Avoiding “conservative” radicalism: Walter Russell Mead on the Blue Social Model

If you are interested in the future of the American welfare state and American democracy – i.e., if you want to think carefully about the future of life in this country – Walter Russell Mead’s writing on the decline of the blue model is a must read. As he reports on Via Meadia,

The “death of blue” theme has gotten a lot of attention. Hundreds of thousands of readers have come to these posts, and they’ve been discussed widely in the blogosphere and in print.

Mead’s prose is clear, readable, and gets to the point. More importantly, it represents a broadly conservative, yet helpfully pragmatic perspective on American society, its changing institutions and its evolving possibilities, that provides conservatives with a genuine alternative to utopian attitudes of libertarianism or reconstructionism. And it is now carefully summarized at the American Interest in one well-written summary article. Read it.

Mead argues that what he calls America’s “blue social model” is dying, by which he means that

the characteristic form of 20th century industrial democracy has come unglued, and that the advanced industrial democracies around the world must adjust to basic changes in the way the world works….

Briefly, the idea is that after World War II America was organized around a group of heavily regulated monopoly and semi-monopoly companies. AT&T was the only telephone company; there were three big networks, three big car companies and so on. There was very little foreign competition, and these companies were able to offer stable, lifetime employment to most of their workers. The workforce was heavily unionized, and the earnings of the big companies were divided between shareholders, managers, workers and government in a predictable way. An intellectual and administrative class of planners, social scientists and managers ran the big institutions and administered the government.

Several forces came together to break up this system. Foreign competition, first from rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II and then from low wage newly industrializing countries around the world, eroded the market position of companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers. The rise of offshore banking eroded the tight financial controls of the postwar era. Growing consumer impatience with the high prices and poor quality offered by monopoly companies like the telephone monopoly led to political pressure to deregulate and introduce more competition. Technological change, especially in information processing and communications, led to disruptive changes that shifted the advantage to nimble and lean companies and left the bureaucratic, slow moving giants of the Blue Age behind. American society became increasingly individualistic, with both the left and the right rebelling against the authority of experts and bureaucrats.

Unlike many in America today, whether on the right or the left, Mead is not pessimistic about America’s future. The United States, he argues consistently, maintains solid economic, political, social, military, and environmental advantages over other countries. Yet the land of the pilgrims and pioneers needs to figure out how to adjust its institutions and policies – as we always have in the past – corresponding to a rapidly evolving world, yet in a manner faithful to American ideals.

What future does Mead propose?

The first thing to say about a post-blue social model is that it will be liberal. That is to say it will be a further exercise the development of the concept of “ordered liberty” that has been the guiding light of Anglo-American civilization since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The synthesis of enlightened, forward looking governance resting on the acknowledged and inalienable liberties of the people at the heart of the liberal vision remains the best foundation humanity has yet found for running a society in a world of rapid change.

At the heart of the enduring liberal ideal is a truth that is often forgotten in today’s political debates: the relationship between order and liberty does not have to be zero sum. More government can mean less freedom, and more freedom can mean less government—but things don’t always work out that way….

The secret of Anglo-American civilization has been its ability to combine the two elements of order and liberty at successively higher levels of both. To think constructively about our future we shouldn’t be thinking about a zero sum tradeoff between order and freedom; we should be thinking about how to build the kind of order that extends our liberty in new and important ways.

Mead’s take on the liberal project is profoundly conservative. In a time when some conservatives, including Christian conservatives, are becoming increasingly jaded with the idea of liberal democracy, his perspective reminds us that genuine conservatism is respectful both of the past and of the present. It gives the benefit of the doubt to the social order as it exists – the legacy of the past – while calling for necessary changes that are gradual, that are morally, economically, and politically appropriate, and that do not disrupt the legitimate social fabric. This is in sharp contrast to the sorts of “conservatism” that owe more to the legacy of revolutionary radicalism, whether in their libertarian dreams of dismantling American government or in their theocratic hopes of turning America into the kingdom of God.

If you haven’t done so, go read Mead’s essay.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on January 18, 2013, in Conservatism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Reconstructionism, Welfare State and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Avoiding “conservative” radicalism: Walter Russell Mead on the Blue Social Model.

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