During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation).
Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites--politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers--are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink...the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.
This sounds good to me. But not to Lilla. He writes:
Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that "the people" can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.
Get it? Lilla laments that instead of wanting to seize power to run other people's lives or to take their stuff, many of us actually want to seize power in order to reduce it so people can make their own decisions about their lives. The horror!
Although Lilla is often on target in understanding some strong cultural currents, even though he doesn't seem to like them, he is way off target in discussing the drug trade. He writes:
Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing--though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations.
Excuse me? Tolerance and autonomy helped destroy poor neighborhoods and destabilize foreign nations? And the war on drugs had nothing to do with it? Does Lilla understand the role of the U.S. and local governments in jailing drug dealers and destroying civil society in Mexico and Colombia?
I'm not sure Lilla is right about the cultural trends. But if he is, this is good news indeed.