Patterico's Pontifications


The State of Denial Address

Filed under: General — Karl @ 5:59 pm

[Posted by Karl]

My fellow Americans, the State of Denial is strong.

Although Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address and the GOP response both avoided the issue of entitlement reform, that denial is just the tip of the iceberg. Those evasions were no more than symbolic of the political establishment’s denial of our seemingly inevitable debt crisis. Yet the denial of the coming debt crisis is itself merely a symptom of a larger denial. I alluded to this larger denial when writing about Big Media’s ostrich-like approach to the debt, and the lack of forethought about the way the debt crisis may shape political realignment in America for decades. But I never hit the nail on the head as squarely as Walter Russell Mead has been doing in an ongoing series of pieces, including “The Crisis of the American Intellectual“:

[W]hen I look at the problems we face, I worry. It’s not just that some of our cultural strengths are eroding as both the financial and intellectual elites rush to shed many of the values that made the country great. And it’s not the deficit: we can and will deal with that if we get our policies and politics right. And it’s certainly not the international competition: our geopolitical advantages remain overwhelming and China, India and the EU all face challenges even more daunting than ours and they lack our long tradition of successful, radical but peaceful reform and renewal.


But the biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level. Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.

Of course, most of the people fighting the future believe they are winning the future. Mead explains the primary problem of ideology:

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism. The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

This doesn’t mean that government becomes insignificant. The state will survive and as social life becomes more complex it will inevitably acquire new responsibilities – but it will look and act less like the administrative, bureaucratic entity of the past. The professional, life-tenured civil service bureaucrat will have a smaller role; more work will be contracted out; much more aggressive efforts will be made to harness the power of information technology to transfer decision making power from the federal to the state and local level. All this change runs so deeply against the grain for many American intellectuals that they have a hard time seeing it whole, much less helping make the reforms and adjustments these changes demand.

This larger denial is the central dynamic of America’s political culture today. Our supposed elites — when not insisting the Constitution is infinitely elastic — cling to nineteenth century modes of thought a decade into the twenty-first. In his series on this topic, Mead adopts a non-confrontational tone (note that he expressly names progressivism only once in the two quotes above), perhaps in hopes convincing lefties that they can maintain at least some of their core values while discarding old methods. Although it would be terrific if Mead could lead progressives out of their denial, there are reasons to believe it unlikely to happen.

First, it is entirely possible that psychologically, as the unsustainability of the progressive model becomes more and more apparent, progressive partisans will become even more strident. Second, the system which produces our supposed elites is itself unreformed. America’s most prestigious colleges and universities recruit heavily from progressive demographics, with policies that discriminate against and discourage those who, for example, excelled in ROTC, the 4-H club or a co-op work program. Those admitted are by no means challenged by American academia, which is overwhelmingly supportive of the progressive status quo and likely more in thrall to groupthink and self-selection than their students. Every summer sees another batch of Model T thinkers off to Wall Street, the Beltway and the media, all having learned the life lesson that this is how one succeeds, all having their identity and self-esteem intertwined with credentials issued by these retrograde institutions. Thus, it is not surprising that these ostensibly highly educated people will misinterpret critiques of that system as attacks on intellect.

The State of Denial is strong — and not good for our country. However, understanding that denial is useful in understanding much of what the establishment does and says in the current political environment. It is also important to understand that denial means that the job of preparing for post-debt crisis America will fall to the right. Conservatives and libertarians are going to have to raise their intellectual and political game, rather than sink to the level of their competition.


12 Responses to “The State of Denial Address”

  1. Very well said. We’ll have to reform education as well as government and politics, and it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

    DRJ (fdd243)

  2. Sometimes common sense does play a role. Often, we express opinions on this that and the other. We can say that one opinion or another carries more weight than another.

    But, when you really get down to it, common sense rules in a western society. Every one knows stupidity on it’s face.

    All we argue about is whether one’s stupidity or another’s gathers the most votes.

