Americans like to think we are pragmatic, results oriented people, but many of our political disagreements are argued in terms of abstract theory. In particular, Americans like to argue about the proper role of the state: how big should it be and how its responsibilities should be divided between state, local and federal levels. Often, these disagreements reflect cultural differences that can be traced back to colonial times; David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is a good guide to the traditions that still today inform the way Americans think about what government is and what it should do.
The New England tradition, rooted in Puritan experience and theology, wants a strong state run by the great and the good to serve as the moral agent of the conscience of the community. It is the duty of the state to make the people better, and without a strong and moral state to guide development and regulate behavior, the rich will become greedy and the poor will get lazy and fat.
There’s a New York tradition, rooted in the middle colonies, that looks to the state primarily to promote the development of the economy. Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was a powerful instrument of state power, but it was not an engine of moral reformation and guidance. Indeed, the commercialism of Hamiltonian policy often offends the moral sensibilities of the New Englanders who worry that if financiers and industrialists become too powerful, they can pervert the state into the service of Mammon. The New York tradition is also outward looking; it wants a strong national government to protect the rights and advance the interests of American economic and security interests around the world.
There’s a Virginia tradition that worries about the centralism that both the New England and Hamiltonian traditions support. Jeffersonians speak for small business rather than big business, and for parts of the country that are far from the centers of financial and cultural power. In this view, an overweening government is a danger worse that (almost) any problem it tries to solve. The Virginia tradition looks to limit the power of government as far as possible and keep that power as close to the local level. It prefers state power to federal power and thinks the New England model is a “nanny state” approach, while the New York model quickly turns into crony capitalism in which large and well-connected business interests and plutocrats use the power of the state to advance their private objectives. The Virginia tradition shares the New England suspicion of wealth and its dangerous influence on politics; it looks to the classic texts of civic republican literature that identify the rise of wealthy oligarchies with the decline of liberty and republican institutions in ancient Rome and on down to modern times.
Then there’s what might be called the West Virginia tradition which is suspicious of both the Hamiltonian and New England visions of the state, but which wants more from the state than the Virginia tidewater is willing to provide. In Special Providence I called this tradition Jacksonians when it came to foreign policy; Jacksonians share Jeffersonian suspicions about government, but they want the government to advance the economic and social interests of what today we call the American middle class: the broad mass of the people. They don’t like government debt, but they do like government benefits. In the 19th century they wanted the government to give out free farmland even though sales of public land were one of the best revenue sources both federal and state governments had. The Homestead Act, making land literally free for the taking, was passed during the Civil War at a time when the national debt was soaring to unprecedented levels and budget hawks were wringing their hands at the horrendous debts the war would impart on the country. Jacksonians simply did not care; they supported the war and the Homestead Act — and groused about the debt. Jacksonians believe, like New Englanders, that the state should promote moral values, but there are deep theological and cultural differences between the values that New Englanders and West Virginians think should be promoted.
Generally speaking, American political arguments about the role of the state often reflect these various traditions in a knee-jerk way; people come to these arguments steeped in a particular view of the proper role of the state and more or less passively apply these inherited views to the situation at hand. While intellectually speaking this makes for a lot of vapid speech-making and tedious punditry, looking over the sweep of American history it would be hard to say that this pattern has been bad for the country. The different traditions speak for different truths and each tradition not only brings something useful to the table, the competition among them helps keep the country on an even keel.
Today, as the country grapples with the consequences of the decline of the blue social model, these traditions about the role of the state and its relationship to society provide the conceptual tools that many Americans use to think about what the fall of blue means and what we should do about it. That’s to be expected, but to some extent it has turned the question of the transformation out of industrial Fordism into a question of political philosophy in the United States. In one particular case, the deep opposition of the New England school to the decline of the blue social model has helped polarize the broader debate and, I think, promoted some misconceptions about what the transition to liberalism 5.0 is all about.
New Englanders hate the decline of blue. In some ways, the blue social model represented a triumph of the New England school over its opponents. The blue model embodied key New England values. The administrative, educated elite that regulated both the rich and the poor in a spirit of social uplift was a twentieth century counterpart to the New England clergy and its role in the Puritan Commonwealth. A society in which technocrats manage the economy so that the worker, the manager, the investor and the community all receive an appropriate share of the common product speaks powerfully to traditional New England moral values and political ideas.
To the New England imagination, the decline of blue is the decline of America. As horrible plutocrats make inappropriate fortunes at one end, and evangelical Christians defy the moral consensus New England sought to impose on the other, the slow decline of the postwar social model feels to many in this tradition like the destruction of everything good.
