Social change can proceed steadily and gradually, but it often takes a crisis or disruptive shock to get the ball rolling, with the New Deal often cited as an example. How people respond during such a social crisis depends on the ideas that are in their heads when it happens. In her brilliant book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein details how free-market conservatives understand this and have not only manipulatively exploited crises, but induced and maximized them, to implement their austerity agenda. Klein documents how they have done so in countries from Chile to Poland to South Africa -- and they now continue their attempts in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. The Right has learned that in order to turn a crisis into opportunity, the intellectual and ideological groundwork must be laid down first: people don’t just think up new social, economic, and political systems sui generis during times of crisis but turn to the alternatives available from their culture. When the Great Depression hit, the Left had all kinds of alternative economic ideas available “out there,” from labor unionism to the regulatory welfare state to socialism in various forms, because there was a century of theory in social democracy and socialism that had prepared the ground. By the mid-twentieth century, according to Klein, free market conservatives like Milton Friedman had learned this lesson and set out to make their ideas the ones that were “out there,” so that their ideology would become the default turned to during crises. And it worked. They successfully pushed the opinions of relevant publics and decision-makers closer to their vision of privatization, deregulation, and austerity, and public policy followed suit.
One of the most frustrating, and saddest, things about the political approach of centrist liberals for the last twenty years has been how they have altogether avoided promoting ideologically Left ideas, ceding the field and leaving conservatism to be the default crisis ideology. Afraid of being painted as radical and un-American, the center-left stopped fighting ideological battles long ago and thus has been losing the ideological and political war, not because their ideas are worse, but simply because they forfeited. Indeed, too often liberals have even copied conservatism, perhaps adding a dash of moderation, in preference to making the best arguments for their own principles. (And it’s not as if the Left has ideas that are hard to argue for -- remember Elizabeth Warren?). It’s a shame, because the empirical record shows that liberals govern better. It also means that the ideas that are currently out there during a crisis are not rational ones. Finally, in forfeiting the ideological war liberals have reduced the trust and confidence that people are willing to give them, making themselves into people who aren’t taken seriously, who aren’t turned to in an economic crisis, or seen as dependable on basic security and defense.
The Right has for several decades metastasized a media apparatus that spread its ideas intentionally and purposefully: bigoted conservatism, market fundamentalism, and religious fundamentalism have not spread meme-wise
automatically like a virus jumping from host to host. Conservatism been intentionally promoted through the use of ideological power by those who benefit from it. The Fox network, conservative talk radio, right-wing think tanks, astro-turf protests like the tea baggers, Republican party politicians on the campaign trail, the business press, and the co-optation of mainstream television news networks are the means by which this has been done. So here is the dynamic: conservatism has spread because one side promoted their bad ideas and the other side stopped countering them in public debate. Because the Left gave up, the Right has basically won the ideological conflict; I would say that was proven already in 2002 when a million people protested the Iraq war but were completely ignored.
The only real check on the Right’s propaganda apparatus has been reality: their ideas are short-sighted, unrealistic, narrow-minded, stupid, and destructive, and sooner or later people see through the veil of ignorance and propaganda and realize something is wrong. Conservatism has collided with reality in catastrophic ways multiple times over the last dozen years: on 9/11, in Iraq, during Hurricane Katrina, in the crash of 2008. Normally during such moments, regular people usually re-orient themselves to reality, shifting to new ideas when older one have so obviously failed -- even common people do this regularly in their personal lives, and they are amenable to doing so in political life too. But their ability to shift is limited unless there are other, more empirical, more sensible, and more moral ideas available for them to move to. Simply put, an alternative vision must be laying in wait for a society to change its course. What if there is none? Well, we are witnessing that right now: the result is moral, economic, and imperial drift as the powers-that-be continue to aggrandize more privileges to themselves even as the world falls apart around them. They will keep sipping wine and listening to the violins as the Titanic sinks. That’s why it is so important for the Left, including establishment centrist liberals, to show political courage, get over their fear of being labeled as radicals, pick up the ideological banner, and engage in a real debate over principles. The more that alternative ideas can be gotten out there, the better position we will be in to win people to them, during normal times and during crisis times. That’s just obvious: for people to be persuaded by your ideas, you have to argue for them. That’s the definition of “persuade.” There’s no winning otherwise, and if we don’t win then humanity will sink into an environmentally benighted age of ignorance and darkness.
In order to create a sustainable, peaceful, prosperous, fulfilling, and democratic way of life, progressives must embark on a decades-long effort using all the means available to bring about an ideological victory of the Left. Not compromise, not a run to the middle, but victory in the realm of ideas. This sounds hard, but the alternative -- probably some sort of high-tech barbarism -- is even harder. We can and must transform society if we are going to keep the world environmentally fit, economically fit, and politically fit for good human living. Furthermore, transforming society this way will give us purpose and joy! Change need not have be hard or frightening, it can be an exciting challenge.