Political polarization has become the chief topic—indeed, a near obsession—with the chattering class and “good government” types. Survey data and common-sense perception certainly testify to deep political and cultural divisions among Americans, which contribute to political gridlock in Washington and in many state capitals.
But is there anything really new about our polarization? Are we more sharply or deeply divided than we were, say, in 1968, when student protestors virtually hounded Lyndon Johnson out of office with “Hey, hey, LBJ—how many kids did you kill today?”
The most maddening aspect of the polarization debate is the hidden presumption of liberalism’s right to rule. Authors such as Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann attribute most of the polarization in Washington to the Republican Party, which they and other observers argue has become too extreme. This will come as news to grassroots conservatives, who overwhelmingly believe that Republicans in the capital haven’t been nearly extreme enough in opposing President Obama’s governmental gigantism.
It’s an implausible case, as there is little in conservative ideology today that you can’t find in Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” or in Ronald Reagan’s famous “Time for Choosing” speech of 50 years ago. The difference today is that Republicans have won some landslide elections and lately a majority in Congress, and this galls liberals, whose real answer to polarization is conservatism’s unconditional surrender.
Stop Standing In Our Way
You can understand why liberals have their noses out of joint. They ran the country with minimal conservative opposition from the New Deal era to the late 1960s. A doctrine of “consensus liberalism” prevailed in the heady years right after World War II, when America and its liberal establishment felt able to command the future through a progression of incremental reforms.
But the liberal establishment started coming apart in the 1960s, assailed first by the New Left—which wanted, according to one of its slogans, to “murder liberalism in its official robes”—and then by a rising conservative movement. Liberals tried to write off Reagan in the 1980s and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s as aberrations; the triumphal election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to set the world back on its proper course.
But it hasn’t worked according to plan: Barack Obama’s signature initiative—Obamacare—is an unpopular fiasco, and while he is advancing liberal policy on many fronts with the political equivalent of Ohio State football’s old ground game (“three yards and a cloud of dust”), the gap between liberalism’s soaring ambitions and its current distemper is palpable. And those yucky Republicans are somehow at their highest watermark in Washington and in statehouses in 75 years.
From Keynes to Picketty—and Beyond
Liberals never seem to reflect on their own failures and weaknesses, and as such, today’s liberal narrative about polarization is superficial—when it isn’t appalling. Fortunately, James Piereson offers a balanced and substantive counter-narrative in “Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order.” Piereson, author of a previous classic, “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” which traced the overlooked political effects of JFK’s assassination, now explains how a range of factors—from economics and culture to political ideology and education—helped bring an end to liberal dominance.
He begins with a supple re-examination of Keynesianism. In Piereson’s hands, John Maynard Keynes’s economic theories are more variegated than is commonly understood. Although the British economist did seek to undermine core doctrines of limited government, “Keynes was not a ‘big spender’ or an advocate of expensive welfare programs,” Piereson points out. But crude Keynesianism was too convenient a doctrine for big-spending liberalism to resist, and despite its demonstrated failures, it remains perennially attractive to liberals. And Keynesianism has found new life for progressives in the issue of income inequality and in a new treatise: Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century.”
As a successor to Keynes’s “General Theory of Employment,” Piketty’s book could have been called “A General Theory of Punitive Liberalism”—“punitive liberalism” being a term that Piereson coined in his previous book and which he returns to here. As the self-confidence of liberalism has slowly but inexorably waned since the 1960s, it has become sullen, decaying into a cabal of grasping interests—public-employee unions, government-benefit client groups, enclaves of educators in the university-industrial complex, and so forth. The older idea of progress, broadly understood, has yielded to “progressivism,” which seeks forced equality and higher taxes.
For liberals, these are dispiriting days, especially considering the hopes they held for Obama’s presidency. “The Obama years,” Piereson concludes, “are destined to be recalled as a time of wasted opportunity and stagnation for the American economy.”
The Fourth American Revolution
Meanwhile, conservatives have made advances, especially in midterm elections, but they’re far from triumphant. Reviewing the conservative balance sheet, Piereson observes: “Few will be persuaded to embrace conservatism only on the grounds that it promote private social-security accounts or caps on liability awards. In the end, the struggle to shape the future must be fought out on a wider front of culture and morals as well as politics.”
Piereson offers a synoptic account of what he suggests is America’s coming “fourth revolution” (the first three being the party clash of 1800, the Civil War, and the Great Depression). Liberalism’s unraveling and the incomplete replacement of the liberal consensus with a conservative one means that we’re living in an unstable time, which will eventually result in some far-reaching changes in our constitutional order.
Is this instability dangerous? Is a Greek-style financial crisis in our future, as liberalism fails to “make payroll,” so to speak, as we’re seeing now in Illinois and elsewhere? Piereson is guardedly optimistic: “This forecast of a ‘fourth revolution’ in the years ahead does not mean that Americans should be hoarding gold or stockpiling canned food. The end of the postwar regime need not bring about the end of America. On the contrary, it could open a dynamic new chapter in the American story.” But “the journey is likely to be difficult.”
This article is reprinted with permission from Real Clear Books.