Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cost of Snobbery

"Here I'm starting from the premise that American politics has been fitfully sorting itself into a meritocracy-versus-populism dynamic, with one party (the Democrats) dominated by the mass upper class and the other party (the GOP) representing the middle and working-class voters who resent this newish elite, for good reasons and for bad. The European model Reihan gestures at has succeeded - to date - by largely marginalizing the latter temper, with the result that the continent's right-populist types (your Le Pens and your Haiders) are simultaneously more extreme and more powerless than the equivalent figures in the United States. But conservative populism in the United States is way too potent to be marginalized in that fashion, I think...." - Ross Douthat

Ross writes an interesting post about how libertarians might fit in the big-picture American political dynamic as it evolves over the next decade or so. Leaving aside the libertarians for a moment, I disagree with Ross that right-populism in American cannot be marginalized. I for one think that's America's biggest political risk for the moment.

More than that though, we should wonder why the populism should currently be associated with the Right in America. Fifty years ago, it was associated with the Left (and politically speaking found its home with the Democrats). One one level, it makes more sense that way: modern economies, especially modern capitalist economies, are socially volatile to the point the people with the strong ties to the blood and soil might want help from the political establishment to protect them from being knocked around by incomprehensible forces bigger than they are. Nonetheless, it doesn't work that way, at least now. And the reason why is very illuminating.

Relatively speaking, the conservative base in America has strong families, which, besides being intrinsically valuable, are also protection during bad times. It's a very important but largely ignored reality that intrafamily economics are much more efficient than the general economy. The consequence of this is, with respect to being able to provide for themselves the conservative base has a broader imagination than typical liberals do. We get to slightly comic situation where the supposedly simple-minded Palins shoot their own food, whereas people with master's degrees in comparative literature are agitating for stimulus packages. It seems obvious to me, but the idea that not everybody can get a bailout is actually quite controversial.

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