That slight dizziness you’re feeling is a contact high from the clouds of left-wing nostalgia in New York City and Washington. The anarchists, antiglobalization activists, student radicals, and sympathetic journalists gathered at Occupy Wall Street desperately are trying to recapture the protest spirit of the 1960s. Meanwhile, Democrats from Paul Krugman to Barack Obama pine for the economy of the 1950s, when the distribution of incomes was much more equal than today. At the same time, high unemployment, lackluster growth, and austerity have led these Democrats to attempt to restore the politics of the 1930s, pitting “economic royalists” against the downtrodden masses. We knew liberals believed in recycling, but this is getting ridiculous.
The very notion of a backward-looking left is laughable. Since its inception during the French Revolution, the left has been the party of progress, riding the wave of history to that distant shore where man will cast off the chains of society and live a truly authentic, free, and “natural” life. It’s been the conservatives who have looked in the other direction, tapping the lefties on the shoulder and reminding them that faith and tradition are important guides to human action and shouldn’t be cast off lightly. In contemporary America the equation has been reversed: Tea Party populists support drastic measures to revitalize the American government and economy, while left-wing class warriors want nothing more than to maintain the broken structures of the welfare state.
What happened to the American left’s utopianism, its sense of adventure, its fearless derring-do? Today’s liberals say conservatives are radicals who want to overturn the American political tradition (as liberals understand it). What remains of the liberal confidence in progress seems to be restricted to the culture, where Americans continue to perform occasional experiments of living. But even the cultural left seems withered, exhausted, ready to go to that big Oneida community in the sky. So what’s a Rousseau to do? Ruminate on his glory days, and pretend that Occupy Wall Street is something more than it is.
Our most notable egalitarians locate their ideal economy not in some unrealized future but in the postwar United States. “America in the 1950s was a middle-class society,” Paul Krugman writes in Conscience of a Liberal, “to a far greater extent than it had been in the 1920s—or than it is today.” President Obama recalls in his economic speeches a lost world in which “millionaires and billionaires” paid “their fair share,” a high school graduate spent his life on the factory line, American manufacturing was tops, and there were no nasty ATMs to destroy jobs. The New Frontier of space exploration and technological achievement has closed. Gone too are the visions of a Great Society that achieves “equality as a fact and equality as a result.” What remains is a set of actuarial tables that determine with exquisite precision the optimal distribution of income in a fair society.
Even if you grant the premise that government should redistribute wealth to equalize incomes, the 1950s are odd years for the left to champion. “Social injustice remained pervasive,” Krugman cautions. Um, yeah. That’s the point: There is more to equality than pay schedules and tax rates. There is, for example, the composition of the workforce. Harriet did not take a second mortgage to finance her craft moisturizer boutique while Ozzie went to his UAW office. Harriet stayed at home. So did millions of women in the 1950s, thereby restricting the supply of labor and raising Ozzie’s wages.
You cannot have the economy of the 1950s without the society of the 1950s. Ozzie and Harriet were married. They could pool resources in ways today’s single parents and twentysomethings cannot. They did not have to worry about an influx of day laborers from Latin America or a flood of cheap goods from China. They lived in a society a portion of which systematically oppressed a minority race. Their government focused almost the sum total of its resources on defense and Social Security. There was no Medicare or Medicaid or war on poverty. It was the age of the “organization man,” the “lonely crowd,” of alienation and monopoly and “conformity.” All of these factors—not just high levels of unionization and a punishing top marginal tax rate—went into making 1950s America a “middle-class society.” Is this a tradeoff Americans would be willing to make?
The wistful left reaches back farther when it mimics the class politics of the 1930s. The “99 percent” versus the “1 percent,” Warren Buffett’s secretary versus Warren Buffett, Obama’s attacks on nameless “millionaires and billionaires” are echoes of the rhetoric of Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and Franklin Roosevelt. What is puzzling is that the strategy of division and resentment has not had a good track record. To be sure, it worked for FDR. But Roosevelt had 25 percent unemployment, a minuscule federal government, and a sunny disposition. Since LBJ, the spokesmen for American liberalism have been dour and passive and condescending. Their populism has lacked bite because it is a pose. The public has seen through their attempt to rehash the old formula for what it is: “the shield and slogan of the cunning who will rule in the name of equality,” as Martin Diamond once put it.
The longing for the culture of the ’60s, the economy of the ’50s, and the politics of the ’30s is evidence of the left’s failure. No longer able to inspire with a utopian vision of the future, the left has been forced to return to its past. The left’s failure, then, is the right’s victory, because a return to the past is what we’ve been calling for all along.
But which past? Certainly not the left’s. But neither should conservatives indulge in their own nostalgias. What Americans should be trying to recapture is not any particular set of historical social, economic, or cultural conditions but a lost philosophy of government, a missing understanding of politics. In this understanding, the equality that matters is the equal protection of natural rights. The government that levels inequalities of property or condition necessarily intrudes on those rights. Lucky for us, this view of government depends on self-evident truths that are the same in every time and every place.
Nostalgia? Reminiscences? Schmaltz? No thanks. Leave them for the progressives.