Since the beginning of the U.S. government shutdown, progressive commentators have roundly condemned false comparisons with the Republican Party’s extremist fringe. These commentators shoulder far-right Congressional officials with the country’s budgetary stranglehold, debunking popular hand-wringing our “broken political system.” The problem is, they’re both right: the shutdown is the GOP’s fault, but liberalism allowed it to occur.
“Liberalism,” as an idea, exists in many forms: as a popular political identity, as an assortment of political organizations, and, here, as a historical idea. Two pillars shape the U.S. government’s historical approach to liberal politics, and they are largely continuous throughout the country’s 20th century political history. The first is what James Scott referred to as the “high modernist” state: a central planning body responsible for national policy management, from local schools to federal monetary policy. As the U.S. government spent its first 150 years fighting—often literally—for its own authority, the trappings of U.S. high modernism are relatively recent innovations: the Social Security Administration (1935), the Department of Health and Human Services (1953), the Department of Education (1979). This “high modern” liberalism increasingly constitutes the U.S. political consensus. Congressional conservatives talk a big game about the glory of John Galt’s libertarianism, but to take their Ayn Rand fandom seriously overlooks their basic function as the conduits of the “high modern” state: thus, pork-barrel politics.
Liberalism’s second pillar is an abiding faith in incremental politics. The U.S. government’s liberal consensus rests on the slow, unsteady march towards political improvement, as in ongoing public debates around education reform. Liberals—that is, those who engage with U.S. governance, rather than outside of it—tinker with the state, and often supplement it, but they never supplant it. If, as Karl Marx wrote, our systems of governance “set out from real, active men,” the real, active politics of contemporary society are ubiquitous.
Incremental politics emerge because, with the high modernist state in place, revolution becomes unimaginable. The state has become America’s most basic engine of social exchange, in a way that it wasn’t in, say, 1873. Both progressives and conservatives have tapped into this basic truth of American politics: consider, for example, the Republican response to Elizabeth Warren’s “social contract” monologue during the 2012 election cycle. That is, popular disputes over the state’s social influence vary by scale (“limited government”), rather than existence. A century-and-a-half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a similar phenomenon in his historical assessment of post-revolutionary France: even the most revolutionary futures bear striking similarities to the incremental past.
Cultural commentators on both the left and the right during the first half of the 20th century—the high modernist state’s growth years—decried the “cult of experience” in liberal American politics: that, with enough knowledge of how communities thrive, planners might improve their basic livelihoods. Jane Addams’ settlement houses were once the controversial standard-bearers of incremental liberalism; now, Cass Sunstein’s “nudging” receives official sanction in the U.S. government’s top budgetary organizations. For Christopher Lasch, one of liberalism’s most prominent critics throughout the 1960s, the social-planning consensus overpromised, and underdelivered. “For the new radicals,” he wrote, “conflict itself, rather than injustice or inequality, was the evil to be eradicated. Accordingly, they proposed to reform society not through the agencies of organized coercion, the courts of law and the power of the police, but by means of social engineering…” Policies—institutional tweaks—would redeem the basic failures of American governance, and the politics—the institution’s basic structures—would follow.
Liberalism’s incremental politics have, since the early 20th century, crafted a political system with undeniable dividends for American society, at least in the aggregate. Whatever the rising human costs of inequality, incremental improvements to the high modernist state are widespread: a stronger social safety net supports impoverished workers, and U.S. small-business entrepreneurs now receive extensive assistance from public bodies.
As in human biology, exposure precedes fragility. That the liberal consensus underemphasizes the mess of politics is now a common critique, and one which contemporary critics of education reform, in particular, highlight. But the shutdown, brought on by the catastrophic wrangling of a political fringe, returns the same critique to the fore. The liberal state shapes our lives in profound ways, both implicit and explicit; for many Americans, its disappearance is (rightly) unthinkable. And so political officials seek the improvement of this ever-present state, failing to notice that its tenuous incrementalism heralds its own decay.