by this time become a different thing entirely than the post-Victorian conservatism from which it began.  Indeed, it could be said the project never was truly conservative in the first place, and that the lament of the decline of Victorian values was merely lip service to justify brewing radicalist urges.  Thus, perhaps even the prescriptive components of the early Progressive agenda were less about preserving Victorian values than preliminary efforts at remaking all of society—the symbols of Victorianism simply served as a convenient cover of authenticity for an otherwise radical movement.

Whatever their original intentions, Progressives eventually settled on an agenda that harmed conservative values. “Ironically,” McGerr puts it, “reform could destroy what it was intended to preserve. Crusading in the name of the home, reformers were supplanting the very thing they wanted to protect.” According to E.A. Ross, the Progressive agenda eroded man’s moral fiber:  “Too much consideration for moral weakness would fill the world with moral weaklings,” he insisted. “To abolish temptation is to deprive the self-controlled of their natural right to outlive and outnumber those who have a cotton string for a backbone.” Leisure, Kate Gannett Wells contended in an 1891 essay “Why More Girls Do Not Marry,” bred discontent: “Fifty years ago the woman was too busy to stop for the morning kiss as her husband went to work.  Now she has time to think about the absence or infrequency of the greeting for half an hour before she reads the morning paper, in which she finds some fresh instance of man’s wickedness.”

American industrialization in the early 20th century, contributing to the social and political forces underlying the Progressive movement, appeared to be following the economic cycle described by Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets. “Kuznets’ Curve,” as it is known, posits that the early stages of industrial development presents increasing investment opportunities for those with capital. That industrial development forces wages down as cheap rural labor floods into the cities. Industrialization thus amplifies inequality. Eventually, however, these forces level out: “capital becomes more abundant, the flow of workers from the farms dries up, wages begin to rise, and profits level off or fall. Prosperity becomes widespread, and the economy becomes broadly middle class.” Krugman at 45.

This is not what happened in America, according to Krugman, who instead credits the New Deal with creating the modern middle class.  He explains that the rich were no less dominant in 1937 than before World War I, but that in the next ten years, top incomes sharply declined. This sudden shift, Krugman says, is more indicative of sweeping economic policies—New Deal tax policies, in particular—than with the natural progression of economic cycles. The top income tax rate rose to 63% during FDR’s first term, 79% during the second, and 91% by the mid-‘50s. Billionaires (so-defined after adjusting for inflation) declined from 32 in 1925 to 16 in 1957 and to 13 in 1968. Today, Krugman observes, there are approximately 160. Krugman at 18. Krugman boasts that “[b]y the mid-fifties the real after-tax incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans were probably 20 or 30 percent lower than they had been a generation earlier. And the real incomes of the really rich—say, those in the top tenth of one percent—were less than half what they had been in the twenties.” Id. at 41.

FDR also dictated wages and prices to the private sector through the National War Labor Board. Employers were permitted to raise wages to 40 cents an hour without approval; wages up to 50 cents or more had to be approved by the NWLB or Washington, respectively, thus chilling highly paid employment. After the war was won, there was neither political will nor economic need to restore freedom to the private sector: as part of the successful war effort, FDR’s policies were popular, and American industries were able to make up the difference through access to new markets and economic hegemony. Thus, Dwight Eisenhower wrote in 1954 that “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. . . . Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

In fact, the basic egalitarianism set in motion by FDR persisted for more than 30 years. Krugman concludes this means “institutions, norms, and the political environment matter a lot more for the distribution of income—and that impersonal market forces matter less—than Economics 101 might lead you to believe.” Krugman at 8.

Of course, none of this is an argument that Kuznets was wrong—it simply explains that Kuznets’ Curve does not explain what happened in America, given the drastic economic intervention of the New Deal. Moreover, Krugman admits that prior to the New Deal, “modest moves toward a more equal society were already under way before the depression struck—not at the federal but at the state level.” Id. at 35. However, Krugman never attempts an argument that the curve would not have tended downward without the drastic and lasting measures implemented in the New Deal, even if not as quickly as Krugman might prefer. More importantly, Krugman never discusses the nature of wealth resulting from coercive national economic policy—i.e., whether and to what extent it was real or artificial, sustainable or transient.

