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What today’s Republican Party can’t seem to get its mind around is that globalization has disoriented and disadvantaged large portions of American society, just as industrialization did more than one hundred years ago. Democrats aren’t “creating dependency” by inventing social programs, they’re responding to the social reality in the way progressives have for more than a century. I’m not in favor of the progressive approach, but the fantasy that politics is simply about everybody getting the best deal for themselves is absurd. We have an instinct for solidarity, not just self interest.
Strong national government and federal supremacy have been with us since the Lincoln administration, but you can see its root system in the Adams administration. Michael Lind has been an essential source for the “developmental economic” history of the Unites States. If I can sum his work in one sentence, I would put it like this: The story of America, from Hamilton to Lincoln to the New Deal to World II, has been one of state-promoted — not state-run — industrial capitalism and American Dream-ism. The “neoliberal” adjustments of the 1970s and the Reagan-Clinton era did not replace this system, but rather enmeshed it in the lean-and-mean world of global finance and multinational corporations.
Obama’s mission, as he sees it (or as I think he sees it), is to try to revive the high middle-class living standards of the mid-20th-century in this neoliberal world. “Advanced manufacturing,” new infrastructure, high-tech energy, and higher education are the key components of Obama’s vision of re-industrialization. Republicans have reacted to Obamanomics as if 1) it is akin to socialism or European social democracy; and 2) they do not practice a similar brand of state-promoted capitalism themselves (military-industrial complex, anyone?).
It has always seemed to me that there’s a basic incoherence in the message of economic conservatism. If you free up the market–cut regulation, increase foreign trade, etc.–then you are inherently exposing certain people to more economic risk. Now, this may be justifiable on the grounds that it increases the overall wealth of society. But if you simultaneously argue for slashing the welfare state and public services, then what happens to the “losers” whose economic fortunes are worsened by the market’s “creative destruction”? A cynical view of the matter–and one with some truth to it, I think–is that this is a feature, not a bug of the conservative economic worldview. That is, the whole point is to reduce the power of the middle and lower classes relative to the rich.
But assuming charitably that conservatives are interested in increasing everybody’s well-being, a more coherent approach might be a “Nordic“-style model that combines a liberalized market with a universal safety net and robust public services. This model upholds the values of economic freedom that conservatives claim to cherish, but also recognizes that government action is needed to blunt the sharper edges of the market and ensure universal access to basic goods. However, given its reliance on high levels of taxes and public spending (not to mention its–ew!–European-ness), I have a hard time seeing such a vision catching on among American conservatives.