The death of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, architect of not only the Vietnam War, but of the Defense Department’s role in the nuclear age, offers a useful lens to the present. McNamara is one of the demons against which American politics has since reacted. Robert McNamara was the arch-technocrat. The failure of his Department of Defense to successfully either win or end the Vietnam War was a crucial blow for the Democratic coalition of Southern Populists and Northern and Western Progressives. In his age, McNamara was called "too perfect" and "a jackhammer." Since then, on both left and right, he has been held as a tragic or, almost as often, a pathetic figure; a ghost that could neither find rest or redemption for his part in Vietnam. 

McNamara’s fall still inspires a kind of loathing that is reserved for few other figures, even those more culpable than he. Consider that Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense during the widening of the IndoChina War, and then again during the Iraq War. His handling of both was worse, and lead to tragic consequences. And yet, Rumsfeld has been allowed to slink off the stage. History was never quite done with Robert McNamara.

In the wake of the Johnson Administration, America’s political map — and to some extent the developed world’s political map — was redrawn. While still fought in terms of "left" and "right," the reality is that the size of the state sectors of various economies has remained largely the same. Instead, the real dividing line was over government by technocracy.

The technocrat has much to recommend him. He or she is based in the world of logic, facts, and rigor. Once a particular end has been reached, people taking the same facts, and using the same discipline, will come to much the same conclusions. The technocrat can explain his decisions, document them, and reduce them to formula. The moral courage of a technocrat comes from a faith in the discipline. The classic technocrats: Robert McNamara, Paul Volcker, Cyrus Vance, and Janet Reno, were famed for being able to take almost inhuman amounts of pressure — political and personal. The failures of a technocrat are in like proportion. Robert McNamara got his start in war by doing analysis for Curtis LeMay on the strategic bombing of Japan.

That it was technocracy, and not left or right, that was the real division can be seen by Ronald Reagan. While he preached getting government off  people’s backs, the government was the same size when he left as when he came. Instead, his battle cry was really to create an anti-technocratic coalition. This is familiar in American history: the decentralization of power late in a constitutional order is a signature pattern. 

The anti-technocratic coalition had two natural components. The base consists of the religious and racist localist. The fundamentalist and biblical literalist have every reason to hate technocracy: the technocrat believes in evolution and in science, which contradict scripture. Attached to this is the wider sphere of justification by ownership, which is the basic ideology of resource extraction. Beginning from this 30% base, the anti-technocratic coalition then melds the corporatist ethos. The corporatist is not anti-technocracy per se, but is is a believer that government technocracy should be utterly subservient to the needs of business. The genius of this coalition is that its two wings oppose each other on a host of ideological and personal issues; but have an absolutely unified policy plan: lower taxes, weaker regulations, localization of power, and race to the bottom pro-cyclical economic policies.

If one’s business is spewing carbon dioxide into the air, then having the decision made by an electorate that can be misinformed by advertising barrage is not merely good politics. If the cost was ideological impurity, in the form of liberalism for agricultural subsidies and the defense budget, these were happy places to have it.

Technocrats aided their enemies by being dead wrong about Vietnam, inflation, and demographics. While the pain inflicted by these three problems is small compared to their place in myth; it was enough to create  core that would identify technocrat with liberal, and thence be induced to vote for massive distribution of wealth upwards.

From there the anti-technocrats could add "the center" rather easily by attacking the sins of a particular group of technocrats, thus creating the impression that government technocrats were incompetent and lazy. The reaction against the technocracy was equivocal at first; but once it gathered force, the Presidential elections of 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988 all fell to it by landslide. It would then be moved into control of congress in 1994 by a political earthquake.

But nothing stands still. The response of the young supporters of George McGovern in the US was to create a new kind of technocrat: the wonk. The combination of political viability with technocratic sensibility created "The New Democrat." While much was made of Clinton’s Southern credentials, he did not parse as a technocrat. Carter, after all, was a Southerner who was drubbed by Reagan, and barely managed to defeat Gerald Ford, the first unelected President in US history. The rise of the wonk, poll driven, ordering his technocratic to-do list by reference to the discipline of polling, and to the governance of spin, changed the political calculus. The Democrats lost Congress but gained the Presidency.

The era of the New Democrat created a problem for the anti-technocratic coalition, since the anti-technocrats relied on campaign by anecdote: find small violations of common sense, and build out of that the myth of fiasco. The Rove solution was to attempt to create a permanent base that, while having only a bare majority of votes, could govern as a super-majority. It was here that Rove’s coalition came to grief. The old law of the spoils system is that the core supporters run the government. It was here that the real rift in the anti-technocracy coalition became visible. Namely the 30% who don’t believe in Darwin or Newton, don’t believe in Adam Smith in any real way. The anti-technocrat, happy in his small pool of corruption, was utterly unable to run a war, or save a city. The corporate supremacists watched as the war, the economy, and public opinion turned against them in the space of months. The result: two successive electoral defeats.

However, the result has not been a rise of "the left." In Europe, 3 of the four main economies are in the hands of coalitions of the right; and Christopher Caldwell gives a portrait of the man who will almost certainly make it 4 of 4: David Cameron. Cameron, as well as David Brooks’ defense of him, shows that conservatism is nothing of the sort. All that matters is to be anti-technocratic. Decentralization goes hand in hand with corporatism, in that with no government there is nothing to stop the corporation from taking what it wants, and then demanding multi-trillion dollar bailouts on command.

We need a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power, from the state to citizens, from the government to Parliament, from Whitehall to communities, from Brussels to Britain, from judges to people, from bureaucracy to democracy. . . . We must take power away from the political elite and give it to the man and woman on the street.

There is, of course, one word wrong here. He means "man and woman in the suite." Because without government, individuals are too weak to stop corporate fraud and misbehavior, too disorganized to avoid being dragged into a war for oil. 

This revision of the right then is not about a return to conservatism; but an attempt to regain the middle, by using the bailouts, which the last round of conservatism necessitated, as proof that liberals should not be in charge. It is also an attempt to replace the incompetent governing class of the extreme anti-technocratic coalition with a new kind of technocrat. David Cameron is, if anything, a wonk of the right; as willing to preserve much of the social welfare state, as the New Labor party was to wage an imperial war.

The new political spectrum established in the wake Vietnam, the Baby Boom, and the Great Inflation is then, with some modifications, still in place.  Its next version will be for the right to attempt to reassert their corporate credibility and to regain the graces of the very wealthy. This is why Meg Whitman represents a test candidate for the Republicans: the corporate middle is where they need to be to make headway against Obama, who is a wonk in a different mold; one who eschews the overt spin and politicking, while hewing closely to the "New Democrat" model of engaging in the politics of the possible.

Stirling Newberry

Stirling Newberry