Krugman also largely ignores the economic impact of World War II. Although he acknowledges “[t]he full transformation needed the special circumstances of World War II” (Id. at 51), he fails to discuss the effect of the heavy trend toward industrialization that persisted after the war, and the global economic hegemony American industry enjoyed following U.S. victory. The New Deal’s gamble in profligate spending ultimately paid off because of the war, but that result was by no means a foregone conclusion. In other words, it is quite likely that World War II did not simply enhance the New Deal, as Krugman suggests, but saved it altogether.

These gaps in the analysis become problematic when Krugman attempts to explain why things began falling apart by the ‘70s. Krugman hails the three decades following World War II, from the mid-forties to the mid-seventies, as “the golden age of manual labor.” A high school degree fetched as comfortable and secure a lifestyle as at any point in history. By the ‘60s, however, signs of strain began to appear. Crime more than tripled between 1957 and 1970. Welfare rolls doubled between 1956 and 1966, and more than doubled again in the “welfare explosion” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the New Deal saved America from the crushing income inequality of the Long Gilded Age, Krugman observes, America began to relapse.

Krugman posits two popular explanations for the growing divergence in wealth. One, economic in nature, is the rising demand for skilled labor, referred to as skill-biased technical change, or SBTC. Many economists attribute SBTC for rising income inequality, pointing to its timing with increasing computerization. The other explanation, political nature, is changes in institutions, norms, and political power.

Rejecting SBTC as an explanation, Krugman cites the insufficiency of “direct evidence” to prove its causal relationship with rising inequality. Krugman at 132-133. This is a strange objection given that “direct evidence” is rarely demanded or, indeed, available to explain macro-economic phenomena.

Nonetheless, Krugman embraces the political explanation. He emphasizes that the post-New Deal middle class largely relied upon “pattern wages” defined by wage settlements of large unions and corporations that “established norms for the economy as a whole.” Krugman at 138. Today, however, many large firms have succeeded at breaking away from pattern wages. Wal-Mart, for example, pays nonsupervisory employees about $18,000 a year, “less than half what GM workers were paid thirty-five years ago, adjusted for inflation.” Id. at 139. In contrast, by the early 2000s, U.S. CEOs’ average $9 million annual pay was 367 times the pay of the average worker, up from 40 times that pay in the 1970s. Id. at 142. This was able to occur because, as Krugman states, with apparent sincerity, “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.” Id. at 163.

Paranoia aside, this is basically an apples-to-oranges comparison indicative of an approach to labor as fundamentally moral rather than economic. There is not necessarily any economic reason to suspect that CEO pay and average worker pay will be tightly correlated. On the other hand, Krugman contends the disconnect may owe to a defect in the process of setting CEO compensation, as “top executives in effect set their own paychecks.” Thus, “neither the quality of the executives nor the marketplace for talent has any real bearing.” This might in part explain why CEO income has risen from about 30 times the average worker in 1970 to more than 300 times today. Krugman at 136. If this is true, Krugman argues, income inequality has been able to rise “not because of an increased demand for talent but because a variety of factors caused the death of outrage.” Id. at 144-145. This “shame factor” may be more prominent in European firms. Id. at 148.

Being a defense of liberalism as a political ideology, Krugman’s argument does not condemn income inequality on economic terms. And it is only near the end of the book, at page 244 of 274, that Krugman finally offers his ideological response to the question, “Why should we care about high and rising inequality?” Krugman offers two reasons. First, he argues that there has not been “clear economic progress for lower-and middle-income families” over the past 30 years. Id. at 244-245. “The fact that we’re even arguing about whether the typical American has gotten ahead,” Krugman insists, “tells you most of what you need to know. In 1973 there wasn’t a debate about whether typical Americans were better or worse off than they had been in the 1940s.” Id. at 126. This “in itself” calls for economic redistribution, he concludes. Id. at 245.

