Toward an i-Welfare State
When will all the benefits of e-commerce come to e-government? A response to the previous issue’s symposium on liberalism.
Gerald Ford will always be president.” Those cynical words were spoken to me by a longtime Washingtonian, who has seen presidents come and go–and has noticed that their impact seems to be mostly the same. The government gets bigger, but not better, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether policy has truly moved left, or right. It was Bill Clinton, after all, who balanced the budget. It was George W. Bush who vastly expanded Medicare. So at minimum, it does seem that the political equivalent of regression to the mean takes place in Washington, D.C. As the essays in Democracy’s recent symposium [“What Happened?,” Spring 2010] tell us, a progressive president is now regressing. That might well be the path to re-election–it was for Clinton and Bush 43–but some loyalist hearts will be broken along the way.
Moreover, I might add, if these essays are a fair sampling of elite progressive thinking, the overall message is unmistakable: Progressives these days don’t seem to have much confidence in the popular appeal of their beliefs. Despite wars and scandals, the McCain-Palin ticket was ahead in the polls prior to the economic meltdown, so Democrats have good reason to be reticent. If it takes the biggest economic plunge since 1929 to get the Republicans out of the White House, and if the Republicans can come roaring back, politically, just two years after Barack Obama won the White House, then it really is a center-right country. As Michael Walzer puts it, as electoral and ideological pendulums go, 2008 was “a very weak swing.”
Indeed, the common thread running through all of the essays is the sober realization that happy days are not here again. It could be that the Bismarckian-Rooseveltian welfare state is an artifact of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workable for nations that had relatively small, relatively homogeneous populations. It’s easy to have social solidarity, most of the time, in countries with a common language or culture. But such solidarity seems to erode in the face of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In addition, technology has changed the power relationship between governments and their people. If anyone can communicate instantly with almost anyone else–or if they can Google the answer–then the faith that government experts know what’s best for them wilts away. Indeed, the idea of expertise harbored in Washington has gone the way of an off-the-record conversation in the Twitter Era; everyone’s a critic now, and everyone wants to second-guess Obama, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Timothy Geithner. Governments can and must take action, but the Obama Administration now finds that it must operate on the basis of majoritarian force–as the opposition Tweets its case to a public that is both anti-redistributionist and actively online.
From these essays, we can now tease out three different possible futures for the welfare state in the 21st century:
First, the welfare state could reflect left-libertarian values. That is, it could provide help for people in a non-judgmental way–except when it subsidizes lifestyle choices that many welfare-state advocates sympathize with, including abortion, sex-change operations and medical marijuana.
Second, the welfare state could reflect moderate-conservative values. That was the approach of Bill Clinton after 1994. Clinton was no conservative, but he signed both welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Not coincidentally, in that same year, he was re-elected in a landslide. And yet every Democratic presidential nominee since Clinton has chosen to run to Clinton’s left; triangulatory Clintonism, popular as it might be with the country as a whole, does not sit well with the Democratic base.
Third, the welfare state could evolve in some new direction. To cite just one possibility, one of these days, Washington, D.C. might realize that Silicon Valley has figured out new ways to process large amounts of information about 307 million Americans, as well as billions more around the world, and these politicos will import that realization back to the East Coast–and thereby truly reinvent government.
The last possibility is the most intriguing. Americans mostly thrill to the latest news from Apple, or Google. So we might pause over the different skill-sets of techsters, on the one coast, and politicians, on the other, and ask: What can one teach the other? How can we create the Apple equivalent of the welfare state? If we have an iPhone and an iPad, why can’t we have an iWelfare State? What does Steve Jobs know about quality, user-friendliness, and, yes, cool, that politicians do not know? Obama was the cool and sleek high-tech candidate in 2008; what happened to him once he entered the White House?
Political partisans have never much cared for technical solutions to policy problems. One reason is their basic cluelessness about technology, which brings fear, then disdain, toward variables that politicos can’t understand and therefore can’t control.
Moreover, partisans simply want the fight. The politicos, brought up in the zero-sum environment of electoral winning and losing, tend not to be interested in win-win solutions. Oftentimes, they want their side funded, and the other side de-funded. And so the problem-solving ethos of Silicon Valley offers little appeal to political practitioners.
Yet ordinary Americans simply want their government, and their country, to work better. For them, Silicon Valley offers, yes, hope and change. Hope for an easier and cooler consumer experience today, hope for a more productive and prosperous life tomorrow.
Post a Comment