I want to stress at the outset that this post isn’t about bashing the folks from the progressive-left group Third Way, who recently made the “safari” Molly Ball outlines in an article this week for The Atlantic.
I take as given that the Third Way team did the listening just as Ball says. They really did go out to listen, with open minds, to the people assembled for them in focus groups. In good faith, they sought to find out what was on the minds of Americans in the states and regions that voted Trump into office.
I think Molly Ball shows commendable self-awareness, in fact, in suggesting that although the Third Way team made a good-faith effort, its members ultimately retreated into their own heads as they drew their all-important conclusions.
They knew, Ball recounts, that they were hearing points of view that were somewhat (even largely) irreconcilable. Yet they ended up reporting their trip out (to the extent they have done so; there are states they haven’t finished their reporting on) as a set of findings that what Americans really want is to find ways to come together and put their differences aside.
Ball puts it this way:
The report surprised me when I read it. Despite the great variety of views the researchers and I had heard on our tour, the report had somehow reached the conclusion that Wisconsinites wanted consensus, moderation, and pragmatism—just like Third Way. We had heard people blame each other for their own difficulties, take refuge in tribalism, and appeal to extremes. But the report mentioned little of that. Instead it described the prevailing attitude as “an intense work ethic that binds the community together and helps it adapt to change.”
I probably don’t agree with Third Way’s definitions of “moderation” and “pragmatism,” and I’m pretty sure their method of validating consensus wouldn’t pass my test (and mine probably wouldn’t pass theirs). But that’s not even the point.
The point is that Third Way is looking for something that the American people don’t evince, if you actually talk to them about the specific issues that affect their lives. Molly Ball nails it exactly, albeit from a progressive-leftist’s perspective. “They didn’t want to get along.”
It’s worth perusing the prelude to that pull-quote. Ball says it at the end of a summary about a focus group with what she humorously calls “hippies”:
We had come to the final stop on our listening tour, and the hippies were wary. Viroqua [WI], a town of less than 5,000 people, has in recent years become home to a tiny progressive community. Earnest college graduates toil on organic farms; a “folk school” offers classes in sustainable living, from rabbit butchering to basket-weaving. Migrants from the likes of Madison and Berkeley are attracted to a rural idyll of food and electric co-ops, alternative schools, and locally sourced everything.
The Viroqua representatives were eager to extol the virtues of their community. It was an oasis of sanity, an organic farmer in a pink-and-blue plaid shirt said—unlike the dismal city where he’d grown up. “There was no culture with which to identify, just television, drinking, maybe sports,” he said. “There’s nothing to aspire to. You’re just going through life with a case of Mountain Dew in your car.”
The cafe owner—a bearded man in a North Face fleece—had recently attended a town hall held by the local Democratic congressman, Ron Kind, a Third Way stalwart and former chair of the House’s centrist New Democrat Coalition. “I’m not, like, a jumping-up-and-down Berniecrat,” the man said. “But what you see in these congressional meetings is a refusal to even play ball” with ideas considered too extreme, like single-payer health care. “All these centrist ideals,” he said, “are just perpetuating a broken system.”
This was a direct attack on the very premise of Third Way’s existence. These were not the ideas of the middle 70 percent. These were not the voices of an America that wanted to find mutual understanding with its neighbors. They were, essentially, separatists, proud of their extremism and disdainful of the unenlightened.
It was after this exchange that [Third Way’s Nancy] Hale, after she and Watson got back into the Yukon [SUV] to debrief, as they did after every session in order to compose their eventual after-action report, had to stop and vent. Her problem wasn’t that people were wrong. She had managed to maintain her equanimity while hearing other groups express opinions she disagreed with. It was that they didn’t want to get along.
There’s a wonderful perfection about this passage, because it’s so very American. I’ve never been a leftist in my life, and I’ve never had any romantic notions about the nature of communes in America. But they’ve been a feature of our national life from almost the very beginning. And like the other kinds of communities that have set out to carve their own path across our land, they are committed, single-minded, dedicated, and resistant to compromise.
De Tocqueville would recognize them immediately. They come together, unforced, when the spirit moves them to, and they accomplish amazing things without top-down direction. But they go their own way on principle. In many cases, that means that they eventually break up their own enterprises, because the original agreement just comes to an end. The stakes change. The investment calculus shifts. Life moves on; things change.
Regardless of what end of the political spectrum they occupy, such groups of Americans are quintessentially resistant to the one thing progressives demand: that everyone submit to an idea of government (first, foremost) and community that is fundamentally closed-ended.
Americans simply don’t see life that way – as closed-ended, according to an unchanging political vision (e.g., progressive socialism). They aren’t interested in coming together with people of differing views to try to implement such a vision on the basis of compromise – because it’s the vision of government and politics itself that doesn’t resonate.
The ascendant progressive idea of government – what it’s supposed to be, the relation in which it should stand to us – is what makes Americans less and less interested in agreeing with each other.
The reason for that is that the progressive idea raises the stakes on agreement, to an unworkable level.
Once the concept of inherently interventionist government takes hold, actively trying to reorder everything in our lives with the force of the state, it is no longer possible to agree with political opponents on a host of things. The cost of doing so is too high. You’re signing up for too much.
