The only failure of social democracy was in not being able to respond to a well orchestrated and well financed propaganda effort to install a corporate republic that uses authoritarianism, religion and strategic poverty to discipline the masses. Clinton thought co-opting the gentler parts could blunt these conservative efforts and hold off the deluge, Obama thought that breaking the color barrier would help form a new coalition and have knock on effects but they never materialized. Meanwhile we see that the constant upward trend in blood and soil conservatism, forged by the twisted beliefs of the Republican party, have finally found their standard bearer in trump and their sword in the Supreme Court. A court that no longer feels the need for justification or even logical consistency in their edicts.

I wish I saw way out of this, but I don't. The problem at this point in time is that not dealing with actual threatening issues like global warming and ocean acidification will lead to the unmaking of modern civilization and the unneeded deaths of billions. By the time we have the heads of the fascists and the malevolent wealthy on pikes it will be too late.

Expand full comment

The rave reviews of Gerstle's new book make me wonder how closely anyone has actually read it https://ourtime.substack.com/p/20-errors-in-gary-gerstles-rise-and

Expand full comment

The New Deal and post-war order began to break down when the Democrats began losing the white blue-collar workers in the late '60s and '70s over issues like Vietnam and busing, and the parties abandonment of working-class economic issues in favor of focusing almost entirely on expanding rights for different groups. I think court-ordered busing was especially pernicious. Imagine you're a high-school graduate with a good job in a factory. You and your wife do without luxuries, drive an older car, live in a cramped apartment to save for a down payment on a house in a neighborhood with a good school. The quality of the school was the biggest factor in your decision about where to buy and how much to pay. You probably paid just a bit more than you could really afford at the time, but it would be worth it for your kids. Then, the government comes along and takes your child out of the good school you sacrificed to get them into so that a young African American child could attend it.

I've gone back through Gallup polls from the time, and about three-quarters of white people were against busing, as well as about half of African-Americans, whose kids were being put in bad situations in schools in white neighborhoods where they were resented and the teachers didn't relate to them as well as at their old schools. The goal was good, but the means were short-sighted.

As this was going on, Christian schools began to pop up, and those who could took their children out of public schools and put them into the Christian schools, where they were subject to anti-government propaganda. Then we go into stagflation, and a recession, and many of those good jobs went away, some never to return, as foreign products began to displace domestic production. These blue-collar workers were a major part of the Democrats' governing majority, and most of them became Reagan Democrats, and then Republicans. The Republicans had a narrative to explain why all their problems were a result of liberal Democrats, and the Democrats were largely ignoring them.

We can look at all the -isms we want, but the fact on the ground, where I work, is that to protect rights and enact change, you have to have a legislative majorities in Congress and state legislatures. To get majorities in those bodies, you have to appeal to the broadest swath of the population possible. Democrats have to try to get non-college-educated white voters back by focusing on issues relevant to them. That does not mean giving up on civil rights or abortion rights or enviromental concerns. Most of those voters support these issues. But Dems need to broaden their message and appeal, or we're in deep trouble as a nation.

Expand full comment
Jul 19, 2022·edited Jul 19, 2022

I'm not an economist, so I don't profess to have any idea what the best way forward is economically. But with apologies to the Marxists who view politics as the mere superstructure, I think the political system is paramount -- we can't move forward on any front unless and until we sort the form of government. And I do have thoughts on that, to wit

I have no doubt that democracy is the only path forward. The alternatives -- these days authoritarianism -- will wreck both the present and the future. But "democracy" has to be understood more broadly than it currently is in the US. We have to have a free and fair voting system open to all citizens equally; we need to abolish gerrymandering; we need to abolish the Senate or treat it like the English did the House of Lords in 1911-12; we need an end to the Electoral College; and we need to stop treating money as "speech" and to reduce its impact in politics. These objectives bear with them the seeds of policy, some of which will certainly affect the economy:

1. The Supreme Court needs to be limited to its proper role, i.e. maintaining the system of democracy outlined above and expanding it where necessary, and protecting the equal rights of racial, ethnic, and gender/sex minorities.

2. We need to tax the rich more and take other steps to reduce their influence. An egalitarian democracy can exist with some disparity in income, but not the disparity we see today. In fact, the whole tax structure nationwide needs to be re-designed.

