Children, as Whitney Houston observed in The Greatest Love Of All, are the future. To understand the decline of the Democratic Party and the future of socialism, compare the children in the political art of Walker Evans, Norman Rockwell, and Ethan Krupp.
In the 1930s, Evans’ photographs of pinched-faced Okie children in the Depression challenged the conscience. So did Rockwell’s portrait of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old black girl who goes to school with a police escort in the 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With. The sight of Ethan Krupp in his pyjamas, however, alarms in a different way.
Back in 1989, the year that socialism was supposed to have died, the elite universities of New England had five liberals for every conservative.
Mr Krupp, for those who have repressed this image, was the face and body of the Obama administration’s pitch that the best way to provide America’s poor with health care was to contract the whole business out to a handful of unaccountable insurance companies. In December 2013, as America’s students prepared to take their laundry home, a pro-Obama group named Organising For Action tweeted an idea for discussion over the turkey and trimmings: “Wear pyjamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” In the accompanying photograph, Krupp cups his hot chocolate and wears a one-piece romper suit in black and red plaid. He looks like he has been rescued from a backwoods fetish party.
In the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act, Democratic administrations used the state’s power to aid the poor and guarantee the legal equality of minorities. The power of the state grew accordingly – and with it, the temptations to intrude into private life, and to engineer social outcomes through corporatist economics. By the second Obama term, it seemed reasonable to suggest that children should use Christmas dinner, one of the last family rituals, to convince their parents of the government’s wisdom. It was electorally sensible, if not biologically plausible, to redefine childhood, by allowing children to remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26.
Previous generations chafed at parental control. Today’s overgrown children demand protection. Rather than take their chances in a difficult economy, Pyjama Boy’s generation has chosen moral and economic infantilism. The price is arrested development. No generation since the ’30s has spent so long in the economic doldrums. No generation since the invention of the nuclear family has returned to the parental basement in such numbers.
The rhetoric of protection recurs in the cant of environmentalism and social justice. From whom are the young to be protected? The capitalists who, not satisfied with despoiling the planet, then exclude minorities from the chance to share in the profits. Who will protect the children and preserve the future? Only the state possesses the legal powers, the bureaucratic resources, and the necessary reservoir of other people’s money to change the quality of our air or the composition of our boardrooms. Complete protection requires complete control.
If this is socialism by another name, it is because the name of socialism is still fouled by the history of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps the only good thing that can be said of Bernie Sanders is that he admits to being a socialist, albeit of the democratic variety. Elizabeth Warren, his rival and inheritor, insists that she is not. She is a progressive – progressing, that is, back to the ’30s, when big-state liberalism began. A Trotskyite like Sanders would probably like to be too.
The Pyjama Boys and Girls of tomorrow are being indoctrinated with an expensive form of propaganda. It may, like Twentieth Century socialism, fail when tested by reality.
Where children have ideals, the parents have ideologies. The young believe they are moving forward, but the leaders of the Left are marching backwards. Socialism always did mask nostalgia for simpler times in the sheen of technology; here again, Sanders, the urbanite who went back to the land in Vermont, has the virtue of his defects.
The revival of socialism in America in the early Twenty-First Century should not be a surprise. The emotional impulse that attaches itself to socialist ideas will always be with us. Socialism offers managerial solutions to metaphysical problems, and it gives political answers to emotional questions. If that sounds like university life, it is not by accident. The modern socialist revival was incubated on campus.
In the 1980s, the Left lost the economic battle, but it won the cultural war of attrition. Gramsci’s talk of the “march through the institutions” was, like most socialist talk, a euphemism. Marx had promised to expel those who got in the way of the revolution. In the ’80s and ’90s, his followers purged the universities. Now, they are trying to reverse the outcome of the economic battle of the 1970s.
Last December, Boston magazine published an investigation into political bias in American universities. Samuel Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, crunched 25 years’ worth of data from the Higher Education Research Institute. In the South, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors was 3:1. On the West Coast, it was 6:1. Back in 1989, the year that socialism was supposed to have died, the elite universities of New England had five liberals for every conservative.
Today, the ratio is 28:1. These figures reflect faculty as a whole. From personal experience, I would suggest that the ratio is even more skewed in the Social Sciences. And in the Humanities, you are more likely to spot a white rhino than a liberal Republican.
Socialism, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, manufactures consent. The universities of New England are the training grounds for tomorrow’s bureaucrats, as the monasteries were for the mediaeval clergy. The Pyjama Boys and Girls of tomorrow are being indoctrinated with an expensive form of propaganda. It may, like Twentieth Century socialism, fail when tested by reality. But that, we now know, is not enough to annul socialism’s emotional appeal, or the exploitation of that appeal by the people that the Stalinists used to called careerists. As Whitney Houston sang, “If I fail, if I succeed / At last I’ll live as I believe.”