Selected Skirmishes: FDR R.I.P.

New Dealism no more


It hardly registered on the body politic when the Clinton administration—less than a month after the loss of their friends and associates on Capitol Hill—announced the closure of 1,000 Agriculture Department offices around the country, including those in places like Manhattan (New York, not Kansas), where the only contact the citizens maintain with agriculture is as hungry diners. Congress, corrupted by hypnotic vapors of absolute authority and emboldened by a curious lack of press oversight, had gleefully launched such evil raids upon the treasury with regularity. A more competitive electoral era could well improve the taxpayers' position.

Adjusting the margins of welfarism and pork—to the extent that Republican patronage is scrutinized more intensely and punished more harshly by the voters—represents only a relatively minor social repositioning. The continental shift in our geopolitical world will hopefully occur at the moral/ethical level. No matter the degree of intellectualism in philosophical debate, there is always a superior air attached to the arguments of the one who seems—as a practical matter—to be winning. Each bidder for the political attentions of his fellow man inevitably bases the argument not only on grounds that his scheme is morally upstanding and all competitors are loathsome, but on the additional selling point that its adherents can hop aboard the engine of history.

So it has been during our entire lifetimes, during the adult consciousness of all those currently working, thinking, and writing, that the powers of the American state were deployed to the New Dealers or their offspring. Presidents and governors could come and go. The Supreme Court could meander through its various phases. But the underlying structure of government was beyond the debate, immune to external forces, owned by the heirs of FDR. Even a president of the popularity of Ronald Reagan would see his budgets received with routine contempt; "Dead on Arrival" was the gleeful pronouncement of the relevant House committee chair. New realities, both fiscal and political, could constrain the actions of the legislature, but nothing this side of the divine could impinge on its philosophy of governance.

That peculiar perspective, shared honestly by a very small slice of the world's population, assumed a de facto respectability by virtue of its stranglehold on the lawmaking branch of state. Via the aura of inevitability, New Dealism maintained its monopolistic share of the political theory market even as its arguments grew flabby and its tone grew shrill. Its ringleaders could treat their opponents as morally deficient—a contempt bolstered by the fact that all the world knew that they were, as a practical matter, hapless.

The reaction of the so-called liberals to the embarrassing triumph of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich has revealed the Conventional Wisdom's rotten inner core. Take, for instance, the honest observations of two journalists operating from well within the belly of the beast, Andrew Sullivan, editor of The New Republic, and Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

Sullivan reports that the earthquake has prompted a prototypical liberal response: "It's scary." The reflex reveals two fatal flaws, he augers: "The first is that the right way to respond to political events is emotional; that the two sides in American politics can be divided into those who 'feel' the right things and those who don't; and that those who 'feel' the wrong things are either screwed-up or wicked or have just emerged from under a particularly clammy rock….The second…is that politics is more about anathematizing than arguing. You'll find any number of liberals whose main line of attack on the new Republican leaders will be to describe them as bigots, red-necks, know-nothings, racists or religious nuts, and who regard that as an argument. (Since many liberals only fraternize with each other, of course, these sentiments have become ritualized as arguments.)"

Greenfield, in her Newsweek column, finds evidence of much the same demonization tactic in political discourse. In accusing the Democratic Party leadership of being in deep denial, she scores "the worst affliction" of the Old Guard: "an inability to imagine the basis of legitimate worthy opposition to themselves."

As a life-long dissenter from political orthodoxy, it is gratifying to know that I am not merely a paranoid crank. Perhaps such frank talk will infuse the Conventional Wisdom with a keener interest in diverse viewpoints and morally legitimate what were once the vilified outcasts of the intellectual roundtable.

The liberals will see this as an invitation to all manner of social villainy. Should we talk turkey with skinheads and neo-Nazis?, they will implore. That they have lost all facility for distinguishing between the dissenters and the disgusting is yet another sign that the only means for sobering up the political debate in America was an electoral cold shower the size of a tidal wave. The surf was definitely up on the eighth of November 1994. And once morally suspect skeptics of welfare-state pieties are finding the break totally tubular.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.