An earlier post discussed how the rising competitiveness and status-striving has introduced partisan polarization. The general impulse in a striving climate is laissez-faire -- pushing for no-holds-barred so that competitors can climb as high as possible, as easily as possible. There are two primary domains over which people compete for status -- careers, wealth, and conspicuous consumption vs. lifestyles, fashion points, and conspicuous leisure.
Career strivers co-opted the Republican party during the 1980s, pushing for economic deregulation, including slashing taxes. Lifestyle strivers were a later phenomenon (those who found the career domain too saturated to compete in), but they co-opted the Democrat party during the '90s, pushing for deregulation of lifestyles and identities (personas), encouraging deviance and tossing out tradition and roots.
There was no moral resonance with the Reaganomics revolution -- it was felt to be superior on a practical level of making the economy work the best it could, without being hamstrung by regulators. Its proponents felt smug superiority, rather than a more powerful emotion like righteousness or vindication. Likewise, Democrats keep promoting deviant lifestyles and the erosion of traditional lifestyles with a sense of smug superiority, and how "it just makes sense -- I can live how I want -- it's the current year".
What sounds a stronger moralistic tone is one party's crusade to contain the deregulatory efforts of the other party, which is portrayed in apocalyptic, do-or-die, now-or-never terms.
While Democrat airheads are smugly high-fiving each other at a gay pride parade, what really works them into a righteous fervor is taking on Republican deregulation of the career domain -- lowering taxes on the rich, widening inequality, letting the minimum wage erode against inflation, too big to fail banks, no checks on student loans, environmentalist and climate goals subservient to corporate interests, and so on and so forth.
Similarly, Republicans high-five each other over lowering the capital gains tax, but what really stirs them up is taking on the Democrat deregulation of lifestyles -- allowing women to get an abortion for almost any reason, enabling the gays, not minding if mothers work (especially single mothers), turning a blind eye toward drug use, and in general allowing individuals to opt out of their group identity in favor of whatever the hell they feel like being or belonging to at the moment.
Now, where does this leave people who enthusiastically support deregulation of both the economic and lifestyle domains, AKA libertarians? It leaves them without any moral resonance among the public. Moralistic appeal relies on a crusade to contain the chaotic effects of deregulation -- to sew up the breach that the anything-goes climate has opened up.
They don't want to build any guiding structures around the teetering laissez-faire economy, nor do they want to protect what is sacred and traditional in our way of life from live-how-you-please lifestyles. If restoring order to what is coming undone is the grounds for righteousness, then libertarians can't even get off the ground moralistically. It's no wonder it has had so little resonance outside of the greedy and hedonistic Boomers.
That's not to say that we don't live in a libertarian society -- we do, with both the economic and lifestyle domains becoming ever less regulated. But that represents more of a compromise between the Republicans and Democrats, who crusade against the deregulatory efforts of the other side, but meet them half-way in the end. Just because it isn't a 100% deregulated world doesn't mean it isn't a de facto libertarian paradise. Ask them, and they'll tell you how amazing it is to live in the here and now, as it were.
What about the opposite of libertarianism -- a movement that crusades for regulation of both the economy and lifestyles? We can simply call it "populism" without qualification because in practice, the populists push for regulation of both spheres, even if they take a two-pronged form. That's how it was the last time around, with the Third Great Awakening, Prohibitionists, and other reformers of lifestyles pooling into the Temperance movement; and with labor unions, trust-busters, and income tax activists pooling into the Progressive movement. But those two really formed a single larger movement to regulate the economy and lifestyles in order to make modern society more stable and healthy rather than sick and ready to explode.
Certainly in recent times, there has never been a more widespread moralistic and righteous-minded climate than the early 20th century. Populism's moral appeal comes with almost no trade-offs. You don't look like you're trying to cynically tear down the destabilizing program of the other side while feverishly promoting your own form of destabilization that is vulnerable to the crusade of the other side.
And unlike libertarianism, which can also claim to not discriminate against one domain or another, populism avoids hypocrisy by wanting to regulate both the political-economic and the social-cultural domains. And as we've seen, it's the crusade to restore order to a destabilized system that makes people feel righteously motivated. With populism, you get two moral crusades for the price of one.
That's not to say that the world of the Great Compression was a populist utopia, just like today's world and the original Gilded Age were not libertarian utopias either. The Republicans held out somewhat for concessions to big business, while the Democrats held out for concessions to non-traditional American lifestyles brought by the immigrant and Ellis Island-descended base of their party. But overall, both domains were remarkably regulated, with the New Deal reforms to the economy, twinned with the censorship and shunning of deviance and of alien cultures.
It's important to keep in mind as we enter the renaissance of populism -- we have to remind the liberals that their revival of 1940s and '50s New Deal economics will have to be traded for a return to lifestyles of the '40s and '50s. If they want a higher minimum wage and narrowing inequality, they can afford to close down pornography, multiculturalism, and rootlessness. By the same token, conservatives must be willing to pay higher income taxes, work in a more unionized economy, and face tighter checks on over-weening career ambition.
But, as we're starting to see only too clearly now, we're all in the same boat, and either our society comes together or it blows itself apart. We can start by doing whatever we can to make sure that our next President is the only populist in the running -- Donald Trump.
I actually think it won't be all that hard since the moralistic appeal of populism is catnip for both liberals and conservatives. They simply have to be woken up from their separate delusions (Republicans: "boo protectionism," Democrats: "boo conformity"). But the Trump phenomenon -- meaning not just what he has said himself, but the whole transformation of the climate that has resulted -- is already starting to make people comfortable voting for populist economics (bring back jobs so poor people can get higher-paying work) as well as populist immigration (close the borders since foreigners pose various threats to our way of life, aside from taking our jobs).