But how can the economic progress of the past 30 years not be clear? Steve Horwitz, for example, explains that readily available data, including from the U.S. Treasury and the Census Bureau, show a significant amount of real economic improvement among the poor in the past 30 years. Between 1996 and 2005, according to U.S. Treasury figures, 58.6% of the lowest quintile moved up at least one quintile, and 29.1% moved up multiple quintiles. Horwitz concludes from this data that “income mobility in the US is still alive and well, with at least half of poor families moving up a quintile in around ten years or so, and decent number moving two or more over that same time span.”

Aside from wages, all Americans enjoy access to the significant improvements of the past 30 years in technology, medicine, communication, home appliances, entertainment, and travel.  Each of these improvements significantly improve the quality of American lives. It is not obvious why Bill Gates’ wealth is a problem, Tyler Cowen explains, when his fellow Americans “have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does.” In absolute terms, all Americans—even those below the poverty line—live markedly better lives than in the ‘70s. In fact, Horwitz explains, they live better even “than did the average US household in 1971.” And these upward trends hold true for black and Hispanic households. It seems quite possible, then, that working- and middle-class stagnation is a myth.

Tyler Cowen offers an alternative hypothesis. In his ebook, The Great Stagnation, Cowen explains that America picked all the “low hanging fruit” in the decades following World War II. While further prosperity is left to be had, it will come only with increased investments of skill, capital, risk, and innovation. No longer will a high school diploma purchase the heaping slices of American dream served up during the ‘50s and ‘60s. The value of blue collar labor has flattened, and new prosperity must come from white collar efforts.

Also ignored by Krugman is the inequality of work hours. Cowen observes that top earners in the U.S. work substantially harder today than in the Gilded Age, while the rest of Americans work less. This may be related to a phenomenon that Cowen calls “threshold earners,” that is, “someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more.” When a threshold earner’s wage goes up, he will seek less work or will work less hard or less often. Threshold earners’ behavior is based on absolute earning power since they place high value on non-monetary factors such as leisure. When an economy affords everyone the opportunity not only to earn unsightly amounts of money but also to earn just enough money in absolute terms, it is impossible to avoid income inequality other than by removing the productive incentive of non-threshold earners—in other words, by destroying value.

In this respect, we can hear echoes of the early Progressives. Recall that, as described above, Progressives attributed the breakdown in the social structure to the trend toward putting off marriage and child-rearing. Today, rising income inequality might be attributed to the same cause. Cowen observes that single-occupancy households in the U.S. are at an all-time high, and that “it seems reasonable to suppose that the more single-occupancy households there are, the more threshold earners there will be, since a major incentive for earning money is to use it to take care of other people with whom one lives.” The irony is not lost on Cowen, who explains:

For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us that Americans should behave more like threshold earners. We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life. That may well be good advice. Many studies suggest that above a certain level more money brings only marginal increments of happiness. What isn’t so widely advertised is that those same critics have basically been telling us, without realizing it, that we should be acting in such a manner as to increase measured income inequality. Not only is high inequality an inevitable concomitant of human diversity, but growing income inequality may be, too, if lots of us take the kind of advice that will make us happier.

Income inequality results from one of two things: natural inequality or procedural injustice. Little can be done about the former, while both the left and the right rail against the latter, though for different reasons. The left fingers crony capitalism—special favors the private industries wrest for themselves through agency capture and campaign contributions—as the great evil that threatens our democracy. The right, for its part, fingers crony activism—special favors that activist groups like environmental firms and labor unions wrest for themselves by the same means. In their respective plights against these (very similar) procedural injustices, both political parties are fighting the good fight against Federalist no. 10 factions. The inequality yarn that Krugman spends 300 pages spinning, however, is a red herring.

[Cross-posted at the main page]

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. Basically, your core point on the mainpage was ignored.

    Krugman thus fails to establish that current wealth distribution is either procedurally unfair or substantively problematic.

    You asked, why is economic equality a problem. All you got was bleats documenting the inequality, and the question begged that it is bad.

    Why is it bad? What’s the Matter with Kansas? They’re not envious of other people’s wealth. This Kowal post could have been called, What’s the Matter with You?

    • In defense of the main page, I wrote a huge thing in response to Tim’s post and then lost it because computers are stupid (as are their users, occasionally).

      And then I got so caught up in back-n-forth I never reconstructed it. I’ll try to get to it on vacation, but driving 18 hours in two days is probably going to make me want to sit by a lake and drink beer for a while before I hammer more time out in front of the computer.