3. We need to prepare for the impact of climate change, to ameliorate it where possible and to have plans in place for its effects where not. This will mean we need to change the economics of water rights; of energy production and usage; of agricultural land use; of public health (to be ready to meet the challenge of new diseases); of immigration (to account for likely climate refugees); and of housing and transportation.

I'm sure the economists will have proposals on the *how* of these objectives, but I'm afraid those will be lost if we don't solve the politics first.

Expand full comment

This post finally prompted me to subscribe. If you continue to chew on these questions and come up with a more satisfying answer that would be a very good thing indeed.

I've been trying to organize my own thoughts and I find myself connecting them to your writings about utopia:

You wrote this,


Suppose we could go back in time to 1870, and tell people then how rich, relative to them, humanity would become by 2010. How would they have reacted? They would almost surely have thought that the world of 2010 would be a paradise, a utopia. People would have 8.8 times the wealth? Surely that would mean enough power to manipulate nature and organize humans that all but the most trivial of problems and obstacles hobbling humanity could be resolved.


Increasingly, I think that was always an impossible dream. I don't think utopia is impossible, but I don't think the lack is merely due to contingent failures. I think it's a larger challenge than is solvable in a (long) century, and I've been trying to figure out why I say that, and my best answer is -- each new economic revolution not only destroys old institutions, practices, and power structures, it also brings new answers to the questions about what is progress, what virtues are rewarded, what is merit, and who deserves to be wealthy?

In that new framework some people are better positioned to take advantage than other -- by geographical proximity, connections, good fortune, or having the kind of skills that the new order will reward.

Each time that happens there's a new challenge of, "how do we best spread the benefits to the people who are further from the center of this new activity?"

Building a durable utopia would mean finding an answer that would continue to work and be relevant through each revolution, and that hasn't happened. The struggle has to be re-fought.

So, if that's correct, part of what happened in the 70s was that the social order was built around the industrial power of the mid-century and, as that started to flag, there was no necessary reason that the political coalitions that built the New Deal to resist one set of bosses would be equally well positioned to respond to Michael Milken (for example).

I'm not completely satisfied with that answer, either, but I see the questions in this post as deeply connected to the larger questions of Slouching Towards Utopia

Expand full comment

I have a couple of decades reading DeLong thoughts so am usually fluent in decoding, but I can’t figure out who’s on left or right or pulling or pushing or spinning between 2008 (Obama initial team) and 2012 (DeLong & Summers article).

“Neither Kuttner—nor Gerstle—tells their readers that the initial Obama-appointed “Clinton economic team” was, with the exception of non-economist Tim Geithner, trying hard to pull Obama to the right against very strong resistance from the spinmaster and Obama himself. The center-of-gravity of the economists on Obama’s initial team was, I think, well captured by Larry Summers (and my) call for the federal government to speed recovery by pushing the government purchases pedal to the metal”

Clarification would be appreciated.

Your description of the political position Clinton was in is spot on. Any understanding of the economic policy opportunities and constraints in the US in the 1990s, and the sustainability of social democracy more generally, needs to take into account the advanced economies more broadly, and why a Tony Blair, frex, was making similar decisions as Clinton.

Expand full comment

I think this is a very good post but as our host notes, 'I need to think some more....'

In recent weeks I have read, David Gelles interesting book on Jack Welch and how he set up GE for failure with a resolute focus on meeting quarterly earnings by financializing the company; Kurt Andersen's book on the 'Evil Geniuses' who (including Jack Welch) screwed things up for the rest of us and most recently, Dan Pfeiffer's 'Battling the Big Lie' that deals with the disinformation that pours out to many of this country's citizens.

The country is captive to a Federalist Constitution that was fine for the 19th century but wholly inadequate for our present era. Can't do much about that. We have an economy that has shifted from making things to producing financial products that are either scams or worse, and they suck creativity out of corporations that actually make things. We have a Democratic Party that can barely articulate what it stands for.

We have a Republican Party that stands for little other than tax cuts and certainly can not rescue this country from the multiple crises it faces.

Only when people wake up and figure out that they are being played for suckers will things notably change. I wish I could be more optimistic.

Expand full comment