Richard Fernandez has a piece titled The Wave over at PJ Media, using that two-word term to describe the 2016 electoral collapses of the weird, lopsided modus vivendi that the West had reached in the late 20th century. Collapse or mere breakdown, it is true that its elites thought it was so secure that they could play footsie, using the PC electron microscope to discover the equivalent of atoms and hadrons and quarks of the various constituent types of -ism that make up the left-wing demonology. (I wonder, how many microaggressions can dance on the head of a pin?)
“There is no full explanation as yet for what destroyed the mighty Global World Order,” says Fernandez. “[S]o far the liberal world order has made no serious intellectual effort to understand the Wave, leaving the task to late-night comedians. They have preferred to depict it as the product of subhuman, bigoted minds.”
On that point– that the Left is still not trying to reach for true understanding– Fernandez and I agree.
I think I have at least the beginnings of an explanation. The liberal world order reached that point of intellectual incuriosity and complacency due to the strength during the 20th century of its own founding elements.
The first element was the rise of the broadcast media, because it was both narrow and efficient. Print media had been inefficient in entertainment, but wide in opportunity. Anyone with the capital for a printing press could operate a magazine or newspaper; New York had literally dozens, mainstream and for minorities both ethnic and intellectual. By contrast, the broadcast media, being like theater, were immediate, intimate and effective– but a limited amount of bandwidth made for a limited number of radio and television stations, which came to be amalgamated into an even more limited number of networks. They swiftly formed oligopolies. As advertising dollars flowed away from print media to broadcast media, the newspaper market shrank accordingly, with many cities becoming one- or sometimes two-newspaper towns. Many in turn came to be owned by networks of media properties, narrowing the cultural and news bottleneck still further and making a takeover of the media as a whole easier.
A similar dynamic occurred elsewhere, sooner or later. Among content creators, a few major movie studios dealing with two or three major unions produced pretty much all the desireable content out there, with movie-distribution networks being the equivalent bottleneck to the broadcast-media oligopolies, preventing upstarts like United Artists from breaking up the cozy corporate and professional monopolies. In colleges, galloping credentialism and incredible rewards flowed to the graduates of the most famous colleges possessing the strongest brands, and it led, inevitably, to similar dynamics occurring in business, law and government, because education was the gateway to those professions.
When this sort of hegemonization occurs on a wide scale, it sets up the conditions for moral movements to take over. The slow-moving gleichschaltung of the institutions of the West by the Left during the 20th century, predecessor of the Culture Wars, might be analogous to the fairly swift-seeming takeover of the Roman Empire by the then-new and energetic moral force of Christianity. The Supreme Court aided this takeover by deciding that the no-establishment-of-religion passage in the First Amendment meant a blanket prohibition on mingling church and state, which kept out those competing forms of organized morality that were based on ideas about God.
What technology had given, technology took away. Cable-TV companies rose in the 1970s– and their cables began to erode the bottleneck, the limited public airwaves, from the dissemination of content, culture and argument. Conservatives frustrated with the media’s leftward drift formed, in aggregate, a serious market niche that Fox News thrived in. As though fiber optics were also subject to Moore’s Law, a couple decades later, the Renaissance of the Internet was accompanied by a Reformation, and began a slow-motion shattering of everything at a moment that coincided with the appearance of Leftist Savonarolas and their Inquisitions. We now have efficiency as great as– even greater than– broadcast media, but widespread. If you like mixed historical metaphors, it’s the Wild West.
If there’s anything the Left is readiest to understand about the complaints of Trump supporters, it’s their economic wails; prominent Democrats wondered how on Earth Trump managed to seize the economic-populism territory from them (despite the obvious fact that, taking it for granted, they’d been defending it lightly). In the miniseries Rome, Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, responded to a question about why the Roman Republic might collapse. “Because the Roman people are suffering, because slaves have taken all the work, because nobles have taken all the land, and because the streets are filled with the homeless and the starving.” Before 2016, it could be asked about the Global World Order and the answer paraphrased as “because the American people are suffering, because automation and globalization have taken all the work, because Big Agribusiness has taken all the land, and because the streets are filled with the addicted and the convicted.” And in the centuries between Augustus and the collapse of the Empire, Rome became much more diverse, ethnically, eroding Roman national identity and, surely, social trust. But the Left’s old answers– entitlement programs of various kinds– are not only out-of-control in cost but have failed to substitute for jobs in terms of life satisfaction.
In short, the Left has been like a family made wealthy for a few decades by circumstance and then reduced to average wealth. Its more spoiled members are simply having a hard time coming to terms with having to tighten their belts. The relative cultural unity of the 20th century was not built on solid ground, and when it crumbled, so did its child, the Global World Order. Of course, Trump’s enemies would love to conjure up the vision of a horde of modern invading Visigoths wearing MAGA hats, but it’s inappropriate; the situation today is different in many ways from that of ancient Rome. The United States, while still in trouble from the political self-segregation and the blinding ambition of rabid partisans, is not going to collapse. The Democrats will at some point return to power. Like Catholicism after Luther, the values of the Left will survive where they deserve to and in the only place they can: in the hearts and minds of people who were truly persuaded, and not in the minds of those who were forced to pay them lip service. The situation will revert to the mean and return to equilibrium. But it’ll never be quite like it was before, and in some ways, that’s a good thing.
TL;DR: Hubris strikes again.