[This is Part Two of the “Beyond Blue” series. Part One is available here.]
A reader responding to my essay on Governor Brown and the Great White Train asked a cogent question: if building high speed rail is the wrong thing for the governor of California to be doing, what should he be working on instead? Other readers have asked similar questions as they’ve read my essays on the decline of the blue social model. What model do I propose in its place?
These are reasonable questions and fair ones, and of course they are impossible to answer with the specificity, detail and conviction that readers would like. I do not carry a blueprint for 21st century American society in my head. The shape of our new social system is not tattooed on the insides of my eyelids.
But what I can do, and hope to do in this series of essays and posts, is write about some of the ideas that will drive the development of a new social model, present sketches of what different aspects of that model might look like in practice and, with the help of the growing team here at Mead GHQ, draw your attention to ways in which the world is already moving in some of the directions it seems to me we should take — all while exposing the folly and delusions of those who are fighting good and necessary change.
Readers who choose to come with me on this project should know: you are companions on a journey, not a group of tourists on a guided tour. I’m thinking these issues through in real time as I write — taking advantage of a blog’s ability to let a writer think out loud, listen to the response, and then ultimately shape ideas into some kind of definitive form. These posts aren’t intended as sacred writ; they reflect questions I am asking and are intended to start conversation and debate, not to end it.
I start with the assumption that the 21st century must reinvent the American Dream. It must recast our economic, social, familial, educational and political systems for new challenges and new opportunities. Some hallowed practices and institutions will have to go under the bus. But in the end, the changes will make us richer, more free and more secure than we are now. The means will often not be the progressive and bureaucratic institutions of the last century, but the results will be something that most Americans will perceive as progress.
The first, inescapable point about the restructuring is that the new system must be more productive and more conducive to wealth creation than the old one. Individual human beings and small groups may, for religious or ethical reasons, choose an abstemious life, and there are levels of gluttony and self indulgence from which we all instinctively cringe, but the quest for abundance is part of who we as a species are. It is certainly a part of who we as Americans are.
If the next era in our history is to be an advance and not a retreat, it will be an era of greater abundance than the present. This is necessary not only for the internal happiness of the American people and the tranquility of our social order; it is necessary for the maintenance of our international security and prosperity. The United States is entering its third century on the social, technological and economic cutting edge of the human race; we will be happier and safer if we can stay that way. Those who think that the way forward is to make do with less are wrong. America’s future isn’t about “accepting limits”, lowering expectations, or adjusting to the idea that our best days are behind us. The Malthusians and the greens don’t understand the power of the aspirations that still drive this country and the world.
The increased abundance ahead, however, is not going to be a simple linear progression of the kind of material prosperity we have seen in the past. It’s not that each individual human being will be consuming more oil, more aluminum, more plastic year by year. This change isn’t coming because we are getting ready to transcend the material world, but because the logic of our needs is changing. When people are hungry, they measure material progress in the number of calories they consume. But once a basic level of consumption has been reached, the next levels of prosperity involve eating better food rather than more calories. In the same way, 21st century Americans will have better, smarter appliances rather than bigger and bulkier ones. Our wealth will be measured more in the capabilities of our possessions and their design than in their horsepower or their volume. This is one of the many reasons why I believe that further economic growth will help rather than hurt the environment: intelligence and human services like design are going to become much more important to our GDP as time goes by.
The second basic principle of progress in the American context is that the new system must give greater liberty to the individual than the current system does. The quest for liberty is as basic to the American experience as the quest for material prosperity. We want to be free and we want to be rich.
This liberty implies freedom both from government constraint and from social hierarchy. Every stage of American political and social history has seen efforts by ordinary people to free themselves from the tutelage of their “betters”, to democratize access to opportunity and power. They have accepted less and less external constraint, been less and less willing to be defined by their ethnic or class background, and rejected any form of social control that violated their sense of their dignity and rights.
American liberty is not, as some think, a completely negative concept, and the tradeoff between government power and individual freedom is not always zero-sum. In order to drive at 70 miles an hour on an interstate highway, I accept a lot of restrictions on my freedom: only driving a car with a license, accepting the state’s mandate that I carry insurance, only driving while sober, obeying various traffic regulations and so on. But the result of all those concessions is more freedom, not less: I can drive where I like when I like in ways that would be impossible without the framework the law provides. Government can be and frequently is overreaching and counterproductive, but that does not mean that government is always bad or that its effect on individual freedom is always net-negative.
A new iteration of the American Dream is not going to be a libertarian utopia, but it will see a sharp attack on the nanny-state aspects of 20th century progressive society. In 1900, most Americans had at best an eighth grade education, and the very small minority of college educated people for both humanitarian and self-interested reasons felt a strong responsibility to uplift the ignorant masses: ignorant masses of Blacks and poor rural whites in the south, ignorant masses of immigrants in the great industrial cities, ignorant masses of ex-family farmers streaming in from rural areas to growing cities as the family farm system declined across the country. Mixing measures of social control (like Prohibition, segregation and sterilization) with programs of re-education (expanded support for public schools and a more conscious effort to “modernize” the beliefs of the working class through “Americanization” of immigrants and other measures) and programs to alleviate distress and improve working conditions and pay, the progressive social reformers saw themselves as the engineers of a new American modernity.
