Can Big Red Deal With Big Blue?

by Dennis Sanders on February 14, 2010

Walter Russell Mead has written two pieces of work that explains the current political situation. In his first piece, he writes about the “Blue Model,” the American Social Contract that governed America from the end of World War II until the 1970s.

In the old system, both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing  “social dividend” being paid out in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on. Graduate from high school and you were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that gave you a comfortable lower middle class lifestyle; graduate from college and you would be better paid and equally secure.

Life would just go on getting better. From generation to generation we would live a life of incremental improvements the details of life would keep getting better but the broad outlines of our society would stay the same. The advanced industrial democracies of had in fact reached the  “ end of history”  this is what  “developed”  human society looked like and there would be no more radical changes because the picture had fully developed.

But things didn’t get better and better. By the 1970s, the Blue Model broke down and it has been dying a slow death since. This is a problem for the Democrats, since this model benefited them the most. You can basically see the end of the Democratic majority with the beginning of the end of the Blue Model.

In the next essay, Mead talks about “Feeding the Blue Beast.” He picks up where he left off and notes how this breakdown is problematic for the Democrats:

The blue social model was a triumph of progressive social imagination and political organizing; for two generations it effectively reconciled capitalism with the demand for a better living standard and more security for the population at large.

The breakdown of the blue model is the core problem of American society today and the key to the troubles of the Democratic party. Blue states really are blue; the “progressive imagination” remains staunchly blue, and blue model interest groups like public school teachers, government employees, the remnants of the private union movement and the much healthier labor movement among public employees shape and mostly fund what Howard Dean famously called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Most Americans would like the blue model to stick around and are nostalgic for the security it once provided, but they understand that the great task of our times isn’t to save the blue model but to move on. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party believes exactly the opposite: that the blue social model is the only way to go. If our city and state governments are groaning under the dead weight of inflated labor and pension costs, the only solution is to pump federal money into them somehow. If public schools aren’t working, they need more money but seriously restructuring the system is out of bounds. If college and university tuition is exploding as the costs of education rapidly and continuously outpaces the general level of inflation, the only solution is to pump more money into the system while leaving it to operate much as it does.

Democratic policy is increasingly limited to one goal: feeding the blue beast. The great public-service providing institutions of our society-schools, universities, the health system, and above all government at municipal, state and federal levels- are built blue and think blue. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party thinks its job is to make them bigger and keep them blue. Bringing the long green to Big Blue: that’s what it all about.

Three problems: we can’t afford it, people know that, and we desperately need the things that Big Blue can’t give us.

So, we need the services that Big Blue once gave us. We still need good schools. People also want to be able to afford health care. We want our elderly to not be impoverished. We want clean water, good highways and the like. But we can’t pay for them in the way we used to. We can’t just tax our way to prosperity when as Mead notes, people are no longer in secure jobs. And yet we need them.

Mead goes on to note that one of the reasons that we have a Tea Party movement is because we are worried as a public about how to pay for government services. But the Tea Party fails in that it proposes nothing as an alternative.

Mead ends his second essay with a pointed question for the Dems, but it is also a question aimed at Republicans:

Can the Democrats unshackle themselves from their degrading and destructive servitude to the blue beast before the Republicans build a new cohort of smart policy wonks with a practical vision for the future? Can either party develop the capacity for innovative leadership before the social and economic dysfunction of the current system drives us into a massive social and financial crisis?

So, here is my question: can the Republicans come up with a new social contract, a “Red Model?” Can we design a social model that is suited for this time and age?

I think Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” is a start. I have some issues with it, but he is trying to create a new social model based on conservative principles. He is building up instead of just tearing down as the Tea Partiers are wont to do.

But there needs to be more conservative thinkers out there who can think about these issues. Opposition to Obama and the Democrats can only go so far. We need to propose our own vision for a new social contract.

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Answering a 21st Century Question with a 20th Century Answer
October 11, 2010 at 8:35 pm

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Mike at The Big Stick February 14, 2010 at 8:57 am

Read Douthat and Salam’s “Grand New Party”. It’s full of ideas along these lines.

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