      • Have come to rely on PatC and a few others for principled discussion. Yes, it would be nice to see Mr. Kowal’s core point addressed, up or down.

    • I didn’t say much in the thread because I didn’t really have much to add. The fact that Bill Gates makes 1000 x what I make doesn’t strike me as particularly unjust or problematic and I’d imagine it doesn’t strike a lot of people that way. If that’s Krugman’s point, it’s hard to believe many people in my town would agree with him. It’s a very blue collar town and very “low income”, whatever that means now.

      When I think of the working poor I think of my father who’s beneath the official poverty level, but doesn’t think of himself as poor. He is not envious of other people’s wealth either. However, philosophically sound or not, he does share the common belief that if you go to work every day and remain productive, obey the laws, treat others well, and keep within the ten commandments, you should expect a certain standard of living, meager though it is in what he considers a “fair” society. “Good people” can earn a roof over their heads, a bed, regular meals, doctor’s visits, and education for their kids. The “bums” shouldn’t expect those things and that’s his problem with welfare- something I suspect many liberals don’t entirely agree with. His view of the world is very much divided into good people and bums. He votes Republican because they don’t enable the bums in his opinion.

      The problem is that I now work in a profession in which many colleagues seem to think that we can charge whatever we damn well please for the “education for their kids” part and they’ll just have to pay it. My parents couldn’t actually afford to send us to university, which is why I worked on the road crew and construction for about a decade until a dead grandparent scholarship did. As for the doctor’s visits, my father can’t afford his insurance premiums anymore, but is planning to stay well until he can collect social security. No, I don’t think Obamacare will do anything to improve that situation.

      My point is that it might be irrational or philosophically unsound but people like my father believe that a society is “fair” because you buy in to it by working hard and following the laws and, in return, you can make a decent life for yourself. So far, that’s been the case. I suspect that this belief is at the core of the social fabric. If it ever becomes untrue, as it clearly is in the more corrupt sorts of spoiler’s paradises you find in South America, people like my father will probably do the same things, but without the underlying belief he has in the society (admittedly, his cynicism is pretty intense in recent years). I could care less about the relative income levels of me, my father, and Bill Gates. But I do care about the social fabric and I think it requires a certain percentage of the public to believe their society is at least moderately “fair”. I’ve lived in communities where it was very commonly accepted that the larger society is corrupt or illegitimate. The norm in those places was crime, from welfare fraud to grey market labor to a thriving drug trade. So, I’ll repeat what I said on a previous thread- call it craven, but I care about the society being just ‘fair’ enough that people aren’t throwing garbage cans through store fronts.

      • Now, I guess the next question is, since my grandparents could afford to send their kids to college and my parents could not, and I’ll be lucky if I can afford to keep our cat, do I think the state should do something to rectify skyrocketing tuition rates? Nah, that never works anyway. What will work is what always works best- boycotting. When enough people tell them to take their diplomas and cram them, they’ll get the message.

      • Yes, Rufus, my dad is similar, and I grew up the same. 1000 sq ft house, 7 people. One bathroom. We knew there were people richer than us, but they forgot to tell us we were poor.

        Could have gone for an extra bathroom, tho.

        As for the populace feeling the country/system/regime is fair, good point. One party is making its living off ressentiment, and it’s not the party our fathers vote for. this is why BHO’s presence in that man’s church was so disturbing, because he makes his living off bitterness. Rev. Wright’s “Audacity of Hope” speech is directly quoted in BHO’s autohagiography, “white folks’ greed runs a world in need.”

        How much currency this resentment has outside the black community [whose history and culture today are sui generis] and the white chattering class who see themselves as advocates for the poor, which is often rhetorically synonymous with “black” or “urban”], I dunno.

        Does the “Reagan Democrat,” the swing voter, see himself as the victim of The Corporate Machine, or of a spendthrift government? The Tea Party sentiment is not that the government is in debt, but we are in debt, America. Us.

