We exist in a society that is divided, anti-scientific, self-involved, frivolous and otherwise disengaged. Nowhere is this decay more apparent than in the contortions of the American left. While the American right has proven itself notorious for its takeover by radical revolutionaries who seek to ruthlessly transform society, the left has shown itself idyll, complacent and smug. There exist a set of underlying problems, both in theory and practice, with the American left that undermine the stated present and historic beliefs of the left and prevent genuine dialogue with those that favor a policy of public good across the spectrum. This essay is an exploration of these tendencies.
'Solutionism' comes in the form of believing scientific, or more commonly, technological solutions will solve many of our problems. By relying on silicon valley to solve our social problems, many of which are pressing and require, active engaged public debate, we instead rely on quick fixes that not only fail to deal with the underling problems but also rob us of the ability to have the necessary debate. Many of the solutions proposed to the financial crisis have taken the form of 'solutionsim'. Rather than have a larger debate about what we value societally and where we want to direct resources, we sought quick fixes to short-term budgetary problems and largely failed to regulate in accordance of what we would determine to be of societal value. Austerity policy is one form of short term 'solutionism'. Rather than determine where emphasis should be placed, instead we are seeing across the board cuts that effectively damage the ability of government to actually govern and to provide basic services for those most in need.
Then there is the matter of willful obstruction when it comes to public health interventions that might actually benefit the working poor, based on anti-scientific hysteria. The controversy, incredibly heated public vitriol against, and eventual defeat of a plan to introduce water fluoridation in my home town of Portland, Oregon is a definitive example of this. Never mind that water fluoride is exceptionally safe and efficacious once correct dosing for a particular municipal water supply is determined. The debates that ranged around this subject indicated that, despite claims to the contrary many people on the left (a) have no idea how to read a scientific survey, (b) have no idea how to select a reliable scientific source, (c) have little understanding of how science is actually conducted and (d) instead rely on emotional response around a "purity" taboo. The sheer volume of studies cited by critics of fluoride, for which it was clear that they had never read the studies or willfully misunderstood them was terrifying. Many studies that were pointed to purporting to prove that fluoridation was unsafe were either based on doses 20-30 times higher what would be added to Portland's water supply, showed stronger correlation elsewhere, were heavily redacted to mask other findings, or in many cases, said the exact opposite of what their proponents were claiming of them. Fluoride was actively defeated by many people firmly of the left, proving time and again that they were as actively contemptuous of science as the creationists of the right when the scientific facts do not fit their particular agenda.
For those that remain engaged in providing services to the American indigent, the revolutionary ideology of the old left hardly seems relevant. Indeed, it has been the right which has become a truly revolutionary movement, willfully disrupting the very nature of civil society in order to realize economic development "potentials" often at the cost of the working poor. Meanwhile, European Social Democracy relies on notions of social security and overall avoidance of socio/economic disruption. As the late historian Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, this was more the purview of classical conservatism than of the left itself. In our effort to provide effective social services, perhaps we should be looking to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who had a strong interest in limited revolution and systems that protected people from social shocks than we should revolutionaries with prescriptive ideologies like Marx. Similarly, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (who many have retrospectively declared a 'liberal') also held a remarkably 'statist' view. While Oakeshott believed that the answers to most problems reside in tradition, he was particularly fond of a cooking metaphor: what good is a recipe without a pre-existing cultural knowledge of the process of 'cooking', this places him closer to Keynes than many on the left who have bought into the neoliberalism. After all, both Oakeshott and Burke spoke extensively about our shared responsibility to one another, hinting strongly at the need for the state to maintain institutions to care for our poorest.