One of the most fundamental questions in urban and transportation governance is the role of ideology. There’s inherent tension between trying to run a government or a government program according to the tenets of socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or any other ideology, and trying to run it pragmatically. I wrote some early posts criticizing the latter tendency, for example here and here; an emergent view coming from the corpus of my political posts here in 2011-2 is that instead of removing ideology from transit politics, ideologues should instead learn best industry practices and use them in the service of their chosen political philosophy. In this post, I’d like to present a more nuanced view about whether this is feasible. Ultimately, I think the situation is unstable: the need to run public services well softens ideologues, while attempts to run ideology-free government involve assumptions that breed outside populist movements.
A few months ago, Sandy Johnston called for a revival of a US tradition called sewer socialism, associated with Socialist Milwaukee mayors Emil Seidel (r. 1910-12), Daniel Hoan (r. 1916-40), and Frank Zeidler (r. 1948-60). The Milwaukee socialists boasted of the municipal sanitation system that they’d built, and were notably corruption-free. This was while they remained in good standing in the Socialist Party, which was orthodox Marxist; Seidel was Eugene Debs’ running mate in the 1912 presidential election.
The problem with the sewer socialist tradition that Sandy cites is that it inevitably makes the sewers more important than the socialism, and soon, the socialists turn into technocrats. This happened to European social democrats starting in the 1930s and 40s. Out of power, and even early in power in the 1920s and 30s, they talked about replacing capitalism with socialism. After years of power, they built public housing for the working class, comprehensive education, and national health care systems, and abandoned revolution; within the US, Zeidler was influenced by Debs and identified as a socialist but explicitly rejected Soviet communism.
The people who passed the laws creating public works, social welfare schemes, and public services were usually committed to social and economic equality, but the people running them would be promoted and rewarded based on competence rather than ideology. A politician could succeed in a social democratic party by showing ability to implement a government program rather than by showing ideological commitment. Sewer socialism turned into sewer big-tent center-left politics, and subsequently into sewer neo-liberalism.
Neo-liberalism is the Great Satan of leftist writing today, and has no agreed upon definition other than “what the leftist writer who uses this term opposes.” Few positively identify as neo-liberal, and the most prominent exception I can think of, Brad DeLong, is someone who specifically enjoys needling the left. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to define neo-liberalism around the following points:
- Neo-liberals philosophically think in liberal, especially classical liberal, terminology.
- Market-based solutions to most problems, with the remaining problems cordoned off into areas without political interference, such as central bank independence, and (for neo-liberals more on the left) universal education and health care.
- A belief in pragmatic, non-ideological governance, to the point of preferring solutions that appear to be reasonable; as a result, few of the people most leftists would identify as neo-liberal are climate hawks, since climate hawks, whatever their other political views, definitionally want aggressive action to mitigate climate change.
- An attempt to incorporate outsider critiques rather than oppose them heads-on, hence neo-liberal attempts to come up with internal solutions to problems of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.
- Anti-populism, leading to conflict with not only left-populists but also traditional interest groups such as unions.
- A positive attitude toward the intellectuals, experts, and technocrats within each field, most famously economics but also the other natural and social sciences.
The populist left today defines itself in diametric opposition to some subset of the above points, and this requires defining itself against the notion that competence in governing is important. This is unmistakable in Jacobin, the most important magazine of the American far left today. Here’s founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in an early interview:
Liberalism has always been an inchoate, diverse ideology. You have some who are more or less operative social democrats; they are pro-union and trying to get back to that golden age of the welfare state. In other words, “class-struggle liberals.” Then you have technocratic liberals, your Ezra Kleins, who also have a very long intellectual tradition. You see it in the history of the press, where we went from a partisan, even ideological press to people like Walter Lippman who made liberalism part of a wider “clean cities, clean government” movement. In the 1960s these technocratic liberals were some of the people cleaning up white racist urban machines. Now they are attacking teachers’ unions and what they see as new city machines, which are predominantly made up of people of color—the people who have mainly benefited from public employment. History has cruel ironies like that.
Or see Sunkara in this extended rant, calling Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias less than human. Klein is “a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.” Per Sunkara, political success comes not from understanding policy but from emotional appeal, as in the Reagan Revolution, which, he concludes, “wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution.”
