Saturday, October 29, 2011

The carriage and the brakes

There is a scene in The Duke's Children, the last of Anthony Trollope's brilliant political novels, in which Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and former Liberal Prime Minister of a coalition government, talks with his son, Lord Silverbridge, about the family's political creed, which Silverbridge has just violated by being elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative. (How a Lord can be a Common is one of those things that inveterate readers of British Literature come to understand.) A carriage must have brakes on its wheels, says His Grace, but it is surely more satisfying to be the wheel than to be the brake.

Silverbridge eventually comes around to his father's point of view, which is that of an aristocratic progressive in an era when progress was taken for granted. The one thing to be avoided at all costs was for it to go too quickly, sweeping old institutions and titles away in its haste. Thus, an aristocrat could acknowledge and welcome progress but also be grateful for the brakes that keep its pace measured and steady. The working relationship between liberals and conservatives thus defined is what allowed parliamentary democracy to flourish in the Victorian Era.

It has struck me in recent weeks that in our present society, the roles have been reversed. It is now the conservatives who see themselves as the carriage and liberals who see themselves as the brake. That's more or less what Chris Hedges argues in his recent book The Death of the Liberal Class, but with a twist: we no longer have a working brake, and are thus careening toward disaster.

It requires some historical depth, I suppose, to understand how the ideals of 19th-century liberalism—free markets, economic and social mobility, competition in place of charity—have become conservative rallying points in our own time. In the 1830s, Malthus was in vogue, with his brutal doctrine that human population will inevitably grow faster than its means of support. This doctrine horrified conservatives, who believed that charity could always provide for the poor, but appealed to radical free thinkers who wanted to see that ball and chain replaced by a modern ethos of personal responsibility and unlimited human potential. Thus, it was Britain's liberals who instituted the notorious Poor Laws that so appalled Dickens and other conservatives. (Trollope thumbed his nose at the distinction by insisting that he was an "advanced conservative liberal.") To be conservative in the later 19th century was to wish to place a brake on social change: change that, left unchecked, could easily lead to radical Marxism or equally unpalatable versions of progress that people like Trollope and his fictional liberal Prime Minister were also determined to hold in check.

What Hedges calls "the liberal class" is the 20th-century version of the brake, with capitalism and free markets still filling the role of the historically inevitable, and with even the feared consequences still largely the same. Hedges is simply endorsing the view of many historians when he says that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's main achievement was that he saved capitalism. If Roosevelt and others of the "liberal class" had not put in place the braking mechanism known as the New Deal, capitalism in America could have easily ended up being consumed by the socialist revolution that many were fervently hoping for, or by even darker totalitarian forces. The most progressive politicians of the 30s despised Roosevelt because he stole their golden opportunity out from under their noses. By applying the brakes, he showed that capitalism could still work.

That's why the heritage of the New Deal is so vitally important, and why those who have been trying to scuttle it for the last 30 years are playing with fire. It's why popular anger has boiled up to the point that well over half the population of this country now supports either the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement. I've already made it clear where my sympathies stand—I think the Tea Party is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of reality that seeks to remove all brakes from a carriage already hurtling downhill at terrifying speed. Nevertheless, both groups are there, whether they know it or not, because they realize that something that defined America for at least half a century is no longer working the way it should. The liberal class is no longer recognized or valued for its braking power, and so, even with a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate, there is no real liberal voice in our government today.

That is what has to change if we are going to avert disaster. As Trollope so clearly recognized, no carriage can work safely without a brake. Those of us who are proud of being brakes need to regain our voices before it is too late to make a difference. We need to establish, once again, that the brake is not a luxury that can be disposed of, but a vital part of the vehicle that makes up our body politic. Remove the brakes and you are driving a death trap. That is where our country is at present, and I have enough historical depth to tremble at the prospect of what may follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment