“What do I mean by “democratic capitalism”? I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism [i]
We rightly have been obsessed with COVID 19 to the exclusion of almost all other topics, but there are other viruses which infect our blood and brains, some of which may have more lasting ramifications.
In a podcast[ii] with Dr. Arthur Brooks, who was featured in a past post here[iii], journalist Jay Nordlinger discussed with him a research paper published out of the University of Berlin. Well referenced, it concluded that financial crises precipitate populist movements of all stripes, but mostly of the radical left. Populism does not inevitably lead to tyranny, but when it does, it is horrific from the National Socialists of the Third Reich and Stalinist slaughters to the “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” gory excesses in France in the late eighteenth century. Dr. Brooks quipped that they sometimes go “real Frenchy” when the economic and political leaders who were once envied and imitated end up in the tumbrils on a public ride to a sharp end dispossessing them of their heads.
The financial crisis does not have to be as dire as that which afflicted the French peasantry[iv] prior to setting up the guillotines. A collapse of the housing and mortgage markets in 2008 and a decade or so of wage stagnation, shrunken opportunity, burdensome personal debt and high unemployment led to the much less bloody “Make America Great” Trump phenomenon and “Feel the Bern” Social Democracy movement here and their analogous movements in many Western countries. Dueling populisms[v], rooted in the fertile soil of discontent, are both feeding on a gnawing sense of helplessness, fear, and a sense that injustice is being done. Both propose solutions that are incompatible with one another[vi], and both perceive the other to be their mortal enemy. For both, most of their proponents believe most sincerely that they offer relief to the oppressed and the best opportunity to right the wrongs in the culture.
We find it difficult even settling on the meanings of the terms we use to describe our disagreements. Nor do we help ourselves when all sides use the same hackneyed phrases and accusations in social media posts to describe their opponents. [vii] How do we begin to rebuild the trust necessary to hack away the thorny briars with our brush hooks[viii] and clear the path forward?
“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” (First published: Horizon. — GB, London. — April 1946.) [ix]
Nearing the fifth month of the unprecedented and politically completely unpredictable COVID 19 financial crisis, the question is what form will the next or prevailing populism take? Have our dueling populisms changed through all of this? Have they distilled and hardened? After a hiatus of a quarter or two, or year or two, will the domestic economy resume its decade long period of relative economic improvement? Will we absorb over 100,000 deaths, keep ourselves angry and entertained with futile social media political posts and continue our untidy path to the unknown? Or has there been a tectonic shift that will not resolve without more earthquakes?
That is the unanswerable question, not whether the Trump administration or the Cuomo administration in NY succeeded or failed in managing the pandemic. Swedish model? Florida model? New York model? Hard lessons we must learn, but not the most important ones. COVID 19 will slow down, perhaps recur periodically like the flu or SARS on cruise ships. But inevitably, another crisis of greater or lesser moment will eventually overtake us. How long will we remain in our trenches lobbing mortar shells at each other and calling each other “Fascists?” And what will our new reality look like when we emerge through the smoke and stink into the light and charge over the top of the trenches?
“The future meant nothing to me until it stuck.” John le Carré, “Legacy of Spies”
[ii] Podcast on Ricochet with Jay Nordlinger and Dr. Arthur Brooks. https://ricochet.com/podcast/q-and-a/the-essential-arthur-brooks/
[iv] The French peasants of 1785 spent 90% of their income on just bread to keep their families just above starvation. Their queen’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) response when told her people had no bread was “Let them eat cake.” Not without sympathy, perhaps she thought the lack of bread was due to bad bakery inventory control.
[vi] Probably nowhere else is the conflict between these movements so stark and irreconcilable as with abortion. One side view it as a necessary component of the reproductive rights of women to end the life of their child for their own necessary benefit: physical health, psychologically, emotionally, economically or socially. The other side sees the intrinsic evil of taking the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable of human beings. Irreconcilable and impossible to compromise those different understandings of the same act. The child either lives or doesn’t. Solomon settled that one centuries ago.
[vii] As fellow social media posters, can we resolve to never use the following words, which no longer have any coherent meaning: Fascist, moron, despicable, fool… Please feel free to add your own contribution to this list.