Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Whither the New Consensus?

Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the August 13th, 2010

He pontificates:

In retrospect, the vaunted “liberal consensus” that dominated postwar American culture began breaking down in the 1970s. Richard Nixon in many ways represented both its culmination and its collapse: the former right-wing anti-Communist ended up presiding over the last wave of Great Society projects, but Nixon also helped engineer the liberal consensus’s downfall. He was, after all, the author of the Southern Strategy, designed to exploit racial tensions to split white voters away from their century-long adherence to the Democratic Party. Reagan, of course, solidified the new conservative consensus, and it reached its pinnacle ironically with the end of the Cold War (which was the final fruit of the liberal consensus) but I think Nixon was its real author.

After all, it was in the Nixon years that Milton Friedman and others published papers that challenged the liberal orthodoxy of Keynesian economics, providing what seemed at the time a more persuasive account for the mystery of simultaneous high rates of inflation and unemployment. Market forces, deregulation, and tax cuts became the new mantra.

It seems pretty clear that we’ve come to another turning point in American culture. The conservative consensus that has dominated public and media opinion (albeit not in the realms of cultural or intellectual life) for nearly forty years is in full-blown collapse: now it is Friedman’s economic theory that suddenly seems useless to explain the current economic crisis. The Southern Strategy increasingly looks like an anchor around the neck of the Republican Party, as it alienates every group in the country except for aging white conservatives. The death throes of the Conservative Consensus are ugly, as its proponents cling to its fading guarantees and lash out in hysterical anger at those who point out its failings. And just as was the case with the liberal consensus after its loss of hegemony, the aftereffects of the conservative version will no doubt linger in public discourse for the next decade or longer.

The fast approaching end of the Conservative Consensus seems pretty clear. What isn’t so clear is the nature of the new consensus that would emerge to take its place: what we see right now is an absence of any consensus. Things could go in any direction, I think. On bad days, I am struck by the resemblance between contemporary America and 1930s Germany and Japan: widepsread economic distress, palpable loss of faith in democracy and a concomitant blind worship of the military’s supposed competence, the rise of populist demagogues fanning hatred against impoverished minority groups (Father Coughlin, meet Rush Limbaugh), their more radical supporters arming themselves and forming quasi-militia that lack only brown shirts. It’s also striking how the rhetoric of the Cold War (Communist! Socialist!) is being revived today, a recycling of the slogans that helped the liberal consensus gain traction forty years ago recycled now in a desperate attempt to plug the leaks in the sinking ship of the conservative consensus.

The election of Obama seemed to promise the rise of a new progressive, or perhaps technocratic, consensus, but he has mostly weasled away from that (yes, that statement apparently makes me a member of the “professional left”). As a result, there seems no clear candidate on hand from the left or the center for replacing the failing conservative consensus. The U.S. currently faces enormous problems–rampant poverty and an increasingly immoral economic system that steers wealth into the hands of a tiny elite; environmental and infrastructural meltdown; simultaneous decay of our primary, secondary, and tertiary educational systems; the rise of a plutocracy in which corporations and wealthy individuals blatantly buy up elections and branches of government, to name just a few–and effective solutions will require a new consensus. The great American experiment with democracy has muddled through crises in the past; does it have the ability to pull off one more revival?

2 Responses to 'Whither the New Consensus?'

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  1. Jeffrey Peterson said,

    on August 13th, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Or is that the “professorial” left..

  2. bourdaghs said,

    on August 13th, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Hi, Jeff: Yeah, guilty as charged. We’re headed in your direction shortly; will be in touch soon!