        I’ve lived in communities where it was very commonly accepted that the larger society is corrupt or illegitimate. The norm in those places was crime, from welfare fraud to grey market labor to a thriving drug trade. So, I’ll repeat what I said on a previous thread- call it craven, but I care about the society being just ‘fair’ enough that people aren’t throwing garbage cans through store fronts.

        I do hear that, Rufus. But I grew up in a row house in Philly no nicer than the slums. The difference was how clean we kept the streets and our own houses. The difference is hope alright, but hope in the community, not politics.

        If you’re referring to Spike Lee’s movie here, the throwing of the trash can seemed to me to be a surrender to fuckitallism. I understand the feeling, although not as deeply as Spike Lee, surely. But instead of holding himself out as an example of hope and hard work, he’s an apostle of fuckitallism. And that’s precisely what I’m on about here.

        What’s the use in trying?

        TimK cites Booker T. Washington, who got it, that politics, government and “systems” are no substitute for the nitty & gritty of real life. I don’t expect Booker T to make a comeback while the Current Occupant is around, and indeed the tragedy of this presidency is to my mind that Booker T’s long-overdue comeback has been put on hold.

        I was sympathetic to John McWhorter’s endorsement of Obama

        It’s all about youth. Think about it. If Obama is elected to two terms, an entire generation of 10-year-olds will come of age having been barely aware of anyone other than a black man in the White House.

        Imagine what it will be like for people growing up with Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia on their televisions and laptops 24/7 for the next eight years. How likely will they be to maintain the notion that America is a racist country? We learn the language to which we are first exposed. It will be impossible for young people in this new reality to process race in the way we do now. The performances we indulge in over who’s “playing the race card” will seem antique. For the members of a black generation that grew up watching a black man step out of Air Force One, the idea that they live under the yoke of white supremacy would require more cognitive dissonance than most people are willing to tolerate.

        Not only would an Obama Generation see a black man occupying the highest office in the land, but its members would be suckled from toddlerhood on a widened conception of black authenticity. The tacit idea that the blackest is the streetest, or that black people in high places inevitably stop being “really black,” will fade. The running joke on a show like 30 Rock that the straitlaced black character (“Toofer”) is less authentic than Tracy Morgan’s black hooligan character will have to be explained to a younger viewer watching reruns in 2020.

        All of this is not to say that the black community would miraculously shed its problems the second Obama took office. But Obama Kids would watch a new kind of racial politics in the White House, less about waiting for a second civil-rights revolution and more about helping poor blacks and other minorities within the system as it is.

        Nope. In fact if we dump Obama in 2012, the feeling of fuckitallness will grow even stronger.

        Shit. The one good thing about Obama, and not even that will stick. ;-(

        • Yeah, I agree with plenty of this, although it certainly does extend to other poor communities- I spent the fall and spring living in a $200/month apartment with a 49 year old dude who’s seemingly resigned himself to collecting SSI and watching tv all day because he’s convinced that everything is unfairly stacked against him, from the legal system to the employers to the landlord. As a poor white, he also gets to blame the blacks who, according to him, are able to go to college for free while he’d have to pay tuition. And, hell, a lot of things really are screwed up, but nevertheless, you still have to mow your lawn, you know? Even if you live in some third world failed state, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to mow your lawn. So I think you and I agree there.

          McWhorter is as thought-provoking as ever there. I’d like to see cultural conservatives at least acknowledge the value of having a boring, stable, loving black nuclear family in the White House from a cultural standpoint. I’d also like to see Obama do more with his boring midwestern bank manager persona to foster community involvement among black youth, but maybe it’s hard to do that without being accused of brainwashing them. Nevertheless, it was cheering to see black kids wearing ties to school to celebrate the innaguration.

          As for ressentiment, I agree and disagree. Progressives believe in progress, bien sûr, which means that they critique the status quo perpetually. It certainly breeds ressentiment, or at least exploits it- we agree there. To say that their Party alone exploits ressentiment though- well, certainly there are Republicans who exploit cultural ressentiment against those snooty types who went to Ivy League colleges and eat salads and drive Volvos and probably look down their noses at jes’ folks like us. Populism in general seems to work this way in both its left-wing and right-wing variants.

