The Limits of Whig History


From Anne Applebaum’s article in the Washington Post:

History repeats itself and so do ideas, but never in exactly the same way. Bolshevik thinking in 2017 does not sound exactly the way it sounded in 1917… The current leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also comes out of the old pro-Soviet far left. He has voiced anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and even anti-British (and pro-IRA) sentiments for decades — predictable views that no longer sound shocking to a generation that cannot remember who sponsored them in the past. Within his party there is a core of radicals who speak of overthrowing capitalism and bringing back nationalization….

By contrast, the neo-Bolsheviks of the new right or alt-right do not want to conserve or to preserve what exists. They are not Burkeans but radicals who want to overthrow existing institutions. Instead of the false and misleading vision of the future offered by Lenin and Trotsky, they offer a false and misleading vision of the past. They conjure up worlds made up of ethnically or racially pure nations, old-fashioned factories, traditional male-female hierarchies and impenetrable borders…

It’s worth reading.  Ms. Applebaum correctly identifies many of the troubling trends threatening western democracy.

However, it is also a Whig history narrative too kind to today’s status quo.  It paints with too broad a brush, pathologizing as “Bolshevism” any significant critique of the ascendant neoliberal view.  Yes, many of the views denounced are truly awful, but its overly broad brushes excludes ideas – particularly economic ones – whose inclusion may prove necessary.

She chides both leftist and rightists for hewing to a false version of the past – in the case of the left, to a lack of knowledge on socialism’s failures that would have made figures like Corbyn seem like dinosaurs in the 1990s.  On the right she derides the “a false and misleading vision of the past”, with “traditional male-female hierarchies”, “old-fashioned factories”, and “impenetrable borders” being exemplars of illusion.

If other readings of the past are false, the correct reading is the Whig one, which recognizes the inevitable rise of global markets, open borders, and ever-expanding individualism.  In brief, history culminates in the worldview one might find in The Economist.  It rules out any nationalization of industry or stronger borders of the kind common several decades ago.  It cedes enormous determinative powers to the market to shape policy.  It winks at the disconnectedness of what the left calls “the 1%” and the right refers to as “the cosmopolitan elite” (criticism of which Applebaum insinuatingly links with anti-Semitism) from the citizens with whom they share borders.  It severely limits democratic policy choices under the rationale that history demonstrates we have no alternative but to pursue a set of policies broadly in line with New Labour.

Granted, such an “Economist worldview” has much to recommend it.  At its best, it comes as close to supporting a worldview based on scientific policy as we humans are capable of.  It is also a far better bet than radical alternatives peddled by left or right.

However, the limiting historical narrative profoundly ignores the sources of discontent that have bubbled to the surface in the new millennium.  Why, for example, are so many young people drawn to Corbyn in 2017?  It is indeed probable that many of his supporters do not understand the inefficiencies engendered by old Labour that led to their eclipse by the Blairites.  But the suffering caused by 1970’s inefficiencies should not necessarily take on greater policy importance or relevance than the income stagnation and skyrocketing housing prices of the past several decades.  After all, if history has proven nationalization and economic borders unfeasible, surely the past several decades of western middle and working class economic performance has likewise shown neoliberalism’s fruits to be highly mixed.  It doesn’t take a Bolshevik to note that while economic inefficiency is an evil, so is social inequality – and it may be that sometimes a little inefficiency is worth greater equality, especially where the price is political instability.

Applebaum also chides today’s emerging right for its non-Burkean approach.  In many ways, she is correct.   There is virtually nothing of which a Burkean would approve in Trump’s delivery or lack of respect for institutions.  There was likewise a distasteful messianic element in the man’s campaign – and though in this he paled to Obama, Trump’s incarnation has included an unsavoury strongman element.  Ultimately, Trump presents a threat to democratic institutions that any Burkean must acknowledge.

Yet Applebaum goes too far in her accusations of “Bolshevism”, by which she broadly means wanting to destroy and create anew rather than conserve.  In part this may be due to the breakneck speed of social change, which often demonizes those who wish to maintain institutions common only twenty years ago.  But if the conservative is denied preservation of meaningful borders or traditional familial relationships, what is left?  Such a stripped down conservativism leaves primarily economic rights, with a sprinkling of peripheral issues like Second Amendment claptrap – or in other words, the increasingly discredited worldview of old guard Republicans.

The crux of the problem is that there are few easy answers to today’s policy problems.  Many of the prescriptions of the left and right are indeed the stuff of fantasy.  But nor is the solution to pretend history ended in 1999, borrowing even from the lexicon of that century to mischaracterize and safely dismiss today’s diverse actors.

Ultimately, the neoliberal worldview may indeed prove the correct one:  ever more connected markets, increasingly invisible borders, and traditional family and community structures swept away by liberated individualism.  The economic inequalities of the past decades may yet, as neoliberals hope, level out one day – if not quite into a utopia rivaling the dictatorship of the proletariat, then at least into a world of modest, sustained, year-by-year middle-class wage growth.

