Some people have taken comfort in Joe Biden’s emerging undead administration, in which Biden, who will be 82 years old at the end of his term and was first elected to office half a century ago, has chosen to surround himself with such deathless hacks as John Kerry, who first ran for office in 1972, and Janet Yellen, who took her first job at the Federal Reserve in 1977. These personalities are intimately familiar, like a persistent infection.
In truth, Biden might have done worse under the influence of today’s Democratic party: Janet Yellen may not be Milton Friedman, but she isn’t Bernie Sanders, either. Incoming National Economic Council director Brian Deese hasn’t been working at Marxists ’R’ Us since leaving the Obama administration — he’s been helping BlackRock profitably manage its $7.4 trillion in assets. We’ll even be treated to the return of Jen Psaki, the witless, feckless, gormless, and generally -less Pippi Longstocking of self-regarding Democratic hackery. Sure, it’ll be like giving the inmates from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest nuclear weapons and a navy, but that’s democracy for you. And they’d have to expend a great deal of energy to come off as weirder than Donald Trump, who has an imaginary friend for a PR man and a habit of citing a Twitter philosopher called “Cat Turd.”
So, return to normalcy?
Don’t bet on it.
Americans talk about the postwar years — the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years — as though they were a kind of golden age. They weren’t, and damned few of us would be happy with the political settlement that existed then: The Left may cheer the high statutory tax rates of the time, but actual tax collections in those years were almost exactly what they are today, and as much as 80 percent of that Eisenhower-era tax revenue was spent on the military and national security, with entitlement and welfare spending kept to a small share of outlays. There was some movement on civil rights — Eisenhower signed a civil-rights bill in 1957 and sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to keep the peace as the schools were integrated — but the country remained segregated by and large. In 1950, a third of U.S. households had no indoor plumbing.
But this is the era that commands the sentimental attention of the American mind. The postwar years are our national definition of normal, even though they were anything but that. Of course, there are things to admire about the ways and means of the past: I have a soft spot for the era in which it was considered unseemly for gentlemen who wanted to be president to campaign for the position and the old, retiring style of Calvin Coolidge. Dueling and dying from staph infections I can do without.
The postwar liberal consensus was in some ways an inversion of the current order: Progressives had the political power, and conservatives had the cultural power. Progressives of course believe they are naturally entitled to domination in both political and cultural life, and the election of Joe Biden seems to many of them a step in the direction of the return to the kind of normalcy they endorse: Progressives in control of the levers of power, conservatives quietly complaining about it at Rotary Club meetings. But that is not what has happened, and the old liberal consensus rested on a foundation that cannot be restored.
What’s been lost since the Eisenhower years isn’t widely shared prosperity (we are radically better off today than we were then) or uprightness and honesty in government (Eisenhower treated his wife shamefully and had Richard Nixon as his vice president), or even social stability (the anarchy sowed in the 1950s was reaped in the 1960s), but something altogether different from any of these: trust.
American government had never enjoyed more prestige than it did at the end of World War II. The corruption and waste of the U.S. war-mobilization project were Brobdingnagian, but this fact never really entered the national consciousness. World War II was the good war — if you can’t feel good about whipping the Nazis, you can’t feel good — and it was perceived (wrongly, but that hardly matters) as the event that ended the Great Depression and brought the United States into the new prosperity it began to enjoy in the postwar years. World War II had convinced many Americans that government was practically omnicompetent, capable of executing any program to which it committed itself.
The prestige of American government rose with the prestige of science, to which Washington had been wed from the Manhattan Project onward. Scientific and pseudoscientific experts of all kinds — from nuclear physicists to practitioners of “management science” — were treated with tremendous deference in the belief that traditional messy democratic fights about preferences and priorities could be settled on empirical terms. Indeed, one of the superstitions of the time was that government and science were destined to become essentially the same thing. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Kurt Vonnegut imagined economies or whole worlds run by computers — dystopias, for the most part, but dystopias based on an expansive view of what science could in fact accomplish in regulating and regimenting human affairs.
The Olympian scientific attitude — if not the genuine scientific commitment to dispassionate truth-seeking — found its way into all of the major institutions. The great business concerns that thrived in the postwar years, powerhouses such as IBM and Bell Labs, were engaged in groundbreaking research in addition to seeking profits; history and philosophy were superseded by “political science”; the formerly partisan press that had given rise to dozens of newspapers with such names as the Sherman Daily Democrat and the Springfield Republican gave way to the “objective” reporting of Walter Cronkite and the revamped Wall Street Journal, which grew from a relatively small readership of 33,000 New York–area businessmen in 1945 to a national readership of more than 1 million in only 20 years.
These institutions together formed a mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing structure of credibility in an environment charged by victory in the war, the economic boom that followed, and the awesome power of modern science made urgent and manifest by nuclear weapons. For a moment, these institutions managed to enjoy and cultivate that credibility and prestige without being made arrogant, corrupt, or complacent by it.
But what we thought was confidence was in fact hubris, and the great trust enjoyed by the postwar institutions was not entirely merited. Yes, we had a kind of national unity founded on shared belief — as do Scientologists, vegans, QAnon cultists, and kooks of all stripes. We were unified by shared assumptions that were not true. A pleasant delusion is no less delusional for its pleasantness.
Human affairs are not an engineering question and cannot be “solved” like an algebra problem. The physical world is made up of atoms and energy, but the social world is made up of human beings and the incomprehensible complexity of their interconnected lives. We did not get Asimov’s thinking machines — we got Facebook, that vast representation of original sin in digital form. We asked government to solve problems that cannot be solved by government or by anybody else, thinking that we could win a “war on poverty” in the same way we’d won the war on Germany and Japan. (Oh, you too, Italy — you too.) Political “science” and pragmatism turned out to be new cloaks for ideology and self-dealing, the trustees of institutions exchanged their postwar idealism for comfortable careerism, and Walter Cronkite turned out to be a bigot and a nut.
We aren’t going to revert to the middle of the 20th century. In some ways, we are reverting to the middle of the 19th century: populism and agrarian agitation, bitterly partisan media, some pretty terrible ideas about monetary policy, the political weaponization of antitrust law and federal regulation, raging sectional divides, distrust of the major political parties, hostility toward trade — and a general lack of faith in institutions from the state and local levels to the national and international levels. Conservatives may take some inspiration from the fact that when confronted with the fiery populism of young William Jennings Bryan, some Americans may have thrilled to his “Cross of Gold” speech — but, in the end, they elected William McKinley. The election was vicious and was fought partly on culture-war grounds, partly on ethnic grounds, in the aftermath of a financial panic, and split the country on rural–urban lines.
It was ugly and disruptive, and it changed the country forever.
And, in many ways, that ugliness and disruption — and not the brief liberal consensus of the postwar years—is normal: the real normal, the normal normal.
Two cheers for that.
Kevin D. Williamson – www.nationalreview.com