Partly because this social engineering succeeded, the American public today is a much more sophisticated and assertive animal than it was 100 years ago. The Ivy-educated and the good and the great are as firmly wedded to their self-imposed mission of social uplift as ever, but there is far less willingness among the public at large to be guided than there used to be. The next wave of American social progress will, to some extent, involve the dismantling of the structures of progressive social engineering that shaped the 20th century so profoundly.
Already we are seeing the decline of the establishment’s ability to dominate discourse about ideas. The rise of a conservative counter-establishment and the proliferation of cable and internet news sources reflects a public demand for a more diverse and pluralistic national discourse. There is less respect for the social sciences and the privileged position of the “expert” on everything from medicine to financial and foreign policy; the privileged, above-the-fray pose of the progressive social engineers will come under intensifying assault. In this sense, the next phase of American life is likely to be more small “d” democratic and less big “p” Progressive than was the 20th century.
Related to this may well be a shift in power and policy creativity from Washington back to the states. The progressive era centralized power — from legislative bodies to executive and administrative ones and from states to the federal level. These were seen to be necessary changes in the age of progressive social engineering, but post-progressive America is likely to be more interested in keeping power closer to the grass roots: returning authority from administrative bodies, certified experts and presidential and gubernatorial appointees back to directly elected legislators and from Washington back to the states.
This does not necessarily mean the triumph of “conservative” policy: Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon will be as empowered by the shift as Texas, Alabama and Nebraska. The country will become more populist rather than more liberal or conservative as conventionally defined; both liberal and conservative tendencies will enjoy freer reign in various parts of the country than they do now.
150 years ago, many states were badly governed and were critically short of competent, well trained leaders. Progressive reformers wanted to shift decisions upward — from cities to states and from states to the federal level. Because federal politics were seen to be less corrupt, and the federal civil service more competent and honest, the country’s leading intellectuals and scholars concentrated on federal rather than state and local issues.
Today, the states at least in principle have the talent, the competence, the experience and the resources to run their own affairs more effectively than, say, Alabama or Colorado had in the late nineteenth century. The information revolution makes centralized power and top-down bureaucratic management less valuable, and offers more scope to decentralized power and institutions. Power can now return from federal authorities to state and local ones, and in many cases from career bureaucrats to elected officials.
This is not some kind of neo-Confederate, states’ rights fundamentalism. In some ways, the federal government is likely to continue to replace state authority, although Ron Paul and his supporters may not always approve. The economic integration of the fifty states in a national market requires more economic legislation to be federal; the social and cultural diversity of the country, combined with the grassroots interest in keeping power close to home, will pull other powers back to the states. The single market among the fifty states will deepen, but so will differences in their social policies. (The special status of race in American constitutional history will, however, continue to limit state power on racial issues.) And just as the perceived necessity for centralization gradually influenced the Supreme Court to take an expansive view of federal authority in the progressive era, the perceived advantages of decentralization (combined with a revival of “originalist” jurisprudence) are pulling the pendulum in the other direction today.
Right now the right has something of a monopoly on this thinking, but when and if the left begins to reconnect with the ideas of emancipation and empowerment that are part of its historical vision, we are likely to see change. Marx hoped that someday the state would wither away, and the idea of groups of citizens exercising responsibility over their own affairs and taking power from career officials to give it to popular assemblies and grassroots cooperatives used to be central to the imagination of the left.
Liberty is an essential element of any version of the American dream, but our idea of liberty is as social and associational as it is individual, and the third criterion that any new American system will have to satisfy has to do with the quality of our social and community life. While Americans have never accepted the right of external authority to define their ideas of family and community, liberty exists in a communal context for most Americans. The adolescent and the young adult seek the freedom to get up and go, to try new things and meet new people, but at some point these young people usually come to see freedom as the right to live with their family and community as they see fit, rather than the freedom to move unconstrained through life like a lonely meteor in the night sky. Our concepts of freedom and of prosperity are linked to a vision of a society in which the family (however defined) is independent and in which individuals who want to form a family and embark on a religious or spiritual faith journey with the like-minded can do so with reasonable dignity and ease.
The American Dream in all its forms has stressed the financial independence and security of the family unit. The free family farmer and the owner occupied suburban homestead put the family at the center of the Dream, and this will be true going forward even as our concept of the family continues to shift. In later posts we will think about the economic foundations of the family in the new era; for now I just want to focus on its social role.