Or it may not.  One way forward economically may lie in the pattern common to capitalism in the past:  adopting some of the notions of its critics while preserving the fundamental structure of the system.  Illustrative in this were Bismarck’s adaptation of elements of the socialist platform or FDR’s New Deal break with austerity and limited government.  I personally wonder whether some greater measure of “economic nationalism” (though free of the taint of Steve Bannon) may again be seen as necessary or fashionable – a trajectory made more likely if China, with its simultaneous emphasis on free trade and very strong economic nationalist tendencies, continues its national rejuvenation.   For someone who deeply subscribes to the Whig reading, however, this may seem an unacceptable step backwards.

Even if that does not happen, it is clear that a Whig history narrative excludes important trends and legitimate challenges.  It limits unnecessarily the options of policy makers and explains away too easily the failures of recent decades.  As a result, it has often missed the popular discontent it must now face.

Many Roads Led to Trump, but Look to the Swing States

Rust Belt Economic Decline

On the night of November 9, 2016, a new political quiz emerged.  It’s both revealing and simple, consisting of a single question:  “why did Trump win?”  Common responses include racism, economic anxiety, misogyny, progressive overreach, the prevalence of self-contained “bubbles” on the left and right, and Russian interference.   Whatever your preferred answer is, it tells a lot about what you think is today’s most significant social issue.

Most moderates would agree that “all of the above probably played some role, to greater or lesser degrees.”  This is correct and should be the foundation for further analysis, but it’s also a bit of a bland truism.  It bears passing mention here as, sadly, it is not always a widely-held notion among ideologues.  This is demonstrated by the shrill and polemical character of many explanatory pieces, like this ludicrously self-assured piece by Mr. Monomania, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So the correct follow-up is:  okay, all the above factors may have played some role, but is there one that’s weightier than the others?  I admit I’m most partial to economic anxiety.  Here’s why and what it says about folks like me.

Unlike the agitprop of Mr. Coates, I admit my explanation has its weaknesses .   The most glaring is that people with an income of $50,000 were more  likely to vote for Clinton.    There isn’t any way to entirely explain this fact away.  It clearly does suggest that the relationship between having a low income at the time of the election and voting for Trump is at best muddied.

However, there is also much more to the data than just that point.  As was observed elsewhere, Trump’s victory hinged on a very small number of votes.  According to this analysis in the Washington Post, the “election was effectively decided by 107,000 people” in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  These three states also voted very decisively for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 .    The decisive swing-state of Ohio, which likewise voted Obama in 2008 and 2012, went Trump in 2016.  Given that the traditionally Republican states voted along party-lines as always (90% of Republicans voted Trump), the kingmakers were in fact the voters in these swing-areas.

What do these states have in common?  Are they particular hotbeds of racist activity in ways they were not in 2008 and 2012?  That strains credulity.  Ockham’s razor tells us the simplest answer based on these states’ commonality:  that the Rust Belt has been hit especially hard by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs.  Trump’s message of bringing back manufacturing jobs, though likely a con and a fantasy, had particular resonance with these voters as evidenced by this key switch in allegiance in 2016.  Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden certainly thought that this issue was of prime importance and blamed the Democrats defeat on it. 

Other factors are also worth considering to explain Clinton’s support among those earning less than $50,000.  Clinton voters were also much younger, including for the 18-29 demographic (55-37) and the 30-44 group (50-42).  This is significant as younger people are more likely to have a lower income, but still enjoy prospects for future income growth.

None of this is to say that other factors didn’t play a role.  White identity politics assuredly motivated some Americans to support the man whom Pat Buchanan called “the Great White Hope”  and the message of voting Trump to prevent the appointment of progressive Supreme Court justices was also a common refrain during the campaign.  However, based on where the election was actually decided, these explanations ultimately lack the explanatory power of Bill Clinton’s 1992 observation “it’s the economy, stupid.”  After all, not only did these same swing states vote Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump also captured more Latino voters than Romney did in 2012.

What does it say about you if you believe that economics was the key factor behind Trump’s election?  It may mean that you think that it is economic inequality that is giving rise to our most serious challenges.  It probably means that you’re critical of Republican’s simultaneous worship of big business and offshoring on the one hand, while offering little of substance to those left behind.  It could potentially mean that you’re likewise critical of the Democrats’ neglect of economic concerns relative to the weight progressive causes receive.   Finally, there’s a good chance you feel both parties are adrift.

Trump’s exploitation of the economic issue was the key that allowed him to overthrow the Republican Party establishment (which did not appear to be giving the issue much importance) and then capture the Rust Belt swing votes necessary to defeat Clinton.  But sadly, Trump’s voters have been taken in by a conman driven by ego whose economic playbook seems to be the cribbed notes of a tired, Regan-era ideology.   Whether out of his desire to be accepted by the wealthiest elite or out of some other concern, he has also filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alum, a prime bête noir during his campaign and the very symbol of offshoring, shareholder value, and plutocratic disinterest in the working person.

The reality, of course, is that the complex nature of technological change and the global economy make promises of restoring the manufacturing prosperity of 1964 a wistful fantasy.  Though many have pinned their economic hopes on him, Rust Belt voters may have a while to wait before “the greatest jobs president that God ever created” delivers.