    Ag80 (7a9f97)

  3. Good post.

    Patterico (c218bd)

  4. CMA DataVision a London-based firm that tracks credit-default swap prices recently gave Greece a 54 chance of going belly up.But mention a default or even a debt restructuring to Greek government officials and theyll hear none of it. Full stop.Of course Greek officials were adamant when the debt crisis first broke out that an IMF bailout wasnt likely either. Believe what you will but the debt-saddled country may have no other choice down the road but to restructure.Even if Greece does everything by the rules the odds that Greeces adjustments could work without restructuring are slim says University of Maryland economist Carmen Reinhart.

    Isiah B. Donaldson (5bbcbc)

  5. Key phrae-“real job”. The current administration right up to The One has never had one. It’s filled with academics who are wedded to the status quo because they know nothing else. Specifically as to Obama he has NO IDEA how the economy works.

    Bugg (9e308e)

  6. I agree with the direction of the Mead argument. There is no need for labels such as Progressive or even intellectual, because in my view there are only two kinds of people, those that are confident they can support their life style and those that feel they can’t.
    The cant’s see a static pie, and need to steal ( with a government or a gun ) a living from the productive. Stop for a moment and consider how many job types depend on government regulation. I believe that at least sixty percent of all Americans are employed by government, or in response to government.
    Then there is me. I see a limitless future, an expanding life rich in work and wonder. If I need more money, I just take a second job.
    Live free or die.

    dr kill (06b97e)

  7. Tis is an excellent article, Karl. It is amusing how some of our creepy trolls espouse some, if not all of the attitudes you outline.

    JD (d4bbf1)

  8. Brilliant synopsis, in a couple of sentences:
    “The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.” Big AMEN to that. The ‘bitter cling-ons’ who cling to their ‘flat-earth bible’ and embrace the ever growing, inefficient, grotesque and unsustainable authoritarian governmental bureacracy will have to ‘hope and change.’ What a thought.

    LeonidasOfSparta (c9c010)

  9. Good stuff, Karl.

    MayBee (081489)

  10. I have learned from reading lefty web sites that the political left does not believe there is a crisis of debt and over spending. Even Kevin Drum, who I respect more than any other lefty blogger, thinks Social Security is just fine. It is a cultural chasm that we will have difficulty ever reaching across.

    For an example, a quick look at Washington Monthly finds this .

    Like a lot of folks, the Breece family is struggling to get by, sacrificing to cut costs, using coupons, etc. But, as Obama explained, “they also know what investments are too important to sacrifice.” In this case, Brenda and her husband are scaling back dramatically, but they’re also helping pay their daughter’s college tuition.

    The president explained in his address, as he prepares to release his new budget on Monday, “Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget. They understand what it takes to make ends meet without forgoing important investments like education. Well, it’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do.”

    There you are. The US can’t cut spending because it must “invest” in the future by pouring money down rat holes like NPR and thousands of Dept of Agriculture agents sitting in every county in the US as if the family farm were still the mainstay of agriculture.

    I think Obama knows better but maybe not.

    Mike K (8f3f19)

  11. Liked this a lot, saw it a few days ago. Yes, Sheeple U will continue to mold and reward students for adhering to the general groupthink cause. The left rely on paternal protectionism whether via govt paycheck or just a hand-out or other subsidy (such as AGW ‘experts’).

    Hopefully the permablue states (DE, MA and CA) can cling to the ‘old way’ while the rest of the country rejects the cost. Independents and conservatives continue to increase nationally which could put 2012 on more stable ground… electoral votes won’t be tallied Castle-esq style since only 20% of the country is hard left. The media can try to Reaganize and neutralize the odor spilling out of the whitehouse, but Hopenchange is just too expensive. 2008 was a popularity contest, with Bush thrown in to the mix. 2012 is about survival.

    Vermont Neighbor (af7a3a)

  12. The US Government and most states are financially insolvent. Until that fact is accepted we will continue to print money and kick the can down the road.
    This called inflation, you are all going to enjoy upscale inflation. Try 50%?

    Ray (50edcc)

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