Prescriptions for Failed States

In the most recent Claremont Review, William Voegeli examines some of political and institutional factors that have led to California’s current crisis, particularly the role that Progressivism has played. Key to his argument is the understanding of what early twentieth century Progressives in California were trying to achieve:

According to historian Alonzo Hamby, the framework for Progressive politics was the conviction that the political conflict was between “the people” and “the interests.” It followed that the highest political duty was to help the people resist and ultimately triumph over the interests. One problem with this framework is that it lends itself better to the disdain than to the practice of politics. “The Progressives did not like politics,” writes political scientist Jerome Mileur, because “the politics they saw was not about the public purpose of the nation, but was instead consumed by local interests and private greed, indifferent alike to the idea of a great community and the idealism of grand purpose.”
…Progressivism’s anti-politics was designed for the people as they ought to be, not as they really are. Positing that the fundamental choice is between the people and the interests presupposes that the people are authentic only when they are disinterested. The Progressives’ goal was to equip the people with the means to advance encompassing, lofty ambitions by thwarting the interests’ narrow, selfish ones. The means to this end was to collapse the constitutional space between the people and the government, dismantling the political mechanisms that conferred unfair advantages on connected insiders.

Today, the ballot initiative is probably the most recognizable Progressive remedy, which is practiced in California to a seemingly greater scope than other states, but the direct primary replaced the smoke-filled room, electing judges, recall elections and the ubiquitous referendum were also instituted.
This so-called “hyperdemocracy”, as Voegeli explains, is reliant on a weird dichotomy. While the people can be a check against the interests, the Progressive solution of more direct political involvement requires both their disinterest in politics per se, but requires an interest in policies. Most people simply can’t make enough time in the day to lead their lives and keep an eye on policies and politicians.
Realizing that this wasn’t enough, the Progressive solution lay in the expert administrators, who naturally take it upon themselves to make the proper choices for the silent masses who are usually just not that into politics. Thus, civil service and the spread of the “unionocracy”, as Voegeli calls it. Rhode Islanders know where Voegeli is going here, so I won’t linger on well-trod ground. Yet, his observations about the Golden State seem applicable to the Ocean State.

…the political strategies of both conservatives and liberals concentrate on how to deal with that angry public. The conservative strategy is to get the public angry, and see that it stays angry. Conservative talk-radio hosts compete to identify the latest and most astounding outrage, and to see who can denounce it most stridently. The liberal strategy is…to avoid rousing that public to anger, but also, when the voters do put on their war paint, to wait for their ire to ebb due to the passage of time and the inevitable reappearance of life’s many nonpolitical preoccupations. When the anger has passed, government-as-usual can resume without meddling by citizen-amateurs….
The evidence is incontestable: the liberal strategy of waiting for the public’s anger to subside is far sounder than the conservative strategy of hoping it will gather strength. The liberal calculation rests on a shrewd assessment, not only of human psychology but also of modern mobility. California is not yet East Germany, which means that one of the ways Californians who are mad as hell can decide not to take it any more is by moving away.

Sounds familiar. Voegeli has a two-part solution for California that may also apply here in Rhode Island:

First, the state’s Republican Party will have to break free from the gravitational pull of the Progressive legacy to establish itself as the vital political intermediary between the public’s desire for fair and frugal public services, and a newly chastened government that delivers them conscientiously. The historical record clearly establishes that direct legislation and galvanizing leaders are not adequate to this task, and independent administrative experts can be trusted only to sabotage it.
Second, the institutional capacity of the Republican Party will be inadequate to its mission unless it persuades Californians that they have an urgent, abiding, and legitimate interest in reclaiming their government from the public employee unions who have asserted squatters’ rights over it. The logic of Progressivism called for independent administrators to discern and implement the people’s disinterested, inchoate aspirations for government. Instead, the permanent government has become increasingly adept and brazen at advancing its own private interest by invoking platitudes about the public’s. The vindication of the public’s real, as opposed to its faux, interest will require walking back, over several years, the depredations the permanent government has perfected over decades.

As Voegeli explains earlier, populist-based “rebuke[s of] the governing class in the manner of Network’s Howard Beale: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” only work for so long and can only go so far.

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