In one of last year's cheekiest works of social criticism, Russell Jacoby argued that what ails modern politics is a lack of utopian thinking (The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, Norton). Politics has become dull, according to Jacoby. We live in a time of "political exhaustion and retreat," of "collapsing intellectual visions and ambitions." With the death of socialist hopes, politics has lost its left wing. A direct result, says Jacoby, is that liberalism has become "spongy and vague," "earnest and woozy," and suffers from "waning determination and imagination."
Jacoby never gets around to describing his own utopian vision; in fact, he doesn't claim to have one. He means his book to be a defense of the "visionary impulse" in politics and culture. It's not the big thinkers who should be disparaged, he is saying, but the small thinkers who delude themselves into thinking they are somehow advancing progress. Utopians and radicals are the ones who lead the way because they are the ones who believe, as Jacoby puts it, "that the future could fundamentally surpass the present."
Except that there are no current radical dreamers who are up to Jacoby's standards. Instead of a C. Wright Mills arguing that the structures of institutions, not just the details, need to be changed, we have a collection of nutty professors obsessing about multiculturalism ("postcoherent thinkers," Jacoby calls them). Instead of a George Orwell standing for "human dignity, freedom, and peace," we have philosopher Richard Rorty saying, "I do not think that we liberals can now imagine a future of 'human dignity, free-dom, and peace' ... We have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds and thus no clear idea of what to work for."
Jacoby makes an engaging and useful argument. He's also strangely distanced from actual American political life. Instead of listening to America, he's been listening to academia. So he is able to pronounce the left dead and liberalism dispirited without ever acknowledging real-world union leaders, activists, or political reformers. There's nary a mention of Ralph Nader, or Jesse Jackson, or Howard Zinn (though Zinn wrote a bookjacket blurb), or The Nation, or anyone working in the tradition of radical organizers Saul Alinsky and César Chávez.
Of course, Jacoby's interest is not in Nader-type visionaries but in real intellectuals. But it seems dubious to assume, as he does, that the "fate of a utopian vision is bound up with the fate of intellectuals." In fact, there is a good deal of ferment going on, "intellectual" or not, that has to do with the original radical democratic vision of the American Revolution. Today's utopians are those who believe that democracy can be made to fundamentally surpass its present weakened condition. Primarily, radicals now are dreaming of ways for citizens to stand up to corporate power.
They are out there. Each year brings a spate of books sounding alarms about the state of American democracy. Some of them tap into our fiery homegrown populist tradition--as utopian as anything in our history, though its movements were not sparked or led by intellectuals. A perfect example of the kind of bold thinking that Jacoby says is stone dead is offered by Jeff Gates in Democracy at Risk: Rescuing Main Street from Wall Street (Perseus Publishing). Gates seeks to offer "a populist vision for the twenty-first century." To begin with, he wants us to democratize our finan-cial system. He's not talking about a little regulation here and a little legislation there. Gates proposes widespread ownership and participation in American business by citizens. He sees modern capitalism as being "out of control," and he imagines a renewed democratic movement that will bring corporations into line with popular sentiment--for better environmental stewardship, more humane workplace policies, and fairer distributions of the wealth companies create.
And that's not the half of it. He envisions America healing the world. He names six essential ingredients of a decent life: safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, sufficient nutrition, primary health care, basic education, and family planning services for those who want them. "What if those individuals who most benefit from the global economy were to bear the cost of providing the six essentials to all the world's population?" Gates asks. "An annual 3.5 percent levy on the $1 trillion in assets owned by the world's two hundred richest people ... would raise the requisite $35 billion." Now that's forward thinking!
Gates worked for seven years as a lawyer with the Senate Finance Committee, led at the time by Louisiana Senator Russell Long. He helped craft legislation promoting employee stock ownership plans, and he expanded on such proposals in his 1998 book, The Ownership Solution. He now runs an outfit called the Shared Capitalism Institute, based in Atlanta. In Democracy at Risk, Gates dismisses the mainstream political dialogue and the two major party candidates for president. No one is talking about ownership or about ways to revitalize democracy. In exhaustive (and exhausting) detail, he rails against the perception that we are in good economic times, and he lays out a populist agenda for radical change. He emphasizes redistribution of wealth, a reversal of environmental degradation, and widespread citizen participation. A nationwide education campaign is necessary to spread the populist gospel.
Gates's frame of reference is the 1930s. He invokes Huey Long's Share the Wealth campaign and recounts how it spurred Franklin D. Roosevelt to act. Of course, today we have no FDR and no Huey Long. But that doesn't stop Gates from conjuring what a populist president would do now--his book presents a program for action in such a president's First Hundred Days. "The type of leader that democracy now needs is unlike anything we've yet seen," he writes. He imagines the candidate as being an outsider, someone with a common touch, someone not easily intimidated. A "possibilitarian," he says. He doesn't name names, but he's not thinking of a Gore or a Bush, and he rules out a bid "by feather-boa-attired former professional wrestlers."
Several years ago, in the dark days of Reaganism, more than a few people hoped that a colorful, plain-talking Texas populist named Jim Hightower would be the kind of emerging modern-day Huey Long that Gates calls for. Hightower served a couple of terms as Texas agriculture commissioner and contemplated a run for the U.S. Senate. Then he was dispatched rather effortlessly (mastermind: Karl Rove, now the brains behind Bush) in a re-election bid to the agriculture post. Sick of electoral politics, he took to the radio airwaves and became a full-time agitator. He favors long book titles: His new one is called If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates (HarperCollins). His 1997 book was There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.
