The Problem of Political Nostalgia

I live in Toledo, Ohio, and was talking to several people the other day about why my hometown just can’t seem to get it together economically.

These folks agreed that one-party rule plays a big role in why Toledo cannot innovate its way out of its present predicament. You see, Toledo is largely controlled by the Democrat Party, and has been for decades–a result of large-scale union activity since the 1930s. Both concurred that this has led to the wholesale corruption of local government, which is why Toledo is stuck in the economic doldrums.

I think they are right about the corruption of City Hall but drawing a direct correlation between that corruption and Toledo’s economic decline seems to me a mistake in assigning cause and effect. It suggests that merely replacing one-rule government with a more diverse political representation will reverse the decline. I’m not so sure.

One these people made a general observation about both parties that I thought was very profound. She said that the problem with the Democrats is that they want to return to the 1950s, when manufacturing and unions dominated society and culture, a desire that she said was problematic at best. She also observed that the Republicans want to return to an Ozzie and Harriet version of American life, which is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Let’s forget for the moment that these are simplifications that are only half true. I still think this is a great observation and I have reduced it to the following: one of the reasons neither party can solve Toledo’s present problems, or adequately address the future, is because they are both fundamentally parties of nostalgia.

The reality is that neither party has adequately addressed the major changes that have occurred in society the last forty years:

  1. an increased economic globalization which the U.S. can no longer dominate except through graft, intimidation, or force,
  2. the declining need for American political and military prowess resulting from the collapse of the U.S.S.R.,
  3. the increasing shift of work in the U.S. to a low-wage and cognitively undemanding service economy,
  4. the permanent decline of higher-waged manufacturing jobs—a result of off-shoring and automation,
  5. the revolutionary integration of previously excluded classes of people (women, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, etc.) into the economy and society,
  6. the implementation of programs to “equalize” opportunity and outcomes without the necessary structural changes needed to pay for them,
  7. an excessive faith in economic growth as a panacea for all our ills both economic and social.

These issues are all exacerbated by the general unwillingness of both Democrats and Republicans to accept the complexity of our social and economic problems, and their inability to entertain the possibility that there might not be solutions acceptable to all. However, there is one thing that makes dialogue on these complicated issues even more challenging, and that is the binary political environment itself, which is dominated, as stated above, by nostalgia.

The problem with Republicans is that they refuse to accept that there are any structural problems in our social or political systems. They believe that we are merely one small tax reform or deregulation away from “leveling the playing field,” or that a return to family values will cover a multitude of sin. This strikes me as simply a policy of sticking one’s head in the sand.

The Democrats are little better. They think that sprinkling the fairy dust of higher education over the masses will help someone, somewhere to succeed socially and economically–eventually. This policy is at its root just a “kinder and gentler” form of Social Darwinism.

The Democrats’ other major policy is income redistribution, which is even more problematic when it comes to the structural problems we face. This well-meaning policy becomes a perpetual drain on both national income and the national psyche. Redistribution does not address the challenges that are inherent in the structure of all advanced societies. One of those challenges is that people are made by the nature of the system more reliant on others. In a modern liberal and capitalist society we replace the self-reliant and barter-based agricultural society with division of labor and wages, which means we must also put in place programs that offset the ups and downs we know will occur in any complex system, being careful not to over- or under-compensate for the downside.

So, if the problem is structural, how do we fix it? What about Detroit, Chicago, or Los Angeles?

I think it is difficult to lay out a plan that will work for each geographical region, but I do think that there are some general principles that might help to build more responsive social and political systems, especially when it comes to economics. Here are a couple:

  1. More Representative Democracy – By this I mean that we need to not only diversify when it comes to parties we also need to have more people representing less people. The more representatives we have the less subject they will be to outside influences because their power will be greatly diminished as individuals. Power will shift to larger representative bodies that are not as easily influenced, and they will have to work together to accomplish anything.
  2. More Localized Government – By this I mean that all problem solving should begin at the local level and only move up the chain to county, state, regional, or federal, when the problem is clearly not solvable at the local level.
  3. More Localized Economy – By this I mean that small, local businesses should be actively encouraged by local government. There should be a concerted effort to build local businesses that supply products and services to the community before the decision is made to allow large national (or international) corporate entities to dominate a certain segment of the local market. If the community cannot provide a product or service and is forced to let in an outside entity, then it should exact a quid pro quo in exchange for what is a virtual monopoly or oligopoly.
  4. Building Communities Rather Than Epicenters of Commerce – A community exists because we want the benefits that come with social interaction and cooperation. Part of that interaction and cooperation consists in economic exchange, but that is not the only reason for communities to exist. For this reason each community should have the power to decide whether it wants to share resources through collective action or whether they want to leave the provision of these resources to the private sector. However, as stated previously, any entity given a virtual monopoly to provide a certain resource, service, or product, must provide a quid pro quo for this monopoly privilege extended by the local community.

These are not meant to be easy solutions that one party or the other can implement in four years. They are really just general ideas about a framework in which to operate over the long-haul. In fact, the implementation of these ideas becomes more difficult as we dig down into the details. However, if we make the conscious decision to build self-reliant communities, where everyone has some input into how the members of that community will live and work, then we might all be less bothered by the devil of details this commitment involves, and we might also desire less frequently a return to those idyllic “days of yesteryear,” to which we can never return anyway.

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