          I’d forgotten about the Spike Lee movie, actually. I was stuck in a riot in 1989 that was sparked by something stupid and lasted a few hours before flaring out. It was not racially-motivated and actually was fairly multi-ethnic. Lots of things thrown through windows and burning mattresses in the street and people shooting out their car windows. No fun. Maybe because I looked like a homeless person at that point, I was able to walk through quickly and get out of there. But, when I hear people rhapsodize about “revolution”, I tend to dissagree. Anyway, my politics- what there is of them- tend to emphasize social stability. Up here, that makes one a “Tory”, although sometimes a “red Tory”. Of course, we all know that Canadians are boring!

          • I think FDR and FDRism enjoyed a real esprit d’etat for “we” as a nation, first his New Deal [even if ineffective or structurally disastrous] and then of course WWII. And I do think the explosion of Big Business did leave a greater gulf between we the people and “them,” the capitalists.

            Is this the case now? Dunno. There’s a significant chunk of the country [What’s the Matter with Kansas] who don’t go in for class envy, and think they’re getting fucked by the gov’t more than by their fellow citizen.

            The “income inequality” riff simply doesn’t register with gentlepersons of the right like meself, and perhaps the Reagan Democrat/swing voter as well. The reply on this blog to the left is, show me why I should care. This is Kowal’s core point, the one I regretted was passed over on the mainpage in favor of the usual grenade tossing.

            Like Mr. Schilling’s of course. The ressentiment against the elite is against their influence on the reins of government, and against their handiwork of the past 5 decades or so. The argument is more direct, elect “us” instead of them. It is not a resentment of a third party, such as “the rich” or “corporations.”

            As for the, um, urban unrest problem, Rufus, there has been an outbreak of what they call “acting out” in perhaps a dozen instances this summer. The media have typically buried them: Drudge notes them, but the links are almost exclusively to local news media. I don’t want to make a big thing out of it and hope it’s a passing phenomenon, but of course if gays, blacks or Muslims were the victims, it would be an “epidemic,” and the talk of the chattering class about how fucked up redneck America is.

            And I do wish McWhorter had turned out to be right. His was the reason I was OK with 2008 [that and the fact McCain is a little nuts]. IMO, BHO was the wrong man at the right time, and I think the net result will be negative, for reasons given above.

          • Your ressentiment is bad. Our ressentiment is good.

            Can’t say it clearer than that.

        • One party is making its living off ressentiment

          Yup, the one that tells me I’m not a real American because I don’t have small-town values and that believing in the Bill of Rights makes me pro-terrorist.

  2. TVD, I’m writing this on my phone so I will have to be short, but heartland resentment extends beyond the purely political. You get to questions of popular culture, and you’ll see it there. The War on Christmas isn’t about politics, it’s about culture. The notion that the coasts Control Everything. Sometimes this even works against their politics, as with the Bush-era bailouts.

    • WT, I submit it’s using the power of the state against the culture that’s the rub. NY state instituting SSM by legitimate legislative means got nowhere near the squawking that judicial fiats have.

      The Burkean conservative, yr What’s the Matter with Kansan, the folks in flyover country, yes, they see “society” as organic and law and gov’t artificial. Again, Pat Moynihan:

      “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

      I have questioned this recently, asking for examples outside of American racial history where this fits. [Gay issues get brought up, but under the analogy with race rubric.] I fear Moynihan’s quote benefits from generalizing a sui generis.

      Has Roe really saved American culture from itself? We know now that “back alley” abortion deaths numbered around 100, not the thousands that were alleged. Neither is it clear the politics or Roe, except as an unintended consequence, has brought about the change in attitudes among social conservatives where bringing an unwanted child to term rather than aborting it is now seen as admirable. [Another of Mr. Schilling’s unclever drive-bys not worth replying to until now.]

      And I’m not down on FDRism, as exp above. Creating the “safety net” was something that “we” as a people and a nation decided to do. It wasn’t a 51-49 thing; it was a consensus.

      And LBJism, too, partially because of JFK’s martyrdom and Goldwater’s extremism, but LBJism carried over into the Nixon administration as well. Again, consensus, as was Reaganism through Clinton signing welfare reform.