As many New England progressives (partisans of the 4.0 liberalism that dominated the twentieth century) see it, the social order has been falling apart since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher unloosed the gates of Hell by supporting deregulation and attacking the unions. The capitalists benefit from the mobility of capital, enabling them to hide their wealth from taxpayers and move their production facilities from high wage, high regulation blue model enclaves in Europe, the US and Japan. Now they pay slave wages to workers, ignore environmental and safety regulations, and sock their grotesque profits in safe havens overseas, far beyond the reach of the IRS. The ballooning wealth they accumulate through this process feeds back into politics; they can buy the Congress and the president they want, dictate the law, and if worst comes to worst, stuff the Supreme Court with regressive judges who read the hyper-capitalist agenda back into the Constitution.
Meanwhile, the white working class—a group that has troubled the New England mind ever since rowdy sailors and economic immigrants threatened to disrupt the social harmony of the Puritan colonies in the 17th century, trouble which only intensified as mass immigration from Ireland filled sober New England with rowdy Catholics—threatened to rebel against the gentry liberals and their various agendas for social betterment. The southern rednecks and northern ethnics rejected the Democratic Party and progressive social ideology in the Reagan years. Worse, perhaps, populist America began to turn against experts; ordinary people challenged the wisdom of the social and economic planners who advance the agenda of the New England state.
Both the friends and the foes of the New England school of American governance are drawn to equate the decline of the blue model with a threat to the New England way, and our debates about the nature and consequences of the social shifts taking place tends to fall into a debate over how much of a role the New England philosophy should play in American government.
The decline of the blue model calls into question the structure of many of our social programs and government institutions. The post office may be on the way out; the public school systems of the 20th century will probably not survive in their current form. The welfare state faces a complex demographic and financial crisis. All these changes are linked in some way to the decline of the Fordist social model, and they are informing some heated national debates over the future of social policy and the size of the state. To supporters of the New England school, these debates lead directly to some unsettling questions.
Does the end of the blue social model mean we have to throw the poor under the bus? Does the end of the blue model mean the end of the mass middle class? And, a related question that often comes from liberal defenders of the old model: Are the people who keep talking about the crisis of the blue model just doing this so they can panic the country into throwing poor people, public sector workers, blue collar workers and almost everybody else in the ’99 percent’ to the wolves?
I get those questions a lot; for many progressives, the blue social model remains the only practical way that an advanced capitalist economy can do its basic duty by the poor and the middle class. Without the restraints, the income redistribution and the strong government role that the blue model offered in its prime, progressives seem to believe, a capitalist society inevitably degrades to a kind of Blade Runner future. There will be a handful of very rich people, and the rest of us will be scuttling around the edges of burned out urban warfare zones and living in cardboard boxes in ragged refugee camps up in the hills. Government, shrunken and warped, will exist only to impose the preferences of the rich on the poor; post-blue America will be a banana republic.
That’s not, I think, where we are going. While the New England imagination can’t help but envision the transition away from our current social model as the apocalyptic destruction of America’s 20th century achievements (and, for that matter, some Virginians and West Virginians have equally exaggerated ideas about how we are about to extirpate all traces of New England progressivism from American politics), the transition from 4.0 to 5.0 liberalism is both more complex and more benign. (Readers of earlier posts in this series will remember that liberalism 5.0 is what I am calling the next stage of American political ideology.)
Liberalism 5.0 isn’t about going back to the smaller state of the 18th and 19th century. The United States remains a complex society in which many complicated trade-offs have to be made about the rights and interests of many actors, and government will have to extend its reach in some directions if our lives are going to improve. We will need, for example, an appropriate legal framework so that individual health information can be pooled to allow researchers to evaluate the effect of different medical treatments on large numbers of people. We are probably going to have to increase federal jurisdiction in health care as more and more health care professionals work at a distance or collaborate in many states.
It is also true that the state will continue to have social responsibilities beyond those of the Victorian era. Many of our fellow citizens are in real need and those needs cannot be met by purely voluntary efforts – though voluntary, civil society organizations should be encouraged to step in wherever possible.
The end of the blue model does not mean the end of the American state. We are headed toward something more like what Ariel described in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
Those are pearles that were his eies,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.
The state will transform but it will not disappear. We may change the way the educational system works, but the goal of the changes will be to ensure more and better universal education. We may change the policies aimed at helping low income people move up the ladder of life, but American society does not want to write off the poor. We may liberalize drug laws and look for alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent offenders, but we won’t abandon the effort to protect the public from unsafe or impure drugs and we won’t turn law and order over to the private sector. We may look for ways to reduce the bureaucratic delays when it comes to permitting processes, but we will not abandon the effort to impose safety and environmental standards. The state will go high tech, its processes will accelerate, bureaucracies will become flatter and more open, but it won’t wither away.
