The driving force in American politics today is a struggle to restructure and modernize some of our most basic institutions. It’s only going to get more intense.
Back before the global warming mess blew up, I wrote a post about the breakup of the ‘blue social model‘. Not to regurgitate the whole post, but the mid-twentieth century saw the US (like most advanced countries at the time) develop an economic and political system based on large and stable entities in the public, private and mixed sectors of the economy.
The private sector was dominated by large, regulated and mostly unionized oligopolies and monopolies like the Big Three automakers and the AT&T telephone monopoly. Government had a large and growing civil service protected cadre of professionals and bureaucrats and provided ever-increasing public services. The public schools and the universities were also built on the blue model: they provided lifetime employment to those who worked for them and were expected to provide more and better services each year. College education was expected to become more and more affordable for more and more people, with government subsidies making up the difference. Politics was a process of negotiation between large, organized interest groups: the Big Three automakers and the UAW hammered out the division of the industry’s revenues at the bargaining table, but also negotiated through the political process to enhance the position of the industry as a whole and to shape government policy to the marginal benefit of either the unions or the companies.
The blue social model was a triumph of progressive social imagination and political organizing; for two generations it effectively reconciled capitalism with the demand for a better living standard and more security for the population at large.
The breakdown of the blue model is the core problem of American society today and the key to the troubles of the Democratic party. Blue states really are blue; the ‘progressive imagination’ remains staunchly blue, and blue model interest groups like public school teachers, government employees, the remnants of the private union movement and the much healthier labor movement among public employees shape and mostly fund what Howard Dean famously called ‘the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.’
Most Americans would like the blue model to stick around and are nostalgic for the security it once provided, but they understand that the great task of our times isn’t to save the blue model but to move on. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party believes exactly the opposite: that the blue social model is the only way to go. If our city and state governments are groaning under the dead weight of inflated labor and pension costs, the only solution is to pump federal money into them somehow. If public schools aren’t working, they need more money — but seriously restructuring the system is out of bounds. If college and university tuition is exploding as the costs of education rapidly and continuously outpaces the general level of inflation, the only solution is to pump more money into the system while leaving it to operate much as it does.
Democratic policy is increasingly limited to one goal: feeding the blue beast. The great public-service providing institutions of our society — schools, universities, the health system, and above all government at municipal, state and federal levels — are built blue and think blue. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party thinks its job is to make them bigger and keep them blue. Bringing the long green to Big Blue: that’s what it’s all about.
Three problems: we can’t afford it, people know that, and we desperately need the things that Big Blue can’t give us.
Blue institutions aren’t productive enough and efficient enough to provide the services we need. There’s a hard and bitter truth here: workers in these sectors are going to have to accept lower wages and less security going forward — and they will have to produce more than they do now. Much more. This sounds draconian and harsh, but with a relative handful of exceptions everybody else in the United States has been facing this reality for the last generation.
This has turned into a massive political problem for Democrats because more and more people are waking up to the fact that this just doesn’t work. We don’t have the money to keep throwing more and more of it into dysfunctional public schools, overpriced state colleges and government at all levels. In the competitive world we all live in now, our society has no choice but to learn how to do these things much more cheaply. Otherwise the blue sector will drag the whole country down with it. This is part of what drives the Tea Parties: there’s a sense out there that the time for careful, limited reform is past. We need a crowbar, not a scalpel, to fix the blue beast.
Yet Democrats are right about one very important thing. We actually do need (most of) the services that the blue beast seeks to provide. We really do need good government at all three levels. We really do need more and better education. We need better health care and better access to it. The Tea Party movement is more about tearing down the blue beast than about building something that can take its place and until and unless Republicans figure this out the country will shift unhappily between two political parties that it dislikes and mistrusts.
What we really need in this country is a new generation of post-blue wonks who can think intelligently and creatively about how to dismantle the old structures and replace them with something that works. The political party that can figure this out and build a constituency for the massive and, inevitably, sometimes painful and disruptive restructuring this requires owns the future.
Can the Democrats unshackle themselves from their degrading and destructive servitude to the blue beast before the Republicans build a new cohort of smart policy wonks with a practical vision for the future? Can either party develop the capacity for innovative leadership before the social and economic dysfunction of the current system drives us into a massive social and financial crisis?
We will find out the answer to that last question fairly soon, I fear.