How Liberals Are the New Autocrats

Progressives may preach the joys of localism, but the trend in government is all the other way in everything from climate change to the economic complexion of your neighborhood.

01.03.16 6:15 AM ET

The End of Localism

This could be how our experiment with grassroots democracy finally ends. World leaders—the super-rich, their pet nonprofits, their media boosters, and their allies in the global apparat—gather in Paris to hammer out a deal to transform the planet, and our lives. No one asks much about what the states and the communities, the electorate, or even Congress, thinks of the arrangement. The executive now presumes to rule on these issues.

For many of the world’s leading countries—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia—such top-down edicts are fine and dandy, particularly since their supreme leaders won’t have to adhere to them if inconvenienced. But the desire for centralized control is also spreading among  the shrinking remnant of actual democracies, where political give and take is baked into the system.

The will to power is unmistakable. California Gov. Jerry Brown, now posturing as  the aged philosopher-prince fresh from Paris, hails the “coercive power of the state” to make people live properly by his lights. California’s high electricity prices, regulation-driven spikes in home values, and the highest energy prices in the continental United States, may be a bane for middle- and working-class families, but are sold as a wonderful achievement among our presumptive masters.

The Authoritarian Impulse

Under President Obama, rule by decree has become commonplace, with federal edicts dictating policies on everything from immigration and labor laws to climate change. No modern leader since Nixon has been so bold in trying to consolidate power. But the current president is also building on a trend: Since 1910 the federal government has doubled its share of government spending to 60 percent. Its share of GDP has now grown to the highest level since World War II.

Today climate change has become the killer app for expanding state control, for example, helping Jerry Brown find  his inner Duce. But the authoritarian urge is hardly limited to climate-related issues. It can be seen on college campuses, where uniformity of belief is increasingly mandated. In Europe, the other democratic bastion, the continental bureaucracy now controls ever more of daily life on the continent. You don’t want thousands of Syrian refugees in your town, but the EU knows better. You will take them and like it, or be labeled a racist.

Already the disconnect between the hoi polloi and the new bureaucratic master race has spawned a powerful blowback, as evidenced by the rise of rightist, even quasi-fascist parties throughout the old continent. The people at the top—including much of the business leadership—may like the idea of a central European master-state, but support for the EU is at record low. Increasingly Europeans want, at the very least, to dial down the centralization and bring back some control to the local level, and something of the primacy of traditional cultures and what are still perceived  as “European values.”

In some ways, the extreme discontent in America—epitomized by the xenophobic Trump campaign—reflects a similar opposition to bureaucratic overreach. This conflict can be expected to grow as new federal initiatives—initiatives that seek, among other things, to enforce racial and class “balance” in neighborhoods and high-density housing in low-density suburbs—stomp on even the pretense that cities might have any control over their immediate environment. This policy is being adopted already in some regions, notably Minnesota, where planners now seek to change communities that are too white and affluent populations need to meet new goals of class and economic diversity.

The Rule of the Wise-people

Historically, advocacy for the rule of “betters” has been largely a prerogative of the right. Indeed the very basis of traditional conservativism—epitomized by the Tory ideal—was that society is best run by those with the greatest stake in its success, and by those who have been educated, nurtured, and otherwise prepared to rule over others with a sense of justice and enlightenment. In this century, the idea of handing power to a properly indoctrinated cadre also found radical expression in totalitarian ideologies such as communism, fascism, and national socialism.

In contemporary North American and the EU, the ascendant controlling power comes from a new configuration of the cognitively superior, i.e., the academy, the mainstream media, and the entertainment and technology communities. This new centralist ruling class, unlike the Tories, relies not on tradition, Christianity, or social hierarchy to justify its actions, but worships instead at the altar of expertise and political correctness.

Ironically this is occurring at a time when many progressives celebrates localism in terms of food and culture. Some even embrace localism as an economic development tool, an environmental win, and a form of resistance to ever greater centralized big-business control.

Yet some of the same progressives who promote localism often simultaneously favor centralized control of everything from planning and zoning to education. They may want local music, wine, or song, but all communities then must conform in how they operate, are run, and developed. Advocates of strict land-use policies claim that traditional architecture and increased densities will enable us to once again enjoy the kind of “meaningful community” that supposedly cannot be achieved in conventional suburbs.

In the process, long-standing local control is being squeezed out of existence. Ontario, California, Mayor pro-tem Alan Wapner notes that powers once reserved for localities, such as zoning and planning, are being systematically usurped by regulators from Sacramento and Washington. “They are basically dictating land use,” he says. “We just don’t matter that much.”

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The Road to Imperium

As the Obama era grinds to its denouement, grassroots democracy, once favored by liberals, is losing its historic appeal to the left. Important progressive voices like Matt Yglesias now suggest that “democracy is doomed.” Other prominent progressives, such as American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, see the more authoritarian model of China as successful while the U.S. and European political systems seem tired.

Increasingly the call is not so much for a benevolent and charismatic dictator, but for an impaneled committee of experts to rule over our lives. Former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag and Thomas Friedman argue openly that power should shift from naturally contentious elected bodies—subject to pressure from the lower orders—to credentialed “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations.

The new progressive mindset was laid out recently in an article in The Atlantic that openly called for the creation of a “technocracy” to determine energy, economic, and land-use policies. According to this article, mechanisms like the market or even technological change are simply not up to the challenge. Instead the entire world needs to be put on a “war footing” that forces compliance with the technocracy’s edicts. This includes a drive to impose energy austerity on an already fading middle class, limiting mundane pleasures like cheap air travel, cars, freeways, suburbs, and single-family housing.