It's odd that Gates, in his more than 300 pages, never mentions Hightower--although he borrows several of Hightower's best one-liners. And Hightower appends a four-page list of activist organizations at the end of his book and doesn't list Gates's Shared Capitalism Institute. Hmmm... . Dueling populists? At any rate, the two books are thematically as alike as corn in a row. Setting aside the conventional indicators of prosperity (low inflation and low unemployment), Hightower sends out a sustained howl against the greed, stupidity, inefficiency, giantism, and heartlessness of corporate capitalism.
One has to marvel at the man's boundless capacity for outrage. Reading Hightower, you get the sense that he is paying close attention, every day, to every appalling piece of evidence about political sleaziness and financial corruption that comes across his desk. In an age of general complacency, it's necessary to have such people around. The outrage is not subtle, but in subtle ways it stays with you.
Hightower's got the goods on George W. Bush, as you might expect. In just a few pages, he describes the insider dealings in which W. made a nifty $2.7 million on his $600,000 investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team. A great supporter of property rights, Bush seemed to have no objection when the Rangers had to take by eminent domain a family's land near the team's new ballpark. Hightower invests no hope in Al Gore, either, whom he sees as already having been purchased by his Wall Street backers. Both candidates, he concludes, are "sons of privilege whose idea of 'hardscrabble' is to run out of vowels."
In particular, Hightower is a one-man industry specializing in tales of the rich and piggish. In a chapter on the relentless wave of corporate mergers, the author discusses the spectacular windfalls that corporate executives get when they bring big companies together, inevitably laying off thousands of workers. "Let's admit it, we have a royalty!" he declares. "It's not an inherited royalty ... but it's nonetheless authoritarian and antidemocratic, being self-selected from inside maybe a thousand private firms by self-perpetuating boards of directors. Top executives are like sultans, each one living a protected and pampered life while exercising practically unchecked power over people and communities." He reports the 1998 salary of Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, as $287,000 an hour. He describes the Austin, Texas, mansion built by computer billionaire Michael Dell ("I've not been inside, but I can report that the outside looks like a combination conference center and a strip shopping mall, though without the charm"), and recounts the legal wrangling Dell engaged in when the city assessed the property at $22 million. Dell objected to the $600,000 property tax, which Hightower notes is small change for the youthful multibillionaire, the equivalent of 42 cents for a family with a net worth of $30,000.
In Hightower's concluding chapter, he seeks to get to the root of the matter. "Let's force the issue and put it as starkly as it is: Are corporations going to rule, or are we?" He joins other radicals who have begun to call for an end to the rights of corporations. When giant businesses behave badly, legislatures and courts ought to revoke their charters. Strong stuff. "People are ready for a politics that challenges the ongoing corporate grabfest," he says.
Gates and Hightower would likely object to being called utopians. Utopians are too easily dismissed. They want to be seen as radical reformers. And to be seen as the man with a plan, you've got to make people believe that change is not just desirable, but possible. Gates tells of Huey Long's Share the Wealth campaign generating 30,000 letters a day for almost a month in 1934. It's hard to imagine that kind of yearning or faith, and that kind of attention being paid these days to a sweeping economic proposal.
Something has changed when it comes to the very idea of political reform. It may be more difficult for people to believe that poli-tics can really fix things. The prevailing skepticism is captured nicely by historian Steven M. Gillon in "That's Not What We Meant to Do": Reform and Its Unintended Consequences in TwentiethCentury America (Norton). His book, strange to say, is a breezier read than those of the hortatory populists, and will probably find a wider audience. To the extent he is concerned with "the visionary impulse" in politics, it's to show how often our visions are illusory.
Gillon takes five examples of major reforms, describes how they were proposed and enacted, and then looks at the ways reality intruded on the hoped-for results. He looks at the origins of welfare in FDR's New Deal and the explosion of single mothers on the dole by the 1960s and 1970s. He follows the 1960s campaign to get the mentally ill out of institutions and finds an explanation for the mad and the homeless wandering the streets in the 1980s and 1990s. He follows the rise of affirmative action after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and traces the liberalization of immigration law after the 1965 Immigration Act. And finally, he discusses the politics of campaign finance reform in the years following the Common Cause-inspired legislation that rewrote election rules in 1974.
In each case, Gillon makes the sim-ple point that laws passed with high hopes led to unintended and unforeseen consequences. The campaign finance reform of 1974, for example, rested on the idea that the power of money could be legislated out of the electoral process. Instead, we got a proliferation of political action committees, a decline in the influence of organized labor (as corporate money overwhelmed union money), and no greater citizen confidence in the system than there had been before. Gillon quotes journalist Jonathan Rauch's conclusion: "Probably no American public policy is a more comprehensive failure than campaign finance reform."
A certain superficiality necessarily affects a book that takes five major areas of public policy and gives a chapter to each. Nor is it profound to point out that oftentimes laws don't fix major problems very well. But there is useful wisdom here. Gillon objects to the false promises that are part of reform crusades. He faults populism for resting on "a mystic faith in the ability of 'the people' to solve all social problems" and for failing to educate the public to something basic about American politics: that "the people" is not a unified whole, but a mass of competing interests.
Gillon insists, "I would not want readers to conclude from these examples that we must abandon our efforts to identify social problems or suspend efforts to use government as a positive force for social change." He also points out that sometimes reforms have led to unintended consequences that have been for the good. What he's getting at is the need for the humility that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr urged. "Niebuhr talked about idealism without illusion and about realism without resignation," Gillon notes.
It's a difficult way to move people to action, and surely our hellfire populists would fault Gillon for not recognizing the present emergency. Gates proposes a national education initiative to address how the finan-cial system works and how it might be made more democratic. Gillon wants the public to be more sophisticated about the politics of legisla-tive solutions. It wouldn't be a bad start for all the smug, self-satisfied elites out there to have to spend a few hours with Gates and Hightower, and for the idealistic crusaders and utopians to confront the sober realism of Professor Gillon. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)