There is a reason why ideological movements reject the notion of policy knowledge, of competence. They know that it leads to moderation. Sunkara is educated in the history of socialism and socialist movements, and knows what happened once social democrats had to govern. Even less educated socialists know this on some level, which is why the 1960s’ and 70s’ icon for young leftists was Che Guevara, forever a revolutionary, and not any leader who had to spend any time in power, such as Fidel Castro or even Ho Chi Minh.
While the bulk of this post is about socialism, the same rejection of competence can be seen on the right. Paul Krugman loves to needle the Republicans about it, for example here: for economic analysis, American conservative thinktanks rely on Stephen Moore, Larry Kudlow, and Arthur Laffer, none of whom is a respected economist, rather than on such right-leaning experts as Greg Mankiw, Ed Glaeser, or John Taylor. European mainline conservatives have avoided this, by moderating to the point of accepting the EU, the welfare state, and the advice of the intellectuals. In their stead, right-wing populists have grown in power, taking rejection of any expertise almost as a badge of pride, since they associate expertise with eurocrats; for example, in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (PVV) is climate denialist, in the developed country most vulnerable to climate change.
The far left is no more interested in governing than the far right, leading to weakness even on issues the left is supposed to be strong on. In the UK, the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, got his position on the strength of ideological purity rather than any governing experience; most candidates with government experience are tainted with Blair’s policies, especially the Iraq War. The left is supposed to support transit because it is green and friendly to the poor, and in Britain, the privatization of railroads is now unpopular with the broad public. YouGov proposes that a leader more trusted than Corbyn would be able to turn renationalization into a vote winner. But as related by the then-shadow minister of transport, Corbyn botched a very good opportunity, namely the UK’s annual fare hike, to attack the Cameron administration on rail fare hikes and propose renationalization and reregulation.
I stress that this is not about individual incompetence. The far left does not have a deep bench of people who can run a socialist state well; the people who run socialist programs successfully get accolades from the more numerous moderates and surround themselves with technocrats who are usually not committed to left politics. Corbyn’s opportunity to attack Cameron on rail fares came with the support of Labour’s bench, but his relationship with the rest of the party was always uneasy, and completely unraveled after the Brexit vote; fundamentally, it is not easy for a committed far-left leader to trust a more politically diverse bench.
Five years ago, when I talked about the split in US transit activism between politicals and technicals, I said that both groups were on average slightly left of center, but politicals clustered there, where technicals ranged from far left to reform conservatism (e.g. Reihan Salam) and Rothbardian libertarianism (i.e. segments of Market Urbanism, including Stephen Smith). Yonah Freemark would talk about the dangers and failures of neo-liberalism; in comments, Richard Mlynarik would reference Maher Arar’s extraordinary rendition in discussions of airport security theater, and so on.
Today, the situation has changed. It’s been center-left media outlets like Vox that have talked the most about high US rail construction costs and bad regulations. Among moderates and conservatives, interest never took off, with a handful of positive exceptions like Aaron Renn and again Reihan Salam; City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas remains more interested in cutting wages than in improving efficiency (this post of mine is partly inspired by Gelinas’s claims about wage scales). Most libertarians and many reform conservatives have found dreams of driverless car-share services and view transit as old-fashioned, now as in the 1950s. The growth of US right-populism and its attack on urban intellectuals has also limited concern for reforming transit in publications that should be friendly to this message; The American Conservative is publishing Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn, but overall a rural-dominated radical right is uninterested in either urban infrastructure or pragmatic solutions. Finally, on the far left, the message that political support, even rabblerousing, matters more than cost control, has played well with the growing zeitgeist. By now, the technicals are solidly center-left in practice.
The result is that, as happened to the Milwaukee socialists and to the social democrats on this side of the Pond, any modern-day sewer socialists are necessarily going to moderate. Once moderated, they will not get the support of more radical socialists, who will screamingly accuse them of betrayal. The socialists today know that this is going to happen – unlike in the 1940s, there’s historical precedent for this – and this is leading to the new political split. This is not a resolvable tension. At best, individual center-leftists and leftists who succeed in pushing technical reform can tweak it in ways that help rather than hurt the poor, but collectively there is no way to force reform to be more sewer socialism than sewer neo-liberalism.