Barack Obama’s election to the presidency seemed to confirm an old theory of American politics proposed by the elder Arthur Schlesin-ger—that the economic/political consensus tends to swing between liberal and conservative cycles in roughly twenty-five-to-thirty-year arcs. Such swings are healthy. Once-fresh ideas harden into dogma; incumbency breeds complacency. Liberals succumb to the corruptions of power, conservatives to the corruptions of money.

The new liberal consensus that emerged toward the end of the Eisenhower era reshaped American social provision before being crushed by Vietnam, OPEC, and inflation. In the same way, Reagan-style conservatism re-energized business and the economy before pushing its nostrums to extremes that almost destroyed world banking.

The Obama election was right on schedule. The old regime was thoroughly discredited. And the new big-ticket priorities—infrastructure, energy, and health care—had been badly served by the privatizing, decentralizing biases of the conservative ascendance.

By comparison with any other high-income country, in all three areas America’s performance is simply disgraceful. The dilapidation of highways, bridges, dams, airports, and water systems is reaching the point of peril. The share of American GDP spent on transport and water systems has been falling for fifty years, and is now about half the average of other advanced industrial countries. Citizens in other rich countries pay more for their superior infrastructure: fares, user fees, and fuel taxes are all much higher than here. Mature societies don’t believe in a free ride.

America is the most energy-wasteful of the advanced countries, at huge cost, whether in terms of climate change or the trillions spent to contain oil-financed state-sponsored terrorism. Utility regulation is a relic from the days when all power companies were local. Energy progress, whether it involves shale oil, natural gas, nuclear power, wind, solar, whatever, implies robust, high-capacity national transmission systems. A national authority, with at least a modest array of eminent domain and other supervening authorities, is probably a prerequisite for serious progress.

Finally, there is health care. The American system is the world’s most expensive and, for most families, among the least effective or responsive. Plausible solutions for the majority of the population lie in the direction of subsidized, nonprofit “managed care” of the kind offered by Kaiser, the Cleveland Clinic, and similar plans. They have well-established practice standards and protocols, medical review panels to assess the effectiveness of new technologies, and electronic systems for managing records and tracking treatment compliance and outcomes. In other words, they look a lot like the systems other high-income countries provide for all their citizens.

Every one of those initiatives—infrastructure, transportation, and health care—is a potent creator of jobs, another point of depressingly poor performance for the United States. And we can afford it. We’re among the two or three most lightly taxed advanced countries in the world, and our military spending is higher than that of the next twenty countries combined.

So it is a shock for liberals to see their agenda grind to a near standstill. The tendency has been to blame it on the president—that he made this tactical misstep or that—but that can hardly explain the astonishing repudiation of the liberal program in the 2010 elections. Or the subsequent backlash against the likes of school teachers, just because they are civil servants. Or an apparent lower-middle-income crusade against more accessible health care led by the likes of Sarah Palin.

There are a number of ways to parse this. One is that some very wealthy people working through a network of semi-captive television and cable networks, political-action committees, foundations, and think tanks have hijacked the fears and insecurities of the less well-off to derail any spending initiative that could reduce their own wealth. Glenn Beck may be the purest example of the tactic in operation.

Another interpretation is that our political paralysis is grounded in what appears to be the selfishness of a large swath of senior citizens, who are determined to oppose anything that might compete with Medicare for public financing. “The Greatest Generation” it is not.

But another possibility is that the atomized individualism of an utterly marketized society really is the preferred life-milieu of a majority or near-majority of the country. Whatever the cynicism of a Paul Ryan, he may be twanging mystic chords of memory that call up images of rugged nineteenth-century, John Wayne–style individualism.

The whole premise of the Obama agenda is that in areas like transportation, energy, and health care, those ideals are no longer relevant—if they ever were. Whether liberals are right on that point or not, if the politics of 2010 are the real voice of the country, and not just a lash-out during hard times, the next couple of decades could be painful indeed.

Charles R. Morris’s most recent book is The Rabble of Dead Money, a history of the Great Depression (PublicAffairs).

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Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: View Contents
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