Why progressivism is flourishing in the US
The competition to appear high status is pushing politics in an extreme direction
Just before the dark times began I re-read Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks’s entertaining, best-selling 2000 book about America’s then-new elite, and it was striking how the age described seems so vanished. And, in many ways, changed for the worse.
The most striking bit was where Brooks writes about a media class comprised of journalists “at national publications [who] can now count on six-figure salaries when they hit middle age”, and of liberal arts majors who “can wake up one day and find themselves suddenly members of the top-income bracket”.
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He speculated that life was becoming so comfortable for Bobos that politics might become quite boring, the two main parties so close together in ideology people would only be arguing about technical details (in so many words).
Anyway, cut to “twenty years later” and mobs of hooded extremists are fighting it out in the street and government squads in camo gear led by people called “Chad Wolf”. Narrator: American politics did not become more moderate.
A year after Bobos, Brooks wrote an essay, The Organization Kid, about how un-rebellious students had become, obsessed with building their careers rather than protesting or other wildness. It was a fair enough analysis of his generation, Ross Douthat writes in his most recent comment, because meritocracy at the time seemed to work. Now instead it has become this “exhausting ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Red Queen Race of full-time meritocratic achievement” in the words of a pseudonymous commentator.
American culture has always emphasised competition more than any other, which was part of its strength, economically and socially, leading to a more meritocratic social hierarchy which allowed talent to rise.
But meritocracy has its dark side, in particular the low esteem it casts on those who don’t win at the game of life, made worse by the erosion of the institutions that once provided a buffer and comfort — family, community, religion. For the poor, drugs are a way of coping with this disaster, a substitute for faith. For many of the middle-class precariat, it’s politics-as-replacement religion. Many are literally addicted to the sense of outrage that the little device in the pocket provides on an hourly basis, and also provides some sense of dignity because they can at least distinguish themselves from the Brexit and Trump-voting rubes below them.
But the over-competitiveness Douthat describes is also one of the root causes of the darkening political intolerance across the water. When a political view becomes a mark of status, then the competition to appear higher status will push politics in an extreme direction.
There are no surrender papers for conservatives to sign; you cannot just accept defeat and move on, because progressivism is a transformative religion that must go forward by its very nature because there is always “so much more work to be done”. But it is not a coincidence that this new form of intolerant politics has found its home in the land of competition and meritocracy.
This heightened elite competition is a major hallmark of the point in a secular cycle (identified by the cliodynamicist Peter Turchin) where a civilisation is about to enter a crisis and collapse. Other hallmarks include increased numbers of ideological enforcers, increased income inequality, increased urbanisation, increased indebtedness of the populace, and increased epidemic incidence.
Ominous signs – but I’d take issue with one of them: if Turchin claims that “increased urbanisation” is a sign of civilisational crisis, surely he is overlooking a major difference between our present situation and the past. Nowadays, urbanisation is a consequence of the fact that farming no longer needs to be labour intensive; there’s simply no need for a massive rural population. For most of history, this was not true, so previous instances of urbanisation probably testified to fear of insecurity among those leaving the countryside – i.e., the barbarians really were at the gates.
I also can’t help feeling that all the phenomena you list, with the exception of indebtedness, were true of Victorian Britain (the increasingly rigid imposition of Christian / Puritan social values, frequent cholera epidemics, massive urbanisation as a result of the industrial revolution, and growing wealth in the upper echelons of society relative to mass poverty – again as a result of the industrial revolution). While there was, eventually, a civilisational crisis in the form of the First World War, it’s hard to correlate that directly with any of those specific phenomena. Arguably all civilisations reach crisis points from time to time, sometime collapsing as a result, sometimes repairing themselves.
You’re absolutely right, Turchin is always careful to make clear that the secular cycles he identifies are true of agrarian societies, and that to at least some extent we have now broken the cycle. Many of the same dynamics still obtain today, but they will indeed present differently to varying extents.
Yea, but cliodynamicism is such a self proving series of arguments it says more about the preconceptions of the inventor than of the societies.
I find it very convincing, but of course to each their own.
“He speculated that life was becoming so comfortable for Bobos that politics might become quite boring, the two main parties so close together in ideology people would only be arguing about technical details” Fantastic!
And so it would have been but for those Cuckoos laying their eggs in these guys warm and cozy nests. The Liberal Left education industry, and the Liberal Left Media. For some reason those two industries set out to mold the minds of the young into self destructive hyper Liberals. There had been a time when teachers wanted to teach the students what they needed to know for success, this was now over. The education system was now out to create these self loathing wokes and set them off towards the cliff edge like little wind up toys, marching off to their, and everyone’s, destruction. Kind of like that dreadful movie Zardoz.
from wiki, Zardoz, “he is transformed from a revenge-seeking Exterminator, his subsequent efforts to give the Eternals salvation by bringing them death are in essence acts of mercy. Zed helps the Exterminators invade the Vortex and kill most of the Eternals”who welcome death as a release from their eternal but boring existence.”
The simple problem is that the “technical details” were got so completely wrong: the Iraq War, the Financial Crash and the impossible demands of today’s education and property markets have alienated and radicalised a generation.
An enlightening diagnosis.
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