      I see these political innovations as essentially social, as it should be, that the polity reflects its underpinning society. [And I’m fond of crediting Everett Dirksen’s speech “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” that broke the Dixiecrat filibuster of 1964 as an example of just that.]

      As for the Bush-era bailouts, I’m uncertain. Might have been a good idea as a one-off. Making it continuing policy as “stimulus” might be a different bag of bananas.

      Thx for the reply. Your phone-typing technique was flawless.

      • I’d argue there’s plenty of consensus for a lot of things that can’t get passed because the Senate has become a 60-vote institution and that the modern media, when it comes to economics, as a center-right tilt where anything to the left of Mitt Romney is leftist.

      • Well… no. I think that’s part of it. And I think it’s part of it for both sides (though not necessarily in equal parts – that’s always hard to judge).

        I refer again to the hysteria of The War On Christmas. No one is asking that the government step in and force a retailer to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” but nonetheless there has been periodic outcry over that all the same. And the same people go out of their way to trash Kwanzaa. The argument is “They (really… they) are demanding that we take every religion seriously except Christianity.”

        There may have been a time when the right disdained victim identity politics, but it hasn’t been the case for some time and it’s been picking up at a rapid clip.

        You can argue that all of these things, including the retailers choice of holiday greetings, have tangential political implications (nativity scenes, for instance, or Kwanzaa to multiculturalist policy), but everything cultural has tangential political implications.

          • A bit of historical perspective:

            Following the Protestant Reformation, groups such as the Puritans strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.”[…] Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.

            Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. George Washington attacked Hessian (German) mercenaries on Christmas during the Battle of Trenton in 1777, Christmas being much more popular in Germany than in America at this time.

            That is, ignoring Christmas honors our Protestant heritage and our Founding Fathers, and sensibly refuses to kowtow to un-American beliefs, while mentioning it together with genuine holidays like Hanukkah shows an excessive tolerance that borders on the PC.

          • The NBC “under god” flap is another example of why the resentment is cultural, and not purely political.

          • WT, it’s that some sneaky little shit with control over the editing machine at the network did it, or some producer or exec took it upon himself to alter reality so as not to hurt somebody’s nontheistic feelings.

            Again, it’s analogous to power being used against the culture, power wielded illegitimately. The resentment is against power being wielded this way, not as much vs. against people who simply have different values.

            Put another way, blasphemy laws were seldom enforced in the US, even back when they were constitutional. At heart of the charge of blasphemy isn’t religion or divine truth, it’s disturbing the peace.

            [Same with heresy laws way back in Europe, way back in the day.]

            And yes, Mr. Schilling, many folks are aware of the Christmas/Puritan thing. It was probably Dickens and his rather non-religious Christmas Carol that brought Christmas back. Before that it was a good excuse to get drunk. I’ll give you George Washington’s egg nog recipe sometime.

            The War on Christmas puts teeth on edge because it’s seen as “anti-“, not simply indifferent, just as the NBC edit was purposeful, not benign.

          • How was what NBC did illegitimate?

            Out of curiosity, have you ever lived in the south or Mormonland? The issue isn’t so much that power is being exerted. They have no trouble exerting cultural power. The issue is that the cultural power is being used against them. Sucks to be on the losing end of the stick, to be sure, but it’s not about who does and does not love power.

          • WT, NBC altered reality via editing. That’s a no-no.

            As for prevailing cultural mores, when in Rome. Or Salt Lake City. Or San Francisco. You know. Let’s not be obtuse.

          • How are these prevailing norms determined? Through culture battles. Which both sides fight. Sometimes for laws, sometimes to make our views more dominant or sympathetic and to stoke outrage at whatever the other side is saying/doing even when there is no law to be passed. The cultural left wants to influence my thought and behavior. So does the cultural right.

            (Re: NBC: Though ill-advised, I still wouldn’t call it illegitimate.)

          • WT, it’s a question of top-down or bottom-up, whether law reflects the underpinning society, its mores and manners, or by force or chicanery seeks to alter them. It’s really not a difficult dynamic.

            Sure, there is a war for the American soul and there always has been. When you have teachers shoving their politics down the kids’ throats, or networks altering reality to delete mentions of God, or the media shading stories and burying the real facts below the fold in the 15th paragraph or consigning the story back to Page 20, courts instead of legislatures deciding what is a moral norm and what is not, there is resentment of the sort I’m speaking of.