Ultimately even the doughtiest New Englanders are going to accept the need for deep governmental reform. The American public is much better educated than it used to be and knowledge is much more widely available. It is simply no longer possible for an elite of technocrats in appointive offices and regulatory bureaus to issue decrees and have them obeyed. Prussian bureaucratic civil service models from the 19th century are too cumbersome, too slow and too expensive to handle much of the business of a 21st century information society. It is not possible to reconcile the desire of individuals to control their own fate if authority is centralized at the federal level; we will have to find ways to decentralize authority so that states and local jurisdictions can make more of the decisions that directly affect peoples’ lives.
At the moment, the deep emotional commitment of the New England school to blue model governance and social ideas — and the visceral hopes among some anti-New England types that the death of blue is the death of New England — gives a strange and ultimately not very useful cast to many of our national debates. We are trapped into debates between the advocates of spendthrift compassion (maintain Medicare and add new entitlements whether or not we can pay for them because they are needed) or cut budgets even though some of the services lost are, in fact, necessary for millions of people.
What disappears from this debate is the possibility that the transition into a higher form of social organization and governance will make society so much more affluent, and so bring down the costs of important services, that we can strengthen our health care provisions without strangling the economy or busting the budget. The question of transitioning past the blue model and developing an information society isn’t about cold hearted austerity versus spendthrift compassion. It is about reconfiguring society and reforming our institutions so that compassion is no longer spendthrift. It is about creating a more productive and abundant society in which we can afford to see that old people and poor people get good medical care. It is about building a society in which good education is more widely available on better terms than it now is. It is about ordered liberty: about building a government which can do more while restricting less.
The reform movement necessary to build the next stage in American life has to be serious about the real needs that real people face, and the fundamental challenge America faces is to make life better. This is not about apportioning sacrifice in an age of restraint; it is ultimately about digging the channel through which new streams of abundance can flow. Certain counterproductive and costly ways of doing things have to be changed, but we need more health care, more higher ed, more opportunity for the poor, more fairness in society – not less.
Some readers and respondents to my original series of blue model essays, like Bill Galston, ask some pointed questions along these lines. How do I think the post-blue society will work for the poor? What happens to welfare in it? I haven’t answered these and other questions yet because at this stage we need to think about how the majority of working people can make a good living and have decent lives, and how society as a whole can be organized so that it has the resources and the will to address the needs of the less fortunate. You have to build a house before you can offer shelter to the homeless, and America’s main job now is to figure out how to build a basically prosperous society in a changing world. But as we make progress on that, the question of how to extend and share that prosperity comes quickly to the fore.
The questions of poverty and social justice are very much on my mind; I grew up in a pro-Civil Rights family at a time when that wasn’t always a safe or popular thing to be in the Carolinas and some of my first jobs involved things like going out into rural farm homes to sign families up for a new government program called Project Head Start. There may not be a lot of evidence that Head Start does what its designers hoped, but I won’t forget talking to American kids who didn’t have shoes, whose houses didn’t keep out the cold, and who were clearly undernourished.
I’ve also worked in urban high schools with low income kids and spent time in housing projects and worked with families where lives had been shattered by drug violence and gangs. These problems are real, they are part of American life, and no serious political program for America’s future can ignore them.
In my home borough of Queens, more than 100 languages are spoken and my walk to the subway takes me past people of all faiths and backgrounds from all over the world. This is also America, and the next iteration of the American dream has to work for my neighbors; this assumes a flexible, competent and well managed state.
The old America I grew up in and the new America growing up around me now are very different places. Some of the changes are for the better and others are for the worse. Yet somehow the America in which my grandfather was born in 1897 is connected to the country my youngest great-nephew (born in 2012) will come to know. The lasting values that were the best things about the America of 1897, or of 1776 for that matter, will still matter in 2097 and beyond. They will be embodied in different institutions and will deal with more complex realities than we knew in earlier times, but the spirit of ordered liberty that has brought the American experiment so far, so fast, will, if we get things right, still be at the core of American life—and we will still, I suspect, be quarreling about how to organize and limit government in ways that the founding fathers would recognize.
Right now we are having an argument about whether the blue model is in irreversible decline and whether its remnants should be liquidated or defended. But as the model continues to decompose, and it will, the argument will inevitably shift. The four schools who now quarrel about the old model will change their ground without losing their values; New England, New York and the Virginias will compete to shape the next stage in American history.