Jewish World Review June 5, 2000 / 2 Sivan, 5760
"It was a year when, in the greatest prosperity of the richest nation . . . drugstore counters were stacked with tablets to make you tranquil and other tablets to set you leaping."
"Banquet of Crow" (1957)
What year will Al Gore inhabit today?
When discussing Social Security, he is a man of 1935: Nothing has happened, economically or demographically, since that year of enactment to justify any significant recasting of the system, such as George W. Bush's proposal for allowing Americans to invest a small portion of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.
When discussing ballistic missile defense, Gore is a man of 1972: Nothing has happened, geopolitically or technologically, in the 28 years since the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was signed with the Soviet Union (that has changed), to justify anything more than a minimal system. And such is the fetish Gore makes of the ABM treaty, not even the minimal system should be built unless Russia (more change: its economy is now the size of Iceland's), by agreeing to amend the treaty, gives us permission to defend ourselves.
When promoting campaign finance reform, Gore is a man of 1974: In the quarter-century since the government embarked on the post-Watergate experiments with limits on permissible kinds and amounts of political communication, nothing has happened to dampen enthusiasm for more of the same.
But Gore is generally a man of the 1950s, the decade when liberalism became a species of condescension. One of his objections to personal retirement accounts is that "tens of millions" of Americans are incapable of making elementary investment decisions. He says national self-defense, which appeals to most Americans, cannot be allowed to have a deleterious "impact on our ability to protect arms control," which is the arcane responsibility of a small clerisy. And at the core of all proposals for more campaign regulations is the very Fifties fear that the lumpen American electorate is infinitely manipulable by what political money buys--advertising.
Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, began the transformation of liberalism from a celebration of the average American into a doctrine of disparagement and reform of the average American. Stevenson was the darling of the intelligentsia, partly because he lost to the darling of the electorate, Dwight Eisenhower, whom the intelligentsia called "the bland leading the bland"--a simpleton whose smile was his philosophy. When a supporter told Stevenson he was the choice of thinking people, he replied that, unfortunately, he needed a majority.
The canonical text of liberalism's disparagement of Americans' competence became a best seller in 1958--"The Affluent Society," by John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist. Galbraith adopted a tone of laconic amusement about the inability of the bovine society beyond the faculty club to understand what was self-evident to those within the club: The law of supply and demand had been repealed.
Capitalism, he said, was threatened not, as Marx had thought, by the immiseration of the masses but by the satiation of the masses: All desires for necessities had been satisfied by capitalism's stupendous productivity. What could save capitalism from a crisis of insufficient demand? Advertising.
Galbraith simply asserted--evidence is superfluous when dealing with the self-evident--that modern market research and the manipulative techniques of the advertising industry enable producers of goods to manufacture in the public a demand for whatever goods the producers find it convenient to produce.
It was inconvenient for Galbraith's thesis that his book appeared as Ford was introducing a new model, backed by all the company's marketing might: the Edsel. Oh, well.
Never mind. A theory so politically satisfying--the herdlike masses; hence the need for shepherds--cannot be wounded by mere facts. Besides, the year before Galbraith's book, another best seller, Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders," had explored "a strange and rather exotic new area of American life."
"Far more than we realize," said Packard, "the patterns of our everyday lives" are being controlled by people using "insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences." Those new tranquilizers and other psychotropic drugs that Dorothy Parker said "drugstore counters were stacked with" were tokens of the burgeoning science of social control.
The fact that Galbraith's and Packard's book-length warnings about social manipulation became best sellers might have suggested a public not oblivious to, and hence armed against, "hidden" controllers. Nevertheless, the predicate of condescending liberalism--the attenuated competence of the average American--had been planted. That liberalism is a not-at-all hidden theme of the Gore
06/01/00: Great Awakenings