            And yes, schools are a public trust and the media—especially in a damn ballgame, Will, where NBC culled God—are quasi-public trusts. I do expand the discussion to include them.

            “…when one wants to change the mores and manners, one must not change them by the laws, as this would appear to be too tyrannical; it would be better to change them by other mores and other manners.”

            People aren’t stupid, WT. They see what’s going on, and yes, it does appear tyrannical when change comes from the top as listed above, by the machinations of the “elites.” I’m saying nothing that Burke or Sowell didn’t find obvious to the merest child.

            I’m not speaking here in the least about fellow citizens with competing notions of the good, jousting on a level playing field.

          • TVD, It’s more a question of who has what institutions at their disposal. Cultural liberals have higher education, which indeed counts for quite a bit. I believe that they also have entertainment media, and to a lesser extent, news media (minus Fox News*, of course), though assertions about media are more heavily contested by some.

            But what conservatives would refrain to do with the media, or higher education (which then filters down into K-12), or whatever else, is untested virtue. The issue is not who shows restraint. The issue is who is winning. On the cultural front, it’s the left. When you can’t fight a conventional war, you go guerrilla. The political and cultural right have made this resentment a centerpiece of their (rhetorical, at least) strategy.

            Maybe the right’s resentment is wholly justified and the left’s is not. I don’t think you and I are going to come into any sort of agreement on that. But when we talk of resentment politics, and more broadly identity politics, we’re not talking about the left. Everyone has learned how to play that game.

            * – Fox News has every right to its biases. So does the New York Times. For that matter, so does NBC, real or perceived. These are not government issues. They’re partly political, partly cultural. That they become political is part of the larger cultural game that everyone is playing.

          • I think you held your point well, WT. Cheers.

            But with the hegemony of the left on information and argument—schools, media—I continue to be amazed that Republicans ever get elected atall. I also argue that the left either doesn’t genuinely understand the right POV because of their life in the bubble, or are disingenuous with a stunning uniformity.

            I honestly have never been able to decide, and to ask a lefty, even honestly, seems to come off like an insult: are you ignorant or dishonest? I’m still waiting for answer from our mutual friend Elias about where he gets his information on current events, which I couched as delicately as I was able.

            As to your own core point, yes, I’ll go with the right’s resentment of “the elite” as analogous if not identical to the left’s resentment of Corporations.

            However, almost by definition, conservatives think this is basically a decent country and lefties don’t seem to. Hence, celebrating the Fourth of July turns you Republican.

            Harvard says so. What makes them study such things in the first place, well, that’s part of my point. 😉


      • <i.Neither is it clear the politics or Roe, except as an unintended consequence, has brought about the change in attitudes among social conservatives where bringing an unwanted child to term rather than aborting it is now seen as admirable.

        Never heard of Bristol Palin? Really? But it’s OK, they’re going to get married. Maybe.

        • Yes, Mike. I got you were referring to her. My response was, and is, that attitudes among social conservatives have lightened up. Shit happens. I know the left was happier during the ’60s, when “conservatives” were all racists and hurtful toward their daughters who screwed up and all the rest of that spiel.

          Sort of the lefty version of Ozzie-and-Harriet nostalgia, when it was so easy to tell who wore the black hats. But it’s the 21st century, dude, and the arguments are out of date.

          • Sure, if Obama had an illegitimate grandchild it would have been all “Yeah, whatever” from his buddies on the Right.

          • Actually, Mike, the right was scandalized by this:

            “But it should also include — it should also include other, you know, information about contraception because, look, I’ve got two daughters. 9 years old and 6 years old,” he added.

            “I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby,” Obama said.


            “Punished with a baby.” This world of hateful conservatives exists only in your own hateful mind and is completely contradicted in the real world. I really wish you’d stop talking shit and have something real to back up your attacks occasionally. The right has plenty for you to attack them on that’s valid. Stuff like this is beneath fact, intelligence or principle. It is indeed “pollution.”

          • I’ll agree the the Right loves hypothetical children.

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