Americans insist on freedom from state-enforced religious conformity but they also insist on the right to live out the principles and ideals of whatever religious faith or ethical vision they choose. They want to bring up their children in accordance with the principles and beliefs they espouse and they are jealous and suspicious of any attempt by religious and political establishments of any kind to indoctrinate their kids with ideas of which they do not approve. Liberals and conservatives, atheists and evangelicals are united in this desire to live their own lives and build their own families without interference or control by government authorities with different ideas.
This demand for family and communal autonomy is going to be another source of rebellion against the progressive state and its commitment to social uplift. In the next era of American development, people are going to want to take control over their children’s education and they will seek to replace public bureaucratic institutions with private communal ones where they can.
We can see this taking place in many fields already. There is more congressional support for foreign aid programs run through NGOs than for conventional state-to-state aid. We’ve seen domestic social service programs shifting from bureaucratic, permanent government bodies to faith-based and community based social service providers. In education there is mounting support for charter schools, home schooling and voucher programs.
There will be much more of this. The next era of American life is likely to see continuing efforts to give the grass roots more power over the aspects of government that touch most directly on their lives. Civil society is colonizing the state.
For people committed to the 20th century version of the American dream, this often feels like a nightmare. The impartial administrative state (staffed by trained experts, powerful enough to rein in the base instincts of politicians, honest and public-spirited enough to counterbalance the power of the rich, educated and enlightened enough to guide and uplift the ignorant public) is the Great Engineer who brings progress to a dark polity. For upper middle class progressive ideologues, this kind of state is the summum bonum, the highest possible form of social organization. This kind of state will not and should not disappear overnight, but increasingly it needs to be transformed — and the blue social imagination can only conceive of this change as decline and fall.
The public school has been one of the most important battlegrounds as our concept of the role of the state changes. The old ideal, seldom fully achieved but never absent as a goal, was to have a depoliticized school system under professionally trained superintendents and principals in which college trained and certified teachers Americanized, modernized, “deblackified” and otherwise socialized and educated the great unwashed.
19th century school systems were often patronage sources for political machines; accreditation, certification and professional supervision were all attempts to replace hacks and timeservers with professional and dedicated educators. But the working assumption, in the rural south as much as in the urban north, was that education was too important to be left to parents. Scientific, modern knowledge and methods had to replace the folk beliefs and superstitions of the immigrants, rednecks, dumb midwestern farmers’ kids and African-Americans.
In the 20th century, parents often agreed. Bewildered by their exposure to urban, modern life, or struggling to adjust after immigration, parents were often glad to see their children learning skills and behavior patterns that would enable them to succeed beyond their parents. Traditional folk knowledge wasn’t good enough; society by and large wanted the public schools to transform the rising generation by the lights of progressive ideas.
Today, parents aren’t nearly as willing to have the agents of the progressive state retrain and retool their kids. They want to keep that authority closer to home. As the percentage of parents with high school and college diplomas has risen, Americans at large are more confident that they can judge the quality of their child’s education for themselves, and less confident that teachers and principals know what they are doing. Pressure groups are organized to shape what goes into textbooks, school board elections are politicized in many places, and issues like sex education and the place of religion and prayer in schools are hotly contested. More and more people want alternatives to the big box school. They want more freedom to choose their child’s teachers, rather than passively accepting the mysterious choices of the Administration. They want their child’s special needs and learning style to be more fully accommodated; more parents have strong ideas about the teaching methods and educational philosophy that best suit their kids. They want to evaluate the work of the teachers and principals who oversee their children’s education and they want to have a menu of choices rather than an administrative diktat.
Taken together, all these forces are making public education much less monolithic and much less top down than it used to be. Home schools, charter schools, and school vouchers are part of the change; magnet schools, special curriculum, and closer evaluation of teachers are ways in which conventional school districts seek to respond to the demand for change.
There are those who see this whole process as the decline of a once great system. They value the idea, partly from the standpoint of civil republicanism, that all students attend the same schools, study the same subjects, and move at the same pace through a common educational system. Others, stakeholders in the current system, oppose change because school bureaucrats, teacher unions and the concept of life tenure do not flourish as well in a less stable and administratively predictable atmosphere. Still others will worry, not without reason, that despite the failure of school integration in so many places to achieve better outcomes for inner city youth, a less top down system that works along the lines of voluntary association will reinforce racial and class boundaries. Finally, there is a concern that the sharp line between religious and non-religious education will blur, and that many American kids will be educated in narrow, sectarian schools (from fundamentalist Muslim to fundamentalist Christian), contributing to poor educational outcomes and the tribalization of the United States.
These concerns all have rational foundations, but they are unlikely to stop the move toward new kinds of education. Too many parents will want to disintermediate the current school district bureaucracies and design educational programs for their kids that respond more directly and effectively to their core concerns. The best policy response is not to fight this trend, but to find ways to ensure that a more diverse, individualistic and bottom-up educational system works well and that its virtues are given the fullest scope while its drawbacks are palliated to the greatest possible extent.
As go the schools, so will go much else. The state will not exactly wither away going forward, but it can expect some aggressive disintermediation as Americans struggle to regain control over their own lives.