Walter Russell Mead: The Once and Future Liberalism





Walter Russell Mead is professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest.

Writing about the onset of the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that the end had come but was not yet in sight. The past was crumbling under their feet, but people could not imagine how the future would play out. Their social imagination had hit a wall.

The same thing is happening today: The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

In the old system, most blue-collar and white-collar workers held stable, lifetime jobs with defined benefit pensions, and a career civil service administered a growing state as living standards for all social classes steadily rose. Gaps between the classes remained fairly consistent in an industrial economy characterized by strong unions in stable, government-brokered arrangements with large corporations—what Galbraith and others referred to as the Iron Triangle. High school graduates were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that provided a comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle; college graduates could expect a better paid and equally secure future. An increasing "social dividend", meanwhile, accrued in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks, more social and literal mobility, and more diverse forms of affordable entertainment. Call all this, taken together, the blue model.

In the heyday of the blue model, economists and social scientists assumed that from generation to generation Americans would live a life of incremental improvements. The details of life would keep getting better even as the broad outlines of society stayed the same. The advanced industrial democracies, of which the United States was the largest, wealthiest and strongest, had reached the apex of social achievement. It had, in other words, defined and was in the process of perfecting political and social "best practice." America was what "developed" human society looked like and no more radical changes were in the offing. Amid the hubris that such conceptions encouraged, Professor (later Ambassador) Galbraith was moved to state, in 1952, that "most of the cheap and simple inventions have been made." If only the United States and its allies could best the Soviet Union and its counter-model, then indeed—as a later writer would put it—History would end in the philosophical sense that only one set of universally acknowledged best practices would be left standing.

Life isn’t this simple anymore...

 

 



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