Conservatives often fret that Barack Obama is leading the nation toward socialism. In my mind, that's an insult to socialism, which, in theory, at least, seeks to uplift the lower classes through greater prosperity. In contrast, the current administration and its core of wealthy supporters are more reminiscent of British Tories, the longtime defenders of hereditary privilege, a hierarchical social order and slow-paced economic change.
The notion that the "progressives" are, in fact, closeted Royalists has been trotted out by a handful of Obama admirers, such as Andrew Sullivan, who calls the president "the conservative reformist of my dreams." Essentially, Sullivan argues, Obama has been a "Tory president," with more in common with, say, an aristocratic toff like British Prime Minister David Cameron than a traditional left-liberal reformer.
The fundamental conservativism underlying the modern "progressive" marks the central thesis of an upcoming book by historian Fred Siegel, appropriately titled "Revolt Against the Masses." Siegel traces the roots of the new-fashioned Toryism to the cultural wars of the 1960s, when the fury of the "Left," once centered on the corporate elites, shifted increasingly to the middle class, which was widely blamed for everything from a culture of conformity to racism and support for the Vietnam War.
Tory progressivism's most-unifying theme, Siegel notes, includes the preservation and conservation of the landed order enjoyed by the British ultrawealthy and upper-middle classes. In the 19th century, Siegel notes, Tory Radicals, like William Wordsworth, William Morris and John Ruskin, objected to the ecological devastation of modern capitalism and sought to preserve the glories of the British countryside.
They also opposed the "leveling" effects of a market economy that sometimes allowed the less-educated, less well-bred to supplant the old aristocracies, with their supposedly more enlightened tastes. "Strong supporters of centralized monarchical power, this aristocratic sensibility also saw itself as the defender of the poor – in their place," writes Siegel. "Its enemies were the middle classes and the aesthetic ugliness they associated with the industrial economy borne of bourgeois energies."
Today, this Tory tradition lives on in contemporary Britain, where industry remains widely disparaged and land use tightly controlled. There is no more strident defender of preserving the space of the landed gentry than the leading Tory mouthpiece, The Daily Telegraph. All efforts are made to restrict the expansion of suburbs and new towns, all the better to preserve the British countryside for the better enjoyment of the gentry.
As a result, Britain now suffers some of the world's highest housing prices – even in the economically devastated north of the country. Unable to afford decent accommodations, notes author James Heartfield, some British families have been forced to live in old restrooms, garden sheds, even abandoned double-decker buses.
Until recent decades, such an "enlightened" conservatism has been rare in America, with its strong tradition of upward mobility and vast landscape for development. As early as the 1950s, however, intellectuals, architects, planners and aesthetes have railed against the banality of suburbanizing, and democratizing, America, but the real turn towards gentry progressivism took place with the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s.
Rightfully alarmed by the deterioration of the environment at that time, early green activists made contributions to a remarkable cleanup of the nation's air and water, something that widely benefited millions of Americans. But the movement also fell ever more prone to all manner of hysterias; at the first Earth Day, in 1970, some scientists predicted that, by the 1980s, people would not be able to walk outside without a helmet. Then followed a series of jeremiads about "limits of growth" associated with the depletion of critical minerals, "peak oil" and, finally, the call for radical steps to address climate change.
All these causes, sometimes based on fact or somewhat overheated extrapolation, gradually diverted American progressives from their historic interest in economic growth and social mobility to a primary focus on environmental purity, whatever the social or economic cost. Their Tory-like policies have helped stunt economic growth, particularly in the blue-collar industrial and construction sectors, promoting, albeit unintentionally, ever-narrowing opportunity for all but a few Americans.
Despite its opportunistic use of populist rhetoric, the Obama administration has presided over widespread economic distress – with the average household now earning considerably less than it did four years ago. This trend has worsened during the current "recovery," even as the Federal Reserve's policies have generated record profits for corporate and Wall Street grandees.
It has been a particular boon time for a new rising class of oligarchs from Silicon Valley, which has embraced Obama with money and technical expertise. Not surprisingly, the ultra-affluent coastal areas have become primary supporters of the administration, which in November won eight of the nation's 10 wealthiest counties, many of them handily.
The growing gaps between the "1 percent" and everyone else have been particularly marked in those regions under the most complete progressive control. The Holy Places of urbanism, such as New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., also suffer some of the worst income inequality.
In these regions, the so-called "creative class" is courted by politicians, developers and corporate big-wigs. Meanwhile their putative political allies, in places like Oakland and parts of New York's the outer boroughs, experience seemingly irrepressible permanent unemployment and, increasingly, rising crime. Perhaps the most outrageous example of the dual nature of the new progressive economy, notes Walter Russell Mead, can be seen in Detroit, where a shrinking, debt-ridden and dysfunctional city that fails its largely poor residents has generated $474 million since 2005 for well-connected Wall Street bond issuers.
Under the progressive Tory regime, the best that can be offered the middle class is an outbound ticket to less-Tory-dominated, albeit often less culturally "enlightened" places, such as Texas, the Southeast or Utah. There, manufacturing, energy and agricultural industries still anchor much of the economy. Despite their expressions of concern for the lower orders, gentry progressives don't see much hope for the recovery of blue-collar manufacturing or construction jobs, at least not in their bailiwicks. Instead they suggest that the hoi polloi seek their future in what the British used to call "service," that is, as caregivers, haircutters, dog walkers, waiters and toenail painters for their more-highly educated betters.
Such kindness, however, is no replacement for the kind of broad-based economic growth that historically has promoted self-sufficiency and upward mobility, both in California and elsewhere. Due in large part to the new progressive policies, this is now increasingly out of reach for many in the middle class, as well as the increasingly Latino working classes. Indeed, a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California reveals that class stratification in the state has expanded far faster than the national average.
"We have created a regulatory framework that is reducing employment prospects in the very sectors that huge shares of our population need if they are to reach the middle class," notes economist John Husing. A onetime Democratic activist, Husing laments how, in progressive California, green energy policies have driven up electricity costs to twice as high as those in competitor states, such as Utah, Texas and Washington, and considerably above those of neighboring Arizona and Nevada. These and other regulatory policies, he suggests, are largely responsible for the Golden State missing out on the country's manufacturing rebound, losing jobs, while others, not only Texas but also in the Great Lakes, have expanded jobs in this sector.
Similarly, Draconian land-use regulations have not only kept housing prices, particularly on the coasts, unnecessarily high, but slowed a potential rebound in the construction sector, traditionally a source of higher-wage employment for less-than-highly educated workers. So, while Google workers are pampered and celebrated by the progressive regime, California suffers high unemployment and a continued exodus of working-class and middle-class families.
Sadly, there currently is no strong counterweight to the new Tory ascendency. Until traditional social democrats awake to realities, or the GOP acknowledges the painful reality of class, America will continue to lurch towards the very Tory model that our forefathers had the wisdom to reject throughout most of our history.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Photo by: conservativeparty