Even when confronting striking evidence that something is wrong and that no one has an implementable solution, even when imagining that at least they have stepped outside of political-philosophical gridlock, American pundits, politicians, and popular historians write with unquestioning optimism about what we could do if only. I would have more confidence they might be right – that the visions they like to conjure up are reachable enough to justify re-doubled effort – if they at least admitted the possibility of impossibility, of insuperable obstacles, of diseases without cures, of all those slings and arrows…
The real problem for both parties is that the old roads and the old destinations don’t make that much sense anymore. A global economic upheaval is changing the rules before our eyes. This can play to America’s greatest strengths: our cultural dispositions favoring flexibility, innovation and hard work. But we will have to reinvent some of our core institutions to do this, drastically reducing the size and cost of our government, legal, health and educational systems even as we find ways to make them much more productive than ever before. The old progressive elite of Democrats’ dreams can’t lead us into the promised land — but while Republicans know this much, they haven’t figured out what comes next.
…thus the irrepressibly optimistic historian Walter Russell Mead, even while allowing himself to indulge in some short-term pessimism. I share the pessimism. I suspect that much of the optimism is nonsense, a dangerous illusion, at least as presented. I know it’s a sin to say so.
I find it entirely conceivable that we cannot do and should not attempt to do what the historian believes “we will have to do.” What reason do we have to believe that inherited “cultural dispositions” will be enough to carry us through the “upheaval”? That “reinvent… core institutions” is more than merely sayable (we’ve been saying it for decades), that it’s at all doable? What if the only thing certain, in many cases likely, in particular cases at all possible, about “creative destruction” is the second half of the phrase? What if there’s, shall we say, a bit of friction between “much more productive than ever before” and “drastically reducing the size and cost”? Clearly, “much more productive” + “drastically reducing” isn’t a snap. Otherwise, we’d have snapped it.
What if the “core institution” that needs to be “re-invented” is a core spiritual institution, the very one that inclines us to believe that core institutions are productively re-inventible? Or maybe what makes core institutions (whatever they are) “core” is their relative un-re-inventibility… Maybe that’s another way of saying the same thing. And maybe the reasonable conclusion is: Look, don’t bother trying – it’s not worth it!
I know that’s not how fitness coaches, motivational speakers, and rising Tea Party demagogues like to operate. They don’t go around saying, “There are some things you just cannot do, and will only harm yourselves attempting, whether you put your mind to them or not.” But what if we have too many worthless overpaid motivators, each with his or her special formula for persuading the gullible to grab onto un-liftable weights?
Proceeding as though abstractions and uncertainties are known quantities might be good for morale, but soldiers with high morale do sometimes suffer crushing defeats. They sometimes rush in where people with an appreciation for the irrecoverable human costs of what they are attempting would walk calmly or run swiftly in the opposite direction. Maybe the willingness to assume that “much more productive… drastically reducing” is real prepares us to put an unexceptionably positive face on injustice, on the self-mutilation of the body politic, self-sacrifice on the altar of a hallowed “way of life” that, at least in the terms we commonly understand and discuss it, may itself be “the problem.” Maybe “productive… reducing” is wishful thinking as well as an oxymoron, in other words no more than ideology, a convenient mask for imposing the costs of inevitable national decline disproportionately, on selected scapegoats, on externalized others for as long as we can get away with it, and on the increasingly disenfranchised and dispossessed lower and middle classes.
Throughout my adult life, it’s been a cliché of political discussion that mainstream politicians refuse to treat voters as grown-ups, refuse to admit that we “face hard choices.” Maybe “facing hard choices” is necessary, but just a first step – nothing really to get very proud of. Could be more grown-up than what we normally do, but not especially laudable. Maybe what’s grown-up is facing a hard lack of choices, a certainty of hard experiences, of promises to remain forever unkept, and then to figure out what can be honorably and justly still be done anyway.
Maybe if we had demonstrated a feeling for tragedy, our happy endings would be more believable. That we cling to the latter and call it our exceptional national character suggests that a lot more character-building may be in order.