The vagaries of America’s political system have contributed to the left’s growing embrace of centralism. The Republican ascendency in virtually all states away from the coasts all but guarantees their control of most legislative branches. In contrast, the Democrat control of major cities, particularly along the coasts, and their ability to woo voters who come out only every four years, gives them a tremendous advantage on the presidential level.

This creates the ideal preconditions for  what Ross Douthat accurately notes is a rising “Caesarism of the left” since the 2010 Republican congressional sweep. There is broad backing among liberals for President Obama’s tack of avoiding Congress through presidential decrees. Nor is this tendency likely to end soon. Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s success was in part derived from working with Republicans, is already stating her intention to go over Congress if they don’t go along with her ideas.

My word to liberal friends: Think a bit about this embrace of  imperial presidential power if the person ruling from above was, say, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or, worst of all, Donald Trump.

Slouching towards Imperium

The centralization of power reflects disturbing tendencies in our economic life. Despite all the hopes for a more distributed, less concentrated “new economy,” we appear to be moving ever more toward economic centralization on a massive scale. Indeed, after decades of losing market share to smaller firms, the share of GDP controlled by the Fortune 500 has risen from 58 percent of nominal GDP in 1994 to 73 percent in 2013. 

Part of this is driven by the relentless growth of large financial institutions, the very folks who precipitated the financial crisis with their ill-advised speculations. They have taken advantage of new regulations to greatly increase their share of the financial market to an unprecedented 44 percent.

This economic consolidation, and how it plays into centralization, is rarely recognized by Republicans, living in mortal fear of offending their cherished K Street collaborators. A powerful central state often rains money on well-connected capitalists who have flourished under state-dominated systems in places as varied as Venezuela and Iran. Similarly, a draconian climate regime certainly enhances the fortunes of  capitalists such as Elon Musk as well as other Silicon Valley and Wall Street supporters who seek to force consumers and businesses into purchasing expensive, often unreliable renewable power from favored wind and solar projects.

The increasing power of the central state, in contrast, is the bane of small companies, who are far less well-positioned to deal with ever-increasingly regulation. Washington’s efforts to control financial activities proved a disaster for the country’s entrepreneurial economy, long dependent on small community banks for loans. Overall for the first time in recent memory (PDF), more businesses are being destroyed than created. Concurrently, if unsurprisingly, the middle class is shrinking, and seeing its share of the economy steadily diminish.

There are some alarming parallels between these developments and the last days of the Roman Republic. There, too, developed a similar tendency toward vicious partisanship and a growing concentration of wealth in a few hands. In Rome’s case, the old middle classes and yeoman farmers were gradually replaced by patricians with access to slave labor; in our society, cheap foreign labor has been perceived as doing much the same for our oligarchs. Much as in Rome, our republican virtues are also fading. Instead, society seems to require a sure hand, particularly if the central authorities decide to transform society in ways that the vast majority might not like (for example, essentially banning suburban development or gas-powered cars). It may take a strict nanny state, to paraphrase Mary Poppins, to make the bitter medicine go down.

The Coming Conflict

Yet there’s a problem with centralization: People don’t trust the very institutions that would be charged with carrying out their policies. Levels of trust for the dominant institutions like the federal government, Congress, the courts, big banks, media, and the academy are at historically low levels.

Roughly half of all Americans, according to Gallup, now consider the federal government “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In 2003 only 30 percent of Americans felt that way. Even in my home state of California—now a mecca for ever-expanding government—large majorities favor transferring tax dollars out of Sacramento to the localities, according to a December Public Policy Institute of California poll.

Critically this blowback is not among conservatives or exurbanites. Much of the strongest opposition to the federal and state planning regimes are in areas such as California’s Marin County, north of San Francisco, where residents have objected to densification schemes that, they maintain, would undermine the “the small-town, semi-rural, and rural character of their neighborhoods”—the very qualities that attracted them there in the first place.

Similar attempts to enforce density on suburban population have also led to uproars in  blue bastions such as the northern Virgina suburbs, the famously progressive University of California at Davis, and hip Boulder, Colorado. The New York Times’s Tom Edsall notes that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s dictates may have already shifted politics in affluent Westchester County, an early target of the social engineers seeking to enforce HUD policies, to the right.

Some leading progressives, like Nation contributor and Bay Area activist Zelda Bronstein, attack the growth of regional governments, designated to force compliance with state and federal mandates, as fundamentally undemocratic, embracing “insular, peremptory style of decision making.” Even millennials, who have tended to the left, are skeptical about over-centralized government. A recent National Journal  poll showed that they, like most Americans, are not enamored of top-down solutions: Less than a third favor federal over locally-based solutions.

Simply put, there is no huge appetite for ever expanding federal power among the majority of the populace. What is missing, outside of nihilistic opposition to all government, is a strong movement advocating for more authority in the hands of local communities, families, and volunteer organization. This does not necessarily mean a decline in environmental standards, since most people care most about the places where they and their families reside. Even with climate change, a carbon tax could be approved without adopting the California formula of ever more mega-regulations covering virtually every aspect of life.

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, the genius of this republic lies not in its central state, but in its dispersion, voluntary association, and ideological diversity. If we undermine the legacy of our federal structure to something more akin to that, say, of France or Russia, the United States could no longer play its historic role as a rare beacon of independence and self-government in a world increasingly dominated by various manifestations of centralized tyranny.