The cost of agreement becomes extraordinary, when every tick in the agreement box means a new law, a new regulatory imposition, and a new reason to tax or “redistribute.” Eventually, there’s no living left, in this model; it’s all government regulation, mandates, and confiscation.
We have gone such a long way down the path of progressive interventionism that many people younger than perhaps 60 or 70 today can’t even see what an astonishing amount of sheer government we have hovering over us. We used to be able to simply have differing opinions on a whole lot of things, without those opinions incessantly triggering actions of the government. But that is no longer the case. Now, every opinion on everything is the basis for a new law or a lawsuit.
Under those conditions, it is far too costly to agree with people, or even to remain silent, on things we could once go our entire lives without commenting on as political issues at all. Failing to speak out now too often means that the next thing you know, something that didn’t even matter is being made into a mandatory catechism for your children in the public schools, or is sucking more money out of your wallet in the form of taxes or regulation, or has become a condition of legal employment, unless your employer is willing to court endless lawsuits.
There is no compromising with this concept of government. When every agreement triggers the same type of government mechanism, the only political option is disagreement, whether on facts, implications, or conclusions. To avert the inevitable pouncing of the government juggernaut, one has to keep disagreement alive.
People on the left tend to favor the bigger, triggerable government, although it’s not all of them who do. Many of them have a hazier vision – a Bernie Sanders-type vision – than the progressive activists who know exactly what the politics they favor lead to.
The Bernie Brigade has a lot of the starry-eyed folks who don’t especially want to know from mechanisms-of-government (and who definitely don’t). You can represent to them until you’re blue in the face that confiscating the entire wealth of the “1 percent” wouldn’t pay for everyone to go to college now – or pay everyone’s medical bills – much less keep paying for it in the future, and they just don’t want to hear it. They feel a certain way.
But it is perhaps more important about them that they can’t all be pigeon-holed as conscious fans of intrusive government. Progressives by definition are such fans. Progressivism is about bureaucratic statism. Progressives were all in for Hillary, and a continuation of sprawling, bureaucratized, incessantly dysfunctional government.
In that way, the Bernie Brigade has something in common with many people on the right, who tend to consciously oppose intrusive government, not just by feeling but on principle. They might not agree with “Berniecrats” on much. But they don’t see it as a threat to community, posterity, or the life of the nation if we don’t all agree on whether “going through life with a case of Mountain Dew in your car” is a good thing. You do you, dude.
And that’s where so much of America is fundamentally at odds with the Democratic “core” constituency in the urban and coastal centers. Progressives really do, in effect, think there’s one right answer to the “Mountain Dew in the car” question – and the difference between them and the Bernie and Trump voters is that the progressives want everyone to be sitting around the same conference table ready to reach some “agreement” that will trigger actions of the government over it.
The “hippies” of Viroqua did the American thing, and moved to where they could form a community and live the way they want – apparently, with no Mountain Dew in sight.
The “curmudgeonly” farmers who formed another Wisconsin focus group are doing essentially the same thing by staying where they are and wanting to be left alone (except, of course, for the agricultural subsidies that are one of the earliest resource-management measures adopted by progressives. But like everyone else who receives subsidies, the curmudgeonly farmers want to have as few strings attached as possible).
People who move to the suburbs because they don’t want to raise their children in the urban environment they’re leaving are doing a similar thing. And why shouldn’t they? As are people who want to embrace the inner-urban environment of the old cities during certain passages in their lives. More power to them.
Americans have actually been quite patient for many decades now about being taxed and regulated on matters that there is no real public agreement on. But as the intrusiveness of the bureaucratized state has increased, the cost of that patience has skyrocketed.
It’s bad enough to have to pay for what a lot of other people are doing that you don’t agree with. Now, government increasingly forces Americans to actively affirm what other people are doing, and punishes us, not for expressing doubt, but for failing to express endorsement.
The progressive concept of government makes it impossible to agree to agree, on a longer and longer list of things. It distorts the very issues it seeks to adjust, by turning every proposal for agreement into a prescription for life-altering, freedom-killing mandates and prohibitions.
In fact, today’s progressive Democrats are far more like the hidebound “theocrats” they imagine used to rule Western society than anyone else on the landscape is. Fewer people are buying their brand, because it’s all compliance and retroactive adjudication, and no freedom or opportunity.
Molly Ball seems to see clearly that the impetus for agreement simply isn’t there, among the focus groups the Third Way team encountered. It’s impressive that she took that to heart.
It’s going to take more, however, for Democrats and progressives to understand why the passion for agreement is so lacking. And make no mistake, as our old POTUS-in-Chief used to say: the old-consensus Republicans have a largely similar problem with their understanding.
The cost of politics as usual has simply gotten too high for too many of the voters, because the excessive size and penetration of government in our lives have made it so. Unless government is rolled back, the only way to maintain a form of liberty and opportunity is to split ourselves off from each other, elect unconventional public officials who don’t intend to keep doing the same old things, and be sure to keep disagreeing, lest an excess of careless agreement make the weight of government, willy-nilly, fatal.